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Steve Radack

Sheriff Hickman

Here’s your new Sheriff, Harris County.

Ron Hickman

Commissioners Court named Precinct 4 Constable Ron Hickman the new sheriff of Harris County to replace Adrian Garcia who resigned last week to run for mayor of Houston.

The county leaders took a formal vote Tuesday on the appointment after a brief closed-door session to discuss candidates to fill the post. Hickman, who has worked in law enforcement in the county for 32 years, was sworn in two minutes after the unanimous vote. Commissioners said they were looking for a candidate with gravitas, law enforcement experience, administrative skills and political knowhow. Another quality the group may have considered is how amenable the prospective sheriff is to separating leadership of the county jail and placing it in the hands of a jail administrator. This shift, championed by Precinct 3 Commissioner Steve Radack, is not sanctioned in the state constitution, but the county attorney’s office said if all parties agree, it can be done legally.

Commissioner El Franco Lee said he considers Hickman “a proven commodity” who will respond and work well with Commissioners Court.

During the lead-up to Garcia’s anticipated announcement of a run for mayor, Hickman said he met with each of the five commissioners to express his interest and answer their questions. On Tuesday, he was waiting in the wings during their vote. County staff then escorted him into court with his family members and friends and a bible on hand, where he then took the oath of office.

He said he is ready to tackle all aspects of the job. “I’ve been trying to tie law enforcement together in our region. And there’s only so much I can do as constable,” Hickman said. “You reach the limit of what you can do in your own tight circle.”

Hickman developed an affinity for information technology during his time as constable, creating a consolidated system to link law enforcement databases, which was of great value to the court members.

“We need to be running an operation that’s as up to date as possible, and Ron Hickman has that kind of skill,” said County Judge Ed Emmett. “I’ve known Constable Hickman for a long time and worked with him. He’s one of these people who looks ahead. He’s savvy when it comes to technology and new approaches.”

Congratulations to Sheriff Hickman. He will have a busy time ahead of him, as he already has a primary opponent, and I feel confident that there will be a spirited group of Democrats lining up for a shot at him next November as well. (On that note, someone recently suggested to me that CM Ed Gonzalez ought to run for Sheriff next year. Let me say now that I love this idea.) He may also have the responsibility of implementing that announced-out-of-nowhere scheme to appoint a jail overseer so that he can concentrate on policing. What will he do with some of the reforms Adrian Garcia implemented, like the new non-discrimination policy and the various sentence reduction policies? Will he have better luck with misbehaving deputies? Will he be more, less, or about as gung-ho in enforcing Secure Communities? Just a reminder, that primary he’ll face Allen Fletcher and probably some other folks in happens in less than ten months. Like I said, a busy time ahead. PDiddie has more.

Separating the Sheriff and the jail

As Commissioners Court prepares to name a replacement Sheriff, they have some bigger plans to discuss as well.

go_to_jail

A revolutionary idea is being pitched that would reshape the law enforcement agency by removing the troubled jail from the sheriff’s responsibilities. One county commissioner is leading the charge to create a new jail administrator who would answer to Commissioners Court rather than the sheriff.

Garcia recently announced his resignation so he could run for mayor of Houston. As would-be sheriffs scrambled to get résumés to Commissioners Court to fill Garcia’s term through 2016, the most vocal proponent of carving up the job over the past week has been Precinct 3 Commissioner Steve Radack.

Radack believes the sheriff should handle police work and other directors should be held accountable for the jail, its health system and its information technology division. He said the jail’s budget is bloated, mental health cases should be better monitored and the sheriff should focus on patrolling, preventing and investigating crime in unincorporated areas of the county.

This division of power is untested in Texas, according to the Texas Commission on Jail Standards. Brandon Wood, who runs the commission, said Bexar County is the only one under the state’s local government code to assign a person to run its jail, but even in that case the sheriff oversees the jail administrator.

There is some precedent elsewhere. County supervisors in Santa Clara, Calif., split the county jail from its sheriff, with voters’ approval, in 1988 in the wake of rampant overspending on the part of the officeholder. A consultant for the reformed jail, Jeffrey Schwartz, said Santa Clara’s department of corrections answered to county supervisors until the arrangement was ultimately rescinded in 2012.

Commissioners have long questioned Garcia’s management of the jail. The most recent scandal stemmed from his firing of six jailers, suspension of 29 others and the demotion of a major in the wake of a grand jury indictment of two jail guards in the case involving a mentally ill inmate housed in a bug-infested cell.

One might get the impression from reading this story that problems at the Harris County jail began with Adrian Garcia. In reality, of course, the jail was a longstanding cesspool of neglect and mismanagement thanks to the ineptitude of Tommy Thomas. Thomas couldn’t have done it without the utter lack of oversight from Commissioners Court that he received. It wasn’t until after the voters finally sent Thomas into retirement that Commissioners Court – in particular, Steve Radack – began to give a crap about how the jail was being managed. Funny how that works, isn’t it?

Is this idea even legal?

Robert Soard, first assistant Harris County attorney, said separating the health department at the jail is legal, under a 2011 revision of the state statute, but the current law designates the sheriff as “the keeper of the county jail.” So the legal question that County Attorney Vince Ryan’s office has been researching in advance of the sheriff appointment is whether a jail administrator can answer to Commissioners Court under Texas law. As Wood explained, the sheriff has discretion to appoint someone to run the jail. However, the law says “the sheriff shall continue to exercise supervision and control over the jail.”

Alan Bernstein, legislative liaison for Garcia, said what is being proposed seems untenable: “There’s a state law that controls this issue and until there’s a different law there would be nothing (for us) to respond to,” Bernstein said. “It isn’t Adrian Garcia’s state law. It isn’t state law for Harris County. It’s state law for every sheriff in every one of the 254 counties in Texas.”

Soard said the county attorney’s office will advise Commissioners Court how to attempt this setup only if it is legal.

I’m no fan of our current or previous Attorney General, but isn’t this a question for that office? I know that AG opinions take, like, six months to get written, but wouldn’t we all feel a little better if we knew someone had been researching this for all that time?

And is it even workable?

Radack said his idea is to create more transparency and efficiency. He envisions the court making a verbal agreement with the new sheriff about a separate jail administrator, which could later be formalized. However, the deal would not be binding. “Ultimately, the sheriff has the opportunity to revoke the agreement,” he said.

From an organizational perspective, it makes some sense to split the responsibility for the jail out from the Sheriff’s office, much like many counties have moved responsibility for elections out from the County Clerk’s office. It’s not clear to me how adding in an appointed administrator adds to transparency and efficiency, however. I’d like to hear a lot more about that. If this is a condition of employment for the Sheriff that the Commissioners are about to appoint, well, what does that say about accountability and public involvement? Shouldn’t the public at least have a chance to learn about this idea and come to an opinion about it before the Court moves forward on it? I’m just saying.

And, as Stace worries, if this is a back door to some kind of harebrained jail privatization scheme, well, that’s a huge can of worms to open at a very convenient time. I sure hope that isn’t the ulterior motive here, but it’s not like it should surprise anyone if it is.

Who will pay for Super Bowl stadium improvements?

Gotta say, I’m with Steve Radack on this one.

If the NFL has its way, luxury boxes and club seats at NRG Stadium will undergo major upgrades at the expense of Harris County or its tenants before Super Bowl LI arrives in Houston in 2017.

But if the decision is up to Harris County Commissioner Steve Radack, using public funds to improve suites for corporate executives and billion-dollar companies would be a non-starter.

“I’m not about to vote to spend a single dollar of county money updating these luxury suites,” Radack said.

With 21 months to go until the sporting event that launches Houston onto the world stage for one glorious Sunday, much work still remains to prepare for the big party. One of the most significant tasks appears to be dressing up NRG Stadium. The price for seating updates and other improvements could rise as high as $50 million, including $5 million to enhance the facility’s WiFi capacity, sources previously have told the Houston Chronicle.

Peter O’Reilly, the NFL’s senior vice president of events, said Monday that upgrading the stadium’s WiFi is something the bid committee has agreed to do. In terms of sprucing up the seating, he said he noted on a recent visit that NRG “is in a very good place at this stage in its stadium life, but there are opportunities to upgrade that are common across Super Bowl stadiums as they prepare and continue to make sure they are state-of-the-art.”

O’Reilly said the burden for the costs of upgrading the facility rests with Harris County or its tenants – the Texans and the rodeo. But so far, none of the parties involved has volunteered to pick up the tab. County officials seem resolute that they won’t be forking over any funds.

Jamey Rootes, president of the Texans, explained that the team is 13 years into its 30-year lease and O’Reilly was merely noting “that there could be some improvements that would help Houston put its best foot forward.”

“Anything that as a fan you might come into contact with might be a factor because you’re going to be in that facility for a long time,” Rootes said.

[…]

For NRG Park, the question of fixing up the premises comes down to a landlord-tenant issue under glaring stadium lights.

The county, through its sports and convention corporation, serves as landlord to NRG’s tenants, which include the Texans and the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo. [Commissioner Jack] Cagle said WiFi costs are “currently a responsibility of the current tenant.”

“WiFi wasn’t really around when our contracts were set up,” Cagle said. “It’s not one of our landlord responsibilities. We have a contract that is in place, and perhaps that needs to be renegotiated.”

See here for the background. The “landlord-tenant” characterization sounds right to me. I can see the case for upgrading WiFi – who installed it in the first place, if it wasn’t there originally? – and of course if there are actual repairs to be made, that’s a landlord responsibility. But if we’re basically talking about fancier party decorations and accoutrements, that’s on the tenant. Stand firm, y’all. Paradise in Hell and Campos have more.

Metro board seeks to expand

It’s change that has been anticipated since the 2010 Census data was released.

HoustonMetro

With all indications pointing to more people in the Metropolitan Transit Authority service area living outside Houston than inside the city, Metro officials are asking to accelerate a state-mandated expansion of the transit agency’s board. The change would mean more members appointed by Harris County and smaller municipalities and a dilution of Houston’s majority control of the board.

“I believe this region is ready for this to be a regional agency,” said Allen Watson, Metro’s vice chairman. “This is the time to do it.”

The board is made up of nine members – five appointed by Houston, two by Harris County and two by the smaller 14 cities included in Metro’s service area, covering 1,303 square miles. That composition has been in place since 1982, when, by state law, the Metro area population grew to warrant four non-Houston slots.

The next step would be an 11-member board, with the county getting another appointee, and the chairman’s post shifting from Houston to a choice made by the 10 Metro board members. Houston would continue to have five appointments.

A board expansion would be triggered once the population outside Houston within Metro’s area is larger than the city’s population, as calculated by the U.S. Census. The balance nearly shifted as part of the 2010 decennial census.

Rather than wait for the official census in 2020, Metro officials – working with state lawmakers – are seeking to speed up the transition, saying it is the right way to apportion transit power in the area, and something they will have to do eventually. State laws govern how transit boards are organized, so any early move to an 11-member board would take legislative action. State Rep. Garnett Coleman and state Sen. Rodney Ellis, both Houston Democrats, have filed bills to help Metro make the move.

The legislation also would clear up some hiccups in board rules and procedures, setting deadlines for cities and Harris County to make appointments and staggering terms so board members rotate in and out annually. Board member terms still would be two years, with a maximum of eight years.

[…]

The change also would allow Metro to pivot to serve an increasing demand for service to and from suburban communities into the city, which comes with more non-Houston seats at the table, said Harris County Precinct 3 Commissioner Steve Radack.

“There needs to be additional focus on commuter rail, versus what you see in downtown,” Radack said. “Right now, Houston has total control, but the service area and needs are bigger than that.”

Radack balked at the idea more county-chosen Metro members would dilute and weaken core transit service.

“I don’t think the move needs to be away from what’s been going on with Metro,” he said. “I think it needs to be expanded.”

See here for some background. At that time, this was seen as a way to shift power on the Metro board, which a lot of people including me th0ught was detrimental. As this story notes, Metro is in much better financial shape and there’s a lot less tension between it and Harris County. As such, everyone is on board with this, and it’s being seen as a way to expand service, not move things around. As Jay Crossley, who also had some concerns, said in the article, it’s a good thing if more people see themselves as represented by Metro and want to have access to its services.

Not part of the scope of this issue but worth asking anyway: Is it a good time to bring up the issue of expanding Metro’s service area, to include places like Fort Bend? If there is momentum again to build some commuter rail lines, including the US90A line that could and should go into Fort Bend, it would be nice to have that piece of the puzzle in place. Maybe that’s too complex a thing to deal with now, and maybe there are good reasons to wait till other business has been conducted, I don’t know. I just thought I’d ask, and this seemed like as good a chance as any to do so.

Who would be Sheriff if Adrian Garcia runs for Mayor?

A Republican, for sure. Beyond that, we don’t know.

Sheriff Adrian Garcia

Sheriff Adrian Garcia

County officials are preparing for Garcia to resign as sheriff, which he is required to do under the Texas Constitution if he chooses to run for mayor of Houston, as he is expected to do. The County Attorney’s office last month circulated a memo to Harris County Commissioners Court detailing how the process for appointing a Garcia successor to serve to the end of 2016, the remainder of the sheriff’s term.

Meanwhile, two prominent Republicans – Rep. Allen Fletcher and Constable Ron Hickman – are closely watching Garcia’s moves and wooing the five-member court in hopes of securing a majority in a vote that could come quickly after he announces his mayoral plans. Four members of Commissioners Court are Republican and are expected to appoint a Republican to replace Garcia, a Democrat.

Many Democrats, who privately and publicly have chastised Garcia for mulling the abandonment of a top countywide position that Democrats worked hard to win in 2008 and 2012, worry that a Republican appointment could make it difficult for Democrats to reclaim the sheriff’s office. Garcia has not yet said whether he plans to run for mayor.

Once a county official publicly says he plans to run for another office, the resignation timeline is triggered, according to the county attorney’s memo. Garcia, however, would not actually step down until Commissioners Court appoints his replacement.

[…]

The five members of Commissioners Court declined to say this week which candidate they planned to support.

“Sheriff Garcia’s still the sheriff,” County Judge Ed Emmett said.

Precinct 1 Commissioner El Franco Lee emphasized that Garcia could decline to join the wide-open mayoral race: “I’ll believe it when I see it.”

Nonetheless, Lee and the other members of Commissioners Court have sat down with Hickman and Fletcher in recent months to discuss the job.

It is likely that more names will emerge for the post once Garcia formally announces his intention to run for mayor. The court also could appoint an interim replacement who would pledge not to run for reelection in 2016 – possibly triggering a spirited 2016 Republican primary – but Commissioners Jack Cagle and Steve Radack this week said that a placeholder appointment would not be their first choice.

My first choice would be for them to not have to make a choice. You already know what I think Sheriff Garcia should do, but it’s not my decision. Conventional wisdom all along has been that he will run, though we won’t know for sure till he says so one way or the other. At this point the speculation is about when he’ll make his announcement, whatever it is. You’ve got to figure that if he is running, sooner is better than later for him. Anyone hearing any other Sheriff-wannabe names?

On playing small ball

Campos reacts to Mayor Parker’s future statewide plans.

SmallBall

And here again is my small ball take from a few weeks ago:

It is time for small ball instead of the big inning.

In baseball, small ball is a strategy where you manufacture runs by utilizing the bunt, stealing bases, the hit and run, walks, hitting behind the runner, and contact hitting. You have to use this strategy if your offense is short of bashers. The big inning is a strategy where you rely heavily on the extra base hit, the walks, dingers, and have the capability of scoring a lot of runs in an inning. You need to have a lineup that includes a few power hitters and fence swingers.

Moving forward, Dems in the Lone Star State should consider utilizing the small ball strategy. We need to look at where we can pick up a run here and there. Let’s look at the map and see here we have a shot at a legislative seat, a county commissioner, county judgeship, district judgeship, county clerk, JP, constable – you get the picture. In a state with 254 counties, don’t tell me there are not any opportunities.

We are not ready for big inning play and I am not talking about a lack of quality statewide candidates. We had a good slate this past go-around. We just didn’t have the weapons to swing for the fences – a solid, organized, and energetic base. We build the base by playing small ball and picking up a run here and there. That’s how you manufacture some Ws.

Maybe the Mayor is thinking the statewide political environment will dramatically be altered in two or four years. Maybe she thinks the GOP in charge of our state government will run our state into the ground and the voters will be ready for the Mayor’s leadership. Of course, the GOP has been running the state for ten years now and they have only gotten more votes. Or maybe she has the confidence she can put together a big inning style campaign. I don’t know about that. Maybe she just wants to make sure that her name stays out there in the mix along with all the other politicos that have gotten previous statewide potential mention.

All I can say is get on out to places like Lufkin, Brownwood, Raymondville, Sherman, and Odessa and see if folks are interested.

Three thoughts:

1. I agree that there needs to be an increased focus on local elections, and have said so previously. I would simply note that there’s no need to wait until 2016 for this. There are plenty of elections this year that need attention, and anything we can do to get our people into a habit of voting outside of Presidential years will be a good thing. The May elections in Pasadena and Plano, where I’m sure some Council members will need defending, will require involvement. It would also be nice to see a worthy successor elected to fill Diego Bernal’s Council seat in San Antonio. Here in Houston, CM Richard Nguyen in District F made a courageous vote in favor of the HERO last year, and will be running for re-election having come out as a Democrat in a district that hasn’t elected anyone of the Democratic persuasion in my memory. He deserves our support, and if we’re not rallying to his side then there’s something wrong with us. The two open At Large seats – three if CM Christie decides to run for Mayor – are opportunities to elect strong progressive voices. If we want to act locally, there’s no time like the present.

2. As far as 2016 goes, if we are interested in trying to gain some ground at the county level, I would note that that is what the Texas County Democratic Campaign Committee (TCDCC) was created to do. I don’t know where things stand with that now – I suspect they got lost in the shuffle last year – but the point is that some work in identifying potential downballot targets has already been done. If there’s nothing left of the TCDCC to speak of, then frankly this is a place where Battleground Texas could step in and do some good. Crunch the numbers, identify some opportunities, share the information, and work with the locals to find and support good candidates. And if not the TCDCC or BGTX, then I don’t know who else. It’s easy to talk about this stuff. Actually doing it is a lot harder.

Here in Harris County, there are a few elections of interest for 2016. Winning back HD144, hopefully with a plan to not fumble it away again in 2018, is a priority. I still believe there is ground to be gained in HDs 132 and 135, perhaps more as a long-term investment. Countywide, we’ll have Ogg v. Anderson 2.0 for DA, someone to run for Tax Assessor, and depending on what Adrian Garcia decides to do, possibly a Sheriff’s office to win back or hold. If we want to think big – and I see no reason why playing small ball means thinking small – there’s Steve Radack’s seat on Commissioners Court. Precinct 4 was about 60-40 red in 2012, but if we’re serious about growing the vote here, that’s where a lot of untapped voters are going to be. We can wait around until he decides to retire, whenever that may be, or we can take a shot at it. You tell me what you would prefer.

3. As a reminder, there are no statewide elections in 2016 other than one Railroad Commissioner spot and the judicial races. As was the case last year, there won’t be much action in the legislative races, even with more attention on HD144. District Attorney, maybe Sheriff, and at a lower level Tax Assessor are the only countywide races that will draw interest, though perhaps if someone steps up to run against Steve Radack that will make a bit of noise. Obviously, there’s the Presidential race, and it is always the main driver of turnout, but what I’m saying is that as things stand right now, that will be even more the case in 2016. Barring anything unexpected, that means Team Hillary, which in turn means Battleground Texas, since the two are so closely intertwined. I don’t know what is going to happen to BGTX, and I don’t know how people are going to feel about them in another 18 or 20 months. What I do know is that we will have a better outcome, here and elsewhere in the state, if we – all of us, everyone – can find some way to work together rather than work at cross purposes. I personally don’t care who’s in charge, or who gets the credit when there is credit to be had. As Benjamin Franklin once said, if we do not hang together we will surely hang separately. It’s up to us what path we take.

Commissioners Court approves body camera purchase

Good.

Harris County Commissioners Court on Tuesday unanimously approved District Attorney Devon Anderson’s plan to spend $1.9 million in seized assets to equip Houston police officers and Harris County sheriff’s deputies with body cameras.

County officials also said they would move toward giving about 700 deputy constables the same equipment, though the precise amount of funding has not been determined.

“If we’re going to go in this direction, which I think is a good direction to go, give all our patrolmen body cameras,” Precinct 3 Commissioner Steve Radack said.

[…]

Radack asked county budget chief Bill Jackson to determine how much it would cost to equip some deputy constables with the cameras.

After the meeting, Radack predicted the cost would be relatively low, perhaps totaling $700,000 if each camera costs $1,000.

“If it costs $700,000, it’s a necessary expenditure,” Radack said.

Jackson, however, cautioned that the cost could go beyond the cameras, pointing out that back room technology would increase the total.

“You’re holding a telephone in your hand, but it has to connect to something,” Jackson explained. “That’s just a piece of it.”

If approved, funding for outfitting constable deputies with cameras would come from the county’s general fund.

See here for the background. Adding in the constables is a great move, as they’re the next biggest law enforcement group after HPD and the Sheriff’s office. I’ll be interested to see what the back office costs of this are, and of course what policies get put in place to manage the video data and allow access to it. But for now, the main thing is getting the cameras. Kudos to all for that.

A look at how Democratic legislative challengers did against the spread

It’s been long enough since the election that I feel like I can go back and look at some numbers. Not a whole lot of good out there, but we’ll try to learn what we can. To start off, here are all of the Democratic non-incumbent candidates for the State House and a comparison of their vote total and percentage to those of Bill White and Linda Chavez-Thompson from 2010:

Dist Candidate Votes White LCT Cand% White% LCT% ============================================================ 014 Metscher 6,353 9,980 7,540 28.5 36.3 27.8 016 Hayles 4,744 8,490 5,995 13.6 22.5 15.9 017 Banks 12,437 17,249 12,852 35.4 43.3 32.8 020 Wyman 10,871 15,512 11,232 22.7 31.4 22.9 021 Bruney 9,736 13,174 10,499 25.6 31.3 25.3 023 Criss 14,716 19,224 15,866 45.4 50.1 41.8 026 Paaso 11,074 16,104 12,290 30.3 37.0 28.4 043 Gonzalez 10,847 14,049 12,635 38.6 45.8 41.7 044 Bohmfalk 9,796 13,369 9,847 24.3 32.1 23.7 052 Osborn 12,433 12,896 10,539 38.5 39.4 32.4 058 Kauffman 6,530 10,672 6,913 19.5 29.0 18.9 061 Britt 7,451 10,103 6,725 17.0 23.4 15.6 063 Moran 9,016 10,797 8,107 22.7 27.4 20.6 064 Lyons 12,578 12,238 9,722 33.8 38.0 30.3 065 Mendoza 10,419 10,926 8,921 35.7 37.3 30.5 083 Tarbox 6,218 9,664 6,250 18.7 25.9 16.8 084 Tishler 6,336 9,444 6,969 27.3 33.7 24.9 085 Drabek 9,628 14,460 10,758 33.4 44.8 33.6 087 Bosquez 3,656 6,945 4,736 15.6 25.4 17.4 089 Karmally 11,105 11,192 8,925 28.4 31.7 25.4 091 Ragan 9,346 10,214 8,039 28.2 32.2 25.4 092 Penney 12,553 12,374 10,020 36.4 35.7 29.0 094 Ballweg 16,461 14,852 12,247 40.5 37.1 30.7 102 Clayton 12,234 15,709 12,110 37.5 44.1 34.3 105 Motley 10,469 11,766 9,793 42.7 43.8 36.7 106 Osterholt 9,586 9,112 7,212 27.5 30.1 23.8 107 Donovan 13,803 14,878 11,936 45.0 46.3 37.5 108 Bailey 16,170 17,401 12,859 39.3 42.0 31.3 113 Whitley 12,044 13,483 11,575 40.6 44.8 38.7 115 Stafford 11,761 12,428 9,955 39.5 39.8 32.0 129 Gay 12,519 17,441 12,896 32.2 37.5 28.0 132 Lopez 10,504 12,016 9,677 33.8 37.9 30.8 133 Nicol 11,728 19,800 12,595 25.4 35.7 22.9 134 Ruff 20,312 31,553 21,380 38.8 51.0 35.1 135 Abbas 10,162 13,971 11,005 34.1 39.6 31.4 136 Bucy 15,800 14,742 12,031 41.1 39.7 32.6 138 Vernon 8,747 12,918 9,878 33.2 40.5 31.2 150 Perez 10,317 13,086 9,829 26.8 31.0 23.4

The most encouraging numbers come from Williamson and Tarrant Counties. I discussed the race in HD94 before the election, where the combination of Wendy Davis’ presence on the ballot plus the outsized wingnuttery of Republican candidate Tony Tinderholt helped boost the performance of Democratic challenger Cole Ballweg. Tina Penney, running in HD92 against freshman Jonathan Stickland, also benefited. We’ll want to see what the full comparisons for this year look like, but Tarrant Dems ought to look to those two districts for a place to try to make further gains in 2016.

Nearby in Denton County, Emy Lyons in HD64 and Lisa Osterholt in HD106 both exceeded Bill White’s vote total, though not his percentage. I don’t know offhand where those districts are relative to the city of Denton, but it wouldn’t surprise me if the fracking ban referendum helped them a bit. These results are a reminder of two things – the importance of local issues in engaging voters in off years, and that it’s not enough in places like Denton County to increase vote totals. You have to keep up with the overall population increase as well. Otherwise, you’re falling farther behind even as you move forward. I’ll give Sameena Karmally in Collin County’s HD89 a nod for a decent showing in that tough district as well, with the same caveat about keeping up with the overall growth.

In Williamson, John Bucy’s strong showing in HD136 against freshman Tony Dale should make it a top target for 2016. Bucy nearly equaled President Obama’s 41.2% in HD136 from 2012, so there’s plenty to build on there. Chris Osborn didn’t do too badly in HD52, either. Note that in each district, the Libertarian candidate scored around five points – 5.03% in HD52, and 4.70% in HD136 – so the win number in each of those districts could wind up being less than 48%.

Finally, in Dallas County, the Battleground-backed candidates all fell short, but generally didn’t do too badly, and they continue to offer the best pickup opportunities for continuously Republican-held seats in HDs 105, 107, and 113. An ambitious goal for the Presidential election year would be to win back HDs 117 and 144, and take over 105, 107, 113, and 136. With no statewide race above the level of Railroad Commissioner but Presidential year turnout – if we work at it – to make things more competitive, I see no reason not to view that as a starting point.

That’s not all we should focus on, of course – I agree with Campos that we should put a lot of effort into local race around the state, which in Harris County means finding and funding a challenger to County Commissioner Steve Radack. Frankly, we should be doing that in 2015 as well, in municipal and school board races. Maybe that will help some people understand that we hold elections in the other three years, too, and their participation in those elections is needed and would be appreciated. This is something we all can and should work on.

Update on Radack’s feral hog plan

So far, so good.

More than 100 hogs have been caught since July in a new Harris County Precinct 3 mitigation program designed to protect waterways and feed the poor by donating the meat of trapped pigs to the Houston Food Bank.

“We’re turning these pigs, a major nuisance and very destructive animal, into a valuable food resource,” said Harris County Precinct 3 Commissioner Steve Radack, whose district includes parts of seven independent school districts including Katy, Houston and Cy-Fair. “I think this could be a model program.”

The Precinct 3 program, run in conjunction with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, is being funded by a $630,000 Coastal Impact Assistance grant to study whether removing hogs can slow down the erosion and pollution of waterways, which they cause. The funding paid for the construction of four 4-acre traps – the smaller waist-high traps are set up alongside them for moving the animals _ and for the captured hogs to be packaged for the Houston Food Bank at the only processing plant in the region federally certified to inspect the wild meat.

[…]

Mike McMahan hopes the new program can make a dent in the area’s rising population of wild pigs. As weather cools and the hogs become more active, the Precinct 3 Special Projects Coordinator predicts about 100 will be trapped each week.

In August, environmental scientists conducted baseline tests that will be compared to results during and after the program to measure its effect on water quality.

Two 4-acre traps, or pens, were built at Addicks Reservoir and two at Barker Reservoir. Feeders inside the pens release corn on an automatic timer, attracting hogs to push through one-way doors from outside. The containment areas are large enough that the hogs can continue with natural behaviors until a collection is made. To do that, a Harris County crew sets up smaller 16-by-3 foot cages along the pens, turns off the interior feeders and unlocks one-way doors into those smaller traps, sometimes using feed to draw them in. The next morning, the group drives out to the secluded site by off-road buggy, moves the pigs into a custom trailer with a misting system and hauls them to the processing plant in Brookshire.

About 6,000 pounds of hog meat has been donated to the Houston Food Bank so far, compared to the 460,000 pounds of other meats distributed by the nonprofit each month.

Only one pig of the more than 100 has failed inspection, McMahan said.

See here for the background. As I said before, I wouldn’t expect this to make much of a dent in the hog population, but it’s still a good idea on its own merits. Helping the Food Bank is always welcome, and who knows, maybe if this kind of thing proliferates enough it could make a difference. I hope they meet and exceed their projections.

The Rodeo and the Texans would like to demolish the Dome now, please

Yeah, I don’t know how well this will go over.

County leaders said Thursday they are open to considering a $66 million plan devised by the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo and the NFL’s Houston Texans to demolish the iconic Astrodome and turn the nearly 9-acre site into a massive outdoor space reminiscent of downtown’s Discovery Green.

The two organizations – the primary tenants of the South Loop sports complex where the vacant stadium stands – briefed commissioners on their proposal this week.

The project, titled the “Astrodome Hall of Fame,” calls for tearing down the dome, bringing the floor to ground level and installing an open-air structure where the walls once stood, according to a 37-page proposal obtained by the Houston Chronicle. The plan, drawn up by two architecture and construction firms, is designed to pay tribute to “the Astrodome’s history” and realize its potential as an “outdoor fulcrum” of NRG Park.

Renderings show what looks like the ribs of the former stadium circling a vast, grassy space with multiple event stages. Tributes to the various events, athletes and entertainers – from Elvis to Earl Campbell – who have played and performed at the stadium throughout the decades would be installed on each of 72 structural columns that would stand as tall as the 49-year-old structure.

“We think they came up with a tremendous idea and it’s the one thing we don’t have out there right now,” Rodeo Chief Operating Officer Leroy Shafer said of the plan devised by Gensler and Linbeck Construction. “This puts a park right in the center of our NRG park complex.”

Shafer and Texans President Jamey Rootes said they are open to helping foot the bill for the project, describing it as “affordable,” but would not say how much they would contribute.

Mighty thoughtful of them. You can see their proposal – which has a February, 2014 date on it, by the way – here; the embedded image comes from that document. The inspiration for turning the Dome into green space comes from Discovery Green. I love Discovery Green and I’m generally favorable towards more parks, but I am skeptical of this analogy. Discovery Green is a park surrounded by city blocks that are full of people who can walk to it. Astrodome Park would be surrounded by acres of parking lot that abuts a highway on one side. Who’s going to walk to it? I admit, it’s true that a significant number of Discovery Green visitors arrive by car, so I may be overblowing this. But as I look at the renderings, I can’t escape the feeling that this is something that’s being grafted on to the space. It just doesn’t feel natural to me.

Maybe that’s not important to the proponents of this idea, which include at least two members of Commissioners Court, Steve Radack and Jack Morman. (El Franco Lee is undecided but not obviously opposed, Jack Cagle did not comment for the story, and County Judge Ed Emmett is strongly against it.) Perhaps all that matters is that it would be used Rodeo attendees and Texans fans, and would make a pleasing backdrop for Super Bowl LI. I wonder if they’ll be happier about paying to maintain a lightly-used park than they are about upkeep on the aging Dome.

Reactions I’ve seen so far to this range from ambivalence and resignation to outrage, with a healthy dose of the latter on Facebook. I fall more into the first two camps. I’ve never had an emotional connection to the Dome but I don’t relish the idea of tearing it down, and I still think repurposing it is the better way to go. But after the bond referendum was voted down last year, even if one interpreted that as a rejection of that specific idea rather than of preserving the Dome, it wasn’t hard to imagine this kind of scenario playing out. The powers that be would like to have a plan in place to Do Something by 2017, when the Super Bowl arrives. There’s no consensus for a preservation plan, and no funding source, either. Demolition is the easy way to go, and hey, at least this beats more parking lots, right? If you feel strongly about this one way or another, I advise you to contact your County Commissioner and let him know how you feel. Time is running out. Hair Balls and Swamplot have more.

County to challenge vacant lot appraisals

It’s a start.

Harris County is challenging the local appraisal district’s valuation of vacant commercial land after a study it commissioned concluded the agency had undervalued those properties by more than 80 percent this year.

The finding was based on a random sampling of two dozen vacant commercial properties across the county with a collectively assessed value of $75.3 million. College Station-based consultant Ted Whitmer found those vacant lots – among nearly 30,000 on the rolls – were worth a combined $140.8 million, or 83 percent more.

The County Attorney’s Office filed a challenge based on the preliminary findings with the Harris County Appraisal District on Monday, the deadline to submit challenges. The action could evolve into a lawsuit if the district’s Appraisal Review Board does not settle, but agency and county officials said they hope to avoid that.

[…]

Unlike home and business owners, who can protest appraisal values for individual properties, the county can challenge appraisal values only for entire categories of property. Vacant commercial properties make up about 2 percent of the county tax base.

Harris County Commissioners Court voted in February to hire Whitmer to monitor the appraisal district’s valuations of all commercial properties, concerned the appraisal district could be undervaluing certain business properties at the expense of homeowners.

Precinct 3 Commissioner Steve Radack, who requested the study, said at the time that district’s Appraisal Review Board in recent years had agreed to set values for commercial and industrial properties far below what those properties later sell for, suggesting the independently governed agency did not adequately fight property owners who challenged their appraisals in court.

Whitmer’s study found that the appraisal district largely had accurately appraised commercial properties, including downtown skyscrapers and apartment complexes. That is a sign, according to one HCAD critic, that agency efforts to more accurately appraise business properties have paid off.

“I am delighted that we have reached the point where the Harris County Appraisal District, the largest appraisal district in Texas, is vastly closer to true market value,” said blogger George Scott, who worked for the district as a spokesman until 2012.

Scott said the report will help the appraisal district defend values in court against deep-pocketed companies trying to lower their appraisals for commercial and industrial properties.

See here and here for the background. This won’t make a big dent in the appraisal gap, but it’s a good first step in the right direction.

Radack finally gets to implement his feral hog plan

I can’t wait to see how well this works out.

Locally sourced pork finally may be on the menu for needy Houston-area families as Harris County Precinct 3 launches its most ambitious effort yet to eradicate feral hogs damaging parkland and neighborhoods around the Barker and Addicks reservoirs.

Within a month, precinct employees hope to begin trapping and transporting the wild pigs to a meat processing facility in Brookshire, where they will be butchered, frozen and distributed to area food banks.

Commissioners Court on Tuesday approved a one-year, $217,600 contract with J&J Packing Co. that begins May 1. The court also OK’d the purchase of metal panels to complete four traps to be erected near the reservoirs in west Harris County.

The approvals were the final steps needed in Precinct 3 Commissioner Steve Radack’s long-standing plan to eliminate, or at least sharply reduce, a prolific hog population in George Bush and Congressman Bill Archer parks, home to the two reservoirs.

“This is the beginning of (the) Harris County hog program in earnest,” Radack declared. “As meat prices go up, we’ll be giving it away.”

Commissioner Radack first floated this idea in 2009, and proposed allowing bow hunters in the parks to deal with the problem. The Army Corps of Engineers put the kibosh on the plan, however, on the grounds of public safety. I presume using traps instead of hunters addresses that issue.

For nearly a decade, off-duty county workers and hired contractors have trapped several hundred hogs a year in the area.

The current plan began to come together early last year when the precinct won a $630,000 federal Coastal Impact Assistance Program grant to bankroll a study assessing whether hog removal improves water quality, as well as pay for four metal traps and the slaughter and processing of 2,500 pigs.

“It’ll be an ongoing and continuing exercise until we get every pig in that area,” said Mike McMahan, Radack’s special activities coordinator.

The plan is to trap the varmints in four, 4-acre fenced structures – two in each park – where they can survive for up to several weeks, having grass, water and room to move around.

The larger traps will be more effective than smaller ones employees have been using, McMahan said, because the pigs do not realize they are in a trap and are less likely to panic and warn others.

“Pigs become very aware of those situations very quickly,” McMahan said. “Pigs are very smart animals.”

[…]

Brian Mesenbrink, a wildlife disease biologist with the Texas offices of Wildlife Services, the U.S. Department of Agriculture branch designated to address human-wildlife conflicts, said the agency is “not against any legal method when it comes to controlling feral hogs,” but said that the trap-and-process concept – “tried in small little operations here and there” – has proved short-lived in other places, mainly because of the cost.

“It’s actually very expensive,” he said, noting that “you don’t get to pick which ones go to market.”

He also warned of the “disease aspect” of such an operation, noting that feral hogs “carry quite a few” and even federal inspectors do not examine every piece of meat.

“It’s like Russian roulette,” he said. “It’s great publicity while it works, but the minute something goes wrong, the minute somebody gets sick, there’s going to be all hell to pay. No one thinks about that going into it. They just see the fuzzy and warm side of it.”

Radack dismissed the disease concern, noting that hunting and eating feral hog is far from uncommon. As for the financial viability of the program, he believes the precinct will be able to secure additional grant money to continue it.

Here’s the Texas Parks and Wildlife information page on feral hogs, which addresses the disease question among others. It’s a concern, but it’s not like there are no concerns about traditional mass-produced meat. I would warn against being optimistic that this plan will actually make a dent in the feral hog population. If it were this easy to keep them in check, there would be no such thing as porkchopping. Beyond that, I see no problems with this. As the story notes, it does connect a problem with a need – there’s already an agreement in place with the Houston Food Bank to receive the hog meat, for which they are grateful. I hope that costs can be managed and that either grant money or philanthropy can cover it as needed. Kudos to Commissioner Radack for having the vision to conceive of this, and for having the persistence to see it through. Texpatriate and Hair Balls have more.

Harris County threatens to sue Harris County Appraisal District

That headline may sound dry, but this is a big deal.

HCAD

Worried about the erosion of the tax base, county officials said Wednesday that they may consider suing the Harris County Appraisal District over concerns it is undervaluing certain business properties at the expense of homeowners.

Officials said HCAD’s Appraisal Review Board in recent years has agreed to set values for commercial and industrial properties that are far below what those properties later sell for, suggesting the independently governed agency did not adequately fight property owners who challenged their appraisals in court.

Commissioners Court on Wednesday took the unprecedented step of agreeing to hire independent appraisers to double-check HCAD’s valuations of business properties. Court members said they would take the appraisal district to court, if necessary, but suggested their action was meant more as a warning to the agency or the Texas Legislature.

“They haven’t been pushing to get these appraisals done the way they should have on some of these major buildings,” said Precinct 3 Commissioner Steve Radack, who placed the item to hire independent appraisers on Wednesday’s agenda. “I think they need to be shook up and understand that they have a very important job to do and not bow down to pressure from people that, you know, hire big guns to get their taxes lowered on buildings, some of which are clearly more valuable than their appraisals.”

[…]

Commissioners Court wants independent appraisers to closely monitor the appraisal process this year, and for the county attorney to be prepared to challenge the results, if the court deems it necessary. Any challenge must be filed within 15 days of HCAD submitting preliminary property values to the Appraisal Review Board, which typically occurs in mid-May.

The Houston Press had a cover story last year about large commercial properties getting lowball appraisals that were costing the county millions in revenue, and before that former Chron business columnist Loren Steffy covered the topic with the specific example of the Williams Tower, which anyone over 35 still thinks of as a the Transco Tower. The issue has been known for a long time, but this is the first time that the county has taken direct action about it. It’s interesting that it comes at a time when real estate is hot and revenues are rising – we sure could have used some of that lost revenue a few years ago when the bottom fell out of the market and everyone that depended on property tax revenues had to cut the hell out of their budgets – but the concern for the longer term is valid and pressing. The response from HCAD is less than convincing to me.

HCAD Chief Appraiser Sands Stiefer defended the settlement process, and predicted the county’s venture would not result in a lawsuit. He said HCAD has implemented changes since he started last June to ensure “that nobody gets away with something unfair” during litigation.

For example, if a proposed settlement exceeds a certain percentage in value, Stiefer said it must be “discussed with me before it is finalized.” Appraisers also must submit formal reports on the settlements before a final agreement is made, he said.

“It’s absolutely untrue that we are giving away the store in that settlement process,” he said, noting that Houston’s hot real estate market means that market values often change rapidly, especially for certain commercial properties.

Sales prices also do not have to be disclosed, which Stiefer described as a “roadblock.”

I agree that sales price disclosure is an issue, but if this is the process to ensure accurate appraisals, it seems lacking to me. Not to be insulting, but what assurance do we have that the head guy isn’t in the same tank as everyone else? Given the track record to date, having a fresh set of eyes on the process sounds like a good idea to me.

Appraisal district critics such as George Scott, who worked for HCAD as a spokesman until 2012, applauded the county’s action Wednesday, saying it would enable it to make a strong case to the Legislature in 2015 for changes to improve the appraisal process for business properties and potentially encourage HCAD to better defend market values.

“It is a powerful, powerful step to tell the Harris County Appraisal District that everything that transpires is now going to be high, high, high on the radar,” Scott said.

Scott’s blog is here, and while he covers a variety of topics these days, HCAD is still his main hobbyhorse. See here and here for a couple of examples. I don’t think anyone believes this matter will actually wind up in court. Radack et al are seeking leverage to get HCAD to change how it does things. I think they’ll win in the end, but it may get messy along the way. I suspect other large urban counties will be keeping a close eye on this as well, and of course other entities within Harris County – Houston and all the other cities, HISD and all the other school districts, HCC and Lone Star College, etc – are affected by this and may want a piece of the legal action if it comes to that. I’m sure we’ll be hearing quite a bit more about this in the next few months.

Not in a rush about the Dome after all

We’ll get to deciding what to do with the Dome when we get to it.

We still have the memories

Harris County leaders are in no rush to decide what to do with the Astrodome, leaving the empty and decaying stadium to languish further following last week’s voter rejection of a $217 million plan to convert the iconic stadium to an events center.

Although a majority of court members said prior to Election Day that demolition would be the obvious choice in the event voters turned down the event center plan, not one of them is championing a tear-down.

“I’m kind of over it. I mean, I’m going to go do other things for awhile and see what happens,” Harris County Judge Ed Emmett said Monday. “This really isn’t the top priority in my life.”

The delay could give historic preservationists time to gain some type of landmark status for the 1965 Dome, which could block its demolition or place limitations on what could be done with it.

Even Precinct 3 Commissioner Steve Radack, who has suggested turning the sunken floor of the Dome into a detention pond in an effort to mitigate flooding and slash the cost of filling the 35-foot-deep hole, said he has no plans to push for a vote to demolish the dilapidated stadium.

“I do not intend to put that on the agenda anytime soon,” Radack said. “We’ll see what other ideas emerge.”

[…]

Commissioners Court will have some built-in lag time: Dome asbestos abatement, slated for approval Tuesday, is expected to begin in December and will take an estimated six months to complete.

“I have no deadlines in my mind,” Precinct 4 Commissioner Jack Cagle said last week after the election.

Look, I voted for the Dome resolution. I myself suggested that the referendum didn’t specify demolition if it failed. I’m as happy as anyone that we’re not fitting it up for the wrecking ball right now. But something needs to happen, and Commissioners Court needs to make up its mind. We can’t go back to the status quo, if only because the 2017 Super Bowl is looming, and there will for sure be plenty of pressure from the Texans and the NFL to Do Something. If demolition is in the future, then let’s be clear about it and not raise any false hopes. If Commissioners Court really doesn’t want to demolish the Dome, then they need to get another plan out there pronto. There is a deadline, and we can’t just sit around and wait any more.

In the meantime, other groups that do know what they want to do are taking their own action.

The city of Houston’s historical commission has voted unanimously to consider an effort that could give landmark status to the endangered Astrodome.

Maverick Welsh, chairman of the Houston Archaeological and Historical Commission, put forward the motion at the agency’s monthly meeting last week.

“I think it was the right thing to do,” Welsh said. “We have to focus on saving this building.”

The move, however, was principally symbolic. Such a designation would only put a 90-day hold on any demolition.

“It’s the only thing we can do as a commission to try and raise attention of saving the dome,” Welsh said.

If the commission decides to move forward, City Council would have final say on the historic designation.

I don’t know that this is anything more than a symbolic gesture, but at least it’s a direction. If the stakes in this election were “vote for the New Dome Experience or we’ll be forced to try and figure something else out” and not “vote for the New Dome Experience or the Dome goes bye-bye”, then Commissioners Court needs to get cracking on figuring out that something else. If it was the latter, then I’d rather get it over with quickly than string it out. But please, we’ve had the vote. Please tell us what it meant and then do something about it. Campos and Texpatriate have more.

So what happens now with the Dome?

It’s mostly dead, but I suppose it’s not all dead just yet.

We still have the memories

The board of the Harris County Sports and Convention Corp., the county agency that runs Reliant Park, passed a resolution in April saying that if a vote were to fail, the agency would ask Harris County Commissioners Court to allow it to “prepare a plan to decommission and subsequently demolish the Reliant Astrodome.”

“That still stands,” said Willie Loston, sports corporation executive director. However, he said, “there’s nothing we have to do now. We’re awaiting direction. That’s the bottom line.”

All eyes now are on the five-member Commissioners Court, which holds the power to determine the fate of the vacant stadium, which has served as nothing more than a storage facility since city inspectors declared it unfit for occupancy in 2009.

[…]

“We said before the vote that absent a vote to transform the Dome into something useful that didn’t bankrupt the county or the taxpayers, then the likely result would be for the Dome to come down, but that’s not my decision – that’s the decision of Commissioners Court,” Emmett said this week.

Asked about demolition on Tuesday, Emmett said the event center plan was “the only option that was viable and, so if the voters rejected the only viable option, then I wouldn’t know where to go next.”

Strictly speaking, I don’t think Commissioners Court is required to authorize demolition at this point. Someone check me if I’m wrong, but I see no reason why they couldn’t choose to pursue another bond referendum next year, perhaps with one of the creative and unfunded plans that had been rejected. I also see no reason why they couldn’t continue to seek out a private investor, or just leave things as they are. They won’t do nothing, but it won’t surprise me if they take a little time before moving forward with something.

What that something is, even if it is the threatened demolition, remains unclear.

County engineers have estimated it would cost $20 million to demolish the dome and create an “open space.”

Precinct 3 Commissioner Steve Radack, who voted against the bond and predicted its failure, said he plans to push an idea to turn the dome into a detention pond after it is torn down, eliminating the need to fill in the hole – and the cost – and exempting the county from having to pay a controversial city drainage fee.

“We spend millions every year digging holes, so why would we spend $200 million covering up a pretty good hole that can help with flooding? It makes no sense,” he said.

If that happens, then I believe the very least we can do to commemorate what used to be there is to come up with an appropriate name for what follows. Something like “Lake Hofheinz” or if you prefer formality, the “Judge Roy Hofheinz Memorial Retention Pond”, for instance. Or maybe just call it “Radack’s Hole”. I think The People should be left to settle the question on this, too. Feel free to leave your own suggestion in the comments. Houston Politics, PDiddie, Swamplot, Burka, Mean Green Cougar Red, and Hair Balls have more.

The feral hogs of Kingwood

They’re everywhere.

Kingwood communities that are battling feral hogs could be in it for the long haul, experts say.

The huge, fearless cousins of domestic pigs have been roaming through the affluent northern suburb for at least a month, said Keith Crenshaw, urban biologist with Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.

He’s talked on the phone with residents looking for solutions and has driven by their homes, seeing rooted-up lawns left by the foraging creatures.

Texas has the highest concentration of wild feral hogs in the United States, and in Kingwood, the community with the worst problem is Royal Shores, the area closest to Lake Houston, Crenshaw said.

Feral hogs are highly adaptable and suburban survival isn’t too hard for them, he said.

“If you put a sprinkler system in your front yard and run it regularly, you are creating a hog habitat,” Crenshaw said. “They want to eat grubs and bugs and all the stuff right below the soil surface.”

Hogs on the hunt know what’s there because they can smell it, he said.

“They will root it up and eat everything,” he said. “They have now demolished what a lot of people spend good money on to have a nice-looking yard.”

Boy, if that’s not a good argument for xeriscaping, I don’t know what is.

Trapping the hogs in a box or corral is the most straightforward way to address the problem, Crenshaw said.

It’s up to home owners, or groups, to hire a trapper and then figure out what to do with the hog after it’s caught, he said.

It can’t simply be released on someone else’s land or public land because it could have a disease that can be transmitted to domestic pigs, he said.

The only meat packer in the area that’s certified by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to process feral hogs is in Porter.

“You have to take it to them live and they have to run tests to make sure it doesn’t have wildlife diseases,” he said. “If they take it, they’re agreeing to have an animal on site for a month.”

That’s the Steve Radack solution to the problem. Not a bad idea, if the logistics can be worked out. As for me, I’m just glad I live in one of the few parts of the state these beasts haven’t taken over. Surrounding yourself with highways seems to be the only effective deterrent against them.

City and county make a deal on airport toll road revenues

Good.

HCTRA

After two years of negotiations, the Houston City Council approved an agreement Wednesday that provides toll revenue from the airport connector to the city for the first time – 24.5 percent, to be precise.

Officials at Harris County, which has collected all revenue on the segment since it opened in January 2000, said it only made sense to play nice. County leaders have called parts of the original 1997 city-county agreement governing construction, maintenance and tolls “puzzling” and “bizarre.”

The city expects to collect about $1 million annually under the revised agreement, which still must be approved by the county Commissioners Court.

“We do have a better working relationship than we’ve ever had,” Mayor Annise Parker said. “Every so often governments can sit down and say ‘We wrote this in the contract, but we can do something better.’ ”

In a 2011 letter to the county proposing the two sides split toll revenues on the connector, Houston Airport System Director Mario Diaz noted the city contributed 43 percent of the $31.7 million construction cost and maintains a roughly 1.3-mile stretch of the road on airport property. Diaz also discussed the 1997 agreement, which authorized the city to collect toll revenues only if it built its own toll plaza – which could have resulted in redundant facilities or in the dismantling of the county’s existing plaza.

“That would just border on the line of pure stupidity to tear down a perfectly good plaza and build another one,” Commissioner Steve Radack said. “If the city’s happy with this and the toll road authority’s happy with it and they recommend it, I don’t have a problem with it.”

See here for the background. You will note that at the time, Steve Radack did have a problem with this idea. The fact that he is on board with this plan is a clear sign that city-county relations are at the highest point they’ve been in recent memory. Or possibly a sign of the impending apocalypse. Either way, kudos all around.

Astrodome referendum officially on the ballot

It’s been a long, strange trip, but at last you will get to vote on the fate of the Astrodome.

The Commissioners Court on Tuesday unanimously voted to place a bond election for up to $217 million to convert the iconic stadium into a massive, street-level convention hall and exhibit space, saying residents should take part in deciding the historic structure’s fate.

Should voters reject the bonds, County Judge Ed Emmett and Precinct 2 Commissioner Jack Morman said Tuesday they see no other alternative than to demolish the former “Eighth Wonder of the World,” which has sat vacant since city inspectors declared it unfit for occupancy in 2009. The Reliant Astrodome has not housed a professional sports team since the Astros moved to Minute Maid Park in 2000.

“If it does not pass in November, then that should be the death knell for the Dome,” Morman said.

[…]

While the vote to put the measure on the ballot was unanimous, court members’ personal support for the project is not.

Only Emmett and Precinct 1 Commissioner El Franco Lee said they definitely will cast a vote in favor of the bond referendum. Both, however, said they have no plans to launch – or, in Emmett’s case, participate in – campaigns to get the measure passed.

“There needs to be some plans made to do it, if it’s going to be a success,” Lee, who wants to save the Dome, said of a campaign. “The judge is our leadership, so we’ll just see what occurs from there.”

The Commissioners Court on Tuesday also approved $8 million for work that needs to be done to the half-century-old stadium regardless of whether it is torn down or renovated. That work includes asbestos abatement, demolition of the exterior spiral walkways and the sale of signs and other salvaged items that qualify as sports memorabilia.

County engineers and consultants, who estimated it would cost $217 million to repurpose the Dome, also determined it would cost $20 million to demolish it, not including the $8 million.

If the bond fails in November, Precinct 3 Commissioner Steve Radack said it “would make no sense to me at all” to spend millions of dollars demolishing the structure.

“There’s another day to have another election,” he said. “Why are you going to spend $8 million and then tear it down?”

The vote to call the bond election was made with one condition championed by Radack: That the ballot language explicitly say that the project would require an increase to the county property tax rate, which has not been raised in 17 years.

See here for the last update. We were headed towards a referendum in 2008 back when Astrodome Redevelopment was proposing a convention center as the Dome replacement, but the economic collapse knocked that off track, and so here we are now. The big question at this point is who lines up to oppose this. The Harris County Sports and Convention Corporation, whose renovation plan is what the Court approved for the ballot, will take the lead in communicating the referendum and the reasons to vote for it to the public. I have no idea how much money they’ll have to mount a real campaign, however. It’s certainly possible that some deep-pocketed types could show up to fund a campaign in favor of this, or in opposition to it. It’s also possible that there will be little more than earned media and some online presence to inform the voters. If I had to guess, I’d say this passes, but who knows? How do you plan to vote on this? Leave a comment and let’s get a totally unscientific data point to bat around. Texpatriate and Swamplot have more.

If only it were that easy to get our act together

Outgoing Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has some blunt words for Houston about light rail.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood likes Houston’s light rail that’s up and running but warns that regional transit officials have squandered opportunities the past decade by not building greater consensus.

“The region needs to get its act together,” LaHood said during a brief question and answer session after an unrelated news conference Wednesday in Houston.

Metropolitan Transit Authority board Chairman Gilbert Garcia conceded a tarnished transit image and political opposition has slowed progress, but the past three years have seen Metro make significant progress.

“It may not go the pace we all want but we’ve gone very far,” he said.

Going further, Garcia said, will take more buy-in from local congressional and statehouse lawmakers.

Though the Main Street line has been a success, and three more lines are under construction, LaHood said the area is coming up short because more hasn’t been done to extend lines to the suburbs where most people live.

He said he spent the morning in Houston talking about projects to extend transit farther from the downtown area. Suburban taxpayers who supported referendums in 2003 and 2012 especially have demonstrated a desire for development, only to have officials shortchange them.

“The fact that these people voted for a referendum and are paying these taxes and have never seen any benefit from it is just not right,” LaHood said.

LaHood, who is stepping down as transportation secretary as soon as a successor is confirmed, said in other cities that have won rail funding, it’s been because everyone from City Hall to Capitol Hill has shown their support for transit funding. In Houston, that hasn’t been the case, and that’s going to hamper getting federal funds.

“If there is not going to be universal agreement then it is not going to happen,” LaHood said.

I certainly agree that as long as we are all rowing in different directions, we’re going to get nowhere, and that’s very much to our detriment. But that’s the reality we live with. Rep. John Culberson is a staunch opponent of the University Line, and has done everything he can to block its construction. While I appreciate Secretary LaHood’s honest assessment, the best thing he could have done to help us all get on the same page would have been to use whatever Republican street cred he had left to have a come-to-Jesus meeting with his former colleague Culberson and tell him to quit being such a jackass. The sad fact is that there is no leverage to be had on Culberson. The voters he answers to agree with him, and if there’s a way for someone else to put pressure on him, I don’t know what it is.

Now to be sure, there’s plenty of responsibility for the excruciatingly slow progress on light rail in Houston that extends beyond Rep. Culberson. Metro itself did a lot of things wrong in the years immediately following the 2003 referendum, including the BRT flipflop, the Buy America fiasco, and just generally being lousy at community engagement and communication. Bill White did a lot of good things as Mayor, but Metro was broken on his watch – it wasn’t until after he’d left office that it became clear just how badly Metro was broken during his tenure – and even if it had been a well-oiled machine, he never spent much time or energy pushing the light rail expansion projects. Commissioners Court, in particular Steve Radack, has been another burdensome obstacle for Metro. Metro is in much better shape now, thanks in large part to the Board that Mayor Parker selected and the tenure of George Greanias as CEO. Radack got what he wanted in the Metro referendum from last year. It would be delightful to get Metro, the city, Commissioners Court, and the entire Congressional delegation all on the same page, but as long as some members of that group are pushing for the opposite of what everyone else wants, I have no idea how to make that happen.

Finally, Secretary LaHood’s comment about suburban taxpayers struck me as a bit odd. For one thing, Metro has spent a ton of money on the park and ride network, which very much serves the suburbs. For another, though I don’t have precinct data from the 2003 referendum in front of me, I’d bet money that the suburban parts of Houston voted against Metro’s 2012 Solutions plan. What he’s talking about sounds a lot like commuter rail, which strictly speaking outside of the US90/Southwest Corridor rail project, which was part of the 2012 Solutions plan and for which work continues, commuter rail is outside Metro’s scope, at least as far as planning and seeking funds go. Still, any viable commuter rail plan will also require everyone to work together in perfect harmony, so in a larger sense it does speak to LaHood’s overall point. Ultimately, we work together or we get nothing done. The message is clear, it’s just a matter of what we’re going to do about it.

The emotional Dome decision

Nobody really wants to tear the Astrodome down. That in a nutshell is why the process to determine what to do with it has taken so long even though there aren’t any viable alternatives to demolition at this time.

Still cheaper to renovate than the real thing

A failure to come up with a feasible plan with the financing to make it happen could force county officials to confront a decidedly less popular option: demolition. And that reality is emotional, rooted in the deep nostalgia for a structure hailed as the “Eighth Wonder of the World” when it opened in 1965.

“If there were not the great sentimental attachment that we as a people have to this Dome, this discussion would have been over with years ago, period,” said Precinct 4 County Commissioner Jack Cagle. “The reason is why it’s still there is because of the love and the memories.”

[…]

Commissioner El Franco Lee, whose Precinct 1 is home to the Reliant, said in an interview last month he is “very” reluctant to tear down the 48-year-old stadium, which housed the Oilers and the Astros, as well as Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo events and Hurricane Katrina evacuees, before the city deemed it unfit for occupancy in 2009.

“I’m one of those hesitant ones,” Lee said. “The easiest thing to do is to tear it down.”

Lee disputes that it definitely would be the cheapest option, though, because of the debt still owed on the Dome. According to the county budget office, that amount is now less than $9 million; payments are made with hotel occupancy taxes rather than property tax revenues.

On Tuesday, Lee threw his support behind a group that said it is planning to raise as much as $500,000 to pressure wash the Dome in an effort to deter demolition.

“It’s less likely to happen if we spruce up the building,” Chris Alexander, project director of Astrodome Tomorrow, told Commissioners Court.

Here’s Astrodome Tomorrow, and here’s their master plan:

The ASTRODOME*TOMORROW Master Plan integrates an ambient, immersive orbital experience inside the Astrodome, solar panels on the roof, a surrounding 90-acre rooftop green park above parking, a new arena, and a monorail linking all the amenities to off-site parking.

We propose to create a beautiful, green, safe destination attraction and park where civic culture and enterprise will thrive. The dome we envision will offer a variety of tenant spaces, including museum, institute, office, studio, retail, restaurant, and entertainment opportunities.

Taken together, the redesign is intended to serve its surrounding neighborhood, the larger Houston area and tourists from around the world. It envisions collaborative contribution from segments of the entertainment industry, NASA and private space launch companies, the green/sustainable urban design community, and the urban garden movement. It is intended for night and day use, and it emphasizes fitness and active recreation.

I have no idea how feasible any of that is, but here’s their Facebook page if you like the sound of it. Personally, I’m a bit concerned about how much water would be needed to pressure wash the Dome, given that we’re still in drought conditions. But I suppose that if we are going to do something other than knock it down, sprucing up the look of the place is where to begin.

Back to the Chron:

County Judge Ed Emmett last week said other options need to be explored before resorting to demolition, noting that most people he asks want to find a way to save the aging facility. He said he hopes to have town hall meetings so the public can weigh in on the issue.

“It is an option, but at this point I think we need to explore what are the options for keeping it so that it’s usable,” Emmett said, noting that he thinks the public would support a good reuse proposal and would “like to keep the icon that is the Dome.”

Edgardo Colon, chairman of the Sports Corporation board of directors, said the board would recommend demolition only if “the alternative we propose is turned down or if we don’t find any alternative at all.”

[…]

Precinct 3 County Commissioner Steve Radack, who said he sees the fate of the Dome as a financial rather than emotional issue, has asked the county’s Public Infrastructure Department to look into the feasibility of creating a lake, or large detention pond, if the dome is demolished. Radack said it could solve flooding problems in the area, including the Medical Center, and eliminate the county’s obligation to pay the city of Houston’s drainage fees, as well as, perhaps, provide an incentive for the city to pitch in on demolition costs.

“It could serve as an oasis in the middle of a massive concrete asphalt area,” Radack said. The idea would be “an important thing to study if the Dome goes down.”

This is not the first time Commissioner Radack has proposed building a lake, though this is a more urban location than before. As we know, the HCSCC has approved a resolution calling for Commissioners Court to approve a demolition plan if they can’t come up with something else. Clearly, there’s no shortage of ideas for what to do, it’s just a matter of coming up with a way to pay for them, preferably with private dollars. The question is what will evoke the stronger feelings – tearing it down, or finding public money to do something else with it if no private plan is deemed viable.

Watch the county’s business

I wholeheartedly approve of this.

Meetings of the Harris County Commissioners Court and the governing boards of the Port of Houston Authority, the Harris Health System and the Harris County Department of Education soon could be streamed live online.

County Judge Ed Emmett on Tuesday [asked] the court for permission to find a vendor to provide “live-streaming and archiving services for Commissioners Court and other public meetings” held in the ninth-floor chamber of the county administration building.

On Friday, Precinct 3 Commissioner Steve Radack added a supplemental item to Tuesday’s meeting agenda calling for that search to include other taxpayer-supported agencies – the port, Harris Health System and the county education department – and for them to foot the bill.

Radack said Emmett has “got a good idea and I think we might as well expand it to include those other people and see if the other members of court agree or disagree.”

“Frankly, I would like to tune into some of them myself just to see what they do,” said Radack said, a frequent critic of the hospital district and port.

He added that including more agencies could reduce the overall cost quoted by a vendor.

Emmett applauded the expanded proposal, and most commissioners expressed support for it.

“I think my original proposal was quite good and I think the supplemental just makes it that much better,” Emmett said. “My attitude is that if you’re going to have public meetings and it’s an easy way to allow the public to look in on your public meetings, I’m all for it.”

About time, I say. This should be the norm for government entities. It’s inexpensive to provide, it promotes transparency and involvement, and it’s just the right thing to do. Kudos to Judge Emmett for proposing it and to Commissioner Radack for improving on Judge Emmett’s idea.

No Dome referendum yet

If you’ve been waiting for a chance to vote on the fate of the Astrodome, you’ll just have to keep waiting.

Still cheaper to renovate than the real thing

Harris County officials unveiled options for the future of the long-vacant Astrodome last summer, with some members of Commissioners Court saying voters might be presented with a bond referendum last November, or perhaps this May, to fix it.

November is long gone, however, and there will be no vote in May either, with the deadline to present a ballot item passing today with no action from Commissioners Court. County officials have said voters would need a say because the price tag on any renovation plan would require selling bonds.

[…]

Texans owner Bob McNair suggested a plan for the Dome might be nice when he named former Secretary of State James Baker III to head the city’s Super Bowl bid committee last month, telling the Associated Press, “We should just do everything we can to make our bid as attractive as possible, and that includes making Reliant Park as attractive as possible.”

Commissioners acknowledge they’re no closer to placing an item on the ballot, however.

“We have waited for ideas for years and years on the Dome. It wouldn’t surprise me if we wait years and years more before something happens,” Commissioner Steve Radack said.

“I’m not in a huge rush because I don’t think we have the ideas and enough accurate information right now to really be able to present something to the voters.”

Radack said even if voters approved bonds for a Dome fix he wouldn’t support selling them now because doing so would force a tax increase.

See here and here for the previous updates, and here for some of the things people want to see done with the Dome. The good news is that by waiting, people have come to acknowledge that demolition may need to be an option, so a more honest conversation about what to do can be had. It’s also the case that with the economy in better shape there are more potentially viable proposals out there to do some kind of renovation/transformation, so it’s more realistic to hope for an alternative to demolition. Of course, in the meantime we continue to pay a bunch of money each year to maintain something that isn’t being used. In any case, you can keep thinking about it for awhile longer, because Commissioners Court isn’t ready for you to vote on something yet. Hair Balls has more.

The next step to closing the city jail

The sobering center was Step 1. Step 2 is a joint processing center with the county, and that is now closer to happening.

With backing from the city of Houston, Harris County is reviving a long-discussed plan to build a facility to process inmates into the county jail, and to offer the mental health services that many of them need after they are released.

Commissioners Court on Tuesday authorized searching for an architect to draw up plans for the so-called joint processing center. The City Council is expected to follow suit by agreeing to pay half of the $250,000 needed for those plans in the coming weeks.

“The mayor’s office is ready to participate with us in the study and the evaluation, but the first assignment is to pick somebody to do it, and we’re taking the lead on that,” Art Storey, director of the county’s public infrastructure department, told commissioners on Tuesday.

The goal is to complete the proposal and cost estimate by June so that the facility could be financed through a bond referendum as early as this November. Other financing options also are being explored, said Bill Jackson, the county’s chief budget officer.

The county has been discussing the need for a new booking or processing center for years as its current one has been operating over capacity even as the jail population has fallen. The city is partnering in the effort as it hopes an expanded intake facility would allow it realize its longstanding goal of shuttering its two aging jails.

You may be thinking “Wasn’t there a bond referendum for this back in 2007, and didn’t we vote it down?” The answer is Yes on both counts. What’s different about it this time is that the county jail is no longer overcrowded, inmates are no longer being outsourced, and most importantly there’s a recognition that keeping the inmate population down is a good thing. The concern in 2007 was that we were simply being asked to build more jail space so we could hold more inmates. Whether that really was the plan or not back then, there’s no question that this is not the purpose of the joint processing center now. We’ve got our priorities in order now.

Commissioner Steve Radack said the center “needs to go a long way in keeping the mentally ill out of jail.”

“The last time this was really looked at, there wasn’t probably as much thought in it as there is today in reference to the mentally ill,” he said. “Today begins the new process.”

A recent county analysis showed 920 inmates cycled through the county jail more than five times in the past two years, 60 percent of whom were mentally ill and 63 percent of whom were homeless.

“A joint processing center, I think, will provide an opportunity for us to do a much improved job for potentially diverting certain low-level offenders who are not a threat to society with mental illness from incarceration,” said Steve Schnee, executive director of Mental Health and Mental Retardation Authority of Harris County.

That would be a huge step forward. There are still a lot of details to be worked out here, but all the indicators, from our attitude about how to deal with mentally ill offenders to city-county relations, are pointing in the right direction.

HCDE hires Eversole to lobby for them

From the Things That Make Me Do A Facepalm department: The HCDE has hired Jerry Eversole as a lobbyist. Yeah, that Jerry Eversole.

Eversole was taciturn in discussing his work Thursday, saying department of education officials approached him. His contract will pay $45,000, plus expenses, between Dec. 1, 2012, and Aug. 31, and calls for him to help raise awareness of the benefits of the department’s programs with local, state and federal officials.

“I have the right to work and make a living,” Eversole said. “And I’ll say that the person who has a problem with me is (County Judge) Ed Emmett. So, if you want comments about what’s wrong with me and about any of my convictions and why I was convicted, he seems to know everything, so you can call him. That’s really all I have to say.”

Emmett, through a spokesman, declined to respond to Eversole’s comments.

The department, which is governed by an elected board of trustees and is not part of Harris County government, also has hired lobbyists and former state representatives Rob Eissler, who was paid $10,125 in December and January, and Stan Schlueter, who was paid $6,125 in January. The department did not produce Eissler and Schlueter’s contracts by deadline.

Department Superintendent John Sawyer is on vacation until March 19 and unavailable for comment, spokeswoman Tammy Lanier said.

Board of trustees President Angie Chesnut said Sawyer was within his authority to make the hires but said she disagrees with the move.

“Had the decision been mine – and I do not speak for the board – I would not have done that,” she said. “And that’s no disrespect to Mr. Eversole. It’s just that I think it creates in the public’s mind a question that doesn’t need to surround HCDE. There most certainly must have been other alternatives.”

Ugh. Look, I have no problem with HCDE hiring someone to speak for their interests, which are currently being threatened. It makes sense to hire someone who knows the players and has a rapport with them. Engaging Rob Eissler was a good move. But geez, if you first reaction to the idea of hiring Jerry Eversole for this was something other than “You’ve got to be kidding”, then I suggest you get out more. Eversole may have the right qualifications – Steve Radack thought his hire was a smart move by HCDE, not that it was going to change his mind about abolishing it – but the optics of it are terrible, as KTRK’s lurid reporting should make clear. I’m sorry, but nothing good can come of this, and John Sawyer needs to have his head examined for even thinking of it. Finally, yes, Jerry, you have a right to earn a living. But that doesn’t mean that all options need to be open to you. Metro is hiring bus drivers – I suggest you look into that opportunity.

Report recommends against privatizing the Harris County jail

Very good news.

Privatizing the Harris County jail would be risky and may not result in savings, according to an internal county memo recommending that Commissioners Court keep the state’s largest lockup in Sheriff Adrian Garcia’s hands.

The confidential Feb. 11 memo, obtained by the Houston Chronicle, comes after more than a year of study by staff from the county budget office, purchasing office and County Attorney’s Office. Commissioner Steve Radack had suggested the county consider privatizing the jail in 2010, and the court voted to accept proposals in April 2011, when the county had begun laying off scores of staff in a lean budget year.

Four private prison firms submitted bids in fall 2011, but only the proposal from Corrections Corporation of America, the nation’s largest private prison operator, was deemed viable.

“CCA provided a very compelling proposal,” the memo states. “However, there is uncertainty about what the county’s actual realized savings would be, and there is also a level of risk and uncertainty that goes along with outsourcing such a vital function to a third party. The evaluation committee concluded that the potential benefit is not sufficient reason to make a change at this time.”

A key factor in recommending against privatization, the memo stated, was the decrease in the sheriff’s budget in recent years, from $424.2 million in fiscal 2010 to what is projected to be less than this year’s $392.6 million budget. The savings are, in part, tied to a steep drop in the jail population, which has fallen by roughly a third since 2008.

“We have improved operations while saving money, we’ve passed jail inspections, we haven’t laid off any employees and we’ve reduced in-custody deaths,” Garcia said. “I think we’ve demonstrated that as a sheriff’s office we’re running this place like a business as much as we’re running it like a county jail.”

I suspect this will be the end of this story. When I inquired about the status of the report back in November, all of the responses I got made it sound like not much if anything would ultimately come out of this. The statements made by County Judge Ed Emmett and County Commissioner Steve Radack in this story sound a lot like what they told me back then. The case for some kind of action would be stronger if the jail was still overcrowded, with inmates being outsourced all over the place, and inspectors at both the federal and state level giving it failing grades – in other words, if we were where we were back when Tommy Thomas was still running things – but it’s extremely hard to argue now that the jail is being mismanaged. Add in the fact that CCA has – how do I put this delicately? – a rather non-stellar reputation for how they do business, and the case for not taking action is crystal clear. I’m glad to see that the county’s budget people see it the same way.

One more thing:

The privatization discussions helped the sheriff better allocate manpower in the jail to reduce overtime costs, said County Budget Officer Bill Jackson, and also allowed the sheriff’s budget to be separated into three parts in the budget the court will consider Tuesday – $166 million for law enforcement, $178 million for the jail and $47 million for jail medical – which will help to better identify and control costs in each category.

Breaking the budget out like this makes sense. You know what else would make sense? Quantifying how much Medicaid expansion would save the county on health care costs, especially mental health care costs. For all that Harris County is trying to think big about health care, they’re almost bizarrely reluctant to be curious about this. I know I’m being tediously monotonous about this. Maybe I’m wrong about the potential for savings here. I doubt it, given what so many other counties are reporting, but I could be. Why not study the question and settle it once and for all? It’s becoming very hard for me to avoid the conclusion that the four Republicans on Commissioners Court don’t want to know the answer because it might be politically awkward for them.

UPDATE: Since writing this post, I have come across this Chron editorial that indicates Judge Emmett is in favor of Medicaid expansion. Obviously, I’m very glad to hear this. I don’t know why there hasn’t been more coverage of this in the Chronicle.

Inside baseball with the hospital district

I’m not really sure what I’m supposed to learn from this article about the political relationship between the Harris County Hospital District and Commissioners Court.

New name for HCHD

You have to wonder if David Lopez ever feels like he’s in the circus.

When Lopez, the CEO of Harris Health System, Harris County’s public hospital district, visits Commissioners Court to present a proposal, purchase, or budget, he tends to play the role of target in a precision knife-throwing act, facing a flurry of sharp questions.

So it was last week, when Lopez sought to buy a mothballed outpatient surgery center on the Southwest Freeway for $7.8 million. Frowning court members said it was the first they had heard of the item, and nearly rejected the matter outright before sending it to the county infrastructure director for further study.

It was the latest example of disconnect between the hospital district and the county’s leaders. The district operates separately from the county, but its board is appointed by Commissioners Court and the court approves its annual budget, tax rate and long-term real estate leases and purchases. Aides to the court members attend the board’s meetings to monitor operations and, presumably, report back to their bosses.

Yet, Lopez and HHS cannot seem to get buy-in from the court on a consistent basis.

“The district is adrift in a sea of uncertainty, and they can’t really figure out what they need to do or should do. It’s a moving target,” said Commissioner Steve Radack, the health system’s most vocal critic on the court. “They say one day they need a hospital in this area, then they go to another area, then they come back to the first area. They really don’t know what they want.”

Things that I did learn from this story: Harris Health System, formerly known as the Harris County Hospital District, and Commissioners Court sometimes don’t see eye to eye on what HHS wants to do. Better communication between them might or might not help.

Things that I did not learn from this story: First and foremost, whether an outside observer would be inclined to agree with the HHS’s vision for primary care and prevention or if such an observer would agree with the Court that the HHS isn’t focused enough on primary care and prevention. Or perhaps that observer would tell us that it’s not so much a matter of vision as it is one of execution on HHS’s part or expectations on the county’s. It would also be nice to know what an outside observer thinks the county’s needs are and what the priorities should be, and how those compare to what HHS and the county say HHS is doing. Unfortunately, the whole story was basically a he said/she said, and that left me unable to properly evaluate either side’s position. It’s good to know that HHS and the Court disagree on things, but it would be even better to know, or at least suspect, that one or both of them is talking out of something other than their mouths. I don’t have any way of drawing that kind of conclusion or inference from this story, and that’s a shame.

City-county cooperation

It’s a beautiful thing, isn’t it?

At 9:27 p.m. on Election Day, when it was clear a Metro referendum crucial to both of their road-building budgets had passed, Harris County Commissioner Steve Radack’s phone buzzed with a text message from Houston Mayor Annise Parker: “Maybe we can tackle world peace next.”

The note hinted at the unlikeliness of their pact. As recently as August, before the cooperative push for a “yes” vote on the Metro referendum, the bombastic Radack, long a city critic, could be counted among the anti-Parker crowd.

And while it is not world peace, this political odd couple’s new alliance could spur progress on several languishing projects, most notably a joint city-county inmate processing center that first was proposed in the 1990s.

Over his steak salad, her bowl of chili and two iced teas at Tony’s last Wednesday, Parker and Radack decided movement could come on the processing center as early as next month, perhaps in the form of a clear plan presented to Commissioners Court and City Council.

“The processing facility is something that’s been brewing for a very long time. We need some resolution,” Parker said. “Commissioner Radack was previously in law enforcement, and he understands these issues. He’s interested in taking some lead on it in the county.”

Radack, a former Houston policeman and county constable, already has talked to other members of Commissioners Court and the county’s top budget and social services directors about moving forward.

“There’s a strong possibility we can help a lot of people, like the mentally ill,” Radack said. “I think we can operate much more efficiently, save taxpayers’ money, and do a better job. That potential is there. It’s time to seize the opportunity and get it going.”

It all sounds good, and this is certainly a sensible project. They’re also continuing to talk about jointly doing a crime lab that is independent of HPD – the city’s crime lab proposal is still a theoretical entity at this point – and about dealing with the city’s great backlog of rape kits. If all this comes together, it would be a pretty nice legacy for Parker no matter what happens in next year’s election.

Jail privatization update

Grits, from about two weeks ago:

In a conference call last week with investors (see the transcript), Corrections Corporation of America said it expects to find out by next spring whether they will receive a contract to operate the Harris County Jail. Said President and CEO David Hininger:

The final update I wanted to give on the new business opportunities is here in Harris County. And just as a reminder, this is the opportunity to take over the entire jail system within Harris County. This is metropolitan Houston. This would be an opportunity to take over a system that has about 9,000 prisoners on any given day. We submitted our best and final for this procurement back in August of this year, and again we think probably later this year, probably early next year is when the county will make a decision on this requirement.

An institutional investor asked Hininger, “Could you describe – give us a little bit more color on Harris County? I kind of had thought that perhaps something might have – a decision might have been made in the fall, and wondering what, if anything, may have changed there?” He replied:

Yeah, good question, I would kind of relate it back to my earlier comment. We just have gotten a sense from our either existing partners or new partners that either opportunities, pending procurements, maybe decisions where they need to move forward on a requirement, a lot of those are just being deferred, either past the election or past the 1st of the year. There was obviously a lot of – everybody in the country was most focused on the national election, but there was a lot of elections going on at the state and local level.

And so, our sense is that we just had a period of time where a lot of decision-makers were sitting on their hands. So I would [say] Harris is probably in that category. And we think we’ve put forth a very compelling and comprehensive and competitive proposal to them, but our sense is probably now that we’re on the other side of the election, either later [this] year or early next year, we’ll see an action being taken by them.

Were Harris County Commissioners waiting for the elections to pass before moving forward on privatization? We’ll soon see. For those interested in (much) more detail, here’s the RFP to which CCA and its competitors are responding. Notably, most of the information the public has been getting on this back-room process has not come from county government but from corporate investor conference calls. That’s never a good sign.

See here and here for the background. I think we can all agree that any discussion about this needs to be held in the open, for all to hear and for all with a stake in the outcome – which is to say, all Harris County taxpayers – to be able to have their say about it. Towards that end, I made a few inquiries about this. County Judge Ed Emmett said this was the first he’d heard about this particular item in many months (the last update I have is from December of 2011, so that certainly tracks for me). He said that right now the RFP that Corrections Corporation of America and any other bidders submitted is being reviewed by the purchasing department, which will when ready present its findings for the Court to consider. At that time, they may or may not take any action, but Judge Emmett assured me that if there was to be anything further on it, that would all be done during open Court meetings as official agenda items.

I also spoke to Commissioner Radack, who characterized this as a very complex process and that the main thing he hoped to get out of it was some lessons about possible ways to be more efficient and save money. I suggested his description sounded somewhat like an audit to me, and he thought that was a reasonable analogy. He stressed that any review of corrections is multifaceted and can take a lot of time – he reminded me that the original proposal of a joint city/county jail facility was made when Bob Lanier was still Mayor – and that his primary goal was the learning opportunity. I did not get the impression he was seeking anything transformational. In fact, I’m reminded as I review the history of all this that the origin was in late 2010 when Radack and Jerry Eversole were complaining about the cost of outsourcing inmates to Louisiana. That was when Radack made his request for a study of ways to reduce costs at the jail, which turned into a formal RFP when then-Budget Director Dick Raycraft came back and said it was the only way to answer the question. And so here we are today, in an environment where inmates are no longer being outsourced and jail costs overall are already lower, awaiting that answer.

Finally, Sheriff Adrian Garcia sent me the following statement via email:

“The county purchasing and budget offices are still working on the request from Commissioners Court in the spring of 2011 to determine if allowing a private company to run the Harris County Jail would be cost-effective for the county and the taxpayers. The study continues.

“In the meantime, I will continue to build on the success that we have had over the last four years in which my staff and I have saved the taxpayers more than $60 million in the operation of the jail and other functions of the Sheriff’s Office, turning a gaping budget deficit into a surplus without degrading public safety or laying off employees. This accomplishment included using a combination of civilian staff and detention officers rather than deputies in some jail functions. Under my administration, the jail has been in full compliance with state standards and inmate deaths have declined. This is a true example of the taxpayers getting the best deal with the sheriff as the direct administrator of the jail.

“I am also mindful of Judge Emmett’s comment that no private detention company has run a jail system as big as ours, and of then-Texas Commission on Jail Standards Executive Director Adan Munoz’s comment that privatization of the jail is not advisable. Their comments also mirror those of sheriffs in other parts of the country who have seen how privatization experiments at county jails have actually cost communities more than when they were run by the sheriff.”

So there you have it. Obviously, this bears watching, and I will be very interested to see what report the purchasing and budget departments eventually make to the Court. In the meantime, I hope this helps shed a little light on what’s going on.

Precinct analysis: Metro

The first rule of precinct analysis, at least as I do it, is that you really can’t learn much by doing it on lopsided elections. The Metro referendum, which passed with 78% of the vote, is Exhibit A of this phenomenon. Here’s how the vote went in the State Rep districts for the Metro issue:

Dist Yes No =================== 126 34,957 8,158 127 31,750 9,040 128 20 16 129 19,439 5,282 130 41,183 9,568 131 25,236 6,641 132 35,052 7,901 133 50,285 12,438 134 56,041 17,463 135 32,347 6,943 137 15,754 3,743 138 30,159 7,607 139 29,604 9,391 140 13,908 3,685 141 19,494 5,368 142 10,900 3,128 143 6,965 2,159 144 1,684 531 145 14,668 4,689 146 31,446 8,524 147 32,900 11,061 148 25,130 9,061 149 27,060 5,999 150 39,138 9,333

HD128 is Baytown, and HD144 is mostly Pasadena, so that’s why those vote totals are as low as they are. If you prefer pictures to numbers, go look at Greg’s map, or at Max Beauregard‘s reports for a visual representation. No matter how you look at it, though, there’s not much to see. No hidden pockets of opposition, just across the board support.

As for what the election means, you can argue that the issue was complex and that people wouldn’t have voted for the referendum if they had really understood it. I agree there’s something to that, but I don’t believe it will get you anywhere to pursue that line of thinking. Instead, I offer two thoughts. One is that for all the grassroots energy that fed the anti-referendum movement, there was basically no opposition to the referendum among candidates or elected officials. I did get one press release a few days before the election about Rep. Sylvester Turner speaking at a pro-transit rally, but I never got anything after the event saying what had happened, and though I looked I never saw any press coverage of the event. Beyond that, as far as I could tell, there weren’t any other elected officials or candidates speaking out on this. Given that both supporters and opponents of the referendum were casting it as the end of light rail construction in Houston, this ought to be a wake-up call to transit advocates. Metro Board Chair Gilbert Garcia has said that he hopes to build broader support for Metro and its rail plans by boosting system ridership via the expanded bus service this referendum will bring, and other Board members are talking along similar lines. One good way to hold them to these promises down the line is to generate pressure from public officials, and the first step in that process is to engage them to get them on your side, and where needed support candidates for office who already support your position. It’s time to get back to basics and make rail transit and the reasons why it’s needed a regular part of the conversation. It can’t just be the same people talking about this – we need our elected officials out there talking up rail, and the more the better. This needs to be a top priority for transit advocates.

Two, David Crossley of Houston Tomorrow has on more than one occasion expressed the concern that the comparable rates of growth in Houston and Harris County will cause the Metro board to shift from one with a Houston-appointed majority to one with a non-Houston-appointed majority by 2018 or so. I would just simply note that there’s no reason why the Commissioners Court of today needs to be the same as the Commissioners Court of 2018, when it might get the chance to reshape the Metro board. Commissioner Jack Morman will have a tough fight for re-election in 2014. That same growth in the outlying areas of Harris County ought to make Commissioner Steve Radack at least somewhat more vulnerable in 2016. Wouldn’t it be nice to have a Commissioners Court that believed in something other than just building more roads as a solution to transportation problems? It could happen if enough people work to make it happen. Just something to think about.

Precinct data: County Commissioner precincts

I wish they called County Commissioner precincts by some other name, because it’s confusing to refer to them as such when one is discussing canvass data, which is data from the thousand-plus voting precincts in Harris County. But that’s the name we’re stuck with, so make sure the clutch on your context-shifter is in good shape. Before I get to the data, I’ve been looking for a formal story on the end of the county redistricting trial, but this Houston Politics post from Friday appears to be all I’m going to get.

Commissioners Court interim map

The court’s first Hispanic member, Democrat Sylvia Garcia, represented Precinct 2 for two terms before losing to Republican Jack Morman in 2010. She took the stand Thursday and testified about discrimination against Latinos. The plaintiffs have to prove that point (and several others) in order to get Precinct 2 declared a protected minority-opportunity district under the Voting Rights Act, which likely would produce a more favorable Precinct 2 for a Hispanic candidate than the map the county adopted.

“I think discrimination still exists. It just may be more subtle, it’s more creative, more clever, but it’s there,” Garcia said, adding that deficits Latinos face in education, housing and health care, and that local and state governments dissuade Latinos from participating in the political process.

[…]

The plaintiffs’ attorney Chad Dunn pressed [Morman’s chief of staff Dave] Walden on why, during the redistricting process, he had requested information about the politics, prevalence of straight-ticket voting, ethnic makeup and voter turnout in various voting precincts being considered for inclusion in Precinct 2. The data showed the precinct would have a higher share of white voters, and a higher share of Republican votes.

Dunn asked Walden if removing Latinos from a close district makes it harder for Latinos to elect a “candidate of their choice” (language from the Voting Rights Act).

“I really believe this: It depends on factors in addition to their ethnicity before I could give you a hard and fast judgment,” Walden said. “But going by ethnicity alone, you could probably say that.”

Dunn asked whether Walden knew that by making those changes Morman’s electoral advantage would increase. “True,” Walden said. Dunn asked whether Walden had an interest in making the district more Republican. “Absolutely,” he said.

The defendants have stressed that these gripes are about politics (a permissible factor in redistricting), not discrimination. They say the plaintiffs must “negate partisanship” to prove their claims.

The trial, or at least the testimony, wrapped on Friday. No clue when a ruling may come. Be that as it may, let’s take a look at the data. With three of the four Commissioners on the ballot, it was easy to sort out the data from all four precincts. I’ve divided the presentation below into two groups, one for the five statewide candidates, and one for the five non-judicial countywide candidates.

CCP Obama Sadler Henry Petty Hampton Tot votes ====================================================== 1 76.74% 75.90% 75.79% 77.57% 77.24% 293,101 2 48.63% 47.59% 48.40% 50.62% 49.78% 210,222 3 40.62% 39.93% 37.97% 40.66% 40.92% 317,331 4 36.99% 36.21% 35.15% 37.58% 37.20% 349,526 CCP Garcia Ryan Trautman Bennett Oliver ============================================== 1 79.05% 77.66% 77.62% 76.68% 74.35% 2 54.21% 50.75% 50.83% 49.21% 47.43% 3 44.83% 42.21% 41.70% 39.71% 37.37% 4 40.99% 38.22% 38.21% 36.59% 34.70%

The “Total votes” figure is simply the Romney plus Obama total for each precinct. I put that in for some perspective. Adrian Garcia had the largest margin of victory in Morman’s Precinct 2, defeating Louis Guthrie there by over 17,000 votes. Keith Hampton missed carrying Precinct 2 by 868 votes. It’s fair to say that in a Presidential year, the map used for this election makes Precinct 2 highly competitive. How things may play out in a non-Presidential year under a possibly different map is anyone’s guess at this time. For what it’s worth, I did the computations for all 34 District, County, and Circuit Court of Appeals races as well, and found that Democrats won 13 and lost 21. Of possible interest is the list of the top five vote-getters in Precinct 2 among the judicial candidates:

Candidate Votes Pct ======================================= David Mendoza 104,404 51.28% Julia Maldonado 104,389 51.08% Ruben Guerrero 103,474 50.80% Alexandra Smoots-Hogan 103,378 51.01% Michael Gomez 103,240 50.64%

I’m going to step out on a limb here and suggest that maybe it would be wise for the Democrats to run a Latino/Latina candidate here in two years. Just a thought, you know? Oh, hell, I’ll quit being coy: There’s no doubt in my mind that Sylvia Garcia would be the strongest candidate against Morman, if she chose to run. That would require her to lose in the special election in SD06, then want to get right back in the saddle again (likely with a depleted campaign treasury) and have a crack at a rematch with Morman. I have absolutely no idea how probable that scenario is.

Anyway, the other point of interest is Precinct 3, which as I recall was made slightly more Republican after swapping some turf with Precinct 1 in order to boost the latter’s overall population. That plus the decline in Democratic turnout from 2008 meant that Adrian Garcia lost about two and a half points from that year. On the plus side, this is the beginning of the decade, not the end of it, so if demographic change continues as it has been, I’d think there’s a decent chance of Precinct 3 being competitive in 2016. As always, this assumes a Democrat who can raise a few bucks steps up to run. It’s never too early to start recruiting.

All the interviews for 2012

As we begin early voting for the November election, here are all the interviews I conducted for candidates who are on the ballot as well as for the referenda. These include interviews that were done for the primary as well as the ones done after the primary. I hope you found them useful.

Senate: Paul SadlerWebMP3

CD02: Jim DoughertyWebMP3

CD07: James CargasWebMP3

CD10 – Tawana CadienWebMP3

CD14: Nick LampsonWebMP3

CD20: Joaquin CastroWebMP3

CD21: Candace DuvalWebMP3

CD23: Pete GallegoWebMP3

CD27: Rose Meza HarrisonWebMP3

CD29: Rep. Gene GreenWebMP3

CD33: Marc VeaseyWebMP3

CD36: Max MartinWebMP3

SBOE6: Traci JensenWebMP3

SD10: Sen. Wendy DavisWebMP3

SD25: John CourageWebMP3

HD23: Rep. Craig EilandWebMP3

HD26: Vy NguyenWebMP3

HD127: Cody PogueWebMP3

HD131: Rep. Alma AllenWebMP3

HD134: Ann JohnsonWebMP3

HD137: Gene WuWebMP3

HD144: Mary Ann PerezWebMP3

HD146: Rep. Borris MilesWebMP3

HD147: Rep. Garnet ColemanWebMP3

HD150: Brad NealWebMP3

Harris County Sheriff: Sheriff Adrian GarciaWebMP3

Harris County District Attorney: Mike AndersonWebMP3

Harris County Attorney: Vince RyanWebMP3

Harris County Tax Assessor: Ann Harris BennettWebMP3

HCDE Position 3, At Large: Diane TrautmanWebMP3

HCDE Position 6, Precinct 1: Erica LeeWebMP3

Harris County Commissioner, Precinct 4: Sean HammerleWebMP3

Constable, Precinct 1: Alan RosenWebMP3

HISD Bond Referendum: Interview with Terry GrierMP3

City of Houston Bond and Charter Referenda: Interview with Mayor Annise ParkerMP3

HCC Bond Referendum: Interview with Richard SchechterMP3

Metro Referendum: Interviews with David Crossley, Gilbert Garcia and Christof Spieler, Sue Lovell, and County Commissioner Steve Radack

Endorsement watch: Boring

The Chron expends more words on the history and function of Commissioners Court than it does endorsing the three incumbents running to stay on the Court.

Precinct 1: Veteran incumbent El Franco Lee is our choice over an energetic Republican challenger, Chuck Maricle, whom we encourage to continue his interest in seeking public office.

Precinct 3: Steve Radack, the 24-year incumbent, has our backing for another term as commissioner of this westside precinct.

Precinct 4: Since being unanimously appointed by Commissioners Court in 2011 to replace Jerry Eversole, veteran County Court at Law Judge R. Jack Cagle has shown himself to be a quick study in assessing both the needs and potential of his geographically diverse district, which covers much of the north side of the county and extends inside the 610 Loop.

Nothing to see here. Lee and Cagle, who’s on the ballot to finish out Jerry Eversole’s unexpired term, are in solid precincts. The only question about Lee is when he plans to retire – there’s a line of wannabe successors awaiting that announcement longer than any you’ll see at an Apple store on delivery day of a new iPhone. The election that mattered in Precinct 4 was the Democratic primary, where Sean Hammerle’s win over the homophobe Dave Wilson meant one fewer embarrassing candidate on the November ballot. As for Radack, we saw in 2008 that his precinct is slowly trending Democratic, but not enough yet to entice a potentially strong challenger to him. Maybe in 2016, I don’t know. Like El Franco Lee, Radack’s going to retire one of these days, and like El Franco Lee, when that happens there’s going to be a lot of people who will want to succeed him. So, as there’s not much to these elections, we’ll look forward to the forthcoming ruling in the redistricting lawsuit, and to see who steps up to challenge freshman Commissioner Jack Morman, elected in the hundred-year flood that was 2010, in 2014.

What comes after the Metro referendum

I hope you found my series of interviews on the Metro referendum to be useful. I think there’s plenty in those four interviews to bolster your support of or opposition to the referendum. The referendum question is simple – do we or do we not want to continue the General Mobility Program? but the issue is complex, and I could probably do at least one more week’s worth of these without exhausting the subject. But at some point you have to make a decision. I said several weeks ago that I intended to vote for the referendum, and I am still going to vote for it, but I have to say I definitely understand the opposition’s perspective a lot better now.

The one thing I believe now that I hadn’t thought about before I began this process is that in a sense it doesn’t matter what happens with the referendum. Pass or fail, it’s just a step along the way towards the region’s transportation future, and pass or fail it’s up to all of us to work to make that the best it can be. Going forward, the main thing I want to see is better cooperation and coordination among the stakeholders on transit and transportation. Getting the University line built will benefit the entire region. It’s high time all of our local officials recognized that, and stopped tolerating the shenanigans of certain members of Congress who have so tirelessly worked against the region’s interests on this. The city and the county should work with Metro to do what they can to help facilitate University Line construction. David Crossley made the point that the city could help pay for the road and utility work that will need to be done for this, as that will reduce Metro’s total cost and make them that much less dependent on federal funding. I say Harris County can and should contribute in a similar fashion. Commissioner Radack may believe that rail lines are more expensive than they’re worth, but a significant portion of the University Line – and the Uptown Line for that matter – runs through Precinct 3, and I know if he were to ask the business interests in the affected areas, they’d tell him how much they want this built. Surely the parts of his precinct that are inside the city limits deserve as much attention paid to their mobility needs as those out near Hockley. Having those lines in place will make any future commuter or passenger rail line along 290 that much more valuable as well. We’re all in this together, and it’s way past time for us to act like it. Whatever the fate of the referendum, and however you vote on it, this is what we need to be working towards.

Interview with County Commissioner Steve Radack

Commissioner Steve Radack

To wrap up my series of interviews relating to the Metro referendum, I spoke to the person with whom Metro Chair Gilbert Garcia brokered the deal on the GMP reauthorization: County Commissioner Steve Radack. Commissioner Radack is a strong advocate of the General Mobility Program and a critic of light rail. I suspect that if you read this blog you’re quite familiar with Commissioner Radack, so we’ll just go straigh to the interview:

Steve Radack MP3

You can still find a list of all interviews I did for this primary cycle, plus other related information, on my 2012 Harris County Primary Elections page and my 2012 Texas Primary Elections page, which I now need to update to include fall candidate information. You can also follow this blog by liking its Facebook page.