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Sylvester Turner

Rental assistance

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

Mayor Sylvester Turner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Enforcing the mask order

Those of you who haven’t been wearing your mask when out in public, shame on you. And also, there may now be consequences for your dumb refusal to do the right thing.

Houston law enforcement officials will begin issuing fines and citations to people who do not comply with the state’s mask order, Mayor Sylvester Turner announced Monday.

The mandate from Gov. Greg Abbott requires nearly all Texans to wear face coverings in most public settings and has been in effect since early July.

Turner’s announcement comes as Houston experiences a slight dip in its COVID-19 hospitalization levels and a decline in the rate of positive tests, despite a sustained number of daily new cases. The mayor said police would continue to issue warnings at first, as Abbott’s order requires, before fining people $250 for a second offense.

“For months, we have been focusing on education and not citations, but now I am instructing the Houston Police Department to issue the necessary warnings and citations to anyone not wearing a mask in public if they do not meet the criteria for an exemption,” Turner said.

Police Chief Art Acevedo, who is appointed by Turner, agreed with the mayor’s order, saying it would help limit the spread of the coronavirus. He said HPD’s tally of infected and quarantined officers has grown “very rapidly,” with 108 testing positive and 64 awaiting test results.

[…]

The mayor in April instructed police not to issue fines or citations for Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo’s mask order, winning favor among some of Hidalgo’s critics. Before Monday, he had told police to largely issue warnings when enforcing the governor’s order.

On the one hand, it’s a bit puzzling that the order hadn’t had the threat of a fine behind it before now. On the other hand, given the wishy-washy nature of Abbott’s order, it’s easy to understand why the city wouldn’t be all that interested in putting police resources into “enforcement” of that order. Certainly, the police union was not interested in enforcing the mask order (and yes, that was motivated by the HPOU president’s ridiculous animosity towards Judge Hidalgo), to whatever extent you give their preference weight. I honestly don’t know what difference this is going to make, but I welcome the change. We are moving in the right direction, it would be very nice to move a little faster in that direction, and whatever reasonable step we can take to advance we should take. And boy, do I wish we didn’t have to have debates like this. How much better it would be if people just understood what they need to do and did it.

Who gets to be on the I-45 panel?

I’m not thrilled about this.

Houston will have a say in a regional response to design differences in the planned widening of Interstate 45 within the city — and so will Sugar Land, Montgomery County and Waller County.

After voting last month to establish a working group focused on improving the plans by the Texas Department of Transportation for rebuilding I-45, members of the Houston-Galveston Area Council’s Transportation Policy Council approved the members of the panel Friday over the objections of critics and Harris County officials.

“I do take exception that those who are going to be most impacted are not as represented,” Harris County Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia said.

[…]

Houston, via a letter from Mayor Sylvester Turner to TxDOT officials, has sought changes to the project north of downtown to ease those effects. City officials want frontage roads in some areas eliminated or reduced to two lanes, and a greater reliance on transit instead of carpools by making the center lanes bus-only rather than HOV. TxDOT has said it is studying the proposal, but said that after years of discussion it is committed to moving its designs along to keep construction on track while addressing possible changes later.

Regional officials with the transportation council ultimately will decide whether $100 million or more of locally-controlled federal money is spent on the project as phases begin over the next five years, a sum that while small in comparison of the $7 billion-plus cost, significantly affects TxDOT’s ability to leverage state-controlled dollars. That leaves the council to support or not support the changes as a condition of its funding, or allow TxDOT to move forward with its own plans.

The 16-person working group approved Friday includes some Houston-centric officials — including At-Large Councilman David Robinson, Metropolitan Transit Authority Chairwoman Carrin Patman and Port Houston Executive Director Roger Guenther. Half of the members, however, hail from outside Harris County, including Sugar Land Mayor Joe Zimmerman, Waller County Commissioner Justin Beckendorff and Montgomery County Judge Mark Keough.

Galveston County Commissioner Ken Clark, chairman of the transportation council, said his aim in appointing people to the group was to reflect the entire region’s interest in the project.

“Their commuters are driving their freeway roads all over the place,” Clark said. “I thought it was important we had a group that had that … a critical working group if you will.”

Zimmerman, who last month argued Houston-area officials needed to put the project “in a positive light” noted that the regional body’s role was to reflect the entire eight-county area.

“The intent was to keep politics out of this,” Zimmerman said.

Critics, who have said for two years that their concerns have been heard by TxDOT with little progress toward resolving the issues, said a regional group that includes no members from the project area speaking directly for residents and neighborhoods indicates their concerns are being ignored.

“This proposal is inequitable and unacceptable,” said Jonathan Brooks, director of policy and planning for LINK Houston, a local advocacy group that has organized some of the opposition to the project.

First of all, you can never “keep the politics out” of an inherently political process. I cringe at this because the implication here, one that is widely made and shared, is that by keeping “politics” out of this process you are somehow keeping it “clean” and “fair”, because “politics” is dirty and tainted. But “politics”, as a process, is all about engaging communities and getting consensus. You can’t do that if key communities are being excluded while others that have a lesser stake in the outcome are given power over the process. The people whose homes, neighborhoods, jobs, and lives are going to be directly affected by the I-45 project need to have a seat at that table. It’s just wrong that they don’t.

Second, maybe the reason Houston-area officials haven’t been putting such a “positive light” on this project is because we don’t see it as being all that positive. Certainly, plenty of people who live in Houston don’t see it that way. Maybe the problem isn’t branding but the product itself.

And look, none of this would be a problem now if the people who will be the most affected by this project had truly been heard along the way. They’ve been airing the same complaints about the I-45 rebuild because so many of their key concerns are still there. You may say there’s no way to do this project without setting aside most of those concerns. We would say that’s exactly the problem, and should call into question the fundamental assumptions about this project in the first place. If you can’t do it without causing significant harm, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it.

Harris County issues school closure order

This was expected.

Judge Lina Hidalgo

Harris County and Houston health authorities on Friday ordered all public and non-religious private schools to delay opening for in-person instruction until at least Sept. 8 — a date likely to be extended unless the region sees a significant reduction in its COVID-19 outbreak.

Flanked by their respective health authorities, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo and Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said the region’s novel coronavirus outlook appears too dire to allow the restart of face-to-face classes before Labor Day. Most Houston-area public school districts already had pushed back their in-person start dates to Sept. 8, though a few remained on track to hold on-campus classes in August.

“The last thing I want to do is shut down a brick-and-mortar representation of the American dream,” Hidalgo said Friday. “But right now, we’re guided by human life.”

With the decision, officials in all five of the state’s largest counties — Harris, Dallas, Tarrant, Bexar and Travis — have ordered the closure of public schools through at least Labor Day.

None of the Greater Houston region’s other large counties — Fort Bend, Montgomery, Brazoria and Galveston — have issued closure orders. However, Montgomery County public health officials recommended this week that their school districts delay their start dates or remain online-only through Labor Day.

The Harris County order comes four days after Hidalgo and Public Health Executive Director Umair Shah issued a non-binding recommendation that campuses stay closed until October at the earliest. While county and city officials held off Friday on mandating closures through September, Hidalgo said reopening buildings immediately after Labor Day “is still likely too soon.”

County and city officials said they will need to see a significant decrease in multiple measures, including case counts, rate of positive tests, hospitalizations and deaths, before they OK the reopening of campuses. Local health officials, however, have not set specific COVID-19 outbreak benchmarks that must be met.

“If we want our schools to reopen quicker in person, it’s going to take all of us pulling together to do that,” Shah said.

See here for the background. This was done in part so that HISD would be in compliance with the TEA’s current guidelines. We all want our kids to get back to school in a safe manner as quickly as possible. That means not flattening but crushing the curve, getting coronavirus infections way down to much more manageable levels. We have the month of August to make that happen. Are we going to take this seriously – face masking, social distancing, self-quarantining as needed – or not? The choice is ours.

The cities still need COVID relief

Just a reminder, in case you’d forgotten.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

As Congress resumes work on a new coronavirus financial relief package, nearly 100 Texas mayors are pressing the state’s congressional delegation for more funding to address revenue losses incurred due to the economic downturn brought by COVID-19.

Texas received $11 billion in funds from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, which were distributed among the state, counties and cities. Some Texas mayors said these have to be spent before the end of the year and for expenditures related to the pandemic response — and don’t address government entities’ losses in anticipated revenues related to decreased economic activity. Others said there’s been conflicting information about how the money can be spent.

Since March, the economic slowdown has directly hit cities’ revenues. According to the state comptroller, local sales tax allocations for cities in June dropped by 11.1% compared with the same month last year.

“The budget calamity looming over local governments is real and it requires extraordinary measures,” said a letter signed by 97 Texas mayors and directed to members of Congress. “We therefore fear that state and local revenue is going to take time to rebound. We also fear that if we do not stabilize our economy, we could see a drop in property tax revenue next year.”

In the letter, which included signatures of leaders from urban, suburban and rural areas, the mayors asked for “direct and flexible fiscal assistance to all cities.”

“What we’re asking [is] for direct assistance for state and local governments. Not for things like pension measures, none of that, but as a result of lost revenue as a result of coronavirus itself,” Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said at a press conference Monday. “We are the infrastructure that supports the public and private sector, and at this point in time, we are needing direct assistance.”

We’ve known this for awhile, and the need is still there even if the city of Houston was able to kick the can down the road with this year’s budget and existing CARES funds. The simple fact is that cities – and counties, and the state, and to a lesser extend school districts – didn’t do anything to cause the problems they’re facing now. The analogy that some have made to a natural disaster is apt, and the effect will long outlive the original cause of the problem if it isn’t addressed. The US House passed a large bill a couple of months ago that would address these needs, but of course it has to get through the Senate, and you know what that means. If we had a functional state government, it would be advocating on behalf of the cities as well, because the loss of many thousands of municipal jobs will not do anything to help the state’s economic recovery. Our state leaders don’t see it that way, unfortunately, so the cities are on their own. It doesn’t have to be this way.

On a tangential note, the Slate podcast “What Next: TBD” did a segment on this very topic last Friday, and spoke to City Controller Chris Brown as part of their reporting. Check it out.

Federal judge rules GOP can have its in person convention

Unbelievable.

A federal judge on Friday ruled that Mayor Sylvester Turner and Houston First Corp. must allow the Texas Republican Party to proceed with an in-person convention at the George R. Brown Convention Center, though the party now only intends to use the facility as a backup option.

Judge Lynn Hughes of the Southern District of Texas found the city had infringed upon the Texas GOP’s constitutional rights by canceling the convention, which initially was set to run from Thursday through Saturday before Turner ordered Houston First, the city’s convention agency, to nix it.

Hughes gave the party the option of using the convention center this weekend and next, according to Jared Woodfill, an attorney for Houston conservative activist Steve Hotze, who initially filed the lawsuit with a handful of other plaintiffs.

The party began its convention online Thursday but encountered numerous technical difficulties, forcing officials to postpone the event until Saturday. The party joined Hotze’s lawsuit Friday “to provide a last-resort method in-person if we needed it to secure our national election obligations,” Chairman James Dickey said in a statement following Hughes’ ruling. He said the party still “is on track to hold its convention online.”

Party officials will elect their party chair and select delegates for the national Republican convention at the state convention.

“Our online convention provides the greatest opportunity for as many delegates who want to participate in the convention as possible,” Dickey said. “We learned a hard lesson yesterday and with this win today, if for any reason there is an issue tomorrow, we know that we have a single location where, with the necessary SREC authorizations, we could” elect delegates to the national convention.

Turner in a statement blasted the party for its legal efforts to proceed with the convention, and said the city and Houston First would appeal upon receiving a written order from Hughes.

“We are in the midst of a pandemic, a public health crisis. More people are being admitted to our hospitals and ICUs, and more people are dying,” Turner said. “The State Republican Executive Committee is being totally irresponsible in continuing to push for an indoor, in-person convention. This reflects a total disregard for the health and safety of employees and people in our city.”

[…]

Hughes, in granting the Texas GOP an injunction that bars Turner from canceling the event, agreed with the argument by Hotze and the party that Turner’s move to cancel the convention “at the last minute” deprived party members “of their right to express their political beliefs, and make core political determinations,” a right protected by the First Amendment.

In a court filing Friday, Woodfill wrote that the party “has attempted a virtual convention and found that it is an unworkable platform.”

“Accordingly, the Republican Party of Texas has no choice but to seek relief from the Court to allow the Republican Party of Texas to prepare for the upcoming election season,” Woodfill wrote.

See here and here for some background. The plaintiffs knew which judge to pick, you have to give them credit for that. The judge bought the argument that the late cancellation of the convention, which came after they had considered but rejected changing to an online convention, which Mayor Turner begged them to reconsider, plus the GOP’s complete inability to get Zoom to work, meant that their rights were being infringed. Putting it another way:

The city and Houston First will appeal, so we’ll see what happens. Even on the Republican side, this was a bit controversial:

Before Friday’s ruling, Texas GOP Chairman James Dickey said the party was still working toward resuming the virtual convention Saturday.

“Today we have been hard at work for hours already on Plan A and Plan B and Plan C,” Dickey said during an interview with Texas Values. “We are going to make sure that we can move forward with our convention virtually tomorrow.”

[…]

Dickey’s chairmanship is on the line at the convention, where he faces a serious challenge from Allen West, the former Florida congressman. The election is tentatively scheduled for Sunday.

West has mostly stayed out of the debate over holding the convention in person, though he has increasingly questioned Dickey over the voting technology for the virtual meeting. And earlier Friday, West’s team seemed to reach a boiling point when word got out that the party was making a last-ditch legal push to join Hotze’s lawsuit.

“It is beyond belief that Chairman Dickey and the RPT allowed a foreseeable catastrophic failure such as this to unfold,” West lawyer Clyde Siebman wrote in a letter to Dickey. “Colonel West grew to doubt that it was by mere negligence but continued to give fellow Republicans the benefit of the doubt — until today.”

The party’s 11th-hour participation in the lawsuit “proves an intent to disenfranchise large blocks of grassroot Republicans across Texas,” Siebman added.

I don’t know what’s going to happen at this point, but my advice is to avoid downtown until this is over. And pray for those workers whose lives are being put in danger.

Give reformers a seat at the police collective bargaining table

This is a clear path forward.

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

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

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

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

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

In Houston, that negotiating table is behind closed doors.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is it time to step back?

It’s not a question of whether we want to do this, it’s whether we need to.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Houston leaders are calling for another two-week shutdown as dozens of Army personnel are set to arrive Monday to help fight a virus that continues to set record hospitalizations and deaths in the Texas Medical Center.

Mayor Sylvester Turner said it’s time for the city of Houston to “step back,” as regional cases rose to 63,864 on Sunday — up 1,596 from the day before. There have been 646 deaths in the Houston area. Positive results are coming back for about 16 percent of Texas test-takers.

“Let’s look at the numbers, look at the data, see where things are,” Turner said over the weekend. “And then gradually, move forward again.”

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo advocated an immediate stay-home order.

“We need to stick with it this time until the hospitalization curve comes down, not just flattens,” she tweeted Sunday. “Many communities that persevered in that way are reopening for the long haul. Let’s learn from that & not make the same mistake twice.”

[…]

While Hidalgo issued a stay-at-home order in March, Abbott has since taken over decisions on whether to open or close businesses and has refused to allow local officials to make decisions on the matter. Hidalgo’s office has unsuccessfully petitioned the governor for power to issue more restrictions as COVID-19 hospitalizations spiked.

But on Friday afternoon, Abbott, too, said that he could consider expanding which nonessential businesses would shut down should the pandemic continue to worsen.

“If we do not slow the spread of COVID-19 … the next step would have to be a lockdown,” the governor told KLBK-TV in Lubbock.

Let’s be clear, nobody wants to do this. It will be devastating to the businesses that have been able to reopen (whether they should have been allowed to or not), and people will lose jobs as a result at a time when extended unemployment benefits and other fiscal stimulus to help people tide themselves over are being held hostage by the Republicans. The problem is that we are at the point that we thought we’d been able to avoid when we shut down the first time, with the death rate spiking and the hospitals overloaded. There may be no other way to try to slow this thing down, short of building a time machine and going two months in the past to force Greg Abbott to allow local face mask orders and a more deliberate reopening strategy. But here we are, and unless there’s a sudden flattening or downward trend in the numbers real soon, I don’t know what other choice there is. Say it with me now: This didn’t have to happen. It’s Greg Abbott’s fault that it did happen.

State Supreme Court denies GOP effort to force convention to happen

Denied.

The Texas Supreme Court on Monday rejected the state Republican Party’s appeal of a lower court’s decision regarding its in-person Houston convention, all but ensuring that Mayor Sylvester Turner’s move to cancel the event will stand.

In an unsigned “per curiam” opinion, the court ruled that while the Texas GOP has the constitutional right to hold a convention, “those rights do not allow it to simply commandeer use” of the George R. Brown Convention Center, where the event was set to take place Thursday through Saturday.

“Houston First’s only duty to allow the party use of the center for its convention is under the terms of the parties’ agreement, not a constitution,” the opinion stated.

[…]

The Supreme Court also rejected a petition for a writ of mandamus — a court order requiring the city to reverse the cancellation — from Steve Hotze, a Houston Republican activist who challenged the convention cancellation along with three other plaintiffs.

Justice John Devine filed the lone dissenting opinion, arguing that the court had standing to rule on the Texas GOP’s case and that Houston First breached its contract with the party by canceling. Devine also dissented from the court’s decision to deny Hotze’s petition.

Meanwhile, Justice Jeff Boyd decided not to participate in the decision. He is one of four justices whom the Texas Democratic Party called on to recuse from the case, due to their sponsorship of the convention. The other three justices — Chief Justice Nathan Hecht and Justices Jane Bland and Brett Busby — opted not to recuse themselves.

See here, here, and here for the background. The ruling was more or less along the lines of that AG brief that supported the city’s position, that this was a matter of contract law, not election law. This was a writ of mandamus, asking for a quick ruling from SCOTX without waiting for the district court to issue a judgment. The denial of the writ means that the case goes back to the district court, but since this shindig was supposed to start on Friday – indeed, some preliminaries are already underway, presumably in virtual fashion – there ain’t much time for that. For their sake, I sure hope the RPT has its contingency plans for an online convention ready to go. You know, like the TDP had for its convention back in March. Mayor Turner’s statement is herer, and the Trib, the Press, and the DMN have more.

UPDATE: It’s official, the GOP will have a virtual convention. Here’s the updated Chron story.

AG sides with Mayor Turner in GOP convention litigation

But only in a limited and technical way, so cool your jets.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

The Texas Attorney General’s Office on Saturday sided with Mayor Sylvester Turner in a legal dispute over the state Republican Party’s in-person convention, arguing that the Texas Supreme Court should reject the party’s attempt to proceed with the event.

In a brief filed with the Supreme Court, Solicitor General Kyle Hawkins — the state’s top appellate lawyer — said that despite the party’s “troubling factual allegations,” the court should deny its petition for failing to “properly invoke [the court’s] mandamus authority.”

The legal proceedings began earlier this week after Turner ordered Houston First Corp., the city nonprofit that manages the convention site, to cancel the event over concerns about the COVID-19 pandemic. The Republican Party sued Turner and Houston First, but a Harris County judge denied the party’s request for a temporary restraining order that would have blocked Turner from canceling the event. The party then filed a petition for a writ of mandamus with the Texas Supreme Court.

In its petition, the party invoked a section of Texas’ election code that allows the court to issue orders that “compel the performance of any duty imposed by law in connection with the holding of an election or a political party convention.” In his brief, Hawkins argued that the party’s convention contract with Houston First does not apply, because the convention was to be held under a contract, not a law.

Prior Supreme Court rulings have “distinguished ‘a duty created under [a] contract’ as legally distinct from ‘a duty imposed by law,’” Hawkins wrote.

See here for the background, and here for a copy of the AG’s brief. A copy of the original writ is here. As the story notes, the AG similarly opposed Steven Hotze’s petition on the matter, arguing Hotze has no business in this matter. The Court also has the matter of the motion for four of them to recuse themselves to sort out. I presume that has to happen first, since we have to have the question of who is ruling on the write of mandamus settled before the ruling can happen. Gonna be a busy couple of days at the SCOTX. Oh, and Paxton also opposed Hotze’s petition for a TRO against Judge Hidalgo’s latest face mask order, on the grounds that Hotze’s multiple challenges to the Texas Disaster Act may cause “irreparable harm” to the state’s sovreignty. I presume there will be a similar filing against Hotze’s lawsuit challenging Abbott’s face mask order, too. And yes, the correct response to all this is exasperation and exhaustion.

Dems ask some Supreme Court justices to recuse themselves from convention appeal

Stay with me here, this will all make sense.

The Texas Democratic Party on Friday called for four of the state’s nine Supreme Court justices to recuse themselves from a case involving the Texas Republican Party’s in-person convention, claiming each had a conflict of interest.

The campaigns of Chief Justice Nathan Hecht and Justices Jane Bland, Jeffrey Boyd and Brett Busby each sponsored the convention, according to an archived list of sponsors that since has been removed from the Texas GOP’s website.

[…]

Texas GOP officials are seeking a writ of mandamus from the court that would block Turner from canceling the convention, a day after a Harris County judge denied the party’s attempt to do so in state district court.

Democratic Party Chairman Gilberto Hinojosa said the four justices, each of whom is up for re-election in November, are “faced with an obligation to do the right thing and choose the law over political allegiance.”

“A justice who funds a dangerous convention should not judicially decide the fate of that same convention,” Hinojosa said in a statement. “All four have interests in the case coming before them and all four should recuse.”

See here for the background. The allegation is that by sponsoring the convention and being on the November ballot, these judges have a conflict of interest. A press release from the TDP provided the following justification for the petition:

Canon 3(B)(1) of the Texas Code of Judicial Conduct provides that Texas judges “shall hear and decide matters assigned to the judge except those in which disqualification is required or recusal is appropriate.”

Texas Rule of Civil Procedure 18(b) requires a judge to recuse themself from a case when “(1) the judge’s impartiality might reasonably be questioned” or “(2) the judge has a personal bias or prejudice concerning the subject matter or a party.”

I’m not qualified to assess this claim, but I will note that if the four Justices do recuse themselves, there’s still enough justices left to issue a ruling, and since all nine are Republicans it doesn’t change the dynamic. Given the compressed timeline for this litigation, I presume we’ll get an answer quickly.

GOP sues over cancelled convention

As the night follows the day.

The Texas Republican Party on Thursday sued Mayor Sylvester Turner and Houston First Corp. for canceling the party’s in-person convention that was scheduled for next week in downtown Houston.

The lawsuit, filed in Harris County state district court, alleges that Turner erred when he invoked a “force majeure” clause of the contract between the Texas GOP and Houston First, the city’s public nonprofit that operates the George R. Brown Convention Center. The Republican Party also is suing Houston First President Brenda Bazan and the city of Houston.

Turner, who ordered Houston First to cancel the convention on Wednesday, said the clause allows one side to cancel over something that is out of its control, including “epidemics in the City of Houston.” In its petition filed Thursday, the GOP said Turner simply does not want to hold the convention, thus failing to meet the force majeure standard.

“Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner’s use of the force majeure clause is just a pretext to his intent to treat the Republican Party of Texas differently than other groups, such as those we have seen from recent protests in the city of Houston,” the party said in a statement Thursday. “It should go without saying that a political viewpoint cannot be the basis for unequal treatment.”

Turner said he called off the convention based on concerns about Houston’s recent COVID-19 surge and input from various medical professionals. A spokeswoman for the mayor said he would address the lawsuit at a 3 p.m. news conference.

In the lawsuit, Texas Republican Party officials are seeking a temporary restraining order that would allow the convention to continue as planned and damages due to Turner’s “anticipatory breach of contract,” including the cost of all losses and the “increased costs of handling the Convention elsewhere.”

The party argued that Turner and Houston First violated the “equal rights clause” of the Texas Constitution, and that Gov. Greg Abbott stripped Turner’s power to cancel the convention in one of his COVID-19 executive orders.

See here for the background, and here for a copy of the lawsuit. I’d love to hear from any of the attorneys out there about the merits of this one. I can’t remember where I saw this now – probably Twitter, my brain is mush – but Jared Woodfill (who is of course the plaintiffs’ attorney for this, along with fellow genius Briscoe Cain) said he was going to try to get a hearing today and secure a temporary block on the cancellation. I can imagine that happening, at least long enough for a judge to make a preliminary ruling. (UPDATE: Per a press release from the Texas GOP received at 7:30, they were indeed denied a motion to block the cancellation. They will appeal directly to the Supreme Court. Stay tuned.) Beyond that, who knows? Insert giant shrug emoji here. Texas Lawyer and the Trib have more.

UPDATE: Jasper Scherer tweets about the TRO denial. Apparently, there’s a second lawsuit as well, by Steven Hotze, because of course there is. Both motions were denied.

UPDATE: An updated Chron story, with more details on the TRO denials. Also, too, this:

The mayor also encouraged party officials to move their convention to Montgomery County, where County Judge Mark Keough offered to host the event and vowed “there will be no last-minute changes.”

“I think Judge Keough in Montgomery County is more than happy to host the 6,000 delegates (there),” Turner said. “I think they should go to Montgomery County.”

Seems like a match made in heaven to me.

A new homelessness initiative

Good.

Harris County Commissioners Court voted unanimously on Tuesday to authorize $18 million for a two-year program serving the homeless as advocates project a rise in homelessness with the novel coronavirus.

The program is the county’s most ambitious partnership with the City of Houston for people experiencing homelessness, with $29 million to be pledged by the city and an additional $9 million or more from private donors. The city and county’s dollars come from federal money allocated through the CARES Act.

While the city and county have collaborated on homeless initiatives in the past, this is their biggest joint investment yet.

“With the current COVID-19 crisis putting so many people’s living situations at an increased risk, having access to stable housing options is vital for the entire community,” Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia said in a press release. Garcia brought the funding request to the county court. In commissioners court, Garica said, “This will have the most significant impact on the camps we see.”

Not only are people experiencing homelessness more vulnerable to coronavirus because of preexisting chronic conditions and a lack of even basic hygiene options, they are at higher risk of spreading it to others because people living on the streets have nowhere to self-quarantine.

“Housing is healthier for people experiencing homelessness during the coronavirus,” said Catherine Villarreal, communications director for the Coalition for the Homeless. The Coalition will be administering the programs. “People experiencing homelessness are uniquely vulnerable to coronavirus because of chronic conditions.”

The Coalition hopes that the programs can begin by mid-August and will roll out in stages pending city and county funding and contract approvals, said Ana Rausch, vice president of operations for the Coalition for the Homeless.

The initiative will provide rental assistance for about 1,700 newly homeless people who don’t need much case management, house about 1,000 people experiencing homelessness, support about 200 people at risk of homelessness, provide more mental-health case management and begin a homelessness diversion program. The Coalition projects the program will help about 5,000 people.

The best evidence we have now says that the most effective way to ameliorate homelessness is to provide housing or housing assistance to the people who need it. Other services may be needed for people with addition or mental health issues (by the way, expanding Medicaid would help a lot with those, too), and it turns out that having a stable place to sleep and eat and keep clothes and other possessions makes addressing those issues a lot easier, too. It seems to me that the main objection to providing this kind of direct aid is that it’s some kind of moral hazard, as in “well, if we help SOME people then we have to help EVERYONE, and if we do that then who’s ever gonna want to do for themselves” or some such. Putting aside the fact that such sentiments are facially untrue, if there’s one thing we should be learning from the coronavirus pandemic it’s that everyone does in fact deserve help. Hard times can come for any of us, at any time, without warning and without it being anyone’s “fault”. I want to live in a society that recognizes this truth, because the next person who needs it could be me or someone I love. Imagine how much more progress we could make on controlling this pandemic if everyone whose business or employment is threatened by it knew they would be tided over until it passed. Maybe now that we’re starting to take this kind of action, we’ll recognize the need to continue it after the current crisis has passed. Houston Public Media has more.

City cancels Republican convention

Game on.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner announced on Wednesday that the city has canceled the Texas Republican Party’s in-person state convention in downtown Houston next week.

Houston First, the public nonprofit that serves as the city’s convention arm, sent a letter to the party’s executive committee notifying it that the convention has been canceled.

The letter triggers a part of the contract called a “force majeure” clause, which allows one side to cancel for an occurrence out of its control. The definition included “epidemics in the City of Houston,” according to the Houston First letter.

Earlier Wednesday, Texas Republican Party officials said they were preparing for a legal fight after Turner said the Houston First and the city attorney’s office would review its contract with the party for using the George R. Brown Convention Center for the convention July 16-18.

Turner said he sought the review after Dr. David Persse, the city’s health authority, called the planned convention “a clear and present danger.”

The mayor had been hesitant to leverage his authority to cancel the convention out of fear of politicizing it, and he repeatedly had asked the party to meet virtually instead. He said Wednesday’s decision was prompted by rising numbers and an alarming letter from Persse, who reports to the mayor, outlining the danger of moving forward.

“It is a letter that as the mayor of Houston, that I simply cannot ignore or overlook,” Turner said. “The plan is to exercise those provisions, to cancel this agreement today, to not go forward with this convention.”

Persse’s letter called the spike in Houston an “unparalleled and frightening escalation” since Memorial Day.

“Now, COVID-19 infections are three times greater than they were at the peak experienced earlier this spring,” Persse wrote to Turner and Brenda Bazan, the president of Houston First. “Houston is now among the the national epicenters of the current COVID-19 outbreaks.”

See here and here for the background, and here for the announcement on Twitter. Before anyone gets their Hot Take machines fired up, please note that Greg Abbott and Dan Patrick were going to give their speeches via video, because they apparently had better things to do than bathe in a viral stew for three days. The RPT says they are reviewing their legal options, and I’d bet a year’s supply of N95 masks that someone will file a lawsuit over this. The real question is whether they’ll be able to get an expedited hearing, something the TDP was not able to get from SCOTUS with their vote-by-mail lawsuit. Priorities, you know. Anyway, Republicans should look on the bright side, because they just got something they surely prefer to a dumb convention, namely the chance to play the victim at the hands of a mean old Democrat. All that and a lower chance of death by ventilator – it’s a total win-win. The Trib, the Chron editorial board, and the Press have more.

UPDATE: Right on schedule:

We’ll see if they try for a quick ruling that disallows the cancellation. My head is spinning already.

GOP declines Turner’s invitation to cancel their convention

The ball is back in your court, Mr. Mayor.

The Texas Republican Party is proceeding with an in-person convention next week in downtown Houston, a rejection of Mayor Sylvester Turner’s formal request Monday to move the event online amid a local escalation of the COVID-19 pandemic.

James Dickey, chairman of the Texas GOP, in a statement Tuesday said the party has been “proactive in implementing safety measures” and had “extensive conversations” with Houston First, the public nonprofit that serves as the city’s convention arm and operates the George R. Brown Convention Center. The convention is set to take place there from July 16 to 18.

“With these precautions currently in place, the Republican Party of Texas intends to proceed with an in-person convention next week in Houston,” Dickey said.

The chairman also responded to the list of conditions Turner, a Democrat, said the GOP would need to follow if it holds the convention. Those guidelines include denying entry to anyone who has tested positive for COVID or come in contact with a COVID patient between July 2 and July 15, requiring attendees to wear masks, and providing touchless hand sanitizing stations throughout the convention center.

“Mayor Turner must not have had the information about the measures being voluntarily implemented,” Dickey said. “The Republican Party, delegates, and guests are looking forward to a safe and productive Convention next week.”

Turner said he was “incredulous” that the GOP is moving ahead with an in-person convention, and reiterated that health department officials would shut down the event if they find people are not following COVID-19 guidelines.

See here for the background. For what it’s worth, the Greater Houston Partnership has also implored the GOP to cancel the in person convention.

The Greater Houston Partnership has called on the Texas GOP, along with state and local officials, to cancel the in-person Texas Republican Convention in downtown Houston next week.

Citing the health and safety of event-goers, staff and volunteers, the group of Houston business leaders said an indoor event as large as the convention — which is expected to draw thousands of people — would be unsafe.

In a letter sent Tuesday afternoon to Gov. Greg Abbott, Mayor Sylvester Turner, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo, and state GOP Chairman James Dickey, the GHP asked “those with the authority to cancel” the event to do so.

“In normal times we would welcome an event that was expected to draw some 6,000 delegates from across Texas to the George R. Brown Convention Center,” the letter read. “Unfortunately, these are not normal times.”

You can click over to see their letter. Of course, the modern Republican Party of Texas doesn’t really represent business interests any more (see: the bathroom bill, for one), so I would not expect this to have any effect. But at least you know, it’s more than just Mayor Turner versus the state GOP.

The one person who could (maybe) put an end to this is Greg Abbott, but I think we all know that ain’t gonna happen. So for now we have this game of chicken, and we hope there’s no significant collateral damage. And if it does come down to the city health department, well, there’s this:

Those “face mask legal exemption” cards are complete BS, in case you were wondering. Not that anyone who has printed out one of those cards for themselves will believe that, of course. If there’s a better definition of “shit show” right now, I don’t want to know what it is.

Mayor Turner asks GOP to not hold its convention

Good luck with that.

The city of Houston will deploy health inspectors to enforce COVID-19 restrictions at the Texas Republican Convention, and potentially shut down the event if guidelines aren’t followed, Mayor Sylvester Turner said Monday.

In a letter to Texas GOP executive director Kyle Whatley, Turner on Monday laid out a series of conditions the party would have to follow if it proceeds with an in-person convention at the George R. Brown Convention Center from July 16 to 18. The guidelines are aimed at limiting the transmission of COVID when an anticipated 6,000 people descend on the convention center.

Those conditions, according to Turner’s office, include denying entry to anyone who has tested positive for COVID or come in contact with a COVID patient between July 2 and July 15, requiring attendees to wear masks, and providing touchless hand sanitizing stations throughout the convention center.

Party officials also must limit attendance and seating capacity “or host smaller events in larger rooms,” and modify room layouts to “promote social distance of at least 6 feet.” The mayor’s letter did not include a specific cap on how many people can attend the convention.

Turner also said he is “strongly encouraging” the Texas GOP to call off the in-person convention, which he said is the only conference or convention in Houston that has not been canceled or rescheduled for next year.

“I believe canceling the in-person convention is the responsible action to take while we are in a critical moment in our battle against the COVID-19 pandemic,” Turner said. “I’ve not yet talked to a medical professional who has said that this is a good idea to hold this convention at this time.”

Echoing Turner’s message, Houston public health authority David Persse said “the wise, prudent thing to do would be for the Texas GOP to reconsider their position” to hold the event in person.

See here for the background, and here for a thread from the official Twitter account of the Mayor’s office that makes things a bit more explicit. I have a hard time believing that the health department will actually step in and order the convention closed because it would be one hell of a political bombshell to do that, but it’s not out of the question. The Trib adds some details.

According to the Houston Chronicle, Turner recently removed language from an executive order and effectively took away his own authority to cancel the convention.

Turner also called on event sponsors to push the party to move the event online, tweeting that all other conferences had already been rescheduled or canceled for the rest of the year. The Texas Medical Association, the state’s largest medical group, has called on the party to follow suit and withdrew as a convention advertiser.

“With or without masks, an indoor gathering of thousands of people from all around the state in a city with tens of thousands of active COVID-19 cases poses a significant health risk to conventiongoers, convention workers, health care workers, and the residents of Houston,” Dr. Diana Fite, TMA’s president, said in a statement.

Meanwhile, various other indoor conventions across the state have recently been canceled or moved online. The Texas High School Coaches Association announced Monday it is canceling its in-person, indoor convention scheduled for July 19 to 21 in San Antonio. The THSCA conference was expected to draw 5,000 attendees who would not have been required to wear face masks, according to the association’s rules.

“It was a tough call to make but in our efforts to support the preventative protocols set forth by our Texas school administrators, the UIL [University Interscholastic League] Executive Staff and governing authorities at both state and local levels, we are choosing to prioritize health and safety first,” the THSCA wrote in a press release.

The Texas Girls Coaches Association also canceled their convention for this week. The state GOP really is alone in their push to gather thousands of people into an interior space like this. I don’t fully understand why Mayor Turner amended his executive order removing his own authority to shut down a gathering like this convention, but my guess would be he was advised it would put the city in a precarious legal position to do so – basically, we’d get our butts sued for it and probably lose. Certainly, in every possible way, the cleanest solution here is for the GOP to decide on its own to cancel and hold their convention online instead. I don’t have any reason to think they’ll do that, but I’ll be happy to be proven wrong.

Criticizing the HPD narcotics audit

It’s good that it was finally released, but that doesn’t mean that all questions have been answered by it.

Rep. Gene Wu

Standing outside the small house where Houston police officers conducted a raid that killed two and grievously wounded their department’s reputation, Gene Wu clasped the audit he’d been asking about for months and labeled it a scam.

Wu and other state lawmakers on Thursday criticized the internal audit of the Narcotics Division, calling it a “whitewash” and vowing to propose legislation to prevent government agencies from blocking the release of internal audits or similar documents in the future.

Also at the news conference were lawyers representing relatives of Dennis Tuttle and Rhogena Nicholas, the couple who lived at 7815 Harding St. and were killed in the raid. Gerald Goines, the officer who led the operation, was later accused of lying about the drug buy that led to the operation and is charged with felony murder and other crimes. His former partner, Steven Bryant, faces charges of tampering with a government record.

The raid could have happened only in an environment of “pervasive, longstanding custom and practice of illegal activity that was known and condoned at the highest level,” said Boyd Smith, one of the attorneys. “And this report doesn’t address that critical issue.”

[…]

The auditors — former Assistant Chief Pete Lopez, seven sergeants and one police officer — looked at the Narcotics Division’s street-level drug suppression squads. They found widespread sloppiness and lax supervision: unauthorized informant payments. Missing case review sheets. Incomplete offense reports. Hundreds of other administrative errors by undercover narcotics officers.

Most of the information authorities released previously centered on misconduct by Goines and Bryant, but auditors examined three years of casework of the two former Squad 15 officers, and probed casework of approximately 70 other undercover officers in squads 9, 10, 14 and 15. There are approximately 175 officers in the Narcotics Division.

Though they found policy violations and “numerous errors” related to confidential informant payments, they said they could not make conclusions about illegal activity without the ability to interview confidential informants or witnesses.

[…]

Patrick O’Burke, a former deputy commander at the Texas Department of Public Safety who oversaw drug law enforcement, said the audit is a “significant effort” but fails to identify the reasons for the sloppiness it uncovered.

“This report does not provide key findings that show how such problems will be limited or reduced in the future,” said O’Burke, tasked with overhauling Texas’ drug task forces after a racist drug arrest scandal in the 1990s in Tulia.

See here and here for the background. The point I would make is that the purpose of an audit like this is not just to document what happened, but also to provide a plan of action to remediate what went wrong. Where I work, if your department or project fails to get a sufficient grade on an audit – and we routinely perform audits on pretty much everything, not just on things that went wrong – you can’t go forward until you address the issues that the auditors cited. In this case, not only is the audit incomplete since key participants and stakeholders were not included, there’s no action plan. What is HPD going to do about this? How are they going to fix the problems that were identified, and put in processes and checks and safeguards and whatever else to ensure they never happen again? Note that “completely shutting down all activity related to this” is a viable path forward and should be considered as an option. What is HPD going to do? We need to know.

The lack of testing is becoming a more serious problem

It was already serious. Now it’s extra serious.

As the new coronavirus continues to spread in Texas, leaders of some of the state’s biggest cities said Monday that their testing sites were being strained, forcing them to turn away people in the middle of the day or limit who is eligible to take a test.

In Travis County, interim County Judge Sam Biscoe said the county’s public testing is being rationed to only people with symptoms. Previously, local leaders had encouraged anyone to get tested, including asymptomatic people and people that had come into contact with COVID-19 patients.

“The rapid increase in cases has outstripped our ability to track, measure, and mitigate the spread of the disease,” Biscoe wrote in a letter to Gov. Greg Abbott asking to allow metropolitan areas to issue their own stay-at-home orders.

The largest laboratory analyzing tests is also strained, Biscoe said, to the point that the county has decided to prioritize cases from severely ill patients in hospitals. Residents in Travis County who don’t show symptoms still have other options, like private facilities, to get tested.

In Houston, Mayor Sylvester Turner said his city’s two public testing sites, where testing is still available to people who are symptomatic or asymptomatic, reached their maximum capacities before noon.

“The capacity on those sites will be increased from 500 [daily tests] to 650 each,” Turner said. “It is clear that there is a demand out there, and we need to ramp up as best as we can to meet that demand.”

Meanwhile, the two community-based testing sites in the city of Dallas are reaching their capacity “by noon or early afternoon daily,” according to city spokesperson Roxana Rubio. In these sites, testing is restricted to symptomatic patients, high-risk people, first responders, essential workers and asymptomatic patients who have engaged in large group settings.

The obvious problem here is that if you think you need a test but can’t get one, you have the choice of self-quarantine and hope for the best, or keep on keeping on, and hope you’re not the 2020 equivalent of Typhoid Mary. If everyone could reliably get a test and get their results in a reasonable amount of time, people would be much freer to move around, and maybe even socialize with other people who can confidently state that they are safe. Indeed, if we could do this at scale, we could do much more targeted quarantining, and thus let larger portions of society open up safely. Wouldn’t that have been nice? Other countries have managed to do it. Just not this one. SIt with that for awhile.

Meantime, in Houston, the spread of this disease is having a bad effect on crime.

With more than 10 percent of its workforce out due to COVID-19, the Houston Forensic Science Center is dangerously close to having to limit its responses to crime scenes, the agency’s director said Monday.

Of 200 total staff, 10 have tested positive for the novel coronavirus, said Dr. Peter Stout, CEO and president of the agency, which manages Houston Police Department’s forensic laboratory and crime scene unit. Another 12 are self-quarantining while they await test results. None of the exposures appear to have been transmitted through their work, Stout said.

Stout said he’s “very worried” because about one-fourth of the agency’s team dedicated to crime scene investigation is out of commission due to COVID-19. He’s concerned what that might mean for the center’s ability to collect evidence at murders, police-involved shootings and child deaths.

“We’re precariously close to having to shift around so we can have any capacity to make scenes that come up,” said Stout.

[…]

Delays in collecting evidence could mean further backlogs in criminal cases, prosecutors said.

“The pandemic is stretching the criminal justice system thin, causing backlogs up and down the system,” said Michael Kolenc, a spokesperson for the Harris County District Attorney’s Office. “We will address any impact on a case by case basis.”

The center was already severely understaffed for a city the size of Houston before the pandemic, Stout said. There are usually 27 people working in the CSI unit. In cities like Dallas and Austin, the standard is around 100 crime scene investigators, Stout added.

“It’s not even close to the right magnitude of what we should have,” said Stout. “Especially this year, with the escalation in homicides, we were in a real pinch with the crime scene unit already.”

The unit is now only able to travel to scenes of homicides, officer-involved shootings, deaths of children and around 1 percent of aggravated assaults reported in the city, said Stout.

“It’s a serious issue,” Stout said.

Sure sounds like one. Maybe we’ll do a better job with the next pandemic.

Hey, how about trying that local control thing again?

Seems like it might be worth a shot to led Mayors and County Judges lead on coronavirus response again, since they’ve done so much better a job of leading than Greg Abbott has.

As Texas grapples with soaring coronavirus cases and hospitalizations, local elected officials in some of the state’s most populous counties are asking Gov. Greg Abbott to roll back business reopenings and allow them to reinstate stay-at-home orders for their communities in an effort to curb the spread of the virus.

Officials in Harris, Bexar, Dallas and Travis counties have either called on or reached out to the governor in recent days, expressing a desire to implement local restrictions for their regions and, in some cases, stressing concerns over hospital capacity.

Stay-at-home orders, which generally direct businesses deemed nonessential to shut down, were implemented to varying degrees by local governments across the state in March before the governor issued a statewide directive at the beginning of April. Abbott’s stay-at-home order expired at the end of April, when he began announcing phased reopenings to the state and forcing local governments to follow his lead. Since then, a number of local officials, many of whom have been critical of Abbott’s reopening timeline, have argued that the jurisdiction to reinstate such directives is no longer in their hands.

“If you are not willing to take these actions on behalf of the state, please roll back your restriction on local leaders being able to take these swift actions to safeguard the health of our communities,” Sam Biscoe, interim Travis County judge, wrote in a letter to Abbott on Monday.

Biscoe asked Abbott “to roll all the way back to Stay Home orders based on worsening circumstances,” further cap business occupancy, mandate masks and ban gatherings of 10 or more people.

Officials in Bexar County also wrote a similar letter to the governor Monday, writing that “the ability to tailor a response and recovery that fits the San Antonio region’s need is vital as we look forward to a healthier future.”

“Our region’s hospital capacity issues and economic circumstances require stronger protocols to contain the spread of this disease,” Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff and San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg wrote. The two asked Abbott to “restore the ability for the City of San Antonio to take additional local preventative measures, including potential Stay Home/Work Safe restrictions.” They also asked the governor to mandate face coverings when outside a household and “clearer language that strictly limits social gatherings,” among other things.

[…]

Meanwhile, counties and cities across the state have implemented face mask requirements for businesses after Wolff, the Bexar County judge, moved to do so without facing opposition from Abbott. The governor had previously issued an executive order banning local governments from imposing fines or penalties on people who chose not to wear a face mask in public.

Local leaders have also voiced concerns about the testing capacity of large cities. In Travis County, Biscoe explained that because of the “rapidly increasing demand,” they are rationing testing only for people with symptoms. The stress on the system is also making contact tracing efforts more difficult.

“In summary, the rapid increase in cases has outstripped our ability to track, measure, and mitigate the spread of the disease,” Biscoe wrote.

Here’s the Chron story; Mayor Turner has joined the call for this as well. I seriously doubt Abbott will do any of this, because it will serve as an even more stark reminder of his abject failure to lead. But if the worst is still ahead of us, then it’s a choice between taking action now and making it end sooner, or denying reality and letting more people get sick and die. Abbott’s going to have to live with the consequences of his poor decision-making regardless, he may as well choose to do the right thing this time.

Of course, there may be other complications this time around.

The Texas Bar & Nightclub Alliance said it plans to sue the state of Texas over Gov. Greg Abbott’s recent order once again shutting bars across the state.

“Texas Bar and Nightclub Alliance (TBNA) is taking the necessary steps to protect the rights of our members and their employees across the state, who have been unjustly singled out by Governor Abbott,” TBNA president Michael E. Klein said in a statement.

[…]

TBNA said its members want to be allowed to reopen and have the same capacity allowances as restaurants, grocery stores and big-box retailers. It will sue in both state and federal court seeking to override Abbott’s order.

The majority of Texas bars had been adhering to strict guidelines restricting occupancy and ensuring safe serving practices for both customers and employees, TBNA’s Klein said. His take: if restaurants with bar rooms can operate at limited capacity, why can’t actual bars?

“To suggest the public welfare is protected by singling out one specific type of alcoholic beverage license over another is without logic and does not further the aim of protecting the public from COVID,” he added.

Well, one way to cure that disparity would be to order that all of them be closed for all except to go service. We’d also need to extend that waiver that allow restaurants to sell mixed drinks to go, which I’d be fine with. While I understand where the TBNA is coming from, this is Not Helping at a bad time. But then, given how Abbott folded on enforcing his own executive order in the Shelley Luther saga, I get why they thought taking an aggressive stance might work. Eater Austin has more.

UPDATE: Looks like the TBNA has been beaten to the punch:

Hoping to block Gov. Greg Abbott’s Friday decision ordering Texas bars to close due to a rise in coronavirus cases, more than 30 bar owners filed a lawsuit Monday challenging Abbott’s emergency order.

The lawsuit, first reported by the Austin American-Statesman, was filed in Travis County District Court by Jared Woodfill, a Houston attorney who has led previous legal efforts opposing Abbott’s other shutdown orders during the pandemic.

“Why does he continue unilaterally acting like a king?” Woodfill, former chair of the Harris County Republican Party, said of Abbott in an interview. “He’s sentencing bar owners to bankruptcy.”

[…]

In the lawsuit, the bar owners argue that their rights have been “trampled” by Abbott, while “thousands of businesses are on the brink of bankruptcy.”

Abbott on Friday said it “is clear that the rise in cases is largely driven by certain types of activities, including Texans congregating in bars.”

Tee Allen Parker said she is confused. As a bar owner in East Texas, she’s allowed to walk into church or a Walmart but not permitted to host patrons at Machine Shed Bar & Grill.

“I don’t think it’s right that he’s violating our constitutional rights,” Allen Parker, the lead plaintiff in the lawsuit, said Monday in an interview. “The reason I’m speaking up is I don’t like that he can’t be consistent. You lead by example. Everything he’s said he’s walked back. And I’m disappointed in him because I was a big fan of his.”

A copy of this lawsuit is here. I’ll say again, as with all of the other COVID-related lawsuits that Jared Woodfill has had his slimy little hands in, we deserve to have serious questions asked by better people than this. As for Tee Allen Parker, I swear I am sympathetic, but no one actually has a constitutional right to operate a bar. I would suggest that the solution here that prioritizes public health while not punishing businesses like hers that would otherwise bear the cost of that priority is to get another stimulus package passed in Washington. Such a bill has already passed the House, though of course more could be done for the Tee Allen Parkers of the world if we wanted to amend it. Maybe call your Senators and urge them to ask Mitch McConnell to do something that would help? Just a thought.

Here comes the police task force

Now let’s see them do something.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who needs testing?

Not a great idea.

The Trump administration is planning to end federal support for some coronavirus testing sites across the nation at the end of the month — including seven in Texas, where confirmed cases of COVID are spiking.

An array of Texas officials from the city to the state House and Congress are urging the White House to rethink the move, warning of “catastrophic cascading consequences” of pulling federal support for testing sites, four of which are in Houston and Harris County and administer thousands of tests per day. City officials say the sites won’t close, but keeping them open without federal help will drain much-needed resources as the city works to expand testing and build a contact tracing network.

A Trump administration official said the sites are part of a “now antiquated program” the federal government is moving away from as it works to expand testing options. But Houston officials consider two of those sites — the largest in the city, administering up to 500 tests each per day — the backbone of its testing efforts.

Texas has seen a 146-percent increase in lab-confirmed COVID-19 hospitalizations since Memorial Day and Houston could soon be the country’s worst-hit city, health officials have warned.

“Now is the time to be ramping up our testing capabilities, not slowing it down,” said U.S. Rep. Sylvia Garcia, a Houston Democrat who led a letter to the heads of FEMA and Health and Human Services on Tuesday. Houston Democratic U.S. Reps. Sheila Jackson Lee, Al Green and Lizzie Fletcher also signed the letter.

Also pushing back on the plan is a group of 20 members of the Texas House and Senate representing Harris County and U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, a Republican.

[…]

The Trump administration has long planned to end federal support for the sites and transition them to state and local control. It has pushed back the plan at least once, in April, when it extended support for the sites until the end of June at the urging of local lawmakers including Houston Democrats and the state’s Republican U.S. Sens. John Cornyn and Cruz.

Officials are asking the administration to to push the deadline back to the end of August, saying ending federal support for the sites now could hinder attempts local attempts to build up contact tracing networks and other efforts to control the outbreak.

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said on Wednesday that the city will keep the testing sites open, but it will strain the city’s resources to do so. The city’s health department is working on a transition plan as officials push for the federal government to reconsider.

The federal government should be paying for this. It’s not even a question. This is not something that should be competing for city financial resources. Turn on the federal spigot, and keep it on until we don’t need testing at scale anymore. I can’t believe we are having this discussion.

Credit to Talking Points Memo for breaking the original story, which has been picked up by national media, and which apparently led to an epic meltdown by the spokesperson for HHS on a conference call with reporters. The Trib has more.

Who gets displaced by I-45?

Worth keeping in mind, the cost of expanding I-45 is more than just dollars.

The I-45 project’s toll on local property owners would be unprecedented for TxDOT in Houston, potentially relocating hundreds of families and businesses. Estimated to cost at least $7 billion, the project will rebuild I-45 from downtown Houston north to Beltway 8, and change how it connects with other downtown freeways.

That means rebuilding — by removing — pieces of Fifth Ward, the Northside, Acres Homes and Aldine. Spots south of North Main where third-generation Latino residents help neighbors work on cars in their driveway. Or Tidwell, which bustles with activity as the commercial center and is the only place within walking distance of her apartment where Shondrae McBride, 26, can get her nails done, pick up marinated carne asada and drop off her husband’s cell phone for repair across from a Pho restaurant.

“Not everybody has a car to get around,” McBride said.

Removing some of those businesses, she said, would “add hours” to her typical errands.

The latest estimates show the rebuild would impact — the catchword for any structure or dwelling directly touched by the changing road boundary — 158 houses, 433 apartments or condos, 486 public housing units, 340 businesses, five churches and two schools. The Houston Police Department would need to relocate its south central police station and the Mexican Consulate in the Museum District, adjacent to I-69, will move to a Westchase-area location.

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner has called the project “transformative” but also called on TxDOT to revise the designs north of downtown to impact fewer homes and businesses while remaining on track to start construction downtown in a matter of months. Work is slated to begin north of Interstate 10 by 2024.

When the work actually begins will depend on decisions made this year and next that some, including Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo, worry will displace a historic number of people before getting a full public review despite more than 15 years of planning. Hidalgo and others have called on TxDOT to delay final decisions, which could push back the start of construction for months as more public meetings are planned.

“Given the impacts of the COVID-19 disaster, this delay would give the county and its residents more time to engage with and offer feedback,” Hidalgo wrote in May.

TxDOT officials have said they welcome the city and county’s input, with state Transportation Commissioner Laura Ryan, of Houston, saying the goal is a project that “will work, for the most part, for as many people as possible.”

That still leaves the question of how many people will have to get out of the way.

There’s an illustration in the story that shows what the effects would be for the project as now planned. The city’s alternative would do a lot to mitigate that. The best thing you can do is take advantage of every opportunity to let your elected officials know what you do and don’t want to happen. I know there’s a lot going on, but stuff like this doesn’t go away when there’s too much to pay attention to.

Can we make it past July?

That’s when it looks like we’ll hit the peak of the pandemic here. And it could be ugly.

A surge in COVID-19 cases since Memorial Day could set the Houston area on track for a peak of 2,000 daily hospitalizations by mid-July, according to a model from a Baylor College of Medicine epidemiologist.

The region’s intensive care units would be overwhelmed by that number of patients, a nearly 50 percent increase from current levels, though thousands of general hospital beds remain available, said Dr. Chris Amos.

City of Houston Health Authority David Persse said several area hospitals already are at or over capacity, and warned that shifting patients to facilities in other cities, a common practice in natural disasters, may no longer be possible.

“The difference this time is the hurricane, if you will, is infecting the entire state,” Persse said.

With government restrictions on business and travel removed, the epidemiologist and hospital executives from the Texas Medical Center said the only hope for the Houston area to avoid that outcome is for residents to practice social distancing, wear masks and avoid unnecessary contact with others.

Too many residents, they said, appear to have mistaken the end of Harris County’s stay-at-home order as a cue to resume normal life, while the virus poses a greater threat today than it did on May 1.

“The alarming situation could be that we have rampant COVID spreading throughout our society,” Houston Methodist CEO Dr. Marc Boom said. “If we don’t take control, it takes control for us.”

See here for some background. Hey, remember that May projection from the PolicyLab at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia that was based on social distancing data? It suggested we would get up to over 2,000 hospitalizations per day, right around where we seem to be headed now. Their graph had us hitting that mark in early June, while Baylor is suggesting July. Never would have been much better than late, but here we are anyway.

Elected officials and their public health experts are grappling with the idea that Harris County may have squandered much of this spring’s success in slowing the growth of the virus during the six-week stay-home period.

The shutdown dealt severe damage to the economy, including half a million lost jobs. Since Gov. Greg Abbott began reopening the state in May, however, the Houston area has set new records for cases and hospitalizations.

“All of the good work that we did, shutting down, closing conferences and conventions … we’re wiping away the success that we collectively achieved, and the sacrifices that people made in March, April and in May,” Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said.

The mayor lamented that local officials have had little authority to issue restrictions since Abbott has implemented his phased reopening plan, and urged residents, at a minimum, to follow County Judge Lina Hidalgo’s mask order, which went into effect Monday. The order mandates that Harris County businesses require their customers to wear face coverings.

Abbott defended his strategy during a news conference in Austin, saying it achieved its primary goal of preventing hospitals from being overrun. He said the rate of new cases across the state was unacceptable, however.

See here for more on that mask order, which we could have had weeks ago had it not been for Abbott’s ridiculous, cowardly refusal to talk straight. This is all on you, Abbott. I hope the knowledge of your craven behavior haunts you for the rest of your days. I hope even more it’s what finally forces you out of office in 2022. May we all end up being overly panicked about this, because if not this is really going to suck. The Chron editorial board has more.

Steps towards more transparency

Step One:

Mayor Sylvester Turner said Friday he is reviewing an internal audit of the Houston Police Department’s embattled narcotics division and will send the results of the probe to state lawmakers who have called for its public release.

Turner revealed the news days after state Rep. Gene Wu, D-Houston, authored a letter signed by seven other House members that called on Police Chief Art Acevedo to publicly release the audit’s findings.

Acevedo ordered the internal probe after the deadly 2019 raid at 7815 Harding St., which ended with the deaths of the home’s two residents and left four police officers shot. Investigators subsequently said that the officer who orchestrated the raid lied to get the warrant used in the operation. That officer, Gerald Goines, has been charged with murder and faces federal civil rights charges.

Twice in the last two weeks, Turner has declined to say whether the audit should be released, and he had not admitted to reviewing it himself until Friday. He said he is giving lawmakers access to the audit as long as they promise not to reveal it to the public.

“As I go through the audit — and I’m going through it now — you don’t want to disclose the identity of officers who have been acting undercover and expose them to risk,” Turner said after a roundtable on police reform at City Hall. “But I do understand the importance of making it available to our legislative colleagues, so that they can see it for themselves.”

[…]

Wu on Friday said it was not enough to release the audit only to lawmakers.

“This is an investigation of a public agency, of public servants’ wrongdoing,” he said. “It’s absolutely 100 percent in the public interest and right to know what public servants are doing. I cannot imagine we would tolerate this from any other city or state agency where we suspected rogue employees or individuals. The public not only has a right to know, it needs to know.”

Rosenthal echoed Wu in calling for the report to go directly to the public, not House members.

“Taxpayers paid for that report, they pay for that department, it belongs to the people,” Rosenthal said. “I’m disappointed they would ask us to not send it to the people. Our ask was that it be made public.”

State Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston, said he “appreciates” Turner’s decision to allow lawmakers to review the audit.

“I think it’s important in this time that transparency is there. In a strong mayor form of government, that is a call the mayor can make,” he said. “I still think it should be public, that hasn’t changed.”

I say again, release the audit. If there are some people named in it who are not under any suspicion or who have no connection to the underlying problems, then go ahead and redact them out of it. Otherwise, I agree completely with what the representatives are saying. This is information for the public.

Step Two:

A group of 20 marched through drizzling rain on the downtown Houston streets Friday where thousands had just gathered for George Floyd, now demanding justice for a Hispanic man killed by police in April.

The rally ended in front of the Harris County Criminal Justice Center, where about a dozen more supporters joined and called for Houston police to release body camera footage of the incident in which 27-year-old Nicolas Chavez was fatally shot by lawmen while, according to a cell-phone video of the encounter, on his knees.

“I know that they’re going to make him look bad and they’re going to try to justify what they did,” said his mother, Leantha Chavez. “In the end, it doesn’t matter what he did. He was on his knees when they shot him and he was unarmed.”

Chavez’s family and friends emphasized that he seemed to be undergoing a mental crisis. His 5-year-old son stood nearby during the gathering outside of the courthouse, holding a sign that read, “Abolish the police!”

Houston Police Department spokesman Kese Smith said while the family viewed their footage, the agency needs to consult with the Harris County District Attorney’s Office before releasing video to the public.

“The family’s wishes are obviously a very important part of it, but we have to have conversations with the District Attorney’s Office as well,” Smith said.

“We are certainly available to police if they want to discuss concerns about body cam videos or any other evidence,” said Dane Schiller, spokesman for the Harris County District Attorney’s Office. “We independently review all officer-involved shootings and we present all the evidence in every instance to a grand jurors, regardless of whether it has previously been made public, so they can determine whether a criminal charge is warranted.”

Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo has asked the FBI to review the April 21 death of Chavez. He called the cell phone video “difficult” to watch but has yet to make public any of the police department’s roughly 70 videos that captured the shooting.

The whole point of body cameras, and the reason why there was such a demand for them in recent years, is precisely because they can shed light on contentious and disputed interactions between the police and the public. If the DA needs some time to review the footage to determine whether or not to bring charges, that’s fine, but let’s not draw this out any longer than necessary. This is, again, information for the public. Let’s act accordingly.

Release the audit

That’s my three-word response to this.

A growing chorus of elected officials is calling on Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo to release the findings of an internal audit on his department’s narcotics division, arguing that the chief’s refusal to do so contradicts his vows to be transparent and accountable.

Acevedo ordered the internal probe after the deadly 2019 raid at 7815 Harding St., which ended with the deaths of two homeowners and left four police officers shot. Investigators subsequently said that the officer who orchestrated the raid lied to get the warrant he used in the operation.

Now, with the death of George Floyd in Minnesota galvanizing worldwide protests and searing scrutiny of police departments across the country, state Reps. Anna Eastman, Christina Morales, Jon Rosenthal, Senfronia Thompson and Gene Wu are renewing their call from March for Acevedo to release the audit. And they are joined by three other members of the Texas House — Garnet Coleman, Gina Calanni and Mary Ann Perez — along with U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee and more than half of Houston City Council.

Wu, who wrote both letters, said that the chief’s reluctance to release the audit is at odds with his past pledges to be transparent and hold officers accountable.

“The violations of policies, procedures and laws by officers in the Narcotics Division must be made known to the public,” wrote Wu, D-Houston. “If there are other officers who have repeatedly broken the law, the continued concealment of their behavior does a gross disservice to reputations of officers who are doing their jobs well.”

You can read the rest, and you can see a copy of the letter here; page two is visible on Dos Centavos, which is where the signatures are. I mean, being transparent means doing stuff like this. If there really is some content in that audit that might affect prosecutions, a little redaction is acceptable, as long as the substance of the report is not changed. But come on, either you meant it when you said you wanted to be transparent or you didn’t. Show us what you meant.

On a related note:

The mayor shouldn’t pretend that the calls for police reform were suddenly sprung on him this week. His own transition team in 2016 made a litany of reform recommendations. Our organizations participated in the committee, as did senior members of the mayor’s administration. Then in 2017, city council spent $565,000 on a 10-year financial plan that included recommendations to cut some of the 75 percent of the budget spent on public safety over that time span.

Houston does not need another study. What we need is action on the existing recommendations for police reform. After participating in the transition committee, our organizations established the Right2Justice Coalition. We have met regularly to address ongoing issues of policing and criminal justice in Houston and Harris County. Today, we are publishing a progress report of existing recommendations from Turner’s 2016 Transition Committee on Criminal Justice and the 2017 10-year financial plan.

The progress report shows that the city has implemented only a few of the recommended reforms, the most significant being the consolidation of the city’s jails with Harris County in 2019. It has failed to adopt recommendations to develop, in partnership with grassroots organizations, a plan for community policing, to enact a cite-and-release policy to divert people accused of minor offenses from the criminal justice system, to combine 211 and 311 to better meet residents’ needs for non-police services, and to implement a body cam video release policy that “maximizes public access to footage in a prompt manner.”

And instead of civilianizing 443 positions as the 10-year plan recommends to save $5-10 million, the administration has increased the number of officers by 81 and shrunk the number of civilian positions by 258.

Delays in implementing these recommendations in the last three years have further eroded public trust. Turner and Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo’s actions speak louder than words — by that standard, their message is unchanged.

C’mon, guys. The time for action is now. You promised it, we want it. I know you can do it. Don’t let us down.

So let’s talk about HERO 2.0 again

Surely now is the time.

In November 2015, 61 percent of Houston voters rejected a city ordinance that would have barred employers from discriminating against people based on their sexual orientation and gender identity, a devastating blow for LGBTQ advocates in the nation’s fourth-largest city.

Four and a half years later, two-thirds of the conservative-majority U.S. Supreme Court extended federal workplace protections to gay and transgender employees across the entire country, with Justice Neil Gorsuch — a conservative jurist appointed by President Donald Trump — penning the majority opinion.

The ruling marks a stunning turnaround for LGBTQ Houstonians, who lacked such protections under local, state or federal law before Monday. Still, they remain subject to discrimination in public places, meaning a restaurant owner may no longer discriminate against gay and transgender employees but can refuse service to LGBTQ customers.

Houston’s anti-discrimination measure — branded by supporters as Houston’s Equal Rights Ordinance, or HERO, and by opponents as the Bathroom Ordinance — would have applied to employers, housing providers and places of public accommodation. It would have protected 13 classes on top of sexual orientation and gender identity: sex, race, color, ethnicity, national origin, age, religion, disability, pregnancy and genetic information, and family, marital or military status.

Supporters of the local anti-discrimination law say they will continue tentative plans to push for a second version of the measure in 2021, the next city election, to ensure the remaining classes and locations are covered. They also say a local ordinance would provide an added layer of protection for members of Houston’s LGBTQ community beyond the Supreme Court ruling.

“It is very clear, if you put it in the context of what’s happening in our country right now, that having de jure employment protections doesn’t mean that the problem is solved,” said Annise Parker, the former Houston mayor and first openly gay mayor of a major American city. “Because, in fact, we’ve had protections around race for a very long time and we still are trying to work hard to dismantle systemic racism. So, it is a big step forward, but there’s still much work to do.”

Houston’s LGBTQ advocacy groups have eyed the 2021 election since their first attempt ended in a resounding defeat. Monday’s court ruling will strengthen their case and their odds of success, contended Austin Davis Ruiz, communications director for the Houston GLBT Political Caucus.

“If you can no longer discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity as it’s decided in this interpretation of the word ‘sex,’ then it should be able to be extended to all these other areas that still lack federal protection,” Ruiz said.

[…]

Alternatively, Houston City Council could pass an anti-discrimination ordinance if Mayor Sylvester Turner were to place it on a meeting agenda and the majority of the 17-person council approved it. Turner, who controls the City Council agenda, did not address that possibility in a statement Monday praising the Supreme Court ruling. Through a spokeswoman, the mayor declined to say whether he thinks the ordinance should go through City Council or the November ballot.

During last year’s mayoral campaign, Turner said he was working with his LGBTQ advisory board to find “opportunities to do more public education” on the issue, but stopped short of saying he would advocate for a ballot measure in 2021.

We were talking about this last November, during the Mayoral runoff. I argued at the time for waiting until 2022, in order to get a better turnout model, but the engagement and outreach strategy is what really matters. Certainly, this could be passed by Council, but there would almost certainly be another referendum to overturn it, so you may as well have the election on your own terms. And despite what happened in 2015, there’s no reason why it couldn’t pass this time. It’s mostly a matter of making sure that Democratic voters vote in favor of a position that is almost universally held by the Democratic politicians those voters vote for. There are a lot of ways this can be accomplished, but the one thing I’d call absolutely vital is organizing and preparing a message strategy for it ahead of time. There’s no better time than now to be doing that.

Whistling past the ICU

Clap louder!

Gov. Greg Abbott and top Texas health officials on Tuesday responded to growing alarm over hospitals now swelling with coronavirus patients, assuring there is still plenty of space available even as some facilities have neared or surpassed capacity.

Speaking on yet another day of record high hospitalizations from the pandemic, Abbott said he is confident the state can continue reopening while controlling the spread of new infections.

“As we begin to open up Texas and Texans return to their jobs, we remain laser-focused on maintaining abundant hospital capacity,” said Abbott, a Republican. “The best way to contain the spread of this virus is by all Texans working together and following simple safety precautions.”

On Tuesday, the Department of State Health Services reported just over 2,500 COVID-19 patients in Texas hospitals, the highest single-day total since the pandemic began and nearly 67 percent more than on Memorial Day in late May. State and local leaders have pointed to the holiday weekend as one likely cause for the increase.

Statewide, there are still thousands of hospital beds and ventilators available. But in some of the largest cities, including San Antonio and Houston, the surge is pushing new limits. In Harris County, some hospitals said late last week that their intensive care units were near or above capacity.

Bill McKeon, CEO of the Texas Medical Center, said their number of COVID-19 patients has nearly doubled from its previous peak in late April. Many of the patients admitted now are younger and generally healthier, but are still susceptible to serious illness or death from the disease.

“If it continues to grow at this rate, we’re going to be in real trouble,” McKeon said of the admissions. He added that while it may not be feasible to reimpose lockdowns or other restrictions, state leaders should consider slowing the reopening if the uptick continues.

The official death count is past 2,000 now, though everyone knows that’s an undercount. On a per capita basis that’s still pretty low, but we’re doing our best to catch up. The idea that we’re “controlling the spread” in any fashion is laughable, except there’s nothing funny about what’s happening. And then we get this:

Abbott remained unwilling Tuesday to allow local officials to enforce their own mask ordinances, even as he acknowledged that many Texans are not wearing them. He instead accused Democratic county judges of not having done enough to punish businesses that fail to comply with other protocols, such as limits on public gatherings.

While they have the authority, Abbott said, many “haven’t lifted a finger.”

Hey, remember when Greg Abbott cravenly flip-flopped on consequences for not following his own executive orders? Good times, good times. What would you like the county judges to use, harsh language? Let’s not forget who’s in charge here.

But local officials are still trying, at least:

The mayors of nine of Texas’ biggest cities urged Gov. Greg Abbott in a letter Tuesday to grant them the “authority to set rules and regulations” mandating face masks during the coronavirus pandemic.

As COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations continue to climb in Texas, an executive order from Abbott bans local governments from imposing fines or criminal penalties on people who don’t wear masks in public. The mayors wrote that many people in their cities continue to refuse to wear face masks and that “a one-size-fits-all approach is not the best option” when it comes to regulating the issue.

The letter is signed by Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg, Austin Mayor Steve Adler, Dallas Mayor Eric Johnson, Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price, El Paso Mayor Dee Margo, Arlington Mayor Jeff Williams, Plano Mayor Harry LaRosiliere and Grand Prairie Mayor Ron Jensen.

The letter asks Abbott to consider allowing each city’s local officials to decide whether to require the use of a face covering in order to prevent the spread of the virus.

Mayor Turner’s press release is here, and a copy of the letter sent to Abbott is here. There was no response as of Tuesday afternoon.

Finally, let’s not forget that even as businesses may want to reopen, coronavirus may not let them. It’s almost as if an unchecked pandemic is a hindrance to having your economy run at full capacity. But don’t worry, Greg Abbott has everything under control. Now keep clapping!

What are we going to do about that Independent Police Oversight Board?

The easy answer is “make it better”, it’s how you do that that’s harder.

As protests over George Floyd’s death swept the nation, activists in Houston cried out for police reform. Among their demands: Give us an independent police watchdog.

One already exists, city officials said: Houston’s Independent Police Oversight Board.

But the board lacks meaningful power, with one longtime civil rights activist calling it “window dressing.”

Houston’s Independent Police Oversight Board, which reviews investigations completed by the Houston Police Department’s internal affairs division, meets at police headquarters. It cannot launch its own inquiries or accept complaints directly from civilians. Members are forbidden from discussing any of the cases they review — even with the mayor or other public officials. Its sparse website includes instructions on how to file a complaint with police, but little information on the board’s own work. It lacks the power to subpoena documents or compel officer testimony. It’s a volunteer body appointed by the mayor and has no professional staff. And when members of the oversight board make policy recommendations, they often never find out what happens to their suggestions, current and former members told the Chronicle.

“It’s clear if we had additional clout, we could do more and better work,” said Gerald Birnberg, a Houston attorney who serves on the oversight board. “It feels like we’re working in the dark.”

As America reckons with racism and calls to address police violence, critics say Houston’s police oversight board is inadequate. Those who argue against change say the board has sufficient power and lacks training to investigate or issue subpoenas.

[…]

The board can make recommendations to the chief related to disciplinary action, policies and training, but the chief has the final say.

While members are forbidden from discussing the cases they review, some of their recommendations became public in a police brutality lawsuit filed after the 2012 police killing of Kenny Releford.

HPD was forced to turn over internal affairs files related to several shootings, with recommendations filed by the IPOB and its earlier incarnation. When the board reviewed the July 2012 shooting of Rufino Lara, two members of the panel wrote notes urging de-escalation training.

The officer should not have “fired her gun on someone who was not pointing or near to pointing a dangerous weapon toward her,” one member wrote. “Better training needs to be provided.”

The majority agreed with the department’s conclusions, but all checked off boxes indicating training had not been sufficient.

The police department also maintains discretion in deciding what records to release to the oversight board, though board member Kristin Anderson, a psychology professor at the University of Houston-Downtown, said members “see all documents associated with any case” that comes to the board.

She said the public deserves transparency, but said granting the board subpoena power is a “red herring” and would not give members “the ability to tell if a cop is lying.”

Birnberg said board members do not have unfettered, immediate access to all the records they request. He recalled seeing cases where board members were told obtaining an autopsy would take four months — far longer than the two-week period the board’s panels have to review individual cases.

“I don’t know if the chief is aware of the structural impediments to the panels getting meaningful information at the time they’re supposed to be ruling on the cases,” he added.

[…]

Houston attorney Joe Melugin, who spent three years suing the Houston Police Department over the shooting death of Kenny Releford, said he disagrees with those who say holding police legally accountable police should be left to the district attorney.

“Until the city fires police officers for abuses of power and unjustified violence, and until the DA prosecutes police the same as any of the rest of us, then the problems with police abuses of power will persist regardless of changes to the IPOB,” he said. “We must change how the police force exists and operates in our city.”

There’s a lot of back and forth in the story about what the IPOB can and cannot do, and I’m not in a position to assess the claims. I agree with Joe Melugin, the ultimate goal needs to be accountability, where bad cops are fired and cops who break the law are arrested and prosecuted like anyone else would be. Surely if that had always been the case, we wouldn’t be in the position we’re in right now. As for the “how do we get there” part of the discussion, I basically agree with the Houston Justice Coalition demands:

1. Uniform Body Camera Policy

The current body cam policy is a disjointed mess. Cameras are not on consistently. According to a KHOU investigative report completed in 2017, very few tapes were released to the public upon request. We demand that cameras run and that all tapes are released within 24 hours upon request.

2. Transparent Tracking of Complaints

When a complaint is made on an officer, there is no way to know the status of the complaint. The timelines for followup are egregious, and often aren’t even followed. Houstonians who want to hold police accountable must have a clear system with expedient, easily accessed methods of feedback between them and HPD to ensure that officers face consequences when they violate policy and civil rights.

3. Citizens Review Board with Subpoena Power

A citizens review board must have the power to bring officers in for questioning and possibly for charges and repercussions. Otherwise, a board is simply an artificial token, not an arbiter of true justice. We demand that a citizens review board chosen by The People, unchecked by the Houston Police Officers Union or City Hall, be formed immediately and granted with the power to subpoena law enforcement—full stop.

Maybe subpoena power isn’t all that, but let’s try it first and see where it gets us.

The current status on local police reform efforts

Well, the budget amendment process didn’t do much.

CM Letitia Plummer

City Council on Wednesday unanimously approved Mayor Sylvester Turner’s $5.1 billion budget for the next fiscal year, slightly increasing funds for the Houston Police Department even as some cities are under pressure to cut law enforcement spending amid nationwide protest over police violence and the death of George Floyd.

As the council took up budget, chants of “Black lives matter” and “No justice, no peace” could be heard from protesters outside City Hall. Dozens of police reform advocates had asked city council the day before to divert funding from HPD’s massive budget to other services, such as health care and affordable housing.

Instead, the $965 million approved for HPD represents a 2 percent, or $19 million, increase over the current year. The overall city budget is up 1 percent.

The police department takes up more than a third of the tax- and fee-supported general fund, which pays for most of the city’s day-to-day operations. Much of the HPD increase is due to a 3 percent raise for officers under a 2018 labor contract that expires in December.

Turner, who later Wednesday signed an executive order on police reform, offered a passionate defense of the HPD budget, arguing that Houston has a shortage of police officers compared to other large cities. He often has pointed out that Houston, with a population of 2.3 million people and an area of more than 650 square miles, has 5,300 officers; Chicago, with a population of 2.7 million and 275 square miles, has about 12,000.

[…]

At-Large Council member Letitia Plummer proposed an amendment that would cut 199 vacant positions in the police department and redirect that money toward a slew of reforms, including giving the Independent Police Oversight Board subpoena power and boosting funds for mental health units and re-entry programs. Plummer’s amendments failed without the support of any other council member.

At one point, Plummer held up a heavily redacted HPD use-of-force policy, which she said the department gave her office when it requested a copy.

“We started the conversation on police reform. Not one of my amendments passed but I know that I stand on the right side of history,” said Plummer, who addressed the protesters outside after the vote. “That is the most important takeaway. I answer to the people who elected me. I will be holding the (mayor’s) task force accountable.”

The mayor did support an amendment from Councilmember Ed Pollard that would set up a public website where residents could browse complaints about police misconduct. The mayor said the site could work alongside the executive order he signed later Wednesday, and Pollard’s amendment was referred to the legal department for implementation.

I’ll get to the executive order in a minute. I know folks are upset by the failure of CM Plummer’s amendment. It is disappointing, but it’s not surprising. Stuff just doesn’t happen that fast in Houston. There’s almost always a need to build a broad base of support for significant changes, and that takes time. The good news is that CM Plummer’s proposals, especially redirecting certain kinds of 911 calls away from police and towards social workers, has a lot of merit and should garner a lot of support as more people learn about them. Making this a goal for the next budget is very doable, I think.

Now, as for that executive order:

The executive order embraces some measures laid out in the #8cantwait campaign, including: requiring officers to de-escalate, give a verbal warning and exhaust all other options before using deadly force; mandating that they intercede when they witness misconduct; forbidding choke-holds and firing at moving vehicles; and reporting all use of force to the Independent Police Oversight Board.

It also prohibits serving no-knock warrants unless the chief or his designee approves them in writing. A botched raid on Harding Street last year left two people dead, several officers wounded and two narcotics officers charged with crimes. It also has prompted the Harris County district attorney’s office to review and seek the dismissal of scores of drug cases involving one of the indicted officers, Gerald Goines.

“This is not the end,” Turner said, adding that thousands of residents protesting the May 25 death of Houston native George Floyd while in police custody in Minneapolis made his executive order possible. “In the absence of people that stood up, marched, protested, this would not be happening.”

Several of the requirements — the duty-to-interfere requirement, bans on choke-holds, and prohibiting firing at moving weapons — were already HPD policies, and some experts have cast doubt on whether the #8cantwait reforms have resulted in measurable progress in the cities that have adopted them.

Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo said the reforms were meaningful in that they now are codified at City Hall. A new chief cannot come in later and undo the policies without going through the mayor’s office, he said.

“I think it is a huge, watershed moment,” he said.

See here for the background. A group called the #Right2Justice coalition put out this statement afterward:

“Mayor Turner promised bold reform on policing in Houston. Instead, his executive order on use of force is largely a restatement of existing policy. It makes little meaningful progress at a moment when tens of thousands of people have taken to the streets demanding change. Several of the requirements — the duty-to-interfere requirement, a partial ban on choke-holds, and prohibiting firing at moving vehicles — were either restatements of police best practices or already Houston Police Department policy or practice. Last year, the Houston Police Department forcibly entered a home to search it without warning. Two residents were killed, and four officers were shot. The executive order does nothing to prevent this kind of no-knock raid from happening again.

“The Houston Police Department has killed six people in the last two months. This moment demands meaningful change: new policies to require automatic release of body cam footage of police misconduct and eliminate no-knock warrants, and significant investments in diversion like those Harris County made yesterday. This executive order is not the meaningful reform we need.”

This coalition includes ACLU of Texas, Anti-Defamation League, Houston Immigration Legal Services Collaborative, Immigrant Resource Legal Center (IRLC), Texas Appleseed, Texas Civil Rights Project, Texas Organizing Project, and United We Dream. I checked several websites and Twitter feeds and could not find this statement on any of them. The ACLU of Texas Twitter did retweet Chron reporter Jasper Scherer, who tweeted an image of the statement. I feel like there is room for improvement here.

Anyway. I agree with Chief Acevedo that this means the next HPD Chief can’t just come in and throw this stuff out, and that’s good. But the next Mayor could throw it out, so we need to keep that in mind. A big question here is what happens when someone violates this order in some fashion. What are the consequences, and how will they be enforced? That needs to be addressed.

Also, too, that task force. I saw somewhere, but now can’t remember where, that Mayor Turner expects them to give a report in three months. That’s good, we need to have a deadline and a promise of a report, but that’s still just a starting point. There needs to be a plan to enact whatever this task force recommends as well.

Did you notice that bit in the budget story about the police union contract, which expires in December? That’s another opportunity to make positive changes, as Ashton Woods opines:

Under Article 30 of the contract, when a complaint is filed against an officer, the accused officer receives all copies and files associated with the complaint against them. They then have 48 hours to review the complaint against them, talk to a lawyer, and get their story together. All of this happens before they are required to give a statement to their supervisor. This “48-hour rule” insulates them from questioning and gives cops a privilege that no civilian gets.

Article 26 grants a committee of officers the power to appoint the 12 “independent hearing examiners” who get the final say in officer discipline for misconduct. But these examiners are not actually independent, as half of them are appointed by the police chief and the other half by the union. In other words, when an officer has been disciplined for misconduct and appeals that discipline, these cop-appointed examiners get to make the final call. Because the union gets to pick 50 percent of the examiners, they effectively have veto power. This gives the police union, the most outspoken opponent of police reform, a startling amount of control over officer discipline.

You may have noticed that there’s a huge piece of the puzzle missing: community oversight. While Houston technically has an Independent Police Oversight Board, this board has no subpoena power and no direct discipline authority, making it one of the weakest and least effective community oversight boards in the nation. According to the City of Houston website, the board can’t even take complaints directly from civilians. All complaints are reviewed by HPD.

As noted before, District B candidate Tarsha Jackson has recommended these and other changes as well. As much as anything, the key here is paying attention and making clear what we want to happen.

Finally, there was action taken by Commissioners Court.

Harris County’s sheriff and eight constables voiced support Wednesday for some of the policing and criminal justice reform measures approved by Commissioners Court hours after George Floyd, a longtime Houstonian killed by Minneapolis police was laid to rest.

In a session that stretched past midnight, Commissioners Court on Tuesday approved 10 reform-minded items inspired by the nationwide protests following Floyd’s May 25 video-recorded death, including a pledge to examine how to create a civilian oversight board with subpoena power, adopt a countywide use-of-force policy for officers and establish a database of use-of-force incidents.

Precinct 4 Constable Mark Herman said all eight constables met for several hours Wednesday morning to discuss the proposals. The group was unanimous in favor of adopting a universal use-of-force policy and sharing documents, including video, to help the county create a public log of violent police encounters.

“We’re in agreement to work with Judge Hidalgo’s group and be transparent and show any use of force we have,” Herman said.

Precinct 3’s Sherman Eagleton, one of two African-American constables, said the group did not come to a conclusion about welcoming more civilian oversight. He said Floyd’s killing had already spurred the constables to review their policies, though the group needs more time to evaluate the Commissioners Court proposals.

“That civilian review board might be a good thing once we find out more about it,” he said.

[…]

During the discussion Tuesday evening on creating a database of use-of-force incidents, First Assistant County Attorney Robert Soard warned court members they were perilously close to exceeding their authority by setting policy for other elected officials.

County Judge Lina Hidalgo agreed to amend the item to make clear that participation by agencies would be voluntary. She said video footage, however, often is crucial in exposing misconduct by police, as was the case in Floyd’s killing.

“How many times has this kind of thing happened and it just so happens that no one was taking a video, and so we didn’t know?” she said.

Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis said he was open to testing the limits of the court’s power even if that meant an issue needed to be resolved in state court. He said Commissioners Court’s passage of the items also could force the elected law enforcement officials to confront those issues.

“We do have the right to put the public pressure on, you got me?” Ellis said.

See here for the background. This is a good step forward, and it clearly does require the cooperation of the constables. As with the Houston items, we need to keep track of the progress made, and revisit these items in a year or so to ensure they have had the desired effect, with an eye towards doing more as needed.

Budget amendments and a fight over police reform

That’s your City Council agenda for today.

City council members have authored more than four dozen amendments to Mayor Sylvester Turner’s proposed budget to trim spending, create new sources of revenue and expand police accountability measures.

Council members will take up the proposals Wednesday when they consider the mayor’s $5.1 billion budget plan, which is coming forward at an especially fraught moment. The city’s usual budget challenges have been aggravated by the economic crisis tied to COVID-19, while activists are gaining traction around the country in their calls to defund or scale back police departments after the death of Houston native George Floyd.

Many of the 50 budget amendments are a direct response to those topics, including one from Councilwoman Amy Peck that would establish a group to audit all city departments and programs, then recommend whether they should be continued with certain changes, folded into another program or dissolved altogether.

The process would in some ways parallel the zero-based budgeting process used for Turner’s spending plan, which required department heads to analyze every function and justify each dollar spent rather than adding to existing budgets. Peck said Turner’s administration never showed council members the detailed results of zero-based budgeting — and her so-called sunset review commission has a broader scope.

“With the sunset review, it’s looking at every line item, but it goes past that,” she said. “It involves citizens and stakeholders and really gets into whether (the program is) serving the constituents, whether there are ways to consolidate, if there are technology advances to make. There could be some program within a department that’s just not needed anymore.”

Other cost-cutting amendments include Councilwoman Sallie Alcorn’s proposal to study where Houston and Harris County can join forces instead of providing duplicate services, and a program suggested by Peck and Councilman Robert Gallegos that would allow city workers to voluntarily take unpaid time off. Councilman Greg Travis also proposed letting private firms compete with city departments for certain contracts, or studying whether it would save money to do so.

[…]

The mayor has expressed opposition, meanwhile, to a sweeping police reform amendment introduced by Councilwoman Letitia Plummer that would eliminate nearly 200 vacant positions in the Houston Police Department. The funds saved by getting rid of the positions and a cadet class would go toward beefing up de-escalation training and the police oversight board, among other proposals sought by those pushing for police department reform around the country.

Turner repeatedly said during last year’s mayoral campaign that he wants to grow the police department by several hundred officers, and he rejected the idea of reducing the police department’s budget during an appearance on CNN last week.

With a budget of over $900 million that is devoted almost entirely to personnel, HPD is by far the city’s largest department and would have little room to cut spending without diminishing the police force. The police union previously negotiated a 3 percent pay bump from July 1 through the end of the year, accounting for much of the department’s proposed budget increase.

On Monday, five black Houston council members released a series of proposed HPD reforms that include many of the measures contained in Plummer’s plan, but without the spending cuts. The letter included every black member of council — Martha Castex-Tatum, Jerry Davis, Carolyn Evans-Shabazz, Edward Pollard and Tiffany Thomas — except Plummer.

In a statement, Plummer said, “After reading my colleagues’ open letter, it appears we all want the same things. I look forward to having their support for my amendments on Wednesday.”

See here for some background, and here for the five Council members’ proposals. Here it must be noted that the police union was a big supporter of Mayor Turner, and they were the instigators of the lawsuit that killed the firefighter pay parity referendum. He campaigned on hiring more police, and that’s where he is. That said, nine votes on Council can pass a budget amendment, and in addition to those six black Council members there are five other Democrats – Abbie Kamin, Robert Gallegos, Karla Cisneros, David Robinson, and Sallie Alcorn – who should be open to persuasion on this matter. Maybe some of the Republican Council members might be willing to trim some budget as well – CM Dave Martin received no money from the HPOU PAC in 2019, for instance. Point being, there’s plenty of room to get at least the group of five amendments passed, if not the Plummer amendment. There’s a rally this morning at City Hall to build support for that. There won’t be any better opportunities anytime soon.

Executive action on police reform

It’s a start.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner on Tuesday announced he would sign an executive order to enact some immediate reforms aimed at curtailing police violence, including requiring Houston officers to give verbal warning and exhaust all other options before firing their weapons.

Turner outlined his order, which embraces proposals from the #8cantwait campaign, at the funeral for George Floyd, the former Houston resident whose May 25 death at the hands of Minneapolis police sparked international protests and widespread calls for reform. Turner said he would sign the order Tuesday evening, but that was canceled at the last moment; a spokeswoman said the mayor planned to sign the order Wednesday, but did not explain the delay.

The mayor’s announcement came shortly before dozens of Houstonians urged City Council to reject Turner’s proposed budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1, unless millions of dollars are diverted from the police department to other areas.

[…]

Though the actual text of Turner’s executive order was not available Tuesday, it will include a ban on chokeholds, require de-escalation, comprehensive use-of-force reporting, mandate that officers intervene when they witness misconduct, “and more,” Turner said on Twitter.

It was not clear whether the order would embrace the remaining recommendations from the #8cantwait project, which claims that departments who adopt the eight measures have fewer uses of force.

HPD already enforces some of those measures. The department’s use-of-force policy from 2015 includes a duty-to-intervene clause and a ban on shooting at moving vehicles, unless the driver is immediately threatening someone’s safety.

The Houston Police Officers’ Union said the department has had a ban on chokeholds for four decades and possibly never used them. It was not immediately clear, however, whether that prohibition is codified in writing.

Joe Gamaldi, president of the union, said he was waiting to comment on Turner’s executive order until the text is released.

Many other police departments already have adopted the #8cantwait measures with little impact to show for it, said Kevin Buckler, a criminal justice professor at the University of Houston-Downtown.

“They’re already used across the country. Perhaps not by every department, but they’re already utilized, and we still arrived at the current state of affairs that we’re at right now,” Buckler said, adding that the campaign “is a very good marketing strategy, but it’s not evidenced-based at all.”

You can see the tweet here. Much of the rest of the story is a later version of the one I blogged about here. In addition to the proposals from various Council members, we also have that forthcoming task force. Based on Professor Buckler’s comments, I’d say that task force needs to recommend that everything we do is quantifiable and aimed at a specific goal – some number of reductions or increases or changes or what have you, which we track with the idea of adjusting the new guidelines or ordinances as needed to achieve those goals. We want change that actually makes a difference, after all.

Time for a task force

A good step, but it needs to be followed by real action.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner plans to appoint a task force to review Houston Police Department policies amid growing calls for reform following local and nationwide protests over the death of former Houston resident George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody.

Turner’s office said the task force would focus on ensuring accountability and transparency within the department. He announced the task force Thursday night during an hourlong ABC13 town hall on police and community relations.

“It’s so important to hold onto the trust between the community and police because the two have to work together, not be against one another,” Turner said. “Establishing that confidence and that trust is a critical component. That’s why it’s important for all of us to listen, to listen to what people are saying, to listen to the reforms that people want to see put in place, and then to act on those reforms. And we’re going to seek to do that.”

It was not clear Friday when the mayor would appoint people to the task force or when it would begin meeting.

Turner publicly has not endorsed any specific reform, though he consistently has emphasized the importance of police training in television appearances this week.

[…]

Conversations about potential reforms began before Floyd’s death, Councilwoman Tiffany Thomas said. After a string of six fatal police shootings here in Houston, several council members met privately with Police Chief Art Acevedo to address the deaths.

Thomas said she would favor strengthening the oversight board; ensuring there are public and readily available records of complaints made by both citizens and officers against their colleagues; and having some sort of research arm — either within the city or with an external partner, such as Texas Southern University — that could parse through data to illuminate other options.

Councilman Ed Pollard has offered a budget amendment to create an online database where residents can view complaints made to the police department. Pollard said the information would boost transparency and give the public and policymakers data to inform future reforms. His amendment calls for building off an existing platform, called Project Comport, that is free and already used in other cities, though Pollard said it would carry some costs to set up.

“We (would) have a public, online platform that is able to compile the data and put it out in real time on different complaints,” Pollard said.

Councilwoman Letitia Plummer has proposed the furthest-reaching budget amendment. It would eliminate 199 vacant HPD positions in the budget and one of five planned police cadet classes. Plummer seeks to redirect about $11.8 million of the proposed police funding toward a package of reforms, including subpoena-empowered oversight board probes; increased spending on re-entry and My Brother’s Keeper programs; and creation of a mental health unit to respond to some low-risk calls instead of regular patrol officers.

See here for more about CM Plummer’s budget amendment and plenty of other reform ideas, some of which are within Councils’ power and others of which are not. The formation of a task force or blue ribbon committee is always the first thing done when there’s a serious problem that demands actions that some people are very much going to not like. It buys time, it diverts energy, and if you’re not careful the formation of the task force can end up being the sum total of action taken. Look to see who’s on the task force (and how long it takes for it to be named), what their timeline and mandate are, and who does or does not commit to take specific actions based on their recommendations. Then remember that it exists, and that we’re waiting for it to do its job, and that the longer it takes the less momentum there is.

Let’s talk “meaningful reform”

Chief Acevedo brought it up, so let’s go there.

Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo’s voice cracked several times and his eyes welled as he railed against the death of George Floyd beneath a policeman’s knee and implored protesters to demonstrate peacefully with him.

“I will not allow anyone to tear down this city, because this is our city,” Acevedo shouted on Sunday to the group of mostly black Houstonians surrounding him at one of many protests in the wake of video showing Floyd’s fatal encounter with police in Minneapolis. “Pay close attention! Because these little white guys with their skateboards are the ones starting all the s–t.”

Video of Acevedo’s profanity-laced remarks went viral and, along with his other blunt statements this week, won the chief acclaim from those outraged by the death of Floyd, a former Third Ward resident.

It has also drawn anger from those who say Acevedo has failed to address the very things he’s condemning at home. His calls for police to be more transparent and enact “meaningful reform” have refocused attention on a series of fatal shootings by his own officers, and his refusal to release body camera video of the incidents.

“We’re looking at him say one thing on camera, but locally, we know different,” said Dav Lewis, a local activist who was friends with Adrian Medearis, one of the men who died in the spate of shootings. “We know different locally. We have not seen police accountability.”

The chief has also resisted calls to release the results of an audit of his narcotics division, rocked last year by one of its worst scandals in decades, and he has downplayed calls to bolster the city’s Independent Police Oversight Board, long criticized as a “toothless watchdog” group.

“While these are great photo ops, and maybe the chief has political aspirations, and this is all warm and fuzzy kind of stuff he’s doing, it’s time for some action,” said Mark Thiessen, president of the Harris County Criminal Lawyers Association.

[…]

Protesters intensified their calls on Tuesday for Acevedo to make the videos public. Mayor Sylvester Turner’s remarks at City Hall were punctuated by several people chanting “release the tapes,” and hours later Acevedo was directly confronted by a group of critical protesters at the downtown park Discovery Green.

Some lawmakers questioned Acevedo’s rationale for not releasing the body camera video.

“It is not law enforcement’s job to worry about prosecution,” said state Rep. Gene Wu, D-Houston. “It’s their job to be law enforcement.”

Wu, a former prosecutor who has called on Acevedo previously to release his audit, said Acevedo’s attitude “does more of a disservice to taint the public’s perception than anything else.”

“Right now you have the general public believing the police hide things,” Wu said. “When other cities during this crisis have shown they can release body cams immediately — that they can fire and discipline officers immediately — the fact we can’t get videos released months, sometimes even years later, is very telling.”

There’s more, and you should read the rest. On balance, I think Art Acevedo has been a pretty good Chief of Police. It’s not at all hard to imagine someone worse in his position – the current Chief of Police in Austin, for example. I also think that some of these reform ideas should be taken out of his discretion and mandated by the appropriate governing body. For releasing body camera footage and just generally being more transparent about it, that could be the Legislature or it could be City Council. Point being, the less room he or any Chief has to stall on releasing said footage, the less time we have to have this debate about transparency.

There are plenty of other things that can be done, at all levels of government, with the local stuff having the greatest potential for swift adoption. Tarsha Jackson, formerly with the Texas Organizing Project and now on hold in the City Council District B runoff, recommended several changes to the police union contract. CM Letitia Plummer, thankfully recovering from COVID-19, has proposed a budget amendment that would:

-Require officers exhaust all reasonable means before shooting
-Ban chokeholds and strangle holds
-Require de-escalation
-Require officers give verbal warning before shooting
-Notify Independent Police Oversight Board when death occurs
-Give IPOB subpoena power

It would also redirect funds currently allocated for a police cadet class as follows:

$2M, fund separate IPOB investigations
$1M, build online portal for residents to report misconduct
$3M, police training
$2M, permanent revolving fund for the Office of Business Opportunity, no-interest loans to minority-owned biz
$2M, enhance Health Dept’s Community Re-Entry Network Program
$500k, enhance Health Dept’s My Brother’s Keeper program
$1M, equipment and implementation of a “CAHOOTS” program (Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets)

The point of that last item is to redirect a class of 911 calls that now go to law enforcement to this Crisis Assistance program, so the police can handle higher priority calls. Look at the photos she embedded in this Facebook post (specifically, this and this) to get a better feel for this. The city of Eugene, Oregon has used a program like this successfully since 1989. I strongly suspect most police officers would be happy to not have to respond to these kinds of calls for the most part going forward.

Stace adds recommendations from 8CantWait, which largely overlap the items noted by CM Plummer and Tarsha Jackson. Again, these are things that could be done now, if we wanted to. If there’s something you want to do in this direction, call Mayor Turner’s office and your district Council member along with the At Large members in support of these proposals. There are many ways to make noise.

There’s still more. Looking at the federal level, Sherrilyn Ifill and a triumvirate at The Atlantic have a list of action items for Congress, including an end (or at least a serious cutback) to qualified immunity, national data collection and tracking of police conduct and use of force, stronger enforcement of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, and more. Ifill notes that “Currently, officers fired for misconduct and brutality against innocent civilians can be hired by other departments”. This will sound depressingly familiar to anyone who remembers the story of Tulia.

I personally would add: Decriminalization of marijuana and a complete shift of focus on other drug offenses from arrest and incarceration to treatment; Expanding Medicaid, which as I have said a gazillion times before will do so much to provide mental health services to countless Texans; Really attacking the homelessness problem by funding housing for the homeless and raising the minimum wage so that more people can afford housing in the first place; and repealing SB4, the odious “show me your papers” law. I believe these things will drastically reduce the interactions that ordinary people – overwhelmingly people of color – have with the police and the criminal justice system.

None of these things are panaceas, and none of them directly address systemic racism – I will defer on that to those who can speak more directly from their own experience – but I do believe all of them will have the effect of reducing harm to the black and brown people who have always received the brunt of the violence that comes from encounters with the police. Again, much of this is doable right now. Clearly, some other items will require winning more elections, in Texas and around the country, but we can still get started on what can be done now. If Chief Acevedo wants to come out in support of any or all of these things, that would be nice, too. Whether he does or he doesn’t, we can make them happen anyway.

There won’t be furloughs after all

A slightly confusing bit of good news.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Houston will not need to furlough roughly 3,000 city employees nor cancel its police cadet classes in the upcoming budget year, Mayor Pro Tem Dave Martin announced during a city council budget committee meeting Tuesday.

Instead, the city will use federal coronavirus relief funds to help bridge its projected $169 million shortfall in the fiscal year that begins July 1.

“No employee in the (City of Houston) will be furloughed,” Martin said.

The administration has updated Mayor Sylvester Turner’s initial budget proposal, eliminating many of the most dire consequences attributed to the revenue gap. The revised budget plan eliminates furloughs and adds back five cadet classes for police, Martin said.

It also adds another fire department cadet class, giving that department four classes. The new proposal also adds $15 million back into the city’s rainy day fund as hurricane season gets underway; Turner’s original spending plan would have exhausted that fund entirely.

The changes comes as the city has weighed how it can spend $404 million in federal funds it received through the CARES Act, part of a stimulus package approved by Congress.

The administration plans to use roughly $19 million of those funds to cover expenses for redeploying city employees from their normal duties to address the coronavirus pandemic, freeing some budgetary space. It is not clear if the city plans to use additional federal funds to cover the remaining costs of the budget revisions.

See here, here, and here for some background. I’ve said all along that the city could avoid all of the issues for this year if it could use that federal money for previously budgeted items. Apparently, they have decided that they can, or at least that there’s enough of the money available to fill other needs to make the math work. I can’t tell from this story what may have changed to go from apocalyptic warnings about layoffs and furloughs to this – maybe the city got clarity from the feds, maybe they came to this conclusion on their own, maybe there was enough wiggle room to allow for budget items to get moved around, who knows? This is the outcome that should have been from the beginning. Remember, a large part of budgeting is determined by the calendar – if these federal dollars had been allocated earlier, there wouldn’t have been so many “previously budgeted items” to worry about. I’m a little worried that someone is going to come along and try to stop the city from doing this, maybe by lawsuit or some other decree, but until then, I’m glad they worked this out. There are plenty of things to worry about going forward, like sales tax revenues, but buying a year’s time before that reckoning allows for another CARES Act or other positive development to occur. Sometimes kicking the can down the road is all you need to do.