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Interview with Jasmine Jenkins of Houstonians for Great Public Schools

For obvious reasons, there’s going to be a lot of focus on HISD, both in the next year as the district recovers from Harvey and tries to fend off a takeover by the Texas Education Agency, and going forward, as these issues and others may fade but will never go away. The Board of Trustees will be very different than the one that was inaugurated after the 2015 election, and could be very different than the one we have right now. There’s been a lot of scrutiny on the HISD Board lately, due in part to concerns (expressed by multiple candidates in the interviews I’ve done) that the Board has not been very effective or collaborative lately. One group keeping an eye on this is Houstonians for Great Public Schools, whose mission is “to increase public understanding of the roles and responsibilities of school board members and to hold members accountable for high performance”. I had the chance to speak with their Executive Director, Jasmine Jenkins, about what that means and what they hope to accomplish. (If the name Jasmine Jenkins sounds familiar, I interviewed her last year when she was running for the Democratic nomination in SBOE 6.) Here’s what we talked about:

You can see all the interviews I’ve done as well as information about candidates and races at my Election 2017 page.

Posted in: Election 2017.

Another property tax rate dustup

I have four things to say about this:

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner plans to ask city council on Wednesday to sidestep the voter-imposed revenue cap by approving the same property tax rate as last year.

According to City Controller Chris Brown, the city would need to cut the property tax rate by about one fifth of one cent to comply with the revenue cap. The difference would mean about $7 next year to the average Houston homeowner, but the potential political damage to Turner could be much more.

Council must set the tax rate at its Wednesday meeting, but no specific rate was listed on the council agenda and no explanatory backup material was provided to council members until Monday night. Several council members, informed of Brown’s Monday afternoon memo outlining the mayor’s plan, responded with an incredulous, “What?”

The information angered the mayor’s critics and confused his allies on the council a week before voters begin heading to the polls to consider a crucial $1 billion bond that would cement Turner’s landmark pension reforms and another $495 million in city improvement bonds.

To comply with the revenue cap, Brown said, the council would need to set the tax rate at 58.421 cents per $100 of assessed value, not leave it at last year’s 58.642 cents. The difference to the city general fund, he estimated, is $7.9 million.

“I’d love to think of it as a misunderstanding,” Councilman David Robinson said. “Conspicuously on the agenda today it was not disclosed, so it certainly raised a lot of questions. Call it, what – $8 million? It sounds like a very small amount to have a standoff about.”

[…]

Turner’s spokesman Alan Bernstein said Monday afternoon that the mayor’s proposal to leave the rate flat did not rely on invoking the disaster declaration language, but hours later acknowledged that clause is the basis for keeping the same rate.

“The mayor clearly said at this meeting, the press conference with the governor and everybody, ‘We are not going to be invoking the disaster clause,'” Brown said late Monday. “So, now they’re saying they’re going to do it. OK, they can do that. My opposition is not if they do it or don’t, my opposition is that they do it and nobody knows about it.”

A Monday evening memo from interim finance director Tantri Emo said the charter not only allows the mayor to invoke the disaster clause to collect an extra $7.9 million for Harvey expenses, but also provides no process by which Brown is required to verify the tax rate. Therefore, Bernstein added, it is not relevant that Brown cannot verify the city’s estimated $1.1 billion in general fund damages from Harvey before federal and insurance reimbursements.

“Since he can’t independently validate them, he’s not counting them,” Bernstein said. “Well, we’re counting them, and we feel like he’s not interpreting this all correctly. We’re certainly not busting the tax cap. The mayor disagrees with the controller’s conclusion.”

1. Let’s get one thing straight up front: This is not in any way an “increase”. This is because leaving something the same as it was before is not an increase, in the same way that my remaining the same height does not mean that I have gotten taller even if for some reason I was supposed to shrink. One of the Council members quoted in the story referred to this as an “increase”, and you can be sure others will echo him. Don’t fall for it.

2. I don’t know what was going on in the Mayor’s office with this, in particular with the peculiar lack of communication followed by the about-face on their rationale, but this was handled badly. They should have been up front about the fact that all their calculations were based on leaving the tax rate the same. Which, let’s be clear, in a sane non-revenue-cap world is exactly what would have happened without anyone even noticing that it was a thing that was happening. Bring it up early on, during the (successful) standoff with Greg Abbott, and there would be nothing more to it by now. Like I said, I don’t know what they were thinking, but this is a mess of their own making, and they need to clean it up.

3. More to the point, this was a missed opportunity to drive home the message that the revenue cap is stupid, harmful policy. If we didn’t have a revenue cap forcing this on us, would anyone have proposed a tax rate cut right now? Can you imagine it: “Hey, let’s make a tiny little cut to the tax rate that will have no effect at all on anyone but will cost the city eight million dollars at a time when we’re up to our necks in hurricane recovery expenses”? It’s stupid policy that forces us to make stupid choices. The revenue cap needs to go.

4. All that said, I think CM Robinson has the right answer. If this were the Lege, as Mayor Turner surely knows, they’d have solved this by delaying payment of an invoice or two from this accounting cycle to the next one, thus making the “deficit” disappear in a puff of magic pixie dust. I have to believe that the city can do something similar if it comes down to it.

Posted in: Local politics.

Abbott loses nativity lawsuit

Merry secular Christmas!

A federal judge ruled against Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s decision two years ago to remove a mock Nativity display from the Texas Capitol that advocated the separation and church state.

U.S. District Judge Sam Sparks ruled late Friday that Abbott “violated [the Freedom From Religion Foundation’s] clearly established First Amendment right to be free from viewpoint discrimination in a limited public forum.”

It all started in late 2015 when the Freedom From Religion Foundation placed a “winter solstice” display in the Capitol basement. The exhibit featured a cardboard cutout of the nation’s founding fathers and the Statue of Liberty looking down at the Bill of Rights in a manger.

Abbott ordered its removal, calling it a “juvenile parody” and writing that the “Constitution does not require Texas to allow displays in its Capitol that violate general standards of decency and intentionally disrespect the beliefs and values of many of our fellow Texans.”

See here, here, and here for the background, and here for a copy of the decision. The FFRF press release sums up:

U.S. District Judge Sam Sparks for the Western District of Texas – Austin Division, ruled that Abbott violated FFRF’s free speech rights.

FFRF had placed a duly permitted display celebrating the Winter Solstice and Bill of Rights Day, in response to a Christian nativity at the Texas Capitol. The display, depicting founding fathers and the Statue of Liberty celebrating the birth of the Bill of Rights (adopted Dec. 15, 1791), had the requisite sponsorship from a Texas legislator.

Abbott, as chair of the Texas State Preservation Board, ordered FFRF’s display taken down only three days after it was erected, lambasting it as indecent, mocking and contributing to public immorality.

“Defendants have justified removal of FFRF’s exhibit by arguing the exhibit’s satirical tone rendered it offensive to some portion of the population. That is viewpoint discrimination,” writes Sparks in a 24-page ruling. The court also held that a reasonable official in Governor Abbott’s position would have known that removing FFRF’s display based on its viewpoint would violate FFRF’s First Amendment rights, thus FFRF can sue Governor Abbott in his personal capacity.

“It is ‘beyond debate’ the law prohibits viewpoint discrimination in a limited public forum,” Sparks ruled.

Sparks did not find that Abbott’s actions violated the Establishment Clause, but also ruled in FFRF’s favor that FFRF has the right to depose the governor for one hour. Abbott had fought the request for a deposition.

I’ve read the decision and I’m a bit unclear as to what the deposition is about, but I believe it’s because there is an ongoing claim over Abbott violating FFRF’s free speech rights. I’m sure there will be appeals, so one way or another, this isn’t over. It is a reminder that if you’re going to allow religious-themed displays that you like on government property, you’re going to have to allow religious-themed displays that you don’t like. There’s a lesson in there somewhere, if you want to go digging for it. Trail Blazers has more.

Posted in: Legal matters.

Interview with Carolyn Evans-Shabazz

Carolyn Evans-Shabazz

HCC Trustee races never get the attention they deserve. That’s on me too, as I could spend more time with them, but it’s a systemic problem as much as anything. What I can do about it right now is bring you this interview with Trustee Carolyn Evans-Shabazz, running for a full term in District 4 after being appointed to fill the vacancy left by the resignation of Carroll Robinson. Evans-Shabazz has been a teacher and Lead Evaluation Specialist with HISD, an educational diagnostician with both Aldine and Fort Bend ISDs, and an adjunct professor at Texas Southern University. She is a member of the Executive Committee of the NAACP-Houston branch where she serves as Chair of the Education Committee. Here’s what we talked about:

You can see all the interviews I’ve done as well as information about candidates and races at my Election 2017 page.

Posted in: Election 2017.

Amazon and Houston

Does our city have a shot at landing Amazon’s HQ2? Eh, maybe.

Bringing Amazon to Houston almost certainly will be a heavy lift. The pursuit of the company that revolutionized the retail industry has highlighted both the potential and shortcomings of the local technology sector, made up of scattered groups of engineers in the energy, medical and space industries, which account for many of the city’s major innovations, but have yet to break out of their silos to create the kind of culture and buzz that animate tech centers such as Silicon Valley, Austin or Amazon’s hometown of Seattle.

But economic development officials say that regardless of outcome, the bid may well become the catalyst for the kind of innovation ecosystem that pushes the region and its economy into new directions to underpin its long-term prosperity.

“Amazon is a foil for thinking about where you’re trying to take a city,” said Bob Harvey, president and CEO of the Greater Houston Partnership, which is leading a team of developers, academics, Texas Medical Center executives and real estate brokers juggling a high-stakes bidding war and Hurricane Harvey recovery efforts.

[…]

Houston likely has a tough sell ahead of it. The local startup scene has grown in recent years, but has so far failed to attract the sort of venture capital activity concentrated in Austin and other tech-focused cities. Skeptics point to the city’s consistent failure to develop projects that would substantially expand its technological base and attract major firms such as Microsoft, Google or Dell, all of which have operations in Austin.

Most recently, the University of Texas system’s ambitious plan to transform roughly 300 acres of land near the Medical Center into a cutting-edge data science center failed in the face of intense opposition from University of Houston leaders and state lawmakers. Proponents of the deal blamed political sparring for scuttling a deal that could elevated the city’s chance of developing a more robust technology sector.

“That type of nonsense has to stop,” said Houston developer David Wolff, chairman and president of Wolff Companies. “You have to have the institutions working together.”

But local leaders argue that the city’s growing number of software engineers and computer programmers could complement Amazon’s ambitions as it expands its data science capabilities outside of retail and entertainment. In addition, city officials in recent years have made a push to elevate local startups and draw venture capital investors. Station Houston, a downtown startup incubator and co-working space, has attracted more than 260 member companies since it opened this spring.

The city’s most prominent universities have bolstered their technology programs in recent years to include data science and analytics. The University of Houston-Downtown offers a master’s degree in data analytics, and Rice University has partnered with IBM to develop robotics.

“We are still evolving, and we can grow and design a city with the help of an Amazon to help customize our city to their particular needs, which many other cities cannot do,” Mayor Sylvester Turner said in an interview. “We are just now beginning to focus on startups, technology, innovation in a very integrated sense.”

Just between you and me, I don’t think Houston’s odds are very good here, and I won’t be terribly grieved if we are not the chosen city. I think we’d have to give them a pretty substantive bribe incentive package to come here, and I have a hard time with that. (Turns out I’m not the only one who isn’t bullish on our fair city’s chances.) If we’re going to have a broader discussion about making the city more amenable to startups, or to address the infrastructure and transit demands Amazon is making, I’m all in. But let’s leave it at that. Swamplot has more.

Posted in: Bidness.

Congressional candidates everywhere

Texas Democrats are as optimistic as they’ve ever been about candidate recruitment.

Rep. Roger Williams

“I’ve been recruiting candidates in Texas for years, and I’ve never seen an environment quite like this,” said Cliff Walker, candidate recruitment director for the state Democratic Party.

Walker predicted that for the first time in his political career, every open congressional seat will be filled by a “strong Democratic nominee,” and many will have a Democratic primary.

One such race is the primary to challenge U.S. Rep. Roger Williams, R-Austin. His 25th Congressional District includes much of East Austin and parts of Central Austin, including the University of Texas. It stretches from western Hays County to the suburbs south of Fort Worth.

So far three Democratic candidates have emerged for the March primary, though there’s still time for others to join the race before the Nov. 11. deadline. All three cited Trump as their main motivator in deciding to throw their hat in the ring.

Kathi Thomas, 64, a Dripping Springs small-business owner, also challenged Williams in 2016. Initially, it was hearing Williams speak at a town hall-type meeting in 2014 that motivated her to run. After she lost to him last year with about 38 percent of the vote, she said, she hadn’t planned to run again.

[…]

Julie Oliver, 45, a St. David’s HealthCare executive and Central Health board member, never planned to enter the world of politics until Trump’s election, when she said she felt a call of duty.

“We need voices in Congress who will stand up to (Trump) and say that’s not OK. The way you speak is not OK. Where you’re leading us is not OK,” Oliver said, before naming Republicans in Texas and across the country who “won’t stand up to the bully” as she says she will.

[…]

It was seeing Trump announce the immigration ban that stirred to action Chetan Panda, a first-generation American whose parents came to the U.S. from India. Panda grew up and lives in Austin.

“You could see on CNN, these people who are not being allowed to be again in this country,” Panda said. “Honestly, I saw myself and my family’s faces on those people’s faces. … It was really opportunity being denied.”

Panda, 26, was working as a retirement fund manager at a mutual fund, but after that moment and careful consideration, he decided to leave the job to turn his focus on the congressional race.

Thomas was the only candidate of the three in CD25 to have filed a finance report for Q2. I didn’t include her in my roundup because she’d only collected about $8K. The deadline for Q3 reports was Sunday the 15th, and reports are starting to come in, so I’ll be very interested in what we get in this district. In the meantime, you can see Kathi Thomas’ webpage here, Julie Oliver’s here, and Chetan Panda’s here. You’ve got a range of options available to you if you live in CD25.

How good a target is CD25? It’s not completely hopeless, but it’s not exactly top tier. Here are relevant Presidential and Gubernatorial results from recent years, with Court of Criminal Appeals races thrown in for extra effect:

2016 – Clinton 39.9%, Trump 54.7% — Burns 37.0%, Keasler 58.1%
2012 – Obama 37.8%, Romney 59.9% — Hampton 37.6%, Keller 57.6%

2014 – Davis 39.5%, Abbott 58.3% — Granberg 36.4%, Richardson 58.9%
2006 – Molina 44.4%, Keller 55.6%

I didn’t include results from the weird 2006 Governor’s race. The more-encouraging 2006 CCA numbers are due to reduced Republican turnout, which was exacerbated in the downballot contests. Hope in all of these Congressional races begins with a combination of lessened Republican turnout plus energized Democratic participation, with some districts needing a higher concentration of each than others. If CD25 winds up being in play, we are on the high end of that scale.

Posted in: Election 2018.

More on HISD IX, and a little on HISD VII Alief ISD

Wanda Adams

As noted before, I did not do interviews in HISD Trustee races in districts VII and IX. In VII, I did interview now-incumbent Anne Sung and challenger John Luman last year when they were running in the special election to fill the vacancy left by Harvin Moore. You can listen to those again if you want a refresher on those two candidates.

As for IX, I just could not get to it. Life is like that sometimes, I’m afraid. Thankfully, there is an opportunity for you to hear from the candidates in that race – Trustee Wanda Adams and challengers Karla Brown and Gerry Monroe – if you want. There was a debate sponsored by the Forward Times on October 4, and audio of it is available here. In addition, there were articles written about each candidate in the aftermath of the debate by debate moderator Durrel Douglas:

Part 1: Wanda Adams
Part 2: Karla Brown
Part 3: Gerry Monroe

There’s also a recap of the debate, with video embedded from the event. It’s not the same as individual interviews, but it’s a chance to see how the candidates interact with each other. Go take a look or give a listen – the audio should be available as a podcast in the 610 News feed – and see what you think.

Finally, Stace rounds up the candidates in Alief ISD. I wish I had more time to follow races in other ISDs, but alas, I don’t. These elections – for school board and for city council – will have more effect on your daily life than elections for Congress and Senate do. The latter have more power, but the former have more impact. Know who you’re voting for and why you’re voting for them.

Posted in: Election 2017.

Still some fretting about the bonds

Generalized anxiety, nothing specific.

Pro-bond mailer

Fire engines bursting into flames at a scene. Roof leaks damaging walls at city health clinics. Bike trails eroding into the bayou.

Those are among the reasons Mayor Sylvester Turner is asking voters to approve $495 million in public improvement bonds this fall. Early voting starts Oct. 23.

As with the marquee item on the Nov. 7 ballot – Proposition A, the $1 billion bond needed to secure the mayor’s landmark pension reform package – Turner acknowledged that his chief opponent for city propositions B through E is Hurricane Harvey.

The historic storm not only knocked the city on its back, it also disrupted typical campaign efforts, cutting the pro-bonds Lift Up Houston committee’s fundraising targets and, perhaps, preventing it from funding a TV ad blitz, the mayor said.

“The biggest obstacle is not coming from political parties or political groups, it’s not that,” Turner said. “It’s that people are having to deal with some immediate concerns presented by Harvey. And we have to convince them to take some time to go to the polls to cast a ‘yes’ vote.”

[…]

City Controller Chris Brown, the city’s elected financial watchdog, said an organized “no” campaign might not be necessary to make the vote closer than past city bond elections, which tend to pass easily. Brown said he was concerned to hear contentious discussion on the improvement bonds at a Monday night meeting of the Super Neighborhood Alliance, a coalition of civic clubs.

“They had a lot of very specific questions about the bonds, which, you know, this is a standard issuance,” Brown said. “I guess they hadn’t gotten enough details about what exactly was going to be funded. I chalk some of that up to Harvey. But, especially post-Harvey, the needs just increase. It’s in the public’s best interest to approve these.”

Well, they’re sending out mail – the embedded image is a picture of what was in my mailbox on Friday. Again, I remain basically optimistic, especially with the lack of any organized opposition. The goal is not so much persuasion as it is reminding the people you expect to be in favor, or at least those who will be on the Mayor’s side when they know he’s got something he’s asking them to do, to go out and vote. And while the Lift Up Houston committee may be having a hard time making its fundraising targets, Mayor Turner has plenty of cash on hand to bridge the gap if he needs to. I fully expect them to send more mail, and to get some TV and radio spots up shortly.

Posted in: Election 2017.

Some other dude may challenge Ted Cruz in the 2018 GOP primary

Sure, why not?

Not Ted Cruz

A Fort Worth-based political action group that promotes the ideals of former President Ronald Reagan could back a candidate against incumbent Ted Cruz in the Republican primary for Senate.

Bruce Jacobson, the executive producer of a Christian cable television show called called Life Today TV, has been quietly weighing a run against Cruz, according to a spokeswoman for the group Texans for Texas.

Jacobson has not returned phone calls from The Dallas Morning News, but a decision to launch his campaign could come within days. The filing period for the March primaries starts in November.

Texans for Texas, a super PAC that’s been around for about a year, is having a fundraiser Monday in North Richland Hills, where Jacobson lives. He’s listed as the event’s special guest.

According to Federal Election Commission reports, the group has raised $25,000 for the 2018 elections.

Spokeswoman Cristina Baker said the fundraiser is needed to back candidates in the 2018 elections who embody the principles put forth by Reagan. She said the PAC hasn’t endorsed a candidate in the upcoming Senate race, though she acknowledged that Jacobson was mulling over a challenge to Cruz.

[…]

Jacobson, who is well-known among Christian conservatives, could court support from former presidential contenders such as former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee. Cruz has said he’s done what he’s promised in the Senate and is totally committed to Texans and their issues.

Totally committed, I tell you! Just look at this long list of non-Texans he can import to tell you how committed Ted Cruz is to plain, ordinary, everyday Texans. By the way, I just want to say that I love the fact that this PAC is called “Texans for Texas”, thus neatly separating it from all the Texans who are not for Texas. I’m now going to go start my own PAC and call it “Texas for Texans”, just to confuse everybody. I thought I might have something insightful to say about this guy who might want to relive the glory days of the Reagan Revolution, but apparently I was wrong. This is about the level of discourse it deserves. Now go read this Vox story about Beto O’Rourke, it’ll make you feel better. RG Ratcliffe has more.

Posted in: Election 2018.

Weekend link dump for October 15

What not to order at a chain restaurant, according to the people who work at them.

It’s the end of the world as we know it, though probably not right away.

The Babel Fish is coming.

It’s decorative gourd season, y’all.

“About half of fetuses with serious anomalies won’t be detected until an ultrasound at 20 weeks. It’s also after this gestational age that other pregnancy complications can occur that endanger women’s lives, such as ruptured, infected membranes or severe preeclampsia. Contrary to what the far-right claims, pregnancy does kill women.”

“What’s a urinal fly, and what does it have to with winning a Nobel Prize?”

RIP, Y.A. Tittle, Hall of Fame quarterback and easily the most famous person named “Yelberton” ever.

“The Corker episode is perhaps a case study of a delusion still affecting too many senior Republicans: that they can use him without being used by him. It is hard to feel too much sympathy for them if Trump does not hold up his end of whatever bargain they believed they had, given the collateral costs—the damage to vulnerable groups, the enshrining of bigotry, and, indeed, the heightened risk of a third World War—that were always built in. But the most useful lesson might be that Republicans actually did, and do, have choices.”

Kakistocracy is back, and we are experiencing it firsthand in America.”

In case you needed another reason to think Bret Stephens is an idiot.

“[Mark] Zuckerberg needs to testify before Congress in an open hearing about Facebook’s business model and the design priorities for its algorithms, and defend his view that Facebook is not responsible for what third parties do on its platform.”

“This, too, is rape culture. Rape culture is not about demonizing men. It is about controlling female sexuality. It is anti-sex and anti-pleasure. It teaches us to deny our own desire as an adaptive strategy for surviving a sexist world.”

“In virtually every oppressive workplace regime—and other types of oppressive regimes—you see the same phenomenon. Outsiders, from the comfort and ease of their position, wonder why no one inside the regime speak ups and walks out; insiders know it’s not so easy. Everyone inside the regime—even its victims, especially its victims—has a very good reason to keep silent. Everyone has a very good reason to think that it’s the job of someone else to speak out.”

George Strait is a mensch.

“The home of Charles Schulz, Peanuts creator and American treasure, is among the residences that have been lost to the wildfires currently raging in Northern California”.

“Lawsuits filed in the Las Vegas mass shooting that left 58 people dead face several obstacles–including a 2005 federal law that protects gun manufacturers and sellers from civil claims brought by gunshot victims.”

“Americans often have a reputation for brashness and rudeness. But in the end, we’re not too rude. We’re simply too nice to rude people.”

Posted in: Blog stuff.

Stockman aide takes a plea

The walls are closing in.

Best newspaper graphic ever

A longtime confidant and aide to former U.S. Rep. Steve Stockman pleaded guilty to Wednesday to fraud charges in a corruption scheme that also targeted the former congressman. The alleged scheme involved diverting hundreds of thousands of dollars — meant as contributions from conservative foundations — to fund political campaigns and cover personal expenses.

Jason T. Posey, a former campaign treasurer for Stockman, pleaded guilty before Chief U.S. District Judge Lee Rosenthal to one count each of wire fraud, mail fraud and money laundering. The government will presumably dismiss nearly a dozen additional charges and seek a reduced sentence if Posey agrees to cooperate with the government at Stockman’s trial.
He faces up to 45 years in federal prison and a fine of more than $4.8 million plus hundred of thousands of dollars in restitution, Rosenthal said. She set sentencing for Mar. 29.

He remains free on bond.

“My guy was a player, but he’s not the only player involved,” said Posey’s lawyer Phil Hilder. He accepted responsibility for his misdeeds and is prepared to cooperate, Hilder said.

[…]

[Stockman defense attorney Sean] Buckley said this week he believes that Posey and Dodd operated outside of Washington, D.C., on various political and non-profit projects that Stockman knew little about. The defense attorney contends his client trusted the pair to use contributions they received for the proper purposes.

“I will say that the evidence will show that Steve Stockman did not defraud any donors. He spent the funds in a way that he thought were in furthered the donors’ intentions. To the extent that (funds were diverted) he was either unaware of it or he misunderstood it,” Buckley said.

Stockman has said told the court he is innocent and a victim of a deep state conspiracy.

Buckley said he expects Posey to provide information against his former boss and mentor. Dodd has already pleaded guilty to two related conspiracy charges and has agreed to cooperate with prosecutors.

Hilder, who represents Posey, said, “I do not know what a ‘deep state conspiracy’ is, but I do know what constitutes a criminal conspiracy.”

“Mr. Posey freely and voluntarily admits being involved in criminal activity that is the subject of the indictment,” he said. “By pleading guilty at this stage of the proceedings, Mr. Posey accepts his responsibility for his misdeeds and seeks to move forward becoming a productive member of society.”

See here for a good overview of this saga. Jason Posey returned to the US from abroad back in May, and I presume has been talking to the feds for some time. Another former Stockman aide, Thomas Dodd, pleaded guilty in March to two related conspiracy charges and has already agreed to testify. The trial, originally set for September, will begin January 29. Get your popcorn ready, this is going to be amazing.

Posted in: Scandalized!.

The Acre

Meet downtown’s newest park.

As park spaces go, Houston’s newest urban oasis is a mere postage stamp, occupying just over an acre of privately held land, developed with private money. But in post-Harvey Houston, the value of every inch of permeable green space suddenly seems more evident.

Known as the Acre, the signature piece of Brookfield’s $48.5 million renovation of One Allen Center on the west side of downtown opens Monday. The park contains a wide-open plaza and a linear lawn that will seat up to 1,500 people for special events such as concerts.

[…]

To squeeze out more space for the Acre, Brookfield reduced One Allen Center’s ground floor and re-created it as a “glass box” that will soon have a chef-driven restaurant with views of the park, helping to draw more people toward the space.

“It’s almost like a give-back to the city: Taking building away to create an opportunity for outdoor space,” said landscape architect Chip Trageser, a managing partner with the Office of James Burnett, which designed the Acre and is consulting with Brookfield on the center’s master plan.

Trageser’s team planted 171 new trees, including pistachios, elms and overcup oaks. “As everyone in Houston knows, you’ve got to have shade to have any chance of being outside,” Trageser said. “It’s really about creating a micro-climate that feels great in July and August.”

The image above is a picture I took from the skyway leading into One Allen Center. I’ve been walking above the site of this park all through its construction phase, though I’d had no idea this was the intended purpose before the Chron story was published. It’s a cool thing to do – downtown can always use some green space – though I’m not sure how many people are just going to wander in and sit on a bench. The story says there’s going to be a restaurant going into the OAC building, so perhaps we’ll see more people using the new space once it opens. Whatever the case, I hope it’s a success.

Posted in: Elsewhere in Houston.

Endorsement watch: HISD VII and XI

Last two.

Anne Sung

Houston ISD, Trustee, District VII: Anne Katherine Sung

Anne Katherine Sung won in a runoff for this district last year after former trustee Harvin Moore resigned. Now voters are faced with a rematch between Sung and her former opponent, John Luman.

During her short time on the board, Sung has proved herself an engaged and effective trustee who deserves a full term representing this west Houston district, which covers River Oaks, Briar Grove and parts of Montrose and the Heights.

Sung, 38, brings in-depth knowledge of the educational landscape to the task. For more than a decade, she has been attending trustee meetings and preparing herself in multiple ways to assume a leadership role on the board.

The alumna of Bellaire High School has been a Teach for America Corp. member, an award-winning HISD physics teacher and co-founded an education advocacy group, Community Voices for Public Education. She’s currently serving as the chief strategy officer and vice president of the nonprofit Project GRAD Houston.

[…]

Wanda Adams

Houston ISD, Trustee, District IX: Wanda Adams

This troubled south Houston district needs all the help it can get. Fourteen schools within the boundaries, which stretch from the Westbury to Sunnyside, are failing according to ratings by the non-profit Children at Risk.

Despite these problems, none of the challengers provide a compelling case to remove incumbent Wanda Adams from her seat.

While there’s no question that the district is rife with inequity and that some schools need more attention and resources, Adams is one member of a nine-member board in charge of setting policy. The responsibility for these failing schools falls on past superintendents, the entire board and the community, not on a single trustee.

Adams, 50, knows her community well. A former City Council member, this professor of political science at Texas Southern University currently serves as HISD board president and has worked to make key changes to governance. She’s applied time limits to trustees’ remarks to reduce grandstanding at board meetings and has worked to develop a framework to measure district progress.

In the end, I’d say this was a pretty conventional set of endorsements. All incumbents get the nod, and no surprises in the other races. Not that there was much potential for a surprise – as noted before, the slate of candidates is pretty good. I’m not even sure what might have been a true surprise recommendation, other than possibly one of the challengers in XI.

By the way, I have previously noted that right now, the HISD Board has seven women and two men. The range of possible outcomes this November are eight women and one man, to four women and five men. Trustees Rhonda Skillern-Jones, Jolanda Jones, and Diana Davila are not on the ballot, while District I has only female candidates. Only District III, which has four male candidates, is certain to be represented by a man. I don’t have a point to make here, just an observation.

I did not do any interviews in these races. I interviewed both Anne Sung and John Luman for last year’s special election – you can listen to those here: Anne Sung, John Luman. I intended to get to District IX but life and too many other things got to me. I have a post in the works for that race, and if it goes to a runoff I’ll try again.

Posted in: Election 2017.

Saturday video break: Slow Ride

Here’s Bonnie Raitt:

That’s from her hit album Luck of the Draw and it’s a good song, because Bonnie Raitt only makes good songs. But I can’t say it’s one I was greatly familiar with.

I am greatly familiar, as I suspect are you, with Foghat:

That’s the long version of the song. It has 27 million views on YouTube. The short vesion, which is half as long and is what you’ve probably heard all these years on the radio, has 4.7 million views. Make of that what you will.

Posted in: Music.

Kirkland for Supreme Court

Good.

Steven Kirkland

Houston State District Court Judge Steven Kirkland has announced his candidacy for a seat on the all-Republican Texas Supreme Court, making him the first openly gay candidate to run for the state’s highest civil court.

Kirkland, a Democrat, is seeking Place 2 on the court, which is currently held by Justice Don Willett. Willett was nominated to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit by President Donald Trump in September, setting the stage for an open primary if Willett wins Senate confirmation.

“I’m running because the Texas Supreme Court has entered far too many decisions recently that reek of politics and it’s time to change that,” Kirkland said.

Kirkland points to the court’s recent unanimous decision on June 30 in Pidgeon v. Turner, which ruled that the City of Houston should not have extended its benefits policy to same-sex couples as a primary example of a political decision.

Kirkland notes that since the U.S. Supreme Court issued its landmark 2015 decision in Obergefell v. Hodges that legalized same-sex marriage nationwide that “marriage means marriage.”
“They were thumbing their noses at the law and thumbing their noses at the U.S. Supreme Court, all to protect themselves in the Republican primary,” Kirkland said of the ruling.

He’s dead-on right about that, and with any luck our state Supreme Court will get smacked down by the federal one. Kirkland’s candidacy, whatever happens next November, will provide an opportunity to remind everyone what a crappy and craven ruling that was, and that we the people have a chance to do something about it. Kirkland joins his colleague RK Sandill in mounting a statewide race. (Like Sandill, Kirkland is not on the ballot for district court again until 2020.) We need one more to fill out this slate, plus three for the Court of Criminal Appeals. Much as I love these guys, I do hope we get some candidates from outside Harris County as well. OutSmart has more.

Posted in: Election 2018.

Curbside recycling is coming back

Because most of the Harvey debris has been picked up. Win all around.

Houstonians who have been dragging their overflowing recycling bins to the curb every other week only to roll them back again untouched finally should have their cartons and cans hauled off early next month, Mayor Sylvester Turner said Wednesday.

City crews and scores of private contractors have trucked more than 1 million cubic yards of Hurricane Harvey debris to area landfills, the mayor said, and are nearing completion on the first of three planned passes to pick up storm waste from thousands of flood victims’ lawns.

That soon should free up city recycling trucks to resume normal collection schedules after suspending the curbside service in the wake of Hurricane Harvey and the widespread flooding it caused, Turner said.

“We’re hoping that we can start picking up the green bins in the month of November, hopefully the first week,” Turner said after the City Council meeting. “We’ll see how things are going, but based on the pace that things are proceeding, we’re thinking we can speed that process up. That’s the plan.”

Here’s the press release announcing this, which has details about the “second pass” of Harvey debris removal. Getting to this point represents a small amount of normalcy being restored. It’s not a big deal, but every little bit helps.

Posted in: Hurricane Katrina.

Endorsement watch: HISD V and VI

Two more HISD endorsements, two more to go.

Sue Deigaard

Houston ISD, Trustee, District V: Sue Deigaard

Four qualified candidates are running for an open seat in this southwest Houston district, which covers West University, Bellaire and Meyerland. Yet Sue Deigaard stands above them all. Her knowledge of this district is so deep and broad that she talks with the authority of a trustee, even though this is her first run for office.

For Deigaard, 48, it is all about HISD, and she said during her meeting with the editorial board that if we found another candidate more qualified, we should support that person. You’d be hard pressed to find anyone more prepared for any election.

The daughter of a high-school drop-out, Deigaard was the first member of her family to graduate from college. After receiving a degree from Rice University, she worked in alumni affairs at her alma mater for more than five years. But volunteer experience sets her apart.

For more than a decade, Deigaard has been an advocate for public education. In addition to being a near fixture at board meetings and other district functions, she serves as a parent representative on HISD’s district advisory committee and chairs the communication committee for the Arts Access Initiative, which has a goal of expanding arts education opportunities to all K-12 students at HISD. She has also organized and facilitated community finance and engagement meetings for education advocacy groups and school districts.

[…]

Holly Flynn Vilaseca

Houston ISD, Trustee, District VI: Holly Flynn Vilaseca

Holly Flynn Vilaseca was appointed to the board in January when long-time trustee Greg Meyers resigned, and she deserves to serve a full term. Vilaseca has gained a reputation for being a steady hand and reasoned voice on the board representing her west Houston district, which includes the Energy Corridor and Sharpstown.

Vilaseca, 36, is the daughter of immigrants and was the first in her family to attend college. She began her career in education as a Teach for America Corp. member and went on to teach bilingual and dual language early childhood classes for six years. She earned a master’s degree from Columbia University in social and organizational psychology and currently works for a nonprofit in the education space.

Her opponent, Robert Lundin, has an outstanding resume as well. He has served as long-time educator and former HISD employee who resigned to run in this race. Not only does he hold a doctorate from Vanderbilt University in educational leadership, but he also serves as a faculty member at Rice University. In addition, Lundin has an impressive list of endorsements, including former U.S. Secretary of Education Dr. Rod Paige. Lundin and Vilaseca are fluent in both English and Spanish.

Interviews:

Sue Deigaard
Kara DeRocha
Sean Cheben

Holly Flynn Vilaseca
Robert Lundin

The Chron was complimentary to all the candidates I interviewed, which I suppose validates in some way my reason for interviewing them. Mostly it speaks to the level of candidate we have running this time around. That is very much not always the case. Districts VII and IX remain to be evaluated.

Posted in: Election 2017.

Friday random ten: Big talker, part 3

Time for a big finish.

1. Big Rio Grande River – Austin Lounge Lizards
2. Big Rock Candy Mountain – Harry McClintock
3. Big Round World – Trout Fishing In America
4. Big Girls Cry – Sia
5. Big Noise – Eddie From Ohio
6. Big Shot – Billy Joel
7. Big Sky Country – Chris Whitley
8. Big Time – Peter Gabriel
9. Big School – team9 vs Stereogum
10. Big Yellow Taxi – Joni Mitchell

The Lounge Lizards, Trout Fishing in America, and Billy Joel have an affinity for songs whose titles begin with “Big”. Lots of things follow easily from that, I suppose. I’m late in finishing this post up, so I’ll just leave you with that thought.

Posted in: Music.

An unsatisfying attempt at projecting turnout

So as we all know, this in an unprecedented election, as there are no city races on the ballot. This has everyone wondering about turnout, because the usual drivers of turnout are a Mayor’s race and/or a big referendum, and we have neither of those. What can we guess from past turnout?

There are two components of interest here, overall turnout in the city and in the districts that have contested races. Those races of interest are in HISD, so my first thought was to look at some past elections to see what we could learn from the ratio of voters in each district to total voters in Houston. If that’s reasonably consistent, then we can make a projection for the districts on the ballot based on what we think the top level is.

HISD Trustee terms are four years, so our points of comparison are the years in which the same districts are up. Here are the citywide numbers from the Harris County Clerk:


Year      Turnout
=================
2001      284,748
2005      189,046
2009      178,777
2013      174,620

Yes, there are city voters outside Harris County, but none of them intersect with HISD, so we can safely ignore them. Now here are the totals for the five HISD districts that are normally on the ballot in these cycles:


Dist   2001 Share    2005 Share    2009 Share    2013 Share
===========================================================
I    12,515  4.40  10,159  5.37   9,823  5.49  10,521  6.03
V    21,761  7.64                14,550  8.14
VI
VII                                            12,394  7.10
IX   17,524  6.15  12,372  6.54  12,299  6.88  11,245  6.44

And right here you can see why I called this an “unsatisfying” attempt at this projection. The County Clerk only shows the results for contested school board races, and Districts V, VI, and VII haven’t had a lot of those in recent years. We do have good data in I and IX, and those numbers are interesting. District IX is very consistent. If you know what overall city turnout was, you can make a pretty good guess as to turnout in IX. District I, on the other hand, shows a steady upward trend. I’d say that’s the result of changes in the district, which encompasses a good chunk of the Heights and surrounding areas that have been gentrifying. As such, I’d consider the 2013 numbers to be a floor for this year.

That leaves us with the question of what citywide turnout might be. We do have a model for guessing turnout in elections with no Mayor’s race. Since 2005, there have been six At Large City Council runoffs with no corresponding Mayor’s runoff, and in 2007 there was a special May election with June runoff for At Large #3. Here are the vote totals in those races:


2005 At Large #2 runoff = 35,922
2007 At Large #3 May    = 33,853
2007 At Large #3 June   = 24,746
2007 At Large #5 runoff = 23,548
2011 At Large #2 runoff = 51,239
2011 At Large #5 runoff = 55,511
2013 At Large #2 runoff = 32,930
2013 At Large #3 runoff = 33,824

Those numbers are pretty consistent with my earlier finding that there are about 36,000 people who voted in every city election from 2003 to 2013. There won’t be a Mayor’s race this year, but the school board candidates are out there campaigning, and I expect they’ll draw a few people to the polls who aren’t in that group. Similarly, there will be a campaign for the bond issues on the ballot, and that should nudge things up a bit as well. I think a reasonable, perhaps slightly optimistic but not outrageous, estimate is about 50,000 votes total. If that’s the case, then my projections for the school board races are as follows:


District I   = 3,000 (6% of the total)
District V   = 4,000 (8%)
District VII = 3,500 (7%)
District IX  = 3,250 (6.5%)

You can adjust up or down based on your opinion of the 50K overall estimate. If these numbers represent the over/under line, I’d be inclined to put a few bucks on the over in each, just because there will be actual campaign activity in them and there won’t be elsewhere. I don’t think that will be a big difference-maker, but it ought to mean a little something. All of this is about as scientific as a SurveyMonkey poll, but it’s a starting point. I’ll be sure to follow up after the election, because we may want to do this again in four years’ time, when the next Mayor-free election could be.

Posted in: Election 2017.

We have a candidate for Treasurer

Dylan Osborne

The Democratic slate for countywide offices in 2018 is now filled out as Dylan Osborne has announced his candidacy for Harris County Treasurer. Osborne has been a City Council staffer and currently works in the Planning & Development Department for the City of Houston. He joins the following on the ticket for next November:

Lina Hidalgo, County Judge
Diane Trautman, County Clerk
Marilyn Burgess, District Clerk
Josh Wallenstein, HCDE Trustee, Position 3 At Large

All this presumes there are no other entrants into the primaries. Given how crowded some other races are I wouldn’t bet on that, but this is what we have now. As noted in the previous update, we are still awaiting candidates for County Commissioner in Precinct 2, and an HCDE Trustee for Position 4, Precinct 4, as well as some State Reps. Filing season opens in about five weeks.

Did you know that the current Treasurer, Orlando Sanchez, is the longest-tenured countywide official? He was elected in 2006, so this is his third term. County Judge Ed Emmett was appointed in 2007 and won his first election in 2008, along with County Attorney Vince Ryan. County Clerk Stan Stanart and District Clerk Chris Daniel were both elected in 2010. Everyone else, including the At Large HCDE Trustees, was elected no earlier than 2012. There are some judges who have been on the bench longer than Sanchez has been in office, there are Constables and JPs who have been around longer, and of course Commissioner Steve Radack was first elected during the Truman administration (I may be slightly exaggerating), but for countywide executive offices, it’s Orlando and then it’s everybody else. If we want to elevate somebody else to the title of most senior countywide elected official, next year will be our chance to do that.

Posted in: Election 2018.

Wilson sues HCC

It’s a thing with him.

Dave Wilson

Dave Wilson, a District II trustee, is accusing Carolyn Evans-Shabazz, the board’s vice chair, of improperly voting remotely during a September trustee meeting.

Board bylaws say that only trustees present in person can vote, though absent trustees can listen to the proceedings electronically.

Wilson’s lawsuit says the meeting in question took place on Sept. 21. HCC trustees did not meet that day, but at the Sept. 22 meeting, the board was scheduled to elect a secretary for the remainder of 2017, authorize HCC’s chancellor to execute a facilities maintenance contract and define how vendors who violate the board’s ethics code should be disciplined, among other items.

“If the court finds that participating by video chat in the board meetings violates (board bylaws), then the court should declare her vote illegal and void,” his lawsuit reads. “The court should order a recount of each agenda item for the board meeting.”

I have a copy of Wilson’s complaint here. It’s quite short and to the point, so go ahead and read it. I can sum it up as follows:

– In 2010, the HCC Board voted to amend its bylaws to state that only Trustees who attend meetings in person may vote. A Trustee who is not present may view the meeting electronically may not vote, and proxy votes are not allowed.

– Trustee Carolyn Evans-Shabazz was not present for the September 21 meeting, but attended via video conference. She voted on agenda items, over Wilson’s objection, and her votes were counted.

– Wilson wants the court to require the Board to enforce its bylaws, and void all the votes taken on September 21.

And that’s it. What struck me is that Wilson cites no laws in his suit, just the Board bylaws. I agree that Trustees should follow their own rules, but I’m kind of perplexed that a court would consider itself to have the jurisdiction to step in and enforce that. Any attorneys out there want to comment on this? By the way, Wilson never alleges that any of Evans-Shabazz’s votes were decisive, nor that the Board would have lacked a quorum without her. As such, I’m not sure what the point is, beyond the principle involved. Which, much as I deplore Dave Wilson I can kind of understand. Still, the two PTA boards I’ve served on had bylaws, too, but I don’t think it would have occurred to me to file a lawsuit if I’d thought those bylaws were not being followed. Was there no other way to resolve this?

Posted in: Legal matters.

Endorsement watch: HISD I and III

We have our first candidate endorsements of the season.

Monica Flores Richart

Houston ISD, Trustee, District I: Monica Flores Richart

In this heated race between three passionate candidates to represent Garden Oaks, the Heights and Near Northside, we endorse Monica Flores Richart.

No other candidate in this race or others has demonstrated such a clarity of vision about the problems vexing HISD’s complicated school-funding system, with specific ire reserved for magnet programs and gifted and talented programs that divert funds toward already-wealthy schools.

“We have never really had a cohesive set of priorities and goals for our magnet program,” Richart told the editorial board while rattling off the statistical specifics with ease. Also on her agenda is a thorough auditing of the school budget, zero-based budgeting and a dedication to equity.

“What bothers me most about HISD is the disparate educational opportunities among the communities.”

[…]

Sergio Lira

Houston ISD, Trustee, District III: Sergio Lira

Longtime trustee Manuel Rodriguez, Jr. passed away in July and four candidates have stepped up to fill his seat.

Two stand out: Sergio Lira, an assistant principal at Bellaire High School, and Rodolfo (Rudy) Reyes, a former League City council member and court-appointed child advocate.

Lira, 56, has a record as an outstanding educator and has spent virtually his entire career in the district he is seeking to govern. An educational background is a plus for a trustee, but in a perfect world, a trustee should have experience beyond the immediate classroom.

Reyes has a broad professional background that ranges from employment as a contract specialist for the National Cancer Institute to teaching English to four-year-olds in public school. He currently serves as a court-appointed child advocate.

While his budgetary expertise would be useful, this accomplished candidate seems to equate service on this board with his experience on city council. School trustees need to understand that principals aren’t their primary constituents.

Undoubtedly Reyes would be a quick study, but we’re tipping our hat to Lira, as he seems to be in a better position to govern immediately.

Here are all the interviews I did in these races:

Monica Flores Richart
Elizabeth Santos
Gretchen Himsl

Carlos Perrett
Jesse Rodriguez
Sergio Lira

Rodolfo Reyes never replied to the email I sent him asking for an interview. The Chron was complimentary to Himsl, and appreciative of the others. I figure both of these races are going to a runoff, and if so we know who their backup choices are if it comes to that. Early voting starts on Monday the 23rd, so get ready to get out there and make your voices heard.

Posted in: Election 2017.

No expedited appeal of voter ID

There’s no speeding this up.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

A federal appeals court Tuesday declined to have all 14 judges participate in the appeal over the Texas voter ID law — a decision that will keep the issue unresolved heading into the 2018 elections, one judge said.

Civil rights groups, Democrats and minority voters who challenged the voter ID law as discriminatory had asked for the entire court to hear the appeal as a way to speed the case toward resolution.

The 10-4 ruling by the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, however, means the appeal will be heard by the customary three-judge panel.

Writing in dissent, Justice Jerry Smith noted that the losing side will probably ask the entire court to review the panel’s decision in what is known as “en banc” consideration — a path the 5th Circuit Court took at an earlier stage of the case that, if taken again, would make it “impossible for a decision to be issued before some, if not all, of the 2018 elections are history,” he said.

“The lopsided vote to deny en banc hearing shows that the court has little appetite for disposing of this important case in advance of the beginning of the 2018 election cycle,” Smith wrote.

“The elephant in the room is Texas’s 2018 election schedule, which includes statewide primaries on March 6 (with early voting beginning February 20), municipal elections May 5 (early voting April 22), primary runoffs May 22 (early voting May 14), and the general election November 6 (early voting October 22),” Smith wrote.

See here for the background. The idea is that if the appeal is heard by the usual three-judge panel, whoever loses is going to ask for an en banc review anyway, so why not skip ahead to that? That’s not what we’re going to get, so the best we can hope for is a sense of urgency from everyone along the way. Oral arguments are set for the first week of December, and after that we’ll have to do a lot of waiting. Rick Hasen has more.

Posted in: Legal matters.

The fire department’s needs

This is a conversation we need to have, but it’s one we need to dig into and work all the way through.

Fire Chief Sam Pena gave City Council a bleak assessment Tuesday of his department’s readiness to respond to significant rainstorms, or even daily fire and medical calls, saying a ramshackle fleet and inadequate training are putting the safety of citizens and firefighters at risk.

The Houston Fire Department must double its annual spending on new engines, ladders and ambulances, the chief said, and must ramp up its purchases of water rescue apparatuses and the training.

The department has a “moral and legal” duty, Pena said, to provide safe and effective vehicles and equipment to its 4,100 firefighters and the residents they serve.

Instead, he said, engines are catching fire on the scene or at stations; one dropped a gas tank en route to a call. Another time, he said, an ambulance broke down while carrying a cardiac patient to a hospital. Reserve vehicles have to stand in for broken-down front-line apparatus 85 percent of the time, he said.

“We haven’t allocated the right resources to ensure we’re preparing our firefighters to do the job we’re asking them to do,” said Pena, who became chief last December. “What Harvey put a spotlight on is the lack of resources that we’ve had, but it’s a reality that we’re living as a department every day. We have to make a decision about what we want our fire department to do and what we’re willing to fund.”

[…]

On Tuesday, he told the council’s public safety committee that HFD had received funding for 20 of the 47 engines it sought in the last three budget cycles. It also got 10 of 19 requested ladder or tower trucks, and 36 of 75 requested ambulances, he said.

The city has budgeted $5.5 million to $5.8 million in each of the next five years to purchase fire vehicles, but Pena said $11 million is needed annually to ensure HFD meets his recommendation of replacing 16 ambulances, nine engines and four ladder or tower trucks each year.

If voters pass the $495 million city bonds on the November ballot, officials said the department will get $10.8 million a year for five years to renew its fleet.

Mayor Sylvester Turner said it has been evident since he took office that HFD – along with police and city trash haulers – have been working with inadequate vehicles.

“Today Chief Pena painted a picture I know well. We are going to meet these needs as much as we can with the limited city revenues we have, hence the importance of the public safety bonds that the voters are asked to approve,” Turner said. “This is just one of the steps we need to take to get us where we need to be.”

See here for some background. The bond issue on the ballot would help the Fire Department replace old equipment, but it would not be enough to also buy more flood-rescue gear or pay for training on it. That will require further spending from the city, including from general revenue, at a time when there’s not a lot of spare change lying around and the city’s revenue stream is hamstrung by the stupid revenue cap. We should, as I have said here and in that earlier post, have a real discussion about what HFD needs and how we’re going to pay for it, and I trust everyone agrees that kicking the can down the road isn’t a great idea. But that discussion needs to include how HFD spends its money now, because as the Chron editorial board reminds us, their track record on fiscal matters is not good.

Tensions between City Hall and Houston firefighters have simmered for years, and things finally boiled over. Firefighters are frustrated because pension reform cut their benefits; they haven’t received a raise in years, and City Hall has failed to spend enough on much-needed high-water vehicles and other equipment.

Those grievances can sound pretty convincing until you look at things from the perspective of a taxpayer.

The firefighter pension system was unsustainable and needed to be reformed. In June, the firefighter union rejected a 9.5 percent pay raise as insufficient. And City Hall has budgeted more than $5 million per year for the next five years to purchase new fire equipment.

Fire Chief Sam Peña told City Council this week he wants double that amount.

Perhaps Peña should first ask his own staff for cash. HFD’s Life Safety Bureau alone racked up $5.6 million in overtime, according to a recent city audit, all while fudging building inspection numbers. And three years ago – under a different chief – a single year of unexpected overtime blew an $8 million hole in the fire department’s finances. Five percent of that budget gap was due solely to firefighters taking off the first weekend of hunting season. (Note to Peña: Deer season opens Nov. 4).

The board renews its call again for a blue ribbon panel to review HFD’s operations from top to bottom, noting that while the department is geared towards fighting a declining number of fires, the vast majority of the calls it receives are for emergency medical services, for which fire trucks are dispatched. I’m prepared to spend more money on HFD to bring them up to speed on the things we need from them, but I want to know that we’re using that money wisely. If we’re not also prepared to answer that question, then I don’t know when we ever will be. The Press has more.

Posted in: Local politics.

Rep. Al Green’s articles of impeachment

Gauntlet thrown.

Rep. Al Green

U.S. Rep. Al Green, a Houston Democrat, introduced formal articles of impeachment against President Donald Trump on the House floor Wednesday during a session otherwise devoted to whistleblower protection legislation.

In his argument for impeaching the president, Green read out several of Trump’s tweets, arguing that his statements on several recent national controversies had “incited bigotry” against various minority groups, including African-Americans playing in the National Football League, transgender individuals serving in the military and Puerto Ricans recovering from a natural disaster. During his long-shot impeachment pitch, Green also criticized the president’s failure to condemn an August white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, and called Trump out for claiming to have won the popular vote in November’s presidential election.

“[Trump] has undermined the integrity of his office, has brought disrepute onto the presidency, has betrayed his trust as president to the manifest injury of the people of the United States of America and as a result is unfit to be president,” Green said. “He warrants impeachment, trial and removal from office.”

See here and here for the background. There’s also the whole nuclear war thing, in case you want something a bit more tangible to hang your hat on. I feel confident saying that this will go nowhere until either the Dems retake the House or Trump does something so egregious even the Republicans can’t ignore it. What that might be, after all we’ve already seen and experienced, I have no idea. But I’d like to think it exists, even if I’d rather not encounter it. The Chron, the Press, and the Current have more.

Posted in: National news.

Texas blog roundup for the week of October 9

The Texas Progressive Alliance also does not deny that it called Donald Trump a moron – among other things – as it brings you this week’s roundup.

Continue reading →

Posted in: Blog stuff.

Interview with Sergio Lira

Sergio Lira

We come to the end of our week with candidates in HISD District III, to succeed Manuel Rodriguez. Bringing us home is Sergio Lira, who has been an assistant principal in HISD since 2006 – he is currently at Bellaire High School – and in Pasadena ISD for seven years before that. Lira holds an EdD from the University of Houston, and also has Superintendent certification from UH. He was the recipient of the 2016 Courage Award from the Texas Organizing Project. Here’s what we talked about:

You can see all the interviews I’ve done as well as information about candidates and races at my Election 2017 page.

Posted in: Election 2017.

The lost Harvey tax break

I have mixed feelings about this.

Rep. Sarah Davis

Owners of nearly 300,000 homes damaged by Hurricane Harvey in Texas won’t see any break in their property taxes because of political wrangling this year in the state Legislature over completely unrelated issues – including, one Houston Republican says, the bathroom bill.

A property tax reform bill that would have required all local governments to reappraise damaged homes and businesses and lower the tax bills came within a single round of votes on four different occasions. If the mandatory reappraisal proposal had become law, it would have all but assured that the tens of thousands of homes and businesses damaged or destroyed statewide because of Harvey would have received a reduction in property taxes this year.

But it never passed, and according to the state lawmaker who came up with the idea, it’s because of the bathroom bill. Rep. Sarah Davis, R-Houston, lays the blame on Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who she contends was trying to blackball her bills.

“I have little doubt its slow death in the Senate is because of social issues like the bathroom bill,” said Davis, whose district flooded badly during the 2015 Memorial Day storms and the 2016 tax day storms.

Currently, reappraisals after natural disasters are optional for local governments and most are like Harris County and Aransas County in saying they won’t do it because they cannot afford it.

A home in Houston that was valued at $200,000 before the hurricane, but worth just $30,000 after, would have seen a $700 cut just in school taxes, according to the Texas Taxpayers and Research Association, which strongly backed the Davis proposal.

“It was really one of my No. 1 priorities,” said Davis, whose original bill would have taken effect Sept. 1.

But that is likely why the bill never cleared the Senate, she said. Davis was a vocal opponent of the so-called bathroom bill that was a top priority in the Texas Senate.

[…]

Texas law already allows counties, cities and other local governments to reappraise properties after a storm, but few ever do because of the lost revenues that it could result in and because of how expensive and time consuming the reappraisal process could be during a time governments are trying to finalize their budgets. If governments do the reappraisals, the full cost is on the local governments.

“It’s not a very workable solution,” Harris County Judge Ed Emmett, a Republican, said about why he has not voluntarily called for the reappraisals in Harris. “It’s not that I don’t have sympathy for people and what they’ve lost.”

He said the problem is the reappraisals would cost $10 million in a county as big and urban as Harris County. Plus the county would lose revenue from tax collections at a time it most needs the money to address the natural disaster recovery.

He added that property owners still will get the benefit of the Jan. 1 appraisals for the next year’s taxes. That almost certainly will result in lower tax bills for homeowners with damaged properties next year.

Similarly, in Aransas County – where Harvey made landfall as a Category 4 and demolished 36 percent of all homes and businesses – there will be no reappraisal. Aransas County Judge C.H. “Burt” Mills Jr. said there isn’t time or money to get it done and said it would only hurt tax revenues at a time when every source of funding the county relies on is in jeopardy.

“All of our income is in the toilet,” Mills said of a county that relies heavily on tourists to generate sales taxes and fill rental properties.

Let’s start with the obvious. Of course the bathroom bill was the reason why this bill never got a vote in the Senate. This is how Dan Patrick operates. You can admire his hard-nosed tactical consistency, or you can bemoan his willingness to sacrifice the greater good in service of his narrow partisan interests, but you can’t deny the premise.

I certainly get the impetus for Rep. Davis’ bill. Though all the activity on this came before Harvey, Davis represents neighborhoods that were hard hit by the floods of 2015 and 2016. Giving people whose houses have been greatly damaged or destroyed a break on their property taxes has a lot of obvious appeal. That said, I agree with Judges Emmett and Mills. The counties – and cities and school districts – that these houses are in will be facing large extra expenses as a result of the disaster in question, and they’ve built their budgets for the year based in part on the original values of those houses. When the houses are reappraised for the next year, everyone can plan their budgets based on the expected lower values. Is the benefit of an extra year’s lower tax bill for affected homeowners worth the cost?

There is, of course, a simple enough way to resolve this: Have the state cover the difference. We agree that homeowners whose houses have been devastated deserve a break. We agree (I hope) that the cost of that break should not be a burden on counties and school districts that are themselves recovering from the damage of the natural disaster. The amount in question would be a relative pittance for the state. Why not let the state budget make the affected local government entities whole? Because that’s not what we do. Dan Patrick and his buddies take from the locals, they don’t give back. They’d be more than willing to take the credit for the cut, but it’ll be a cold day in August before they’d be willing to bear the cost. I appreciate what Rep. Davis was trying to do with her bill, but without this I can’t quite support it.

Posted in: Hurricane Katrina, That's our Lege.

Endorsement watch: The bonds

Endorsement season has officially begun.

The key referendum, Proposition A, is a solution to Houston’s potentially disastrous pension problem. A complex deal ushered through the Texas Legislature by Mayor Sylvester Turner would reduce the $8.2 billion unfunded pension burden now carried by Houston taxpayers to $5.2 billion. Union leaders representing police officers and municipal employees have agreed to sacrifice benefits worth roughly $1.8 billion. But the whole arrangement depends upon voters approving a $1 billion bond issuance, 1 of 5 city bonds on the ballot.

The pension bond wouldn’t raise taxes, nor would it increase the public debt. Houston already owes this money to its retired employees; this deal will take care of a debt that’s already on the books. The bonds will be paid off over the course of three decades. By coincidence, this happens to be a good time for the city to borrow money. This is like refinancing your mortgage when interest rates are low.

On the other hand, Turner bluntly and accurately told the Chronicle’s editorial board, if the pension obligation bonds go down, “it’s worse than the financial impact of Harvey.” Before this deal was struck, our city government was staring at the grim prospect of laying off more than 2,000 employees, about 10 percent of its workforce, a cut that would almost certainly impact police and firefighters.

[…]

Meanwhile, four other bond proposals would pay for facilities and equipment at everything from police and fire stations to city parks and libraries. At a time when our police officers are driving around in cars that are more than a decade old, we voters need to pass these capital improvement bonds.

The campaign for the bonds is underway, and I do expect them to pass. But this is a weird year, and turnout is going to be well below what we’re used to – and we ain’t used to particularly robust turnout – so anything can happen. The big task in this election for all campaigns is just making sure people know they need to go vote. If you’re reading this site, you already know that much. I say vote for the bonds as well, for all the reasons the Chron gives.

Posted in: Election 2017.

Interview with Jesse Rodriguez

Jesse Rodriguez

We continue with interviews in HISD Trustee District III, where four candidates vie to fill out the term of the late Manuel Rodriguez. Today’s interview subject is Jesse Rodriguez, no relation to Manuel, also known as DJ Jumpin’ Jess. Rodriguez has a long and varied background in radio and the entertainment business; it’s hard to summarize, so go look at his About page for how he puts it. He has served on multiple non-profit boards, including the Rusk Athletic Club, the National Hispanic Professional Organization, and the Houston Media Source board, to which he was appointed by Mayor Parker. Here’s the interview:

You can see all the interviews I’ve done as well as information about candidates and races at my Election 2017 page.

Posted in: Election 2017.

Lift Up Houston

Hey, you know there are bonds on the ballot, right? And Mayor Turner would like you to vote for them.

Mayor Sylvester Turner spent much of his first year and a half keeping the civic conversation focused on winning legislative approval of his plan to end Houston’s spiraling pension crisis, and then, last May, achieved it.

Then came the historic hurricane. It may take a little time to get the public’s attention back, but local leaders do not have much to spare.

“There are some competing issues and needs out there, but this is one time where we’re going to have to do more than one thing at one time,” Turner said. “This is one issue the city’s been grappling with for the last 17 years and November is the people’s opportunity to put a bow on this pension reform package and for us to turn the page and to really focus on our recovery efforts from Hurricane Harvey.”

If the bonds fail, many of the hard-won benefit cuts in the reform bill would be rescinded.

The mayor acknowledged he is concerned at the short window he has to grab voters’ attention – early voting starts Oct. 23 – but University of Houston political scientist Brandon Rottinghaus said local leaders may have just enough time to make their case.

“It’s these kinds of issues where people could change their minds, or see the value of the bonds and vote accordingly,” he said. “Partisan votes don’t happen that way, but on a bond election where people know just a little bit of information, a little bit of communication can go a long way.”

[…]

The Lift Up Houston campaign, which is advocating for the pension bonds and $495 million in city general improvement bonds that also will appear on the ballot, started knocking on doors in August, Turner said. However, he acknowledged the hurricane disrupted those efforts and several political fundraisers that had been planned to support them.

“The unfunded liability is $8.2 billion, is costing the city $1 million a day, and a ‘yes’ vote will reduce that unfunded liability by $3 billion. That is significant. And, let me add, without raising anybody’s taxes,” Turner said. “We’re on the 10-yard-line, but we need to complete the work, and it won’t be completed without a yes vote for the pension obligation bonds. That will complete the full package.”

Rottinghaus said local leaders would be in error if they assume the bond election will glide to victory because most bond elections do or because both Democratic and Republican leaders support it.

“There are still sentiments from the grass roots that reject any big-government initiative, including one that is developed from a Republican legislature to save the city pension system,” he said. “There’s only so much directing that those leaders can do.”

See here for more on Lift Up Houston. The good news is that there doesn’t seem to be any organized opposition to the pension bond issue. The Harris County GOP declined to get involved, while other Republican-oriented groups like the C Club did endorse it (though they oppose the other bonds). That gives the Mayor and Lift Up Houston a clean shot at getting their message out and targeting their voters. You never want to take anything for granted, but they ought to be able to get this done.

Posted in: Election 2017.

More on the courthouse shuffle

The Trib takes a look at how things are going at the flooded-out Harris County Criminal Justice Center.

Since Harvey hit Harris County in late August, one of the busiest criminal court systems in the country has suspended all jury trials. It’s just one of a slate of challenges facing the county’s justice system in the weeks since the storm, but defense attorneys argue that delayed trials — and in dozens of cases, prolonged detention — have the potential to infringe on their clients’ most fundamental rights.

Justice delayed, they argue, has begun to verge on justice denied.

The U.S. Constitution guarantees the right to a “speedy” trial, but the law offers no specific guidance on what “speedy” means. And it’s not entirely clear how that right might change in the face of unprecedented natural disaster.

Jury trials could resume in Harris County as soon as Oct. 16, when jurors will be summoned again to a host of makeshift assembly rooms downtown. But at least at first, the county will not be able to assemble nearly the usual number of jurors, and courthouse workers will have to ration those jurors across 22 felony and 16 misdemeanor courts.

[…]

This time, the damage has left a 20-story hole in the county’s justice system, taking out 40 courtrooms, the district attorney’s office and enough holding cells to accommodate 900 inmates. Partial occupancy may be possible in six to eight months, but county engineers say it will likely a take a year and a half — and $30 million — for the building to return to full capacity.

The bigger problem, according to local officials, sits a block southwest of the courthouse. The three-floor jury assembly building at 1201 Congress Ave. saw just as much damage, but the bulk of its business takes place below ground, where on the county’s busiest days, about 800 potential jurors can be assembled.

The subterranean floor was so damaged that it may not even be repaired. That means there’s nowhere to assemble the jurors that the county needs to take cases like Deras’ to trial.

As a result, hundreds of trials have been delayed, and about 100 defendants sit in custody awaiting their turn.

See here and here for some background. As the story notes, while the DA’s office is prioritizing cases where the defendant is in custody and disposing of them as they can, there are still going to be a number of people who will spend significant time in jail before they ever get to a resolution of their case. Even though that includes a lot of felons, given the ongoing litigation over bail practices it would not be surprising if that’s an issue for future appeals. And given that there was flooding during Alison as well as Harvey, the county is going to have to give a lot of thought to how to be better prepared for these events going forward.

Posted in: Hurricane Katrina.

Houston Rocks Dayna Steele at Numbers

I don’t mention candidate fundraisers very often in this space, but today I’m going to make a special exception for one of the cooler events I’ve come across.

Dayna Steele

Hilton at 10:30 a.m.

Dayna Steele rocked Houston for years. Now, let’s help Dayna get to Congress and #Rockthe36 at Numbers
October 16th, 6-8PM 300 Westheimer Road

Steeleworkers will reunite and rock as we fundraise for Dayna Steele’s campaign for Congress TX-36 at Houston’s most iconic live music venue located mere steps from the original KLOL studios.

Former Houston mayor Annise Parker joins the Host Committee (forming now) along with KLOL notables (stay tuned) and an all-star jam to close out the evening. Galactic Cowboys’ Dane Sonnier is leading the band and David Bowie guitarist Earl Slick is coming all the way from New York City to rock for Dayna. Lady Liberty may even make an appearance!

Food and drinks will be available. For more information or to RSVP to pay by check at the door, email andigreer@gmail.com. Contact Doug Harris to join the Host Committee and/or KLOL notables list at dough@noisemaker.com

*Ticket/donation levels are nods to Dayna’s rock and roll past. There’s really not a front row or backstage but there is a guaranteed good time to be had. See you there rock stars!

The guest list includes Outlaw Dave Andrews, also of KLOL fame, and Tom Scholz, the lead guitarist and founding father of classic rocker Boston. I mean, how many chances are you going to get to do something like this? Click the link to buy a ticket or make a donation if you can’t make it. And rock on with your bad self.

Posted in: Election 2018.

Interview with Carlos Perrett

Carlos Perrett

On we go to District III, which would normally not be up for election this year, but the untimely passing of longtime Trustee Manuel Rodriguez created a vacancy that needs to be filled. The Board appointed an interim Trustee to finish out the year, but he was chosen with the agreement that he would not seek a full term. Four other people have stepped up to do that, and I have interviews with three of them. First up is Carlos Perrett, who at 21 is the youngest person on the ballot. Many people who run for school board tout their past education experiences in HISD, but Perrett, a graduate of Chávez High School, can speak to much more recent and relevant experience. He was awarded the Kallick Community Service Award in 2017, the Student Leadership Award in 2016, and was a Jesse H. and Mary Gibbs Jones Scholar and Pritzker Scholar in 2014. Here’s the interview:

You can see all the interviews I’ve done as well as information about candidates and races at my Election 2017 page.

Posted in: Election 2017.