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Houston submits its DNC 2020 bid

From the inbox:

Houston, recognized for its record of successfully hosting mega-events, today submitted an official bid to host the 2020 Democratic National Convention.

The bid document of about 600 pages shows how Houston’s convention infrastructure and its people put the city in a superior position to host the presidential nominating convention.

The downtown Toyota Center indoor arena and the close-by, expanded George R. Brown Convention Center in the Avenida Houston convention campus would provide the main gathering spaces for the July 13-16, 2020 convention. A Metro light rail system crisscrosses downtown nearby. Delegates and other participants traveling by air would arrive at Houston’s two international airports. Both have a 4-star rating from Skytrax, making Houston the only U.S. city with two.

About 24,000 hotel rooms would be available within 14 miles of the convention sites, placing the city well ahead of other cities on hospitality logistics. A record-high 20 million visitors traveled to Houston in 2016.

Houston’s specialty in hosting major events shone through with the 2017 Super Bowl, the 2016 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament finals and the continuing annual Offshore Technology Conference, Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo, Comicpalooza and others.

The city hosted the Republican National Convention in 1992 and the Democratic National Convention in 1928. Houston has since become the fourth most populous U.S. city and its most diverse, attracting new residents from across the nation and the globe. The city is praised as a pluralistic society that lives as one. (“Nothing less than the story of the American city of the future,” – Los Angeles Times, 5/9/2017)

Houston is strong and resilient. The city showed exceptional mettle, bravery and neighborliness in the aftermath of the floods caused by Harvey. “Houston has bounced back from Harvey faster than anyone predicted, inspiring the Twitter hashtag #HoustonStrong,” The New York Times said on 11/23/2017.

“I am confident that we are the right city and this is the right time to bring the convention to Houston,” Mayor Sylvester Turner said in letter to DNC Chairman Tom Perez that introduces the bid package.

“Houston is a proven event town and has excelled in hosting high profile national events,” the mayor said in the letter. “Whether celebratory, such as the Super Bowl or somber, such as the recent memorial events for former First Lady Barbara Bush, we meet the producer’s goals while exceeding expectations with seamless execution and constant attention to public safety.”

See here and here for the background, and here for the Chron story. Video from the Council meeting where the bid effort was discussed and approved is here. Houston has definitely shown it can handle big events, and I’ll be delighted if we win, but we’re one of many, so keep expectations realistic. We should know in a few months.

Are you nostalgic for some strip club litigation?

Then this is your lucky day.

The legal fight over the striptease business in Houston has heated up, again.

Two topless bars are suing the city of Houston over a controversial, years-old legal settlement they say unfairly hampers business at all but a select group of clubs.

In a June 1 filing, lawyers for Chicas Cabaret and Penthouse Houston argued that the 2013 settlement — which allowed sixteen strip clubs to skirt the city’s sexually-oriented business ordinance by making annual payments to fund an anti-human trafficking unit in the Houston Police Department — amounts to a commercial bribery scheme.

The two north Houston clubs argue the settlement is “unlawful, unfair, and anti-competitive in nature,” and impacted their ability to do business.

“Our position is that discriminating against some clubs and showing favoritism towards others is just plain wrong under the Constitution and Texas law,” said Spencer Markle, attorney for Chicas Cabaret and Penthouse Houston. “That’s why we’re taking them to task.”

The strip clubs are seeking a restraining order that would either prevent city officials from allowing the “sweet 16” clubs to avoided the city’s sexually-oriented business ordinance, or allow Chicas and Penthouse to join the agreement under the same terms.

“We just don’t want to be at a business disadvantage compared to the other clubs that are similarly situated,” Markle said.

[…]

Legal experts said the city’s recent settlement with Fantasy Plaza and the new lawsuits raised renewed questions about the city’s sexually-oriented business ordinance and the way it regulates sexually oriented businesses.

“Why is the city keeping an the ordinance on the books and basically exempting (businesses) from it?” said Josh Blackman, a professor at the South Texas College of Law Houston. “Normally the point of a statute is to enforce it equally. And if they’re just cutting deals with every strip club that asks for it, just repeal the damn statute.”

Markle’s suit echoes the same argument made by lawyers for Fantasy Plaza Cabaret when they sued the city of Houston earlier this year.

See here, here, and here for the background on the 2013 litigation. I thought that settlement was reasonable enough, but I can’t think of a good rebuttal to the argument that if this deal is available to some clubs, it should be available to all of them. I look forward to seeing how this gets resolved.

Council passes resolution to support 2020 DNC

Cool.

Houston bolstered its bid for the 2020 Democratic National Convention on Wednesday as City Council affirmed the city’s safety and logistics services will be marshalled sufficiently to support the gathering if Houston is chosen as the host city.

Houston has joined seven other cities in taking initial steps to host the event. A memo to council that accompanied the resolution language this week says local officials will make a presentation to the DNC this month, hoping to make a “short list” of cities in contention for the convention. DNC officials have confirmed Houston was one of eight potential host cities to receive formal requests for proposals.

“This city has changed quite a bit since 1992,” said Mayor Sylvester Turner, referencing the last national political convention held in Houston, the one heralding former President George H.W. Bush’s reelection bid that year. “This is about showcasing our city. It’s about inviting people from all over the globe to our city. It’s intended to be a bipartisan effort being presented saying, ‘This is Houston.’”

[…]

City officials said if Houston is chosen to host the event, a committee will be formed to raise private dollars to help pay for it, revenues that will be used in part to reimburse the city for its share of the costs, as was done after last year’s Super Bowl; the Houston Rockets, the memo adds, have agreed to provide the Toyota Center as the official Convention site.

See here for the background. I remember that 1992 Republican convention. I spent two weeks doing “dawn patrol” clinic defense at the Planned Parenthood, then on Fannin before they reconfigured to move their entrance off the street. Those were interesting times, to say the least. Anyway, Houston is one of several cities to make a bid, unlike the other guys. I’m rooting for Houston to win here, but I’ll understand if another city does.

Council approves Mayor’s budget

The annual ritual is observed.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Houston City Council adopted Mayor Sylvester Turner’s $4.9 billion budget by a vote of 13-4 Wednesday, ending three hours of otherwise amiable debate with an impassioned speech from Councilman Jack Christie that concluded with the councilman resigning his post as budget committee chair and voting no.

Christie was joined in opposing the budget by council members Mike Knox, Greg Travis and Michael Kubosh, who said they wanted the mayor to make more of an effort to cut spending.

“I can keep playing politics, go along to get along, or start fighting vigorously for our tax-paying citizens and not waste their money,” Christie said, listing his past ideas for constraining costs or forming commissions to study cost-cutting that were not implemented. “As a political body, we are failing the people of Houston.”

Turner rejected the criticism. He said the budget is “sound,” and noted that Kubosh’s lone amendment would have given each council member an additional $100,000 for staff salaries. Knox submitted no amendments, and Travis submitted amendments that sought cost-cutting recommendations from the administration but listed no specific cuts.

Christie also submitted no cost-reduction amendments, and, in fact, twice admitted one of his items — earmarking $150,000 to fund an external study on the emissions of the city’s vehicle fleet — was “a waste of money” because he already knows a shift to alternative fuels is the right move.

“It’s so easy to just say to the administration, ‘Mayor, you didn’t cut enough,’” Turner said after the meeting. “Every individual that voted ‘no’ put forth no ideas, no amendment to reduce the cost. Not one. Not that they offered it and we voted them down — they didn’t offer any. To the contrary, they put forth amendments that would increase the amount that we were going to have to expend.”

[…]

The general fund budget for the fiscal year that starts July 1 is $2.5 billion. That fund is supported primarily by property and sales taxes and funds most core services, such as the police and fire departments, parks, libraries and trash pickup.

That is $83 million, or 3.5 percent, more than the current budget. The increase largely is driven by a $42 million increase in debt service, related mostly to the issuance last year of $1 billion in pension obligation bonds as part of the mayor’s pension reform package.

Also driving the increase is $14 million in previously-agreed-to raises for police that take effect July 1. About 57 percent of the general fund, or $1.4 billion, goes to public safety — the police and fire departments, the municipal courts and emergency operations.

See here for the background, and here for the Mayor’s press release. The story also notes the $17 million the city may wind up being short thanks to an unfriendly Census estimate and the stupid revenue cap; it’s not clear to me if that would apply to this year or next if the city’s appeal fails. I’m not surprised there were no cost-cutting amendments of any substance. Turns out that’s a hard thing to do, especially in a budget that’s mostly about public safety, trash pickup, parks, and libraries. You know, basic things that people want and need. Good thing talking about it remains free.

Zipcar parking arrangement approved

Good.

The City Council on Wednesday said companies can start immediately applying for agreements with the city that allow them to use on-street parking spaces so vehicles are visible and easily available to users. Companies such as Zipcar allow people to check out vehicles with a smartphone app and rent them by the day or hour. Drivers can then leave the vehicles in any designated spot.

Council members also approved continuing the current agreement with Zipcar for four on-street parking spots in Midtown.

With citywide rules in place, Mayor Sylvester Turner said he hopes more companies come forward to offer vehicles. A handful of companies — typically subsidiaries of larger well-known car manufacturers or car rental agencies — have entered the industry.

After delaying approval two weeks ago, council members approved the proposal by the city’s regulatory affairs department, with some changes. District I Councilman Robert Gallegos, sought more focus on using renewable-energy and fuel-efficient vehicles, as well as greater oversight of exactly where the spaces will be located.

Up to 20 spaces total will be used for car-sharing at first, and any additional ones must be approved by council. Before any spaces may be used for car-sharing — following approval by a traffic engineer and ParkHouston — city staff must notify any property owners within 200 feet of the space and the appropriate city council district office.

See here for the background. As the previous story notes, Zipcar is leasing these spots from the city, which seems like a reasonable arrangement to me as long as they’re paying a fair market rate. We need to find ways to encourage people to use cars less on a daily basis, and one way to accomplish that is to make it easier for them to get a car when they do need one. This is a step in the right direction.

The revenue cap is stupid and harmful

Reason #4,739:

Mayor Sylvester Turner

In posting a sluggish population growth estimate for Houston, the U.S. Census Bureau blew a $17 million hole in the city budget.

City officials had expected the count would show Houston had added about 30,400 people by January from the year prior. The Census Bureau on Thursday, however, estimated the city grew by just 9,200 between July 2016 and last summer.

Because the revenue cap voters approved in 2004 limits the city’s annual increase in property tax collections to the combined rates of inflation and population growth, that means Mayor Sylvester Turner must adjust his proposed $2.5 billion general fund budget.

Or he will, if he is unsuccessful in challenging the Census estimate. The city’s estimates, he said, are more up to date and are “based on greater familiarity with local indicators.”

To challenge the estimate, Houston can submit data on topics such as residential building and demolition permits, mobile home placements, household sizes and apartment occupancy rates.

Houston successfully challenged its formal count in the 2010 Census, and also added 3 percent to its population estimate via an appeal in 2006, and a little more than 1 percent to its 2008 count, according to the Census website.

The city’s press release is here. Neither the rate of inflation nor the rate of population growth have anything to do with the city’s needs or its financial capacity. It also as you can see puts an awful lot of power in the hands of unelected federal bureaucrats. Who I’m sure are fine people, but they’re not accountable to the voters of Houston. I mean seriously, who thinks this makes sense? The whole stupid thing needs to be repealed.

Turner’s 2019 budget

Here’s the plan for making ends meet for next fiscal year.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner’s proposed budget for the fiscal year that starts in July would close a shortfall of $114 million without employee layoffs by drawing down the city’s reserves, transferring money from special accounts to the general fund and cutting spending.

In a proposal unveiled Tuesday, Turner plans to spend $2.5 billion from the general fund, which is supported primarily by property and sales taxes and funds most core services, such as the police and fire departments, parks, libraries and trash pickup.

That is $83 million, or 3.5 percent, more than the current budget. The increase chiefly is driven by a $42 million increase in debt service, related mostly to the issuance last year of $1 billion in pension obligation bonds as part of the mayor’s pension reform package. Also driving the increase is $14 million in previously agreed to raises for police.

“This is a very, very tight budget,” Turner said. “I have scrubbed this budget, every line item that exists. I invite anyone to take a look underneath the hood. Because there are two departments that will always drive this budget: Police and fire.”

About 57 percent of the general fund, or $1.4 billion, goes to public safety – the police and fire departments, the municipal courts and emergency operations. Another $400 million goes to debt service. Parks, libraries, health services, trash pickup and most other city functions get the rest, about $672 million.

[…]

Turner acknowledged two key developments helped prevent layoffs in the proposed budget, providing most of the $84 million the mayor intends to pull from the city’s reserves to spend in the upcoming budget.

First, the city settled a lawsuit it had filed against Towers Watson, an actuarial firm it blamed for contributing to the city’s pension crisis, saying city officials’ reliance on the firm’s advice led them to boost benefits in 2001 and saddle taxpayers with unaffordable pensions costs. That settlement, which was approved by city council last month, injected $29 million into the general fund.

The city also, as it routinely does, conservatively estimated the sales tax revenues it would receive in the current budget year. As a result, the city collected an “extra” $28 million that will be available for the upcoming budget year.

Yeah, that pension projection lawsuit settlement sure came in handy. I don’t know what rabbits there will be to pull out of next year’s hat, however. We’ll see what Council makes of this when it comes to them for a vote.

MS Houston

Meet our new technical overlords.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Microsoft will provide STEM education at schools, teach computer literacy skills to adults and transform Houston into a “Smart City” as part of a new partnership announced Friday.

“These sort of efforts become infectious and contagious,” said Mayor Sylvester Turner. “Because of their presence, and the strength of their presence … I would venture to say that others will be motivated to do the same.”

Microsoft’s educational efforts will help boost the existing workforce while fostering the next generation of technology innovators. The Smart Cities element will look at improving city functions by adding sensors, collecting data and finding more efficient solutions.

Sensors, for instance, could be used to track buses and find more optimal routes that would have less congestion while being convenient for more people. It could also be used to determine if a bus is being driven too aggressively and consuming more gasoline than it otherwise would, said Cameron Carr, director of Internet of Things and Solutions for Microsoft.

After events like Hurricane Harvey, drones could be used to find people needing assistance or to determine areas that are flooded and impassible.

“We are right on the edge of creating this bold new world,” Carr said.

The Microsoft announcement is the latest in a string of technology developments as Houston seeks to become a hub for high-tech startups and venture capital.

Here’s the Mayor’s press release, which contains a few more details. It’s a little hard to say what this means right now – more specifically, it’s a little hard to say how long it will take for much of this to get rolled out – but I’m sure we’ll be seeing announcements soon. Putting my professional hat on for a moment, I hope this agreement includes security monitoring and incident response for all these IoT devices. Dwight Silverman has more.

The revenue cap and the police

It’s something. Not what I want, but something.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner used his third State of the City speech to call — again — for the city to be able to collect more revenue than allowed by the property tax cap voters imposed 14 years ago, this time floating the idea of collecting extra dollars specifically for public safety.

Turner had taken a similar line during the 2015 campaign, then moved to advocating for a full repeal of the cap during much of his first two years in office. He backed away from placing such a request on last November’s ballot, however, fearing it would imperil the $1 billion bond referendum that was needed to secure the landmark pension reform package he shepherded through the Legislature last year.

The mayor on Tuesday instead highlighted the need to increase staffing in the Houston Police Department, and he suggested the idea of following former Mayor Bill White’s playbook from 2006, when White got voters’ permission to let the city collect $90 million more than the cap otherwise would have allowed for spending on public safety.

It took Houston eight years to exhaust that breathing room and run into the cap for the first time. Amid rising property values, the City Council has been forced to cut the property tax rate every fall since to avoid collecting more revenue than the cap allows. Council cut the tax rate to 58.42 cents per $100 of assessed value last September, the lowest rate since 1988.

The revenue cap limits the annual growth in city property tax revenue to 4.5 percent or the combined rates of inflation and population growth, whichever is lower.

Turner did not commit to White’s approach, to a dollar amount, or to placing an item before voters this November, saying he intends to force a conversation on the need to invest in more officers and in ancillary areas such as cybersecurity protections, adding “the current model is not sustainable.”

“I’m just simply sounding the alarm. We cannot continue to cut and cut and cut and add 500 to 600 more police to our force,” Turner said after his speech to a luncheon hosted by the Greater Houston Partnership. “I did not want to throw out a number because people then tag onto that number and we don’t have a robust conversation on the need and then how we should meet that need.”

Tweets from his official Twitter account, however, were more definitive about taking the matter to voters: “I will move to put an item on the ballot on (sic) this November to make sure Houston continues to be resilient and strong when it comes to protecting innocent people.” said one. Another said, “Our city sorely needs revenue to increase staffing & resources for first responders at Police & Fire Dpartments. But we’re constrained by the #revenuecap. That’s why it’s time to ask voters to lift the cap solely for strengthening public safety & city services.”

[…]

What makes Turner’s Tuesday comments different, said Rice University political scientist Mark Jones, is that he is focusing solely on public safety.

“There does not exist a strong public appetite for lifting the revenue cap unconditionally,” Jones said. “The only way to really sell it is via public safety. That’s probably the only winning method.”

Turner seemed to acknowledged as much Tuesday, saying in part, “It’s quite clear, it seems to me, people want to maintain the revenue cap. OK, fine. What I’m simply saying is, we need to find a way to generate some additional dollars on top of that revenue cap.”

It’s depressing to me that people have come to believe the BS about this stupid policy, which was imposed on Houston and basically noplace else by the usual gang of governmental nihilists, but propaganda does work. I’d love to see an all-out assault on the revenue cap, marshaling all the arguments about how it undercuts the city’s ability to prosper from economic growth and how it forces budget priorities on us whether we want them or not, but I recognize that this would be a tough fight against a wealthy and motivated opponent, which we could lose. It’s a fight we can engage another day, perhaps when the climate has changed enough. In the meantime, we all know that budgets can be flexible, and money is often fungible. Even earmarking extra revenue in this fashion makes the budget more manageable. If it’s the best we can do, then let’s do it.

Ellis puts up money for city’s bike projects

I like this plan.

Commissioner Rodney Ellis

Harris County Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis on Monday announced a one-year $10 million commitment to bicycling projects in Houston, in the hopes of jump-starting the city’s transformation into a bike-friendly place.

“Working together, we can better leverage scarce resources from governmental entities and the private sector and share our collective expertise to serve the people in this region,” Ellis said.

A year after Houston leaders approved an ambitious plan for hundreds of miles of protected, safe bike trails, little progress has been made, something cycling supporters said Ellis’ pledge will change. Officials estimated the money would build at least 50 miles of protected bike lanes considered crucial to providing usable bike access to neighborhoods and jobs.

“​This really gives us a boost we needed,” Houston Planning Director Patrick Walsh said.

The money, along with city funds from its capital improvement plan, will go toward repainting bike lanes, developing safer intersections and other improvements aimed at making riding a bike in Houston easier and safer.

[…]

Projects will be chosen for their ability to start soon. Ellis stressed officials have one year to spend the money he committed, and any unspent funds will return to other priorities in his precinct.

[Mayor Sylvester] Turner said the funding, along with $1.1 million the city plans to spend in each of the next five years, will act as seed money for upcoming projects, including planned bike lanes along Austin and Caroline and new space for cyclists along Hardy and Elysian on the city’s Near Northside.

See here for some background. This is about putting up some money for projects that are already in the pipeline but have been delayed for a variety of reasons. Commissioner Ellis is an avid cyclist himself, so it’s not a surprise to see him make this a priority. Much of his precinct intersects with the city, and as you know I’m delighted to see some county investment in the not-unincorporated territories. I hope the city takes full advantage of this.

Council approves new floodplain regulations

We’ve been waiting for this.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Starting this fall, all new homes built in Houston’s floodplains must be elevated higher off the ground after a contentious debate and narrow vote by City Council on Wednesday to adopt the Bayou City’s first major regulatory response to the widespread flooding Hurricane Harvey unleashed last August.

The vote marks a shift away from Houston’s longtime aversion to constraining development, and means all new construction in the city’s floodplains will have to be built two feet above the projected water level in a 500-year storm.

The unusually tight 9-7 vote, which fell largely along party lines, came at the end of more than three hours of sometimes combative debate.

“This is a defining moment,” Mayor Sylvester Turner said in his final pitch to the council. “Can we undo what was done with Harvey? No. But can we build looking forward? Yes. Does it mean it may cost more financially? Yes. But if it has the probability of saving lives, and if it has the probability of letting people know in our city and those who are looking to come to our city that we are taking measures to be stronger, to be more resilient, then that’s positive for the city of Houston.”

Democratic council members Karla Cisneros, David Robinson, Dwight Boykins, Ellen Cohen, Jerry Davis, Robert Gallegos and Amanda Edwards — along with Republican Dave Martin — joined Turner in backing the changes. Republicans Mike Knox, Jack Christie, Brenda Stardig, Michael Kubosh, Steve Le and Greg Travis, and Democrat Mike Laster opposed the regulations.

The new rules take effect Sept. 1 and apply to all new buildings within the 500-year floodplain, which is deemed to have a 0.2 percent chance of being inundated in any given year. Additions larger than a third of the home’s original footprint also will need to be elevated.

Current regulations mandate that buildings be constructed one foot above the flood level in a less severe 100-year storm and apply only within the 100-year floodplain, where properties are considered to have a 1 percent chance of being inundated in a given year. Wednesday’s vote marks the first time Houston is imposing minimum elevation requirements within the 500-year floodplain.

The new rules are similar to, but more stringent than those Harris County put into effect Jan. 1. There, new homes built in neighborhoods developed before 2009 must be built one foot above either the ground or the crown of the adjacent street, whichever is higher. The county’s regulations change little for homes to be built in subdivisions developed more recently.

See here and here for more on the county’s new floodplain regulations, here for a bit of background on the proposal that was passed, and here for an earlier Chron story that gets into some of the No-voting members’ resistance. No regulation is ever perfect, and I’m sure there’s debate to be had about what approach would have been best, but it sure seems a bit odd to me that at this point in Houston’s history that this kind of regulation wouldn’t be more broadly supported by Council. For those members who will be on the ballot next year – Knox, Kubosh, Le, and Travis – I’ll be very interested to see how this vote is received on the campaign trail.

Still discussing flood bonds

It’s complicated.

Harris County officials Tuesday said the “clock is ticking” on its call for a bond referendum for $1 billion or more in flood control projects, as requirements to provide matching funds for federal grants being disbursed in Hurricane Harvey’s wake threaten to deplete local coffers.

Commissioners Court on Tuesday stopped short of setting a date for the possible election amid questions about what projects could be included in such a bond issue and how much it would cost per year to complete them. The court directed staffers to hammer out specific proposals that would help determine how much debt the county should ask voters to approve.

Calling Harvey a game-changer, Harris County Judge Ed Emmett and other members of Commissioners Court pledged last September to call for a bond election for upward of $1 billion to pay for wide-ranging flood control projects. The bonds likely would come with an increase in property taxes.

At the heart of Tuesday’s discussion was concern over the increasingly high stakes surrounding the fate and necessity of the bond, as well as the county’s ability to take on a host of large-scale projects aimed at preventing a repeat of the flooding and devastation wrought by Harvey.

See here and here for the background. Federal grants, some of which have already been approved, require local matching funds, which constrains what the county can do right now. The county will need to figure out how to balance what it’s doing now with what it wants to do with the bonds.

Officials also wrangled over several other logistical and political issues surrounding the proposed bond referendum, which would be one of the largest ever put before county voters.

“There are a lot of dilemmas facing us here,” Emmett said. “When do you have the election? How much is it? Do you get specific? Do you leave it general?”

The level of a property tax increase accompanying the bond likely will impact the referendum’s fate.

Harris County Budget Officer Bill Jackson said that if, for example, the bond election was for $1 billion and the debt was issued over 10 years, that would result in a $5 increase in property tax bills for the average $200,000 home in the first year. That number likely would rise to about $20 in the 10th year.

Assistant County Attorney Douglas Ray said that if voters reject a bond referendum, the county cannot put the same issue on the ballot again for two years.

Commissioners Court at its next meeting in April could vote to call an election for June 16, but Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis expressed concern over turnout during the summer months.

An election during the summer would require a plan to locate and staff polling places around the county. The governor also would have to sign off on a summer date.

“To my knowledge, no governor has ever denied a local bond election,” Emmett said. “But there haven’t been that many that have been called for a special date.”

Pushing the election to November would mean more turnout but also would raise the possibility that voters cast straight-ticket ballots for political parties and ignore the bond, Emmett said.

Ellis said he also worried about limiting the scope of the bond issue to focus on matches for federal grants, stating that he would like to see more investment in lower-income areas, and a bigger bond package to pay for it.

“After the most horrific and historic storm event we’ve had, I’ve heard members of this body say it’s our opportunity to do something big, and we may not get another bite at that apple,” he said.

I don’t think we’ve had a June election (not counting runoffs from May special elections) anytime recently. As far as the voters ignoring the bond question, Harris County hasn’t had a bond election in an even-numbered year recently. The city of Houston bonds in 2012 had undervote rates in the 20-30% range, but that still meant over 400K people voting on them. Metro’s referendum that year had a 21% dropoff but nearly 800K votes cast, while bonds for HISD (19% undervote, 315K ballots cast) and HCC (23% undervote, 352K ballots) were similar. If all those entities could have bonds in a Presidential year, I think Harris County could make do with a referendum in a non-Presidential year. (Metro is planning on one this year, remember.) Plenty of people will still weigh in on it, and if the county can’t successfully sell flood control projects post-Harvey then something is really wrong. I say put it up in November and start working on the campaign pitch now.

March For Our Lives rally

On Saturday, March 24, community members from Houston will gather for a “sibling march” as part of the March for Our Lives movement. The march is one of hundreds happening around the country planned by students and survivors of gun violence in communities big and small, in all 50 states. The national day of action will focus on calling for lawmakers to make students’ lives and safety a priority and to pass common-sense gun safety legislation. The March will take place on Saturday, March 24th at Tranquility Park in downtown Houston starting at 9 AM. To RSVP please text March to 644-33 or go on to the Facebook invite to tell organizers you’re coming.

I don’t have to tell you that Texas is a pretty cordial state for gun ownership. The Republican-controlled Legislature has been working to make it more so in recent years, thanks to open carry and campus carry laws. There are quite a few legislators who think we haven’t gone nearly far enough, too. Their endgame is the bizarrely-named “constitutional carry”, in which there are basically no restrictions on ownership or limits on where you can bring your guns. You want to fight back against that, this is a good place to start. It is just a starting place, though, because the ultimate goal is to elect more people who agree that gun ownership and possession can and should be subject to reasonable and rational limits. Some come out to Tranquility Park on Saturday – and be sure to RSVP to the event, so organizers know how many people to expect – and stay engaged and active afterwards. You can live in the world you want, or you can live in the world we have now. The difference between the two is what you make of it.

January 2018 finance reports: City of Houston

We didn’t have any city of Houston elections in 2017, and while we ought to have some charter amendments on the ballot in 2018 we won’t be voting for people till next year. Still, everyone has to file campaign finance reports. Let’s see how everyone has been doing since last July.


Candidate       Office    Raised      Spent     Loan    On Hand
===============================================================
S Turner         Mayor   308,744    123,288        0  1,901,225

C Brown     Controller     1,400     19,559        0     62,811

M Knox      At Large 1    36,125      8,191        0     51,946
D Robinson  At Large 2    41,575     12,117        0    126,924
M Kubosh    At Large 3     8,575      7,364  276,000     32,267
A Edwards   At Large 4    16,900     24,311        0    140,866
J Christie  At Large 5     1,264      3,892        0     28,711

B Stardig       Dist A     3,750     18,173        0     89,964
J Davis         Dist B     5,934     15,988        0    137,038
E Cohen         Dist C    10,100     31,528        0     41,691
D Boykins       Dist D    27,950     66,249        0     18,492
D Martin        Dist E     2,510     26,887        0     92,371
S Le            Dist F    21,800     11,237   30,823     13,015
G Travis        Dist G    27,050      8,211   76,000     70,817
K Cisneros      Dist H    
R Gallegos      Dist I    32,850     12,963        0     69,181
M Laster        Dist J       300      8,510        0    161,402
L Green         Dist K    29,100     36,617        0     77,110

I started writing this post before the tragic death of CM Larry Green. CM Green was among the members who are term-limited; the others are Stardig, Davis, Cohen, Laster, and Christie. I did not find a finance report for Karla Cisneros; she had $25,336 on hand in the July ’17 report. No one raised a whole lot – not a big surprise, especially given how there was already a bunch of Congressional fundraising going on in the latter half of 2017 – and in fact many people spent more than they took in. If one of the potential negatives to the change to four-year terms was that it gave incumbents that much more time to accumulate cash, I’d say that effect has so far been muted. Among the first-termers, Amanda Edwards was a big money-raiser in 2015 and Greg Travis still has loan money. Mike Knox got a boost in this period, which he will need because he’s got a big target on his back for 2019. Steve Le doesn’t have much on hand, but he too can self-fund to an extent.

While those term-limited candidates continue to be among the top cash-holders, none of them increased their shares during this period. I continue to believe that at least some of them have another candidacy in their near-term future, but that’s just my impression. Some of the possibilities they may contemplate will depend on how the 2018 elections go. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves, though. I’m just reporting what we know now. I’ll check back in July. Look for a post on the HISD and HCC reports as soon as I can get around to it.

Firefighters sue to get their pay parity petitions certified

I’m just going to put this here.

Houston firefighters on Monday asked a judge to force the city secretary to validate signatures on an equal pay referendum petition that has been backlogged in City Hall for eight months.

The referendum would require firefighters to receive the same pay as police officers of corresponding rank. It was first submitted to the city in July but wasn’t validated before the November election. In December, leaders of the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association sued, asking a judge to give City Secretary Anna Russell 30 days to count and validate the petition signatures.

State District Judge Dan Hinde did not issue an immediate ruling after a three-hour trial Monday.

City attorneys argued the firefighters’ claim lacks the urgency needed to secure a court order.

State law forced Russell last year to count a petition related to alcoholic beverages in the Heights within 30 days, after which she returned to tallying a pension-related petition to amend the city charter that her office received in April, said Assistant City Attorney Brian Amis.

The firefighters’ petition, which also would amend the charter, was submitted in July. State law sets no deadline by which charter petitions must be validated.

When neither petition was verified in time for the November 2017 ballot, Amis said, that removed any urgency behind the count, as the next municipal election will not be held until November 2019.

See here, here, and here for some background. There’s a long section in the story that goes into City Secretary Anna Russell’s process for certifying petitions and how she doesn’t take direction from the Mayor or accept help from the petitioners, both of which I think are good things. I’ll say that it feels a little ridiculous to me that this hasn’t been completed by now – I mean, if it had taken this long to count the anti-HERO petitions, that one may never have gotten on the ballot. On the other hand, maybe this isn’t the sort of thing that should be decided by an oddball sure-to-be-under-ten-percent-turnout election in May. And on the other other hand, I’m hard pressed to imagine any ballot language that won’t be seriously challenged in court regardless of the outcome, which given past history makes one wonder if it wouldn’t be more expeditious to litigate first and vote later. All I know for sure is that as with the District K special election, if we don’t have this ready for the ballot by March 26 – that is, two weeks from today – it ain’t happening in May. Good luck sorting this all out.

RIP, CM Larry Green

Very sad news.

CM Larry Green

Houston City Councilman Larry Green was found dead at his home late Tuesday morning, prompting an outpouring of sadness from City Hall to the southwest Houston district he represented for more than six years.

The cause of death was not immediately known, though Houston police said foul play was not suspected.

Green, 52, remains the only person elected to lead District K, one of two seats added after the 2010 Census led the council to grow from nine to 11 districts.

Green’s ubiquity at civic club meetings and dogged work ethic took a district created from the “stepchildren” neighborhoods of two former districts and made it “better than the sum of our parts,” as Westbury civic leader Becky Edmondson put it. Texting Green at midnight often would produce an answer, she said. Meyerland/Westbury civic leader Art Pronin agreed — but put the time at 1 a.m.

“He’s at my civic club meeting, he’s at the coalition meeting, he’s at the Super Neighborhood meeting,” Keswick Place civic leader Linda Scurlock said. “He’s there. He’s not on a pedestal. I’ve lived in this community for 41 years, and we’ve never had a council member like that. It was like your friend. I’d call him all the time.”

Even residents pleased with their representatives do not always view those politicians as “friends,” but Edmondson used the same word. When she informed her daughter of Green’s passing, her daughter wept. And when her 9-year-old grandson heard the news, he cried, too.

“He’s been planting trees with Larry since he was 2 years old. He considers Larry as his friend,” Edmondson said. “He was a leader for the city, he was our advocate in District K – and he was my friend. And he was a friend to hundreds of other people like me that met him during his tenure. I’ll really miss him.”

I interviewed CM Green in 2011, when he ran for the then-new District K, but I had met him a few years before that. He was thoughtful and passionate about his community. I liked him, both as a person and as a Council member. He won that race, for a new seat in a part of town that did not lack for political talent, with little opposition. Especially on a day where we’re all feeling positive about the political process, I’m stunned and saddened by the loss of CM Green. My sincere condolences to his family and many friends.

[Mayor Sylvester] Turner’s communications director, Alan Bernstein, said late Tuesday the city legal department still was reviewing the procedures for naming Green’s replacement. The city charter authorizes council to fill vacancies by majority vote, but does not specify a timeline for doing so.

To be honest, I had assumed there would be a special election, probably in November but possibly in May, to serve the remainder of CM Green’s term. That’s what happened with other vacancies in the past. I’m not sure if the process is different in the event of a member’s death, or if this was an effect of the term limits referendum. Whatever the case, that person will have to run again for a full term in 2019. There will be time later to think about that in more detail.

The case for the Astrodome

Lisa Falkenberg lays it out.

We have a plan!

But here’s the thing: leaders have to balance today’s needs with tomorrow’s. The long view has its virtues. And frankly, it’s been all to absent in the decision-making of Houston and Harris County. Shortsightedness has gotten us into a lot of trouble – from poor investment in flooding infrastructure to irresponsible growth that increased the region’s vulnerability during storms and rain events.

It has led us to pave over prairies. To bulldoze historic architecture and old trees and character. And yes, to leave an expensive, beloved, world-famous landmark with a lot of tourism potential rotting away in full view of visitors and homefolk alike.

So, sure, it may seem tone deaf to pour money into the Astrodome right now, but the decision seems to be in tune with Houston’s future needs.

And critics of the decision either don’t understand the facts, or willfully ignore them.

[…]

So let’s address the naysayers, point by point, with a little help from Emmett, the county judge.

*CLAIM: Harris County voters already voted to demolish the dome.

No, they didn’t. They voted down a proposed bond for a much bigger $217 million renovation project. They said loud and clear that they didn’t want county commissioners borrowing money to fund a dome project, and Emmett says the county listened. He says the stripped-down plan to raise the dome for parking and open it for special events makes financial and logistical sense, as it will produce revenue, and also provide space for first responders during a storm, and potential storage for the medical supplies during those events. “Would you really want us spending $35 million to tear down a perfectly usable building?” Emmett says he asks people who bring up the vote. And he points out that demolition is no longer an option anyway, since the Texas Historical Commission has designated the Astrodome a state antiquities landmark, giving the stadium special protections against demolition.

See here for some background. As you know, I think this is a decent and workable plan. I expect people will disagree with that – Emmett’s Democratic opponent Lina Hidalgo has made the “voters rejected the bond proposal” and “we have other priorities” arguments on Facebook. I believe the case for it is sound, and I appreciate Falkenberg laying it out as she did. If you don’t see it that way, take what she wrote as your starting point and take your best shot from there.

The latest report on city finances

A little light reading for you.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Even after Mayor Sylvester Turner’s landmark pension reforms, the city of Houston is on pace to spend $1 billion more than it will take in over the coming decade, and must cut spending and raise revenue bring its annual budget into balance, according to an exhaustive new report.

Failing to do so, the authors state, risks letting the city inch toward insolvency with all the symptoms that accompany such a fiscal crisis: Worker layoffs, an erosion in police staffing, fewer library hours, decaying parks facilities, a hollowing out of the city as the suburbs boom.

The analysts from Philadelphia-based consulting firm PFM did not shy away from controversial recommendations, including some that would dramatically restructure city government.

Among dozens of other reforms, the authors suggest Houston should:

  • break up its mammoth Houston Public Works department and consolidate its finance, procurement, human resources, and information technology staff;
  • cut the $9.5 million annual subsidy to the Houston Zoo roughly in half;
  • shrink the Houston Fire Department by up to 845 positions through attrition and lengthen firefighters’ work weeks; reduce the number of fire stations; hire civilians to do fire inspections and take 911 calls; and raise ambulance fees;
  • hire civilians for the Houston Police Department to enable cops now doing administrative tasks to get back on patrol; free up officers’ time by arresting fewer low-level offenders and writing more tickets; use civilians to conduct crash investigations and issue non-moving traffic tickets; consolidate with Metro’s police staff, and, perhaps, local school districts’ too;
  • cut health benefits for active and retired city workers; and
  • submit trash pickup, building maintenance and street repairs to “managed competition,” giving all or part of each task to city departments or to private companies, whichever submits the most efficient proposal.
  • City Council hired PFM for $565,000 in 2016, Turner’s first year in office, to craft a 10-year financial plan. Turner made clear in comments last week, however, that he views some of the recommendations as impractical.

“When you talk about structural changes, just because it’s identified doesn’t mean it’s easily done. It’s not about taking a report and just implementing it,” he said. “There are some things that, from my vantage point, yes, we will accept. There are some things that are going to require additional study. There are some things that will be more long term. And then there are some things that we’ll never get there.”

The report is here; it’s quite long, but the executive summary is only 16 pages, so read that if you want a feel for it. At first glance, a lot of it sounds reasonable and even doable. I appreciate the fact that they recognize that revenue is part of the equation and that removing the stupid revenue cap would go a long way towards alleviating the problem. Some actions could be done by Mayoral fiat, some by Council action, and some will require negotiations with third parties and/or legislative approval. It’s always possible that a report like this becomes little more than a doorstop, but I think we’ll see at least some of it happen.

County approves Astrodome plan

Like it or not, here it comes.

Take a last look at it

Harris County Commissioners Court voted unanimously Tuesday to move forward with the final design and construction of a $105 million project to transform the cherished piece of Houston’s sporting history into what officials hope will be coveted event space.

“It gives us a huge national story line,” said Holly Clapham, chief marketing officer for Houston First Corp., the city’s main marketing arm. “This, obviously, is a very significant building and we can tell the story of its new life, and serving a new constituency that didn’t know it as the ‘Eighth Wonder of the World.'”

Construction on the project is expected to begin in October and end in February 2020.

“The first thing we have to do is get it back to where it’s structurally sound,” Harris County Judge Ed Emmett said after Tuesday’s court meeting. “Nine acres of open space, under cover, in Houston, Texas, is a big deal. We’ve already been contacted by all sorts of groups that want to come use it, so it’s exciting.”

See here and here for some background, though obviously there’s a lot more to this long-lasting story. I like this idea – unlike so many other proposals, this plan makes sense to me, it’s not outrageously expensive, and it keeps the property in the hands of the public. I’m not sure if it will make sense to keep calling it the Astrodome when all is said and done, but we can cross that bridge when we get to it.

Not everyone sees this as I do, of course, and we’ll be hearing plenty from them.

State Senator Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, who co-sponsored legislation last year that would have required a public referendum on the Astrodome project, called Tuesday’s vote by Commissioners Court “tone deaf.”

“We just need to recognize the obvious,” Bettencourt said in a statement. “If the county has money to ignore a public vote and refurbish the Astrodome, then they have the capability to offer flooded-out homeowners disaster reappraisal and to cut their property tax rate.”

Bettencourt and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick have called on local taxing jurisdictions to allow residents whose homes were damaged by Harvey to have their properties reappraised to reflect their lower values.

Through a spokesman, Emmett called Bettencourt’s remarks “ill-informed” and said the project would allow the county to generate revenue for upgrades to the NRG Complex that otherwise would fall on taxpayers.

See here and here for more on the failed bill to require a vote on something that we wouldn’t normally require a vote on, since no bonds are being floated. The preview story goes into the funding source for the remodel.

In response to Harvey, the county is poised to call a bond referendum of at least $1 billion to pay for flood control projects, and Commissioners Court has imposed tougher regulations on new development in floodplains, as well as authorized up to $20 million to facilitate buyouts of Harvey-flooded homes.

Of the $105 million cost to renovate the dome into convention and meeting space, about a third would come from the county’s general fund, largely made up of property tax revenue. The other two sources — hotel occupancy taxes and parking revenue — would not be used for flood control Harris County Judge Ed Emmett said.

“We’re the third largest county in the country. We’re having to renovate a lot of buildings. This is another building,” Emmett said. “We need to renovate it and make it usable.”

He added that $35 million “does not go very far flood control-wise” when billions of dollars in improvements and repairs are needed.

People are going to have feelings about this, that’s for sure. There’s no direct vote on the Dome plan, but there will be that bond referendum, and Ed Emmett will be on the ballot, so the politics of this could work out in a number of ways. I’ve said my piece. We’ll see what develops from here.

Stanart’s workshop

Our County Clerk has been doing some tinkering.

The Harris County Clerk has spent hundreds of hours and millions of dollars to build, from the ground up, an electronic voter check-in system at the polls, Channel 2 Investigates has learned.

“It’s taken more than two-and-a-half years. There’s been investments of more than $2 million, and we don’t really have anything to show for it yet,” said Adrian Shelley, Texas Director of Public Citizen, a citizen advocacy group.

Based on receipts provided by his office, Stan Stanart, an elected official in his second term, has spent $2.75 million of public funds, so far, inventing what he calls an “electronic poll book.”

It is unclear how much more Stanart plans to spend to bring the project to fruition or how much the system will cost in annual maintenance.

Stanart has said his project could ultimately offer substantial savings to Harris County versus an “off-the-shelf system” which by Stanart’s estimates would cost between $3.99 million and $6.12 million. (View document)

Stanart’s project principally consists of an iPad, custom software and a customized stand to hold the iPad. The finished product will alleviate long lines at voting locations by making the check-in process more efficient, Stanart has said.

The clerk procured hundreds of individual parts for the project, including thousands of dollars of washers, magnets and foam.

The purchase of 2,400 iPads was made in July 2015. The vast majority of those iPads stayed in a warehouse, unopened and unused for more than two years.

Stanart has said he is now in the process of mating the iPads to his custom-built stands. He rolled out less than 100 of them in November for a test run. The county clerk has not publicized the results of that initial foray, but has said he plans the full implementation of his system in March’s primaries.

“I think most reasonable would say you probably shouldn’t have spent $1 million on iPads if you weren’t going to use them sometime soon,” Harris County Commissioner Rodney Ellis said.

Both Ellis and Shelley said the idea of automating the voter check-in process is a worthy pursuit, but questioned why the project has not had more transparency.

I’ll cut right to the chase and say that I agree with Ellis and Shelley. It’s entirely possible that this was a worthwhile project for the County Clerk to take on, but:

1) Are we sure there wasn’t a commercial or open source solution out there? Even if it was more expensive, being able to deploy it in earlier elections would have mitigated the extra cost.

2) What oversight did this project have? I’ve been involved in some big projects in the corporate world. We have timelines, signoffs, approvals, all sorts of things to ensure that the people who need to know about it do know about it and know where it stands. How much has Commissioners Court been looped in on this?

3) Are there any design documents, or other technical descriptions of what this is, what it is intended to do, what the requirements are, etc etc etc? In other words, is it written down anywhere what to expect when this thing finally debuts? And if so, where is that?

4) Finally, not to put too fine a point on it, but what was the original budget for this, and how does that compare with what has actually been spent?

Maybe this thing will be great, and maybe it will be a dud. The idea is a good one, but that means nothing if the execution isn’t there. It’s way past time for these questions to be answered.

Looking to hire more cops for Houston

We’ll see about this.

The head of the Houston police union announced Wednesday that city leaders had pledged to grow the Houston Police Department ranks by 500 officers over the next five years, far fewer than the city’s police chief said he needs.

“It’s no secret the Houston Police Department has been doing more with less, for far too long,” HPOU President Joseph Gamaldi said Wednesday afternoon at a crowded news conference at union headquarters.

The influx of officers would still be a fraction of the 2,000 new officers Chief Art Acevedo has said he believes the department needs to deal with the city’s growth, but comes as Houston has struggled for years to meaningfully increase the staffing in the department.

Gamaldi’s initiative, which the union is calling the “Drive for 500,” came after union officials visited all of the city’s council members, as well as Mayor Sylvester Turner, and asked them to pledge their support to increase the department that has nearly 5,200 officers on the job.

[…]

Currently, the HPD operates on a yearly budget of $827 million, and it costs the department around $3 million to run each class of recruits through its in-house academy.

The call for more officers comes as the city management last year had to close a $130 million budget shortfall.

The staffing proposal follows a concerted campaign last year to reform the city’s pension system, which officials warned was underfunded and threatened the city’s long-term financial health.

Meanwhile, Chief Acevedo and Gamaldi have stepped up calls for an large infusion of new officers into the department, saying it is dangerously understaffed, particularly compared to other large cities around the country.

Though Houston has fewer police officers per resident than other large cities, I remain unconvinced that we need to go on a hiring spree. At the very least, I’d like to understand what the plan is for a larger force. HPD’s solve rate isn’t so hot, so if the idea is to staff up on investigators with the goal of closing out more cases, then I can be on board with that. If it’s more like hire now and figure it out later, I’ll take a pass.

As the story suggests, hiring more cops would likely be part of the argument to alter or lift the revenue cap. Not my preferred approach, but I admit I’m not representative on this. I am ready for this argument to be fully rolled out, in anticipation of a vote this year.

Harris County could use a bit of cybersecurity training

Oopsie.

On Sept. 21, not three weeks after Houston was ravaged by Hurricane Harvey, the Harris County auditor’s office received an email from someone named Fiona Chambers who presented herself as an accountant with D&W Contractors, Inc.

The contractor was repairing a Harvey-damaged parking lot, cleaning up debris and building a road for the county, and wanted to be paid. Chambers asked if the county could deposit $888,000 into the contractor’s new bank account.

“If we can get the form and voided check back to you today would it be updated in time for our payment?” read a Sept. 25 email from Chambers.

On Oct. 12, Harris County sent the money out. The next day, the county quietly was scrambling to get it back, after being alerted that the account did not belong to D&W, that Chambers did not exist and that county employees had been duped by a fraudster.

The county recouped the payment, but the ongoing investigation into who tried to take the county’s money and nearly got away with it has ignited a debate over the financial security and cyber security of the third-largest county in America. That debate comes as experts point to a growing number of increasingly sophisticated attackers from around the world, homing in on untrained employees or system vulnerabilities.

The incident now has become wrapped into an FBI investigation into a group that has attempted to extort local governments around the world, law enforcement officials said.

Meanwhile, some officials are moving to revamp their practices as others say further scrutiny of county defenses is necessary.

There’s a lot going on here, and a lot of room for process improvement. The county can provide training to employees to better recognize phishing attempts, and send out test emails to ensure that the training took hold. Extra checks and verifications, like pre-screening vendors an maintaining a list of approved vendors, can be put into place before any payments are made. Keeping on top of threat intelligence, to know what the new scams are that are going around, and ensuring that the email system and the proxy servers recognize junk mail and malicious websites. Cybersecurity is a process, and it contains multiple layers. The fact that the county almost got scammed is in itself not a great shame – it does happen, to many organization – but only if the opportunity to learn and improve from it is fully embraced.

Darian Ward resigns

Adios.

Mayor Sylvester Turner’s press secretary resigned Friday afternoon, three weeks after news broke that she had been suspended for routinely conducting personal business on city time and failing to release public records.

Ward sent or received roughly 5,000 pages of emails about personal business from her government account over the last four years, many of which dealt with reality shows she was pitching to television networks or a charity for which she serves as an advisor.

Ward, who earned $93,712 annually, was suspended for 10 days without pay in late December.

Her resignation came hours before new emails showed Ward again had tried to block the release of a portion of the personal business documents she sent on city time. The Houston Chronicle and other news outlets sought the emails under the Texas Public Information Act.

“I believe many of the documents which include show concepts, treatments, etc. are protected through the Writers Guild Association’s registration. Legal needs to be advised,” Ward wrote to colleagues two weeks ago.

Assistant City Attorney Danielle Folsom replied last week, saying the city attorney’s office “does not believe that registration with the Writer’s Guild of America makes information confidential under the TPIA.”

Ward still wanted to seek an opinion from the Texas attorney general’s office, emails show. Pamela Ellis, founder of a charity Ward was promoting on city time, also asked the city to withhold documents.

As a result, the city released roughly 2,500 pages of Ward’s emails on Jan. 19.
With the release of that first batch, Ward expressed confusion that her attempt to intervene had not fully halted the city’s records release.

“How were emails released when I’m waiting to write the AG’s office?” she wrote to coworkers that evening.

The city distributed nearly 1,200 additional pages Thursday, accompanied by a letter to the attorney general’s office.

“The city takes no position with respect to the public availability of the requested information and will not raise any arguments on behalf of any third party,” Folsom wrote in requesting a ruling from the attorney general’s office.

See here for some background. As I said at the time, if that original story was all there was – if we knew all there was to know when that first story came out – then we’d all forget about it soon enough. That wasn’t the case, and so here we are. We’ve had email in the workplace for some 20 years now, and you’d think people would be clear on what “appropriate use” is by now. I honestly don’t know what Ward was thinking, but at least she’ll have more time to work on that show she’s trying to develop now. Her successor is Mary Benton, like Ward a former TV news reporter, who had worked for Gene Locke during his time as County Commissioner. I know Mary from the local politics scene, and I wish her well in the new gig.

Council approves new recycling deal

Huzzah!

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Houston residents are set to have their used glass and plastic bags picked up for recycling at curbside, but not until next year.

The 20-year, $37 million agreement City Council approved Wednesday is the product of two years of wrangling over recycling and positions Houston to pay less per ton to recycle.

Houstonians still have to wait another 14 months before putting bottles or bags in their green curbside bins, however, while the city’s chosen contractor builds a new processing facility.

To bridge the gap, the city plans to renegotiate its existing, costlier recycling agreement, which expires in April.

“From a financial point of view, it is a much better deal for the city of Houston,” Mayor Sylvester Turner said, praising the deal with the Spanish firm FCC. “In terms of technology, it meets what our needs are and what we have asked for.”

[…]

Rosanne Barone, Houston program director for the advocacy group Texas Campaign for the Environment, lauded the city for “heading in the right direction” on recycling.

“This shows the mayor is committed to continuing moving forward to make the city of Houston more sustainable. We’re so happy glass is going to be back, and so happy and surprised and excited that plastic bags are now going to be included,” Barone said. “The next step is just to keep moving forward: To keep including more materials, to expand curbside pickup to apartments and businesses.”

See here and here for the background. CMs Knox, Stardig, and Kubosh were No votes, but CM Dave Martin, who had previously been a critic of the deal, voted Yes. I know a lot of people will be happy to have curbside pickup of glass back, though that will likely mean the end of one new business that emerged to fill that gap. Getting curbside pickup for plastic bags, which San Antonio has been doing since 2014, is a nice bonus. As Rosanne Barone says, let this be another step in the journey forward. Houstonia has more.

Darian Ward

I shake my head.

Mayor Sylvester Turner on Wednesday staunchly defended his press secretary’s job performance following her recent two-week suspension for conducting personal business on city time and failing to turn over public records requested by a local journalist.

Turner also lectured reporters on the newsworthiness of the city’s disciplinary action against Darian Ward, saying other issues are more important than “whether or not somebody did something on an email.”

Ward, who was allowed to return to work Dec. 27, sent or received roughly 5,000 emails from her government account related to her company, Joy in Motion Enterprises, or other personal business matters over the last four years, according to a city memo. However, Ward, who at the time was among those responsible for fielding Texas Public Information Act requests for the mayor’s office, produced just 30 pages of emails in response to a journalist’s October records request.

“Ms. Ward, you misrepresented to the requestor the volume of documents regarding the TPIA request under state law, and you misinformed the chief of staff and me; you spent a significant amount of city time conducting your personal business rather than focusing on your work task,” mayoral Communications Director Alan Bernstein wrote Ward on Dec. 11, informing her that she had violated multiple city policies.

[…]

“It’s pretty flagrant,” said Daniel Bevarly, executive director of the National Freedom of Information Coalition, based in Missouri. “I’m surprised the mayor retained this individual.”

Turner said “no employee ought to be utilizing personal emails on city time,” but said he was not concerned about Ward’s performance.

“She’s done her job extremely well since I’ve been here, over and above,” he said. “I have no question with regard to her work performance.”

The mayor, who bristled at reporters’ questions about Ward, added that he imposed a stiffer punishment than the city’s legal and human resources departments had recommended.

Ted Oberg had the initial report about Ward’s suspension. For what it’s worth, I once had a coworker who was fired for doing something very similar to what Ward was suspended for. She was a lousy employee and was probably going to get herself fired for something eventually, but her email follies provided the fulcrum. If there are no further revelations to be made, and if Ward manages to adopt a more work-appropriate posture going forward, then we’ll all forget about this in a few weeks. If not, then I don’t think it’s possible for her to be a good enough employee in other respects to outweigh the negatives. Campos has more.

Recycling deal held up again

I’ll take Unexpected Effects of Hurricane Harvey for $200, Alex.

Chris Brown

Chris Brown

A 20-year, $37 million recycling deal for Houston is in limbo after City Controller Chris Brown said his office was not prepared to sign off on the proposal, citing concerns with the procurement process and the winning bidder’s proposed subcontractor.

The controller, the city’s elected financial watchdog, chiefly is responsible for certifying that sufficient funds are on hand to make the payments associated with items City Council is asked to approve each week.

Brown’s Monday afternoon memo to Mayor Sylvester Turner, however, noted “concerns pertaining to the transparency of the procurement process and the MWBE sub-contractor’s status as the defendant in several federal lawsuits.”

Specifically, he said several sets of documents from the initial procurement stages were kept only on paper and were destroyed when Hurricane Harvey flooded City Hall, leaving his office unable to compare documents from the two final rounds of bid evaluations.

Turner threw out the first round of final bids last summer amid questions from council about the process used to select Spanish firm FCC as the winning firm; FCC again was announced late last month as the winner of the second round of final bidding, prompting more questions from council.

Brown said his staff was able to review documents from the two final bidding rounds only after signing “unusual” non-disclosure agreements for which he said “no legal reasoning has been provided.”

FCC’s proposed subcontractor, Taylor Smith Consulting, he added, has been named as a defendant in four recent lawsuits, three under the Fair Labor Standards Act.

“In the interest of full transparency, I thought it important to bring these concerns forward,” Brown wrote.

See here and here for the background. Who knew people still used paper documents? The Council vote had been scheduled for this week but will be pushed back after the holidays now. From the story it doesn’t sound like there were any actual problems with the bid, though the losing firms were griping about it, just that it was delayed. We’ll see if it gets any better a reception from Council this time around.

RIP, Peter Brown

A dedicated public servant and a heck of a nice guy.

Peter Brown

Former Houston city councilman, mayoral candidate and civic leader Peter Brown has died, his family said Tuesday.

Brown, an architect and urban planner, was 81.

“A loving father, committed public servant, and fearless advocate, former Council Member Brown passed on to the next life the same way he lived in this one – surrounded by his family in the city he loved most,” his son, the elected City Controller Chris Brown, said in a statement.

“The Brown family would like to thank everyone for their thoughts and prayers, and asks for privacy during this very difficult time.”

You can see Chris Brown’s statement here. After the 2009 Mayoral election, Peter Brown went back to his roots, talking about urban design and making city streets safer and more user-friendly for people on his Pedestrian Pete website. He was a visionary and an advocate for building a better city to the end. Rest in peace, Pedestrian Pete.

County approves floodplain regulation change

Five hundred is the new one hundred.

The Harris County Commissioners Court voted unanimously on Tuesday to make significant changes to the way the county regulates new development, including a slew of new restrictions in Hurricane Harvey’s wake that officials say are necessary to prepare the Houston area for future flooding events.

The regulations will, for the first time in two decades, increase the amount new homes must be elevated to avoid floodwaters, up to 8 feet higher than previously required in some flood-prone parts of the county.

The new rules also would, for the first time, impose regulations in a 500-year floodplain instead of a 100-year floodplain.

See here for the background. This would take effect on January 1, and the idea has support from developers’ groups. A lot more than this will be needed, but it’s a step in the right direction.

State of the County 2017: Ed Emmett versus state leadership

That sound you heard was a fight breaking out.

Judge Ed Emmett

Harris County Judge Ed Emmett on Tuesday used his annual State of the County speech to blast state leaders who he said attack local governments and seek to cut needed taxes but offer no real solutions to the myriad problems Texas’ large urban counties face.

Before a crowd of hundreds at NRG Center, Emmett called on state officials to invest roughly $500 million in a third reservoir and dam to boost area flood control efforts, fund a beleaguered indigent health care system, and revamp “broken” tax policies that force the county to rely on property taxes to serve an unincorporated area that, on its own, would be the fifth-largest city in the country.

In addition to helping with the county’s flood control efforts, Emmett called on the state to contribute more for mental health care and transportation improvements, citing the need for an Interstate 69 bypass on the east side of the county and renewed emphasis on railroads and technology to move freight from area ports.

He also reiterated his call for state leaders to accept increased Medicaid funding from Washington.

“The next time a state official makes a big deal about a fraction of a cent cut in the property tax rate, ask them why they won’t help Harris County property taxpayers fund indigent health care,” the judge said. “State leaders who are eager to seek for disaster relief should also be willing to accept federal dollars to provide health care for poor people. That would be real property tax relief.”

The state, he said, should treat the county more like a city, which by law can levy a sales tax and pass ordinances. The county is an arm of state government and relies on property taxes for most of its revenue.

“The whole point of today’s speech was to say ‘enough is enough,'” Emmett said afterward. “We need to be able to provide the services and the government that people expect in an unincorporated area.”

[…]

Emmett criticized the bills that would have forced the county to get voter approval on taxes and spending.

“Such a populist approach might sound reasonable, but the late British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who nobody ever accused of being a liberal, described direct referenda as ‘a device for dictators and demagogues'” he said.

He also lit into lawmakers’ attempts to limit property tax collections during the last legislative session, saying leaders “attacked counties and cities and other local governments, all the while offering no real solutions.”

“County government relies almost completely on property tax revenue, but the property tax is widely hated, and wholly inadequate as a means of financing the unique urban government that we have. Unfortunately, narrow-minded politics has pushed unfunded mandates from the state onto county government,” Emmett said.

“It is just pure ugly politics. And, by the way, the portion of county taxes paid by business is, I don’t need to tell the business community in this room, growing. We are reaching the point where tax policies are a drag on economic development.”

You can read the whole speech here. Most of the criticisms Emmett made about state leadership and recent political actions are in the story, but the whole thing is worth a read. Oh, and he was introduced by outgoing House Speaker Joe Straus, which was a further provocation. Like the useless demagogues they are, Dan Patrick and Paul Bettencourt responded petulantly in the story. This is another skirmish in the culture wars of the Republican Party, and Republicans who are in the Ed Emmett/Joe Straus camp – including Emmett himself – are going to have to decide next year if they really want the likes of Greg Abbott and Dan Patrick dictating to them. A vote for the status quo is a vote for four more years of the things that Emmett was railing against in his speech.

Houston’s health care costs

Because dealing with pensions wasn’t enough.

Taxpayers also face a $2.1 billion liability for retiree health care costs in the coming decades, and Houston – like many state and local governments – has not set aside a penny to pay for those promises.

This burden is the city’s “next major long-term fiscal challenge,” according to PFM, a financial analysis firm Houston has hired to recommend ways to shore up its long-shaky books.

Turner said any financial hurdle concerns him, but the far-larger pension problem took precedence, as the city’s recovery from Hurricane Harvey will do now.

“That’s one of many issues that we have to address, but I am very much aware of it,” Turner said. “Let’s just say we tackled the biggest item and then we’ll tackle the other ones as we go. One step at a time.”

These costs for what are known as “Other Post-Employment Benefits” – OPEB for short – have become a growing issue for local governments, thanks to rising health care expenses and an aging population and public workforce. In Houston, retirees comprised a third of all the city’s health care beneficiaries in 2012, up from 18 percent in 1994.

A shift in accounting rules also has played a key role. In 2008, the Governmental Accounting Standards Board began requiring governments to report their retiree health care costs, not as an annual operating expense, but in the same manner as pensions: Trust funds fed by payments from the city and workers on which investment earnings accumulate to pay for benefits over the next few decades.

Houston and many of its peers have never stopped treating the expense as simply an annual bill to be paid, however.

I know nothing about accounting, so I don’t understand the reasoning behind that 2008 change in standards. Be that as it may, the city has a lot more flexibility here in that the Mayor can order changes in the health insurance system. Mayor Parker did exactly that a few years ago, raising premiums and ordering retired employees to enroll in Medicare at age 65. That cut costs by quite a bit at the time, but they have since climbed back up, as health care costs are wont to do. Ultimately, of course, this is a problem that is too big for Houston to solve. Any solution to control health care costs necessarily involves controlling how much doctors and hospitals get paid. In the meantime, entities like Houston will do what they can to manage their own costs, but they’re going to need help in the long run.

Harris County to consider floodplain regulations change

Seems like a good idea to me.

Nearly three months after Hurricane Harvey, Harris County is proposing using 500-year floodplains instead of 100-year floodplains for new development, the first significant overhaul of county elevation requirements in nearly two decades.

The regulations, which still must be approved by Commissioners Court, would force developers to build new homes eight feet higher than previously required in some flood-prone areas.

They would also, for the first time, open up a broader geographic area to regulation by forcing developers building in 500-year floodplains to meet stricter elevation standards. Currently, there is little regulation outside the 100-year floodplains.

“Any time we can figure out how to make our regulations better and our infrastructure more resilient, we want to do it,” said county engineer John Blount. “We don’t want to be permitting houses that would flood. It’s not good for the county. It’s not good for people that are in the houses. You shouldn’t be building houses at an elevation you know they’re going to flood.”

[…]

The newly proposed regulations focus on the booming unincorporated region as opposed to areas within Houston city limits. Unincorporated Harris County has added nearly 1 million people since 2000, more than three-quarters of the growth in the county since 2000.

For some areas along the San Jacinto River, Spring Creek and Cypress Creek, the difference between the new and old regulations — 500-year versus 100-year flood levels — could be several feet of elevation required for new homes, which could increase the cost of development by thousands of dollars.

You can see the proposed new regulations here. This is in line with the larger vision County Judge Ed Emmett proposed in September. If this winds up making some new development more expensive, that’s fine. All that’s doing is more accurately pricing in the flood risk. As the story notes, though, the newest construction in the unincorporated county mostly escaped destruction during Harvey. It’s existing development that was the hardest hit, and that’s going to be a much more difficult and expensive problem to solve. And as Jim Blackburn says in the story, the 500 year zone may not be big enough to address this. Still, this is a positive step, and the Court will take up the proposal in early December.

One more thing:

Meanwhile, the proposed regulations would not govern development in the city of Houston. City regulations require new homes built in 100-year floodplains to be elevated one foot above the 100-year flood level — less than the 18 inches that the county currently requires.

Houston Chief Resilience Officer and “flood czar” Steve Costello said the city has not yet made any proposals regarding new floodplains, but has called a meeting in December among city staff to start the discussion. He said the city would consider the county’s changes.

“There’s no guarantee we will formally adopt everything that they have done,” he said. “Obviously we don’t want different criteria at the end of the day.”

I agree that the city should be in line with the county. I hope we have been involved in the discussion over these changes.

Dome bash planned

Mark your calendars.

All this and antiquities landmark status too

Next year, Astrodome lovers will be able to once again take a gander at the stadium’s iconic roof before it embarks on its next adventure.

During a mixer/meeting for friends and supporters of the Astrodome Conservancy, organizers revealed that a party to honor the Astrodome’s history is tentatively set for April 9, 2018.

In a fitting touch, the mixer was held at the 8th Wonder Brewery.

The party would be much like the 50th birthday bash held for the stadium in 2015 when nostalgia for the Dome was at a fever pitch. Fans were able to walk onto the floor of the Dome and see what it currently looks like inside. Thousands of Houstonians came from all over the city to take in the view and take selfies. The party itself won’t be in the Dome, but fans can wait in line to walk inside for a few minutes.

[…]

More plans for the 2018 party are still to be solidified, with more programming and entertainment details to follow.

One presumes this will be to help generate support for the Astrodome repurposing plan, whatever that winds up being. Would you be interested in attending this party? Leave a comment and let us know.

Is this development really necessary?

Boy, the optics of this sure are lousy.

CM Brenda Stardig

The Houston City Council has indefinitely postponed a proposal to build hundreds of homes in a west Houston floodplain amid questions about whether city leaders’ actions would match their rhetoric about mitigating the risk of flooding after Hurricane Harvey.

Mayor Sylvester Turner supported the move to refer the item back to his administration, a procedure that can be used to further study a controversial item or kill it.

Arizona-based Meritage Homes announced last May that it planned to build the single-family homes on the site of the recently closed Pine Crest Golf Club at Clay and Gessner in a master-planned community to be called Spring Brook Village. The finished project would include homes for up to 800 people, with properties priced between the high $200,000s and the mid-$500,000s.

The entire 151-acre site sits in a flood plain, Harris County Flood Control District maps show. Officials said the developers’ drainage plan, once built, will place most of the tract in the 500-year floodplain rather than in the riskier 100-year floodplain.

The builders have said they plan to build the homes at a higher elevation to remove the structures from the 500-year floodplain, and have noted their plan exceeds the city’s minimum requirements for detaining storm water.

Still, Turner acknowledged the optics of approving hundreds of new homes in a floodplain two months after a historic hurricane flooded thousands of homes across the Houston area.

“We are living in the post-Harvey world, and I want people to have the confidence that we’re thoroughly vetting these projects and that we’re asking the questions,” Turner said. “When I have said previously that we can’t do things the same way and expect a different result, I want to make sure this project has been thoroughly vetted, and all the council members agreed to that.”

[…]

City Council took up the item because the developers needed its consent to create a municipal utility district to pay for roads, water, sewer and drainage infrastructure on the site.

Council members Brenda Stardig and Mike Knox said the developers told them the inability to form a MUD could result in more homes and less storm water detention being built on the site, because the builders might then be required to finance part of the infrastructure costs themselves rather than repaying those costs through future homeowners’ property taxes.

The MUD is the crux of the issue and the reason why Council is involved – as the story notes, if it were simply a matter of permitting, it would not require a vote. The reason why a MUD is needed at all is not fully explained, though this Press story does add a few details.

According to correspondence between MetroNational and Council Member Brenda Stardig, who represents the district where the golf course is located, approval of the MUD would also allow for a detention pond 16 acre feet more than what the city requires and a linear detention pond with trails for walking around — but MetroNational seemed to indicate that if the MUD isn’t approved, these bonus items won’t be possible.

Still, Matt Zeve, director of operations at the Harris County Flood Control District, said that even with the building elevations and drainage plans, there’s still a risk of “overland sheetflow flooding during extreme rain events,” which is when drainage gets overwhelmed and street flooding gets serious.

“The off-site sheetflow could still cause flooding problems, but it isn’t considered in the analyses that have been completed,” Zeve said in an email.

Maybe building the retention pond and requiring the higher elevation for the houses will be enough to mitigate the risk, I don’t know. As the Chron editorial board notes, leaving a former golf course undeveloped is itself a pretty good flood mitigation strategy. What does seem clear is that this was a business-as-usual idea – the land was bought by the developer a year ago, and the project was announced in May – but we are not and cannot be in business-as-usual mode any more. Projects like this require a much higher level of scrutiny and skepticism now. Otherwise, we really haven’t learned anything from Harvey.

Curbside recycling will resume November 13

Hooray!

Houstonians stockpiling cardboard and aluminum cans, rejoice: the city will resume curbside recycling service next month.

Recycling service has been suspended since Aug. 30, when city waste crews dropped all efforts other than weekly trash pickup to focus on removing the thousands of piles of debris resulting from Hurricane Harvey.

Residents wondering whether their service will start the week of Nov. 13 – the “B” schedule – or Nov. 20 – the “A” schedule – can visit the Solid Waste Management Department’s website and click the “City Services Info Viewer” link.

[…]

Homeowners are reminded not to place any of Harvey debris in their 96-gallon green recycling bins, and also to keep glass out of the containers.

Pending the selection of a new recycling processer – an effort that was scrapped earlier this summer after council members questioned the procurement process – residents are stuck taking glass to any of the city’s six neighborhood drop-off sites or the Westpark recycling center.

See here for the background. Everything you need to know is here, so click over and remind yourself of the dos and don’ts, as well as the schedule. I’m just delighted to have a little piece of normality restored. Click2Houston has more.