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Local politics

City proposes partial pay raise to firefighters

Progress, of a sort.

Houston officials have offered to raise firefighters’ base salaries, but not sufficiently to establish pay parity with police officers as approved by voters, city and firefighter union officials said Wednesday.

“In my mind, the proposal makes no effort to implement Prop B,” union attorney Troy Blakeney said, referring to the ballot item reflecting a city charter amendment approved in a Nov. 6 referendum. “It makes an effort to pay firefighters additional salaries that do not include all the components of Prop B.”

The proposal nonetheless marks the first evident progress made since Mayor Sylvester Turner met last month with Blakeney and Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association President Marty Lancton to discuss Proposition B, which compels the city to pay firefighters the same as police of equal rank and seniority.

City Attorney Ron Lewis confirmed the city had made an offer, but neither he nor Blakeney disclosed the amount.

Still, it was clear Wednesday that Turner and Lancton remain far from an agreement to phase in the raises over time. Both say they support that idea, with Turner arguing the city cannot afford to instantly implement Proposition B.

Lancton told reporters Wednesday that the city’s legal efforts to invalidate the proposition, based on the argument that it is unconstitutional, are hampering negotiations.

“He appears to be a victim of his own ego,” Lancton said of the mayor. “His relentless political and legal war on Houston firefighters and their families must end.”

Turner has said the firefighters’ decision Jan. 15 to seek a court order compelling the city to implement the proposition has similarly soured negotiations. Lancton has said the city should already be paying firefighters because the proposition became law nearly three months ago, which is why the union sought the court order.

See here for some background. At this point, I don’t have anything new to say. I don’t know how this ends and I don’t know how long it will take to get there. If we’re still fighting about this in the next city elections in 2023, I won’t be surprised.

Back to court for Prop B

Here we go again.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Lawyers for Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner filed a motion Friday afternoon seeking to declare Proposition B invalid, contending the voter-approved referendum supporting pay parity for firefighters violates Texas law.

The move is the latest in an extended legal battle between the city and firefighters over the November ballot measure requiring the city to pay firefighters the same as police of equal rank and seniority.

[…]

The city’s motion claims that Proposition B is illegal under the Texas Local Government Code and the Texas Constitution, an allegation the city previously made in December.

The filing is notable, though, because Turner has said he hopes to negotiate a plan with the fire union to phase in pay parity over a number of years, arguing the city cannot find the funds to do so immediately.

His efforts to again invalidate the charter amendment altogether appear to cast doubt on whether both sides can ultimately reach an agreement. Though Turner has said “those conversations are taking place,” neither side has indicated they have made any tangible progress since [firefighters union president Marty] Lancton and Turner met publicly in January.

The day before that meeting, the union sought a court order aiming to force the city to enact parity, a move Turner questioned at the time. Lancton, skeptical of Turner’s sincerity in offering the meeting, said the city’s inaction had forced the union’s hand, while Turner said the union should not have gone to the courthouse on the eve of the meeting.

Here’s the Mayor’s press release, which you can take however you want. I’m mostly noting this for the record, because as far as I can tell there’s no legal impediment at this time to proceeding with Prop B, a subject that I’m sure will continue to arise. The one thing I find surprising is that so far no individual voters have filed a lawsuit over the wording of the ballot referendum. It seems like every other one we’ve had in recent memory has faced litigation over that, some more credible than others, so it’s a little odd to me that this referendum hasn’t had that same experience. Just a though.

I still have no idea what’s going on at HCDE

Whatever it is, it’s not normal.

After fiery exchanges and confusion dominated a special meeting Monday by the Harris County Department of Education’s board trustees voted to update the composition of an ancillary board charged with issuing bonds and overseeing construction projects for Texas’ last remaining county department of education.

Board members overseeing the department’s Public Facilities Corporation will largely remain the same, with HCDE Superintendent James Colbert Jr. and CFO Jesus Amezcula earning enough votes to have their terms renewed, and HCDE’s relatively new Executive Director of Facilities Rich Vela named as a new board member. HCDE Trustee Richard Cantu was also voted onto the ancillary six-member board.

Those actions, however, came after trustees lobbed accusations of backroom deals and carelessness at each other during the contentious hour-long meeting. At one point, Trustee Eric Dick called new Board President Josh Flynn a “coward” and a “chicken” for not including public comment on the special meeting’s agenda and implored county entities to examine actions proposed and taken by HCDE’s board.

“I beg the county attorney to have an investigation – I beg them to. I beg the county commissioners to look into this and to do something about it, I beg the county judge to do something about this,” Dick said. “This is outrageous, this is unacceptable, and we shouldn’t be doing this.”

Dick’s frustrations stem from the short notice given before Monday’s special meeting. It was called by Flynn on Friday, giving other trustees and the public 72 hours of notice, the shortest amount of time legally required to notify others that a meeting will occur under Texas’ Open Meetings Act.

[…]

HCDE Superintendent James Colbert Jr., who also chairs the corporation’s board, called a corporation board meeting on Feb. 5, giving HCDE trustees 72 hours of notice before the corporation leaders convened on Feb. 8. Flynn said the move caught him flat-footed and did not give the HCDE board enough time to respond. Colbert, however, said the meeting was necessary to approve some construction business and to address the membership issues detailed in Langlois’ report.

“There was no attempt to circumvent the board’s authority or to not inform the board,” Colbert said. “I just wanted to stay in compliance with contracts that were already issued.”

Flynn said he tried to call an emergency meeting last week but was unable to due to how such meetings are defined by state statute. Instead, he called the special meeting for Monday and included proposals to change the composition of the corporation’s board and to fire and replace Board Attorney Langlois with another attorney.

Superintendent Colbert and Trustee Dick questioned why such changes needed to be pushed through and could not wait for the board’s regularly scheduled meeting on Feb. 27. Others, including trustees Cantu, George Moore and Danny Norris, said they had not yet had enough time to study the PFC or potential candidates to serve on its board. Others, including Superintendent Colbert, questioned why such changes needed to be pushed through so quickly.

See here for the background. Once again I can’t believe I’m about to agree with Eric Dick, but a little scrutiny from the county would not be a bad idea. Really, the problem here is with the two rogue members, Michael Wolfe and Don Sumners. If we can just keep them from burning the place down for the next two years, the 2020 elections will take care of the rest.

Vote centers advance

The other big story from Tuesday’s Commissioners Court meeting.

Diane Trautman

Harris County Clerk Diane Trautman’s plan to shift to countywide voting centers inched forward this week when Commissioners Court unanimously agreed to file an application with the secretary of state asking permission.

Trautman hopes to incrementally open voting centers, where any county resident can cast a ballot on Election Day. Harris County currently uses voting centers for early balloting, but residents are required to use their assigned precinct locations on Election Day.

Michael Winn, who helped launch voting centers in Travis County before joining Trautman’s staff in January, said the change boosted turnout by 10 to 12 percent there. The centers offer voters more flexibility to cast ballots near their school or place of employment, which may be far from their assigned polling place.

The secretary of state must sign off on Harris County’s proposal before Trautman may proceed. She plans to open several Election Day voting centers in a low turnout election, such as a May school board balloting, before moving to a large-scale deployment for a general election.

See here for the background. There have been several public meetings to get feedback about this proposal. More planning will need to be done to determine the number and location of voting centers. I presume that will vary by turnout level, as has been the case with all-precinct locations, so accurately projecting turnout will be key. I have no idea how long this process takes, but we’ll be seeing these things sooner rather than later, at least for some elections.

Commissioners Court rejects Ogg’s request for more prosecutors

I fully expected that Commissioners Court going from 4-1 Republican to 3-2 Democratic after the last election would signal big changes in how business was done in Harris County, but I didn’t expect this to be the first milestone on the new path.

Kim Ogg

Harris County Commissioners Court on Tuesday rejected Kim Ogg’s request for 102 new prosecutors, a stinging public defeat for the first-term Democratic district attorney by members of her own party.

The rejection came less than 24 hours after a former assistant district attorney filed paperwork to challenge Ogg in next year’s primary, a sign criminal justice reformers may have lost patience with the self-described progressive after helping elect her in 2016.

The three Democratic members of Commissioners Court — commissioners Rodney Ellis and Adrian Garcia and County Judge Lina Hidalgo —supported increasing the district attorney’s budget by 7 percent, in line with increases for other county departments. Ogg had asked for a 31 percent increase, which would grow her prosecutor corps by a third and include 42 additional support staff.

“This is not the only way, and certainly not the most cost-effective way to decrease prosecutor caseloads,” Hidalgo said.

[…]

Ogg, who did not attend the court meeting, issued a statement after the vote.

“We will continue to fight every day to ensure that justice is done in every case for every crime victim, every defendant and the community,” she said. “Harris County must have a district attorney’s office with sufficient resources to ensure that all cases are resolved fairly and in a timely manner.”

See here for the background and here for an earlier Chron story that previewed the Tuesday Commissioners Court meeting. Ogg had addressed the criticism of her proposal, and also answered the question about maybe hiring prosecutors on a shorter-term basis, but it wasn’t enough to get any of her fellow Dems in line. I would say her best bet right now is to take what the ACLU of Texas said in a press release following the Commissioners’ vote to heart:

“Adding more prosecutors in Harris County is not the ultimate solution for reducing mass incarceration and fighting racism in the criminal system. While the Harris County Commissioners Court has taken a more measured approach than the initial proposal, the addition of new prosecutors must come with clearly defined standards for reducing incarceration — such as expanding pretrial diversion, reducing case disposition time, and reducing existing caseloads — instead of prosecuting more cases. The commissioners were right to call for studies into how best to improve the district attorney’s office, and District Attorney Ogg should commit to specific plans for how any newly hired prosecutors will be used. That’s accountability.”

“There is no question that Harris County prosecutors have high caseloads, but the solution is not to add more prosecutors in a cycle that endlessly ratchets up the size of the criminal system. The smartest way to reduce caseloads is to dismiss more cases, identify more cases for diversion, and invest significantly in substance use disorder and mental health treatment that help people who need it and prevent them from ending up awaiting prosecution in the first place.”

Seems to me this conversation will need to include HPD, the Sheriff’s office, and all of the other law enforcement organizations in Harris County as well. If the DA needs to prioritize what cases get prosecuted, they will need to prioritize what arrests they make. Commissioners Court needs to do its part, too, by working to expand mental health offerings. The Lege could also pitch in here, though for obvious reasons I’ll keep my expectations low. Everyone has a part to play – Kim Ogg’s part is bigger than the rest, but it’s not just her. Maybe by the time next year’s budget is being discussed, we’ll have less to argue about.

And speaking of next year:

Audia Jones, the former prosecutor who on Monday filed paperwork to challenge Ogg, spoke against the proposal. Jones said she left the district attorney’s office in December in part because she said Ogg’s administration has been too reluctant to offer jail diversion to defendants of color, in contrast with their white counterparts.

She said temporary court closures caused by Hurricane Harvey are not a driver of increasing caseloads, as Ogg contends, but rather are a result of her administration’s policies.

Murray Newman, who had some earlier thoughts about the Ogg proposal, notes that Audia Jones is married to Criminal Court Judge DaSean Jones. I’m not sure how that conflict gets sorted out if she wins (one obvious remedy would be for Judge Jones to step down), but that’s a concern for another day. I would have picked County Attorney Vince Ryan as the first member of the class of 2020 to get a potential primary opponent – designating a treasurer is a necessary step to running for office, but it doesn’t commit one to running – but here we are.

RIP, Cassandra Hollemon

Sad news.

Cassandra Hollemon

Cassandra Hollemon took the bench in a sweep of Black Girl Magic, becoming part of the historic moment when 19 African-American women in Harris County won spots overseeing some of the busiest courtrooms in Texas.

In the weeks since taking over Harris County Criminal Court of Law 12, Hollemon helped make a mark on local justice reform when she joined her colleagues in efforts to settle the landmark lawsuit over the county’s cash bail system. She served on the Community Supervision and Pretrial Services Committee, and offered a keen sense of humor with friends and colleagues.

On Monday, she died after weeks of struggling with “health issues,” according to fellow misdemeanor Judge Darrell Jordan. She was 57.

“We are saddened by the passing of Judge Cassandra Y. Hollemon,” Jordan told the Houston Chronicle. “She was a compassionate judge who treated one in a respectful manner.”

Now, the Harris County Commissioners Court will have to pick a replacement, according to Barbara Armstrong, a managing lawyer at County Attorney Vince Ryan’s office. Given the timing of Hollemon’s death, her replacement would take the bench through 2020, with the option to run then in an election to complete Holleman’s unexpired term ending in 2022.

I did not have the opportunity to meet Judge Hollemon during the campaign last year, so I can’t add to her eulogy. She was clearly well-liked and well-respected, and she leaves behind two children and a grandchild, to whom I send out my deepest sympathies. As she was elected to a County bench, her successor will be named by Commissioners Court; had she been a District Court judge, it would have been Greg Abbott appointing a new judge. Rest in peace, Judge Cassandra Hollemon.

Let’s check in on the HCDE

How are things with the new Board?

Within an hour and 37 minutes of his first meeting as a trustee on the Harris County Department of Education’s board of trustees, Josh Flynn had a new role: President.

The former Harris County Republican Party treasurer and local accountant, who ran on a platform of bringing more transparency and accountability to Texas’ last remaining county education department, won the votes of three other trustees at the Jan. 16 meeting.

Minutes later, Flynn joined those same three in firing the department’s lobbying firm, a move that raised concerns among other trustees and Superintendent James Colbert Jr. that a lack of advocates in Austin could leave them with little recourse if lawmakers target the agency during the 2019 legislative session. Flynn did not return messages for comment.

Together, the votes signal a new majority on the seven-member board, one that Trustee Don Sumners said will provide a chance to lift the hood on HCDE’s departments and to make the agency more accountable to taxpayers. All four have questioned or criticized the department or some of its actions in the past, and one has filed motions to study closing the agency.

“We’ll probably go through the whole department one division at a time and do some evaluation,” Sumners said. “We really haven’t been able to get to the nuts and bolts very easily, and I think now that we have more interested participation, we’ll be able to realize this department for efficiency. We haven’t been able to do that before.”

Others, however, worry that actions like some of those taken at the Jan. 16 meeting could do irreparable harm to the state’s last remaining county department of education.

“I’m concerned, I’m definitely concerned,” said Trustee Danny Norris, a Texas Southern University law professor who also joined the board on January. “I think the vote to cancel our contract with (our lobbyists) specifically worried me a good bit, because we usually have a few bills to shut us down each session. This session, I’m the most worried.”

[…]

Trustee Eric Dick, a longtime Republican, noted at the meeting that other school districts, political parties and government entities also hire lobbyists. About a week after the vote, he said any government agency that is able to generate more than 70 percent of its budget from sources other than local tax dollars should be a model of good governance that conservatives should want to protect and other government agencies should look to for inspiration. About 28 percent of HCDE’s roughly $117 million budget in 2017-2018 came from property taxes, with the rest coming from state and federal grants, fees paid by local school districts and its cooperative purchasing program.

“You have an organization that actually runs at a profit, that’s actually in the black, that turns one dollar into five dollars. What should happen is ISDs should replicate and try to do something similar. So should the city of Houston,” Dick said. “I think worst thing that you could do is take something that works and cut it up.”

sigh Okay, three things here. One is that Flynn won his race by a tiny margin, 0.6 percentage points, less than 2,000 votes out of over 300K cast. Even in a dominant year for Dems in Harris County, one low-profile downballot race can make a difference by going the other way. Two, assuming the HCDE survives another legislative session, it’s very likely that it will flip back to a Democratic majority after the 2020 election, when At Large members Michael Wolfe (yeah, that guy again) and Don Sumners will almost certainly get voted out. And three, I can’t believe I’m about to say something nice about Eric Dick, but he has the right idea here, and I appreciate his vote on this matter. Let’s hope this is just a minor kerfuffle and nothing bad happens in the Lege.

(It should be noted that among other things, former County Judge Ed Emmett was not a fan of the HCDE and supported eliminating it. I hope Judge Hidalgo is up to speed on this. The HCDE may not have its own lobbyist in Austin, but the county has them. They could advocate for HCDE in a pinch if needed. Something to keep in mind.)

UPDATE: From an email sent out by Andrea Duhon, who was the Democratic candidate against Josh Flynn and who is planning to run for one of those At Large positions next year:

Community advocates, parents, and teachers plan to attend and make their perspectives known at an unexpected Special HCDE meeting this Monday, February 11th at 4:00 PM at 6300 Irvington Dr. to push back against the politically motivated distribution of legal contracts and privatization attempts by Austin politicians.

Expected on the HCDE agenda is an attempt by some trustees to fire the current unbiased education attorney and replace her with the highly partisan law firm Strahan-Cain, of which far right State Representative and education privatization proponent Briscoe Cain is a partner.

The meeting was called late Friday afternoon with little notice and comes at a time when the Texas Legislature is not only in session but is actively pursuing overhaul of state education policy. Also relevant are efforts both past and present by State Senator Paul Bettencourt (R-SD7) to shutdown the department and consolidate public education resources into private buckets. The agenda also calls to replace Public Facilities Corporation board vacancies in an attempt to overturn contracts which have been approved.

Just last month, the HCDE surprisingly selected a first-term trustee as President of its board and voted to eliminate its own representation in Austin by firing HillCo Partners, leaving services vulnerable to attacks.

The community demands the department safeguard the programs and shared services it brings to Harris County and the jobs of more than 1,000 HCDE employees.

Here’s the agenda for that special Board meeting. Note that all of the action items on it were submitted by the Flynn/Wolfe/Sumners troika. Nothing good can come of this.

Orlando Sanchez files $1 million lawsuit against water-pourer

Oh, good grief.

Orlando Sanchez

The former Harris County treasurer has sued a man for $1 million after water was poured on his head during a news conference about HISD in December.

Orlando Sanchez, who lost his re-election campaign in November, filed suit on Thursday against Steve Striever.

Sanchez and his attorney said that Striever assaulted Sanchez by “offensive physical contact” during the news conference on Dec. 28, and that he “knew or reasonably should have believed that Orlando Sanchez would regard the contact as offensive or provocative.”

“It’s not about the physical damage, it’s about the bigger effect the damage has,” Sanchez’s attorney Hector G. Longoria said. “It’s the visceral reaction it causes.”

[…]

The $1 million includes relief for past and future mental anguish, according to the lawsuit. The amount would ultimately be for the jury to decide, Longoria said.

Sanchez also demanded a jury trial and requested that Striever turn over material relevant to the incident, including any videos, documents, texts, or phone calls about the press conference or pouring water on Sanchez’s head.

See here for the background. I’ll say again, Steve Striever is an idiot who should at the least have been charged with some form of misdemeanor assault. But a million dollars? For “past and future mental anguish”? I don’t even know what to say to that. But hey, at least ol’ Orlando got his name in the newspaper again. At this rate, he’ll surpass his total coverage from twelve years as Treasurer in no time.

Dick and Wolfe turn on each other

Pass the popcorn.

In this corner…

A trustee on the Harris County Department of Education board who lent money to a fellow trustee’s campaign for justice of the peace has lodged a complaint with the Texas Ethics Commission accusing him of failing to report the funds or pay back the loans.

Eric Dick, who serves as vice president of the board, wrote two checks totaling $28,000 to Michael Wolfe shortly before Wolfe lost the May 2018 Republican primary runoff for justice of the peace in Harris County Precinct 5, Place 2, according to the complaint.

Wolfe did not report the loans on his campaign finance report covering the period of the loans or in any other report. He appears to have deposited at least one of the checks in an account with the Harris County Federal Credit Union, which Dick alleged is a personal account and unrelated to Wolfe’s campaign.

And in this corner…

The episode was unexpected, Dick said, because he and Wolfe have known each other since middle school. Dick said Wolfe asked him for campaign loans twice in May, around the time he held a fundraiser for Wolfe at his house. Months later, Dick said, the money seems to have disappeared.

“I’d like him to pay me back. It would be nice if he paid me back,” Dick said. “But at the bare minimum, why didn’t he report it?”

Dick said that when he wrote the checks to Wolfe, the two verbally agreed that the money was given as loans, but did not lay out repayment terms or put anything in writing. Regardless, Wolfe should have reported the funds as a contribution or campaign loans, Dick said.

[…]

“I did consider him a friend,” Dick said when asked about his relationship with Wolfe. “But I think he has some serious problems. I just don’t appreciate the things he does to people.”

I’m sorry, I know I should have something useful to say, but I’m over here giggling like a kindergartner. The only way this could get better is if they both wind up suing each other. Please, please, in the name of all that is unholy and ridiculous, let this continue to be a story through next November’s election.

(Also, too, someone might perhaps alert the HCDE webmaster that their Meet the Board of Trustees page is a tad bit out of date.)

Firefighters go back to court

I dunno, man.

The Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association sought a court order Tuesday aiming to force the city to pay firefighters the same as police officers of corresponding rank and seniority, one day before Mayor Sylvester Turner and the union are set to discuss ideas for implementing pay raises.

The move comes more than two months after voters approved Proposition B, a November ballot measure granting pay parity to Houston firefighters, which would amount to a massive raise that Turner says the city cannot afford. Since the election, firefighters have yet to see their paychecks grow fatter, a delay that has frustrated the union and sown confusion among city workers who face the threat of layoffs.

“By failing to give firefighters a date certain for implementation of voter-approved Proposition B, the City of Houston forced Houston firefighters” to seek Tuesday’s court order, fire union President Marty Lancton said in a statement. “With the election two months behind us, Prop B is now the law. It’s past time for Mayor Turner to respect the will of the voters.”

In response, Turner questioned why the firefighters would ask him to meet, then take court action on the eve of the meeting.

“Now that I’m willing to sit down, what do they do? They go to the courthouse,” Turner said. “Common sense has to prevail here.”

[…]

Since the election, Lancton has asked the mayor to negotiate a contract that would phase in pay parity instead of implementing it in one fell swoop. Until recently, Turner resisted the union’s calls, citing ongoing litigation while at times contending he could not negotiate what voters had already decided.

On Jan. 9, however, Turner invited firefighters to discuss ideas to implement Proposition B, though the mayor’s letter to Lancton did not say whether he is open to negotiating pay raises through contract talks.

“I do not want to lay off employees; and, I interpret some of the things you have said in public to acknowledge the true state of the City’s financial affairs,” Turner wrote to Lancton. “If the sacrifice of city services and city employees and their families in order to finance your pay increase can be avoided, I am open to consideration of your ideas.”

Lancton, responded by saying the union would not participate in “stage-managed, taxpayer-funded public ‘stakeholder’ forums.”

I don’t know what the way forward is. I feel like we’re here now because the firefighters are mad about the pension reform law that got passed. Which confounds me to this day, because were they not listening to what Turner and others were saying on the campaign trail? Did they think they were going to somehow be magically exempt? Anyway, I agree that there should be a date set for when this will be implemented, and a plan that outlines what that will mean. No one knows what it means because that was never part of the marketing for Prop B, but it has to mean something, so let’s get to it. And when the firefighters don’t like what it means, well, the courts will still be there.

Now we talk about vote centers

Good.

New Harris County Clerk Diane Trautman on Tuesday [proposed] to Commissioners Court a non-precinct based countywide polling system, where voters can cast ballots at the locations most convenient to them.

“Life gets in the way; you’ve got to pick up the kids, or go to another job,” Trautman said at her office Monday. “But if people actually had a choice of when and where to vote, I think you would see a big difference in turnout.”

Fifty-two Texas counties, including neighboring Fort Bend and Brazoria, have used voting centers.

In last November’s mid-term election, Harris County residents could vote at any of 46 county locations during the two-week early voting period. They had to cast ballots at their assigned precincts on Election Day, when the county operates more than 700 polling sites.

It is unclear how many voting centers would be needed, which could vary depending on what is on the ballot and projected turnout. Trautman said she would begin by using the county’s 46 early voting locations as Election Day voting centers, in addition to its precinct polling sites. Her office, she said, would use the resulting turnout data to make future decisions about the number of centers needed.

During her campaign, Trautman pitched voting centers as a way to increase turnout by 2 to 5 percent. She said voters are more likely to participate when they can cast ballots on Election Day near their work or school, which may be outside their precincts.

The idea first came up in Harris County back in 2015. Fort Bend adopted them that same year, as did Galveston, while Travis has used them since 2011.

The new clerk said she has studied Travis County’s voting centers model, which debuted in 2011, and hired away Michael Winn, that county’s elections director. Winn said voters needed several cycles to get used to the new system, which he said eventually boosted turnout 10 to 12 percent.

“Voters really enjoyed the fact that during lunchtime or after work, in that crunch time before polls close … vote centers make it so they can go without worry to a place within their proximity,” Winn said.

Through studying turnout patterns and consulting with neighborhood leaders, Winn said Travis County was able to close about 20 percent of its traditional polling places without hampering turnout.

Trautman said she is open to consolidating Harris County polling sites, but only after consulting with communities. She acknowledged the role polling places play in the civic fabric of neighborhoods — especially where residents once had been denied suffrage — and said she would leave open sites that hold such significance.

The Harris County Democratic Party endorsed the proposal, and a spokeswoman said County Judge Lina Hidalgo supports the idea. A spokesman for the county Republican Party did not respond to a request for comment.

We may get a pilot as early as this May – as Trautman notes, it makes far more sense to test this out in a lower-turnout election, rather than debut it during a Presidential race. Commissioners Court has approved the idea. so we can move ahead with it. I look forward to the discussion and planning process, and especially to the final product.

Lina Hidalgo officially sworn in

It’s Judge Hidalgo now, thank you very much.

Judge Lina Hidalgo

Ushering in a new era of Democratic rule, Lina Hidalgo took the oath of office as Harris County judge early Tuesday, becoming the first Latina and first woman to lead the nation’s third-largest county.

Her swearing in minutes past midnight by 151st Civil Court Judge Mike Engelhart capped the remarkable rise of Hidalgo, 27, who just two months ago was a graduate student making her first bid for public office against a popular incumbent.

She takes charge as chief executive overseeing thousands of employees and an annual budget of more than $5 billion. Hidalgo will also lead the county’s Office of Emergency Management, which has already responded to 23 floods this century.

Hidalgo was joined by her parents and other family members. She succeeds longtime County Judge Ed Emmett, a Republican who steered a massive Hurricane Harvey bond package to passage before being swept out of office in November after 11 years.

She said the greatest challenge during her transition to office has been knowing where to start.

“There’s just so much enthusiasm in the community and in the meetings I have,” Hidalgo said. “There’s this incredible desire to bring in new ideas and breathe in new energy.”

Hidalgo was one of scores of Democrats who unseated Republicans in November in a sweep of countywide positions that brought more than 50 civil and criminal judges and other top leaders into key positions. Of the 81 officials at the swearing-in ceremony Tuesday at NRG Center, only Precinct 4 Commissioner Jack Cagle and a justice of the peace were Republicans.

I just want to pause here for a moment so the full impact of that last sentence can settle in on you. The forecast is for more of the same in the foreseeable future.

Hidalgo, who campaigned on making county government more accessible to the public, announced a massive engagement effort. With support from Houston Endowment Inc. and the Ford Foundation, she said Harris County will circulate a survey asking residents how government can be improved.

The Talking Transition program will also include workshops educating residents on how county government functions and town hall forums on topics such as education, housing and transportation.

Several key positions in Hidalgo’s administration remain unfilled, including communication and policy directors. She said her staff continues to vet candidates with the help of a consulting firm that also assisted the administration of New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio.

Hidalgo said she hopes to work with commissioners to quickly settle the federal lawsuit challenging Harris County’s cash bail system. The protracted legal wrangling over the suit — and its $7 million cost to taxpayers so far — has long frustrated Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis, who until now was the lone Democrat on Commissioners Court.

“Like many, I’m hopeful that 2019 will be the year the county settles the lawsuit and ceases its defense of an unconstitutional, unsafe cash bail system,” Ellis wrote in an email to constituents Tuesday.

I for damn sure want to see a settlement, and I want it to be a high priority. I don’t know what the court’s calendar looks like, but I see no reason why there can’t be an agreement in principle between the parties by the end of Q1 2019.

As fort the transition stuff, this is from the inbox on January 1:

Judge Hidalgo’s initiative, Talking Transition: Harris County, will provide a forum for residents to discuss the issues that matter most to them, learn about County government, and weigh in on pressing public policy matters.

The first program of its kind in Harris County, Talking Transition will allow Judge Hidalgo and her team to obtain a qualitative and quantitative analysis of the issues and ideas that most impact County residents, as they work to shape their agenda.

“Throughout my campaign, I pledged to increase transparency and accountability in Harris County government. Too few residents know how County government works and how to engage with it,” said Judge Lina Hidalgo. “For me, public service means ensuring that our most vulnerable residents have the same voice in our local government as the most powerful among us.”

Talking Transition: Harris County is expected to be the largest civic engagement program in the South. It is modeled after similar programs in New York and Washington, D.C., and made possible by the Houston Endowment and the Ford Foundation.

“Houston Endowment recognizes the value of community voice in good governance,” said Ann Stern, president and CEO of Houston Endowment. “By ensuring all voices are heard, we can continue to enhance our region’s assets, achieve equitable outcomes, and resolve issues that are important to the residents of Harris County.”

Talking Transition will address seven public policy areas – education, housing, transportation, resiliency, health, justice, and economic opportunity – through a series of public events across the County. The initiative includes a variety of ways for Harris County residents to interact with and learn more about their local government. The core components include:

Transparency Project: Announcements throughout the County will provide easily-digestible information about how County government works and eye-opening statistics intended to motivate residents to learn more.

Civic Saturdays: Offered at a seven locations around Harris County, Civic Saturdays are a series of full-day public events happening on consecutive Saturdays:

  • Civic School: Features classroom-style lessons for Harris County residents to learn about how County government works.
  • Town Halls: A large gathering organized around a specific policy area that will give residents a chance to share new ideas for improving their communities and to hear from others.
  • Action Plan Workshops: Smaller working groups for people who have devoted time to specific issues to focus on how to best realize community-driven ideas through County government.

Survey: Teams of canvassers will be spread throughout the County to ask residents about what needs to be improved among County services, what would help them engage more with County government, and what needs to be prioritized when it comes to prioritizing the County budget. The survey will also be available both online and at each Civic Saturday.

All Talking Transitions events are free and open to the public. A full schedule of activities will become available online at www.talkingtransition.us.

I’ll be very interested to see how that turns out. In the meantime, best of luck to Judge Hidalgo and all of the newly sworn-in officials.

Orlando Sanchez’s bizarre press conference

What a weird thing.

Orlando Sanchez

It was an absolutely wild afternoon for Harris County Treasurer Orlando Sanchez. He planned to have a news conference across the street from the HISD administration building, but things didn’t go as planned.

Protestors showed up and completely disrupted Sanchez’s news conference. When he tried to get it started, the group would chant things like, ‘Go away, TEA’ and ‘You got voted out.’

Things really got heated when he was answering one of our questions. Someone from the group ran up and dumped water on him.

Someone from Sanchez’s team confronted the man. He ended up on the ground and police were called. Both sides claimed they were assaulted.

The news conference was supposed to be for Sanchez to call for the state to take over HISD.

“Taxpayers are fed up and it’s time for the governor and the Texas Education Agency to step up and make sure that children in HISD, which 83 percent of them are minority, get an education,” said Sanchez.

“To have somebody like that step on my toes like that when I have sacrificed so much for these kids, yeah, it’s emotional,” said HISD Board President Rhonda Skillern. “It is because it’s personal. These kids mean a lot to me; not just my five but all 215,000.”

Click over to see pictures and video. Far as I can tell, the only coverage of this fiasco has come from the TV stations; I’ve not seen anything in the Chron as yet.

Let me say up front that whoever poured water on Sanchez is an idiot, and what he did sure sounds like assault to me. It’s also terrible strategy from a public relations perspective. Sanchez’s purpose for calling the press conference was ridiculous on its face, and would have been easy to dismiss on its merits. Anyone who felt the need to attack Sanchez physically is someone who has no faith in their own political position.

Why do I say that Sanchez’s purpose is ridiculous? The law is clear that the authority of the TEA to step in only occurs after the schools fail to meet state standards. We won’t have that data for several months, a fact that everyone knows. It is entirely possible that the four schools in question, which were all granted one-year waivers due to the effects of Hurricane Harvey, could meet standards this year, as the other schools that had originally been under scrutiny and which did not get Harvey waivers did. One could easily argue that by making this needless and premature call for a TEA takeover, Sanchez is expressing a complete lack of faith in the students at the four schools. That’s an insult to them and their parents and teachers. Maybe he had some qualifiers and weasel words in his prepared text, but still, the message is clear: Orlando Sanchez expects you to fail, and so he wants the consequences of your failure to begin now.

One also can’t help but notice that Orlando Sanchez, who just got voted out of a cushy elected position where he was basically invisible for twelve years and has never before expressed any opinions about education or ideas about how to improve it, is jumping up and waving his arms in front of Greg Abbott at a time when he really needs something to do. It’s a clear grab for attention at a time when the news cycle is quiet and he can still call it in his capacity as an elected official. There’s also the rumors that Sanchez is prepping to run for Mayor (again). No such thing as bad publicity, am I right?

Finally, there will surely be litigation over the process of replacing an elected board with an appointed one – for sure, there’s a Voting Rights Act complaint to be made. There were lawsuits over the closure of North Forest ISD and La Marque ISD, and while the state prevailed in each of them, the situation with HISD, which is a much bigger district with many successful schools and is financially solvent, is vastly different. The state may well prevail in any litigation that will occur, but it will take time. There’s also the very real possibility that the Lege could modify the law in question that delays or makes less likely a TEA takeover. The point here is that in every way, this was way premature, and served to do nothing more than call attention to Orlando Sanchez. On that score at least, mission accomplished.

And now we move forward with Prop B

No other option.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner said Wednesday his administration is moving forward to implement the voter-approved charter amendment granting Houston firefighters equal pay to police of corresponding rank and seniority, though the city has not yet determined when firefighters will begin receiving increased paychecks or how the charter amendment will impact individual city departments.

Turner’s administration plans to lay off hundreds of city employees, including firefighters and police officers, to cover the cost of paying firefighters on par with police officers, a move city officials say will amount to a 29 percent raise costing the city upwards of $100 million annually.

The mayor said he did not know when the city would begin layoffs, but indicated to reporters Wednesday that it likely would take several months to put Proposition B into effect.

“I don’t want anybody to operate under the assumption that even as we move forward to the implementation that checks are going to start flowing in January,” Turner said. “It will take some time.”

[…]

Asked why the city is only now beginning to put Proposition B into effect, Turner said his administration did not take action while the temporary restraining order was in place from Nov. 30 until Tuesday. Proposition B passed Nov. 6 with 59 percent of the vote.

The fire union, meanwhile, has sought to negotiate a new contract with Turner that would allow the city to phase in Proposition B. Fire union president Marty Lancton has cast Turner’s refusal to return to the table as vindictive, and said after state District Judge Randy Wilson’s ruling Tuesday that the mayor could implement the amendment or “pick up the phone and call firefighters so we can work toward a solution that implements the will of the voters in the best possible way.”

Asked Wednesday about the union’s negotiation offer, Turner did not indicate he has was any closer to sitting down with the firefighters, saying that doing so would go against “what people wanted” when they approved Proposition B. The firefighters, who have contended that the police union’s lawsuit is aimed at circumventing the will of the voters, say it is possible to arrive at “a solution that implements the will of the voters in the best possible way.”

The mayor previously has said the city could not phase in Proposition B, and since has accused firefighters of attempting to confuse the issue by calling for negotiations while the lawsuits play out in the courts.

See here for the background. I don’t know what else there is to say at this point. It’s not clear what happens from here, but I’m pretty sure no one is going to like it.

Restraining order lifted on firefighter pay referendum

Back to the planning stage.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

A state district judge on Tuesday dissolved a temporary restraining order blocking implementation of the voter-approved charter amendment granting pay parity to Houston firefighters and denied further attempts by the city and police union to delay the measure.

State District Judge Randy Wilson, ruling in favor of the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association, decided that voters were informed of the amendment’s price tag — more than $100 million a year — before the election and approved it anyway. The measure, appearing on the November ballot as Proposition B, passed with 59 percent of the vote.

“While this Court is sensitive to the budget difficulties the Pay-Parity Amendment will produce, the Houston voters decided they would rather have pay parity,” Wilson wrote.

[…]

The latest ruling comes more than two weeks after the HPOU sued the fire union and city over the parity measure, contending the amendment, which would tie firefighter pay to that of police of corresponding rank and experience, is unconstitutional because it conflicts with a provision of state law requiring firefighters to receive comparable pay to that of private sector employees.

Wilson, ruling that the amendment does not conflict with state law, indicated the city had contradicted its argument in a separate case by claiming that no private sector jobs are comparable to those of firefighters.

The lawsuit has been underway since Nov. 30, when the police union filed the suit against the fire union and the city, and [Judge Kristen] Hawkins granted a temporary restraining order.

The city later filed a cross-claim against the fire union, a remedy available to defendants seeking to take legal action against a co-defendant. In its claim, the city argued that the charter amendment “directly conflicts with the collective bargaining process and guidelines for firefighter compensation” laid out in the Texas Local Government Code, and therefore is invalid. Ultimately, the police union and city sought an injuction and stay on the parity amendment.

As the lawsuit has played out, the separate case referenced by Wilson — filed by the fire union against the city after contract talks stalled last year — has reached Texas’ 14th Court of Appeals.

See here for the background, and here for the Mayor’s statement. Neither the HPOU nor the city plans to appeal at this time, so as things stand the city will need to figure out how to move forward with Prop B while the litigation plays out, as was the case with Renew Houston. It’s not going to get any more cordial from here, that much I know.

Trash fee to pay for Prop B?

Hard pass.

CM Dwight Boykins

Houston City Councilman Dwight Boykins on Thursday proposed charging property owners a monthly garbage collection fee to finance raises for firefighters while avoiding job cuts for other city staff.

Under the proposal, most Houston homeowners would be charged a flat, monthly fee between $25 and $40 to help the city absorb the cost of raises for firefighters mandated by the pay parity charter amendment approved by voters last month.

Unveiled at a Thursday press conference, Boykins’ proposal comes amid a legal challenge by the city over the constitutionality of Proposition B, the charter amendment granting firefighters equal pay to police officers of corresponding rank and experience. The amendment was approved last month by 59 percent of voters.

“I believe the issue of pay parity was settled at the ballot box,” Boykins wrote in a Thursday letter to Mayor Sylvester Turner and his colleagues on council. “As elected leaders, our primary mission is to settle on an appropriate and responsible way forward. To this end, I am convinced that introducing a garbage collection fee is the most plausible plan to provide firefighters a pay raise while ensuring that no city worker loses their job.”

Turner’s office issued a statement in which the mayor said he was opposed to the idea: “Council Member Boykins and the Firefighters Association’s proposal to enact a $25 monthly garbage collection fee to pay for a firefighter’s 29% pay raise, underscores what I have been saying for months. The City cannot afford Proposition B. This measure will cost the city more than $100 million each fiscal year. I will not support forcing Houston homeowners to pay a costly new tax on trash collection to pay for firefighters’ salaries.”

Look, I support the concept of a trash fee. I just want that fee to apply to the function of collecting and managing the city’s waste. More curbside recycling, including plastic bags, curbside compost collection – there are lots of things that other cities that have trash fees do with them. Propose this as part of a zero waste plan, I’ll shill for it all day long. This is not a good use for a trash fee. Nice try, but no.

Mayor moves forward with city-led school partnership

We’ll see about this.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

A nonprofit formed by city of Houston leaders may seek temporary control of up to 15 Houston ISD campuses in neighborhoods with historically low-performing schools, Mayor Sylvester Turner said Tuesday.

The nonprofit, created by Turner’s education czar and led by Turner-appointed board members, marks the city’s effort to improve academic performance at chronically low-rated schools while helping HISD stave off state sanctions tied to academic failures at some of those campuses. The director of Turner’s Office of Education Initiatives, Juliet Stipeche, unveiled several details about the nonprofit for the first time last week in an interview with the Houston Chronicle.

In a press release Tuesday, Turner added two new pieces of information to the nonprofit’s plans: The organization is eyeing control of as many as 15 schools, and six people likely will be added to the nonprofit’s current three-person governing board. The campuses likely would be clustered in a few geographic areas, where elementary and middle schools funnel students to the same high school. Turner did not name specific schools under consideration.

[…]

HISD administrators and trustees have shown little appetite for relinquishing control of district schools, though that could change as a February 2019 deadline for submitting partnership plans to the state approaches. Trustees are expected to consider and possibly vote Thursday on authorizing Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan to issue a request-for-proposal seeking potential partners, according to the posted board agenda. Lathan has said she does not believe members of the public want outside organizations running campuses, and trustees have offered relatively little public support for the idea to date.

As HISD officials have spent the past few months making few moves on the private partnership front, Stipeche and other civic advocates have worked to form a nonprofit capable of operating HISD campuses. They have worked at the behest of Turner, who has advocated for avoiding a state takeover of HISD’s school board. It is widely believed that Texas Education Agency leaders, who would decide which sanction to impose if one of the four campuses fails to meet standard, would prefer to replace HISD’s school board rather over close schools.

The group ultimately formed a nonprofit in late November called the Coalition for Educational Excellence and Equity in Houston. City officials have not released a proposal or framework for their plans to operate HISD campuses, though Stipeche said she envisions “working through a collective-impact approach to lock arms with the community, to reimagine what we can do to support our schools.” The nonprofit’s leaders have not held public meetings, though engagement with the effected communities would take place if discussions with HISD turn more serious, Stipeche said.

See here for the previous update, and here for the Mayor’s press release. I really hope HISD will indicate ASAP what their preferred direction is for this, because if the city is wasting its time it would be best to know that quickly. If not – if there is a chance this could become a viable partnership in the event something like it is needed – then the Mayor and the powers that be at CEEE need to get moving with that community engagement, because there’s already a loud group of people steadfastly opposed to the idea. I may be overestimating their presence – I mostly see this activity on the same Facebook group pages that were busy organizing and canvassing for the 2018 election – but it’s also possible that the Mayor is underestimating it. Better I be wrong than he is.

Cagle and Garcia hire Morman and Shaw

Fine by me.

Penny Shaw

Jack Morman, who was defeated for re-election as Harris County Precinct 2 commissioner in November, will remain on the county’s payroll in January as an employee of Precinct 4 Commissioner Jack Cagle, a fellow Republican.

Morman, who served two terms on Commissioners Court before losing to former county sheriff Adrian Garcia, will work in Precinct 4’s capital improvements department, Cagle said.

Garcia recruited from this fall’s ballot, as well, selecting fellow Democrat Penny Shaw, who unsuccessfully challenged Cagle, as a policy adviser for Precinct 2.

[…]

Cagle said he was talking with Morman recently about an unrelated topic when they arrived at the subject of Morman’s next job. Cagle said that, given Morman’s eight years of experience as a commissioner, he would be a good fit to fill a vacancy in his capital improvements department.

“I’m working on what the exact title will be, and he and I are in beginning stages of working that out,” Cagle said. “He believes we’ll be a good fit for him.”

[…]

Garcia said he approached Shaw about working for him because he was impressed with her campaign in Precinct 4. As the two Democratic hopefuls for Commissioners Court, the pair often appeared at forums together. Shaw, an employment, family and business lawyer, campaigned on reforming the county’s criminal justice and mental health systems, said she and Garcia have yet to determine her policy portfolio.

“We don’t have a particular direction yet,” Shaw said. “Flood mitigation, which is huge, is at the top of the list.”

Jack Morman is uniquely qualified to do a job within a County Commissioner’s office, and Penny Shaw was one of the more impressive candidates on the trail this year. Both should be assets to their respective bosses.

Emmett to teach at Rice

Fitting.

Ed Emmett

Outgoing Harris County judge Ed Emmett said Tuesday he will teach at Rice University, his alma mater, starting in January.

Emmett made the impromptu announcement after a Rice University undergraduate spoke during the public comment portion of Commissioners Court, when he encouraged her to sign up for his class.

“I’ll be teaching a class in the spring and two classes in the fall, and assisting the Kinder Institute on policy projects,” Emmett said.

He will be a non-tenured professor and senior fellow at the Kinder Institute for Urban Research. Though he said he looks forward to taking a step back from politics, Emmett’s first class will focus on policy topics within the Texas Legislature, which returns to Austin in January.

In an interview at his office, Emmett said Rice President David Leebron approached him last month about joining the faculty. Emmett in November lost his bid for a third full term as county judge, a position he has held since 2007.

I’m sure he’ll do a great job, and I’m sure his classes will be popular. I wonder if now that he is freed of the responsibility of governing and of being a politician, he’ll say some things in these classes that he’d always wanted to but never felt he could before. I’m sure we’ll hear about it if he does.

From the “Needlessly overstated answers to simple questions” department

I have three things to say about this:

Tony Buzbee, a Houston lawyer who recently announced his plan to run for mayor next year, has offered to “mediate” a long-running pay dispute between the city and firefighters, one week after a judge blocked implementation of a voter-approved charter amendment that would grant firefighters equal pay to police officers of corresponding status.

In a joint statement Friday with the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association, Buzbee said he believes it is time “we equally value our police and fire first responders in Houston,” seeming to indicate that he supports the push for “pay parity.”

A spokesman for Mayor Sylvester Turner declined comment, referring to the mayor’s previous comments that a judge should first decide whether a collective bargaining agreement can supersede a voter-approved charter amendment.

1. No.

2. Whether or not the city has any ability to negotiate the terms of the pay parity referendum is an open question right now. (So is the pay parity referendum itself, but let’s set that aside right now.) Asking the city to come to the table and negotiate the terms of the pay parity referendum is basically equivalent to telling the city to agree that the firefighters are right about the big picture and to abandon its current course. Which the city may eventually wind up doing, depending on what the lawyers and the courts say, but now is not the time for that.

3. Even if we were to accept the premise of point #2, maybe find a mediator who’s more, you know, impartial? Like, maybe someone who hasn’t announced their candidacy against Mayor Turner? It’s a big city. We have lots of certified mediators. I’m sure someone else might have time in their schedule for this.

4. Again, no.

Oh, right, I said three things, not four. Better call in Tony Buzbee to mediate the difference between what I said and what I did.

Use that mandate in Harris County

Jay Aiyer pens an agenda for Harris County and its Democratic government.

First and foremost, flood mitigation has to be at the top of any list. Harris County has taken good initial steps to improve flood control infrastructure, and the passage of flood control bonds was badly needed. Those steps however, are only the beginning of what needs to be done. Development changes that prohibit growth and expansion in the floodplain, and ideas from experts like Rice University’s Raj Makand to impose a moratorium on new municipal utility districts until the region has a comprehensive plan for flood mitigation should be considered. Infrastructure development in Harris County — everything from toll road expansion to affordable housing construction should be factored into flood control efforts. Flood mitigation needs to be the county’s top priority.

[…]

The need for ethics and transparency is also required at the Commissioner’s Court itself. Unlike Houston City Council or the Texas Legislature, Harris County government remains largely shrouded in secrecy. The lack of broad transparency and pro-forma meetings results in a policy process that is largely kept behind closed doors. Commissioners have wide latitude in how business is conducted within their precinct, but that should be governed by a strong ethics policy that requires lobbyists to register and places limits on campaign contributions. A strong government requires one grounded in ethics and transparency.

Access to the ballot box and the integrity of voting process remains a major concern to all voters. Harris County needs a transparent and error-free voter registration process that works to actively register voters. Texas is eliminating straight ticket voting in 2020 and Harris County needs to start preparing for the longer lines and logistical strains that surround the longest electoral ballot in the country. This means expanding the number early voting locations throughout the county, as well as extending the hours of operation. Harris County also needs to follow other Texas counties and create election day voting centers that allow voters to cast a vote at location throughout the county — not just at a precinct.

Part of the improving voting means replacing the outdated machines. The current click-wheel electronic voting system is outdated and slow in handling our long ballot. Harris County needs to invest in modern, verifiable voting machines that can provide confidence in the electoral process while allowing voters to exercise their vote quickly and efficiently. County government has historically worked to make voting more difficult and cumbersome, and these reforms would be a good first step in reversing that.

Finally, Harris County should also revisit initiatives around the expansion of early childcare. In 2013, the well-meaning pre-K training initiative “Early to Rise,” which called for a ballot initiative to expand pre-K training programs, was strongly opposed by outgoing County Judge Ed Emmett and the Republican majority of Commissioner’s Court. While that initial plan was limited in scope, the idea of a regional approach to expanding early child care is one that needs to be explored. Research indicates that investing in early education initiatives are the best way to mitigate the effects of poverty and improve long term educational outcomes. A countywide program may be the smartest long term investment that Harris County could make.

I endorse all of Jay’s idea, which he proposes as a first-100-days plan, and I’d add a few things of my own, none of which need to be done immediately. One is for Harris County to be a more active partner with Metro, and to be fully engaged in the forthcoming transit plan and referendum. There are a lot of ways the county can contribute to better transit, and with everything Metro has going on now, this is the time. Two, continue the work Ed Emmett started in consolidating services with Houston and other cities, and make non-MUD governance a part of that development reform Aiyer outlines. Three, figure out what the office of the Treasurer can and should be doing. Incoming Treasurer Dylan Osborne has his own ideas, of course, but my point is that back in the 90s Commissioners Court basically neutered the office during Don Sumners’ term. Maybe now the time has come to restore some actual power to that office. Other counties have Treasurers, perhaps we should look to them to see if there’s a good model to follow.

I’m sure there are plenty of other ideas. (The parts that I cut out for this excerpt talked about criminal justice and bail reform, some of which have been going on.) Reviving the pre-K proposal is especially something we should all get behind. The point is, there is much that can be done, and no reason to feel restrained by “we’ve always done it that way” thinking. If it’s a good idea, let’s talk about it and figure out if we can make it work. It’s a new era in Harris County.

The legal option for Prop B

Here we go.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner will ask Houston city council Wednesday to hire a law firm to advise the city on possible litigation related to the firefighter pay parity measure, setting in motion a potential court challenge to the item approved by voters earlier this month.

While the firefighters union has urged the city to return to the negotiating table, Turner has questioned whether the city could preempt the ballot measure approved by voters, suggesting a judge should settle the question first.

Firefighters and labor attorneys contend the mayor does not need to seek a judge’s opinion, saying Texas’ collective bargaining laws preempt the city charter.

The city still has not sought a legal opinion on the matter.

[…]

The mayor, who instructed each city department in September to submit plans for reducing their respective budgets by 3.4 to 5.2 percent, has remained tight-lipped about how he plans to make the cuts he has warned are needed to square the city’s budget.

The Chronicle submitted a public information request seeking copies of the departments’ budget-cutting memos, but the city has sought an opinion from the Texas Attorney General on whether the documents can be exempted from disclosure.

Several city departments — including the Administration of Regulatory Affairs, the Solid Waste Department, and Public Works and Engineering — declined to say how Prop B-related cuts would impact their services and referred all questions to the mayor’s office. Alan Bernstein, a mayoral spokesman, referred the Chronicle to the months-old memo asking departments to submit “reduction scenarios.”

We knew this was coming. I’ve been expecting there to be litigation over this from the beginning, regardless of who won. Now we get to see what form this takes.

Houston city council on Wednesday approved Mayor Sylvester Turner’s request to hire an outside law firm to provide the city with legal advice related to the firefighter pay parity measure approved by voters earlier this month, but not before cutting the contract’s potential cost in half.

Following a testy discussion that lasted nearly 80 minutes, council gave the green light on a 9-7 vote for a contract worth up to $500,000 with Norton Rose Fulbright, a global firm with ties to the political action committee that backed the campaign to oppose Proposition B.

The ballot item, approved by voters on Nov. 6, grants Houston firefighters equal pay to police officers of corresponding status.

The firm is likely to help Turner’s administration address what has become a core question in the post-election debate over Prop B: whether state law in the form of a collective bargaining contract preempts the city charter. Council on Wednesday also adopted the pay parity item as a charter amendment, a procedural formality.

[…]

Turner told reporters after the meeting that he would have legally challenged Proposition B before the election, but found legal precedent that said such a move had to wait until voters approved the measure.

“There’s only one issue right here: whether or not it was preempted by state law,” Turner said. “If a judge should come back and say to the City of Houston it wasn’t preempted by state law, then we’ll have to move very quickly to implement it.”

Basically, as I see it there are three possible outcomes:

1. The lawyers tell the city that Prop B does not conflict with the state law on collective bargaining, thus paving the way for Mayor Turner and the firefighters to sit down and hash out an agreement on how to implement Prop B in a way that doesn’t kneecap the city financially. This is the firefighters’ preferred resolution.

2. The lawyers tell the city that Prop B does conflict with the state law on collective bargaining, and that the city would likely win a lawsuit because of that, or because of some other reason. You know what happens next in this case.

3. The lawyers tell the city that Prop B does conflict with the state law on collective bargaining, and that the city would likely lose a lawsuit. This way leads to budget cuts, layoffs, quite possibly litigation from one or more of several other groups – the firefighters, the police who are threatening their own legal action anyway, some other aggrieved citizens – and an unknown amount of chaos going into the 2019 election. At least it won’t be boring.

The history of SOB laws in Houston

From strip clubs to robot brothels, we’ve come a long way.

Somewhat sheepishly, the city official tried to explain why he had spent more than $2,000 in public funds entertaining out-of-town clients at a topless bar.

“They wanted to go there,” said Jordy Tollett, who regularly wined and dined prospective conventioneers when he worked for the Houston Convention & Visitors Bureau. “I couldn’t say, ‘You can’t go there.’”

That was in 1989. Since then, countless topless bars and adult bookstores have opened and closed, the city has rewritten its “sexually oriented business” law, Harris County and other jurisdictions have struggled to enforce their own rules, and litigation challenging these rules has filled court dockets.

Yet Tollett’s simple observation — “They wanted to go there” — conveyed a truism that still confronts Houston-area leaders seeking to repel or regulate such enterprises: Sex sells. This is true of the upscale “gentleman’s clubs” where business executives unwind after work, and it’s true of the seedy “massage parlors” — thinly disguised fronts for prostitution and human trafficking — that generate about $107 million in illicit revenues a year in Houston, according to a recent study.

The sex business, like others, has responded to continuing demand with innovation.

In 1983, when the City Council passed Houston’s first ordinance regulating sexually oriented businesses, no one could have imagined that people might someday pay $120 for an hour of intimacy with objects made of synthetic skin and highly articulated skeletons. But 35 years later, the council reacted quickly to reports that a Toronto-based company, KinkySdollS, planned to open a shop in Houston that allowed prospective buyers of lifelike “sex dolls” to take them for a spin on the premises for a fee.

I remember some stories in the Houston Press from back in the day about Jordy Tollett and spending money wooing visitors at Rick’s Cabaret. Different times, to be sure. I don’t have anything to add here, I just enjoyed this little bit of history and thought you might, too.

Can we negotiate our way to a Prop B agreement?

It’s complicated.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner’s administration is moving forward with plans for hundreds of layoffs following last week’s voter approval of Prop B despite questions about whether jobs could be saved through renewed negotiations with the city’s firefighters union.

[…]

“Collective bargaining agreements under (Texas Local Government Code Chapter) 174 do supersede any contrary provisions of local legislation,” San Antonio labor attorney David Van Os said. “The Legislature made itself very, very clear on that.”

Craig Deats, who works with police and fire labor groups and has worked for the Houston fire union in the past, said unions routinely use collective bargaining to supersede local rules, most commonly in the areas of hiring and promotional provisions.

“We do that all the time,” Deats said. “The hiring provisions under the civil service act — when cities are bound by that, as Houston is — are something the parties typically bargain to change so as to make them more modern.”

Turner said he agrees a collective bargaining agreement can supersede the city charter, but has said he cannot sit down with fire union leaders without first challenging Prop. B in court, saying “you cannot negotiate the people’s vote.”

“You cannot use the public as a negotiating tool, which is what they’re attempting to do now,” Turner said. “Now, if they want to follow me to the courthouse and agree collective bargaining preempted Prop. B and throw it out, that’s a different thing. But short of that, I have been given a $100 million bill.”

[…]

“Regardless of fiscal realities, the meaning of the charter amendment is clear. Collective bargaining up to that is technically a violation of the charter amendment, even if the city and firefighters agree on it,” said Matthew J. Festa, a professor at the South Texas College of Law Houston. “It doesn’t make it OK to violate the charter just because everybody agrees to violate the charter.”

James M. Douglas, a professor at Texas Southern University’s Thurgood Marshall School of Law, said he believes it would be difficult for the mayor and firefighters to implement the proposition’s mandate through a collective bargaining contract because of the intent of the proposition.

“The ordinance was clear. It didn’t say over a period of time,” Douglas said. “And that was not the purpose of the ordinance to start with. The purpose of the ordinance was to have it done immediately.”

Some city leaders said they were frustrated by conflicting legal advice they had received from the city attorney’s office, and a lack of clarity over what the law allows or what Turner and firefighters would entertain if they returned to the negotiating table.

Well, that would be one reason why some of us voted against Prop B. See here and here for some background. This is just going to have to be settled in the courts, and the city will take steps in that direction after Thanksgiving. You can feel however you want to feel about this, but we all saw it coming from the beginning.

Trautman talks new voting machines

As is usually the case, finding the funding will be the key.

Diane Trautman

The newly elected Harris County clerk plans to phase out the county’s eSlate voting machines, which have occasionally caused problems for voters.

Diane Trautman, who beat the incumbent in the countywide sweep of Democrats, also wants to improve the county’s elections technology so voters can cast ballots in any precinct on Election Day. Currently, residents are allowed to vote at any polling place during early voting, but must use a designated location on Election Day.

“We must replace the current electronic machines with an electronic machine that produces a verifiable paper trail,” Trautman said. “The problem, of course, is the funding.”

[…]

Stanart said he also had planned to phase out the eSlate voting machines if re-elected.

On average, the devices are eight years old. Most were purchased after a 2010 fire destroyed the warehouse where Harris County stored its voting machines.

Stanart’s spokesman, Hector de Leon, said the clerk’s office estimates that replacing the county’s 8,189 eSlate machines would cost about $75 million. Trautman said she would explore whether the state or federal government could cover part of the cost.

[…]

Meanwhile, Commissioners Court would need to approve the purchase of new machines, and members are supportive of the idea. Incoming Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said improving the voting experience for residents must be a priority.

Precinct 4 Commissioner Jack Cagle urged Trautman to prepare a detailed proposal for replacing the eSlate machines and present it to the court. He said new machines must be a technological upgrade and have a long-term life span.

“Let’s not throw out good machines just to get fancy new ones,” Cagle said. “What we buy next, let’s make sure it lasts a while, as well.”

I’m glad to hear that there is support for moving forward on this. We should write up our standards, talk to Travis County about their systems, revisit that cost estimate, and begin meeting with legislators and members of Congress to see what funding they may be able to provide. It also looks like we can begin work on moving towards a vote center system for Election Day, which ought to help alleviate some of the problems we have seen when precinct voting locations have had technical problems. I can’t wait to see how this goes.

Harris County makes its robot brothel ban official

We can all sleep more soundly now.

Harris County Commissioners Court on Tuesday unanimously adopted new rules to prevent so-called “robot brothels” from opening and more strictly regulate sexually oriented businesses in unincorporated areas.

The county already had been revising its sexually oriented business rules, first adopted in 1996, but decided to specifically address lifelike sex dolls for rent after Toronto-based company KinkySdollsS considered opening a Houston branch where patrons could try out human-like “adult love dolls” in private rooms at the shop.

[…]

Assistant County Attorney Celena Vinson said the county largely adopted language Houston’s legal department had written.

“We wanted to address the sex robot shop that was allegedly going to open in the city, and wanted to ensure our regulations were consistent with what the city of Houston was doing,” Vinson said.

The changes now clearly define sex dolls like the ones advertised by the Toronto firm as “anthropomorphic devices” and prohibit companies from renting them out to customers. Residents of the city and county remain free to purchase such devices for use in their own homes.

See here, here, and here for the background. Despite my best efforts, I still don’t have anything useful to say about this. I just can’t resist blogging about it, and Lord knows we can use the occasional respite from the real news. You’re welcome.

The problem with the revenue cap, in two short paragraphs

From the Chron:

The average homeowner has saved a cumulative $436 thanks to the rate adjustments driven by the revenue cap since 2014, an average of $87 per year.

The same adjustments have prevented the city from collecting $533 million than it otherwise would have.

So in return for a negligible reduction in your property tax bill, which you almost certainly didn’t notice, the city of Houston lost over a half billion dollars in revenue over the past five years. That’s more than enough on a per-year basis to bridge all the shortfalls that have been projected, more than enough to cover even the highest-end estimate of what the firefighters’ pay parity proposal would cost, more than enough to hire however many more cops we’re supposed to need, more than enough to make all of the employee pension systems a hell of a lot more stable, more than enough to buy out a crapload of floodplain-located homes, etc etc etc. Amazing what a little thing like $500 million dollars can do, isn’t it? And don’t forget, even though the average property tax cut was small, the biggest share of it went to the people with the most expensive property. (Not to mention, if you’re a renter, you got exactly zero out of this.) This right here is why I hold self-proclaimed fiscal peacocks who favor the revenue cap like a certain former Mayoral candidate I feel no need to name in such contempt. We cannot undo this stupid, harmful policy soon enough.

Harris County to follow suit on robot brothels

If it’s good for Houston, or not good for Houston, I suppose…

Harris County commissioners are prepared to ban so-called robot brothels, just as Houston did last week.

Harris County already bans live sex acts at any place of business. Robert Soard, First Assistant County Attorney, said that, in his reading, that includes sex with “anthropomorphic devices.”

“Now, that being said, because of changing technology, it might be a good idea to amend the current sexually oriented business regulations,” Soard said.

[…]

Assistant Chief Tim Navarre said they’ll be ready to present it to Commissioners Court within two weeks. “The dialogue is…almost identical to the city’s, so, we’re way ahead of the curve,” Navarre said.

See here and here for the background. Harris County’s sexually-oriented business ordinance has generally been a mirror of Houston’s, so this is not surprising and mostly a formality. Nonetheless, if you ever had an inclination to attend a Commissioner’s Court meeting, here’s a bit of incentive for you to finally do so. Swamplot has more.

The pay parity proposal debate that wasn’t

Let’s not get ready to rumble!

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Houston’s firefighters union has withdrawn from a Saturday debate with Mayor Sylvester Turner on their proposal to seek pay “parity” with police officers, saying the event’s host, the Harris County Democratic Party, had given the mayor too much control over the event.

The hour-long event would have marked the first time the mayor and the union addressed the contentious issue on the same stage.

“We looked forward to the debate,” Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association President Marty Lancton said in a Wednesday morning statement, “but we recognize that party insiders failed to stop the manipulation of the ground rules to advantage the mayor. We are disappointed in the HCDP’s acquiescence to the mayor, but are grateful for the support of HCDP precinct chairs and the many Houstonians they represent.”

Among the union’s complaints were that Houston Chronicle opinion editor Lisa Falkenberg was to serve as moderator (the editorial board expressed opposition to the parity proposal in July 2017), and that Democratic Party officials did not agree to let Lancton address precinct chairs or let them vote on whether to endorse the proposition.

Alas. Here’s the earlier story announcing the event that was the original basis of this post. I am not able to be there for this not-a-forum, but perhaps you can be.

County Democratic Party Chair Lillie Schechter said the party engaged in “extensive conversations” with both camps on the format of the discussion but respects the union’s decision to withdraw.

“The event details appeared in a Facebook announcement seen and approved by all parties last week. It is unfortunate the firefighter’s union has determined these details do not meet their needs,” she said. “We regret voters will not hear from the firefighter’s union at this time. Mayor Turner and Lisa are welcome to use the full hour we have allotted for this event.”

The party’s leadership committee, after hearing from the fire union at a recent meeting, Schechter said, voted to schedule the debate to hear from both sides. She said the gathering was never envisioned as ending in a vote, saying such votes only occur at quarterly gatherings of all precinct chairs, the last of which was held Sept. 13.

Yes, speaking as a precinct chair, that’s how our rules work. Precinct chairs vote to endorse or not endorse ballot measures like this at our quarterly meetings. We endorsed the flood bond referendum at the June meeting, for instance. There were members from the firefighters’ union at the September meeting, talking up their proposal, but no motion for an endorsement vote. Which I have to say would have been contentious, and because of that I’m glad it didn’t come up. I don’t know what may or may not have happened behind the scenes, but I do know they could have made a pretty big fuss about this at the meeting if they had wanted to.

Personally, I think an event like this, aimed at the general public, rather than an agenda item for a normally dry meeting of precinct chairs, would be a much better way to allow both sides to air their views (I’m assuming that if Lancton had been given time to address us, then Mayor Turner or a representative from his office would have been given time as well). But hey, whatever. Perhaps the Mayor and Lisa Falkenberg can discuss the cost of this referendum.

The cost of Houston firefighters’ push for pay parity with police of corresponding rank and seniority could be 14 percent cheaper than what Mayor Sylvester Turner’s administration has estimated, city Controller Chris Brown said Tuesday.

Brown’s office estimates that the proposal, which will appear as Proposition B on the Nov. 6 ballot, will cost $85.2 million a year, lower than the $98.6 million figure Turner has used. Neither estimate includes the 7 percent raise police would receive over the next two years if the city council approves a new proposed contract this week. That would increase the cost if voters decide to link fire and police salaries.

Brown acknowledged his analysis required a series of assumptions related to how the parity proposal would be implemented, and said the estimate shows the cost of the proposal would be “unsustainable.”

“The controller’s office believes that a sustainable solution exists but can only be achieved through negotiation in the collective bargaining process,” Brown said while presenting his estimate to the city council’s budget committee. “It’s through that process that the men and women of HFD should be able to negotiate a well-deserved raise, but also a well-deserved raise the city can actually afford over the long term.”

Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association President Marty Lancton viewed Brown’s analysis as vindication of his view that Turner’s estimate is inflated.

“As the city controller proved today, the mayor’s Proposition B claims cannot be trusted. His math, like his judgment, is driven by an obsession with punishing Houston firefighters,” Lancton said.

[…]

Brown and Turner’s estimates are nearly identical on the projected increase to firefighters’ base salaries and the associated increase in retirement benefits: that roughly 20 percent increase would cost about $65 million per year.

The two estimates differ mostly on various incentives and allowances known as “special pays,” some of which firefighters receive now but which parity would increase, and some of which firefighters would receive for the first time if voters approve the measure.

Not sure how a reduction in the cost estimate from $98 million to $85 million is a vindication of the firefighters’ case, especially when $85 million is still a pretty damn big number and Controller Brown calls it “unsustainable”, but maybe that’s just me. I continue to believe this thing is going to pass so I sure hope the cost estimates we are seeing are overblown, but all things being equal I’d rather not have to find out. Be that as it may, if you don’t know what to make of all this, go attend the not-a-forum and see what you think.

Please don’t spy on robot brothel customers

This is ridiculous, and not in the fun and amusing way.

Greg Travis

Greg Travis, the councilman of District G where a so-called “robot brothel” would be located in Houston, said on Tuesday that patrons visiting the adult business would be recorded by cameras directed at the location.

“I already have cameras (around the area) and whenever this starts, we will see all people coming and going and we will post it on social media,” Travis said at a City Council meeting where community members, mostly from religious groups, expressed opposition to the business.

The councilman said the news that a Canadian business called KinkySDollS was going to open in Houston the first “robot brothel” in the United States “stunned everybody… it’s gross.”

[…]

Small revisions proposed to the ordinance are intended to include current and emerging technologies in the adult entertainment business, such as the robot brothel. The modifications would expand the definition of an arcade devise to include “an anthropomorphic devise or object utilized for entertainment” of sexual nature.

A city document indicates that the proposed changes would “prohibit entertainment with one or more persons using an arcade devise on the premises.”

“Robot brothels,” function like a showroom where dolls are exhibited and available to customers for rent and use at the place, or for sale.

The Canadian business hasn’t registered in the city as of Tuesday, according to Roberto Medina, senior analyst at the City of Houston’s Public Works office.

See here and here for the background. I remember reading a story in the Houston Press back in the 90s about a self-appointed opponent of strip clubs who hung out on the sidewalk in front of the Men’s Club on Sage and snapped photos of everyone who entered the parking lot. This was before digital photography and the modern Internet, so the reach of her crusade was limited, but my reaction to that story then is the same as my reaction to this story now: Cut that shit out, it’s none of your business. Whatever you may think of strip clubs or robot brothels, they’re legal businesses and I don’t want you recording images of their customers any more than I want you doing so in front of a Planned Parenthood clinic, a vape shop, or Second Baptist Church.

Be that as it may, Council did pass the proposed modification of its sexually oriented business ordinance, which would basically end the “brothel” part of this business, assuming it stands after the lawsuit I figure will be filed. (Thankfully, there was no further discussion of cameras.) By the way, you may have noticed that I’ve altered my nomenclature here, simplifying it to just “robot brothel”. In the end, I found the argument that “robot sex brothel” was redundant. I do note that Texas Monthly has gone the other direction, with “sex robot brothel”. Let the debate rage on! Grits for Breakfast, which elides the brothel aspect of this for a focus on the “sex robot” function, has more.

Who’s ready for a new flood plain map?

It’s coming, but don’t hold your breath waiting for it.

More than a year after Hurricane Harvey showed the Houston area’s floodplain maps were outdated and inaccurate, Harris County is prepared to begin the years-long process of drawing new maps.

Commissioners Court on Tuesday agreed to accept $6.5 million in federal FEMA funds to complement $8 million in local dollars to create new maps, to be completed by 2023.

“We’re excited about that, and it’s going to be a big undertaking,” said Russ Poppe, executive director of the Harris County Flood Control District. He added the county has already begun the search for contractors.

[…]

[County Judge Ed Emmett] said the redefined floodplains will be essential to planning future development and assessing flood risk in communities. For years, he said government and private developers failed to keep track of where creeks and bayous drained, and where water flowed when waterways crested their banks.

The re-drawn maps also will allow the county to more fairly enforce its new floodplain building codes. In the year after Harvey, Houston and Harris County added new requirements for floodplain development.

The county’s flood control district hopes to hire contractors through the end of the year to begin work in January. Director of Operations Matt Zeve said engineers hope to complete the new maps, which will cover nearly 800 miles of waterways, by 2023.

As the story notes, a large number of properties that flooded during Harvey were outside the official flood plain. For obvious reasons, having an accurate map is a necessary thing. The last modification was begun in 2001 and took six years, so things have improved a bit since then.

Now how much would you pay to fix Houston’s sewer system?

We may be about to find out.

Federal and state authorities sued the city of Houston over its long-running struggle to limit sewage spills on Friday, marking the beginning of the end of a years-long negotiation that could force the city to invest billions to upgrade its sprawling treatment system.

Houston’s “failure to properly operate and maintain” its 6,700 miles of sewer pipes, nearly 400 lift stations and 40 treatment plants caused thousands of “unpermitted and illegal discharges of pollutants” due to broken or blocked pipes dating back to 2005, the suit states. The city also recorded numerous incidents when its sewer plants released water with higher than allowable concentrations of waste into area waterways, the filing states.

The lawsuit by the Department of Justice on behalf of the Environmental Protection Agency and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality wants a judge to force Houston to comply with the Clean Water Act and Texas Water Code — typical orders include upgrading pipes, ramping up maintenance and educating the public on how to avoid clogging city pipes — and to assess civil penalties that could reach $53,000 per day, depending on when each violation occurred.

[…]

The filing was spurred by the intervention of a local nonprofit, Bayou City Waterkeeper, which announced in July that it planned to sue the city over the same violations and which filed its own lawsuit on Friday mirroring the EPA’s claims. It states that the city has reported more than 9,300 sewer spills in the last five years alone.

“The city’s unauthorized discharges have had a detrimental effect on, and pose an ongoing threat to, water quality and public health in the Houston area and have caused significant damage to the waters that Waterkeeper’s members use and enjoy,” the nonprofit’s filing states.

Waterkeeper’s July announcement was required by the Clean Water Act, which mandates that citizens or citizen groups planning to sue under the law give 60 days’ notice, in part to allow the EPA or its state counterparts to take their own actions.

See here for the background. This has been going on for a long time, and the city has been in negotiation for a resolution to this. How much it will all cost remains the big question. The one thing I can say for certain is that no one is going to like it. As a reminder, consider this:

Upon taking office in 2004, former mayor Bill White locked utility revenues into a dedicated fund, raised water rates 10 percent, tied future rates to inflation, and refinanced the debt. That was not enough to prevent the debt mountain from risking a utility credit downgrade by 2010, when former mayor Annise Parker took office, so she passed a 28 percent rate hike.

Remember how much some people bitched and moaned about that rate hike? Get ready to experience it all again.

Baptist Ministers Association apologizes for its role in overturning HERO

I’m very glad to see this.

The Baptists Ministers Association of Houston & Vicinity issued a joint statement with the Houston GLBT Political Caucus saying the two groups “are building a relationship that recognizes our common equal rights struggle.”

The joint statement follows a controversy earlier this year in which the Caucus faced criticism from some members for allegedly encouraging candidates to seek endorsements from the Baptists Ministers Association, which actively supported the repeal of HERO.

According to the joint statement, the Baptist Ministers Association “apologizes for the pain [its opposition to HERO] caused the LGBTQ community, and we both look forward to ongoing discussions to prevent this from happening again as we collectively fight for the equality of all Houstonians.”

“Though we may not agree on everything, we both realize that [there] is more that unites us than divides us,” said Pastor Max Miller, president of the Baptist Ministers Association. “We are looking forward to more discussions to continue to build on this relationship. Our apology is sincere.”

[…]

Monica Roberts, who chairs the Caucus’ Faith Outreach Task Force, said in the statement that as a black trans woman, she was “happy on behalf of the Houston transgender community to convey to [the Black Ministers Association] how harmful that anti-trans rhetoric was to our community and the trans community at large.”

“We have more in common than not, in terms of wanting a Houston we can all be proud of and in which everyone’s human rights and humanity is respected and protected,” Roberts added. “Trans Houstonians needed to hear an apology, and I am happy it was given. I am pleased that these conversations will continue so that we can continue the process of getting a much-needed nondiscrimination ordinance in Houston.”

The Caucus also apologized for “not directly engaging black and brown communities,” including the Black Ministers Association.

You can see a copy of the joint statement in the story. I don’t know what led to this rapprochement, but it’s great that it happened. Putting aside the fact that HERO was an equal rights ordinance for all of Houston, the fact of the matter is that a large portion of Houston’s LGBT community is people of color, a point that Monica Roberts makes all the time on her blog and on Facebook. There was too much common ground for there to be such antagonism. Kudos to all for this achievement.

Emmett speaks post-bond

With the flood bond referendum safely passed, we now turn to what comes next.

Land and housing preservation is key to the Houston region becoming more resilient, Harris County Judge Ed Emmett said Tuesday, on the heels of last weekend’s vote that approved a $2.5 billion flood infrastructure bond.

“We need to not fight with nature, we need to live with nature and allow those areas to be green that need to be green, and frankly, allow those areas to be wet that need to be wet and not try and change that,” Emmett said during a luncheon presentation to members of the local chapter of the Urban Land Institute.

Emmett specifically called for the Katy Prairie, a vast area encompassing much of western Harris and eastern Waller counties, to be maintained and expanded.

“I think that’s a very easy one for the federal government or the state to declare as a nature preserve and just set it aside and move on,” he told the crowd of several hundred developers and real estate professionals in the ballroom of the Junior League of Houston.

[…]

The challenges brought by Harvey will give city and county leaders the opportunity to make positive changes as it recovers, he said.

One such improvement: a better system of urban governance.

If unincorporated Harris County was a city it would be the fifth largest in the U.S.

“We cannot continue to do that,” Emmett said. “We have got to find a way for city for Houston and Harris County to come up with a new structure of urban governance. “I view Harvey as kick-starting a lot of these conversations.”

Preserving the Katy Prairie and other green space was one of the topics I covered with Judge Emmett when I interviewed him about the bond referendum. I agree this is a high priority and I’m glad to hear Emmett talk that way, but let’s be clear that there’s a lot less of it to preserve now than there was 20 or 30 years ago, before Katy Mills and the Grand Parkway were built. We can’t turn back the clock, but the fact that there’s far less of that open space to preserve now means that we have to take it that much more seriously. What’s left is so much more precious to us.

As for the governance issue, I welcome that conversation as well. If there’s going to be an obstacle to the kind of intra-governmental cooperation Emmett envisions, it may well be the Lege, as any new structure to urban governance will likely require new laws, and our Lege isn’t very interested in helping out cities these days. Let’s see what Emmett and the other powers that be in the region come up with, and then we’ll figure out how to make it happen.

In the meantime, the work has begun.

Harris County Commissioners Court on Tuesday gave the green light to 16 new flood control projects, three days after voters overwhelmingly approved a $2.5 billion bond aimed at boosting the region’s protections against future floods.

The projects include de-silting the Addicks and Barker reservoir watersheds, drainage improvements in the San Jacinto River, Cypress Creek, Luce Bayou and Cedar Bayou watersheds, a stormwater detention basin project along Greens Bayou and conveyance improvements on Willow Creek.

“It’s a matter of starting with the low-hanging fruit, the ones that are ready to go, and move forward,” County Judge Ed Emmett said.

As good a place to start as any. There’s a lot more where that came from.