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December 17th, 2012:

Once more to the judicial elections well

I swear, I thought I was done talking about judicial elections, at least for now until one or more of the bills that would affect them comes up in the Lege, but then there was this op-ed in the Chron, and I just couldn’t help myself.

In states across the country, the selection of judges has become increasingly political. Big money is pouring into state judicial elections, much of it coming from special interest groups that do not disclose their sources of funding. In 2012, of the $28 million spent on TV advertising in certain state supreme court elections, more than half was spent by outside groups unconnected to a candidate. In Michigan, where three state supreme court seats were on the ballot, 75 percent of the nearly $15 million in TV advertising was spent by outside groups that invested heavily in attack ads.

I’ve said repeatedly that I consider the influence of large campaign contributions and expenditures to be a much more pernicious threat to the judiciary than any partisan or straight-ticket issues. I’m glad to see op-ed authors Dennis Courtland Hayes and Martha Hill Jamison recognize this. But as is so often the case when an op-ed writer raises the point, they then never get around to discussing what if anything can and should be done about it. As I’ve also said, it may well be that in a post-Citizens United world, there isn’t a damn thing that can be done about this. But if that’s the case, then we all ought to be honest about it and couch whatever other reforms we’re proposing in terms of how they may or may not be affected by free-spending individuals and interest groups. How much different will non-partisan elections or judicial retention elections be if, say, Texans for Lawsuit Reform is free to spend millions of dollars touting the candidates they like and attacking the ones they don’t?

In Harris County in 2008, 19 incumbent judges were defeated in one election, not necessarily based on experience, knowledge, fairness or legal ability, but simply because they were identified with one party. In 2010, the sweep was reversed. Party-based sweeps have affected communities across Texas. This year, 11 of 12 judicial races in San Antonio were won by candidates of a single party. In her Nov. 16 Chronicle column (“Bill aimed at ending judicial campaigning worth a try,” Page B1), Patricia Kilday Hart cites former Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Tom Phillips’ estimation that partisan sweeps caused by straight-ticket voting have defeated more than 100 district judges statewide.

I really don’t intend to inflict any further beatings on this particular horse, but I missed Phillips’ comments in Hart’s column the first time around, so let me address it here. I’d like for him to be more specific about who exactly lost elections in that past decade due to straight-ticket voting. As we’ve discussed before, it’s not straight-ticket voting that matters so much as it is the general partisan preference of a given county or the state as a whole. By the way, only two of the judicial candidates on the ballot in 2010 in Harris County were incumbent Democrats – Dion Ramos and Kathy Stone, both of whom had won elections for unexpired terms in 2008. I can only imagine the wailing and gnashing of teeth that would have ensued if political conditions in 2010 had been more like 2008 or 2012, or hell even 2006. We may find out in two years if the system hasn’t been radically changed by then.

One change that could reduce the role of politics in judicial selection, which is the subject of legislation filed by Sen. Dan Patrick in the Texas Senate, would be to remove judges from the system of straight-ticket voting. This would require voters to make choices in individual judicial races, rather than simply voting for an entire party roster.

The proposal has potential benefits and drawbacks. It would likely prevent political party sweeps of the bench. Unfortunately, it’s also likely to drive down voter participation in judicial elections. Election data show that nationally, approximately a third of voters neglect to vote in down-ballot races.

At least Hayes and Jamison don’t accept Patrick’s bill as That Which Will Solve All Our Problems, for which I’m grateful. But look, isn’t it obvious that if judicial races are exempted from straight-ticket voting, local parties and other interested bystanders will adjust their behavior and tout or oppose judicial candidates by name? If anything, Sen. Patrick’s bill will encourage more money to be spent on judicial races because it will be harder (read: more expensive) to advocate for or against whoever you want to win or lose. Same thing if judicial races are all made non-partisan. I concede that it’s probable that fewer people will vote in judicial elections under these conditions, and if so then those races are at least somewhat more likely to be decided by voters who are more informed about those races, which I suppose is a step in the direction that Judge Mark Davidson advocates. But again, if the goal is simply to get fewer people to vote in a given election, we should at least be honest about that and not hide behind platitudes and palliatives about partisanship. The logical conclusion here is to do away with judicial elections altogether, and indeed Hayes and Jamison do call for a merit appointment system, though they don’t get into any details about how that might work for the 2000 non-municipal judges statewide or what its pros and cons might be. Maybe the real problem here is that this issue is just too complex to be adequately explored in a 500 word newspaper op-ed.

Early extension for Grier

This was a surprise.

Terry Grier

The Houston school board gave Superintendent Terry Grier a big but not unanimous vote of confidence Thursday, extending his contract through 2016 and awarding him $115,000 in bonuses for the last year.

The board voted 6-2 to approve the surprise two-year extension, and the lone absent trustee said later that she opposes the longer term.

Trustees supporting the extension said the move sends a strong message that Grier has performed well, while opponents lamented that the decision gives the board less leverage to hold him accountable.


The board’s action comes one month after voters overwhelmingly approved a $1.9 billion bond issue pushed by Grier. HISD also was a finalist for the Broad Prize for Urban Education.

“His success in continuing to build and retain the world-class team he has created in Houston depends on top-notch people believing the superintendent has the confidence of his board and is here for the long term,” said trustee Harvin Moore.

Grier, who has run the state’s largest district for three years, said he was “pleased, honored and humbled by the board’s vote of confidence.”

“While we’ve made good progress, we have much work to do, and I’m very excited to be part of a school district and city that values consistent, rigorous education for all of its children,” he said.

Trustee Juliet Stipeche said she opposed the extension, particularly because it was only 10 months ago that the board agreed to extend Grier’s contract through 2014.

“We as a board have a tremendous responsibility of holding the superintendent accountable,” she said. “And if we’re consistently and chronically extending his contract, then the board cannot serve that function.”

I agree with Stipeche. I think Grier has generally done a good job, and it was right to extend his contract through 2014, but there was no reason to take this action now. What if we’re not as happy with the next two years? If it is the Board’s job to hold the Superintendent accountable, then the Board needs to wait until it has full information before undertaking a vote like this. They should have waited.

Grier’s bonus structure may be tweaked, too.

Several school board members said Friday, a day after granting Grier more job security, that they plan to discuss revising his new contract to increase the size of the bonuses he can earn. Grier received bonuses totaling $115,000 out of a possible $125,000 for his performance last year.

Houston Independent School District trustees declined to reveal the amounts they are considering but said they first want to revamp the criteria that determine the bonuses.

Grier’s base salary is $300,000, plus $19,200 in stipends for his car and cellphone. Several trustees said they don’t foresee giving Grier a standard raise – teachers received 2 percent this year – but instead will look to increase his bonus potential.

“What I think is appropriate is having a significant portion of his remuneration be based on performance,” said trustee Harvin Moore.

I’m okay with this, as long as the standards for achieving the bonuses make sense and are easy to quantify and understand. Let’s take a little more time with this, and put a little more thought into it, than we did with the contract extension, OK?

The Controller’s travels

This is me shaking my head.

City Controller Ronald Green

Houston controller Ron Green, the city’s top elected financial watchdog, has flown first class and frequented high-end hotels in New York and Chicago at taxpayer expense for more than two dozen publicly funded excursions, booking lodgings that cost as much as $460 per night and often exceeding maximum rates set by city policy, records obtained by the Houston Chronicle show.

In all, Green has billed for more than $35,000 in expenses for out-of-town trips in his first three years as the city’s elected financial watchdog – taking far more city-funded jaunts than Houston’s better-known mayor.


When asked about the trips, Green’s spokesman Roger Widmeyer said Green did nothing wrong, saying the Chronicle’s questioning of expenses bordered on “insulting.” Widmeyer said Green’s hands-on participation in travel and meetings involving bond deals pays off in savings and costs little.

“As a department director, elected official and CFO, Ronald Green has elected not to be a ceremonial controller. As a result, this office has been the most productive in decades,” said Widmeyer, who emphasized Green’s role in overseeing the city’s $14 billion debt portfolio and its $2.5 billion in investments.

Green minimizes expenses by staying at hotels booked by city financial consultants who sometimes passed on their corporate discounted room rates and organized working lunches and dinners for the controller and other staff, Widmeyer said.

“Most importantly the municipal bond refinancing that has taken place during Controller Green’s tenure in this office amounts to more than $200 million saved over the last nine years without extending the term of the debt. That has been the objective of bond travels,” Widmeyer said.

On frequent bond-related trips to Manhattan and Chicago, Green has been accompanied by an entourage of up to six other employees from various departments. Records show other city staff stayed in the same expensive hotels and sometimes took flights that cost more than $1,000.

In contrast, Harris County officials banned bond pricing trips for employees as unnecessary in 2010. They use teleconferencing technology to monitor the process without leaving Houston.

“We live in a world where you don’t need to go up there,” said Harris County Judge Ed Emmett. “There’s no benefit to the county, and if you’re using tax dollars to do it, it’s a waste.”


Beyond the controller’s expenses, his staff filed another $28,000 in travel bills for a dozen bond-related trips since 2010. Sometimes, they filled out waivers to justify hotel bills that exceeded spending limits in the city’s travel policy, records show. However, some waivers were incomplete or missing from files provided to the Chronicle.

Furthermore, controller staffers said they could not guarantee that the more than 1,200 pages of travel records provided to the newspaper were complete since the office relies on an outdated paper process for filing and reviewing travel expenses instead of tracking them electronically.

Houston’s three previous elected controllers, including Mayor Annise Parker, controller from 2003 to 2009, rarely traveled for bond business.

Through a spokesman, Parker confirmed she did not go along on any bond-pricing trips at all in her last two years as city controller because she had “staff with bond expertise and believed they could handle it.” Even as mayor, Parker has traveled less often than Green – taking 17 trips at city expense from 2010-2012, compared with 27 for Green.

I know Ronald Green well enough to know that he’s a smart, accomplished person who has ambitions to run for Mayor. I’m at a loss to understand why such a smart, ambitious person would have such a blind spot about something like this. If you truly believe that taking these trips is returning value to the taxpayers, then it’s on you to proactively make that case, and to do so before the newsies start sniffing around your expense account. Especially after there’s already been a negative story about you that might lead people to question your judgment. I still don’t have any concerns about Green being challenged for Controller by the likes of Don Sumners, but Green ought to be concerned about being challenged by someone of a higher caliber than that. He’s certainly going to face better opponents in 2015, if he does indeed run for Mayor. I’d try to address those concerns sooner rather than later if I were him.

The Municipal Equality Index

From the inbox:

A new report on lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) equality in America’s cities by the Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest LGBT civil rights organization, in partnership with the Equality Federation Institute and the Gay and Lesbian Victory Institute,  rated 137 cities across the nation, including seven Texas cities.  TheMunicipal Equality Index (MEI), the first ever nationwide rating system of LGBT inclusion in municipal law found many U.S. cities lack sufficient protections for LGBT people, while many cities diligently protect their LGBT workers and citizens.  The average score for cities in Texas is 60 out of 100 points, which is in line with the national average. Arlington scored 16 points, Austin scored 91 points, Dallas scored 76 points, El Paso scored 49 points, Fort Worth scored 89 points, Houston scored 52 points, and San Antonio scored 48 points.

Key findings from the MEI create a snapshot of LGBT equality in 137 municipalities of varying sizes drawn from every state in the nation – these include the 50 state capitals, the 50 most populous cities in the country, and the 25 large, 25 mid-size, and 25 small municipalities with the highest proportion of same-sex couples.

The 100-point cities in the MEI serve as shining examples of LGBT inclusivity, with excellent policies ranging from non-discrimination laws, equal employee benefits, and cutting-edge city services.  As America moves forward in support of LGBT equality, cities across the country are on the forefront of this movement.  Cities in every region of the country are fighting for equality at the most intimate level of government.  At the same time, cities across the country also have room for improvement.  The MEI articulates a path forward and celebrates the success of cities doing this important work.

MEI at a glance:

•    Eleven of the 137 cities surveyed earned a perfect score of 100 points – these cities came from both coasts and in between, were of varying sizes, and not all are in states with favorable laws for LGBT people;
•    A quarter of the cities rated scored over 80 points;
•    45 percent of cites surveyed obtained a score of 60 or higher;
•    Nearly a third of cites scored between 40 and 60 points, showing good intentions on behalf of municipal governments but also opportunity for improvement; and
•    Just under a quarter of the cities scored less than 20 points, including eight cities that scored under ten points and three that scored zero.

The MEI rates cities based on 47 criteria falling under six broad categories:

•    Non-discrimination laws;
•    Relationship recognition;
•    The municipality’s employment practices;
•    Inclusiveness of city services;
•    Law enforcement; and
•    Municipal leadership.

In today’s world, cities must compete for business and brain power.   Research shows that to do this, they must treat their LGBT citizens with dignity and respect. Acclaimed Professor Richard Florida authored the forward for the MEI. Professor Florida is a pioneer in research into how the nurturing of a “creative class” (entrepreneurs, artists and architects, researchers, scientists, engineers, and other professionals) creates prosperous, economically competitive cities.

“Municipal work is especially important in Texas given the less-than-friendly (some would say “hostile”) current composition of the State Legislature,” said Equality Texas Foundation Executive Director Chuck Smith. “However, the environment for progressive policy change affecting LGBT Texans is considerably more positive at the local level with progressive mayors and/or council majorities in many of the state’s largest cities, including Austin, Dallas, El Paso, Houston, Fort Worth and San Antonio. It is these local efforts that will provide at least some level of equal protection at the municipal level until we are able to secure full equality statewide. The MEI is a valuable tool that we can use to measure our progress toward full equality in Texas,” Smith said.

“Our nation is on an irreversible path forward in LGBT equality and local and state-level advocacy ensures our voices are heard in public squares across the country” said HRC President Chad Griffin. “This index gives advocates and municipallawmakers a potent tool to improve the lives of LGBT people.”

“Advances at the local level are often unheralded, but they are critical to building the momentum we need for statewide and federal victories,” said Rebecca Isaacs, Executive Director of Equality Federation Institute. “The Municipal EqualityIndex not only recognizes the remarkable progress that state equality groups and local partners have made in cities and towns across the country, but is a powerful tool to help push local governments to do better.”

“The freedom to be ourselves is most important where we live, work and raise our families.  That’s why it’s so crucial that local and municipal governments understand the need to make life better for LGBT people. We work hard to make sure openly LGBT people participate in government as elected and appointed officials, and the MEI will be a great resource for them,” said Chuck Wolfe, president and CEO of the Gay & Lesbian Victory Institute.

The full report, including long form scorecards for every city and a searchable database, is available online at

Check it out and see how your city rates. All I can say is that I’d like to see Houston’s score improve. There’s no reason for it to be below average.