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February 22nd, 2019:

SOS advisory lawsuit continues

From Day Two of testimony:

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Despite a glaring error in the original data that questioned the citizenship status of tens of thousands of registered voters, a state elections official defended the investigation in federal court Wednesday, saying some potential illegal activity has been uncovered and blaming several county officials for problems that have arisen.

Keith Ingram, head of the Elections Division at the Texas secretary of state’s office, said 43 people on the list of suspect voters contacted his agency and asked to have their voter registration canceled because they were not U.S. citizens.

“I believe some have voted,” he told U.S. District Judge Fred Biery during a hearing into efforts by civil rights groups and an affected voter to halt the investigation as an error-riddled effort that improperly singles out naturalized citizens.

An additional 37 people asked to be removed from the state list of registered voters but gave no reason for the request, Ingram said.

[…]

Under questioning by opposing lawyer Chad Dunn, Ingram admitted that his agency’s original list of 95,000 suspect voters included about 20,000 people who had shown proof of citizenship to the Department of Public Safety.

Ingram blamed the mistake on the DPS, saying officials originally indicated that the information was not reliable because it was self-reported by the 20,000 people, only to later say that each registered voter had provided the DPS with proof of citizenship.

Asked by Dunn if his agency had publicly acknowledged that “the 95,000 figure is wrong and ought to be reduced,” Ingram said it had not.

Ingram also blamed officials in several counties for jumping the gun by immediately sending investigation letters demanding proof of citizenship to registered voters on the suspect list, saying they failed to heed warnings from his office that the names needed to be investigated first.

Ingram acknowledged that state officials were aware that the list included an unknown number of naturalized U.S. citizens because of shortcomings in citizenship data provided by the DPS.

See here for more from Day One of the trial, in which we first observed the state strategy of blaming the local county administrators for this fine mess we’re in. Sure seems to me that a lot of this could have been avoided if 1) the SOS had been more clear in its advisory to counties that there were likely a lot of false positives, 2) SOS wannabe David Whitley hadn’t stoked the fire by immediately referring the whole known-to-be-deeply-flawed list to the Attorney General, and 3) the SOS had at least backed off its initial and highly problematic “95,000 suspect voters” claim. The fact that we’re here in federal court tells you all you need to know about that.

In the meantime, there was a bit of drama in that courtroom.

A federal judge weighing whether to block Texas’ effort to investigate the citizenship of tens of thousands of people on its voter rolls said he wants to hear from a secretary of state employee who abruptly resigned from the office.

Betsy Schonhoff ran a nearly yearlong effort to match the state’s voter lists with databases at the Department of Public Safety for people who had obtained driver’s licenses when they weren’t citizens.

But she has not been served a subpoena, and there is evidence that she has been “evading service for five days,” said Chad Dunn, a lawyer for Julie Hilberg, a naturalized citizen whom the investigation flagged for review.

U.S. District Judge Fred Biery made it clear he wanted to hear Schonhoff’s testimony in his San Antonio court, saying he knows U.S. marshals “who are very good at finding people.”

“She’s going to be here,” he said.

Late Wednesday, the Texas Attorney General’s office pushed back on the plaintiff’s characterization of efforts to reach Schonhoff.

“It’s our office’s understanding that, despite not having been served, the former employee of the Secretary of State’s office is willing to voluntarily appear at the next scheduled hearing and will do so,” Marc Rylander, a spokesman for the office said in a statement.

That next hearing will be today, and I for one would also like to hear what Ms. Schonhoff has to say.

Later in that first story, we learn that the lawsuit filed in Corpus Christi by MALDEF on behalf of seven naturalized citizens has been consolidated with this one. The third lawsuit, filed in Galveston by a coalition of civil rights groups who had initially demanded that the advisory be rescinded, will also have a hearing today following a phone conference on Wednesday to address a state request to fold this into the current suit as well. That’s pretty common – there were many lawsuits relating to the 2011/2013 redistricting that were eventually all joined into one action – but the plaintiffs may oppose the motion and there may be reasons to keep them separate. We shall see. In the meantime, MALDEF has already come out swinging.

Lawyers for two Texas naturalized citizens who landed on the state’s list of “potential noncitizen voters” are re-urging a federal court to block state and county attempts to remove people from voter rolls before their clients lose their right to vote next week.

In a Thursday filing, Nina Perales of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund told U.S. District Judge Fred Biery in San Antonio that the “situation is urgent and requires the Court’s immediate intervention.”

“If they do not comply with the purge letter’s demand and provide proof of U.S. citizenship they will lose their right to vote on March 2, 2019,” the filing says.

The two clients, identified as Jane Doe #1 and John Doe #1, received letters in late January from Smith County, where they are registered to vote, asking them to verify their citizenship within 30 days or be taken off the voter rolls. Jane Doe #1 is a college student who has an internship in Austin through the end of May and can’t return home to procure the documents, according to the filing.

John Doe #1 said “he does not want to be treated like a second class citizen” simply because he is naturalized and “will not go through Smith County’s additional steps and requirements” because he has already proven his citizenship, the filing said.

You can see that brief here. I’m hopeful that the plaintiffs can get a favorable ruling, though whether it would stand up on appeal is a more fraught question. I’ll be keeping an eye on this as always.

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.

Flood tunnel study funds

Could be cool.

Japanese flood tunnel

The Harris County Flood Control District is set to receive a $320,000 federal grant to study the feasibility of constructing deep underground tunnels to move stormwater to the Houston Ship Channel without overburdening the area’s bayous.

The grant, from the U.S. Economic Development Administration, will fund a four-month investigation to determine whether such tunnels would be a practical and cost-effective addition to the county’s long-term flood protection strategy. The flood control district has begun work on scores of projects funded by the $2.5 billion flood bond approved last summer, though none to date include underground tunnels.

“The study is basically to look at our ground conditions, including our groundwater table, and compare that to existing technology in the tunnel industry to see if there’s a match,” said Russ Poppe, executive director of the flood control district. “If that’s true, then we can start looking at costs, routes and opportunities we can potentially pursue.”

[…]

Jim Blackburn, co-director of the Severe Storm Prediction, Education, and Evacuation from Disasters Center at Rice University, raised no objection to studying the tunnel idea but said he worries that pursuing the proposal could become a boondoggle that siphons money from other, more urgent priorities.

“It’s one of those big dream projects that may take us away from much more reasonable short-term projects,” Blackburn said. “I doubt the feasibility of it.”

See here and here for the background. Looks like we were originally going to get that study last year, but for whatever the reason it didn’t happen. If it’s going to happen this time, it will be after the next Commissioners Court meeting on Tuesday, when they will vote on approving the study and ponying up $80K in matching funds. I’ll check back with it afterward.