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Brenda Stardig

January 2018 finance reports: City of Houston

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Looking ahead to 2019

Yes, yes, I know. We’ve barely begun the 2018 cycle. Who in their right mind is thinking about 2019? I plead guilty to political insanity, but the beginning of the year is always the best time to look forward, and just as 2018 will be unlike any election year we’ve seen before, I think 2019 will be unusual, too. Let’s just take a moment to contemplate what lies ahead.

I’ve posted this list before, but just to review here are the Council members who are term-limited going into 2019:

Brenda Stardig – District A
Jerry Davis – District B
Ellen Cohen – District C
Mike Laster – District J
Larry Green – District K
Jack Christie – At Large #5

There is an opportunity for progressives to elect a candidate more favorable to them with CM Christie’s departure, and his At Large colleagues Mike Knox and Michael Kubosh will also draw attention. Against that, I would remind everyone that Bill King carried Districts C and J in 2015, so we’re going to have to play defense, too.

It is too early to start speculating about who might run where, but keep two things in mind. One is that there’s likely some pent-up demand for city offices, since there won’t have been an election since 2015, and two is that some number of people who are currently running for something in 2018 will find themselves on the sidelines by March or May, and some of them may decide to shift their focus to a more local race. The point I’m making here is expect there to be a lot of candidates, and not just for the term-limited offices. I don’t expect Mayor Turner to be seriously challenged, but I do expect the firefighters to find someone to support against him. Finally, I expect Pasadena to be a hotbed of action again for their May elections, as Democrats missed by seven votes in District B winning a majority on Pasadena City Council.

The following HISD Trustees are up for election in 2019:

Rhonda Skillern-Jones – District II
Sergio Lira – District III
Jolanda Jones – District IV
Diana Davila – District VIII

Skillern-Jones was forced into a runoff in 2015, but she then won that easily. Lira was elected this year to finish Manuel Rodriguez’s term. Jolanda is Jolanda, and no election that includes her will ever be boring. Davila sued to get on the Democratic primary ballot for Justice of the Peace, but was not successful. I have to assume whoever runs against her will make an issue of the fact that she was job-hopping in the interim.

The following HCC Trustees are up for election in 2019:

Zeph Capo – District 1
Dave Wilson – District 2
Neeta Sane – District 7

It is too early to think about who might be running for what in Houston and HISD. It is very much NOT too early to find and begin building support for a good candidate to run against Dave Wilson and kick his homophobic ass out of office. That is all.

Is this development really necessary?

Boy, the optics of this sure are lousy.

CM Brenda Stardig

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

July 2017 campaign finance reports – City of Houston

Let’s continue our survey of campaign finance reports with reports from the city of Houston.

Name        Raised    Spent     Loans    On Hand
Turner     520,430  138,068         0  1,643,519

Stardig     59,470   36,402         0    102,289
Davis        5,500   13,231         0    147,050
Cohen        5,000    8,382         0     63,120
Boykins     93,839   40,547         0     57,358
Martin      20,092    8,221         0    106,427
Le          12,250    1,788    31,823      1,951
Travis      51,751   25,051    76,000     51,109
Cisneros    24,043    5,203         0     25,336
Gallegos    30,600    7,048         0     50,366
Laster      31,650    8,104         0    170,714
Green       17,150   39,770         0     84,627

Knox        21,185   13,373         0     23,149
Robinson    63,850   14,932         0     92,520
Kubosh      26,725   17,388   276,000     30,557
Edwards     73,843   31,295         0    144,198
Christie    33,090   20,323         0     31,458

Brown       59,220   19,494         0     79,101

HHRC        55,000   47,500         0     23,250
HTPR         3,625    1,652         0      3,624

As we now know, there will be no city elections of the non-referendum kind on the ballot this November. That would be one reason why there are no reports from anyone who has not already been a candidate. Only a couple of the reports belong to people who are not current or term-limited officeholders. These are folks like Bill Frazer, and none of them have any cash on hand worth mentioning. Actually, there is one person who may be of interest here, and that’s Helena Brown, who could run again in District A to succeed Brenda Stardig. Brown has $18,911.19 on hand, which would not be a bad start if she were so inclined.

I don’t want to dwell too much on this, but had the State Supreme Court dropped an election on us out of the blue, there was basically nobody outside of the current incumbents who have any resources for it. Usually, at this time of an odd numbered year, there are a lot of non-incumbent candidates, mostly circling around the offices that will be vacant. Whether people didn’t think the Supreme Court would take action, or if we were all just in denial about it, there were no candidates out there raising money. In a world where the Supremes had intervened, incumbents and people who can provide at least startup capital for themselves would have had a sizable advantage.

Now for those incumbents. We all knew Mayor Turner could raise money, right? All Houston Mayors can, it kind of comes with the office. Don’t underestimate the resources he could bring to a campaign over the firefighters’ pay parity proposal.

Despite the advantages for incumbents I talked about, four of the seven biggest cash on hand balances belong to those who can’t run – term-limited CMs Starding, Davis, Laster, and Green. Starding in particular makes me wonder what she was up to, raising all that cash this year. Usually, that makes one think maybe she’s looking at her next opportunity to run for something. I have no idea what that might be, but feel free to speculate wildly in the comments. Mike Laster has been mentioned as a county candidate once his time on Council ends. Maybe County Commissioner in Precinct 3 in 2020? I can speculate wildly too, you know.

I have a couple of PAC reports in there. HHRC is the Houston Heights Restaurant Coalition, gearing up for the next Heights alcohol referendum. HTPR is the Houston Taxpayers for Pension Reform, with Bill King as its Treasurer. Maybe that was for a vote on forcing a switch to defined-contribution system that is not in the works? They didn’t have much activity, and most of their expenditures went to an outfit called PinkCilantro for advertising. Other PACs of note with reports are Campaign for Houston, which I believe was an anti-HERO group from 2015 and have a $50,000 outstanding loan, and Citizens to Keep Houston Strong, which belongs to Bill White and which has $56,734.11 on hand.

Finally, two reports from former officeholders. Anne Clutterbuck, who was last a candidate in 2009, filed a final report, to dispose of the remaining funds in her account. She donated the balance – $5,094.55 – to the Hermann Park Conservancy. Last but not least is former Mayor Annise Parker, whose account still has $126,013.31 on hand. She may or may not run for County Judge next year – she has talked about it but so far has taken no action – and if she does that’s her starter’s kit. I’ll have more reports in the coming days.

When might the Supreme Court speak on the Houston term limits lawsuit?

So as you know there is an ongoing lawsuit over the language used in the 2015 referendum that altered the city’s term limits ordinance. It was filed shortly after the election, with the city winning the first round in district court. Appeals are ongoing, with the most recent ruling coming this past January on a procedural matter. In addition to all this, the plaintiff in the original suit filed a writ of mandamus with the Supreme Court on June 2 that asks them to direct the district court judge to vacate his previous order allowing the 2015 result to stand and to require city elections this November. I’m on the plaintiff’s attorney’s email list (for my sins, no doubt) and as he sent out a missive last week urging his followers to contact the Supreme Court and ask them to rule on the writ in time for an election to occur, I figured I ought to bring this up.

So as we are now halfway through June, I have to think that time is rapidly running out for a non-farcical election to be conducted this November. Normally at this time, multiple candidates for a variety of offices, especially the open ones, will have been at work for months. There are always people who pop up to run in July and August, including a few at the filing deadline, but by this point you usually have a pretty good idea of who is out there. Funds have been raised, materials have been printed, websites and social media presences have been built, volunteers have been recruited, etc etc etc. Campaigns require resources, and one of those resources is time. We’re basically four months out from the start of early voting. To get a campaign up and running from scratch, especially for an At Large position, that’s not a whole lot of time. It could be done, but it would greatly favor those who already have some of the other resources, namely money and some amount of name recognition. In other words, incumbents and people who can write a check to get their campaign going quickly.

For what it’s worth, the Supreme Court issued a ruling requiring a vote on HERO on July 24, 2015, which was in response to a writ of mandamus. That was about a referendum and thus didn’t directly involve any candidates, though I’d argue that it had a negative effect on the pro-HERO side, since the antis had been gearing up for a campaign for some time by then. Let’s call that the outer bounds of when a writ mandating city elections for this year may happen, though really I’d say that’s too late. Bear in mind that Council members Brenda Stardig, Jerry Davis, Ellen Cohen, Mike Laster, Larry Green, and Jack Christie are all in their last terms one way or the other, so if those terms wind up ending this year instead of 2019, a whole gaggle of hopefuls are going to have to get up to speed immediately. There’s no question that the Supreme Court has no qualms about meddling in the affairs of the city of Houston, but that doesn’t mean it feels compelled to do so. We ought to know soon enough.

Houston will get involved in the SB4 fight later this month

Very good to hear.

Mayor Sylvester Turner plans to ask City Council to vote this month on joining lawsuits challenging the constitutionality of Texas’ new “sanctuary cities” law, ending months of equivocation on the controversial immigration enforcement measure.

If City Council votes to sue, Houston would join San Antonio, Austin, Dallas and several other local governments already challenging the state or planning to do so.

“I will ask this month City Council to consider and vote to join the lawsuits challenging the constitutionality of SB4,” Turner tweeted Thursday morning, after the Houston Chronicle ran a front page story about his decision to remain on the sidelines of debate over the statute.

Here’s that front page story. You can see what a change of direction this is.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Turner has asked the city attorney’s office to review the law known as Senate Bill 4, which allows police to ask people their immigration status if detained even for a routine traffic stop, but otherwise continues to deflect questions about whether he plans to challenge it.

That has meant carefully sidestepping the term “sanctuary city,” while touting Houston as a diverse, “welcoming city” and assuring residents that Houston police will not violate their constitutional rights.

On Wednesday, the mayor attempted to redirect attention to Austin by urging Houstonians to take up their concerns at the Capitol, even though the law has been signed and the Legislature is not slated to revisit the issue during its July special session.

“The right forum to reconsider Senate Bill 4 before it goes into effect on Sept. 1 is Austin, Texas, and I’d encourage people to write to call to drive or go to Austin,” Turner said. “Go to Austin by the hundreds, by the thousands, and ask those who authored, voted for and signed Senate Bill 4 to repeal Senate Bill 4. Those of us around this table, we cannot repeal Senate Bill 4, as we did not author Senate Bill 4.”

So Houston may follow in the footsteps of San Antonio and Bexar County and Dallas, if Council goes along. According to the full Chron story, it looks like that will happen.

Houston could sue over SB4 without City Council approval, but Turner nonetheless promised a vote. City Council is in recess next week, meaning a vote would come June 21 at the earliest.

As of Thursday, the left-leaning City Council appeared to be breaking along party lines, with Democratic members largely favoring a lawsuit and Republican members generally opposed.

District I Councilman Robert Gallegos, who supports a lawsuit, said he worried the law could tear families apart if it causes more parents to be deported, calling it “an open door for racial profiling.”

District C Councilwoman Ellen Cohen also plans to vote to sue, citing concerns that the law could discourage victims from reporting crimes, echoing law enforcement leaders across the state, including Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo.

“We now have a percentage of the population that, out of fear for their own lives and deportation, won’t report, and it jeopardizes women’s lives and others,” Cohen said.

At-large Councilman Michael Kubosh said he opposes a lawsuit because of the potential cost.

“I don’t want to spend the money on a lawsuit that’s already been well-funded by other cities,” Kubosh said. “It won’t have an effect on the outcome of the case.”

He and others also worried that suing the state could put Houston at risk for losing federal funding.

Two council members, Mike Laster and Brenda Stardig, declined to say how they would vote, and at-large Councilman Jack Christie said he was likely to abstain.

“I’m not in favor of suing people to just show where we stand,” Christie said. “We show where we stand by example.”

There’s a sidebar on the story with a vote count for when this does come before Council (and while it could come as early as June 21, you can bet your bottom dollar someone will tag it for a week). Counting Mayor Turner, there are eight Yeses, five Nos, Christie’s abstention, and three who declined to comment or could not be reached. Of those three, I’d expect two Yeses – Mike Laster, who has since suggested on Twitter that he would likely vote in favor, and Jerry Davis – and one No, Brenda Stardig. You should probably reach out to your Council member and let them know how you feel about this. In the meantime, I agree with Campos, this would not have happened, at least at this time, had not there been pressure from the Texas Organizing Project and the DREAMers. Activism works, y’all. The Press has more.

A look ahead to Houston’s 2017 elections

I want to return to something in that story about Mayor Turner’s 2017 agenda, which was near the bottom but which is a very big deal for the coming year:

A lawsuit over the ballot language used last year to extend terms to a maximum of two four-year terms, from three two-year terms, hovers in the background.

A state district judge ruled in March that the language was “inartful” but legal, and the case now is under appeal.

At stake in the near term is whether Turner and members of City Council must run for re-election in 2017 or wait until 2019.

See here for the background. Usually around this time I’m writing about the upcoming election year and what we have to look forward to. Thanks to this lawsuit, we could have a year with no city elections, or a year in which nobody knows we have city elections until April or May and everyone operates on an insanely accelerated schedule from there. With that in mind, let’s look at our Year of Elections 2017 with a frame of The Elections We Will Have, The Elections We May Have, and The Elections We Could Have.

The Elections We Will Have

Whatever else happens with the term limits lawsuit, there will be elections in HISD and HCC. The following trustees for each board are up for election this year:

HISD – Anna Eastman (District I), Mike Lunceford (District V), Greg Meyers (District VI), Anne Sung (District VII), Wanda Adams (District IX)
HCC – Carolyn Evans-Shabazz (District 4), Robert Glaser (District 5), Chris Oliver (District 9)

Mike Lunceford is not running for re-election, so his seat will be open. Greg Meyers has already submitted his resignation, and a replacement Trustee will be selected by the Board in January. It is not clear if the Board will prefer a caretaker who will not run for election in November or if the new member will try to stake a claim. Anne Sung of course won the special election to succeed Harvin Moore a couple of weeks ago. Whatever happens in November, the Board will have three different members in the traditionally Republican districts than it had at the start of 2016. That has some negative potential, as all three were devoted to public schools in a way that is not necessarily characteristic of modern Republicans, meaning that whoever wins in November could be more antagonistic than what we are used to seeing. We’ll have a better idea when we know who is selected to replace Meyers, and who emerges to run for these seats. As for Eastman, she is my Trustee and as far as I know she is in for another term, but I haven’t spoken to her in the last few weeks, and she has not made any formal announcements. I’m not aware of any reason why Adams would not run for another term.

In HCC, both Shabazz-Evans and Glaser won elections to complete the unexpired terms for trustees who had resigned following their 2011 campaigns. Evans-Shabazz was appointed to replace Carroll Robinson in District 4 in May of 2015, and then was unopposed for election. Glaser won a contested race to succeed Richard Schechter in 2013; appointed replacement Leila Feldman did not run for the seat. Oliver is a multi-term incumbent who easily defeated a challenger in 2011. Sometimes there are interesting things to say or look forward to in these races. This is not one of those times.

There will also be some number of constitutional amendments on the ballot in November, but we won’t know what they are until May or so when the Legislature finishes its business. If the term limits lawsuit goes down, preserving the new four-year terms for city officeholders, these referenda will be the only guaranteed items on your ballot this year.

The most interesting race in the area that is not in Houston will be in Pasadena, where Mayor Johnny Isbell is term-limited out and where the City Council lines may or may not be redrawn, pending the ruling in the voting rights lawsuit that is currently in the judge’s hands. That election will be in May. Other area cities such as Bellaire, West U, Sugar Land, and Rosenberg, also have elections in May. I hope to have some more information about some of these races in a subsequent post. Also of interest in May will be the San Antonio elections, where Mayor Ivy Taylor has some competition for a second full term. I’m sure I’ll do some writing about that as well.

The Elections We May Have

In addition to the statewide ballot propositions, there are two local ones that could be on your November eSlate machine, both of which could be quite contentious. Mayor Turner has stated his intention to put a referendum about the revenue cap on the ballot this year, though one presumes that could change if his pension reform bills do not pass. You can be sure that the opposition to this, mostly from the likes of Paul Bettencourt and no doubt with the help of the statewide Republican cabal, will be ferocious and very well-funded. Which in a way will be good for Mayor Turner, because if he can successfully cast this as a partisan issue, especially a “statewide Republicans meddling in our business AGAIN” issue, he ought to at least begin with the larger share of the vote. Getting those people to vote, whether or not there are other city elections to draw them out, will be the challenge. I suspect Mayor Turner doesn’t do anything without planning out how it will go, so I sure hope he has a plan for this one.

The other possible ballot item we might have is an updated Metro Solutions plan, which may include more rail construction projects, possibly including another shot at the Universities Line. This has been floated as an option by Metro Chair Carrin Patman, but it is not yet clear that it would be on the ballot, and if it would be there this year if so, and it is not yet clear what the scope of it would be. Needless to say, any rail component would generate some opposition, with a new Universities Line plan bringing out the usual suspects, some of whom would already be fully engaged in a revenue cap fight. It’s an interesting question whether you’d rather have this item on the ballot by itself, or in the same space as a revenue cap item. I’m glad that’s not my call to make.

The Elections We Could Have

This is the one that is entirely contingent on the Supreme Court, which as we know has not hesitated to stick its collective nose in our electoral business. If the 2015 term limits referendum is thrown out for having insufficiently clear wording, then the people who will be the most affected are the Council members who are in their last terms: Brenda Stardig, Jerry Davis, Ellen Cohen, Mike Laster, Larry Green, and Jack Christie. Cohen’s District C and Laster’s District J represent challenges for Democrats, as Bill King carried both districts in the 2015 Mayoral runoff. The ideal District C candidate is in the Anne Clutterbuck-Ellen Cohen spectrum, while the low turnout District J will always be a bit of a wild card. Against that, Dems will have opportunities in both Christie’s At Large #5 and first-term CM Mike Knox’s AL #1, though as we have discussed before, cattle call races with lots of similarly-profiled Democrats have benefited Republican citywide candidates in the recent past. The ideal here is for a candidate who begins with a lot of backing to get in and largely hoover up all the support – think Melissa Noriega in 2007, or Amanda Edwards in 2015.

I don’t want to spend too much time on this, as it’s even more speculative than usual, but I do want to at least put a marker on it, since if these elections do happen they may happen all at once, with little warning and not much time to prepare. I’ll be keeping an eye on this, and will be ready for either a busier or more relaxed interview season this fall.

Council ratifies Turner’s pension plan

From the inbox:

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner

On a 16-1 vote, Houston City Council has endorsed Mayor Sylvester Turner’s historic package of pension reforms. The vote clears the way for the City to move forward in partnership with the pension systems to seek legislative approval of the reforms.

“I am bubbling over on the inside,” said Mayor Turner. “I am thankful to everyone who has helped get us to this point. That includes City Council, the pension systems, our City employees and many others. This plan is historic, transformative and budget neutral. We are solving our pension problem permanent and we are doing it without needed a tax rate increase. There is no other plan out there offering the same benefits. The Houston solution can be the model for other cities with similar challenges.”

The police, fire and municipal pension systems all signed off on the package of reforms prior to today’s City Council vote, marking the first time that the City and all of the pension groups have been united.

The plan immediately reduces the City’s nearly $8 billion pension debt by over 30 percent and then sets a 30-year fixed payoff schedule for the remaining $5.3 billion of debt. This immediate reduction is accomplished through a combination of benefits changes that include scaling back cost-of-living adjustments, higher employee payroll contributions and phasing out of the Deferred Retirement Option Program, known as DROP, which allows employees to accept retirement benefits while continuing to work for the City. In return for the concessions, the City has agreed to issue $1 billion in Pension Obligation Bonds to make up for years of prior underfunding of the pension systems.

“It is a big deal that employees have agreed to these benefit changes,” said Turner. “I know this has not been easy, and I thank each of them for their patience, understanding and service. This plan will provide stable and sustainable retirements at an affordable cost to the taxpayers who foot the bill. Retirees won’t have to worry if the check will be there.”

Moving forward, predictions about the anticipated performance of pension system investments will be based on a more conservative seven percent assumed rate of return. If there are market changes that cause costs to exceed pre-agreed limits, there is a mechanism to force additional changes in benefits to bring everything back in line. A requirement that both sides share information will ensure compliance with the required 30-year payoff schedule.

State Senator Joan Huffman and State Representative Dan Flynn are expected to carry the Houston pension legislation. Bill filing for the 2017 legislative session begins mid-November 2016.

See here and here for the background. CM Mike Knox was the lone No vote, saying he couldn’t support it without there already being a bill written. The Chron story fills in a few details.

Turner secured the political chip of a prompt and lopsided endorsement by using an impassioned speech to persuade Councilman Michael Kubosh to remove his “tag,” a parliamentary maneuver that would have delayed the vote. Kubosh had said he initially tagged the measure at the request state Sen. Paul Bettencourt, a Houston Republican who has called for a delay until more information was available on the reform plan.

“Either you all are going to represent the people of the city of Houston or – I’m going to borrow your term Councilmember Kubosh – are you going to represent political interests? I stand with the people of the city of Houston,” Turner said. “I was voted (in) to represent their interests, not some party affiliation or some political interest or somebody who wants to be mayor.”

Turner’s comments plainly were directed at Bill King, who was runner-up in last year’s mayoral race and who joined Bettencourt at his news conference. The duo said the detailed reform proposals were public for too short a time and too vague to be properly vetted, particularly a key “corridor” provision that would force benefit cuts in the future if a market downturn led the city’s payments to increase above a specified threshold.

King and Bettencourt say the city should switch new hires to retirement savings plans similar to 401(k)s, but acknowledged a well-written “corridor” provision could offer the same benefits to the city.


Most council members, however, referenced the briefings they had received on the plan and echoed Turner’s point that no public speaker in the six weeks since the reform outline was first announced had appeared before City Council to criticize it.

“I want to make sure the public understands we have been briefed, and it wasn’t a 24-hour-ago briefing,” Councilwoman Brenda Stardig said.

Councilman Dave Martin, like Stardig, a conservative, offered even stronger comments.

“I did not vote for you. I did not support you. I’m supporting you 100 percent on this,” Martin told Turner. “I think it’s ridiculous for people to criticize this plan. It’s been transparent; it’s been thorough. We’ve been diligent. We don’t need any more information. Maybe the state does, but do your homework.”

Yeah. Just as a reminder, the Kinder Institute has analyzed the plan, so we are not operating in an information vacuum here. I’m sure if Sen. Bettencourt had called the Mayor’s office and asked for a briefing, he’d have gotten it. But it’s easier to preen than it is to prep, so here we are. My guess is we’ll see bills get pre-filed for this, probably in November, so we’ll know soon enough what that will look like. The next question is who will support it and who will try to kill it. The games have just begun.

Where are the chiefs?

People are beginning to wonder.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Six months after Houston’s top cop retired and 10 months after Houston’s fire chief resigned to take another job, both departments remain without permanent chiefs, prompting concerns that public safety could suffer during the transition to permanent leadership.

The delays are already among the longest in decades at a time when community pressures are mounting on local agencies.

“We need leadership right now, and no one wants to make any moves until a chief is named,” one longtime police investigator complained recently.

Acting Police Chief Martha Montalvo, a Houston Police Department veteran, has led the agency since Mayor Sylvester Turner named her to the interim post in mid-February. Acting Fire Chief Rodney West has been at the helm since before Turner took office in January.

Both Montalvo and West are reportedly interested in the positions.

City officials say the administration has been occupied with passing the city’s budget, dealing with historic flooding and responding to the high-profile murder of an 11-year-old boy in north Houston earlier this year and the recent, controversial shooting by police of an African-American man in south Houston.

“My preference would be to have permanent leadership for the departments to depend on and move forward with,” said Council Member Brenda Stardig, chair of the City Council’s public safety committee. “We have to prioritize and take care of the citizens and public safety.”

Turner’s office has remained tight-lipped about the searches.

“Nothing has changed. The mayor is working on his timetable,” city spokeswoman Janice Evans said in an email. “In the meantime, both HPD and HFD are operating well. Both Chief Montalvo and Chief West meet regularly with the mayor so that he is aware of what is going on in the departments. His concern is about getting the job done rather than the personalities of who is making sure the job gets done.”

The story goes on to note that while Mayor Turner is taking longer to name HPD and HFD chiefs than what we are used to, it’s not out of line for similar appointments in other big cities. I can’t speak to how any of this affects the internal dynamics of either organization, but at least for HPD there are some big issues involving things like recent shootings of civilians and how body cameras are being used for which it would be nice to get some clear direction. It’s better to be right slow than to be wrong fast, so as long as Mayor Turner gets the right people in place in not too much longer, all should be fine. The Mayor clearly isn’t going to be rushed, so we may as well wait till he’s ready to make his choices.

What Council members think about the Uber threat

I was scrolling through Facebook and came upon this post from CM Michael Kubosh:

Mayor Turner wants UBER to stay, but they must follow the city’s ordinance that requires a CRIMINAL BACKGROUND CHECK and FINGERPRINTS. Council Member Michael Kubosh said that all public service drivers for buses, cabs, train, limos, shuttles and jitneys require the same CRIMINAL BACKGROUND CHECK and FINGERPRINTS. They must follow the rules. They came to Houston during the 2014 Rodeo operating illegally and the City Council changed the Ordinance to make room for their business model. NOW LOOK WHAT THEY ARE WANTING.

Which got me to wondering about other Council members and what they thought. Of the five Council members that voted against the original ordinance in 2014, four remain on Council: Kubosh, Jack Christie, Jerry Davis, and Mike Laster. I went looking, via Google, Facebook, and Twitter, to see who else has had something to say.

And the answer is, most of them have not said anything as yet. One who has is Brenda Stardig, who is the Chair of the Public Safety committee:

CM Dave Martin was quoted in one of the stories I blogged about after Uber issued its ultimatum:

“If you don’t want to follow the rules we all agreed to, have a good opportunity in another city,” District E Councilman David Martin said. “But we cannot be blackmailed when it comes to public safety.”

And that’s pretty much it for actual opinions. The only other Council member to say something was Greg Travis:

Mayor Sylvester Turner wants uber to stay in Houston, but wants the company to operate under the same rules as other transportation companies. Uber wants to eliminate regulation for its drivers to have city fingerprint check. Rather, uber wants to use its own background check. Mayor says uber’s background check inadequate. Your thoughts?

Comments on that post ran more in Uber’s favor than against, for what it’s worth. Also for what it’s worth. all four of these Council members – Kubosh, Martin, Stardig, and Travis – are Republicans; so is Jack Christie among the No votes from 2014, while Davis and Laster are Dems. I mention that mostly to note that if Uber is trying to make a free-market/deregulation argument, it’s not working on the kind of people you’d think it might work on. This discussion is just getting started, and Lord knows Uber is willing and able to dump a ton of resources into winning it, so this is hardly a final whip count. But clearly, Uber has some ground to make up to win this one.

Still seeking a downtown connection for the high speed rail line

I’m hoping one gets found.

Texas Central Partners, the private firm proposing the Houston-to-Dallas line, briefed a city council committee Monday, telling officials they remain on track to break ground in late 2017.

“That might slide into early 2018,” said Shaun McCabe, vice-president of Texas Central Railway.

Any connection to downtown, which would likely require public funding, would be built later, said Holly Reed, manager of external affairs for Texas Central Partners.


“I am concerned there is a possibility of land-locking my district,” District A Councilwoman Brenda Stardig said, noting details have made it hard to determine the traffic effects the line will have.

The train line would run parallel to U.S. 290, Hempstead Highway and a freight rail line, which Stardig said could be too much for the area to overcome in terms of crossings and large impediments cutting the neighborhoods in half.

The lack of a downtown connection, meanwhile, continues to worry some officials, including [District K Council Member Larry] Green and Mayor Sylvester Turner. Houston Public Works has a pending request for proposals for an engineering firm to study the downtown link in greater detail. Green said the study would give Houston more information about the importance of a downtown link, which would then be turned over to the company so they can consider a possible link.

“It might make sense for them to do it,” Green said. “We as a city want to know what the impact would be and is there another way.”

Reed, the Texas Central spokeswoman, said the company would consider any alternative outside its own plans as “complimentary” to its own plans. She compared the Houston discussion to a similar conversation happening in the Dallas area, where a link to Fort Worth is being studied.

That extension, however, is predicated on public funding, Reed said.

I would point out that the Gulf Coast Rail District is studying this issue as well, and as noted in that first link if anything comes of this it would involve multiple entities, including the GCRD, H-GAC, Metro, TxDOT, and the city of Houston. How that would work, where such a connector would be located, who pays for what – those questions and many more remain to be answered. The point is that someone is at least thinking about them. As for TCR, their draft environmental impact statement is expected in summer or fall, and there will be public meetings after that, as there were with Metro and the light rail lines. I’m sure some of them will be quite eventful. The deadline for responses to the city’s request for a study of options connecting the high speed rail terminal to downtown is May 27. KUHF has more.

More questions about body cameras and video accessibility

Still sorting it all out.

Months after statewide body camera legislation took effect and the Houston Police Department outlined its policies regarding the devices, local criminal justice watchdogs worry that some video from high-profile incidents may never see the light of day.

At issue, they say, are provisions in the law that could stymie requests for camera footage, privacy protections, and local departmental reluctance to release information.

When the Legislature passed SB 158 last year – easily in the House and with some opposition in the Senate – it was touted as a way to bring more transparency to law enforcement.

The legislation was enacted as police departments across Texas began weighing the use of body cameras and its intent was to set statewide policies for their use and establish a grant program for departments to defray costs.

But six months after it went into effect, civil liberties and open government activists are concerned that the law may make it harder for the public to obtain footage of controversial interactions between civilians and the police than it is to obtain other information under the Texas open records law.

Among the concerns, they argue is that the law gives police more time to decide whether to release the footage and it protects footage shot in a “private space,” such as a home. Also, people requesting it are required to provide the date and time and the name of at least one individual involved in the incident and it allows agencies to charge more for processing the release.

Kelley Shannon, with the Texas Freedom of Information Foundation, called the new law “a good step in the right direction,” but pointed out that some of its provisions were more restrictive than the state’s policies regarding dash cam video.

“It might put up a hurdle that some people may not realize exists,” she said.

Kim Ogg, a Houston attorney and candidate for Harris County district attorney, who was among those addressing their concerns recently to the Houston City Council, said footage from the cameras may not be as accessible as people may think.

“The public believes the body cameras are going to provide them objective and independent evidence (of) police interaction with citizens and with each other,” she said at a news conference before the City Council meeting. “And it doesn’t look like … the digital recordings are going to be made public under this new law. It looks like they’re going to be less accessible than under the Open Records Act, and so it’s a step backwards, not a step forward.”

As we know, this has been an issue in Houston, and continues to be one. Some of this is because this is all new and we’re still figuring parts of it out, some of it is because of the natural tendency to want to keep things secret, and some of it is because the current state law is unclear. The courts will address some of the latter, and the Lege is sure to revisit things in 2017. Some of it will need to be addressed by the public raising a fuss. It’s going to be a process, and the more engagement everyone has in it, the better.

On a tangential note, I came across this Ars Technica story a few weeks ago and have been waiting for a reason to mention it.

One of the world’s most prolific computer worms has been found infecting several police body cameras that were sent to security researchers, the researchers reported.

According to a blog post published last week by security firm iPower, multiple police cams manufactured by Martel Electronics came pre-installed with Win32/Conficker.B!inf. When one such camera was attached to a computer in the iPower lab, it immediately triggered the PC’s antivirus program. When company researchers allowed the worm to infect the computer, the computer then attempted to spread the infection to other machines on the network.

“iPower initiated a call and multiple emails to the camera manufacturer, Martel, on November 11th 2015,” the researchers wrote in the blog post. “Martel staff has yet to provide iPower with an official acknowledgement of the security vulnerability. iPower President, Jarrett Pavao, decided to take the story public due to the huge security implications of these cameras being shipped to government agencies and police departments all over the country.”

That’s from November, so it’s certainly possible that this issue has since been addressed. The point is, Conficker was malware from 2008. Your modern OSes are not affected by it. For it to have been found on these body cameras speaks volumes about security practices and software versions, none of it good. This doesn’t have anything to do with the question of how body camera data should be used and accessed, but it is a question to keep in mind. And as long as we’re talking security, CM Stardig was quoted in the Chron story in favor of a cloud solution for camera data storage. I think that’s fine, and it’s in line with current corporate practice, just make sure that standards and penalties are clearly spelled out in any agreement that gets signed. While there’s time to figure out the best practices for making the data public, safeguarding it is well-established. Let’s get that right the first time.

Council approves body camera contract

Moving forward.

City Council approved a $3.4 million contract Wednesday to equip Houston Police Department officers with body-worn cameras despite some lingering concerns that key pieces of the city’s policy for the equipment have not been finalized.

Councilmen Mike Laster, C.O. Bradford and Michael Kubosh along with councilwoman Brenda Stardig voted against the contract with the selected company, Watchguard. Officials hope the cameras will provide transparency and evidence in resident-officer interactions, particularly when force is used.

The four council members who voted against the contract said they supported outfitting officers with the cameras, but that they were either concerned that community groups had not been included in the broader body camera discussion or were frustrated that the city’s policy for storing the video data had not yet been finalized.

Mayor Annise Parker said the plan was to split the body camera program up into three parts: the equipment, the protocol for using the equipment and a storage plan. But she said the camera procurement was sound and the best price for the city.

“My only concern about this whole process is the police department being the police department was, ‘We’re the police experts, we’re going to …’ They don’t always think about the fact – and the chief acknowledged it – that this is a highly sensitized issue right now and a lot of scrutiny,” Parker said. “They could have done a little more up-front public information, although I’ll point out there were some council members today who … collective amnesia.”

A committee meeting on Thursday will tackle the question of whether footage from the cameras should be stored in-house or with a third party, a more costly option but one that proponents say would alleviate concerns about video being tampered with or edited.

There are more questions than that that need to be answered. I’m sure there’s time to get those questions answered before the body cameras are fully deployed, and if this was the deal that was on offer, then it needed to be completed. This process does need to move along, but let’s remember that it is a process, and it’s an ongoing one.

Meanwhile on a related note, this interview with Chief McClelland about the need for criminal justice reform is well worth reading. A sample:

How have previous policing policies affected Houston and how might this new response change that?

There are many who believe the criminal justice system is broken. I’m certainly not one to believe it’s broken – it’s producing the results it’s designed to produce. If we want different results, that’s why the system must be reformed. Because it’s doing exactly what it was designed to do. When we have mandatory sentencing laws [for] minor crime offenses, drug offenses, for people who are really not the greatest threat to community safety, and who are using massive amounts of law enforcement resources, there has to be a better way.

And criminal justice reform and what we’re speaking about in our group… to reduce crime and incarceration – we believe we can do both – if we put more resources into substance abuse treatment, treatment of folks suffering from some form of mental illness and also to reduce the homeless population. Because if you think about it – some of people we arrest on a regular and routine, and very frequent, basis for minor crimes – We are sentencing these people to life sentences – but they’re serving just 3-4 days at a time. Those suffering from intoxication, mental illness, homelessness – they commit a minor crime [and] they only stay in jail 2-3 days at a time, but they are being arrested quite frequently. And over a lifetime, we’re sentencing them to a life sentence – they’re just serving it 2-3 days at a time.

It just doesn’t get to the root cause of the problem or the issue the person is suffering from.

Now let me make this very clear – people who pose the greatest threats to our neighborhoods and our communities, especially those who are violent – and repeat violent offenders, we need to lock those people up for long periods of time, and some of those individuals need to be locked up for the rest of their natural lives. But that’s a very, very small portion of folks who make up the criminal justice system, because an overwhelming number – 90 percent of folks who go to prison get released at some point in time.

But if a person has nothing to be released to – no family structure – no opportunity for legitimate employment – no education, no job skills – the system is almost guaranteeing you’re going to get involved in some illegal activity and go back to prison.

Also, the empirical data clearly has shown that the earlier one contacts the criminal justice system, such as a juvenile, the chances increase two- and three-fold you will go to jail or prison.

So if we can prevent the initial contact from occurring, we reduce the likelihood a great deal that you’ll ever be arrested and put into the system.

Lots there for us all, including the next Mayor and police chief, to think about. Go take a look and see what you think.

Endorsement watch: Stardig

I’m too lazy to think of a clever title for this one.

Brenda Stardig

Brenda Stardig

Brenda Stardig is on the verge of completing her nonconsecutive second term as district councilwoman, and she has earned a third.

Stardig, 53, came into office with a resume impressive in its breadth and depth of civic involvement. She served on her neighborhood civic club, was head of a superneighborhood, sat on a tax increment reinvestment zone, a chamber of commerce and the Houston-Galveston Area Council. However, she was booted after her first term in a low-turnout election and replaced by Helena Brown. Rather than a constructive member of council, District A found itself with a ineffective rabble-rouser representative. Two years later, voters put Stardig back on council and she started to put important infrastructure projects back on track.


Stardig said she opposed the Houston equal rights ordinance because she believed there were other ways to address discrimination. While we believe that Stardig was wrong in her vote, she fares much better than her opponent. Iesheia K. Ayers-Wilson, a 35-year-old tax preparer, told the editorial board that she thinks businesses should be allowed to discriminate against people based on religion.

I got this one right, though it’s not like there was anything to it. I suppose we all owe Ms. Ayers-Wilson a bit of gratitude for demonstrating so succinctly that it’s always possible to coarsen the debate on a matter of public policy. Do you think it ever occurs to people like that that they could be discriminated against, or is it just the case that they think they already are by not being allowed to discriminate freely against others? And yes, I know I’m saying that about a candidate in the district that once elected Helena Brown. It can always get worse.

Connecting trails

Always good to see.


The Houston Parks and Recreation Department and Houston Parks Board recently celebrated the completion of the White Oak Bayou Path, the first in a series of projects creating a more connected system of hike-and-bike trails in the city.

Mayor Annise Parker and District A council member Brenda Stardig joined the organizations for a ribbon cutting ceremony on Thursday, July 9.

Joe Turner, director of the city’s parks and recreation department, said that funding for this project was made possible through a $15 million federal Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery grant for regional bike and pedestrian trails.

The grant will fund six projects.

The White Oak Bayou Path covers a stretch from Alabonson Road to Antoine Drive where pedestrian traffic had been previously blocked.

“We’re trying to close up gaps in different pieces of our trail system,” Turner said. “It’s an eighth of a mile, but it was a crucial piece with a bridge.”

These gaps, where the paths don’t meet, caused users to stop and turn around. Closing the gaps they connects paths to make thoroughfares.

The other projects include the White Oak Bayou Path between 11th Street and Stude Park, as well as a connection to residential neighborhoods from the path and to Buffalo Bayou Path, which will also include a .3 mile gap closure between Smith and Travis.

East downtown will gain connections between transit, residential and commercial spaces, totaling 8.6 miles of gap closures.

Brays Bayou Path will also benefit from a 1.6 mile gap-closure project and a .6 mile alternative transit path.

Turner said that once all of the projects are completed, the city will have an alternative transportation system with connected off-road hike-and-bike trails.


Roksan Okan-Vick, executive director of the nonprofit Houston Parks Board, said this segment is an important piece of the Bayou Greenways 2020 project, which will create a continuous system of parks and 150 miles of hike-and-bike trails along Houston’s major waterways.

“We have a fairly large and ambitious project underway,” she said.

Okan-Vick said the Houston Parks Board was successful in securing a Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery grant.

“We did the legwork, and we were lucky enough to be approved for the grant,” she said.

Okan-Vick said that there are three gaps on White Oak Bayou that needed to be addressed.

“This is the first one, and if you go further downstream, there is another we are working on,” she said.

When all trail sections are completed, it will be possible to travel the path along White Oak Bayou from far northwest Houston to Buffalo Bayou and downtown Houston, Turner said. “It gives us an alternative to our current transportation system,” he said. “And the hike-and-bike network allows us to connect pieces we’ve never connected before in our city. Lots of trails have been built over time, but they weren’t connected.”

I’m a big fan of this project, which covers a lot of territory and will greatly add off-road capacity for walkers and bicyclists. Longer term, other parts of this project will help make some dense infill development better for residents and neighbors. It will be an enduring legacy of Mayor Parker’s administration. Good work, y’all.

Council’s pension meeting

It was about what you’d expect.

Mayor Annise Parker

Mayor Annise Parker

Many City Council members who attended a special meeting Friday to discuss Mayor Annise Parker’s controversial deal with the city’s firefighters pension called the gathering a success, despite two members walking out and breaking a quorum before a vote could be held to support or oppose the agreement.

The meeting’s unusual ending matched the unusual situation. Typically, the mayor alone calls City Council meetings and decides what items will appear on the agenda for a vote, a power that council members can subvert only by teaming up in a group of at least three to force a special meeting.

Council members C.O. Bradford, Michael Kubosh, Brenda Stardig and Dave Martin did that last Monday, saying the council had been excluded as Parker negotiated the three-year agreement to lower the city’s costs and that the deal must be vetted publicly.

The unrealized vote would not have been binding because the council has no legal authority over the agreement, but organizers hoped the resolution would raise public awareness of the city’s pension situation and send a signal to the Legislature, which controls Houston’s three pension funds. State Sen. John Whitmire and mayoral candidate and state Rep. Sylvester Turner, both Houston Democrats, have agreed to carry the legislation in Austin.

“A vote would have sent a signal to the state Legislature, so I’m disappointed that we didn’t get the opportunity to express our opinion to the state,” said Martin, who opposes the deal, “but I thought the discussion was good, so I leave here pleased.”


Parker spokeswoman Janice Evans said the administration is moving forward on getting the deal passed in Austin, and stressed that the mayor has never claimed the agreement represents true pension reform.

“The meeting turned out as we thought it would … a lot of talking, but no new solutions offered and no new information presented,” Evans said.

See here for the background. The Wednesday Council meeting at which Mayor Parker presented the plan to Council could be characterized similarly. Of interest is that not only will there be a bill to enact the negotiated deal, but also one to give the city the kind of control over the pension fund that Mayor Parker had been pushing for before. From the press release that CM Costello sent out on Friday evening:

City of Houston At-Large Council Member Steve Costello was extremely instrumental in crafting House Bill 2608 which was filed today by State Representative Jim Murphy of Houston. Local control of pensions is key to the citizens of Houston. H.B. 2608 will allow the mayor and city council to directly negotiate with its pension plans to create the most beneficial structure for both taxpayers and retirees.

Council Member Costello has also written and distributed a letter to the local Houston delegation encouraging them to support the bill, local control and vote against the Parker/Turner plan.

“There’s no way for the city to pay our pension benefits as currently structured without severely limiting the city’s ability to provide basic city services to its citizens. Without showing real leadership and tackling the pension benefits themselves, the amount the city owes does not change,” Costello said.

“This bill will provide for a more sustainable and responsible pension program that is good for our city, our brave firefighters and Houston taxpayers. Fortunately, Representative Jim Murphy has filed H. B. 2608, and I am pleased to have played a key role in crafting a bill that actually moves us toward a solution,” according to Costello.

Costello continued, “I’m going to continue to fight hard for local control. The City must be able to fulfill our promise to our public safety and municipal employees in a way that is also fair to Houston taxpayers.”

There was no mention of a bill like this at the beginning of the session, when everyone seemed to want the city and the firefighters to work this out among themselves. It’s interesting to hear people like Sen. Paul Bettencourt, who was at the meeting and who expressed his support of Rep. Murphy’s bill, talk favorably of local control when he’s busy helping Greg Abbott eviscerate it elsewhere. Be that as it may, I guess this answers my question about what Costello thinks he can do differently than Mayor Parker – if he’s able to help get HB2608 to Abbott’s desk, it would be quite an accomplishment. The politics of this are going to be fascinating to watch, that’s for sure. I just hope that the Mayoral candidates that lobby for one bill or the other in Austin get equally and visibly involved in beating back the many bad bills out there.

Council meeting called to discuss firefighter pension deal

Some Council members are determined to discuss the deal Mayor Parker made with the firefighters’ pension fund.

Mayor Annise Parker

Mayor Annise Parker

Four City Council members have taken advantage of a rarely used provision in city law to call a special meeting Friday to discuss Mayor Annise Parker’s controversial deal with the city’s firefighter pension board that was announced last week.

Typically, the mayor alone controls what items appear on the council agenda to be voted on, a power that can be subverted only when a trio of council members teams up to call a meeting.

Council members C.O. Bradford, Michael Kubosh, Brenda Stardig and Dave Martin did so Monday morning, with one more signer than was required. City officials said this appears to be the first time the legal maneuver has been used in Parker’s more than five-year tenure.

It’s not clear whether enough of the foursome’s colleagues will attend to muster a quorum, but the symbolism of the meeting is more significant than any action that could be taken, given that the group will simply consider registering support for or opposition to the pension deal.

Regardless, Parker’s liaison to council, William-Paul Thomas, said he will work against a quorum. Parker had said she would not put the deal to a council vote because it does not call for the expenditure of city funds.

The three-year agreement would see the city pay a projected $77 million less into the pension fund and see firefighters contribute an estimated $20 million more. Supporters call it a compromise that will free up city funds during a budget crunch, while critics call it a risky missed opportunity that will see $57 million less paid into the system without any changes to the cost of benefits.

Bradford said the aim of Friday’s meeting is for council to discuss the pension deal openly and to send a signal to Austin on the council’s view of the agreement. Firefighters’ pension benefits and the city’s contributions to the fund are controlled by the Legislature, and the mayor’s deal would need to pass in Austin to take effect.


Firefighters union president Alvin White – whose organization is a separate entity from the fire pension board – early Monday raised his own concerns, saying the union “is the only legally recognized entity authorized to negotiate Houston firefighters’ workplace rights, wages and benefits.” White said he was entering into talks with fire pension chairman Todd Clark to “protect our members’ rights” in the deal, which requires firefighters to contribute 12 percent of their pay toward their pensions, up from 9 percent today.

Those talks yielded progress Monday night, however, with White saying the resolution would allow the union the flexibility it needs to negotiate future contracts. Clark did not return a call for comment Monday; a pension spokeswoman said he was busy working to get the bill filed at the Legislature.

See here for the background. At least this gives me some idea what the fuss is about, since the net effect is that the fund will receive $57 million less in payments over the next three years. The fund is in good enough shape that these underpayments probably won’t cause any issues, but for obvious reasons this is not a sustainable approach. I don’t know what these members have in mind to discuss or what if anything they might be able to accomplish, but I see no reason not to let them have their meeting. Maybe they’ll come up with some good questions to ask, or maybe they’ll agree with the Mayor’s judgment. Let them meet and make up their own minds. Campos has more.

January campaign finance reports – Council

CM Jerry Davis

CM Jerry Davis

Mayoral reports
Controller reports

Four Council members are term limited this year. Two, CMs Stephen Costello and Oliver Pennington, are running for Mayor. The other two, CMs CO Bradford and Ed Gonzales, do not have any announced plans at this time, though both were on the list of Mayoral possibilities at one time or another. While there are some known candidates for these offices, there are many more to come. No one who isn’t or wasn’t a candidate before this year has a finance report, and no one has any contributions to report, so the data we have is somewhat limited.

Brenda Stardig (SPAC)
Jerry Davis
Ellen Cohen
Dwight Boykins
Dave Martin
Richard Nguyen
Robert Gallegos
Mike Laster
Larry Green

David Robinson
Michael Kubosh

Name Raised Spent Loans On Hand ==================================================== Stardig 0 21,191 0 59,517 Davis 0 6,091 0 97,563 Cohen 0 23,304 0 63,769 Boykins 0 5,845 0 1,129 Martin 0 20,345 0 34,339 Nguyen 0 20,120 0 15,020 Gallegos 0 7,326 0 45,021 Laster 0 5,791 0 78,216 Green 0 45,671 0 55,983 Gonzales 0 35,987 0 29,603 Brown 0 3,858 0 34,900 Robinson 0 1,565 0 48,334 Kubosh 0 17,403 10,000 0 Bradford 0 12,282 0 20,088

I’ve included the totals for Helena Brown above, since rumor has it that she’s aiming for a rubber match against Brenda Stardig in A. Beyond that, the two numbers that stand out to me are Boykins’ and Nguyen’s. Boykins was the big dog in 2013, nearly winning a first round majority in a very crowded field. I presume he emptied his coffers in the runoff, I haven’t gone back to look at his last reports from 2013 and his January 2014 report to confirm that. He burned some bridges with his vote against the HERO last year, so it will be interesting to see how things develop from here. As for Nguyen, he came out of nowhere to knock off Al Hoang in F. He then made a courageous vote for the HERO and announced that he was a Democrat. All of these things would put a target on his back even if he had a big cash on hand balance. As for Kubosh, he did a lot of self-funding in 2013, and I’d expect at least some more of the same. It will be interesting to see how much of the usual suspect PAC money he gets. We’ll have to wait till July to find out.

Food trucks arrive downtown


Houston’s foodie community rejoiced Friday as Mayor Annise Parker welcomed propane-fueled food trucks downtown after a years-long ban, but more plans to loosen the city’s mobile unit rules are not likely to meet the same fanfare at City Council in the coming months.

Parker bypassed council to remove the restriction on propane-fueled food trucks downtown, citing a fire marshal opinion that tanks weighing up to 60 pounds are safe.

“It may not seem like the most important issue the city could address,” said Parker, standing in front of a colorful food truck, The Modular, across from City Hall on Friday. “But believe me, if you invest in a food truck, you want to serve great food to Houstonians, this absolutely makes a difference.”

Two other industry changes on Parker’ food trucks agenda – letting the trucks use tables and chairs and removing 60-foot spacing requirements between mobile units – need to go through council members, whose opinions on food trucks vary by district.


Council Member Brenda Stardig has proved a particularly vocal critic, calling for more food truck inspectors.

“I’m not against food trucks,” Stardig said. “There are some really cool ones. But some of the ones that historically we’ve had in District A, they set up shop permanently. Until we have the ability to have more inspectors, less regulation and opening it to a broader market is a concern.”

Council Member Robert Gallegos also said he would like to ramp up enforcement before loosening the rules. Gallegos’ district runs from downtown to the East End.

“I’m not opposed to food trucks,” he said. “But I’m not talking about food trucks outside of bars on Washington Avenue. I’m talking about little hole-in-the-wall cantinas and whether the trucks there are going to be regulated. That’s a problem to me.”

See here for the background. CMs Stardig and Gallegos have valid concerns, and the city says they are working to address those concerns. It should be noted that the city has more food truck inspectors per capita (three for 800 trucks, or one for every 267) than it does restaurant inspectors (30 for 13,000, or one for every 433). I hope we can agree on what needs to be done to address the issues that have been raised so we can move forward on this.

And we (finally) circle back to food trucks

We’ve done HERO, we’ve done vehicles for hire, what other high profile issues are there out there? Oh yeah, food trucks. I’d almost forgotten they were still an agenda item, but they’re back and they should be getting a vote soon.

Proposed changes to three major ordinances could provide food trucks with new freedom. While the commissary requirement isn’t changing, the other three regulations will be going away if the Houston City Council approves recommendations developed over the last two years by a task force that includes representatives from various city departments, food trucks and the brick and mortar restaurant community, as represented by its lobbying group, the Greater Houston Restaurant Association.


Laura Spanjian, the director of the city’s Office of Sustainability, explains that the goal of removing the prohibition that prevents trucks from operating downtown and in the Texas Medical Center “is to create a level playing field for food trucks.” In debates two years ago, some council members expressed concerns about the safety of having trucks, which can carry up to 60-pound tanks of propane, operating in the Central Business District, but Spanjian says the Houston Fire Department is “very confident there is not a safety concern in these two areas. They have a very strong inspection routine.”

Spanjian also notes that the city’s increased density makes separating downtown and the Medical Center from other, similarly populated areas like Greenway Plaza and The Galleria somewhat illogical.

Removing the 60-foot spacing requirement between trucks is another change to the fire code that reflects confidence in the Fire Department’s inspection routine and spot checks of truck operations. Both of these changes are being made as part of larger updates to the fire code, which happens every three years. Spanjian expects them to come to a vote before Council early next year.

The final proposed change is an adjustment to the health code that removes the prohibition against trucks operating within 100 feet of tables and chairs. As this requirement is routinely ignored when trucks park near bars in Montrose, along Washington Ave and the Heights, it brings the regulations in line with standard practices. If all goes according to plan, Council will vote on the issue in mid-September.

Spanjian also notes that the 100 foot rule should never have been in the health code. “There’s no health issue with a food truck being near tables and chairs. It doesn’t belong in the health care requirements at all,” she says.

While the 100 foot regulation may have been an attempt to prevent food trucks from competing directly with brick and mortar restaurants, Spanjian thinks the time has come for the two to be on a more equal footing.

“We’re letting the market decide, which is a very Houstonian thing to do,” she says. “It should be up to the private property owners what they want to do on their private property.”

The last mention I had of this was in November, right after Mayor Parker’s re-election, in which she promised that there would be a vote on a food truck ordinance by the end of this year. Before that, the news is all from 2012. If the Greater Houston Restaurant Association really is on board, or at least not opposed, that should clear the way. This Chron story from yesterday’s Quality of Life committee meeting sheds a bit of light and also suggests what in retrospect is an obvious parallel.

“Deregulating food trucks will create major challenges for small businesses,” said Reginald Martin, president of the Greater Houston Restaurant Association, which represents more than 4,100 industry members.

Council members Brenda Stardig and Jerry Davis both emerged as critics of loosening the food truck regulations, largely because they were concerned about competition with established restaurants and enforcement of food truck rules.

“They’re awesome,” Stardig said of food trucks. “I’m not taking away from that. What I’m concerned about is the enforcement, and the stinkers that give the mobile community a bad name.”


Council member Ed Gonzalez said the city should not be in the business of “protecting someone’s monopoly.” He also played down concerns about some food trucks violating city code, something he said was no different from restaurants that break rules.

“I don’t think we should punish all 800 trucks or new entrants simply because there are the bad apples out there,” Gonzalez said.

I’m not the only one who hears an Uber/Lyft echo in all that, am I? Please tell me I’m not the only one. Anyway, if all goes well we should see a Council vote on this in September. I look forward to seeing it get resolved. Link via Swamplot, the Chron editorial board is still in favor, and the Houston Business Journal has more.

Council approves vehicles for hire overhaul

At long last.


Technology companies that have unapologetically disrupted vehicle-for-hire markets in cities across the country will be able to operate legally in Houston after City Council on Wednesday ended 16 months of wrangling by approving new rules.

Council voted 10 to 5, with two absent, to open the heavily regulated paid ride market in Houston to new entrants, such as Uber and Lyft, that use smartphone applications to connect willing drivers with interested riders, using the driver’s personal car.

Mayor Annise Parker, who supported the rule changes but has made no secret of her desire to move on to other topics, said the months of delay were driven by the difficult issues at play, as well as the measure acting as a “full employment opportunity for lobbyists” as an entrenched, regulated industry fought well-funded, innovative startups.

“This is something that’s been a contentious issue in cities all across the United States,” Parker said. “I think we did the right thing and I think we did something positive for the citizens of Houston who rely on vehicles for hire to navigate the city without doing something I think would have a negative impact on existing providers.”


Yellow Cab President Roman Martinez said he also is happy the discussion is over so his contracting drivers can return to the streets. He said he does not see the vote as a loss, though he acknowledged the failure of an amendment to cap the number of Uber and Lyft drivers allowed to enter the market – by a 9-8 vote – was significant.

“We’ve always said we are not afraid of competition,” Martinez said, surrounded by colleagues in bright T-shirts. “Everybody here that’s in this room today, who are cab drivers, limousine drivers, jitney operators, we’re going to compete. We just wanted to make sure the playing field was level and that everybody was going to play by the same rules. Council had a little bit different opinion about what those rules are, but now we get back to work.”

Uber spokeswoman Lauren Altmin said the vote shows the power of citizen support for her company’s services, and said it shows Houston’s commitment to innovation.


In opposing the ordinance itself, Council members Laster, Jerry Davis, C.O. Bradford, Michael Kubosh and Jack Christie pointed to the absence of caps and round-the-clock insurance as key reasons. Kubosh echoed Martinez’s comment about a level playing field.

“We’re not even close to the same rules,” he said. “It’s really lopsided, it really favors the transportation network companies; it doesn’t favor the cab companies at all.”

The mayor said drivers for Uber’s luxury sedan service, UberBLACK, can begin registering with the city immediately, while drivers for the taxi-style services Lyft and uberXmust wait 90 days to sign up.

That likely will not stop Uber or Lyft from continuing to operate, given that the firms launched illegally in February and have racked up more than 800 citations between them and their drivers since then.

There were a bunch of amendments offered, with perhaps the most interesting being proposed by CM Laster that would have limited the number of Uber/Lyft-type drivers to 250, Seattle-style. That was defeated 9-8, which may be just as well. There was a requirement added for a minimum of 3% of all vehicles for hire to be wheelchair accessible (see this press release from CM Brenda Stardig) with a proviso that it can’t be met by one company alone. Whether that will have an effect on the recent litigation filed by disability rights activists or not, I don’t know. I do know I’m glad that this is over, and I suspect you are, too. Your turn now, Dallas and San Antonio. The Houston Business Journal and The Highwayman have more.

HERO passes


After nearly nine hours of chanting and tears from seas of opponents and supporters in color-coded T-shirts, Houston City Council passed an ordinance on Wednesday extending equal rights protections to gay and transgender residents.

Despite weeks of discussion and dissent over the measure, the final vote was 11-6, a count that matched guesses made months ago, when Mayor Annise Parker — the first openly lesbian mayor of a major American city — said she planned to bring forward such a measure.

The approval was greeted with thunderous applause from the audience, largely full of supporters, and chants of “HERO,” for the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance.

“While much of the debate has centered around the gay and transgender section of the ordinance, it is a comprehensive ordinance,” Parker said after the vote. “It is a good step forward for the city of Houston.”

That’s the early version of the story. I’ll update later from the full story when I can. While the vote was 11-6, it was a little different than I thought it might be – CM Richard Nguyen, who movingly said that his 6-year-old son told him to “just be brave”, was a Yes, while CMs Jack Christie and – very disappointingly – Dwight Boykins were Nos. The other four Nos, from CMs Stardig, Martin, Pennington, and Kubosh, were as expected. I don’t have much to add right now – despite the final passage, this story is far from over, so there will be much more to say later. I have no idea if those half-baked recall and repeal efforts will go anywhere – we’ll deal with them if we must – but I do know that a lot of folks will have some very long memories in 2015. I’m proud of my city, proud of the Council members who voted with Mayor Parker, proud of Mayor Parker for getting this done, and really really proud of all the supporters who packed City Hall to tell their stories and witness history being made. Well done, y’all. Think Progress, PDiddie, and Rep. Garnet Coleman have more.

UPDATE: Here’s the full Chron story, which includes a heaping dose of Dave Wilson and his many petition drive threats. I’ll deal with all that in a subsequent post.

NDO vote will be next week

The proposed non-discrimination ordinance was on Council’s agenda yesterday, but it did not come to a vote as it was tagged, which means it’ll be voted on next week. The Chron’s preview story gave some insight into what we should expect from the ordinance based on the experience of other cities that already have protections for sexual orientation and gender identity in their local codes.


Houston handles discrimination complaints from city employees and sends a hundred housing complaints to federal authorities each year, [city attorney David] Feldman said. The work added by protecting sexual orientation and gender identity and covering places of public accommodation may be modest.

Less than half of 1 percent of the housing complaints Fort Worth received last year were based on sexual orientation, and the city received no employment claims based on sexual orientation, according to an annual report

Fort Worth has received five complaints against places of public accommodation in the last two years; Austin typically sees three or fewer per year.

“The fact that it creates a scheme that is almost entirely voluntary compliance doesn’t reduce the value or the effect of it,” said Jonathan Babiak of Austin’s Equal Employment/Fair Housing Office. “Many, many people are going to comply just because it’s the law.”

Since passing its nondiscrimination ordinance last fall, San Antonio has learned of three incidents of alleged discrimination in areas other than housing, all against transgender or gay residents. The events, one involving a city contractor and two involving businesses that serve the public, have not yet resulted in formal complaints, said deputy city attorney Veronica Zertuche. One city employee also has filed a complaint based on sexual orientation, she said.

In El Paso, deputy city attorney Laura Gordon said she is aware of two incidents of alleged discrimination in places of public accommodation, both from gay couples, and neither of which resulted in a complaint. El Paso does not cover private employment.

Feldman said a Dallas official reported that city has received 12 complaints not related to housing in the decade that its ordinance has been in effect.

Feldman said he foresees Houston fielding more employment and public accommodation complaints than other cities, due, in part, to its size.

“We’ve never had it before, and now people will say, ‘Ah, there’s a remedy here,’ ” Feldman said. “But I also think it will dissipate in time.”

Houston’s added workload also would be limited by its exemption for businesses with fewer than 50 employees. Fort Worth and Austin exempt businesses of 15 or fewer employees, matching federal and state laws. Texas Workforce Commission data show 29 percent of the state’s private workforce is employed by firms with fewer than 50 workers.

Houston GLBT Political Caucus president Maverick Welsh and others want the 50-worker exemption dropped to 15. “I’m very optimistic,” Welsh told the council Tuesday. “I believe you’ll do the right thing.”

See here and here for the background. An amendment proposed by CM Robert Gallegos would lower the threshold to 15 employees; we’ll see how that one goes. As there will be another public session of Council on Tuesday the 13th, with the vote scheduled for the 14th, there will be another opportunity to address Council and show your support for the ordinance and CM Gallegos’ amendment. Email to get on the list of speakers for that.

The late Wednesday story has more on the amendments.

Councilman Oliver Pennington proposed the most substantial changes to the measure, seeking to exempt all private employers and to permit discrimination in the sale or rental of a single-family home if the seller or landlord owns eight or fewer homes; the current drafts exempts the owners of three or fewer houses.

Pennington also seeks to allow a first-offense conviction to be dismissed if the person is not convicted of discrimination again within a year, and wants to let someone accused of denying a transgender person access to the public restroom of his or her choice to have the complaint dismissed by submitting an affidavit explaining the decision to deny access.

“The thrust of my amendments today was to promote voluntary compliance, and I know reconciliation is provided for now, but for first offenses there’s still a possibility for criminal prosecution,” Pennington said. “Whatever we can do, in the long run, to promote interaction with the affected parties on a voluntary basis will be a worthwhile thing to do and I hope we can reach that.”


Other council members sought to strengthen the ordinance.

Councilman Robert Gallegos wants the measure to cover more private employees by dropping the proposed exemption for businesses that employ fewer than 50 workers to those with 25, and then to 15 over two years.

That change had been advocated by the Houston GLBT Political Caucus, which said the stated exemption left too many workers unprotected.

“The transition from 50 to 15, which is the more common standard across the United States, was thoughtful,” Parker said. “That may be doable … .”

CM Pennington’s amendment is a non-starter. CM Gallegos’ amendment is the one to watch. Most of the rest were technical in nature.

Back to the Tuesday story:

[Mayor Annise] Parker and 11 of the 16 City Council members agreed last fall to support a nondiscrimination ordinance. Some members have expressed concerns about the item, however.

The 11 Council members that stated their support for an NDO in their screening questionnaire for the Houston GLBT Political Caucus are listed here. Of those 11, CM Christie has waffled a bit, but I think in the end he’ll be a Yes. In addition, based on his willingness to engage on the issue and the feedback I’ve heard, I have hope that CM Kubosh will vote in favor as well, though he expressed some doubts in Wednesday’s story. CM Nguyen is hard to read, CM Martin is a firm No, CM Pennington is a likely No, and as of Tuesday CM Stardig is a No. I recommend you read Brad Pritchett’s response to CM Stardig, as he says what needs to be said. It’ll be interesting to see how that plays out in 2015. Be that as it may, I expect this to pass with a healthy majority next week, and about damn time for it. Texpatriate has more.

The city and the downtown post office

Not sure what all the fuss about this is about.

Photo by Houston In Pics

Developers eager to purchase the high-profile U.S. Postal Service site downtown – envisioned in recent years as a park, outdoor amphitheater or a development with housing and entertainment venues – are competing for the property with the city of Houston, which is considering putting its new justice complex there.

Some private interests have sought to dissuade city officials from seeking the 16-acre property, at Bagby and Franklin just east of Interstate 45, which went on the market last fall.

Councilwoman Brenda Stardig said she learned the city had bid on the site from developers, and has spoken with Brad Freels of Midway Development about his concerns with the city’s involvement. Freels could not be reached for comment.

Stardig said she is sympathetic, noting the redeveloped site could be a “jewel” for the city, not to mention a boon for city coffers.

“Unless there’s a real need, I’m not very supportive of having the city competing with private developers on prime real estate in the city, from a cost factor and for many other reasons,” she said.


The city’s interest, said some City Council members and city officials, is driven by a desire to start fresh on the post office site rather than rebuilding at the current cops-and-courts complex at 61 Riesner, where construction crews would have to work around existing facilities. Other officials said the site could have uses other than for the justice complex.

Councilman Jerry Davis said he was told the city could recoup the purchase price of the 16-acre post office site by selling the 18-acre tract on Riesner, which is just west of the post office site.

Any developers stirring dissent about the city’s involvement likely are doing so out of self-interest, Davis said.

“We’re certainly not going to pay more than what it’s worth,” he said. “I do have full faith in our development department – even though I don’t like some things they do – as far as getting an estimated value from outside appraisers.”

The Riesner site is home to five aging facilities, including Houston’s central jail and the main municipal courthouse. A study concluded the buildings need $55 million in repairs.

Police headquarters at 1200 Travis also needs work and is too small, officials have said; it would be sold and consolidated into the new complex. The new facility would not house a jail, thanks to voters’ approval last fall of a joint city-county inmate processing center.

I have no problem with the city bidding a fair market price for this property. They have a purpose in mind for it, and they can recoup much if not all of the purchase price by selling off the properties that would be vacated if they bought and renovated this site. Sure, it would be nice to have some kind of mixed-use development there, and if Metro ever does build an Inner Katy light rail line, this location would be just about perfect to tie it into the existing Harrisburg and Southeast lines, but there’s no guarantee of either of these things happening. If the city’s perfectly legitimate interest in this parcel – and let’s be clear, it may never get past the “interest” stage – forces developers to make more competitive bids, then that’s fine by me. If a private investor winds up buying this property, I feel pretty confident they’ll be able to get a nice return on it.

January campaign finance reports for Houston officeholders

One more set of finance reports to document, from city of Houston officeholders and candidates. I’m not going to link to the individual reports this time, since the city’s system automatically downloads the PDFs and I don’t feel like uploading these all to my Google drive. Here are the basic summaries, with my comments afterwards

Officeholder Office Raised Spent Loan Cash ========================================================== Parker Mayor 121,165 574,185 0 461,089 Green Controller 6,575 39,253 0 14,585 Costello AL1 81,200 62,410 15,000 144,753 Robinson AL2 26,246 33,265 0 32,918 Kubosh AL3 83,691 84,157 15,000 11,452 Bradford AL4 8,050 30,257 0 33,485 Christie AL5 15,275 11,606 0 10,548 Stardig A 5,250 30,393 0 24,238 Davis B 19,300 28,798 0 84,551 Cohen C 47,982 76,405 0 93,364 Boykins D 16,375 49,004 0 6,727 Martin E 45,650 27,968 0 43,423 Nguyen F 21,269 5,795 0 8,750 Pennington G 13,550 30,046 0 192,142 Gonzales H 40,375 33,623 0 90,782 Gallegos I 38,882 18,279 0 22,940 Laster J 3,500 8,081 0 77,408 Green K 10,150 15,455 0 77,366 Hale SD15 0 472 0 0 Noriega HCDE 0 8,690 1,000 9,335 Chavez AL3 3,150 6,652 160 15,716 Calvert AL3 1,600 65,031 10,000 2,654 Brown A 21,969 22,121 0 25,729 Peck A 0 2,811 0 0 Knox A 1,220 17,271 0 931 Richards D 2,000 16,043 0 2,727 Jones, J D 0 0 0 3,203 Provost D 7,960 9,033 0 15 Edwards D 3,745 4,415 0 0 Rodriguez I 0 3,581 0 6,731 Garces I 32,950 49,802 0 0 Ablaza I 380 10,288 0 673 Mendez I 2,050 19,120 0 0

Mayor Parker has a decent amount on hand, not as much as she had after some other elections, but then she won’t be on any ballot until 2018, so there’s no rush. I know she has at least one fundraiser happening, and I’m sure she’ll have a solid start on fundraising for whatever office she might have her eye on in four years’ time.

And speaking of being prepared for the next election, CM Costello is in pretty good shape, too. It’ll take a lot more money than that to mount a successful campaign for Mayor in 2015, and there are likely to be several strong candidates competing for the usual pots of cash, but every little bit helps.

The other At Large incumbents are in reasonable shape. Both Kubosh and Christie have done some degree of self-funding, so their totals aren’t worrisome. While I believe there will be some competitive At Large races in 2015, and not just in the two open seats, I don’t think anyone will be caught short in this department the way Andrew Burks was.

I continue to marvel at the totals in the district seats. Many of those incumbents have been helped by not having well-financed opponents. CMs Gonzales and Pennington are well placed if they have their eyes on another race. Personally, I think CM Gonzales ought to consider running for City Controller. If nothing else, that will likely be less crowded than the Mayor’s race in 2015.

CM Richard Nguyen, who was nicely profiled by Mustafa Tameez recently, received nearly half of his total – $9,500, to be exact – from various PACs after the election; this is called “late train” money. As far as the money he received from individuals, every one of them had a Vietnamese name. That’s some good networking there.

Of the others listed, two of them – Ron Hale and Melissa Noriega – are running for something in 2014. The rest, with one exception, was either an unsuccessful candidate in 2013 or a term-limited Council member. The exception is former CM Jolanda Jones, whose eligibility to run for something else remains disputed. The one notable thing in this bunch is the $25K that now-former CM Helena Brown had on hand. Given that CM Brenda Stardig left a lot of money unspent in 2011 when Brown knocked her off, there’s a certain irony to that. Beyond that, no one left themselves very much for a subsequent campaign if they have one in mind. I won’t be surprised if one or more people on this list runs for something again, perhaps in 2015, but if so they’ll be starting out as they did in 2013.

Why not three?

Greg suggests a couple of tweaks to term limits.

Jolanda Jones

Jolanda Jones

» Fix the JoJo exclusion. The statute, as written, is amazingly short and simple:

Section 6a. – Limitation of terms.
No person, who has already served two full terms, shall be eligible to file for that same office.

The statute is also amazingly unequal in how it applies a qualification for office. So much so, that I’m curious if this inequality provides an opening for a legal challenge. Basically, the law says that some folks get to serve three full terms and some only get to serve two full terms. If a candidate loses re-election to their second term (ala Brenda Stardig and Helena Brown), you have an entirely different qualification for office than someone who lost re-election to their third term (ala Jolanda Jones and Al Hoang).

There haven’t been many parties aggrieved by this statute, so it seems to me that there might be improved odds of that happening now that we have two such individuals. I would think that there might be ground to make this application more equal by substituting equally simple language that limits any officeholder to no more than three full terms … period.

That may not address any deeper concerns about the Clymer Wright-era limitations. But it does offer an incremental cleanup. And if it were to go through a charter amendment vote, it might be an easy enough one that it opens the door for public perception to see that elected officials aren’t trying to change the rules they have to abide by in the middle of the game. If you’re not sure about the public appetite for altering term limits, this modification would be a good test run.

» Why not three? – Many Texas towns have three year terms. Why is there such an immediate impetus for four-year terms when there is already a more common model already being utilized throughout Texas? You could leave the term-limit language as-is or make the tweak above. Doing so would create a nine-year window of service for people.

More importantly, it would also open Houston City Council to the whims of bigger electorates. If you really wanted to see a different City Council, the easiest place to start has always been to hold the election on even-numbered years. District A would be quite a bit more Dem-friendly, as would District F. My own District J, as it turns out, is as close to 50-50 in terms of partisanship among city year voters. That tilt would be eviscerated with an even-year electorate and the district would be reliably Dem-leaning. The rotating cycle of seats would lead to a seat being up for a vote in two odd-numbered election years for each six-year cycle. So there is some moderation to those swings that might be appealing.

It would seem practical, under this scenario, to stagger the elections so that each individual year would see one-third of city seats up for a votes. I’m not sure who that may appeal to or be unappealing to, frankly. One positive that I can see from this is that it might lead to an increase in competition for seats. If an elected thought to run for Mayor one year after being elected to a council seat, they could. In short, there would no longer be an incentive to sit out six years when terms are the same – as they currently are for the office of Mayor and Controller.

I completely agree with the first point, and also think it would have a decent shot of being passed. I think everyone already thinks of the term limits law as being “three terms max” and not “three terms unless you leave after your second term, in which case only two terms”. I’d add that there’s a third former Council member affected by the current interpretation – Peter Brown, who resigned a few days early in 2009 in an attempt to circumvent this; City Attorney David Feldman opined against it. In any event, I think this minor change is very doable. It’s straightforward enough that the plain wording of the amended ordinance would be easy enough for voters to understand and hard to argue against. Heck, I don’t even know what the case against it would be. If we want to go small, as a first step or as an end unto itself, this is a good way to do it.

The second suggestion would be much more contentious. I’m not sure if it’s meant as a switch from three two-year terms to two three-year terms, or if it’s also intended to increase the overall allowable length of service while also addressing the concern about two year election cycles being too short, as the two four-year terms proposal was intended. If we were to go this route, I’d prefer the latter, but that may be a bridge too far. Here are the pros and cons of three-year terms as I see them.


  • Higher turnout in at least half of city elections. Presidential years would exceed 50%, gubernatorial years would likely exceed 35%. Both are much higher than even high-turnout city elections have been.
  • As Greg notes, this would almost surely make city government more representative of the city’s demographics. In particular, I’d expect this to be a boon for Latino candidates, at least in the even-numbered years.
  • If you believe that two-year terms force Council members back into campaign mode too quickly, then having three-year terms should help alleviate that.
  • You may consider this a pro or a con, but having three-year terms would likely force some ambitious Council members to rethink their strategy for seeking other office, since the Texas constitution would require them to resign if they run for office with more than one year remaining on their current term. That’s just not an issue now with two-year terms, but it would be an issue at least some of the time with three-year terms.


  • That higher turnout will come entirely from people who otherwise would never vote in city elections. To put it gently, that could have an unpredictable effect on lower-profile and multi-candidate races.
  • Having city elections in partisan election years will necessarily make city elections more partisan. Sure, there are partisan elements to city elections now, with some races being more overt than others, but the non-partisan nature of our races now basically ensures that the vast majority of candidates run as inclusive/consensus types. I expect you’d see much harder D and R lines being taken in even years. Again, one may consider that to be more pro than con, but it would be a change.
  • Perhaps of greater concern is the likelihood that city races could get drowned out in a high-profile even year election. Imagine what city elections might look like this year, where we’re sure to get wall-to-wall ads in the Governor’s race for at least the entire month of October.
  • Large disparities in turnout between even and odd years could make for more turnover on Council, as a candidate that got elected under one scenario might well get swept out under the other, in each case with candidate quality not being a major factor.

I’m doing a lot of speculating here, and I could easily be wrong about some of these points, but I think they’re worth considering. Three-year terms would be a big change, some likely good and some maybe not so good. I still think a better answer is to get rid of term limits (which Greg also suggests) and to at least consider some form of public financing for campaigns. At the very least, I’d like to see a real conversation about what we think we’re getting out of imposing these particular limits on this one type of office. It’s been long enough now that I’m confident that “we’ve always done it this way” is the prevailing sentiment. Surely we can come up with something better than that.

Yes, Council is short on women

It is what it is.

CM Ellen Cohen

CM Ellen Cohen

The Houston City Council will have its fewest women in 15 years this January, which political observers called a troublesome regression for one of the most diverse cities in the U.S.

Just two women will remain on the 16-member council. And for the first time in about 25 years, a minority woman will not hold a seat.

“It’s more a step back rather than a step forward for the city of Houston,” said Rice University political scientist Mark Jones. “Women represent slightly over 50 percent of population but will account for less than a fifth of the City Council.”

There are currently four women on the council. Except for 1999, when there were also just two, the council has had at least three females in each of the last 25 years. It peaked at eight in 2005, according to data compiled by Rice University political scientist Bob Stein. Also, from 1989 until 1999, there were at least three women on council.

Political analysts say the makeup, likely a result of chance, is not an optimal mix.


Brenda Stardig

Brenda Stardig

Stein said a persistent finding in social science research shows that a higher proportion of women on governing bodies means less gridlock and more efficiency. He said some believe this is a genetic trait in women and also because women have different experiences than men.

Stein said this election season saw a diverse group of candidates in the mix, including women, but the turnout was extremely low. He predicted it would be a challenging year for Mayor Annise Parker, who is heading into her final term with her sights on statewide office. In part, this will be because women may be more sympathetic to some of her issues, such as discrimination.

Rice University’s Jones said because Parker will be at the helm of city government, the policy impact will not be dramatic, but that the new council makeup could draw attention to the under-representation of women in governing bodies.

He said these election results were due to bad luck and he does not believe there is any broader anti-woman trends in Houston, noting several races where women were contenders. He also pointed out this low representation of women could persist because incumbents have such an advantage in future elections.

I noted this last week. Took about as long as I figured it might for the Chron to write a story about it. As I said at the time, I think it’s a temporary aberration and not indicative of any trends. If the ball bounced a little differently in the first round of At Large #3, we might not be having this conversation at all. Or maybe we’d be talking about another missed opportunity, who knows. Be that as it may, I don’t quite understand the comment about turnout. Turnout this year was roughly the same as it was in 2009, and it was much higher than it was in 2011 or 2007. It’s not clear to me what effect turnout is supposed to have had on the outcomes. It’s not clear to me that a higher level of turnout would have benefited Graci Garces in the runoff – given the margin of victory in District D, I don’t think any level of turnout could have helped Georgia Provost – or one of Jenifer Pool and Rogene Gee Calvert in November. As for the effect on Mayor Parker and her agenda, I look at it this way: Mayor Parker swapped out two troublemakers in CMs Brown and Burks, and got back only one potential troublemaker in CM-elect Kubosh in return. I’m thinking she’ll take that deal.

While I do think the results of this year’s elections are not predictive of future elections, that doesn’t mean that the current makeup of Council should be accepted without any need to do things differently next time.

Cindy Clifford, who runs a Houston-based public relations company, said she plans to start a group to empower promising women in Houston to consider public office and donate to female candidates. She said women have a harder time raising money and asking for things for themselves. She said she hopes to inspire confidence in promising female leaders.

“It’s important for women to have a seat at the table,” she said. “Women see things differently; there will be a different dialogue and discussion.”

Having good candidates run and ensuring they get the support they need is always a fine idea. If you find the lack of women on the new Council troublesome, now is an excellent time to start working on a solution for 2015.

Is CM-elect Stardig term limited or not?

Brenda Stardig

Brenda Stardig

I brought this up yesterday in my wrapup of the city and HCC runoffs, and I’m asking it again here in the hope that someone who can provide a definitive answer will offer one. The question I have is whether or not CM Brenda Stardig is eligible to run for re-election in 2015. As I noted in that post, CM Stardig’s position is similar to that of former CM Jolanda Jones, who flirted with the idea of running in District D this year, thus igniting a stir over whether or not the term limits law allowed for her to run. The law says “No person, who has already served two full terms, shall be eligible to file for that same office.” City Attorney David Feldman interpreted that to mean that Jones could not run again, since she has served two full terms. My initial reaction was that Stardig was in the same kind of boat, but thinking about it again now, she’s not. If Stardig were to run for a third term, she would file for that election prior to serving out her second term, thus meeting the requirements of the term limits ordinance. A Houston Politics post from 2012 that includes a copy of Feldman’s position supports that view. In practical terms, that means that if you’re an incumbent Council member and you must lose an election, better it to be after your first term than after your second. You can win one, lose one, then win two more, but if you win two and then lose one, you’re out of luck. In other words, Helena Brown and Andrew Burks could come back and wind up serving three terms on Council just as Stardig could, but Jolanda Jones and Al Hoang are finished as Council members, though they could still run for Controller or Mayor.

All that assumes you accept Feldman’s interpretation, which Jones at least said she didn’t. I have to say, while this may be technically correct, it feels wrong to me. The clear intent of the term limits law was to restrict Council members, Controllers, and Mayors to three terms. It’s possible there was some discussion at the time of whether or not those terms had to be consecutive or not – it’s been a long time, I sure don’t remember – but even if there were I’m willing to bet that the prevailing opinion among city voters would overwhelmingly favor the simple “three terms and you’re done” perspective”. I presume that sooner or later this is going to need to be settled by a judge, or by a fix to the ordinance being passed by the voters. Be that as it may, I feel confident that the subject will come up again, any time the subject turns to Stardig and her possible re-election effort in two years.

One reason why this may matter, beyond the simple effect on folks like Stardig and Jones, was vocalized by Texpatriate, who wondered “if Brenda 2.0 becomes super conservative just to placate some of her angry, right-wing constituents”. Maybe the odds of that are greater if she has the option to run for re-election – she might emulate some of CM Brown’s positions in order to protect herself against a third matchup with Brown, for example. No guarantee she’s behave this way – Stardig might well conclude that there are limits to the crazy in District A, and her successful comeback is proof of that. Regardless, it’s not unreasonable to think that a term-limited Stardig could be a different Council member than a Stardig who has one more campaign to go.

So that’s my question. Writing this has led me to what I think is the technically correct answer, but I’m not convinced that the matter is settled. What do you think?

Runoff results: Rough day for incumbents

I have no complaint about the results.

Brenda Stardig

Brenda Stardig

With all precincts reporting, controversial first-term council incumbents Helena Brown, in northwest Houston’s District A, and Andrew C. Burks Jr., in At-Large Position 2, fell to their challengers, as did HCC trustees Yolanda Navarro Flores and Herlinda Garcia.

Brown lost her rematch with Brenda Stardig, the incumbent she defeated to gain the seat two years ago.

“We’re very proud of the work we’ve done on our campaign and we wanted to get back out there and support our community,” Stardig said. “We’ve had the support of police and fire and so many in our community.”


Burks fell to challenger David W. Robinson, a civic leader and former city planning commissioner. Robinson raised far more campaign cash than did Burks, who had run unsuccessfully numerous times before winning his seat two years ago. Both men were among the 10 candidates who sought the post when it was an open seat two years ago.


In the At-Large 3 runoff, bail bondsman and civic activist Michael Kubosh, best known for leading the charge against Houston’s red-light cameras, topped former Harris County Department of Education trustee and former mayoral candidate Roy Morales.

“I appreciate all the people who have supported me and all of my staff that’s worked so hard through the last few months,” Kubosh said. “I’m looking very forward to working on City Council and getting things done.”


In south Houston’s District D, lobbyist Dwight Boykins bested businesswoman Georgia D. Provost. Boykins had thumped the 11 other candidates in fundraising heading into November. Term-limited District D Councilwoman Wanda Adams was elected to the Houston ISD board.

In a very low-turnout race in the East End’s District I, Harris County jailer and civic activist Robert Gallegos beat Graci Garcés, who is chief of staff for the term-limited James Rodriguez.

So I was three for four in my prognostications. I can’t say I’m unhappy to have been wrong about District A. I am curious about one thing, however, and that’s whether or not Brenda Stardig is eligible under the term limits amendment to run for election again in 2015. If you consider her situation to be analogous to that of former CM Jolanda Jones, and you go by the interpretation given by City Attorney David Feldman, the answer would seem to be No. I made an inquiry about this with the City Attorney’s office several weeks ago, but they have never gotten back to me. Guess I need to try again. Anyway, congratulations to CMs-elect Stardig, Boykins, Gallegos, Robinson, and Kubosh.

The results I’m really happy about are these:

In the Houston Community College contests, District 1 incumbent Flores lost to challenger Zeph Capo, a vice president of the Houston Federation of Teachers. In District 3, Adriana Tamez, an education consultant, beat incumbent Garcia, who was appointed to the post after the resignation of the prior trustee. In the runoff for the open District 5 seat, businessman Robert Glaser topped commercial real estate agent Phil Kunetka.

Capo over Flores is a huge step up, and Tamez is an upgrade as well. Both Flores and Herlinda Garcia were palling around with Dave Wilson, so having them both lose makes the HCC Board of Trustees a better place. Major congrats to Zeph Capo, Adriana Tamez, and Robert Glaser.

Here are the unofficial Harris County results. There were an additional 308 votes cast in Fort Bend, so the final turnout is right at 37,000. Here’s an update to that table I published Friday:

Year Absent Early E-Day Total Absent% Early% E-Day% ============================================================ 2005 5,350 8,722 24,215 38,287 13.97% 22.78% 62.25% 2007s 5,464 7,420 11,981 24,865 21.97% 29.84% 48.18% 2007 4,456 6,921 13,313 24,690 18.05% 28.03% 53.92% 2011 8,700 15,698 31,688 56,086 15.51% 27.99% 56.50% 2013 9,883 10,143 13,517 36,123 27.36% 28.08% 37.42%

See, that’s the kind of pattern I was expecting for the November election. I guess the turnout was too high for it. Gotta tip your hat to whichever candidate’s mail program generated all those votes. It’s good to be surprised sometimes.

Runoff 8 Day Finance Reports

I did not get to looking at the 8 day finance reports for the November election – too many candidates, not enough time. But there was no reason I couldn’t take a gander at the 8 day reports for the runoff. Here’s the summary:

Candidate Office Raised Spent Loan On Hand ===================================================== Burks AL2 27,150 14,933 0 21,563 Robinson AL2 93,720 71,771 0 73,536 Kubosh AL3 60,045 59,221 15,000 13,192 Morales AL3 50,030 31,540 3,300 22,274 Brown Dist A 38,928 29,875 0 30,272 Stardig Dist A 35,909 15,102 0 45,321 Boykins Dist D 81,175 65,667 0 25,974 Provost Dist D 24,600 19,047 18,535 2,258 Garces Dist I 53,355 42,056 0 20,071 Gallegos Dist I 35,196 12,348 1,252 18,518

My comments, with links to the reports, is below.


Andrew Burks – Received $8,000 from Houston Fire Fighters Political Action Fund, $3,500 from Across The Track PAC, $1,000 from HAA Better Government Fund. He also got $375 from CM Bradford’s campaign, $250 from Justice of the Peace Zinetta Burney, and $250 from Jeri Brooks, who was the manager of Mayor Parker’s 2009 campaign and who is now working on behalf of the payday lenders. Burks’ wife Lillie contributed $1,500.

David Robinson – As has been the case all along, Robinson’s finance report reads as if he is the incumbent. He got $8,500 from TREPAC, $5,000 from Houston Council of Engineering Companies, $2,500 from HOME PAC, $2,500 from Houston Associated General Contractors PAC, $2,000 from HOME PAC, $1,500 from Allen Boone Humphries Robinson LLC, $1,000 from LAN PAC, $1,000 from Pipefitters’ Local Union No. 211 COPE Account, $500 from Bracewell & Giuliani Committee, $500 from Cobb Fendley PAC, $500 from HOUCON PAC, $500 from Houstonians For Responsible Growth-PAC, $500 from Amegy Bank of Texas PAC, and $250 each from Associated Builders & Contractors PAC, CDM Smith Inc. PAC Account, Houston Westside PAC, and Huitt Zollars Inc. Texas PAC. He also got $5,000 from Peter Brown, $1,000 from Locke Lord, which is Robert Miller’s firm, and $500 from Marcie Zlotnick, who I believe is CM Ellen Cohen’s daughter.

Michael Kubosh – $47,000 of the amount raised was his own contributions. He got $2,500 from the HPOU PAC, $1,000 from the IEC TX Gulf Coast PAC, $500 from the BOMA PAC, $1,000 from the Baker Botts Amicus Fund, and $1,000 from lobbyist/attorney/blogger Robert Miller, who is also currently working on behalf of the payday lenders.

Roy Morales – $5,000 from Houston Council of Engineering Companies Inc PAC, $1,000 from HVJ PAC, $2,300 from HOME PAC, $250 from Associated Builders & Contractors PAC, and $1,000 from himself. I did not see any contributions from Democratic-aligned PACs or prominent progressives on either his report or Kubosh’s. I’ll be very interested to see what the undervote rate is like in this race.

Helena Brown – $1,000 from IEC Texas Gulf Coast PAC, $500 from BAC-PAC, $250 from Seafarers PAC, $500 from Greater Houston Mobility PAC, $1,000 from Group 1 Automotive, Inc. PAC, $500 each from Linebarger Goggan Blair & Sampson LLP and Locke Lord Bissell & Liddell LLP (Robert Miller’s firm), and $1,000 from TREPAC, which remember is the realtors. She also got $500 from Toni Lawrence’s campaign and $100 from Bruce Tatro, meaning that her predecessors that backed her in 2011 are backing her again after sitting out the regular election cycle. Finally, she too received $250 from Jeri Brooks. I think it’s fair to say the payday lenders are choosing sides in these races.

Brenda Stardig – $10,000 from HPOU PAC, $5,000 from Houston Fire Fighters Political Action Fund, $2,000 from Houston Council of Engineering Companies PAC, $500 from Houston Westside PAC, $500 from Amegy Bank of Texas PAC, $250 from Arcadis G&M, Inc. Texas PAC, $500 from Associated Builders & Contractors of Greater Houston PAC, $250 from CDM Smith, Inc PAC, and $250 from Huitt-Zollars, Inc. Texas PAC. She has about $2,800 listed as expenses for postcards plus $200 from radio ads, but I don’t see much else that looks like voter outreach. Once again I wonder why she’s sitting on so much cash.

Dwight Boykins – Another report that looks like it belongs to an incumbent. Boykins raked in (deep breath) $5,000 from Houston Council of Engineering Companies Inc. – PAC, $5,000 from TREPAC, $2,750 from HOME PAC, $2,000 from BEPC LLC, $1,500 from HOUCONPAC, $2,000 from HAA Better Government Fund, $500 from Fulbright & Jaworski LLP Texas Committee, $500 from Andrews & Kurth Texas PAC, $1,000 from Linebarger Goggan Blair & Sampson, LLP, $250 from Houston Westside PAC, $1,000 from Pipefitters’ Local Union No. 211, $500 from Greenberg Taurig LLP Texas PAC, $250 from Cobb Fendley PAC, $500 from Bracewell & Giuliani Committee, $250 from CDM Smith Inc. PAC Account, $500 from LAN-PAC, $1,000 from Plumbers Local Union No. 68, $500 from Arcadis G & M, Inc. Texas PAC, $500 from Locke Lord (Robert Miller’s firm), $1,500 from Allen Boone Humphries Robinson, $1,000 from I.L.A. Local 26 P.A.C. Fund, $1,000 from Baker Botts Amicus Fund, $250 from Huitt-Zollars, Inc Texas PAC, $1,000 from HVJ Political Action Committee, $1,000 from Southwest Laborers District Council PAC, and $2,500 from HPCP Investments LLC. Whew! He also received $1,000 from CM Stephen Costello, and $500 from Anthony Robinson, who I guess did ultimately endorse in the runoff.

Georgia Provost – $1,000 from Woodpest Inc PAC was her only PAC contribution. She got $4,000 each from Alan and Renee Helfman; Alan Helfman is her campaign treasurer. She also received $1,500 from Peter Brown, and $250 from Anthony Robinson. Maybe Robinson didn’t pick a side in the runoff after all.

Graci Garces – $8,000 from TREPAC, $2,000 from Texas Taxi PAC, $500 from Seafarers PAC, $1,000 from Wolpert Inc PAC, $500 from Linebarger Goggan Blair & Sampson, LLP, $5,000 from Houston Fire Fighters Political Action Fund, $2,000 from HAA Better Government Fund, $2,500 from HPOU PAC, $2,000 from Across The Track PAC, and $2,500 from HOME PAC. She also got $500 from the James Rodriguez campaign – no surprise there – and $250 from One World Strategy, which is Jeri Brooks’ firm. In other business-pending-before-Council news, in addition to the Texas Taxi PAC money, Garces got $2,000 from Roman Martinez, the President of Texas Taxis, $1,000 from his wife Diana Davila Martinez (also Garces’ treasurer), and $1,000 each from Rick Barrett (VP of Texas Taxis), Duane Kamins (owner of Yellow Cab), and Ricky Kamins (owner of Liberty Cab). I’m thinking she might be a No vote on Uber.

Robert Gallegos – $4,539.72 in kind from TOP PAC, $1,500 from Teamsters Local $988, $1,000 from Plumbers Local Union No 68, $500 from LAN-PAC, $500 from Linebarger Goggan Blair & Sampson, LLP, $1,000 from Pipefitters Local 211, $2,500 from HPCP Investments LLC, and $1,500 from Houston Dock and Marine Council PAC Fund. He also received $4,400 from Peter Brown, and $225 in kind from Sen. Sylvia Garcia.

You may be wondering why I highlighted donations from people associated with the payday lenders. Isn’t that supposed to come up for a vote with this Council? Well, maybe and maybe not. And maybe the votes on Council will be according to the contributions, and maybe not. But at least now you know.

District A runoff overview

It’s the same old story, just a little louder this time.

CM Helena Brown

CM Helena Brown

Three years ago, when city voters narrowly approved what would become a controversial monthly drainage fee to fund $8 billion of street and flood projects in the next two decades, City Council District A stood out as an exception.

While the charter amendment that created the dedicated account to fund the Rebuild Houston program passed by a slim 2 percent, voters in the conservative-leaning swath on the northwest side rejected it 55 to 45 percent. That was despite the fact that residents name flooding as one of the district’s biggest problems.

Brenda Stardig

Brenda Stardig

“This is a district that doesn’t like any spending at all, even when they’re the beneficiaries of it,” said Rice University political scientist Bob Stein.

Stein discovered a negative correlation between votes for and against the drainage fee in 2010 and votes for or against Mayor Annise Parker and some incumbent City Council members in 2011, including District A’s then-council member Brenda Stardig.

Despite her district’s position, Stardig voted in favor of an ordinance implementing the drainage fee, saying she pressed the mayor to exempt schools and churches from having to pay it. Later that year, the real estate broker and long-time neighborhood activist was ousted after one term by tea party favorite Helena Brown.

Brown had seized on the drainage fee vote and other issues – including an admitted lack of constituent response – to force Stardig into a runoff, which Brown won by 12 points. Two years later, the 36-year-old former civic club president again finds herself in a runoff with Stardig, 51.

The story recaps the issues and themes of this extended campaign, with which we are all familiar. I really have no idea how this election will go. On the one hand, a 38% showing in November for an incumbent usually spells doom. On the other hand, CM Brown has done better than I thought she might in fundraising and endorsements, and like it or not her slash-and-burn philosophy isn’t particularly out of step with the district. She probably has less to fear from a low-turnout race than Stardig does, though for what it’s worth the early vote numbers are heavier in District A than just about anywhere else. I don’t know if the Chron reporter reached out to any of the other three District A candidates, but as far as I can tell none of them has made an endorsement in the runoff. One thing I noted while interviewing Mike Knox, Amy Peck, and Ron Hale is that all three seemed to be running not just against Brown, but also against Stardig. As such, I’m not surprised that they have all gone quiet since the November election, but it’s another suggestion that while many voters may have been willing to make another change in District A, Stardig wasn’t necessarily the change they were looking for. What’s your view on this runoff?

Re-endorsement watch: Three Council repeats

The Chron reiterates its endorsement in three Council races.

David Robinson:

In the run-off for At-large Council Position 2, there is an especially clear choice facing city voters. Architect David Robinson has the professional skills and lengthy experience as a civic leader to make significant contributions at the council table from Day One.

We endorse Robinson for the Position 2 seat.

Brenda Stardig:

Brenda Stardig has the experience to get things done and deserves voters’ support in the runoff. Stardig has worked her way up the community government ladder, serving as civic club president, head of a superneighborhood, member of the Memorial City TIRZ and the Houston-Galveston Area Council’s Transportation Policy Council. That transportation policy experience will come in handy for her commuter-heavy constituents. For all her sound and fury, incumbent Helena Brown accomplishes little at City Hall. She has not pushed hard for her district, nor has she been an effective force for fiscal responsibility. In our strong mayor form of city government, a single renegade council member cannot hurt the mayor. She can only hurt her constituents.

Graci Garces:

District I promises to encompass some of Houston’s greatest growth over the next six years. Extending from downtown into the East End, the skyscrapers, landmarks and booming neighborhoods of District I make this city council race one of the most important of the election season. Graci Garces will be able to hit the ground running for both the district’s Hispanic families and its Fortune 500 corporations.

These were the easy ones, since the Chron had already endorsed Robinson, Stardig, and Garces in Round One. There are two more Council runoffs, and in those the Chron will need to pick someone else, as they had endorsed Anthony Robinson in D and Rogene Calvert in At Large #3, but neither made the runoff. I have no idea what they might do in these last two races.

Three questions for the runoffs

There are eight runoff elections on the ballot in Houston – two At Large Council races, three District Council races, and three HCC Trustee races. As we transition into runoff mode, there are three questions on my mind for the races that will conclude in December.

1. Where will the vote come from?

November turnout is driven by Mayoral races. December turnout is also driven by Mayoral races. In runoffs where there isn’t a Mayoral race, turnout is driven by the district Council races, but at a much more modest level. You can go door to door in a District race as opposed to an At Large race, you don’t need as much money to get your message out, and people tend to think about district Council members as “their” Council member in a way they generally don’t about At Large members. District runoffs are in A, D, and I, with the bulk of the turnout likely to come from A and D. Turnout in D will benefit Michael Kubosh and CM Andrew Burks; turnout in A probably won’t strongly favor one candidate over another in either race; turnout in I will probably benefit Roy Morales. David Robinson’s base is deepest in District C – I’ll have the precinct analysis for the At Large races tomorrow – and it’s not clear where Morales will want to go to find his voters. I have a thought on that, which I will explore in item 2. I don’t expect the HCC runoffs to play a significant role in any of the Council races.

But the key is that runoff turnout will be lower, a lot lower than what we just saw. Turnout for the 2011 runoffs, which exceeded 50,000 thanks to the unusually high profile of the At Large #5 runoff. Thirty thousand votes would not be out of line for this year’s runoffs, so all of these races can be won with a very small number. Getting your voters out, whether or not there’s another race that might motivate them, is the goal.

2. Does Mayor Parker get involved?

Mayor Annise Parker

Mayor Annise Parker

With five Council runoffs, the December races could have a significant effect on the makeup of Council, and therefore of Mayor Parker’s third term ambitions. Incumbent officeholders are often reluctant to involve themselves in these races – not always, but often – and for good reason, since no one wants to voluntarily add to one’s enemies list. But Mayor Parker has a stake in the outcome of at least two races, arguably three races, and she will never appear on a City of Houston ballot again, though perhaps she will run for something else someday. Given the scope of her ambitions and the need for a Council that will work with her, I’d argue she can’t afford to sit out the runoffs. Let’s look more closely at the races she might want to get involved in.

– District A. This is practically a no-brainer. Mayor Parker helped out then-CM Brenda Stardig in the 2011 runoff, though it was too little too late, so there’s no argument that neutrality is the default position. Stardig would be an ally on Council. CM Helena Brown is not, and unless there are some detente talks going on that I haven’t heard of, she will continue to not be an ally whether Parker meddles in this race or not. Brown is one of Parker’s main problems on Council, and this is an opportunity to solve that problem. I don’t know why she wouldn’t try.

– At Large #2. CM Burks isn’t an antagonist like CM Brown is, but he’s not a reliable vote for the Mayor. He opposes her food trucks ordinance and while he stated support for a comprehensive non-discrimination ordinance in his Texas Leftist candidate questionnaire, he was non-committal about repealing the 2001 charter amendment that forbids the city from offering domestic partner benefits in the interview he did with me. I don’t know where he would stand on new regulatory items like the wage theft or payday lending ordinances. Even if he is on board with these other parts of the Mayor’s agenda, David Robinson unquestionably would be an ally, and would not need to be worked for a vote. Robinson is an upgrade from Parker’s perspective, but the decision here is not as clear because Burks does vote with the Mayor more often than not, and if he survives the runoff he likely would become a stronger opponent of hers if she works against his re-election. It’s a calculated risk, and I could see going either way. For sure, unlike in A, the safe choice is to stay out of it.

– At Large #3. At first glance, it would not appear that there’s anything to be done here, as the runoff is between two Republicans, but I don’t think that’s necessarily the case. Clearly, Michael Kubosh would stand in opposition to Mayor Parker. He’s been a vocal and active critic, fighting against the red light cameras and the homeless feeding ordinance. He endorsed Ben Hall this year, and has contributed financially to Helena Brown. Like CM Brown, I don’t think anything would change in his behavior or their relationship if Mayor Parker actively opposed him in December. Roy Morales ran against Parker in 2009, but then Peter Brown ran against her in 2009 and he was a supporter of hers this year. I certainly don’t see Morales as an ally, but there’s nothing to suggest he’s be an all-out opponent, either. He came across as a fairly mainstream right-of-center type in the interview I did with him. He would almost certainly be an upgrade over Kubosh from the Mayor’s perspective, perhaps a significant one. It can’t hurt for the Mayor to send an envoy to him and see what possibilities for cooperation might exist.

What it comes down to is this: Kubosh has campaigned as an opponent of the Mayor. His voters will have a reason to come out in December. Morales has a smaller base than Kubosh, and there’s not an obvious catalyst that would push his voters to the polls. That’s where Mayor Parker, who just won an election with 57% of the vote, can help him. Let her tell her supporters that a vote for Morales means a vote for supporting the Mayor, and this runoff gets a lot more interesting. There are no guarantees here – Parker would be trying to sell a guy that has held office and run for other offices as a Republican to a mostly Democratic group of voters, and they will have every reason to be skeptical of that – but a message that Morales would be better for the Mayor (assuming, of course, that he would be agreeable to this) than Kubosh is clear enough. This is all my thinking, I have no idea what the Mayor might make of this. But that’s how I see it.

Again, there are no guarantees. If the Mayor gets involved in any of these races and her candidates lose, that will start her third term off with a negative story line, that her support was unhelpful, possibly even hurtful. Some people, especially other officeholders, believe strongly that incumbents should avoid butting in on races like this, so even if she picks winners there will be some blowback. Surely CMs Brown and Burks have friends on Council, and they may not like the Mayor going after them. Playing in these races is a risk. It’s just a question of how the risk stacks up against the potential reward.

3. Will the HCC races finally get some attention?

As far as I can tell, the HCC Trustee races were not covered at all by the Chronicle before the election. No stories, not even a cursory one-paragraphs-about-each-candidate overview story of the five slots that were on the ballot, which is two more than usual thanks to the departures of Rep. Mary Ann Perez and Richard Schechter. Even after the election, with three runoffs and the victory by hatemonger Dave Wilson, there’s not much out there about these races. All things considered, I’m not that hopeful that we’ll get a more complete picture of the candidates that are running for these six-year-term offices.

As noted in item 2, one can make a case for Mayor Parker to get involved in some of the Council runoffs. I think there’s an even more compelling case for her to get involved with at least one of the HCC runoffs as well. Sure, they don’t directly intersect with city business, but this isn’t about that. It’s about Dave Wilson, who has been an opponent of equality in general, and of Annise Parker in particular, for many years now. We can’t do anything about Wilson’s election now, but something can be done to prevent him from having allies on the HCC Board of Trustees. We know he supported Yolanda Navarro Flores. There are now reports that Wilson supported Herlinda Garcia in HCC 3 as well. Given that, I can’t think of any good reason for Mayor Parker to sit on the sidelines. She needs to directly support the efforts of Zeph Capo, and if the reports in HCC 3 are true, of Adriana Tamez. The risks are the same as in the Council runoffs, but the case for action couldn’t be clearer. Let’s shine a nice, bright spotlight on these races and these candidates and who supports what, because letting these races go on under cover of darkness does us all no good.

Where things stand going into early voting

A few impressions of the state of the races as we head into early voting.

Mayor – The thing that I will be looking for as initial results get posted at 7 PM on November 5 is how the gaggle of non-competitive candidates is doing. The thing about having nine candidates in a race, even if only two of them have any realistic hope of winning, is that it doesn’t take much support for the long tail to make a runoff a near-certainty. Basically, the amount that the seven stragglers get is the amount Mayor Parker must lead Ben Hall by in order to win the election in November. If the group of seven gets 10%, then Parker needs to lead Hall by at least ten points – 50 to 40 to 10 – in order to win outright. If they collect 20%, Parker needs to lead by 20 – 50 to 30 to 20.

There are no good parallels to this year’s race, but for what it’s worth the three bit players in 2009 got 1.01% of the vote; in 2003 six no-names for 0.65%; in 2001 there were four minor candidates collecting 0.45%; and in 1997, the bottom five candidates got 11.94%. That last one, which may be the closest analogue to this year, comes with an asterisk since two of those five candidates were term-limited Council members, Gracie Saenz and Helen Huey, and they combined for 10.46% of that total. One reason why the past doesn’t offer a good guide for this year is that in all of these races there were at least three viable candidates. Everyone else, save for Saenz and Huey in 1997, was truly marginal. None of Eric Dick, Keryl Douglass, or Don Cook can be considered viable, but they all ought to have a slightly larger base than the perennials and no-names in these earlier races. How much larger is the key question, because however large it is, that’s how big Mayor Parker’s lead over Ben Hall will need to be for her to avoid overtime.

Controller – This race has been Ronald Green’s to lose from the get go, and it remains so. I don’t think his position is any stronger than it was nine months ago, but at least he hasn’t had any bad publicity recently, either. He’s largely held onto the endorsements he’s gotten in the past, though losing the Chron had to sting a little. He’s still an underwhelming fundraiser, but while Bill Frazer has done well in this department he hasn’t done enough to make himself a recognizable name, and that’s to Green’s advantage. Green probably needs Ben Hall to make a decent showing, because while Green did reasonably well in Republican areas in 2009, he will probably lose some of that support this time, and as such he may need a boost from African-American turnout. If Green loses he can certainly kiss any Mayoral ambitions he may have goodbye. If he squeaks by, I can already envision the postmortem stories that will talk about his close call and how that might affect his Mayoral plans. If he were to run for Mayor in 2015, I guarantee that narrative will follow him closely all the way through, just as Mayor Parker’s close shave in 2011 has followed her in this cycle.

At Large Council – I feel confident saying that CMs Costello, Bradford, and Christie will win, though Christie will have the closest call and could conceivably be forced into a runoff. His two opponents have picked up a decent assortment of endorsements between them given their late entries and fairly low profiles. One wonders how things might have gone if someone had jumped into this race early on, as I suggested many moons ago.

I think CM Andrew Burks could be in trouble. He’s done a reasonable job collecting endorsements, but he hasn’t done as well on that score as a typical incumbent does. Like Ronald Green, he needs Ben Hall to have some coattails in the African-American districts, but remember that Burks has not done as well in those boxes as other African-American candidates. But it’s fundraising where you really see the red flags. Combining his three reports for this year, Burks has hauled in about $57K total. His main challenger, David Robinson, reported raising over $66K just on his 30 Day form. Robinson took in another $82K on the July report. He also has over $73K on hand for the late push, while Burks has just $8K. Money isn’t destiny, but these numbers are the exact reverse of what you’d usually see with an incumbent and a challenger.

As for At Large #3, it is as it has been all along, basically wide open with each of the five viable candidates having a plausible case for making the runoff. Bob Stein pegs Michael Kubosh as basically already having a ticket punched for the runoff, but I’ll wait and see. He probably has the best name ID of the group, but that doesn’t mean he’s terribly well known. I just don’t know enough about this one to hazard a guess.

District Council races – A year ago at this time, I’d have marked first term CM Helena Brown as an underdog for re-election. Now I’m not so sure. She’s done well at fundraising, she’s garnered some endorsements – getting the HAR endorsement was both a finger in the eye for Brenda Stardig and a nice bit of establishment sheen for herself – and she hasn’t generated any embarrassing headlines in months. I believe she’s still going to be in a runoff, most likely with Stardig but not necessarily with her, but I think runoff scenarios that don’t include Brown are unlikely at this time. I might bet a token amount on her being un-elected, but I wouldn’t bet any real money on it.

Brown’s freshman colleague Jerry Davis looks to be in better shape. There’s still resentment to him in some quarters, mostly from former CM Carol Mims Galloway and her supporters, but Davis has good support on his side, and he’s gotten the large majority of campaign contributions. Kathy Daniels is a good candidate and she’ll make some noise – a runoff isn’t out of the question – but I see Davis as the clear favorite.

Districts D and I are anyone’s guess. Dwight Boykins has the edge in D, but it’s a strong field, and if Boykins doesn’t clearly separate himself from the rest of the pack he could be vulnerable in December if the bulk of the runnersup back his opponent. Anything could happen in I, where none of the four candidates seems to have a clear advantage over the others. It won’t shock me if it’s a close finish among the four, with a small number of votes separating the runoff contestants from the other two. Some runoff scenarios are preferable to others, but all scenarios are possible.

HISD and HCC – No surprises in HISD. I believe Anna Eastman gets re-elected, Harvin Moore gets re-elected though Anne Sung will have put herself on the map, and Wanda Adams wins in IX. Zeph Capo has run a strong race in HCC1 – this is one of those times where a string of endorsements will mean something – and I believe he wins there. I think Bruce Austin and Neeta Sane get re-elected, but I don’t know about Herlinda Garcia, and I have no clue who will win in the open District 5 seat.

Everything else – I think the two Harris County propositions, for the Astrodome and for the joint processing center, will pass. I think the constitutional amendments will pass, though one or more may fail for some goofy and unforeseeable reason. I do think Prop 6, the water infrastructure fund, passes. The one non-Houston race I’m keenly interested in is the Pasadena redistricting referendum. I have no idea how that is going, but obviously I’m rooting for it to go down.