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Clarence Bradford

SD13 nomination process update

Two possible candidates have taken themselves out of the running.

Sen. Rodney Ellis

Sen. Rodney Ellis

State Rep. Garnet Coleman and former City Councilman C.O. Bradford have decided not to run for Rodney Ellis’ state Senate seat, citing a desire to retain seniority in the state House and concerns about the electoral process, respectively.

That leaves state Reps. Senfronia Thompson and Borris Miles, and former City Controller Ron Green vying for Senate District 13, which stretches from northeast Fort Bend County to Houston’s northeast corner.

[…]

“At this moment in time, I believe I can serve my constituents better in the House,” Coleman, who took office in 1991, told the Chronicle Thursday. “You don’t have to be a senator to affect the process, and I know that I have the ability to affect the process in the House, and it would be much better than the Senate.”

C.O. Bradford also was considering joining the race, but said Tuesday that he had decided against it because of the requirement that precinct chairs vote publicly.

“Casting a secret ballot is considered almost sacred in the democratic process,” Bradford said. “I opt not to pressure citizens to compete and cast open votes that defy a very meaningful component of our democracy.”

I didn’t get the sense that anyone had an issue with that on Thursday night, but then maybe it was only those chairs who were okay with it that showed up. One could always get involved with the party if one wishes to change the operating rules by which the party abides, which it adopts at its biennial conventions. Rep. Coleman sent out a press release just prior to Thursday’s meeting at which the judicial nominees were chosen, citing his seniority in the House and position as Chair of the County Affairs Committee and Legislative Study Group Caucus as reasons for staying put. Barring any unexpected entries at this point – a few of us were speculating on Thursday about CM Boykins, but no one had any information – or fringe candidates, the lineup appears to be set with Rep. Thompson, Rep. Miles, and former Controller Green. All three were there on Thursday night as well; they provided the food for the meeting, which was greatly appreciated given that we were all there till after 9:30.

As HCDP Chair Lane Lewis noted at the beginning of Thursday’s meeting, SD13 covers both Harris and Fort Bend counties, so it is the state party’s role to call the convention at which the next nominee for SD13 will be selected. He said that was set for Saturday, July 16, at 10 AM at the CWA hall (the same location as for the Commissioners Court nomination process), and that it was open to the public if one wanted to observe. I may do that myself if my schedule allows. I will be happy to observe and not participate this time.

Here come the candidates for SD13

Here we go again.

Rodney Ellis

Rodney Ellis

State Rep. Borris Miles came prepared with signs Saturday when Rodney Ellis all but secured a seat on Harris County’s Commissioners Court – not in support of Ellis, but to launch his own campaign.

Ellis’ selection as the Democratic Party’s nominee to replace late Precinct 1 Commissioner El Franco Lee has begun to ripple across the November ballot, freeing up the first in what could be a series of openings in Harris County’s legislative delegation.

The 26-year state senator now must withdraw his name from the ballot for Senate District 13, requiring Democratic precinct chairs to meet yet again on July 16 to select a replacement candidate. Their nominee will run unopposed.

Miles, state Rep. Senfronia Thompson and former City Controller Ron Green have thrown their hats in the ring as others mull joining the race.

The three-week campaign sprint is projected to be as contentious as the commissioner’s race was cordial.

“Many of the candidates have complex political histories that could result in a high level of discord,” Texas Southern University political scientist Michael Adams said. “I don’t think these people are going to be playing nice.”

[…]

State Rep. Garnet Coleman and former Houston City Councilman C.O. Bradford said they also are considering running for Ellis’ seat. City Councilman Dwight Boykins and state Rep. Harold Dutton said they opted not to.

Rep. Dutton was a supporter of Gene Locke for Commissioner, so he might have encountered some resistance had he chosen to run for SD13. As noted on Sunday, Reps. Miles and Thompson were at the Saturday precinct convention that placed Ellis on the ballot for County Commissioner. Green was not there but announced his candidacy via Instagram. Rep. Coleman had expressed his interest in the seat in May, but hasn’t said anything official as yet. This is the first I’ve seen Bradford’s name – and Green’s, for that matter – in one of these stories. We’ll see if other names come up. There are 94 precinct chairs in SD13, according to this story, with 78 in Harris County and 16 in Fort Bend. None of them are me, and I’m happy to be an observer and not a participant this time. Good luck to those who have the task of selecting Ellis’ successor.

On finding the next HPD Chief

I don’t know about this.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner has chosen to select Houston’s next police chief through a private executive search firm, taking the position that the applications and résumés of job candidates do not have to be made available through the Texas Public Information Act.

The process stands in stark contrast to that used by his predecessor, Annise Parker, who in 2010 released the applications of 26 candidates for police chief in response to a records request.

“I am not going to conduct this process in the media,” Turner said via email Friday. “I didn’t do that with the searches for a new city attorney, the Flood Czar, the Education Director and other positions within my administration. My goal is to find the best candidate for the job and you don’t get the best candidate when the search is conducted in the media, especially if the publicity could endanger an applicant’s current position. It will be done on my time line. In the meantime, HPD is operating quite well under the very capable leadership of Acting Police Chief Martha Montalvo.”

The mayor’s spokeswoman, Janice Evans, said the search for a new chief is being handled by a six-member transition team along with the executive search firm of Russell Reynolds Associates. She declined to provide any records on the city’s arrangements with the firm, saying its services are being provided at no cost and without a contract.

Civil rights activists and open records advocates have been sharply critical of what they see as Turner’s lack of transparency, which comes as they are demanding a new chief to reform police operations.

“This is not a transparent process they are using,” said Houston attorney Joe Larsen, who heads the review committee of the nonprofit Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas. “Besides the mayor, the chief of police is one of the most important positions in the city, and all the stakeholders should be aware of what’s going on.”

Larsen said the city has a legal responsibility not only to provide records it has but also records it controls.

[…]

After the Chronicle made a similar open records request for chief applicants this year, Turner’s staff first sought an attorney general’s opinion to allow them to withhold the information. The city later withdrew its AG request, saying it had no records of any kind relating to applicants for the chief’s job.

“The city does not have any responsive information,” said Evans, Turner’s director of communications. “As was the case with the City Attorney, this is being handled as part of the transition process.”

[…]

C.O. “Brad” Bradford, a former City Council member and Houston police chief under two mayors, said he doesn’t see a downside to Turner withholding the list of candidates as long as the finalists are disclosed after an appointment is made.

“Once the mayor nominates someone for council approval, then that’s when the questions should start – what was the process used to nominate this person, and who the other candidates were,” Bradford said.

“Now is not the time to do it.”

Bradford said that before he was appointed chief in 1997, then-Mayor Bob Lanier announced the names of 12 candidates from within HPD and four from outside the department who were vying for the position.

“I recall when 12 of us were competing, there were some nasty things that happened,” he said.

The story notes that Mayor Parker released applications of candidates who had been screened by a nonprofit group back in 2010 when now-retired Chief McClelland was hired. The story doesn’t say whether those applications, which were disclosed as the result of an open records request they made, came to them before or after McClelland was hired. If it’s the latter, then I think the distinction Bradford draws is a reasonable one. It can get awkward for some job applicants to be known to be looking elsewhere, which can cause some potential candidates to shy away from applying for a job if they know their status as an applicant will be made known. Disclosing the names of just the finalists for the job sounds like an acceptable compromise. On the other hand, it’s seldom wrong to err on the side of disclosure in matters involving the public interest, and there’s nothing untoward about people asking questions about who the candidates are for HPD Chief. Perhaps a full accounting of what we will know and when we will know it will suffice for now. We do need to know more than what we currently do.

More Commissioner hopefuls make themselves known

The race is on.

El Franco Lee

With former city attorney Gene Locke in place to finish the late Harris County Commissioner El Franco Lee’s term, Democratic players are quickly emerging as candidates in the November general election.

State Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, said late Thursday that he intends to run, sacrificing 25 years of legislative seniority in a bid for a powerful local office. City Councilmen Jerry Davis, Dwight Boykins and Larry Green said Friday they have begun campaigning, such as it is, under these unusual circumstances. Councilman C.O. Bradford said constituents had encouraged him to run, and he’s considering it.

[…]

Ellis was the first to go public with his campaign efforts. He began researching what it would take to run for the county position, since his name is on the November ballot for state senator.

A legal memo prepared for county Democratic chair Lane Lewis outlined a path by which Ellis said he could seek the ballot spot. In mid-June the Democratic party chairs for Precinct 1 will vote for a candidate to replace Lee on the ballot.

If the party chose him for commissioner, Ellis could withdraw his name from the ballot for state senator, which would trigger a second process by the Democratic leaders to pick a Democrat for state Senate.

Ellis said a move to local office would bring him back to his political roots.

“I started out in local politics in 1983” to run for the City Council, Ellis said. “I left a great job I loved as chief of staff of a U.S. congressman, Mickey Leland.”

Despite having passed 600 bills in the Legislature, Ellis said, he sees himself as “very much an activist” on local issues like urban homesteading and criminal justice.

When he ran for the state Senate, he always planned to find a path back to local office, “probably to run for mayor,” Ellis said. “I have done a lot of thinking, a lot of praying on this.”

This is from the fuller version of yesterday’s story regarding new Commissioner Gene Locke and Ellis’ first-in-line announcement. Good timing has its rewards. I don’t have much to add except to note again what I’m looking for in a new Commissioner. I’ll leave it to you to decide which of these candidates may fit what I have in mind.

Turner’s Council

So what kind of City Council will Mayor-elect Sylvester Turner have to work with?

Sylvester Turner

Sylvester Turner

In addition to Turner replacing term-limited Mayor Annise Parker, the council also will gain five new faces, four thanks to term limits and one who defeated an incumbent. Political analysts, however, sensed little ideological shift among the 16-member body.

How city government will function or fail to do so, observers say, thus circles back to Turner. With a looming $126 million budget deficit to close by June, the 26-year Texas House veteran will be tested quickly.

“Having a career legislator lead the council is likely to have a significant change in how the city operates,” said Mustafa Tameez, a Houston political consultant. “He’s likely to lean on his experience and run the council as a legislative chamber versus, in the past, other mayors saw it as an executive office and the council may have been a nuisance.”

[…]

If the political tilt of the council shifted with Saturday’s results, analysts said, it may have been slightly to the right. Conservative former policeman Mike Knox will replace moderate Steve Costello in the At-Large 1 seat; physician Steve Le, who opposed the city’s nondiscrimination ordinance, ousted District F incumbent Richard Nguyen, who voted for it. As a counterbalance, the analysts said, municipal finance lawyer Amanda Edwards’ replacement of C.O. Bradford in the At-Large 4 race is a shift to the left.

In conservative District G, where lawyer Greg Travis replaces Oliver Pennington, and in progressive-leaning District H, where educator Karla Cisneros replaces Ed Gonzalez, observers saw little ideological change.

Observers guessed the general split to be roughly 10 to 11 progressive votes and six to seven conservative ones, depending on the issue, though council members are known to invoke the adage that there is no Republican or Democratic way to fill a pothole.

The new council will have four years to work out the kinks, thanks to voters, who approved a move from a maximum of three two-year terms of office to two four-year terms on Nov. 3.

That change, coupled with the loss of rules banning campaign fundraising during certain months – known as a blackout period – will bring the biggest changes to City Hall, Tameez said.

Let me start by saying I completely agree with Tameez here. I believe the change to four-year terms is going to have a big effect on how our municipal government operates and how our elections are conducted. I have no idea what those changes will look like, and neither does anyone else. It’s just going to be different, and we won’t begin to understand how until four years from now.

As for the makeup of Council, again I basically agree with what’s being said here. Mike Knox is to the right of Steve Costello, but I’d argue Amanda Edwards is to the left of C.O. Bradford. Losing Richard Nguyen hurts, but District F has always operated as a Republican-friendly district. Nguyen only declared himself to be a Democrat in 2014 – he was a political enigma when he was elected. It’s a loss, but we were playing with house money.

And to a large extent, none of that matters very much anyway. The Mayor still sets the agenda, and as long as the Mayor can get nine votes for whatever is on that agenda, it gets enacted. It will be interesting to see if Turner, a master of dealmaking and getting things done in a hostile environment, adopts a collaborative Lege-like approach to Mayoring (*), as that would be a great departure from every other Mayor in my memory, or if he exercises the power of the office like all his predecessors have done. Usually there’s at least one Council member who acts as a foil to the Mayor; of the holdover Members, Michael Kubosh and Dave Martin were the main antagonists to Mayor Parker. Will one or both of them maintain that role with Mayor Turner, or will someone else pick up the baton? The next budget gets adopted in June, so we ought to have some idea soon enough. Feel free to speculate on these topics in the comments.

(*) If “Presidenting” can be a word, then so can “Mayoring”.

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.

Precinct analysis: At Large #3

Only one candidate running for citywide office won outright in November. That candidate was first term CM Michael Kubosh in At Large #3. Here’s how he won:


Dist  Kubosh   LaRue  McElligott  Peterson
==========================================
A      8,782   1,042         835     3,152
B      8,988   1,526       1,251     3,541
C     16,414   2,314       1,409    10,138
D     12,074   1,599       1,367     4,385
E     15,033   1,249       1,217     5,314
F      4,192     973         819     2,274
G     19,632   1,463       1,069     5,433
H      6,149   1,284         925     3,055
I      5,121   1,057         953     2,567
J      3,230     600         492     1,566
K      8,524   1,271         989     4,283
				
A     63.59%   7.54%       6.05%    22.82%
B     58.72%   9.97%       8.17%    23.13%
C     54.22%   7.64%       4.65%    33.49%
D     62.16%   8.23%       7.04%    22.57%
E     65.90%   5.47%       5.33%    23.29%
F     50.76%  11.78%       9.92%    27.54%
G     71.14%   5.30%       3.87%    19.69%
H     53.88%  11.25%       8.10%    26.77%
I     52.80%  10.90%       9.83%    26.47%
J     54.86%  10.19%       8.36%    26.60%
K     56.57%   8.44%       6.56%    28.43%
CM Michael Kubosh

CM Michael Kubosh

There’s not a whole lot to say here. Kubosh won a majority in every Council district, only coming close to not having a majority in District F. Some of this is a perk of high name ID, but said name ID was earned through work on the red light camera referendum and by being visible on Council. There have been a lot more people running for At Large seats in recent elections, challenging incumbents as well as piling up in open seat races. Since 2009, when CM Melissa Noriega ran unopposed, two At Large members have been dislodged, and every At Large incumbent save Steve Costello and Brad Bradford in 2013 have had at least two opponents. Sue Lovell and Jolanda Jones survived runoffs in 2009, while David Robinson and Jack Christie face them this year. In that context, Kubosh’s achievement as one of only two At Large incumbents to clear 60% against multiple opponents in this time frame (Bradford in 2011 is the other) is even more impressive. Give the man his due.

With all this recent interest in At Large races, and with the next election being four long years away (barring any further intervention from the Supreme Court), one wonders what the landscape will look like the next time these seats are up. As noted once before, CM Christie is the only At Large member whose term would be up in 2019, meaning that if he loses then every citywide officeholder as of January 2, 2016, can be on the ballot in 2019. (Like CM Kubosh, CM Robinson is in his first term, so regardless of the outcome in At Large #2, the incumbent in that seat can run for re-election.) With four years between races, one would think that there will be a lot of pent-up demand for Council offices, which may attract another truckload of citywide hopefuls. On the other hand, districts A, B, C, J (if CM Laster wins), and K will all be open then, so perhaps that will siphon off some of that demand. I really have no idea what it will be like, but barring anything strange, it seems reasonable to say that CM Kubosh will be a favorite to win a third term. Check back with me in January of 2019 and we’ll see how good that statement looks at that time.

Defining HPD body camera policies

It’s still a work in progress.

Houston Police Department officers would activate body cameras when arriving at a crime scene, initiating a traffic stop and during an arrest or search, according to a long awaited proposal outlining use of the devices that was released Tuesday.

But City Council members said they were concerned by a process they said seemed to have failed to seek input from everyday officers, the public or other non-law enforcement groups. They also said the policy did not adequately address tricky logistical problems such as how the department planned to store camera footage, or explain how much the whole process would eventually cost.

“I’m really concerned that there are no community stakeholders involved,” said C.O. “Brad” Bradford, an at-large city council member and former HPD police chief.

Council member Michael Kubosh called for “the public at least have an opportunity to come and discuss this matter before council” and urged for the body camera data storage to be run by an independent third-party vendor, and not the police department.

Timothy Oettmeier, HPD’s executive assistant chief, encountered the resistance after offering details of the draft policy at a three-hour presentation to the Council’s Public Safety and Homeland Security Committee.

Oettmeier said police officers would also use the body cameras when executing search warrants, transporting prisoners, engaging in suspect pursuits or interviewing victims. In some situations – such as quickly unfolding events – officers might not be able to immediately activate their cameras, he said.

Police officers working extra jobs would also wear the devices, he said.

[…]

Oettmeier said the presentation to the committee was the department’s first step in presenting the policy to the public.

The draft also outlined retention plans for the data. Oettmeier said that for footage deemed evidentiary, the department would retain the video for a period of time following the state’s statute of limitations for the recorded offense or case.

Footage deemed nonevidentiary would be kept for 90 days. The department plans to regularly audit the recordings, he said, with supervisors and internal investigators both reviewing recorded footage every year.

One key point of pushback from city leaders came after Oettmeier said officers would have to classify whether the footage was evidentiary.

“From a conflict of interest standpoint, how can the officer that may have been involved in the arrest, in the crime, in the whatever, determine an evidentiary position or opinion, because it seems like that would be a conflict of interest,” said council member Dave Martin.

I agree with CMs Bradford and Kubosh. Community input is going to be vital to ensure everyone buys into the plan. As for Kubosh’s comments, let me put my IT hat on for a minute here. There are a few things to think about.

1. Security: Who has access to the video footage? That’s a policy question, but for that policy to be properly enforced, there needs to be monitoring of who accesses what, and a full audit trail, since among other things we’ll need to know who at the hosting company is doing what with these files. And who has access to the audit logs? What is the request process, and who if anyone approves requests?

2. File retention: How long is that period that evidentiary footage is kept? What about backups? When a file is deemed no longer needed, are backups destroyed as well?

3. Incidents and alerts: We’ve already discussed monitoring. What happens when an unathorized access attempt occurs? Under what conditions are HPD, the District Attorney, and the relevant defense attorneys notified when there has been a potential incident? Who gets notified, and when, in the event of an outage, whether planned or unplanned?

This stuff isn’t terribly complicated, and I’m sure HPD already has similar policies in place for its existing data. But getting back to Bradford’s point, the public needs to be involved in setting these policies. If the idea is to have this up and running by the beginning of next year, we need to get this going. The Press has more.

On cellphones and school zones

I guess I need to talk about this.

Six years ago, state lawmakers hoping to protect students banned drivers from texting and talking on hand-held cellphones in school zones.

The ban, however, has never been enforced in Houston. City and school district officials have opted not to install the warning signs needed to issue tickets, citing a lack of funds.

The city puts the cost at roughly $2.34 million for about 7,800 signs. Based on estimates from the Texas Department of Transportation, however, the price tag should be significantly lower.

Houston lags behind the state’s other major cities and several of its neighbors, including Bellaire, Conroe and West University Place, which installed the signs years ago and enforce the law. With school back in session after summer break, police in some jurisdictions have started issuing tickets for a seventh straight school year.

[…]

About two years ago, Mock said, the city clarified that HISD could take on the task. HISD, however, hasn’t budgeted funding, either. Mock estimated that the district would need about 2,000 signs to cover all the school zones.

Price estimates differ. Using the city’s figures of about $300 each, including anti-graffiti coating and mounts, the HISD signs would cost about $600,000.

The Texas Department of Transportation estimates the tab at $100 each, assuming the cellphone notice can be added to an existing school zone sign. The price tag for installing independent signs is $450 to $600.

In Dallas, spokesman Richard Hill said the city’s public works department funded the installation of more than 2,360 signs in 2010. He said the material cost was less than $22,700 – or about $10 each.

“The cost has been the concern,” said Janice Evans, spokeswoman for Mayor Parker, who was unavailable for comment.

Let’s put the cost question aside for a moment. If this law was passed in 2009, then it took effect in September of 2009, in the latter days of the Bill White administration at a time when he was gearing up to run statewide, and at a time when Annise Parker was in the midst of a hot Mayoral race. I follow this stuff pretty closely as you know, and I have no memory of this bill passing. My guess is that no one in either the outgoing White administration or the incoming Parker administration had this on their to-do list, and it fell through the cracks. Had there not been a story in the Chronicle calling attention to it, my guess is no one would have realized it was on the books and that the city was not in compliance. These things happen. The people who are now making a fuss about it could have been making a fuss about it a week or a month or a year or five ago, they just didn’t know it was there to be fussed about. I say all this not to make excuses – surely this should be done now that we all know about it – but to suggest that we try to maintain a little perspective.

HISD’s Mock said the law would not be easy to enforce – officers have to catch drivers typing or holding their phones to their ears – but he still wants the signs up.

“It would be helpful – not so much because that allows you to write citations … really just to create awareness,” Mock said.

That’s pretty much the debate over banning texting while driving in a nutshell. The vast majority of people who text while driving are never going to get caught at it, but the act of making something illegal, and publicizing that it’s illegal will cause some number of people – probably a lot of them – who currently engage in it to stop doing it. You may not write a lot of tickets for texting while driving, but you’ll make it less common, and that will have a beneficial effect.

Houston City Councilman C.O. “Brad” Bradford, a former Houston police chief, said the signs should be funded.

“What is a child’s life worth?” he asked. “We do a lot of things at City Hall that cost a lot more money. We have a $5 billion operating budget, and to say we cannot find money to erect signs in school zones to help protect children, that’s unconscionable.”

All due respect, but you can use this exact line of reasoning to justify any individual expenditure. Budgets always involve choices, and different choices can always be made. I’m always amused to hear self-styled budget hawks talk like this. Their priorities are obvious and self-explanatory. It’s those other priorities that need to be scrutinized and justified.

The Conroe department, which monitors about 20 school zones, issued 14 cellphone citations last year, [Sgt. Robert Engel of the Conroe Police Department] said.

In Spring Branch ISD, the ban applies only to a handful of schools that fall outside the Houston city limits. In those areas, the local villages have installed the signs, according to school district police Chief Charles Brawner.

The Hedwig Village Police Department, for example, has issued 741 citations for school zone cellphone use since 2009, according to Police Chief David Gott. He said he was surprised by the large number – more than 100 a year on average – but his staff spot-checked the data for accuracy.

“It’s important for people to pay attention in school zones,” Gott said. “It can be very dangerous.”

Bellaire, which has schools in HISD, has issued about 100 citations in six years.

Auto collisions involving distracted drivers – whether on a cellphone or fumbling with the radio – result in roughly 424,000 injuries nationwide annually, according to the latest federal data from 2013. More than 3,150 were killed that year.

My guess is that the Hedqig Village PD doesn’t have a whole lot else to do during the day. A ban on texting while driving is right in their wheelhouse.

Getting back to the matter of cost:

“It comes down to the cost of installing the signs – who bears that cost and whether there’s enough of a benefit to make it worthwhile,” Parker said. “Clearly if it saved one child’s life, it would be a worthwhile investment.

“But we don’t believe that putting up a bunch of signs stops anybody from doing anything. Because if they don’t already know it’s dangerous to do … I don’t think there’s any education we can do to stop people from being stupid. It’s an enforcement issue.”

Houston school board president Rhonda Skillern-Jones said Wednesday that she planned to discuss the issue with her fellow trustees.

“I would like to see there be some cooperation between the school district and the city,” she said. “The safety of our students should be a collaboration between the two entities.”

Marney Sims, general counsel for Cypress-Fairbanks ISD, said she was surprised to find out that the district’s three schools under city jurisdiction did not have the cellphone signs. She said she planned to verify that the district had the authority to install them. “If we do,” she said, “then we will pay to add those.”

Look, we’re most likely talking about a couple hundred grand, which despite my earlier snark really isn’t that much in the context of the city’s budget. In addition, the cost can surely be split to some extent with the big ISDs within Houston – HISD, Cy-Fair, Alief, et cetera. In the name of dropping one annoying little thing from the list of things that the Mayoral candidates can grandstand about, can we please get this done? Thanks. Campos has more.

HERO ballot language set

Here we go.

HoustonUnites

City Council on Wednesday approved the language that will appear on the November ballot for voters to decide the fate of Houston’s equal rights ordinance, one week after the Texas Supreme Court ruled that the original wording was incorrect.

Earlier this month, City Council signed off on a ballot item that would have asked voters whether they wanted to repeal the ordinance. Conservative critics sued the city over the wording, saying it was intended to confuse voters that would naturally vote “no” on any item pertaining to the law – a vote that would have instead affirmed the ordinance.

After the supreme court’s ruling that the city had erred, Mayor Annise Parker’s administration came back with new language that instead asks voters if they favor the law. It’s a technical issue, but one that both campaigns needed clarity on to craft their messaging and start running ads.

City Council on Wednesday went even further into the weeds on the ballot language when at-large councilman C.O. Bradford offered an amendment that would have removed from the ballot language enumerating the groups protected under the law, such as pregnant women and veterans. Bradford eventually withdrew the amendment, and City Council unanimously approved the administration’s version, but not before touching off some debate.

Bradford said that naming the protected classes “simply serves as a verbiage that’s going to be provocative, that’s going to simply arouse passion” on both sides of the issue.

[…]

Parker, who has been vocal about her frustration with the court ruling, said Wednesday’s discussion was “civil.”

“The question was do you try to be generic and say ‘certain characteristics’ or ‘special characteristics’ or do you list out the characteristics that are protected in the interest of transparency,” Parker said. “Clearly City Council finally came down on just listing everything out.”

All due respect, but CM Bradford is just wrong here. It’s the very existence of HERO that has aroused the “passion” of its zealous opponents, and it’s the indignity of having their civil rights put up for a vote that has aroused the “passion” of the people who worked so hard to get HERO passed in the first place. What exactly is the problem with spelling out what HERO does? The Supreme Court, you may recall, explicitly said that was okay. The opposition campaign against HERO is based entirely on lies. If there’s one place where it ought to be unambiguously clear what HERO is and what HERO does, it’s the ballot language. Texas Leftist has more.

There are too many questions that need to be answered before we can talk about expanding HPD

Chief McClelland is going to have to start answering them if he wants support for increasing HPD’s budget.

Houston Police Chief Charles McClelland last year asked City Council for $105 million over five years to hire hundreds of new officers, a request that came on the heels of a report that showed his department leaves thousands of cases uninvestigated because of lack of personnel.

Seven months after McClelland first sounded the alarm about staffing, he reminded City Council of the request at a budget hearing in May.

“We’re not in crisis in the sense that I’m saying that something bad, really, really bad is going to happen in this city if I don’t have more staffing immediately,” McClelland said. “But I can’t do the extra things when people call me up and say ‘Chief, can you put in more extra patrols in my neighborhood,’ there is no extra. It’s death by a thousand cuts. It’s just a slow, slow bleed.”

HPD has said current staffing levels have left the department struggling with quick response times to serious crimes, the ability to send two officers out on dangerous calls for service – a top priority for union leaders and a national best practice – and regularly performing traffic enforcement, among other challenges.

But McClelland’s plan is just that without political backing and significantly more funding, and he has picked up little of either heading into the fiscal year that starts July 1. Mayor Annise Parker’s proposed budget does not fully realize McClelland’s request, nor have most City Council members pushed for immediate action.

McClelland’s hiring plan calls for the city to fund five cadet classes per year for a projected net increase of 590 officers by 2020. Even that $105 million plan still would not produce the same citizens-per-officer ratio HPD had in 1998, nor would it staff the police academy to its maximum capacity of seven cadet classes per year, but it would be a start, the chief said.

The so-called Justex report HPD commissioned said that the city has about 5,300 officers to police a population of 2.2 million. That is less than half the size of the police force in Chicago, a city of 2.7 million with 11,900 officers. In Dallas, there are about 3,500 officers for 1.2 million residents. But experts caution that there is no magic police-to-population ratio – the geography and density of cities varies widely and so, too, do staffing needs.

Term-limited Parker said that because she will leave office at the end of the year, any mammoth investment in police personnel would best be left to her successor. She proposes to fund four cadet classes.

“I think that every council member understands exactly what the staffing issue is in police and fire, and I think everyone of us would like to see more officers hired,” Parker said. “But we also understand that in order to do that with the way the revenues are currently it would mean wholesale cuts in other programs. One third of our general fund budget – one third – goes straight to the Houston police department, so no one can say that we don’t prioritize public safety.”

[…]

Councilman C.O. Bradford, a former HPD chief, said he was sympathetic to neighborhood complaints and McClelland’s request. But he isn’t prepared to fund more HPD staff without first reviewing how officers are currently deployed, he said.

“It’s time they entered a paradigm shift,” Bradford said. “We have technology today that we didn’t back then. We need more foot and bike patrols. We should have officers doing that in neighborhoods and in places that are well suited for it. We still have a lot to talk about before we spend any more money.”

See here for some background. For once, I agree completely with CM Bradford. I’ve said this all before, so you know how I feel. I’ve yet to see Chief McClelland address any of the issues that plenty of people including myself have brought up. That’s the starting point for this discussion. When and if we get there, we can go from there. Until then, I do not support spending more money on HPD.

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 recommends term limits change

Meh, I say.

calvin-on-term-limits-for-dads

A Houston City Council committee Tuesday night recommended changing the term limits of elected officials from three two-year terms to two four-year terms starting in 2019, a charter change that could go to voters in November.

The ad-hoc charter review committee voted 10-3 to recommend the two four-year terms in January, but questions lingered about whether council would ask voters to implement that change in 2015 or 2017, potentially lengthening the terms of some current council members.

Instead, the lightly attended committee voted 5-4 last night to recommend the 2019 start date, saying voters would be more apt to support the change if they didn’t view it as a self-serving political move orchestrated by sitting council members.

[…]

The committee ultimately recommended two proposals: one to change the term limits and the other to allow six council members to place an item on agenda, a power that is currently held only by Mayor Annise Parker.

I agree with not having any changes to term limits affect current elected officials, which was the position advocated by CM Bradford. Anything else would be seen as self-serving. That said, I am at best lukewarm on both of those proposals. I still don’t think two four-year terms represents an improvement over the existing system (and you know I don’t like the existing system), and I don’t care one way or the other about the council-can-place-items-on-the-agenda proposal.

Mayor Parker, on the other hand, is against it.

Mayor Annise Parker has largely dismissed a council-backed city charter change that would allow six members to place an item on the agenda, undercutting Houston’s strong-mayor form of government that grants only her that power.

Last summer, Parker branded the proposal a “non-starter,” saying “voters don’t care” about the issue. Recently, she also said that it might violate the state’s Open Meetings Act, which prevents council members from gathering to discuss an agenda item outside of a properly posted meeting.

“What they want to do is for six council members to get together and secretly meet and decide on an agenda item,” Parker said. “Well, you can’t secretly meet to decide on an agenda item. You can’t even publicly meet. In order for council members to confer at all about an item of business, it has to be publicly posted.”

[…]

Councilman C.O. Bradford, a lawyer, said that a state Attorney General decision allowing Dallas’ agenda rule disputes the mayor’s claim that the Open Meetings Act would be violated. So long as voters approve the charter change, he said, council members could take up issues at regularly scheduled committee meetings and decide there whether to place them on the full council agenda.

“The council voting unanimously in favor of the item surprised (Parker,)” Bradford said. “And now she’s had to take this stand of, well, now it’s illegal. But that is just simply not the case.”

Rashaad Gambrell, a senior assistant attorney for the city, said Bradford has raised a complicated legal issue. As the proposal is written now, Gambrell said, there’s no clear legal mechanism to allow council members to poll one another and develop an opinion on an item. The proposal would need to be reworked, Gambrell said, noting that several of the charter reforms City Council is mulling will need editing before they’re considered “ballot ready.” A similar proposal in the 1990s that would have allowed three council members to place an item on the regular agenda failed at City Council and never made it to the ballot.

Legal questions aside, Parker’s dismissal of the agenda proposal is hardly surprising, said University of Houston political science professor Richard Murray.

“You’ve got the strongest mayor job in the country and this would significantly alter the way City Hall operates,” Murray said. “It’s the instinctive reaction to say ‘no.'”

It’s not unreasonable to be wary of this fundamental a change. I suspect one’s opinion of Mayor Parker colors one’s view of the proposal. On a related note, I also still think the committee wussed out in not putting forward a proposal to repeal the revenue cap. We’ll see how I feel in six months or so, but right now the odds are a No vote from me on each.

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.

Revenue cap will stay in place

Boo, hiss.

BagOfMoney

Houston voters will not be given the option this fall of passing a property tax hike after a City Council committee on Thursday unanimously recommended leaving the city’s much-maligned revenue cap alone.

[…]

The topic has received less attention recently, however, as projections show the cap will mean a projected $24 million less is available to spend in the next budget compared to current one. That is significantly less than the $63 million deficit City Council must close by the new fiscal year July 1, and the even larger deficits projected in the following years.

City finance officials project the revenue cap will allow the city to collect $39 million more in property taxes for the upcoming budget year than it collected in the current one. However, they said, contractual costs – not including staff salaries or the delivery of services – will increase by $58 million, led by rising pension and debt payments.

Still, council members, led by C.O. Bradford, Oliver Pennington and Stephen Costello, said they cannot support asking the public to pay more when they cannot justify to voters all the ways the city spends money today. Only once the city’s budget problems push parks and libraries to close, Costello said, will voters consider a change.

So I guess we need to destroy the city – or at least the city’s budget – in order to save it. I’m sorry, but that’s not good leadership. What it sounds like is a rationalization by some Council members that didn’t want to put this to a vote, but didn’t want to admit that they didn’t want to put it to a vote, either. It’s also fiscally irresponsible, as Council’s hands will continue to be needlessly tied as it deals with the upcoming shortfalls. Funny, considering how much we’re going to be hearing about “fiscal responsibility” from the squadron of Mayoral candidates, that being willing to do what it takes to be able to pay all of our bills is so easily shunted aside. Sorry, but I’m not going to be letting this go anytime soon. The Chron editorial board has more.

Two more for At Large #4

We know that At Large #1, one of two open At Large seats for this year, has already drawn a crowd. Now the other open seat, At Large #4, is drawing one as well.

CM C.O. "Brad" Bradford

CM C.O. “Brad” Bradford

Laurie Robinson, Amanda Edwards and Larry Blackmon will all run for the at-large city council seat to be vacated by C.O. “Brad” Bradford, according to campaign treasurer designations filed in recent weeks.

Bradford, a former chief of the Houston Police Department, was elected to at-large position four in 2009 and is now term limited. The seat in recent years has been held by an African American.

Robinson, who leads a management consulting firm, lost her race for an at-large seat in 2011, and considered, but declined, a repeat run in 2013. Edwards is an associate at the law firm Bracewell and Giuliani, and Blackmon is a retired school teacher active in local politics.

See here for the announcement about Robinson. A little googling around for Amanda Edwards yields her Bracewell & Giuliani bio page, this Modern Luxury Home profile that notes her work with Project Row Houses, and her nomination for a 2014 Houston Tomorrow Catalyst Award. As for Larry Blackmon, he was quoted in this NYT story from 2003 as an alumnus of Yates High School and parent of a Yates student regarding exaggerated claims about how many Yates kids were going on to college. He’s listed as the director of the Jack Yates Class of 1968 Alumni. Neither has a finance report for January, of course. I’m sure we’ll learn more about them in the coming weeks and months.

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.

First HERO repeal petition hearing today

Have I mentioned that this is a really busy month for big ticket courtroom action?

PetitionsInvalid

Conservative opponents suing the city over its equal rights ordinance are pushing, along with several City Council members, for the upcoming case to go before a jury, a move the administration said is unprecedented and would defy election law.

After a City Council meeting Wednesday, members Michael Kubosh, Oliver Pennington and C.O. Bradford, who voted in favor of the ordinance last spring, all argued the case should go to a jury trial rather than before a judge as originally scheduled. A state district judge will hold a hearing Friday on the request for a jury trial and the city’s response asking for a such a trial to be barred.

“The city may be deploying a demonstrative legal strategy,” Bradford said. “But I believe it will be a loser in the public opinion arena. We simply should not be trying to remove the people from the process.”

Just as a reminder, this is all about whether or not The People get to vote on the civil rights of some other people. We simply should not be conceding that point.

“There never has been a jury trial in an election contest in the state of Texas,” [former City Attorney David] Feldman said.

Plaintiff Jared Woodfill disputed that claim, saying the case is not an “election contest” because it does not pertain to the results of an election.

“What they’re really saying is they don’t think the people are smart enough to make that decision,” Woodfill said. “Whether it’s been having the voters vote or now allowing a jury to decide, (Parker) has been consistent on that.”

Election law attorney Doug Ray, who had not seen the court filings, said the case sounded like a “ballot access” issue – whether or not a candidate or a measure qualifies for a ballot. In those cases, granting a jury trial is rare, he said.

“It’s not clear-cut,” Ray said as to whether or not the plaintiffs are entitled to a jury trail. “As they say, the devil is always in the details.”

Feldman agreed that the case is a “ballot acccess” issue, saying that both “ballot access” and “election contest” cases fall under the state’s election code. Under the election code, only a district judge, not a jury, has the power to rule in those cases, he said.

Woodfill, Kubosh and Bradford all said the city would be wise to allow a jury trial in light of the recent controversy over the city’s subpoenaing of sermons and other materials belonging to certain pastors who helped organize the petition.

Funny how the “wise” thing to do at every stage of this process has been to give the haters exactly what they want. I’m not an attorney and I don’t know anything about the fine legal points at issue here. If Woodfill et al have a persuasive case, they’ll get what they’re asking for on the merits. What say we stick with that for now? The case is set to begin on January 19. I can’t wait.

UPDATE: I was not aware of this:

Attorneys for the city last month filed a motion requesting a bench trial, but the plaintiffs say they have a “constitutional right to a trial by jury.” That motion and others are scheduled to be heard today, but we’ll have to wait until the trial, scheduled for January 19, for the truly good stuff, which includes allegations of forged signatures.

So far, most of the City’s challenges to the petitions’ validity has centered around technical — and pretty boring — matters like whether a page included a blank space for a circulators’ signature. What’s really intriguing, though, is the City’s more recent contention that many names were forged, and that Woodfill “is no stranger” to fraudulent petitions.

In motions filed last November, attorneys for the City cited a suit where Woodfill — then the chairman of the Harris County Republican Party — accepted “facially valid” election petitions that “turned out to involve ‘forgery, fraud, or other non-accidental defects discoverable only by independent investigation.”

No one has argued that Woodfill knew the signatures in that election were invalid at the time he accepted them, but attorneys for the City point out that the court didn’t buy Woodfill’s argument that “the truthfulness of a circulator’s affidavit is strictly a criminal matter.”

[…]

These allegations were enough for for plaintiff Steve “Birth Control Pills Make Women Less Attractive to Men” Hotze, to drop out of the suit — something the City’s attorneys say is evidence that “misconduct and non-accidental defects are so pervasive” throughout the petitions. Listen, it’s a bad sign when your co-plaintiff is Steve Hotze. But it’s a really bad sign when Hotze drops out from fear that he may not have a legally sound argument.

My, my, my. Now I really can’t wait to see what happens at trial.

Laurie Robinson to run in At Large #4

From Texpatriate:

Laurie Robinson

Laurie Robinson

Laurie Robinson, a local businesswoman, will run for the Houston City Council next year. Specifically, as Houston Chronicle reported Theodore Schleifer reported on Twitter, she will seek out At-Large Position #4. The seat is currently held by Councilmember C.O. Bradford (D-At Large 4), who is term limited. The seat, which was previously held by now-Controller Ronald Green, has historically been held by an African-American officeholder, and this recent history has been noted repeatedly in recent weeks as a plethora of Caucasian candidates have stampeded into At-Large Position #1 and only that position, the other open seat.

A number of other names have popped up for this seat in conversations taking place behind closed doors, but none with enough certainty to be written in ink. Thus far, as noted above, most activity has taken place around Position #1, currently held by the term limited Councilmember Stephen Costello (R-At Large 1), a likely mayoral candidate. As I noted in the article I linked above, Harris County Democratic Party Chairman Lane Lewis will run for the post, as will Jenifer Pool, Philippe Nassif, Trebor Gordon and Griff Griffin. All except Nassif have run for office a few times (Griffin in particular about a dozen times).

Just a nitpicky note here, but it was At Large #5 that was held by African Americans for a long time; in particular, by Judson Robinson from 1971 to 1990, then by his son Judson Robinson III through 1997, then Carroll Robinson through 2001. It was in 2003, when Michael Berry, who had previously served one term in At Large #4 before making an aborted run for Mayor in 2003, won to break the streak, after which we had Jolanda Jones and then Jack Christie. AL4 was held by Anthony Hall and Sheila Jackson Lee before John Peavy won a special election in 1995 to succeed SJL after she ousted Craig Washington in the primary for CD18; Peavy was re-elected in November of 1995, then Chris Bell (’97 and ’99) and Berry (’01) represented AL4. Had Berry not chosen to make a run for Mayor in 2003, thus paving the way for Ronald Green with an assist from Bert Keller’s bumbling campaign, he might have won two more terms there, and then who knows what might have happened. (All data on city elections courtesy of the City Secretary webpage.) Berry himself was the beneficiary of some infighting over whom to support to continue the tradition of African American representation in AL5. Point being, the history is more interesting than what we have been saying, and for a few terms back in the day there were consistently two African American Council members serving at large; there were three following the 1991 election, when little-known Beverly Clark ousted Jim Westmoreland after he was caught making racist remarks relating to the late Mickey Leland and an effort to rename IAH in his honor. Clark served one term and was succeeded by Gracie Saenz. Thus endeth the history lecture.

Aaaaaaaaanyway. Robinson made a decent showing in AL5 in 2011 (my interview with her for that race is here, and though she was rumored to be a candidate for AL3 in 2013, she declined to run, saying she might try again another time. Which appears to be now. As for Griff Griffin, all I can say is that we can’t miss you if you won’t go away.

There will be charter referenda next year

Details are pending, but one way or another we’ll get to vote on some charter changes next November.

HoustonSeal

City Council members on Thursday agreed that any city charter reforms, including changes to term limits, should go to voters in November rather than May next year, but they kicked most substantive discussion of those issues to future meetings.

Thursday marked the second charter committee meeting on possible changes, most notably switching from three two-year terms to two four-year terms and repealing a voter-imposed revenue cap. The committee’s actions have no binding power, but the goal is to come up with recommendations for which changes should go to voters.

And though Thursday’s agenda called for discussion about the proposed reforms, the meeting largely turned on the logistics of future charter meetings: how many to schedule, whether they should be held during the day or at night and if they should be conducted outside of council chambers.

Council members agreed to hold six bi-weekly meetings starting next year, to alternate meeting times between day and night and to hold them in council chambers.

[…]

Councilman C.O. Bradford, who has been pushing the charter reform conversation for months, has laid out four basic reform proposals. Councilman Michael Kubosh on Thursday tacked on another voter issue, a possible vote on a failed feeding ordinance petition he helped organize.

Bradford’s reforms, in addition to the term limits, are as follows:

  • Any item advanced by at least six council members could be placed on City Council agenda.
  • City Council could meet in executive session.
  • The city would dedicate any funds above the revenue cap (if repealed) to paying down general fund debt.

See here, here, and here for the background. The first point that needs to be made is that I don’t see a specific proposal to repeal the revenue cap. What I do see is Bradford’s “revenue cap lite” proposal, which I object to for the same reason that I object to the existing revenue cap. If the Mayor and Council choose in a given year to dedicate funds to paying down the debt, that’s fine. I have a problem with requiring them to do so, in the same way that I have a problem with requiring them to pass pointless tax cuts instead. We elect Mayors and Council members to make these decisions. If we don’t like the decisions they make, we should vote them out. That’s how this is supposed to work.

As for the term limits proposal, Campos asks why the fixation on four year terms (he has some good thoughts on the subject as well that you should read). I think the simple answer is that switching from three two year terms to two four year terms is about the most minimal change to the term limits law you can make, and as such will be the easiest change to sell to a public that has accepted term limits as the de facto standard. You know how I feel about this. I can’t see me voting for this change. I recognize that rejecting this will be seen as an affirmation of the three two year term status quo, which I don’t like either. I don’t have a good answer for that. All I can do is continue to stump for something better, which to my mind would be a combination of no term limits and some form of public financing for campaigns. And while I’m at it, I’ll write a letter to Santa Claus asking him to bring me a pony this Christmas. I figure the odds of that happening are about as good.

I have no opinion on the other items at this time. What I do have an opinion on is that if we’re going to go through this exercise, why not also include a proposal to repeal the 2001 amendment that banned domestic partner benefits for city employees? Yes, I know Mayor Parker issued an executive order extending these benefits to all legally married couples, including same sex couples, and yes I know there is litigation over that. Repealing the 2001 amendment would put her order on firmer legal ground, it would enable more employees to take advantage of this benefit, and it would remove a stain from the charter. And yes, I know that we might have to vote on a repeal referendum for the equal rights ordinance. But maybe we won’t – we should know well in advance of the August deadline for ballot items – and even if we do, why not play offense as well? I’d at least like for us to talk about it. More from Campos here.

Red light cameras: The final insult

Awesome.

Gone

Gone

In settling the lawsuit with camera vendor American Traffic Solutions, whose contract was supposed to run through 2014, the city agreed to pay the Arizona-based company $4.8 million.

The city had $2.3 million in red-light ticket revenue on hand at the time of the settlement, and officials said they expected to be able to pay the balance from fines collected from some of the tens of thousands of delinquent light-runners who had not yet paid up.

No such luck.

Depending on how much new red light ticket revenue is collected between now and Dec. 31, when the final settlement payment is due, city finance officials say more than $1.1 million of the settlement could wind up being pulled from the general fund, meaning taxpayers and not red light violators will be on the hook.

“My thoughts are the same now as they were then,” said Councilman Jack Christie, one of two current council members who opposed the settlement, concerned it would impact the general fund. “As a fiscal conservative, you never want to commit money that you don’t have. It’s not complicated.”

Councilman C.O. Bradford, who also opposed the settlement, agreed.

“(City Attorney) David Feldman and Mayor Parker assured council that general fund money would not be used,” he said. “Some of us said, ‘Let’s not put in that backup proviso then, let’s make sure the (processes) are there to collect those dollars.’ That didn’t happen.”

See here, here, and here for the background. I get what the city had in mind, but I have no desire to defend it at this point. Instead, here’s the trailer to “The Naked Gun 33 1/3: The Final Insult”, since that was what came to my mind as I wrote the title to this post:

May we never hear of these accursed things again.

More lot protections

Good luck.

A stretch of Riverside Terrace, a rebound neighborhood known for its “large lots, mature trees and a view of the downtown skyline,” will be the first residential pocket in Houston where homeowners can use a new city code provision to fend off unwanted townhome, condo or residential tower developments.

The City Council [recently] voted to grant residents in the 68-lot swath the right to establish a “special minimum lot size area,” a tool created by recent changes in the Houston development code to counter some of the tearing down, paving over and skyward building across the region.

The measure allows qualifying residential zones of up to 500 contiguous homes to curtail densely packed projects by setting a minimum lot size for each structure. A townhome developer, for example, could not build multiple units in place of a single-family home.

Previously, neighborhoods could apply for similar protections on a block-by-block basis.

Councilman Brad Bradford, who represents Riverside Terrace, has been watching a slow gentrification of the neighborhood near South MacGregor Way and Texas 288, about 3 miles from downtown, for about a decade. He called protecting lot sizes “very important.”

The neighborhood group granted approval on Wednesday, he said, “worked very hard to maintain the integrity of the neighborhood. Riverside Terrace is one of the last neighborhoods inside Houston proper with large lots, mature trees and a view of the downtown skyline. It’s all there.”

It’s a little odd to speak of an At Large Council member “representing” a specific neighborhood, but never mind that for now. I think the densification of Houston is a positive thing in general, but that doesn’t mean it’s a positive thing everywhere. It’s vital to let neighborhoods that have character preserve it, because once it’s gone you’ll never get it back. Good for the residents of Riverside Terrace for working to achieve this bit of history protection for themselves. Go read this Houston Press article from 2009 and click through the accompanying slideshow to learn a bit more about Riverside Terrace and what they’re fighting to maintain.

Chartering

There will be more than just the Mayor’s race going on in 2015.

Mayor Annise Parker

Mayor Annise Parker

Houston is guaranteed a frantic 2015 political season with an open mayor’s race on the ballot, but it could get busier still with growing talk of placing the city charter before voters for possible changes to term limits, the city revenue cap and other reforms.

Whether any of the proposed amendments goes to a vote next May or alongside the mayoral contest next November, the state constitution requires a two-year gap between charter changes, so all reforms would need to be voted on at once.

The question, given a difference of opinion between term-limited Mayor Annise Parker and some City Council members, is what will make the ballot.

Parker has warned of widespread layoffs with next summer’s budget unless the decade-old, voter-imposed revenue cap is altered or scrapped, but she may prefer a November vote to avoid the measure being torpedoed by the hard-core right in a low-turnout May election. Even at that, she has not guaranteed a vote on the issue.

The mayor also has pledged to let voters consider a change in term limits – likely from three two-year terms to two four-year terms – but support evaporated on City Council when that idea last was discussed in 2012.

Some council members, meanwhile, are pushing for broader reforms, including a proposal to let six members team up to place items on the council agenda for a vote; only the mayor can do so today, though three council members can call a special meeting.

Councilman C.O. Bradford, who long has argued for charter reform, is pushing that idea, which he says will enable council to better address small, neighborhood issues.

All that is in addition to the possibility of a referendum to repeal the Equal Rights Ordinance, depending on how things go in court. All forty-seven Mayoral candidates (or is it fifty-eight, I’ve lost count) will need to deal with these issues whether they want to or not.

I know, I’m still not ready to start talking about 2015 yet, so let me keep this brief.

1. I support any and all efforts to repeal the stupid revenue cap. I will not vote for any Mayoral candidate that is not on board with repealing the revenue cap.

2. My preference for term limits is to abolish them. Given that that isn’t going to happen, I would greatly prefer extending them to allow more two-year terms – six seems like a reasonable number to me – over any proposal that includes changing the length of the term in office to four years. To me, the ability to quickly correct a mistake like Helena Brown outweighs any purported downside of making people begin campaigning for re-election so soon. If the real complaint here is that nobody likes having to raise money for their campaigns – a complaint with which I sympathize – then let me propose a system of public financing for campaigns, which not only would alleviate the dialing-for-dollars drudgery, it would also address the original justification for term limits. I call that a win-win.

3. I currently have no opinion about CM Bradford’s proposal. I will be interested to hear what the seventy-three Mayoral candidates have to say about it.

And we’re still talking about the 2015 Mayor’s race

Here we go again.

Mayor Annise Parker

Still the Mayor

The mayor’s race may be more than a year away, but nearly all candidates have launched shadow campaigns – and not all shadow campaigns are created equal.

[State Rep. Sylvester] Turner and Harris County Sheriff Adrian Garcia, considered early frontrunners if both launch bids for City Hall, already have the name recognition from years of holding public office. That advantage may be multiplied by their ability to raise money through their existing campaign committees – an opportunity they have capitalized on over the last month.

City ordinances prevent candidates from raising money for a mayoral bid before Feb. 1, but because Turner and Garcia currently hold non-city offices, they can raise cash through their committees.

Come February, they are expected to transfer the lion’s share of that money to their mayoral bids, turning the well-liked frontrunners into well-funded frontrunners.

“It’s a little bit of a head start for sure, but the people who are talking about it are lining up their donors the same way they are,” said Lillie Schechter, a Democratic fundraiser. “One person will have to pick up checks, the other person will have to transfer checks.”

[…]

In what is expected to be the most crowded mayoral field since the last open race in 2009, a dozen potential candidates have effectively launched their bids, hiring consultants, meeting with labor and business groups, and telling the political class that a campaign is imminent. They must sit on their hands, however, when it comes to raising the money that determines their political viability, unable to collect a single check until the nine-month brawl for the mayor’s office begins in February.

As many as seven Republicans are looking into entering the race: Ben Hall, who squared off against Mayor Annise Parker in 2013, and councilmen Steven Costello and Oliver Pennington said they will announce bids, while councilmen Jack Christie and Michael Kubosh and former Kemah mayor Bill King are waiting to assess the field.

Republican Harris County Treasurer Orlando Sanchez, METRO chairman Gilbert Garcia, [Chris] Bell, City Councilman C.O. “Brad” Bradford and private equity executive Marty McVey are said to be considering bids.

See here for the previous roundup of wannabes, could-bes, and never-will-bes. I have four things to say.

1. Most of what I think about this story I’ve already said in that previous post. I do consider Rep. Turner to be the frontrunner, for whatever that’s worth, but we’re a long, long way from being able to assess the field. Hell, there really isn’t a field to assess right now. As I said, there are only so many max-dollar donors, only so many endorsements that are worth chasing, and only so much grassroots/volunteer energy to go around. The market, if you will, just can’t support more than about four serious candidates. Most of the names you see and hear now will disappear long before we get to put-up-or-shut-up time.

2. Like Texpatriate, I remain skeptical that Sheriff Garcia will throw his hat into the ring. He must know that a fair number of Democrats will be unhappy with him if he leaves his post to a Republican appointee, which is what we’ll get from Commissioners Court. I do not speak for Sheriff Garcia, I do not advise Sheriff Garcia, and I have zero inside knowledge of what Sheriff Garcia has in mind for his future. If I were advising him, I would tell him to line up a strong successor for 2016, then set his sights on running for County Judge in 2018, when we know Ed Emmett will step down. We all know that Sheriff Garcia has ambitions for bigger things. I’ll be delighted to see him on a statewide ballot some day. Mayor of Houston would certainly be an excellent springboard to something statewide. So would County Judge. I think he’d have a clearer shot at that, and he’d risk angering fewer current allies with that choice. This is 100% my opinion, so take it for what it’s worth.

3. Listing Ben Hall as a Republican made me guffaw, followed by some giggles. Any article that can do that to me is all right in my book.

4. I still don’t think we should be talking about the Mayor’s race now, and we shouldn’t be talking about it until after the election this November. That’s far more important right now. That said, I am thinking about what I do and don’t want in my next Mayor. I’ll publish it when it’s done, which I guarantee you will be some time after November 4.

It’s past time for a garbage fee

Yes, this.

For years, Houston’s Solid Waste Management Department Director Harry Hayes has suggested the city implement a garbage fee to expand curbside recycling and pay for other initiatives. And for years, Mayor Annise Parker has demurred.

Now, with a looming budget deficit that could force widespread layoffs and cuts to services, the idea may see serious discussion at the council table for the first time.

Though Parker has not endorsed any particular path, she acknowledges a garbage fee is among the most important of the dozens of ideas officials are considering as they try to close a $150 million budget gap by next summer.

[…]

For Hayes’ part, he said he has “been like the North Star on this,” pushing roughly the same fee for the same reasons for six years, always reminding council members that Houston is one of the only major cities in the country, and the only one in Texas, without a garbage fee.

“I have consistently stated the same things to both mayors, who have both been huge recycling advocates, and the same thing to all the council members,” Hayes said. “If you’re asking me what to do and I’m your appointed and confirmed expert, here’s what we should do as a best practice in this particular city business.”

The fee Hayes has pitched – $3.76 a month or $45.12 per home, per year – would ensure recycling trucks and containers are replaced on time and without taking on too much debt, would deploy officers to better enforce rules against illegal dumping, and would add neighborhood depository sites.

Hayes said any broader proposal in line with what other Texas cities charge would be designed to generate enough revenue to cover his department’s $76 million budget, removing waste operations from the tax-supported general fund entirely. Such a fee in Houston, Hayes said, would be $15 to $20 a month per home, or $180 to $240 a year.

Using fees for 96-gallon bins, the type Houston distributes, Dallas charges residents about $21.92 a month, San Antonio $17.69 to $19.93, Fort Worth $22.75, Austin $33.50 and El Paso $16. Austin also levies a monthly $6.65 fee that funds other waste operations.

I’ve supported the idea of a garbage fee for some time now. The city would have been able to roll out the single-stream recycling bins a lot sooner with a dedicated fee, instead of having to wait till it had collected enough money from the program itself to finance the purchase of the equipment. How much better it would have been to deal with this back in one of the good budget years when the focus could have been on the improved service that a garbage fee would have meant instead of now when it’s all wrapped up in a deficit-reduction veneer.

The oddball argument was unconvincing to Councilman C.O. Bradford.

“When you look at business magazines, trade publications, economic forecasts, Houston is separate,” he said. “Houston is doing much better than those other cities because we do things differently. We don’t have to do it just because other cities are doing it.”

Councilwoman Ellen Cohen said an informal survey of civic clubs in her district last year showed general support for the $3.76 monthly fee.

“People were willing to consider that,” she said. “For me, we have serious issues ahead and I think everything should be on the table for the purpose of talking about it.”

Dwight Boykins said he is supportive of the garbage fee concept, but is far more comfortable with the lower amount than leaving a $15 to $20 monthly fee in place indefinitely, particularly for low-income residents.

Councilmen Larry Green and Jerry Davis are against the idea, saying constituent surveys have found more opposed than in favor.

All due respect, but the “Houston exceptionalism” argument is hooey. Sometimes, when you’re the only one not doing what everyone else is doing, you’re the one that’s doing it wrong. I get where CMs Green and Davis are coming from, but one of the things that a garbage fee can help finance is better surveillance and enforcement of illegal dumping, which is a huge problem in District B. I hope the potential benefit of this can be made clear – perhaps Director Hayes could put together a short presentation detailing some of the dumping hotspots that would be first in line for enhanced attention with a garbage fee – before any vote is taken.

Council adopts its budget for next year

Might be the last easy budget for a couple of years.

BagOfMoney

The Houston City Council agreed to boost funding for after-school programs, add cameras to catch illegal dumpers and give $1 million to each district council office to spend on projects for their constituents during a marathon session Wednesday to approve Mayor Annise Parker’s $5.2 billion budget.

The budget was approved in a 14-3 vote that followed council members slogging through 63 amendments they and their colleagues had proposed to Parker’s spending plan for the fiscal year beginning July 1.

Council members interested in new programs bested those interested in controlling spending, despite ample discussion of the deficits looming in the coming years.

Parker said council’s decisions concern her, given the warnings of trouble ahead, and said some “naivete” exists around the table on budgeting.

“Council members were clearly in a mood to spend rather than save,” she said. “They see the economy, they see things are picking up. They also see a lot of needs and they want to respond to those needs, and it’s very hard to say, ‘But we have a rainy day down the road, you need to put some money aside for that.'”

[…]

The largest amendment passed Wednesday was Councilman C.O. Bradford’s idea to give each of the 11 district council members $1 million to spend on local issues, from mowing overgrown lots to fixing sidewalks to razing dangerous buildings.

“I don’t want this splashed around the media as a slush fund. That’s not what it is,” said district Councilwoman Ellen Cohen, who supported the amendment. “This is discretionary funds we can use in our district to expedite some of the issues. I have 80 civic clubs in my district. I promise you I hear from all of them what they need.”

The $11 million will be drawn partly from money that would have been saved for next year in Parker’s budget, and partly from the city’s capital spending plan, which comes to a vote soon. Parker said council members’ spending requests from the funds, to be legal under the City Charter, will need her approval. Expenditures topping $50,000 will need council approval, as with all other city spending.

Next year is when some deferred debts kick in and we have to deal with them, which will be a whole lot of no fun for the whole family. The money that Council chose to spend via their amendments has a lot of merit to it, and it wouldn’t have made that much difference for next year if they had chosen to bank it all instead. But it would have made some difference, and when we’re dealing with this next year we’ll feel like every little bit helps. As such, I fully expect the 14 Council members that supported this budget to not only support but also advocate for repealing the revenue cap so that they won’t be artificially and recklessly constrained by that poor decision ten years ago. It would be mighty inconsistent to support more spending now followed by needlessly maximal cuts later. We’ll know who tries to have it both ways soon enough.

On cops and the revenue cap

Mayor Parker again calls attention to the city’s stupid revenue cap and the things it will prevent the city from doing if it is left in place.

Mayor Annise Parker

Mayor Annise Parker

If Houston voters do not want police pulled from the streets next year, Mayor Annise Parker says, they better think twice about a cap on city revenues they imposed a decade ago.

That is the message the mayor has pushed in the days following the release of a study on the Houston Police Department’s operations that showed the understaffed agency ignored 20,000 cases with workable leads last year.

“We need more police officers. The only way we can have more police officers is to have more tax revenue to pay for them,” Parker said. “It’s really easy to say, ‘Well, the government should spend less money.’ We’ve been funding the police department by one of the most efficient, effective uses of resources anywhere to get us to today. I can’t fund the Houston Police Department with less money.”

Unless voters adjust the revenue cap, soaring property appraisals are expected to force a cut in the property tax rate next year, carving millions of dollars from the city budget in the fiscal year that begins July 1, 2015. The cap limits the growth in city revenues to the combined rates of inflation and population growth. As a result, Houston faces a projected $142 million gap between expected revenues and expenses in its general fund next summer, a figure that tops the $137 million shortfall the city had to close during the economic recession, when Parker laid off 776 workers.

As Parker prepares to ask voters to reconsider the revenue cap next year – in May at the earliest, or perhaps November – the staffing study is an obvious tool.

See here and here for the background. I’m glad this article makes it clear that the revenue cap would mean that the city is forced to reduce the property tax rate, because so far most of the emphasis has been on spending cuts. The reason for the spending cuts is because the city is essentially forbidden from having a year in which revenue growth is especially robust. In the absence of this cap, if the city has a particularly good year – you know, because the economy is humming, new construction is on a roll, or maybe just because we’ve fully recovered from a downturn – we could invest that extra revenue in ways that would not otherwise be available to us during normal years. What the revenue cap does is it imposes a priority above all others, to roll back the property tax rate until we’re back into normal territory. And if we have any unexpected costs or unmet needs or wish list items? That’s just too bad.

So if you think we should take extra revenue and use it to help meet our pension obligations? Too bad, we can’t do that.

If you think we should take extra revenue and use it to bolster the city’s reserve fund? Too bad, we can’t do that.

If you think we should take extra revenue and use it to fix more roads? Too bad, we can’t do that.

If you think we should take extra revenue and use it to hire more cops? Too bad, we can’t do that.

Now of course, we can try to do those things from the more limited amount of revenue that the cap would allow us to have, once we’ve cut property taxes. In normal times, this might not be that big a deal other than being a lost opportunity. Unfortunately, it’s happening at a time when the city has some deferred debt payments coming due, and every dollar we reduce from available revenue means that much less is available for the city’s normal and ongoing obligations. Tax cuts come first, everything else gets in line after it. This is of course exactly what the wealthy proponents of the revenue cap, all of whom will benefit greatly from the ensuing reduction in the tax rate, had in mind from the beginning. They want to be the city’s top priority, and this is the means by which they can achieve that. You have to hand it to them, it’s a pretty clever trick.

Having said all that, I do agree with this:

City Councilman C.O. Bradford, a former police chief, said he does not support raising the cap without more work to find savings in all city departments.

“You cannot show me in that work demands analysis where it said the $5 billion operating budget for the city of Houston requires more money. It doesn’t say that,” Bradford said. “It says we need more police officers, not more money. I’m not willing to make that big hop yet because we haven’t done the necessary groundwork to support ‘more money.'”

Councilman Stephen Costello, who chairs the council’s budget committee, agreed. The police staffing study cautioned against rushing to hire more officers without ensuring no police are doing jobs civilians could do, he said, adding the study examined only part of the department.

“You can’t just use one work demands analysis that’s not totally complete to justify raising the cap to bring in more police officers,” Costello said. “There are plenty of areas of efficiency available to us.”

I too am skeptical about the need to spend more money on HPD, at least without having a much better idea about how they’re spending the money they have now. Regardless of what happens with the revenue cap or with anything else, we really need to put the Public Safety portion of the budget under closer scrutiny, in the same way we put the rest of the budget under closer scrutiny back in 2010. If you want to cite the consultant’s report as a reason to get rid of the revenue cap, that’s fine, but these are really two separate issues and should be dealt with as such.

Vehicles for hire vote put off till end of July

Seriously?

The Houston City Council delayed a vote until July 30 on regulations for the vehicles-for-hire industry, keeping Uber Technologies Inc. and Lyft Inc.’s legal status in Houston in limbo.

Council member Mike Laster proposed an initial delay of 60 days, saying, “I believe this cake is not fully baked.”

The delay was then reduced to 45 days.

“I think council wants to be able to get to a point to say ‘yes’ to opening up the markets to a new element to these new app companies. They want to make sure that the long-standing current stakeholders, their business models, continue to provide for them an opportunity to do well within a competitive marketplace,” Laster told the Houston Business Journal. “The whole point is that the stakeholders that would have to be regulated underneath the ordinance have by and large said, ‘This not ready.’”

The vote is now scheduled for July 30, or until a consensus is met by all the stakeholders involved in negotiations. Several council members, including C.O. “Brad” Bradford, didn’t feel the delay was necessary and asked for the vote to take place sooner rather than later.

“It is time to vote,” Bradford said during the meeting. “What is it that we’re going to do with additional days?”

Mayor Parker agreed with CM Bradford on that, which should tell you something. I agree with them both. Perhaps this meant there weren’t enough votes for passage, but I kind of doubt that. I suspect it was just that enough Council members didn’t feel comfortable with their votes just yet. What that means going forward, I have no idea.

From KPRC:

Taxi companies are trying to put the brakes on the proposed new regulations.

They say Lyft and Uber drivers are uninsured, unsafe and don’t have equipment to pick up disabled passengers.

“We’re not against competition, we’ve never been against competition,” said Roman Martinez, President of the Greater Houston Transportation Company. “We want to make sure everybody is playing by the same rules. I think the public expects that. I think the public expects safety is taken into consideration and also consumer protection.”

Representatives from Uber and Lyft also attended Wednesday’s council meeting.

Uber sent Local 2 a statement which read in part, “Today’s City Council decision to delay the creation of a permanent regulatory home for ridesharing and allow for modernized transportation options in Houston, is disappointing. Houston residents deserve access to safe, reliable and affordable transit choices and the motion to delay stifles competition and limits choice.Since Uber’s launch in Houston, we’ve seen an overwhelming response from all users. We look forward to continuing to work with the city to ensure Uber is able serve the residents of Houston, and that all consumers can continue to benefit from expanded transportation options.”

My guess is that the taxi companies were behind the push for delay, which if I’m right probably ought to make Uber and Lyft a little nervous. On the bright side, this is gonna be a great summer for the City Hall lobbyist community.

One more thing:

While the city continues to weigh these proposed regulations, a federal judge has set a July 15 court date to hear the request for an injunction against the ride-sharing companies that was filed by cab companies

That lawsuit was filed in April. The request by the cab companies for a temporary restraining order against Uber and Lyft was denied. I’ll be surprised if an injunction is granted, but I’ve been surprised before.

More reaction to the HPD no-investigations report

I’m not the only one that wasn’t impressed by Chief McClelland’s response.

[Burglary victim Heather] Heinke’s experience is not unusual in the nation’s fourth-largest city. A recent HPD staffing study says that 15,000 burglaries and thefts, 3,000 hit-and-run crashes and 3,000 assaults were simply set aside last year without a follow-up investigation. Houston police commanders told researchers they didn’t have enough staff to review the cases, even those with promising leads.

“It seems like (crime has) increased, and to (the point of) not being able to leave your home in a peaceful state of mind,” Heinke said. “You kind of feel helpless … you feel you’re out there exposed, like you’re out there on your own.”

The report’s finding that thousands of crimes aren’t being fully investigated, although it may not be unique to Houston as a major city, has angered citizens, civil rights groups and victims and surprised some City Council members. The disclosure came shortly after the Police Department in April disciplined eight homicide detectives for either ignoring or conducting shoddy investigations into nearly two dozen deaths.

[…]

The tally of unworked cases came as no surprise to former Houston police investigators, former Police Chief C.O. Bradford and union officials.

They described a daily triage by Houston police lieutenants and sergeants, who review reports of new crimes and determine which have no leads or “solvability factors.” Then, the supervisors assign what they consider the most solvable and egregious crimes to investigators. The others, despite having leads, are simply “suspended” and may be investigated if they are linked to another crime.

Mike Knox, a former gang investigator for the Police Department, said he’s surprised there were only 15,000 burglary and theft cases that were not investigated.

“I’m sure HPD would love to investigate every single case, but we just don’t have the manpower and money to do that. So we go after the ones who are doing the most harm,” Knox said.

Bradford, who resigned as chief in 2003 and now serves as a city councilman, noted there are fewer police on the force today than when he was in command.

“There’s not enough personnel,” he said. “You only have so many investigators in the burglary and theft division.”

The researchers hired to study HPD’s staffing noted that while Houston has a lower staffing ratio than many large city police departments, such data is relevant but not all-telling. Major cities in the Northeast that have urban centers that developed “vertically,” and are denser, have traditionally had higher ratios of police officers. Southwestern cities that have developed horizontally are less dense and tend to have lower ratios.

Houston’s police-to-citizen ratio of 2.3 officers for every 1,000 residents is lower than those of Chicago (4.7), New York City (5.1), Detroit (4.4.) and Washington, D.C. (6.3.).

Rania Mankarious, executive director of Crime Stoppers of Houston, said she is frustrated that more investigators don’t call on the nonprofit agency to help them solve cases. HPD is the agency’s major sponsor, but she said some investigators don’t want to go through the “hassle” of providing information about unsolved cases.

Others are not familiar with the services provided by Crime Stoppers, which have led to the solving of 30,000 felony cases in three decades of operation.

“I’m angry in the sense that we’re a free resource, this is all we do, and we need to be utilized,” Mankarious said, adding that cash rewards paid for information are funded by probation fees.

See here and here for the background. Let’s be clear that since the report talks about the need for more investigators – 27 is the number cited – the officers-to-citizens ratio isn’t particularly useful. Uniformed officers aren’t the one charged with investigating crimes. Obviously, most investigators will start out as uniformed officers, and I’m happy to have a discussion about what needs to be done to promote more investigators to help close that gap. But let’s keep our eye on the ball.

I guess I’m just skeptical about the calls for vastly increasing the size of HPD. I’m going to need some questions answered before I buy into any of that. If crime is declining, as he report states, why hasn’t HPD been able to keep up? How long has this problem of not investigating cases with “workable leads” been going on? Has there ever been a time when that wasn’t a problem? If so, what has changed since then? If not, why have we never talked about it before now? Surely we didn’t need a third party consultant to point that out if it’s always been the case. HPD’s budget has increased considerably in recent years. What is the money being spent on? What assurances do we have that the parallel problems in the homicide division won’t recur? It would be nice if when all this gets to City Council if someone on Council would drop the deference and do their best Jolanda Jones impersonation. Ask questions like a defense attorney. Let’s really understand what’s going on before we start proposing solutions.

Those uninvestigated criminal cases

To say the least, this is big news.

The Houston Police Department, already reeling from a scandal involving shoddy work in its homicide unit, was dealt another blow Monday when a report revealed that some 20,000 burglary, theft, assault and hit-and-run cases with workable leads were not investigated in 2013.

The authors of the city-commissioned study surveyed HPD division commanders who revealed “excessively high numbers of cases with leads that were not investigated in 2013 due to a lack of personnel.”

The report noted that 15,000 burglaries and thefts, 3,000 assaults and nearly 3,000 hit-and-runs were not investigated last year. The data was based on monthly HPD management reports of cases with workable leads.

The study’s findings arrived at a critical time for HPD. The Houston Chronicle on Sunday reported on almost two dozen homicide cases dating back a decade that were barely investigated by HPD detectives. That scandal erupted earlier in the year when eight detectives were disciplined for their lack of work on the cases.

HPD Chief Charles McClelland had not completed reading the new 200-page study late Monday, but is expected to comment in the next day or two, said spokesman John Cannon.

[…]

The $150,000 study released Monday was conducted by the nonprofit Police Executive Research Forum and Justex Systems Inc., a consulting firm co-directed by Larry Hoover, a professor of criminal justice at Sam Houston State University.

It was requested by City Councilman and former HPD Chief C.O. Bradford in July 2010, but was delayed by the city’s recent budget shortage.

“When we have tens of thousands of cases with solvability factors, with leads, where suspects could be arrested, that simply shouldn’t be happening in the city,” Bradford said. “I am not shocked, because we don’t have the personnel to do it.” Bradford said he favors hiring 1,500 new officers, but said 800 – at a cost of $80 million – would be a starting point. HPD currently has 5,100 officers

Mayor Annise Parker said her administration has taken a number of steps to have more of the city’s officers investigating crimes, but added that “massive” funding is on the horizon.

“We investigate everything we have the capacity to investigate,” Parker said. “We need more police officers. The only way we can have more police officers is to have more tax revenue to pay for them. We have done an extraordinarily good job of utilizing every resource, putting more officers back on the street, doing all these really innovative things to maximize it, but ultimately, that’s just kept us treading water.”

A copy of the large report is here. I’m sure a lot of people will be reading it. I’ll get to it as I can in my copious free time.

The main thing to come out of this is likely to be calls for hiring more officers. With a Mayoral election on the horizon, you can hear the calls already. I’m just going to say this for now, and bear in mind that I haven’t read the report yet. I’m sure that there are some deadweight members of HPD just as we recently learned there were in the Homicide division. I’m sure that in the nine-figure Public Safety budget there are some questionable expenditures and opportunities for optimization, especially since that part of the budget has been basically untouchable despite the recent shortfalls. But I’m also sure that we’re not going to efficiency our way to a solution here. Whether you think HPD needs 1,500 new officers or could get by just fine with some smaller number of new hires, doing that kind of hiring is going to cost a lot of money. How exactly do we plan to pay for that? Even without the near-term bumps in the road that we face, and even if you believe that the non-Public Safety portion of the budget still has some readily identifiable waste in it after the great cutbacks of 2010, we don’t have $80 million plus lying around to spend on increasing HPD’s workforce. I don’t see how you can get there without at least rolling back the Bill White property tax rate cuts, if not raising the rate beyond that. Politicians love to talk about making “tough decisions”, well, here’s one that someone needs to make. I will take proposals to add staff to HPD seriously when I see an accompanying proposal for how to pay for it. Calling for solutions is easy. Coming up with solutions, then fighting for them if they’re not immediately received with hurrahs and hosannas, that’s what separates the contenders from the pretenders. Lisa Falkenberg has more.

We’ve got some budget challenges coming

Some chickens are coming home to roost.

BagOfMoney

Beginning next summer with fiscal year 2016, Houston will face a projected $142 million gap between expected revenues and expenses in its general fund, which is fed chiefly by property and sales taxes and funds most basic city services. That exceeds the $137 million budget gap Houston had to close during the economic recession, when Mayor Annise Parker laid off 776 workers in making numerous cuts in 2011.

And the projected gap will widen in the years to follow. By fiscal year 2018, the budget deficit is expected to top out at a projected $205 million.

The calculations resulting in those projected deficits assume no raises for city workers or added investments in vehicles and technology that cannot be put off forever, said Councilman Stephen Costello, meaning the actual deficits could be higher.

“There’s still not enough attention directed toward the next four years, which is really the problem that we have,” said Costello, who chairs the council’s budget committee. “We need to start looking long-term.”

[…]

About 51 percent of the increase in the proposed budget is driven by employee contracts, 18 percent represents dollars transferred to specific funds and not available for spending, and another 17 percent is an increase in debt service, Dowe said.

The revenue cap cannot alone be blamed for the looming crisis. The cap will allow revenues to rise, after all, but they will rise at the combined rates of inflation and population increase, not at the breakneck pace of property appraisals many homeowners have seen this year.

Driving the problem are soaring pension payments and a spike over the next four years in the cost of servicing debt.

The single largest expense increasing in the proposed 2015 general fund budget is a 21 percent hike paid into the city’s three pension funds, to $261 million. That’s more than what is spent on libraries, parks, trash pickup and municipal courts combined.

And pension payments are only projected to increase. Next year, Dowe said, the city expects to cough up $50 million on top of its scheduled payment to the police pension thanks to a contractual trigger that requires the account to maintain a funding level of at least 80 percent.

In refinancing debt, Dowe added, past mayors put off principal payments for future leaders to pay, creating a debt bubble that now is coming due. General obligation debt payments will jump from $297 million this fiscal year to $355 million by fiscal 2018, before falling.

The good news is that the debt service cost is a four-year speed bump, so it’s at least a temporary situation. The pension issues are ongoing, and no matter how many columns Bill King writes about it, I don’t see it getting resolved in a way that satisfies, or at least doesn’t completely alienate, everyone involved any time soon. While ridding ourselves of that stupid revenue cap may not be a whole solution to this, it would still at least minimize the problem. To me, priority one is working to repeal the revenue cap, and priority two is coming to grips with the fact that no matter how much we gripe about pensions, the fact remains that public safety is by far the largest budget item. If we want to, as CM Bradford put it, define what our core services are, then we need to do that exercise for all of the budget. If 65% of the budget is off limits for considerations about efficiencies and savings, then we’re kidding ourselves. If any member of City Council is unwilling to do that, I will thank them to spare me the usual talk about “making tough decisions”.

Counting votes on the non-discrimination ordinance

From the Houston GLBT Political Caucus Facebook page:

Members have asked for the responses on our questionnaires to the questions below. The President of the Caucus, Maverick Welsh, has asked me to post the information. As the chair of the Screening Committee, I have reviewed the questionnaires from 2013 and below is the result:

Mayor–We asked:

Question: If elected, would you be willing to introduce a non-discrimination ordinance, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity or expression in employment, housing, and public accommodation, that provides reasonable exemptions for small businesses, religious organizations, and federally exempt residential property owners?

She answered:

Annise Parker: Yes

City Council–We asked:

If elected, would you publicly advocate for and vote in favor of a non-discrimination ordinance, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity or expression in employment, housing, and public accommodation, that provides reasonable exemptions for small businesses, religious organizations, and federally exempt residential property owners?

They answered:

Jerry Davis: Yes
Ellen Cohen: Yes
Dwight Boykins: Yes
Ed Gonzalez: Yes
Robert Gallegos: Yes
Mike Laster: Yes
Larry Green: Yes
Steve Costello: Yes
David Robinson: Yes
C.O. Bradford: Yes
Jack Christie: Yes

There’s been a lot of speculation about who may or may not support the ordinance that Mayor Parker has promised to bring before council. As yet, there is not a draft version of the ordinance, and that seems to be the key to understanding this. As CMs Bradford and Boykins mention to Lone Star Q, without at least a draft you don’t know what the specifics are. Maybe it’ll be weaker than you want it to be. Maybe it’ll be poorly worded and you will be concerned about potential litigation as a result. It’s not inconsistent for a Council member to say they support the principle and the idea of the ordinance, but they want to see what it actually says before they can confirm they’ll vote for it.

Nonetheless, everyone listed above is on record saying they would “vote in favor of a non-discrimination ordinance, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity or expression in employment, housing, and public accommodation”, and they will be expected to do exactly that. If they want to make arguments about making it stronger, that’s fine. That list above is more than enough to pass the ordinance, so there should be no waffling, no fretting about vote counts, and especially no fear of a backlash. When the time comes, everyone needs to keep their promises. Now would be an excellent time to call your Council members and let them know you look forward to seeing their vote for this NDO.

HFD’s budget problems

I’m sure you’ve heard of this by now.

The safety of Houston’s citizens and its firefighters will be compromised over the next four months as the fire department limits the number of personnel on duty and removes trucks from service in an attempt to cut spending, Fire Chief Terry Garrison said Thursday.

“People that are suffering from EMS calls are going to be suffering a little longer, houses and buildings are going to burn a little bit longer, because our response times are going to be increased,” Garrison told members of the City Council’s budget committee. “We’re going to have to change our decision-making model when we get on the scene, because fires will be doubling in size every minute.”

City Councilman Stephen Costello, chairman of the budget committee, rejected Garrison’s bleak prediction.

“I find it hard to believe we’re going to compromise public safety. I really don’t believe that’s the case,” Costello said. “It’s simply a matter of, once we respond to a call, we make sure that we have backup from another station. They do it all the time when they have two- or three-alarm calls.”

City Council members listening to Garrison’s presentation Thursday visibly struggled to balance the two basic priorities of local government: financial responsibility and public safety. Those present voted 7-3 to hold HFD to its original $447 million budget rather than give it additional funding to cover soaring overtime costs. Committee votes are nonbinding but do indicate the will of the larger council.

HFD is on pace to exceed its budget by $10.5 million in the fiscal year that ends June 30. Most of that, $8.5 million, is due to overtime paid to firefighters to cover a staffing shortage exacerbated by a union contract that leaves the chief unable to restrict when firefighters take time off.

The department averaged 90 overtime shifts per day during the second half of last year, and has averaged 47 overtime shifts per day for the last 45 days.

To stay within budget over the remaining four months of the fiscal year, Garrison said, HFD must not average more than 23 overtime shifts per day.

On days the department exceeds that number, fire trucks will be idled and supervisory shifts will not be filled, the chief said.

Under his plan, Garrison said that one in five department engine and ladder trucks could be pulled out of service during the peak vacation months of March and June, and staffing could drop by as much as 10 percent on an average day.

There was an earlier story on this that previewed the problem. The Chron has a dedicated page to the story with a graph showing the various fire stations and what the effect of this would be, with more details here. The committee vote suggests this will pass when it goes before the full Council. Mayor Parker has expressed her support for the plan, saying that the Fire Department managed themselves into this situation and they can manage themselves out of it. It’s hard to read about this issue and not think about the ongoing political and legal battles between Mayor Parker and the firefighters, particularly the pension fund where another lawsuit has been filed over access to their files but also the union, which is now in contract negotiations with the city. I’m sure politics will play a big part in the final Council vote, not to mention in the next election. I am not surprised that CM Bradford, the Mayor’s main critic on Council, is strongly against the proposal to reduce overtime.

I haven’t seen it mentioned in the coverage so far, but this isn’t the first time there has been a shortfall due to overtime. In 2010, both HPD and HFD had multi-million dollar gaps to fill. I’ll be honest, I don’t remember how that was resolved, but I presume it wasn’t like this or we’d have had some recent history to guide us as to what the effect might be.

Something I’d like to know more about is the possible solution CM Costello proposed in a letter to the editor last week.

Eighty-five percent of all calls for HFD services are for emergency medical services, not fires. We have top-notch firefighters, but are we deploying them correctly?

While we must be well prepared for fires too, doesn’t it make more sense to scale our equipment and personnel to fit the needs of our city?

The mayor has stated that we must look at the current workload of the department and reorganize. Her proposed budget last year had $2 million built in for a work demand analysis for HFD so we could start this process. This idea got scrapped during the budget process as council members put this money to other uses, including a summer jobs program.

Why are we organized so heavily around fire equipment and personnel when clearly, more emphasis is needed on emergency medical services? The numbers just don’t support our current operation.

I’ve been told the reason we have more fire engine and ladder companies than ambulances is so we can maintain our No. 1 Insurance Services Office (ISO) rating and keep homeowners’ insurance rates low. ISO is a private, for-profit company which has developed a huge database for providing statistical information to evaluate potential risk in certain areas.

Fire departments often use the structure of the ISO rating to justify resources during the budget process. In 1997, Texas became one of the last states to adopt ISO’s Public Protection Classification System. Texas, while adopting the system, does not require insurance providers to use the ISO rating, allowing some companies to use their own data. State Farm, the nation’s largest insurance company was the first to stop using the ISO rating system in 2001. Instead of using theoretical data loss, State Farm looks at actual loss within a zip code.

I’m not sure how dependent we need to be on the No. 1 ISO rating. Research indicates that now ISO ratings might have very little effect on homeowners’ insurance rates since some insurance companies do not even rely on them. I’m not suggesting we lower standards in any way when it comes to protecting our citizens. I just want to make sure we are smart about allocating all of our HFD resources, including overtime.

We need to make sure our fire and emergency service delivery model makes sense for Houston in 2014 and adjust accordingly. Until then, budget shortfalls will surely continue.

The point about EMS versus fire services is a strong one, and given that this kind of shortfall is not unprecedented, it makes sense to me that the city ought to do that study CM Costello suggests. Maybe with a more efficient allocation of resources, we can then get serious about hiring more firefighters and EMTs, since as with HPD there is a looming retirement crisis among the current ranks. I’d like to see that work demand analysis get funded in the next budget. Anyone with more expertise in these matters want to comment about that?

Funding after school programs

This should be a no-brainer.

CM C.O. "Brad" Bradford

CM C.O. “Brad” Bradford

To combat youth crime, a former Houston police chief says the city must first solve another problem: unstable and inadequate funding for after-school programs.

City Councilman C.O. Bradford said it is more urgent than ever to make after-school programs a public-safety priority as federal grants continue to dwindle or expire, forcing dozens of area providers to shut their doors this year and leaving more children unattended during critical hours.

“Deadly house parties. Drive-by shootings. Killed kids,” he said. “We’re going to see more and more of that.”

Bradford, Houston’s police chief from 1997 to 2003, has failed on previous attempts to persuade Houston leaders to take city funds earmarked for new police officers and instead spend them to expand after-school programs, but he vows to continue the push.

Since 2011, Bradford has chaired a coalition of area after-school care providers called ENRICH, which is based out of the Harris County Department of Education’s Cooperative for After-School Enrichment. The group’s end-of-year report highlighted local studies it organized and funded that show that after-school programs are linked to reducing youth crime.

For more than a decade, numerous national and regional studies have concluded that about 20 percent of all crimes – and more than half of violent crimes – committed by kids and teens happen in the four hours after school on weekdays, combatting the perception that mischievous kids prefer to skulk the dark. Some hope a solution is as simple as providing positive alternatives during those hours.

Former Mayor Lee Brown touted after-school programs as an anti-crime measure when the city began funding some in the late 1990s. Although the city spends millions from federal grants each year, only about $225,000 comes from the general fund.

“Too many young boys and girls are being cited and being detained because they are simply being children, and we are not providing the proper guidance, coaching and counseling they need,” Bradford said.

ENRICH reported that 53 percent of funding for after-school programs in Harris, Waller and Fort Bend counties came from federal sources in the 2012-13 school year. Dozens of after-school programs focused on academic enrichment were forced to shut down after that school year as federal grants expired with no option to reapply for one or two years.

I completely agree with CM Bradford that this is a priority and a sound investment that needs to be funded. You know the old expression “Idle hands are the devil’s workshop”? That’s the idea here. Kids who are bored are more likely to get into trouble than kids who are busy. Doesn’t make them bad kids, it just makes them kids. I don’t know about you, but I certainly did a few stupid things when I was a kid and didn’t have anything better to do. The fact that federal grants are getting scarcer for this, presumably in the name of “austerity” or “smaller government”, is a scandal and a travesty, but this is the world we live in right now. We can pay now to help keep kids busy and engaged and productive, or we can pay later when they’re not. You tell me what makes more sense.