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Clear Lake

Revisiting City Council redistricting

This would be interesting.

At Wednesday’s council meeting, District E Councilmember Dave Martin said the city should consider redrawing city council district boundaries, particularly in his own district.

District E includes two far-flung suburbs, Kingwood and Clear Lake. Martin said it’s a “ridiculously arranged council district” where it is difficult to coordinate meetings.

“I’ve always felt that the folks in Clear Lake do indeed deserve their own representation there, because it is tough for someone to drive 60 miles on a weekend to get to a certain area,” Martin said.

Mayor Sylvester Turner agreed with Martin’s assessment of District E.

“I will tell you it is an interesting drawing,” Turner said. “Because you certainly cannot go from Kingwood to Clear Lake for a town hall meeting, two town hall meetings.”

Turner said he would support taking a look at the map after the 2020 census.

“I don’t know what the thinking was back then,” Turner said. “But it does seem to be not in the best interest of two areas that are so geographically separated. I think it’s worth taking a look at.”

There’s a copy of the map embedded in the story, and you can also see it here, with links to individual district maps here. It’s true that District E is this two-headed amalgam of far-apart suburbs, with a bit of connecting tissue in between, but any proposed solution to address that is complicated. The problem is that the Kingwood part of E abuts District B, and the Clear Lake part borders on Districts D and I. Any redesign of the current map that would split District E into separate parts has to take into account merging a bunch of white Republicans with a bunch of black and Latinx Democrats. Even before we take Voting Rights Act requirements into consideration, I can guarantee you that a substantial number of people would be unhappy with any alternative.

What you could do is reduce the size of individual districts to be roughly the size of the Kingwood and Clear Lake pieces, then redraw the map with however many districts there would be with such smaller population requirements. That would result in a map with anywhere from 15 to 21 districts, depending on how much you padded out the two halves of E. We can debate whether that’s a good idea or a bad idea, but we’d also probably need a charter amendment to make it happen.

Personally, I’d be willing to at least explore the idea, and maybe have someone draw a few sample maps, to give a picture of what this might look like. Honestly, I think we ought to consider the same for the Legislature, where individual districts have grown in population quite a lot in recent years. This is especially true for Senate districts, which used to be smaller than Congressional districts but are now larger and will get more so in 2021 when Texas is given additional seats in Congress. It’ll never happen of course, but that doesn’t mean we should never think about it.

Golf courses against flooding

The Washington Post looks at how Clear Lake made it through Harvey.

Like many parts of Houston, Clear Lake City has a history of flooding. The area got an unexpected break when Hurricane Harvey dumped record rainfall, thanks to its decision years ago to sacrifice one of its golf courses to flood control.

After 12 years of planning, crews in November completed the first of five construction phases of Exploration Green. Three months ago Harvey gave the budding project its first trial, and planners say it saved 150 homes from inundation.

“It held the water like a champ,” said Doug Peterson, a retired NASA employee and 30-year Clear Lake City resident who helps lead the community effort to turn the 178-acre former golf course into a combination wetland park and floodwater reservoir. “This project is a model for other areas where we’ve had these massive rains.”

When Exploration Green is completed in 2021, it will drain up to half a billion gallons of storm water and protect up to 3,000 homes, officials say.

While Houston struggles to develop a more robust regional drainage system, Exploration Green shows how a local community can claim land for local flood control. Planners have turned from the concrete basins of the past and look instead to existing green space to drain floods.

“Its being a golf course made construction really easy,” said Kelly Shipley, project manager for Exploration Green and an engineer with LAN, Inc. “You can just dig a hole, essentially.”

The greater Houston area has its share of golf courses as well, and this idea has been suggested as one tool in the box of flood mitigation. I’m not sure who gets to decide which golf courses would be better used as detention ponds, but to the extent that it makes sense to do, I’m fine with it.

Here we go again with City Council redistricting

Or at least, here we go again with arguing about when we should be redrawing City Council lines.

Mayor Bill White’s decision to delay redrawing the boundaries of City Council districts has angered numerous community activists, who say his stance is defying Houston’s charter.

Under a 30-year-old legal settlement with the U.S. Justice Department, the number of council members “shall increase” from 14 to 16 when Houston’s population hits 2.1 million. That settlement later was incorporated into the city’s charter.

The mayor, City Council members and officials all acknowledge that the triggering population threshold has been crossed.

But White and several council members have resisted the push for redistricting, asserting that the city lacks population data needed to redraw district lines accurately. That data will come from the U.S. Census Bureau’s decennial survey in 2010. Pressing on without it, they say, could lead to a court challenge under federal voting rights laws.

[…]

Houston has had more than 2.1 million people since 2006, according to population estimates the city has been using in official documents. To create new districts and change boundaries, however, the city would have to use detailed population estimates for specific tracts of land, city officials said. Though demographers are assumed to estimate the overall city population accurately, the only accurate tract-level data would have to come from the 2000 Census.

Redrawing district lines now would, in effect, be based on almost 10-year-old data, said Jerry Wood, a former city planner and redistricting expert. He noted that the city went through redistricting in 1982 and 1985, based on dated census figures. The estimates used those years were shown to be wrong in the 1990 Census, Wood said.

That possibility, and any lawsuit that could stem from it, led City Attorney Arturo Michel and Chief Administrative Officer Anthony Hall to advise the mayor against redistricting now.

“I have no doubt that our actual population exceeds the threshold number, but there are substantial legal issues about whether federal law allows us to draw districts based on guesses about where people live,” White said.

I appreciate that perspective, and as far as it goes, I agree we’ll have much more accurate data real soon now. But we’ve been talking about this for over three years, and the city could have taken action in 2006 in time for the 2007 elections, but demurred on the grounds that we weren’t really sure we were past the 2.1 million mark. That seems to have been an erroneous belief. Anyway, the last time this came up, the word was wait till 2010. Which makes sense in a vacuum, but it didn’t have to be this way. I have a lot of sympathy for the people who are complaining about it again now.

Presently, in a city made up of 41.7 percent Hispanics, 24.3 percent African-Americans and 5.3 percent Asian-Americans, there is one Latino council member, four African-Americans and one Asian-American.

“We’re the fourth-largest city in America. Let’s act like it,” said Vidal Martinez, an attorney and former Port of Houston commissioner who urged council members recently to take up redistricting now.

But council members noted that much of the city’s growth that would be addressed in redistricting has happened in west Houston.

“We’re going to have to peel away (new districts) from existing western, white districts,” Councilwoman Anne Clutterbuck said. The problem with drawing out districts to address a certain population, like a Hispanic population, is Hispanics are scattered across the city.”

We’re likely, though certainly not guaranteed, to have another Latino member after the special election for District H. That would make Council exactly half Anglo, half non-Anglo, and while that’s not really aligned with the overall population, I’ll bet it’s a pretty fair representation of the population that actually votes. Some Latino leaders have a summit coming up in three weeks to talk about issues like that – see Marc Campos for details. More voter participation, and more Latinos running At Large would make a big difference even with the current lines.

If you’ve read any of my precinct analysis posts from the 2008 election, you know I agree with Council Member Clutterbuck about the electoral map out west. Another question that will need to be dealt with for the eventual map-drawers is what to do with District E. It really doesn’t make sense to glue Kingwood and Clear Lake together, but splitting them apart is likely to create two districts that will tend to elect Anglos, instead of just one. If the goal is to increase minority representation, that will come into conflict. Whenever we do get around to this, it’s going to be a tricky and contentious task.