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Bike plan vote delayed

What’s another two weeks?

Houston’s long-term plan for improving bicycle routes around town will wait a couple more weeks after a handful of elected officials voiced various concerns.

City Council members Greg Travis, Michael Kubosh, Steve Le, Mike Knox and Dave Martin tagged the proposed Houston Bike Plan on Wednesday morning, delaying its approval for at least two weeks.

The plan, which doesn’t commit money but does guide future projects as the city proceeds with road work, lays out an ambitious plan for hundreds of miles of high-comfort bike lanes in Houston, meant to make bicycling safer and more appealing to residents.

Work on the plan began roughly 18 months ago and has been through various drafts with input from city and community officials.

See here for some background, and here for the plan itself. If you’d like a more executive-summary view of it, see this Offcite post from last year, and this Kinder Institute blog post from Wednesday. At some point, part of the solution for traffic has to be getting some cars off the road, and the best way to do that is to give more people more non-car options for their daily travels. Note that you don’t need someone to completely give up their car to have an effect here – trading in some of your car trips for non-car travel helps, too. Let’s get this done, y’all. The Chron editorial board agrees with me on this.

Council ratifies Turner’s pension plan

From the inbox:

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

The city cab app

Meet Arro.

Houston’s fractured taxi market is headed toward a rare bit of unity, with a push by the city toward how people hail cabs in the 21st century.

As the taxi and limo industry adjusts to new ways of doing business, under intense competition from firms like Uber, city officials plan to consolidate dispatching via a private smartphone app in an attempt to buoy travel options for visitors and residents.

Citing a need to better use the nearly 4,000 taxi and limo permits across roughly 9,000 drivers, city officials announced Monday that Arro, a company already combining dispatch in New York, Boston, San Francisco and Chicago, will develop a universal taxi app for Houston’s 146 taxi companies.

“We’re excited to bring the taxi industry, fully, into the digital age,” said Tina Paez, director of Houston’s Administration and Regulatory Affairs Department.

Cab and limo companies encouraged the city to develop something to even the playing field with Uber, which has dominated the ride market since arriving legally in Houston in November 2014.

“I think you will have people come to rely on faster cab service than they do now,” said Duane Kamins, owner of Lone Star Cab Company.

The app would mean all cabs could be hailed based on who’s closest, breaking the taxi reliance on downtown cab stands and airport trips that leads to bunching of vehicles and a lack of available rides in other neighborhoods. The app also provides an emergency scenario, should Uber – which opposes some of Houston’s regulations – bail right before thousands descend for the Super Bowl.

City Council is expected to discuss the app at its meeting next week.

Starting with consolidating taxi companies into a single online dispatch system, the app will eventually expand to include other features such as transit schedules, real-time traffic information and bike sharing information.

Council member Michael Kubosh, however, questioned at a Monday committee meeting why the city was entering into the app business – or even encouraging a vendor to jump in.

“If you want government intervention and you all are holding hands singing Kumbaya, I will vote for your government intervention,” Kubosh said.

No taxpayer money will be used to develop or advertise the app, though city staff will guide the process with Arro, and elected officials could devote time to promoting it.

I don’t see any problem with the city’s involvement, especially given the other features mentioned. Cabs remain a regulated utility, so there’s a pretty good argument to be made that the city should get make this kind of investment. The concerns CM Greg Travis raised about Arro’s app receiving mediocre user ratings are more worrisome, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves. It’s a good idea, and it brings independent cabbies into the fold as well. Let’s see what the beta version looks like and go from there.

What Council members think about the Uber threat

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More on the Uber ultimatum

Initial reaction is not terribly receptive.

Uber

Ride-hailing giant Uber threatened Wednesday to stop operating in Houston unless city leaders amend local regulations the company said are making it tough for them to recruit drivers.

The ultimatum, the latest skirmish in what has been a contentious relationship between Uber and the city since it started operating here two years ago, drew a strong rebuke from city leaders.

“This is just not how we do business in Houston,” said Mayor Sylvester Turner, who added the city “will not compromise on public safety.”

[…]

The Uber announcement, which officials viewed as a threat to meet the company’s demands or lose the service, was met with frustration by city leaders, some of whom have grown increasingly exasperated by the tumult.

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

[…]

Uber and its supporters argue that part-time driving for the company helps people make money while keeping rates for riders cheap.

The company in its report said drivers take an average of four months to sign up with Uber and complete the city permitting process. Houston officials said the longest a driver has waited is two months, and that the average time to clear the regulations is 11 days. About 47 percent of drivers received a license within a week, officials said.

“What they are putting out is factually incorrect,” Turner said, adding that he thought the company’s motive is to put pressure on politicians to capitulate.

See here for the background. I didn’t expect Uber’s announcement to be greeted warmly, but I am a bit surprised that no one stepped forward to defend them, or at least to criticize the fingerprint policy, in the story. CM Martin’s comment is of particular interest, since Uber’s main allies on Prop 1 in Austin are a couple of conservative Republican Council members there. I’ve look around at other coverage but have not seen any other reactions from Council members. I will be very interested to see who, if anyone, is in Uber’s corner on this. It was one thing to advocate for allowing Uber to operate here. This is a whole ‘nother level, and unless a Council member comes under pressure from constituents, it’s rather a large stretch.

The Press brings up another aspect of this fight.

Notwithstanding the curious timing (voters in Austin will decide May 7 whether to keep similar regulations; early voting for the ballot measure started this week), it’s hard to know what to make of Uber’s claims. Officials with the City of Houston insist that, by pretty much any trackable measure, Uber has been a resounding success here. The city’s Administration and Regulatory Affairs department says that every month it sees an increase in drivers who want a license to drive for the company. And, according to city officials, judging by the company’s revenue in Houston (under the regulations passed in 2014, Uber pays 2 percent of gross bookings to the city), Uber is doing quite well.

It seems there’s either fundamental difference of interpretation or someone’s not telling the whole truth. We’d love to get to the bottom of this, but here’s the problem: Uber has sued to block the city from releasing pretty much any internal data that could show whether Houston’s regulations have been a success or unreasonable burden for rideshares.

Lara Cottingham, deputy assistant director of the city’s Administration and Regulatory Affairs department, insists that Uber has had an undeniably good run here since the city began enforcing its rules for licensing drivers for so-called transportation network companies (or TNCs) like Uber, limo services and taxi companies. “The number of drivers is increasing, their revenue is increasing, everything seems to be working out for them very, very well,” Cottingham told us. “But because Uber sued us to stop us from releasing [those numbers], I can’t tell you how successful they are.”

[…]

While Uber claims it takes drivers on average four months to get a city license, Cottingham says that’s just not the case. She says that according to a survey the city conducted this spring (which, of course, she can’t release because of Uber’s lawsuit), nearly half of all drivers got their license within a week of applying – almost all (about 84 percent) had al license within three weeks of applying, she claims. Whatever the case, Uber’s Meridia said in the letter to city leaders yesterday that demand in Houston “continues to grow approximately twice as fast as our ability to onboard qualified drivers.”

Cottingham says the city has streamlined the process as much as possible, but what Uber’s really asking for – axing the city’s additional background check provision – isn’t an option.

KTRK also noted that some of the facts in dispute cannot be checked on either end. That makes this more of a PR battle than anything else. Do people, who clearly like using Uber’s service, side with them against the city and buy into the argument that needless regulation is making it impossible to operate? Or do they see the fingerprint requirement as a basic safety measure, which Uber should have no issue with complying? That seems to me to be the basic outline of the dispute, and it’s why I’m so interested in who Uber’s proxies will be in the fight. I’m sure Mayor Turner’s response to this has been along the lines of “I don’t need this $#!+ right now”. Who will be on his side? BOR has more.

Kill that trash subsidy

Works for me.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner, working to close a $160 million budget deficit, has proposed scrapping payments that scores of Houston neighborhoods served by private trash haulers receive to help offset the cost of their waste contracts.

The idea when the program started in the 1970s was that residents should not have to pay property taxes for city trash services they were not receiving – particularly because they were already paying for waste pickup in their homeowner association dues. The city also came out ahead because the $6 monthly per-house subsidy was cheaper than the cost of the city serving each home itself, now estimated at $18 per home per month.

In scraping together a balanced budget for the fiscal year that starts in July, however, Turner felt the program was expendable. In many cases, the subsidies go to residents who have chosen to pay for more extensive services than those the city provides, such as having the trash picked up more frequently than once a week, or having workers walk up a resident’s driveway to retrieve the trash rather than the homeowner rolling a bin to the curb.

Cutting these “sponsorship” payments to the 48,000 homes participating would save the city $3.5 million.

“When I drilled down in every department and every line item and I saw that line item sticking out, my question was, ‘Is this one that people can give up without hurting them and the core services, things that are essential to the city?'” Turner said. “I decided this was something the city at this particular point in time was not in a position to continue to sponsor.”

City Council will begin hearings on Turner’s proposed budget on Monday, leading up to a final vote that could come as early as May 25.

[…]

“If they end up saying it’s that big of a difference, that they will give up their contracts and will turn to the city, then yeah, OK, more than likely I’ll remove it,” Turner said. “I’m not trying to make their situation bad, I’m simply trying to balance a budget that’s $160 million short, and I’ve asked people to engage in shared sacrifice.”

The mayor also suggested, wearing a slight grin, that reporters examine the subdivisions now receiving trash subsidies.

The three City Council districts home to 83 percent of the city’s sponsorship agreements, records show, also are the three districts with the highest median household incomes in the city: District G on the west side, District E in Kingwood and Clear Lake, and District C, which covers much of the western half of the Inner Loop.

[CM Dave] Martin acknowledged that he and many of his neighbors receiving private trash service in District E can cover a $6-per-month increase in their civic association dues.

“If you’re used to getting your trash picked up twice a week and you’re used to backdoor service, most people are probably going to say, ‘Keep my six bucks,'” Martin said. “They’re mostly the people that have the means to pay an extra $6 a month.”

Yes indeed. And now is the time for the city to say to these folks that we can no longer afford to subsidize their premium trash collection service. We all have to make sacrifices in these lean times, don’t you know. The irony is that if enough people decide that the sacrifice they’d prefer to make is the higher level of service, in return for saving a few bucks a month, then it won’t be worth the city’s effort to make them make that sacrifice. I suspect that the vast majority of them will take the original deal, of keeping the service but paying full price for it. If nothing else, it will allow those who are so inclined to piss and moan about how hard they have it now. Surely that’s worth the six bucks a month to them. KUHF has more.

More HERO public information requests

The bullying continues.

He’s a bully!

Does President Barack Obama regularly drop a line to Houston City Council members?

Probably not, but we could soon find out, thanks to a public records request that opponents of the city’s equal rights ordinance, known as HERO, filed this week. It’s a response to a public records request that a nonprofit filed earlier this month seeking correspondence between members that voted down the city’s equal rights ordinance and national anti-LGBT groups.

At the time, Councilman Michael Kubosh called a press conference to denounce the request, saying he was particularly upset that just the six council members that voted against the law, not the full council, were subject to the request. He called it “bullying.”

A week later, however, HERO opponents have taken the same approach. In a request filed Wednesday, conservative lawyer Jared Woodfill sought all communication between pro-HERO council members and a slew of local and national figures and groups, most pro-LGBT.

Fourth on the list, sandwiched between Mayor Annise Parker and the Human Rights Campaign, is Obama. Presidential hopefuls Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders along with mayor-elect Sylvester Turner are also included.

See here for the background. I’m sure CMs Kubosh and Martin will be holding a press conference to denounce this bit of bullying any minute now. Or maybe we’ve all managed to get a grip and recognize that this is just normal politics and nothing to get upset about. Regardless, I expect this request to have about the same effect as the other one, which is to say, not much. But at least everyone will have gotten it out of their system.

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 members complain about open records requests

Oh, please.

CM Michael Kubosh

CM Michael Kubosh

Councilmen Michael Kubosh and Dave Martin on Tuesday blasted a records request from a D.C.-based nonprofit to those council members who voted against the Houston equal rights ordinance, known as HERO, last year.

The Campaign for Accountability’s request seeks communication between prominent local anti-HERO activists as well as anti-LGBT groups, such as the Alliance Defending Freedom and the Family Research Council, and the six council members who voted against the law. Kubosh and Martin were joined by Councilwoman Brenda Stardig and councilmen Jack Christie, Dwight Boykins and Oliver Pennington in opposing the law in May 2014.

[…]

At a press conference outside City Hall on Tuesday, Kubosh said council members were being “harassed and intimated” by the request. He called on the mayor to condemn the request, and said the six council members were unfairly targeted.

“I felt like when we received this open records request for over tens of thousands of emails and 51 names of individuals and organizations that we’re going to have to search through, this is a type of bullying,” Kubosh said.

The Campaign for Accountability, a watchdog group that files records requests all over the country, responded in a written statement that the move was not meant to intimidate council members. The group called Kubosh’s charge an “outlandish allegation that seems contrived more to attract press attention than to express a serious concern.”

In an interview, deputy director Daniel Stevens also denied Kubosh’s allegation that Mayor Annise Parker, a proponent of the law, was behind the request. Kubosh called it a “lump of coal” from the mayor.

Mayoral spokeswoman Janice Evans responded to Kubosh’s comments in a written statement, saying his charge that the mayor is connected to the request is “totally unsubstantiated.”

“There are hundreds of people who have made political contributions to the mayor during her 18 years in office. Receiving open records requests is very common. We tend to get one or more a day here in the mayor’s office and they often come from people who disagree with something the mayor has done or a position she has taken on an issue. They can be overwhelming and time consuming to process but it is part of being an elected officeholder. If this is the first time the council member has received one, he should count himself lucky.”

Indeed. Of course some of these requests are going to be annoying, politically motivated, and/or time-consuming. That’s part of the job. You want to complain about people who don’t like you demanding to poke through your emails, go have a drink at the bar with Hillary Clinton. I’m sure she’d have a sympathetic ear to lend. Beyond that, I say suck it up.

If you think I’m being a bit harsh here, I admit that I am. But ask yourself a simple question: What would the reaction have been like from the folks at this little event if it had been Mayor Parker calling a press conference to decry the “bullying” open records requests of a political opponent? My guess is that sympathy would not have been the first order of the day. Sometimes the best course of action is to just get over yourself and show these people that you have nothing to hide and they’re the ones who are wasting their time. Assuming that’s how you feel about it, of course.

One more thing:

Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, also attended the event in support of Kubosh and Martin. Bettencourt is already planning to convene the Senate Intergovernmental Relations committee to look into why the city has been rebuffed by the Texas Supreme Court on ballot language issues, including one pertaining to HERO. He added Tuesday that he would seek to discuss a law that would “limit out-of-state access to this type of punitive open records request.”

Seriously? I’m going to outsource my reply to one of the commenters on the Chron story, who is not at all aligned with me politically:

Note to “Uncle Paul” — all your anti-transparency bill would do was (sic) lead the out of state organizations to get a member or supporter from Texas to file the request. It is done more frequently than you think, anyway.

So unless you’re proposing to do away with open records requests altogether, such legislation would do exactly nothing. But thanks for playing. The Press has more.

Council’s pension meeting

It was about what you’d expect.

Mayor Annise Parker

Mayor Annise Parker

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Council meeting called to discuss firefighter pension deal

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

Mayor Annise Parker

Mayor Annise Parker

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

January campaign finance reports – Council

CM Jerry Davis

CM Jerry Davis

Mayoral reports
Controller reports

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

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

David Robinson
Michael Kubosh

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

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

One more week till vehicles for hire

You didn’t expect Council to vote on it so quickly, did you? They’ll get to it next week.

Uber

The proposed changes would place specific requirements on the independent drivers and the technology companies, which connect drivers willing to ferry people around with people looking for a ride. The companies must acquire permits to operate in the city and must carry $1 million in commercial liability insurance on its drivers. The drivers and the vehicles they use would face their own safety and inspection standards.

Local cab and limo companies have fought the proposed reforms and remain opposed.

If the council approves the changes, Uber officials have said the firm could operate its existing Uber X service, as well as Uber Black, a private car service that teams the company with existing local limo firms.

Lyft’s future in Houston is less certain. A spokeswoman said the company is unwilling to use the driver background check system proposed by the city, which includes fingerprinting, believing its own procedure is better.

Lyft

Lyft representatives circulated amendments to the proposal related to background checks this week, but no council member presented them on Wednesday. The amendments still could be put forth next week.

In discussing the measure before delaying the vote, council members focused largely on what have been key talking points for the cab industry throughout the debate: the new firms’ insurance coverage and their ability to accommodate those with disabilities, particularly those in wheelchairs.

“I’m not satisfied with what has been presented so far, and we need to make sure we have this covered properly with regard to people with disabilities,” said Councilman Robert Gallegos, who noted his brother is in a wheelchair.

Gallegos and Councilman Dave Martin both mentioned that the council last week passed an equal rights ordinance prohibiting discrimination against more than a dozen protected groups, including those with disabilities, and should be consistent.

Can’t say I’m surprised. I don’t want to read too much into the quotes from Council members in this story, since they can certainly get their questions answered and concerns addressed between now and next Wednesday, but I continue to wonder what the whip count is for this ordinance. We know CM Costello is in favor, and I daresay we can add Mayor Parker and CM Gonzalez to his side. After that, I have no idea. I don’t know that there are any clear-cut No votes either, but I’m sure there are a few. My point is that it’s rare for an issue to be both high-profile and contentious without really knowing much about who stands where. Everyone had a pretty good idea of how the vote on HERO was going to go, for example. Unless we see some public statements between now and next week, this one could go either way and I won’t be too surprised. Texas Leftist and PDiddie have more.

HERO passes

Finally.

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

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

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

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

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

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

NDO vote will be next week

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

RedEquality

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The late Wednesday story has more on the amendments.

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

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

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

[…]

Other council members sought to strengthen the ordinance.

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

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

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

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

Back to the Tuesday story:

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

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

Fearing the fire reform

This ought to be interesting.

Rumblings of coming reforms in Houston Fire Department’s operations have union leaders and the department’s command staff wary, despite Mayor Annise Parker’s insistence that these concerns are unwarranted.

HFD’s staffing shortage has driven up overtime costs, creating a budget crisis that has, on some days, seen ambulances and fire trucks pulled from service. These budget discussions have dominated City Hall in recent weeks, leading the mayor and some council members to question whether the department’s $450 million budget could be spent more efficiently.

Parker, for instance, said she questions whether the city should invest in more ambulances and fewer new fire trucks, given that 85 percent of HFD’s calls are medical emergencies and that fire trucks are more expensive to purchase, staff and maintain. She also wonders whether the city is “oversaturated” in the way it places its 103 fire stations and deploys its 216-vehicle fleet.

The mayor is adamant, however, that she will not pursue reforms without a planned third-party study of HFD’s operations that is months away.

“Let me say this for about the 15th time publicly: I am not interested in splitting fire and EMS, nor am I interested in privatizing our EMS service in the city of Houston,” Parker said. “Are we clear? People make stuff up all the time. It’s just amazing.”

Most of the concern centers on the upcoming utilization study for the fire department, and a recent reorganization that has “HFD” and “EMS” reporting to different people. The firefighters’ union is worried that despite the Mayor’s insistence that it won’t happen, fire and EMS will be split into two distinct groups, with EMS workers being separate from the firefighters’ pension plan. The study is still several months away from beginning, and who knows what it will eventually conclude, but I think it’s safe to say there will be resistance to any recommendations of big changes. The early returns are quite revealing:

[HFD Chief Terry] Garrison and [HPFFA President Bryan] Sky-Eagle each said they would not fight the third-party study Parker wants as long as their input is welcomed. But some council members questioned whether the reforms such a study might recommend could be implemented.

Even idling a few trucks has affected the public’s perception of their safety, Councilman Ed Gonzalez said.

“Can you imagine if we said we’re going to start shutting down stations?” he said. “That’s a huge monster to undertake.”

Councilman Dave Martin was blunter.

“The council member is going to go crazy, the citizens are going to go crazy and World War III is going to break out,” he said. “I’d bet my last nickel it’s not going to be able to happen.”

I’ll be blunt as well. I’ve conducted over 100 interviews with Council candidates since 2007. Pretty much every one of them says something to the effect of how the city needs to be more efficient, to do more with less, to find new ways to deliver services in a cost-effective manner – you get the idea. Everyone wants the city to live within its budget and not raise taxes while doing all the things the city needs to do. Well, public safety is the majority of the budget, and if we can’t even talk about how they’re spending that money – if we can’t “look for efficiencies” and all those other cliches in that part of the budget – then we’re just chanting mantras about the budget and how we manage it. I’m not saying we have to accept any of the recommendations that the study will eventually make – for any number of valid reasons, we may find those recommendations to be unsuitable – but I am saying we need to keep an open mind. Change is always hard, but if it makes sense we ought to at least consider it.

What to do with that extra money?

Some unexpected good financial news for the city, but what to do about it is the tricky part.

Just months after hiking health premiums, shifting costs to employees and plugging a projected multimillion-dollar deficit in its health benefits fund, the city of Houston has found itself with a sizable surplus in that account instead.

The city had used $14 million to fill the projected deficit in its health fund in January, after predictions about claims and premiums proved inaccurate. In a memo issued this week, Human Resources Director Omar Reid said the city’s calculations were indeed off – but in the other direction, with claims coming in lower than expected.

That, combined with the January payment, leaves the health fund with an $18 million surplus, he wrote.

Fresh off benefit cuts and premium hikes in May, the municipal employees’ union is livid. It is demanding that Mayor Annise Parker rescind jumps in co-pays, deductibles, co-insurance and out-of-pocket maximums, and cut the increase in employee premiums from 14.9 percent to 8.7 percent.

The city’s share of premiums, which covers three-quarters of plan costs, with the rest coming from workers, also rose 14.9 percent in May.

City Councilmen Stephen Costello, Dave Martin and James Rodriguez said they are concerned city staff have shown an inability to project health costs and said the public should be wary, too. Health costs make up almost 10 percent of the city’s general fund operating budget.

“To have a change as drastic as this means somebody really didn’t do a very good job of diligence in their financial analysis of the program, and I’m trying to find out why is that happening,” Martin said. “More importantly, what can we do about it in the future, and how reliable is the data today?”

Rodriguez added, “My faith is somewhat shaken in their ability to calculate these numbers.”

I wouldn’t be too hard on the city’s financial analysts. Clearly, they made overly cautious projections, but I find it difficult to crime them for it given the steady drumbeat of pension-related financial doomsaying we’ve been subjected to lately. How could they be anything but overly cautious in an environment like that? I’m quite certain they’d have been taken to the woodshed for being too exuberantly optimistic if their initial projection had been much lower. The story doesn’t detail how this projection was made, but my guess is that the analysts relied heavily on historical data, most likely without sufficiently taking into account the fact that health care costs have grown a lot more slowly in the past five years than at any time in the past fifty years. Of course, they may have accounted for that but also considered that no one really knows why cost growth has slowed, and no one really knows how long that slowdown trend will last. If they erred towards excessive caution, I can understand their thinking.

Still, that caution had a profound impact on the city’s employees, who paid a lot more for their health care than they actually needed to. The union is right to demand that the employees get their money back. I’m sensitive to the concerns that this could be a blip on the graph, but that gets back to my earlier point about how these projections were done. Now that we have some empirical data, how about we revisit what our assumptions were and see where we might make some adjustments? That should inform how we proceed and how we make it right for the city’s employees, who have given up a lot to balance the city’s budget. They deserve a fair shake.

July 2013 finance reports for district Council candidates

We move now to the remaining Council races, which are the district races. Here are the July finance reports for candidates in District Council races. Please note that all reports now appear on my newly-published Election 2013 page. Refer to that page for future updates, candidate interviews, and so forth.

Dist Candidate Raised Spent On Hand Loan ------------------------------------------------------- A Brown 67,446 29,633 46,674 0 A Stardig * 56,650 21,206 60,439 0 A Knox 41,666 13,139 35,624 12,500 A Peck 4,481 3,526 9,163 5,000 A Hale 2,670 3,438 137 0 B Davis 52,600 7,990 104,820 0 B B-Daniels 5,000 2,564 5,000 5,000 C Cohen 128,064 33,716 106,696 0 C Sosa D Boykins 150,155 52,262 100,592 0 D Richards 37,108 10,318 18,294 0 D Provost 20,916 17,618 2,378 9,000 D McGee 4,560 4,570 1,369 0 D White 780 780 780 0 D Caldwell 2,725 2,234 490 0 E Martin 53,950 6,225 23,710 5,000 F Hoang 13,480 2,100 11,399 0 G Pennington 185,500 44,455 249,059 0 G Taef 150 755 150 0 H Gonzalez 79,639 20,524 73,364 0 I Mendez 94,632 43,092 12,048 0 I Ablaza 27,230 4,574 16,582 0 I Gallegos 16,945 7,649 9,295 4,379 I Garces 18,917 13,195 4,272 0 J Laster 66,403 12,916 80,858 0 K Green

For reasons unclear, CMs Cohen and Green do not have finance reports posted as yet. I’m sure they will show up eventually. I was able to inquire with CM Cohen’s staff and get a copy of her report, which they had submitted on time; I did not get to do that with CM Green. There are several other candidates in District D, including Lana Edwards, wife of At Large #3 candidate and former State Rep. Al Edwards, and perennial candidate Larry McKinzie; I’ve just listed the candidates whose reports I could find. Let’s go through these in some more detail.

District A

Brown report
Stardig report
Stardig SPAC report
Knox report
Peck report
Hale report

Note that former District A CM Brenda Stardig filed two reports, one of which is for a special purpose PAC. That one had all the contributions and a portion of her expenditures, while the other one, which is the same basic form everyone else submitted, had the bulk of her expenditures. She’s clearly spending more on actual campaign outreach, which stands in contrast to her July 2011 report. Stardig took in $6,500 in PAC money, and also received $1,000 from Peter Brown, $1,000 from Rusty Hardin, and $20 from Orlando Sanchez.

I may have to recalibrate my estimate of CM Helena Brown and her odds of winning, because that’s a pretty decent haul she’s got. Only $4,750 of it was PAC money, which is less than what former CM Stardig got. You can look at that as the establishment being unwilling to back her, or as evidence of her ability to connect with individual supporters. She got no money from incumbent officeholders, but did get donations from activist types like Steven Hotze, Don Sumners, and Dave Wilson. Unlike last time, when she filed at the last minute and came out of nowhere based on pure disgruntlement and dissatisfaction with the incumbent, Brown has to run a “real” campaign this time around. Towards that end, she spent $9,600 on consulting services, mostly to an outfit called Colonnade. I don’t recall seeing that name on other forms, so we’ll see if this is their breakout moment, or their fleeting moment of fame.

Mike Knox also had a good report. Among his contributions were several with oddly specific amounts, which showed up more than once, including such figures as $92.25, $471.25, and six donations of $47.13 each. I have no idea what that’s about. $2,100 of his contributions were in kind. Most of his expenditures, including $2,900 for consulting services, were made from personal funds with the intent to seek reimbursement.

I’m puzzled by Amy Peck’s lack of fundraising success. You’d think the District Director for Sen. Dan Patrick would have more connections to utilize. She did receive $500 from SBOE Member Donna Bahorich, but there was nothing and no one of interest beyond that. In what may be a sign of a newer-generation approach to campaigning, she spent $463.05 on Facebook ads, and $438.90 on T-shirts. Make of that what you will.

Ron Hale contributed $730 to his campaign, and spent a bit more than $900 from personal funds.

District B

Davis report
Blueford-Daniels report

While at least two other district Council members have opponents so far (Cohen in C and Pennington in G), I consider first term CM Jerry Davis’ situation to be more like Brown’s than like theirs, since Davis won as an outsider in 2011, and there are members of the establishment in B that don’t like him. He has a credible opponent in Kathy Blueford-Daniels, who didn’t make the runoff in 2011 but was the Chron’s endorsed candidate in November. He’s definitely taking his task seriously, judging by his report. Of his contributions, $21,000 came from PACs, including $250 from Planned Parenthood PAC. I note that mostly because I don’t recall seeing anyone else receive money from them as yet. He also received $750 from Peter Brown. No major expenditures – mostly event sponsorships and other related expenses. The only entry I saw that had anything related to consulting in it was $8 for a birthday cake for his consultant. Awww.

Kathy Blueford-Daniels had nothing particularly notable on her report. She had $5K in pledges in addition to her contributions. She hasn’t been campaigning for long – I got a note to like her campaign Facebook page on June 25 – so perhaps her 30 day report will tell a different story.

District D

Boykins report
Richards report
Provost report
McGee report
White report
Caldwell report

This is Dwight Boykins’ fourth run for Council, and first time vying for a district seat. He finished third in At Large #5 in 1997, lost in the runoff to Gordon Quan in 1999, and lost to Michael Berry in At Large #5 in 2003. He’s clearly separated himself from the pack here, however. Of his astonishingly large haul, $14K of it is PAC money, with another $8,375 in business donations. He spent $20,051 on consulting fees, some of which were “field operations” and “printing expenses”. He probably doesn’t have to raise another dime the rest of the way, but what he can do is aim for 50% in the first round by flooding the district with name recognition-boosting ads.

Assata Richards’ total would have been a standout in some other years. As it was, she did receive $3,500 from Peter Brown, $1,500 from David Mincberg, plus another $324 in kind, $100 from Sue Lovell, and $50 from Sue Davis, who is one of the key members of Team Annise Parker. She spent most of her money on advertising – website design, push cards, yard signs, and the like.

Georgia Provost had the distinction of receiving a $1,000 donation from Ben Hall. She also put a lot of her money into advertising, but she was a bit more old school than Richards, with ads on radio station KCOH and in the Forward Times, in addition to push cards, yard signs, and robocalls. She also donated $25 to Battleground Texas, which bumps her up a notch in my estimation. The loan she received was from Justin Jordan.

District I

Mendez report
Abalaza report
Gallegos report
Garces report

Ben Mendez had the most complicated non-Mayoral report so far. Of his generally impressive total, $37,100 was in kind, most of which appears to be items for a fundraising auction. That includes items such as $100 for a yoga mat and $150 for an hourlong massage, both of which strike me as overvalued, though that doesn’t really make much difference to the bottom line. There were also in kind donations of $5K for website design and $3500 for campaign advertising/digital marketing, the former of which also strikes me as high. Most of the other reports had website design figures in the $1000 to $2000 range. Mendez also received contributions of $500 from State Rep. Ron Reynolds, and $100 from HCDE Trustee Erica Lee. He spent $19,500 for consultants.

Leticia Ablaza is back for a second try at District I, with a solid if not terribly interesting report. $7,660 of her contributions were in kind, and she received a $100 donation from At Large #3 candidate Chris Carmona. Not much of interest beyond that.

Neither Robert Gallegos nor Graci Garces did anything spectacular. Gallegos, a former staffer for now-Sen. Sylvia Garcia, received $500 from her and from Peter Brown, plus a few bucks from some current Garcia staffers. $2K of the loan he reported is from James Dinkins. Garces got $500 from Drayton McLane and spent $6,800 on consulting fees.

Other districts

Cohen report
Martin report
Hoang report
Pennington report
Gonzalez report
Laster report

The lobby made newest CM Dave Martin feel welcome, with $30,200 in contributions to him from PACS. He spent $1,500 on consultants.

I don’t quite understand why CM Al Hoang doesn’t have more campaign cash. Be that as it may, he got $7,500 from the PACs, and also spent $1,500 on the same consultants as CM Martin, Blakemore and Associates.

CM Oliver Pennington continues to be a fundraising machine. He got $30,900 in PAC and business donations, and many, many four-figure contributions from individuals, among them $1000 each from Patricia Dewhurst and Bob McNair. I just scanned his expenses since his form was so long, and spotted recurring fees of $3K to Sarah Tropoli (his daughter) and $2K to Richard Cron for consulting; $2500 and $500 to Walden and Associates for fundraising and office rent, respectively. Clearly, the fundraising fees are money well spent.

Also a prodigious fundraiser is CM Ellen Cohen, and she keeps that up here. In addition to $24,900 from PACs, she got $100 each from Kathryn McNeil, the campaign consultant for CM Stephen Costello; Sallie Alcorn, CM Costello’s chief of staff; and Sue Davis. She also got $100 from Ann Johnson, the 2012 Democratic nominee for HD134, Cohen’s former legislative seat, $500 from Peter Brown, and $20 from Stuart Rosenberg, Mayor Parker’s campaign manager.

CM Ed Gonzalez, my Council member, had another one of those solid reports that didn’t have anything terribly interesting to blog about. He took in- $28,500 from PACs and $20 from Stuart Rosenberg. He spent $8,321 on consulting fees.

Last but not least is CM Mike Laster, another solid performer. He received $250 from Peter Brown, $100 from Sue Lovell, $100 Rodrigo Canedo, who was one of his opponents in 2011, and the customary $20 from Stuart Rosenberg. He also got $31,750 in PAC money, and spent $4,644 in consulting fees.

And that’s all I’ve got for this report. Still to come are a look at the reports filed by people not running in 2013, a closer look at the Mayoral reports, and looks at the reports filed by officeholders and candidates in HISD, HCC, Harris County, and the Legislature. Did I mention that July was a busy time of year? As always, any questions or requests, leave ’em in the comments.

Midyear 2013 election update

Back in January, I took an early look at the 2013 elections in Houston. At the request of the folks at the Burnt Orange Report, who also printed my initial overview, here’s an update on the races in the city of Houston in 2013.

Mayor

Back in January, Mayor Parker had no declared opponents, though everyone expected former City Attorney Ben Hall to jump in, and there were whispers of other potential entrants. Hall made his candidacy official about two weeks after my initial report, and formally launched his campaign in March, though things have been fairly low key so far. Mayor Parker, who just kicked off her own campaign a couple of weeks ago, has been busy touting her achievements, of which there have been many in recent months, and pointing out all the glowing praise Houston is getting in the national media for its food scene, arts, employment opportunities, and affordable housing. Hall has been introducing himself to voters – he was the featured speaker at a recent event at HCDP headquarters; Mayor Parker will get her turn for that later in June – though thus far he has stuck to general themes and not presented much in the way of specific policy initiatives. He suffered some bad press a month ago when news of his frequent delinquency when paying property taxes surfaced. That subject, and the fact that Hall lived outside Houston in the tony suburb of Piney Point until last year – he was ineligible to vote in the 2009 city election – will likely come up again as the campaigns begin to engage with each other.

Two other candidates have joined the race as well. One is Green Party perennial Don Cook, who ran for an At Large Council seat in 2009 and 2011, for County Clerk in 2010, and for CD22 in 2012. The other is 2011 At Large #2 candidate Eric Dick, and you can keep the jokes to yourself, he’s way ahead of you on that. Besides his name, Dick is best known for covering the city with bandit campaign signs two years ago; the signs and the controversy that accompanied them did wonders for his name recognition and no doubt his law firm’s bottom line. It’s not clear if he intends to run a more serious campaign this time or if it’s just going to be another round of nailing things to utility poles and denying all knowledge of how they got there, but Dick’s emphasizing that he’s the “Republican” candidate in this nominally non-partisan race suggests that at least one person is thinking about the old pincer strategy.

We’ll have a better idea of where things stand when the campaign finance reports come out in six weeks. Hall has made much noise about his willingness to self-finance his campaign, but nothing says “broad-based support”, or the lack of it, than one’s list of small-dollar donors. It will also be interesting to see where the establishment goes, and if there are any defections from Parker 09 to Hall or Gene Locke 09 to Parker. Finally, on the subject of Republicans, it’s well known among insiders but not at all outside that circle that Hall has a couple of Republican operatives on his campaign payroll. I feel confident saying that fact will gain prominence after the July 15 reports begin to emerge. Until then, there’s the parody Ben Hall Twitter feed to keep those of you who are into that sort of thing amused.

City Controller

Incumbent Ronald Green, who like Mayor Parker is running for a third term, also now has an opponent, a Republican accountant by the name of Bill Frazer. Frazer now has a Facebook page for his campaign, but still no webpage that I can find. As noted before, Green has had some bad press, and he has never been a dynamic fundraiser or campaigner. He didn’t have a lot of cash on hand in January, and I don’t recall much activity there since then. He could conceivably be vulnerable to the right candidate and some bad luck. I don’t think Frazer is that candidate, and as far as luck goes all Green really needs is no more dirt to come out about him before November. Outside of open seat years, we really don’t have a history of Controller races in Houston. The office tends to get a lot less attention than Council does.

City Council At Large

I took an early look at At Large #3, the one open At Large seat, back in April, and nothing much has changed since then. It’s an interesting field, to say the least, with three candidates that have run citywide in the past, and the three that haven’t can credibly claim to have a base of support. There is no clear frontrunner, though the lack of a prominent African American candidate in the race is a factor that could ultimately affect its trajectory. I continue to believe that’s a void that will eventually be filled. Again, the campaign finance reports will bring a bit of focus to the picture, but most likely there will be not that much to see just yet. Generally speaking, the usual powers that be steer clear of these multi-candidate pileups until the runoff.

I noted before that there might be more opportunity in a head-to-head matchup against one of the two freshmen At Large Council members than in the wide open At Large #3 scramble. David Robinson, who finished fourth in the open At Large #2 race in 2011, has apparently taken that to heart and is challenging CM Andrew Burks for that seat. Burks has not particularly distinguished himself in his first term, but he is generally well liked and remains well known due to his many previous candidacies. So far, no one has emerged to take on Burks’ fellow freshman, CM Jack Christie, and the two members running for their third terms, CMs Stephen Costello and Brad Bradford, are also unopposed. Both Costello and Bradford are known to have future Mayoral ambitions, so the tea leaf readers will have some material to work with after the election. Actually, they’ll have some before it as well, since Bradford is listed as a Hall supporter, while Costello, along with CMs Ed Gonzalez and Al Hoang, are Parker supporters.

District City Council

There are only two open district Council seats thanks to the resignation of now-Harris County Tax Assessor Mike Sullivan, who was succeeded by CM Dave Martin last November. Martin will likely draw a challenger or two as the newbie on Council, but so far all of the action is elsewhere. I am aware of four candidates for the District D seat now held by CM Wanda Adams: businessman and former ReBuild Houston oversight board member Dwight Boykins, who had previously run for At Large #5 in 2003, losing to Michael Berry; Houston Housing Authority board member Assata Richards; photojournalist and businesswoman Georgia Provost; and community advocate Keith Caldwell, who ran for D in 2007 and finished fifth in the field of seven. There had been some buzz about former At Large #5 CM Jolanda Jones throwing her hat in and forcing a legal decision to clarify Houston’s term limits ordinance, but I haven’t heard anything about that in months and have no idea if it is still a possibility.

District I has proven to be the liveliest race so far, as candidates Graci Garces and Ben Mendez have already gotten into the kind of spat that one only sees in election years. Garces is the Chief of Staff to current District I member James Rodriguez, who in turn was Chief of Staff to State Rep. Carol Alvarado when she held that seat; Garces was also on Alvarado’s staff. Mendez is a businessman. They are joined in the race by community activist and Sheriff’s Department employee Robert Gallegos, and Leticia Ablaza. Ablaza is the former Chief of Staff to District A CM Helena Brown, who resigned from that position along with Deputy Chief of Staff RW Bray after less than five months on the job, and she challenged CM Rodriguez in 2011, finishing with 35% of the vote. To say the least, her presence in this race makes it one to watch.

Speaking of CM Helena Brown, the field for District A is big enough to make you think it was an open seat as well. In addition to the incumbent, candidates include former CM Brenda Stardig, who assured me on the phone a few weeks ago that she’s going to run a much more organized and focused campaign than she did in 2011 when Brown ousted her; Amy Peck, the District Director for Sen. Dan Patrick who finished third in District A in 2009; and Mike Knox, who has been an HPD officer, Board Member of the Houston Police Patrolmen’s Union, and Director of Community Service for the Spring Branch Management District. All three have good establishment Republican credentials, and I suspect the strategy for all three is to get into a runoff with Brown and hope to consolidate enough support against her to win. As always, the July finance report will tell an interesting tale, and this is one time where I think the usual suspects will not be on the sidelines early but will already be backing one horse or another.

HISD and HCC

There is one update to report on HISD races. District I Board Member and current Board President Anna Eastman is now opposed by community activist Hugo Mojica, who ran in the special election for City Council District H in May 2009 to succeed Sheriff Adrian Garcia and finished eighth in the field of nine. District I is my district, and while I think Hugo is a perfectly nice person, I think Anna Eastman is an outstanding Trustee, and I’ll be voting for her in the fall. There are no other active races I’m aware of, but the impending takeover of North Forest ISD will necessitate a redraw of Trustee districts that could force a special election in Districts II and VIII, where Rhonda Skillern-Jones and Juliet Stipeche now serve. Neither would be on the ballot in 2013 otherwise. I don’t know what all of the ramifications of this will be, but that’s a possibility to watch out for. Finally, while no one has yet announced a campaign against him, District IX Trustee Larry Marshall continues to provide ammunition for whoever does take the plunge.

Lastly, there are two developments in HCC. There is now a second special election on the ballot, as former Board President Richard Schechter stepped down in January after successfully leading the push for HCC’s bond referendum in November. The board appointed attorney and former General Counsel for HCC Leila Feldman to succeed Schechter. Feldman is also the daughter-in-law of Houston City Attorney David Feldman and is married to Cris Feldman, whom aficionados of all things Tom DeLay will recognize as a key player in bringing about his demise. In any event, she will be on the ballot in November along with appointee Herlinda Garcia, who succeeded State Rep. Mary Perez, and incumbents Bruce Austin, Neeta Sane, and Yolanda Navarro Flores. In the second development, Navarro has drawn two opponents, Zeph Capo, the vice-president and legislative director for the Houston Federation of Teachers, and community and Democratic activist Kevin Hoffman, who lost to Navarro Flores in 2007. HCC Trustee races never get much attention, but this one will be as high profile as these races get.

That’s all I have for now. I’ll be taking a close look at the finance reports when they come out.

UPDATE: Whenever I write one of these posts, I’m going by what I’ve seen and heard. Until the July finance reports come out, there’s no easy way to compile a list of candidate names, unless you drop in on the City Secretary and ask to see the dead tree document of people who have filed designation of campaign treasurer forms. As such, I’m going to miss some people, and I inevitably hear about them after I publish.

Three such names have come to my attention since I posted this. One is former State Rep. Al Edwards, who apparently is actively campaigning for At Large #3. The second is Clyde Lemon, who according to Burt Levine is going to run against HISD Trustee Larry Marshall. Neither has a webpage or a campaign Facebook page that I can find, and Google told me nothing about their efforts, so make of that what you will.

The third candidate I’ve heard of since posting is Ron Hale, who is running in the increasingly large District A field. Hale left a bizarre comment on Levine’s Facebook page, saying that I’m “another blogger trying to keep [his] name out of the article as if it hurts my campaign” and “one person in the district A race is a contributor to off the cuff (sic)”. I have no idea what he’s talking about – I am of course the only “contributor” to Off the Kuff – but whatever. Ron Hale is also running for District A, and now you know.

2012 election results

As I type this there are still a number of unsettled races in Texas, so things may change between now and tomorrow morning after we’ve all had an insufficient night’s sleep. But here’s how they stand at this time, and I will use my what I’ll be looking for post as a jumping off point.

Sen. Wendy Davis

First and foremost, State Sen. Wendy Davis was re-elected in SD10. I can’t begin to tell you how big that is. She was by far the Republicans’ biggest target this year, and she was again running in a district draw to favor a Republican candidate, this time without a Libertarian in the race to potentially draw votes away from her opponent. Yet she prevailed, riding an Election Day majority to a come-from-behind win, and thrusting herself squarely into the conversation for a statewide run at some point. Now the Democrats are assured of at least 11 Senate seats no matter how long it takes Rick Perry to call the special election to succeed the late Sen. Mario Gallegos, who also won, albeit much more easily. Again, this is huge.

As of this writing, Nick Lampson is trailing in CD14 by about 19,000 votes, with most of Galveston County still to report. I don’t know if he can win based on that. He fell short of the 60% he needed in Jefferson County that he supposedly needed, pulling 58.3% there. However, the Texas Tribune has called CD23 for Pete Gallego, who is leading by 6000 votes with only a handful of what are likely to be mostly friendly precincts still outstanding. Congrats to Rep.-Elect Pete Gallego!

It looks like Dems will exactly hit the target of +7 seats in the House for a total of 55. In addition to the three they won by default, they are leading in or have won HDs 34 (Abel Herrero), 78 (Joe Moody), 117 (Phillip Cortez), and 144 (Mary Ann Perez), while Rep. Craig Eiland has 53% with most of Galveston still out. Basically, Dems won four of the five districts in which they were the majority votegetters in most races in 2008, the exception being HD43, where turncoat Rep. JM Lozano appears to have held on. Sadly, Ann Johnson lost, but Gene Wu and Hubert Vo won easily.

Dems have picked up a seat on the SBOE as well, as Martha Dominguez has ousted Charlie Garza in SBOE1, while Marisa Perez won easily in SBOE3 and Ruben Cortez has held Mary Helen Berlanga’s seat in SBOE2. Considering what a massive clusterfsck this looked like after the Democratic primary, it’s a damn miracle.

With all but nine precincts reporting in Harris County, it’s a bit of a mixed bag. First, here’s the Presidential vote for Harris County as of this time:

Romney – 579,068
Obama – 579,070

Yes, Obama is leading Romney in Harris County by TWO VOTES. Good thing no one will call for a recount of that. The good news is that downballot Vince Ryan, Adrian Garcia, and Diane Trautman are all winning, while Mike Anderson has bested Lloyd Oliver. Sadly, Ann Harris Bennett appears to have fallen short by about 2400 votes. Fourteen of 20 Democratic judges won, while all five sitting Republican judges won, making the score 14-11 Dems overall.

Fort Bend County remained Republican. Obama will lose by a larger margin this time than in 2008 – he’s below 41% as I write this, but there are still 2000 precincts statewide to report. Given that, Keith Hampton never had a chance against Sharon Keller, but what is really disappointing is that he didn’t finish any closer to her than Obama did to Romney. However much newspaper endorsements meant in 2006, they meant squat to Keith Hampton. All of the Harris County-based appeals court candidates lost by about 10 points each. Incumbent Dem Diane Hanson lost on the Third Court, thanks in part to a peculiarly miniscule turnout in Travis County, but Dems knocked off three incumbent judges on the Fourth Court of Appeals.

Finally, all of the bond measures passed easily, as did the two Houston charter amendments and the Metro referendum. Dave Martin was elected to replace Mike Sullivan in Council District E with no runoff needed. Julian Castro’s pre-k referendum won. Marriage equality was victorious in Maine and Maryland, with Washington still out, and an anti-marriage equality referendum was narrowly losing in Minnesota. And Colorado legalized pot. Smoke ’em if you got ’em.

That’s all I’ve got for now. I’ll have more later, including a bonanza of precinct analyses once I get the data. Thank you and good night.

UPDATE: Rep. Eiland did win, as did the other Democratic legislative candidates I mentioned, so it’s +7 in the House. Nick Lampson did lose, so it’s +1 for the Dems in Congress.

Three for E

There will probably be more when all is said and done, but at this time there are three candidates running for District E this November.

The candidates are:

Lonnie Allsbrooks – Former owner of Beer Island bar in the Heights. Ran for At-Large Position 1 council seat in 2009. Moved to Kingwood earlier this year. Wants to promote restaurant/hospitality industry issues.

Dave Martin — Humble Independent School District trustee, Harris County-Houston Sports Authority board member. Clear favorite of Sullivan, who served with him on the Humble board. Managing partner at Marsh McLennan, a professional services and insurance brokerage firm.

Elizabeth Perez – self-employed accountant who lives near Hobby Airport, plaintiff in unsuccessful suit to overturn the city’s drainage fee. Ran for At-Large Position 2 council seat last year.

Sullivan submitted his resignation last month. I presume the filing deadline for this will be in September sometime. Candidates from Kingwood have won the last two times the seat was open. We’ll see if that streak continues.

UPDATE: As noted by outgoing CM Sullivan in the comments, the filing deadline for District E has passed, and these three candidates are it. I guess I thought it would be later than this because that’s usually how it is for city elections; the filing deadline in 2011 was September 7. Be that as it may, this is your lineup. My thanks to CM Sullivan for the correction.