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El Franco Lee

Back to private investors for the Dome

Sure, why not?

We still have the memories

Commissioner El Franco Lee, whose Precinct 1 is home to the county-owned Dome, said Commissioners Court is “not under any time constraint” in deciding what to do with the vacant stadium.

“The only constraint we’re under is spending any public money,” Lee said.


Lee noted that about $8 million worth of cleanup work, including asbestos removal, is underway to prepare the Dome for redevelopment or demolition and said that work would be sufficient to prepare the structure for the Super Bowl.

“We’ll be ready for that,” Lee said. “That’s a pretty low bar to meet.”

A memo to the court from the county engineer states that “no major activity can occur until asbestos removal is completed” by next September.

Harris County Judge Ed Emmett said Tuesday the Super Bowl is “a critical date” when it comes to the Dome’s fate but said the county will allow private parties another shot.

“People continue to come and say, you know, if you give us a little time we’ll have $100 million or $200 million or whatever, and I think Commissioners Court is of a mind that if they show up here and they’ve gone through the Harris County Sports and Convention Corp. and they have the money and they want to convert it, then we’ll certainly listen to ideas,” Emmett said.


Private funding is “the only thing you got left, and that is where we wanted to be in the first place,” Lee said.

Emmett said he, too, is hopeful, even while noting the private sector has “had 10 years to come up with the money” to no avail.

The “we’re in no rush” meme appeared immediately after the election, so this is no surprise. Private funding has always been the preference, since it (theoretically, at least) reduces the county’s exposure and most likely avoids the need for any further input from the voters, who needless to say can sometimes go off-script. There’s already a proposal to turn the Dome into a fitness center, with a promise from the proposer that given a couple months’ time he can scare up $200 million or so to do it. Not sure how I feel about that particular idea, but then like all of the others that preceded it, it’s unlikely to ever become anything more than an idea. If we wait around a little longer, and all indications are that we will, I’m sure plenty more ideas of varying levels of practicality will turn up. The question is what will happen if one of them comes with enough money to make a go of it.

Here comes the Dome renovation committee

I was wondering when we’d see this.

Reliant Park and Harris County officials on Thursday announced the launch of a campaign to garner voter support for a plan to redevelop the Astrodome, with Harris County Judge Ed Emmett and Precinct 1 Commissioner El Franco Lee each pledging $5,000 to the effort.

A referendum to fund the project will appear on the ballot this November. If approved, the county would issue up to $217 million in bonds to turn the now-vacant stadium into “The New Dome Experience,” an energy-efficient event center flanked by an “inviting” outdoor green space.

Dene Hofheinz, daughter of the late Roy Hofheinz, who is credited with building the world’s first domed super stadium – dubbed “the eighth wonder of the world” when it opened in 1965 – also pledged a donation during a news conference at Reliant Center.

The campaign political action committee is being co-chaired by former Harris County judges Jon Lindsay and Robert Eckels and former Hispanic Chamber of Commerce President Irma Diaz Gonzalez.

Lindsay, who has been a vocal advocate for preserving the iconic structure, said the committee hopes to raise $250,000 from private individuals.

“We know, mostly, where we can get the money, and we’ll just see how it comes in,” Lindsay said. “The campaign is really focusing on that this is a special event center that will bring in major functions.”

Officials from Harris County, which owns the Dome and Reliant Park, and the Harris County Sports and Convention Corporation, the agency that oversees the complex and conceived the renovation plan, will drive the campaign, along with a coalition of local and national historic preservation groups keen on saving the structure.

See here for the previous update. I’d say the group’s first order of business is to give themselves a name, and after that it would be nice if they’d at least put up a Facebook page. The story notes that the annual Offshore Technology Conference has committed to using the renovated Dome, so that’s one more thing for the committee to tout in its sales pitch. Also of interest is the lack of a mention of any anti-referendum group so far. The lack of any organized opposition will make the committee’s job easier. But please, name yourselves. That will make my job easier.

On a tangential note, Hair Balls had two posts last week reviewing the history of stadium-building in Harris County, and Swamplot pointed to this call by The Architect’s Newspaper for some bolder thinking on how to re-do the Dome. Check ’em out.

Astrodome referendum officially on the ballot

It’s been a long, strange trip, but at last you will get to vote on the fate of the Astrodome.

The Commissioners Court on Tuesday unanimously voted to place a bond election for up to $217 million to convert the iconic stadium into a massive, street-level convention hall and exhibit space, saying residents should take part in deciding the historic structure’s fate.

Should voters reject the bonds, County Judge Ed Emmett and Precinct 2 Commissioner Jack Morman said Tuesday they see no other alternative than to demolish the former “Eighth Wonder of the World,” which has sat vacant since city inspectors declared it unfit for occupancy in 2009. The Reliant Astrodome has not housed a professional sports team since the Astros moved to Minute Maid Park in 2000.

“If it does not pass in November, then that should be the death knell for the Dome,” Morman said.


While the vote to put the measure on the ballot was unanimous, court members’ personal support for the project is not.

Only Emmett and Precinct 1 Commissioner El Franco Lee said they definitely will cast a vote in favor of the bond referendum. Both, however, said they have no plans to launch – or, in Emmett’s case, participate in – campaigns to get the measure passed.

“There needs to be some plans made to do it, if it’s going to be a success,” Lee, who wants to save the Dome, said of a campaign. “The judge is our leadership, so we’ll just see what occurs from there.”

The Commissioners Court on Tuesday also approved $8 million for work that needs to be done to the half-century-old stadium regardless of whether it is torn down or renovated. That work includes asbestos abatement, demolition of the exterior spiral walkways and the sale of signs and other salvaged items that qualify as sports memorabilia.

County engineers and consultants, who estimated it would cost $217 million to repurpose the Dome, also determined it would cost $20 million to demolish it, not including the $8 million.

If the bond fails in November, Precinct 3 Commissioner Steve Radack said it “would make no sense to me at all” to spend millions of dollars demolishing the structure.

“There’s another day to have another election,” he said. “Why are you going to spend $8 million and then tear it down?”

The vote to call the bond election was made with one condition championed by Radack: That the ballot language explicitly say that the project would require an increase to the county property tax rate, which has not been raised in 17 years.

See here for the last update. We were headed towards a referendum in 2008 back when Astrodome Redevelopment was proposing a convention center as the Dome replacement, but the economic collapse knocked that off track, and so here we are now. The big question at this point is who lines up to oppose this. The Harris County Sports and Convention Corporation, whose renovation plan is what the Court approved for the ballot, will take the lead in communicating the referendum and the reasons to vote for it to the public. I have no idea how much money they’ll have to mount a real campaign, however. It’s certainly possible that some deep-pocketed types could show up to fund a campaign in favor of this, or in opposition to it. It’s also possible that there will be little more than earned media and some online presence to inform the voters. If I had to guess, I’d say this passes, but who knows? How do you plan to vote on this? Leave a comment and let’s get a totally unscientific data point to bat around. Texpatriate and Swamplot have more.

So many Dome ideas

The Harris County Sports & Convention Corporation has plenty of material to work with as it prepares to make a recommendation to Commissioners Court about the Astrodome.

19 suggestions but demolition ain't one

Harris County Sports & Convention Corp. staff will spend the next week evaluating 19 plans for redeveloping the Astro­dome and putting the finishing touches on the agency’s own proposal to remake the former Eighth Wonder of the World.

Executive Director Willie Loston would not describe any of the ideas in detail on Tuesday, the day after the agency’s submission deadline.

Loston did say, however, that some of them qualify as “proposals,” while others would be more accurately described as “submittals,” meaning they are less developed.

“I think it’s fair to say they’re not necessarily the same,” he said.


Under a resolution approved by the board in April, submitted proposals must be compatible with the Reliant Park Master Plan, abide by the lease rights of the Houston Texans and Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo, and, most importantly for Commissioners Court, come with financing.

If any proposals meet all those requirements, Loston said they will be presented to the board, along with the agency’s public-use option. He would not give details on that plan, either.

“We are committed to at least a public option of one sort or another,” Loston said. “We will be sending something.”

One thing is certain about the sports corporation’s public-use plan: It is not demolition, which is described in the April resolution as a last-resort option that would be recommended only if no other options pan out, including a failed vote.

It will certainly make a lot of people happy if demolition is not on the table, at least as far as the HCSCC is concerned. I presume that’s still the default way forward if there’s a referendum and it fails. If they recommend one of the private options and Commissioners Court goes for it, then I presume there is no referendum and we leave it in the hands of the private developer, who will hopefully have better luck than the last group to get a green light had.

In the continued absence of any privately funded proposals, Harris County Judge Ed Emmett has discussed the likelihood of sending a renovation proposal to voters in an upcoming election. The soonest that could happen is in November, although Emmett said Tuesday that it “ideally” would happen later because the general election ballot will not include any other county-related matters.

Emmett expressed doubt about a privately funded Dome proposal panning out, saying he “would’ve heard if somebody had come in and said we have a check for $400 or $500 million.” Still, he expressed confidence that the Sports Corp. will bring a good “solution,” and said he hopes it is something he can support.

“I think the Sports & Convention Corp. is on a positive track and I think on the 19th, when they unveil what they’re going to propose to us, then the real public discussion starts,” Emmett said. “In theory, we could look at the recommendation and say, ‘We don’t like that, bring us something else,’ but in an ideal world they’ll bring us a recommendation that we go, ‘That’s a great idea,’ and then it’s a question of taking that to the public.”

Before anything ends up on a ballot, Emmett said the court will have to figure out the exact price and how to pay for it. A combination of public and private dollars is possible, he said.

The HCSCC board will vote on what to recommend on the 25th, and from there it’s up to Judge Emmett and the Commissioners. I can’t wait to see what they come up with. Houston Politics, which goes into detail about the business incubator proposal, has more.

The emotional Dome decision

Nobody really wants to tear the Astrodome down. That in a nutshell is why the process to determine what to do with it has taken so long even though there aren’t any viable alternatives to demolition at this time.

Still cheaper to renovate than the real thing

A failure to come up with a feasible plan with the financing to make it happen could force county officials to confront a decidedly less popular option: demolition. And that reality is emotional, rooted in the deep nostalgia for a structure hailed as the “Eighth Wonder of the World” when it opened in 1965.

“If there were not the great sentimental attachment that we as a people have to this Dome, this discussion would have been over with years ago, period,” said Precinct 4 County Commissioner Jack Cagle. “The reason is why it’s still there is because of the love and the memories.”


Commissioner El Franco Lee, whose Precinct 1 is home to the Reliant, said in an interview last month he is “very” reluctant to tear down the 48-year-old stadium, which housed the Oilers and the Astros, as well as Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo events and Hurricane Katrina evacuees, before the city deemed it unfit for occupancy in 2009.

“I’m one of those hesitant ones,” Lee said. “The easiest thing to do is to tear it down.”

Lee disputes that it definitely would be the cheapest option, though, because of the debt still owed on the Dome. According to the county budget office, that amount is now less than $9 million; payments are made with hotel occupancy taxes rather than property tax revenues.

On Tuesday, Lee threw his support behind a group that said it is planning to raise as much as $500,000 to pressure wash the Dome in an effort to deter demolition.

“It’s less likely to happen if we spruce up the building,” Chris Alexander, project director of Astrodome Tomorrow, told Commissioners Court.

Here’s Astrodome Tomorrow, and here’s their master plan:

The ASTRODOME*TOMORROW Master Plan integrates an ambient, immersive orbital experience inside the Astrodome, solar panels on the roof, a surrounding 90-acre rooftop green park above parking, a new arena, and a monorail linking all the amenities to off-site parking.

We propose to create a beautiful, green, safe destination attraction and park where civic culture and enterprise will thrive. The dome we envision will offer a variety of tenant spaces, including museum, institute, office, studio, retail, restaurant, and entertainment opportunities.

Taken together, the redesign is intended to serve its surrounding neighborhood, the larger Houston area and tourists from around the world. It envisions collaborative contribution from segments of the entertainment industry, NASA and private space launch companies, the green/sustainable urban design community, and the urban garden movement. It is intended for night and day use, and it emphasizes fitness and active recreation.

I have no idea how feasible any of that is, but here’s their Facebook page if you like the sound of it. Personally, I’m a bit concerned about how much water would be needed to pressure wash the Dome, given that we’re still in drought conditions. But I suppose that if we are going to do something other than knock it down, sprucing up the look of the place is where to begin.

Back to the Chron:

County Judge Ed Emmett last week said other options need to be explored before resorting to demolition, noting that most people he asks want to find a way to save the aging facility. He said he hopes to have town hall meetings so the public can weigh in on the issue.

“It is an option, but at this point I think we need to explore what are the options for keeping it so that it’s usable,” Emmett said, noting that he thinks the public would support a good reuse proposal and would “like to keep the icon that is the Dome.”

Edgardo Colon, chairman of the Sports Corporation board of directors, said the board would recommend demolition only if “the alternative we propose is turned down or if we don’t find any alternative at all.”


Precinct 3 County Commissioner Steve Radack, who said he sees the fate of the Dome as a financial rather than emotional issue, has asked the county’s Public Infrastructure Department to look into the feasibility of creating a lake, or large detention pond, if the dome is demolished. Radack said it could solve flooding problems in the area, including the Medical Center, and eliminate the county’s obligation to pay the city of Houston’s drainage fees, as well as, perhaps, provide an incentive for the city to pitch in on demolition costs.

“It could serve as an oasis in the middle of a massive concrete asphalt area,” Radack said. The idea would be “an important thing to study if the Dome goes down.”

This is not the first time Commissioner Radack has proposed building a lake, though this is a more urban location than before. As we know, the HCSCC has approved a resolution calling for Commissioners Court to approve a demolition plan if they can’t come up with something else. Clearly, there’s no shortage of ideas for what to do, it’s just a matter of coming up with a way to pay for them, preferably with private dollars. The question is what will evoke the stronger feelings – tearing it down, or finding public money to do something else with it if no private plan is deemed viable.

Harris Health System plans to serve more patients via Medicaid waiver

The story about what they’re going to do leaves a few details out, however.

Harris Health System leaders plan to serve 100,000 new patients in the next three years. That is a 37 percent increase from today, and is particularly ambitious when you consider how many patients the system added in the last year: about 500.

To bridge the enormous gap by the end of 2016, the county hospital district is counting on state and federal approval of a $1.2 billion plan that represents the ambitions of health care providers throughout the region. The plan grows out of the federal government’s decision to grant Texas a waiver from Medicaid rules, allowing it to reimburse providers for charity care and for delivering care in new ways.

The plan, awaiting approval in May, envisions unprecedented cooperation between the district and local private and nonprofit providers.

“That’s a major undertaking. We’re very committed to it. We feel it’s very doable,” Harris Health CEO David Lopez said. “We cannot do it all by ourselves. We need partners with us to help us address the needs of our community.”


Among the district’s proposals awaiting approval: Build nine new primary care clinics during the next three years, build “quick” clinics next to its emergency rooms where patients who are not in crisis can be seen, outsource more primary care visits to private clinics, and leverage federal funds to support Memorial Hermann and Texas Children’s Hospital’s expansion of primary care services.

Members of Harris County Commissioners Court, which appoints the hospital district’s board, say the waiver plans are too slow in cutting the backlog of patients who cannot get primary care appointments. That waiting list, first identified in fall 2011, is estimated between 91,000 and 104,000 a year.

Commissioner El Franco Lee last week issued a memo with the phrases “reduce waiting lists” and “get patients moving through the system” underlined, calling on Lopez to cut the backlog by outsourcing more doctor visits.

I had a few questions about this after I read the story, so I sent some inquiries to the Harris Health System’s media relations email address. Here are the questions I sent, along with the answers I got:

1. The article says that “the county hospital district is counting on state and federal approval of a $1.2 billion plan”. Where is the money for this coming from? Are there new funding sources being sought, or is this a repurposing of existing funds?

Answer: The $1.2 billion plan in the article refers to the Delivery System Reform Incentive Payments (DSRIP) projects available under the 1115 Medicaid Transformational Waiver Program. Harris Health System serves as the anchor entity for the regional planning for several counties in SE Texas. The Waiver primarily does two things: 1) expands Medicaid managed care to the entire state 2) replaces the Upper Payment Limit (UPL) program with two new pools of funding, The Uncompensated Care Pool and the DSRIP Pool. Detailed information about the proposed local regional health plan may be found at

2. What entities are being asked to approve this plan? What exactly are they being asked to approve? What happens if they reject some or all of it?

Answer: The state of Texas and U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) will approve all plans.

3. The story says that this plan is unrelated to the Affordable Care Act. How will the plan be affected if the state changes course and decides to pursue Medicaid expansion, or a law is passed that grants counties the authority to pursue it on their own?

Answer: The 1115 Medicaid Transformational Waiver Program should not be affected by Medicaid expansion since it is unrelated. Detailed information about the 1115 Medicaid Transformational Waiver at-large, may also be found at the state’s Web site.

4. Are details of this plan available on the HHS website? If not, is there a document you could send to me with plan details?

Answer: Detailed information about the proposed local regional health plan may be found at

In other words, if you want to know more, you’re going to need to get your wonk on. State Rep. Garnet Coleman has discussed the 1115 waiver before – see here and here for two examples – and there’s some further discussion here. Basically, this is about delivering health care services via public hospitals and their partners more effectively and efficiently, with some extra federal funds available. It’s not fully clear how this will all work out, and there won’t be a decision on the waiver request until May, but this is what’s coming. Let’s hope it lives up to its promise.

Not a big enough picture

The headline on this story reads “County mulls big-picture health council”, but a read of the story makes it clear that there’s a big piece of this picture missing from the discussion.

It’s constitutional – deal with it

Harris County is discussing a big-picture approach to its complex and overlapping health care costs, proposing the creation of a council to coordinate spending on mental health, public health, the treatment of jail inmates and the county’s hospital district.

The proposed group would mirror the county’s Criminal Justice Coordinating Council, created in 2009 to improve the justice system and reduce jail overcrowding. Though they acknowledge many factors are involved, county leaders note the jail population has fallen since some of the council’s proposals – such as launching a public defender’s office and letting inmates who enroll in vocational or educational programs earn three days’ time for each day served – were implemented.

“We not only have about 30 percent of all the property tax money going to the hospital district, but we have other areas that we support: mental health, incarcerated health and public health,” said Budget Management Director Bill Jackson. “All those together add up to almost $600 million a year, and I think that this council would bring people together, show their different needs. It deserves a lot of attention and a lot of coordination.”


The issues the health council would confront are hard to overstate, Commissioner El Franco Lee said. The same citizens often cycle through the jail and public hospitals, he said, with great overlap among homelessness and mental and physical health troubles. The result, he said, is a huge burden on public resources.

For example, $47 million of the sheriff’s proposed $391 million budget would be allocated to inmate health care. The county jail has been called the largest mental health institution in Texas; a quarter of its inmates take psychotropic medications on a typical day.

“So much of our dollars go into dealing with health,” said County Judge Ed Emmett. “I think every member of the court has said, ‘We’ve got find a way to separate mental health from the criminal justice system,’ and I think if we get everybody sitting together talking about it at the same time, we can make that happen.”

These are good ideas, and if a coordinating council for county health care makes sense to implement some of them then I support its creation. But let’s face it, if we’re not also talking about the need for Medicaid expansion and the huge benefits it would have for health care in Harris County, we’re not seeing the full picture. As Grits reminded us back in September, expanding Medicaid could have a large positive effect on these very citizens that cycle through the jail and public hospitals, not to mention the bottom line for those public hospitals. Medicaid expansion may not be on the table for the state right now, but there’s no reason Harris County can’t join with Dallas and other counties to formally request the right to do its own expansion. I’d conservatively guess that expanding Medicaid would affect over 200,000 people in Harris County, and I’d bet that more than a few of them are well known to the jail and the public hospitals. We can pay for all that ourselves, or we can take advantage of the Affordable Care Act and get the federal government to pay for the vast majority of it. If advocating for that isn’t part of any county health care coordinating council’s mission, then I don’t understand what its mission is.

Could this be the catalyst for Astrodome redevelopment?


A new beginning?

The city of Houston and Harris County are preparing to create a mammoth, two-part economic development zone covering more than 11 square miles along the South Loop and at the northeast end of downtown.

The plan stems from a deal the two governments struck three years ago to secure a new soccer stadium east of downtown for the Dynamo, and it could pave the way for long-discussed capital projects, such as the redevelopment of the Astrodome or a city-county inmate booking center.


Reliant Park will be included in the southern portion of the zone, which could pave the way for redevelopment of the Astrodome, which has not been home to a sports team in 12 years and has been deemed unfit for occupancy since 2009. Also within that portion of the zone would be the 104-acre former home of AstroWorld.

The northern portion of the zone includes an area near the current County Jail complex, where a joint city-county inmate booking center, rejected by voters in 2007, could be built.

[Commissioner El Franco] Lee said his colleagues on Commissioners Court first must agree to join the Greater Houston Zone but said the Dome may be the largest beneficiary if the plan is approved.

Every option to renovate the Dome, presented as part of a Reliant Park master plan earlier this year, ran into the hundreds of millions of dollars. Simply razing it would cost an estimated $64 million.

“The biggest issue was dollars, and that will remain an issue, so having a buildup of those kinds of dollars will make it just that much more attractive to do on a large scale,” Lee said. “This can be a source of funds that does not put a strain on any existing revenues to do existing things.”

Basically, this is a big TIRZ, and the genesis of it all is the Dynamo Stadium deal. City Council has to draw the boundaries under state law, and Council will take the first step on this plan when they vote on whether to set a public hearing to seek input on the plan. Once that happens, I figure things will move quickly. How long till the County is in a position where it can finally do something about the Dome, that remains to be seen.

30 Day finance reports, Harris County candidates

Here’s a look at the 30 day campaign finance reports for Harris County candidates. All reports can be found by going to the Harris County Clerk campaign finance reports page.

Candidate Office Raised Spent Loans Cash ========================================================== Garcia Sheriff 192,670 120,957 0 388,197 Guthrie Sheriff 158,700 48,633 171,000 98,152 Alessi Sheriff 1,019 2,007 700 1,719 Oliver DA 3,125 6,213 0 3,125 Anderson DA 136,555 41,685 0 128,241 Ryan County Atty 24,775 79,799 0 88,714 Talton County Atty 24,922 3,952 39,250 15,286 Bennett HCTA 6,630 7,220 1,690 3,217 Sullivan HCTA 20,950 23,115 10,000 2,396 Trautman HCDE 1,685 2,704 0 8,090 Wolfe HCDE 100 750 0 109 EF Lee Com Ct 16,543 49,689 0 3,328,226 Maricle Com Ct 1,765 9,811 2,500 1,502 Radack Com Ct 39,750 28,403 0 808,390 McPherson Com Ct 0 0 0 0 Cagle Com Ct 197,106 129,312 0 203,657 Hammerle Com Ct 225 883 1,176 9 Rosen Constable 51,531 55,130 5,000 16,447 Danna Constable 18,800 15,852 0 2,568 Diaz Constable 31,750 34,163 10,815 31,837 McDonald Constable 1,645 2,151 0 0 Jones Constable 6,876 17,314 0 26,221 Cruzan Constable 31,970 7,506 552 20,720 E Lee HCDE 0 1,550 0 0 Pack HCDE 610 550 0 1,625 Mintz HCDE 0 0 0 0 Smith HCDE 500 0 0 530

My thoughts:

– You don’t need me to point out that the Sheriff’s race is the one where the money is. No other race is particularly close; one wonders how the DA race would have played out with a different result in the Democratic primary. Sheriff Garcia has 10 donors that gave at least $5,000 each – nine who gave exactly that amount, and Don McGill, who donated a whopping $50,000. Louis Guthrie has only six $5K+ donors, but each of them gave at least $10K apiece. It’s not clear to me why Guthrie has not spent more.

– Speaking of not spending more, I’m not sure why Mike Anderson is sitting on his cash like that, though I suppose he could be planning to unload it this month. I certainly expect Anderson to win, but given how he says he’d deal with losing, I’d not be taking any chances. A couple of mailers to Democratic voters reminding them of Lloyd Oliver’s idiocy and the fact that even the HCDP didn’t want him on the ticket might not be a bad idea.

– Again on the spending theme, the disparity between Vince Ryan and Robert Talton is notable. Maybe there isn’t much that can be done at the County Attorney level to overcome the predominant partisan tendencies, but we won’t know from this race.

– Wasn’t there more money in the Tax Assessor’s race last time? Checking the July and 30 day reports for Paul Bettencourt and Diane Trautman, the answer is Yes, there was more money in that race in 2008. Your guess as to why that is not the case this year is as good as mine.

– Given all this, that’s a lot of money in the Constable races. Again, you tell me what that’s all about.

– I have no idea why El Franco Lee needs $3 million in his campaign account. What in the world is he ever going to use it on? I can’t think of any good reason why anyone would want to add to that.

That’s all I’ve got. What do you see in these numbers?

Endorsement watch: Boring

The Chron expends more words on the history and function of Commissioners Court than it does endorsing the three incumbents running to stay on the Court.

Precinct 1: Veteran incumbent El Franco Lee is our choice over an energetic Republican challenger, Chuck Maricle, whom we encourage to continue his interest in seeking public office.

Precinct 3: Steve Radack, the 24-year incumbent, has our backing for another term as commissioner of this westside precinct.

Precinct 4: Since being unanimously appointed by Commissioners Court in 2011 to replace Jerry Eversole, veteran County Court at Law Judge R. Jack Cagle has shown himself to be a quick study in assessing both the needs and potential of his geographically diverse district, which covers much of the north side of the county and extends inside the 610 Loop.

Nothing to see here. Lee and Cagle, who’s on the ballot to finish out Jerry Eversole’s unexpired term, are in solid precincts. The only question about Lee is when he plans to retire – there’s a line of wannabe successors awaiting that announcement longer than any you’ll see at an Apple store on delivery day of a new iPhone. The election that mattered in Precinct 4 was the Democratic primary, where Sean Hammerle’s win over the homophobe Dave Wilson meant one fewer embarrassing candidate on the November ballot. As for Radack, we saw in 2008 that his precinct is slowly trending Democratic, but not enough yet to entice a potentially strong challenger to him. Maybe in 2016, I don’t know. Like El Franco Lee, Radack’s going to retire one of these days, and like El Franco Lee, when that happens there’s going to be a lot of people who will want to succeed him. So, as there’s not much to these elections, we’ll look forward to the forthcoming ruling in the redistricting lawsuit, and to see who steps up to challenge freshman Commissioner Jack Morman, elected in the hundred-year flood that was 2010, in 2014.

The felony mental health court

I’d celebrate, too.

Judge Jan Krocker

[State District Court Judge] Krocker and others celebrated the official opening of Harris County’s felony mental health court, which started putting mentally ill defendants on probation instead of sending them to jail in May.

Krocker has been working to get a special court to oversee felony cases of defendants diagnosed with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and severe depression since 2009.

“The youngest participant was 17 years old when he came in, the oldest is 61, and all of them are very sick,” Krocker told the group that included County Judge Ed Emmett, Precinct 1 Commissioner El Franco Lee and state Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston.

She said the program, paid for by an initial federal grant of $500,000 with matching funds from the county, has 45 people on probation. Krocker said the program has room for 80 probationers.


Statewide, Whitmire told the group, 18,000 inmates take psychiatric medication. Of the 153,000 people incarcerated in Texas, Whitmire said, 32,000 were in a mental health system before they ended up in prison.

“Those 32,000 people are in our penitentiaries, at a cost of millions of dollars, because they couldn’t get the mental health services they need,” Whitmire said. “When we solve the problems of the mental health defendant, we’re preventing the next criminal act.”

This is great, and the only complaint I have is that there isn’t more of it. As Sen. Whitmire notes, the need for mental health services far outstrips the state’s resources for them. As a result we lock ’em up, which is more expensive, less effective, and far less humane than treatment. Judge Krocker’s court is a small step in the right direction, and kudos to her for it.

No Dome vote this year?

There may not be an Astrodome-related bond referendum on the ballot this year.

Still cheaper to renovate than the real thing

The last day Commissioners Court can place a referendum on the November ballot is Aug. 20, according to county attorneys. The court’s Tuesday meeting was its last scheduled before that date, and no mention of the Dome was on the agenda.

“The economic situation is just not favorable at this time to be able to step in and get people to invest big money,” Precinct 3 Commissioner Steve Radack said. “I don’t think there’s a quick fix for our economy, and I don’t think there’s a quick fix for the Dome.”


Putting a big bond vote before voters could put the county in an even bigger debt hole than it is now, said Precinct 1 Commissioner El Franco Lee. Precinct 4 Commissioner Jack Cagle agreed, noting that $3 million to $4 million in annual maintenance is far easier to pay than the $30 million in annual debt service that would be required under the May proposal.

“If you jump into what any one of these things (the report) suggests, you’re talking about some extreme costs,” Lee said. “We should go on the ballot when we’re ready and have something to tell the public that we’re going to do.”

County Judge Ed Emmett, who said in early 2011 and earlier this year the court should decide on the Dome “this year,” agreed.

“There’s not the perfect thing to put on the ballot,” he said. “We do have to come up with an answer. I know I’ve been saying that, but the Dome just cannot sit there like a rusting ship forever in that parking lot. I’d like to get something on (the ballot) in May, but I’m one of five.”

See here and here for recent updates, and here for even more. I’m fine with putting off a vote till 2013. We have plenty of other things on the ballot this year. I have no strong preference for May or November of 2013 as the target date. Let’s just agree that we want to get this done and works towards that.

We speak again of an elections administrator

As you know, I’ve been wondering when this might happen.

Harris County Clerk Stan Stanart said he will ask the Texas Secretary of State’s Office to examine his office’s election processes after a “human error” in his office caused erroneous primary runoff election results to be posted online for hours last Tuesday. The error made the Democratic runoff for Precinct 2 constable appear to be a blowout for one candidate when, in fact, the correct count had his opponent ahead.

Democratic Party chairman Lane Lewis also called for an audit of election procedures. Lewis referenced delays in the posting of results in May and July, and a Democratic primary race for the Harris County Department of Education run on outdated boundaries. County tax assessor-collector Don Sumners has accepted some blame for the error but says the Department of Education was required to notify him of the change; the department disagrees.

“We all want a fair election, so why not have an independent auditor come in and be able to identify, ‘This is what’s going right, this is what’s going wrong’?” Lewis suggested. “There’s nothing wrong with that.”

County Judge Ed Emmett – like Stanart, a Republican – revived his proposal that an elections administrator, an appointed official outside the clerk’s office and tax office, be considered. Emmett said 85 Texas counties, including most large ones, use the system.

“I’m not saying we need to go to what they do, but if there are improvements we can make, I think we ought to consider making those improvements,” Emmett said. “If there is an error, then at least you have somebody who is a professional election administrator. Nobody reads into it that this is an elected person that’s partisan one way or the other.”

I’m glad to see the elections administrator idea has been brought up again, because it really does need to be fully debated. It’s hard to say from the story if it will go anywhere – Judge Emmett and Commissioner Lee were the only ones quoted. Stanart unsurprisingly hates the idea, and if he has cover from the other members of the Court then that’s pretty much that. As for Chairman Lewis’ request for an audit, all we know at this point is that the Secretary of State reported not having received such a request as of press time. I would hope that County Clerk Stanart follows up on that. If Stanart is correct in his assertion that the runoff screwup was just one of those things that could happen to anybody, then the audit ought to help restore a little confidence in him. If not – if there were systemic problems that can and likely will happen again – we need to know that now.

One more thing. Campos, who is on the elections admin bandwagon, asks a question:

I wonder why local Dem Party leaders won’t come out and support an Election Administrator?

Former HCDP Chair Gerry Birnberg gives a reason for that in an email sent to Carl Whitmarsh’s list, which I’ve edited a bit:

Under Texas law, the Elections Administrator is appointed by a five person committee consisting of (1) the County Clerk, (2) the County Tax Assessor-Collector/Voter Registrar, (3) the County Judge, (4) the Chair of the Harris County Republican Party, and (5) the Chair of the Harris County Democratic Party. […]

And once you appoint an Election Administrator, that person cannot be replaced — even for cause, unless four of the members of that committee vote to remove him or her. So, as a practical matters, once appointed, it’s essentially a lifetime appointment. (Commissioners Court can abolish the position by majority vote, but they cannot fire the Administrator and obtain a replacement).

The supermajority requirement to remove an elections administrator is one of the concerns I raised when the issue was first brought up. I understand the reason why it’s done this way – allowing for a simple majority to recommend the removal of an elections admin would make it too easy to play political games with the position – but doing it this way may make it too hard. I’d like to hear more about the experience other counties have had before I’m willing to sign off on the idea. Birnberg also notes that if an elections admin position were to be created and filled today, two of the people that are the root cause of why we need an elections admin – Stan Stanart and Don Sumners – would be on the board that selects and oversees said admin. That doesn’t sound like a brilliant idea to me, either. I suspect nothing will happen till after the election anyway, but then something was supposed to happen after the last election, and here we are now. So who knows? PDiddie has more.

County wants to keep its share of the GMP

No surprise.

I still hope we get to have all this some day

Harris County Commissioners Court made it official Tuesday, passing a resolution calling on Metro to keep a quarter of its 1 percent sales tax flowing to road projects.

The 5-0 vote leaves only Mayor Annise Parker backing Metro Chairman Gilbert Garcia’s proposal to cap the so-called “general mobility” payments so the transit agency can put more toward buses and rail.


Garcia said he expects at least two or three ideas to be presented at Metro’s meeting on Thursday. The agency will choose one proposal Aug. 3 and will craft ballot language Aug. 17.

County Commissioners Steve Radack and Jack Cagle and County Judge Ed Emmett said the status quo is unfair to residents in some unincorporated areas of the county who pay taxes to Metro but get few services.

“It’s long overdue for the citizens of the unincorporated area of Harris County to stand together and fight against the unfair Metro sales tax imposed upon them,” Radack said, deriding Metro’s light rail as “a choo-choo train.”

Radack said common sense dictates the mobility payments should continue at the current level, given that the unincorporated county is growing faster than Houston.

“We’re not even on the discussion of what would be the reasonable or right, fair, thing today,” Cagle said. “We’re just saying, ‘Hey, don’t move the ball further into the hole.’ ”

Even Commissioner El Franco Lee, much of whose precinct is inside the city of Houston, said he favors the status quo.

“We get a better return the way it is now,” Lee said. “My understanding of that cap change is not favorable to the unincorporated area.”

You can always count on Steve Radack to elevate the discourse wherever he goes. All due respect to Commissioner Lee, but I’m not shedding any tears for unincorporated Harris County. They get plenty of my tax dollars, and more than their share of transportation projects. Last I checked, most of us here in Houston won’t be adding a drive down the Grand Parkway to our daily routines. That’s life, and that’s the way this works. Commissioner Cagle is correct that we haven’t worked out yet what is fair or reasonable. Nor do we know yet what Metro will propose; some kind of kick the can down the road compromise is a possibility. The Commissioners have expressed their opinion, at least one member of Council would like that body to do the same, and ultimately it will be up to the voters to decide. I trust Harris County will be willing to abide by their decision, even if it’s not the answer they want. Houston Politics has more.

Abercia resigns, replacement named

Jack Abercia

As we know, longtime Precinct 1 Constable Jack Abercia announced that he would not be running for re-election. On Monday, he announced that he would resign, effective January 31. On Tuesday, Commissioners Court named a replacement for him to fill out his term.

Harris County Commissioners Court on Tuesday appointed Ken Berry, a retired major who served 35 years with the Harris County Sheriff’s Office, to fill the seat of Precinct 1 Constable Jack Abercia, who has announced he will resign at the end of the month.

Commissioner El Franco Lee, whose Precinct 1 largely overlaps with Abercia’s, said he recommended Berry, 63, for the role because of his reputation and management experience at the Sheriff’s Office.

“It’s not often that you have to suddenly make an interim change like this,” Lee said. “Under the circumstances, you try to get the strongest, most mature person you can find who can jump in and run it and anchor it down and carry on business as normal as possible.”


Berry, who retired in 2008, said he will serve as a caretaker and has “no interest at all” in running for the seat in this year’s elections.

Of his appointment, Berry said, “Obviously I’m excited about it, but I haven’t really had time to give it any thought.”

There are currently four candidates for Constable in Precinct 1 – you can see them all on my 2012 Primary Election – Harris County page – all of whom as far as I know filed before Constable Abercia announced that he was withdrawing from the race. Given that there will be a second filing period later this month, Interim Constable Berry or anyone else could then decide to jump in. However, I take Berry at his word that he will not. Congrats to new Constable Berry on the appointment, and best of luck to him in the job and to outgoing Constable Abercia in his retirement.

Emmett goes after Raycraft

This will be fun to watch.

Harris County Judge Ed Emmett, spurred by revelations about former finance chief Edwin Harrison’s business practices and personal conduct, is calling for Harrison’s boss — longtime budget director Dick Raycraft — to produce a reorganization plan for his department and prepare for retirement.

In a meeting with the Houston Chronicle editorial board Thursday, Emmett unloaded a wide-ranging critique of the county system as managed by Raycraft, a 43-year county employee who has controlled the budget process for nearly two decades.

Emmett said Raycraft had proved “unwilling or unable” to police Harrison’s actions, even after being informed that Harrison liked to meet business associates at what he and friends dubbed the “North Office,” a strip club north of town.

“If you were his friend you got business. And ‘friend’ was defined as, did you do the things he wanted you to do,” Emmett said, noting that “numerous” financial professionals approached him with these concerns. “I would take that to Raycraft and say, ‘This isn’t right,’ and Dick would say, ‘Well, I’m told that he stopped that.’ ‘I’m told’ — that’s been the line all along.”

I have not followed the Edwin Harrison debacle – the revelations about him began at the end of the legislative session, and there’s only so many hours in the day – but it’s bad news. Here are some of the Chron stories about this:

Law firms repaying thousands to county Questionable travel expenses turn up in audits

Ex-financial chief retires amid probes Bond dealings questioned; man, wife also indicted in unrelated case

County in talks with bond sellers Brokers cited with overcharging on investments”

County ex-finance chief grabs FBI’s attention Team in town to investigate his investments HARRISON: Emmett glad FBI involved

ABUSE OF POWER Mai Tais and minibars – on your dime Uncovering Harris County’s losses took a whistleblower and two audits

You get the idea. Call me crazy here, but the idea that the boss of the employee who’d been doing all this stuff for more than five years might be held responsible for his lack of oversight seems perfectly reasonable. Apparently, it’s too much for the Commissioners to contemplate:

Other members of Commissioners Court responded coolly to the judge’s remarks.

“Emmett needs to understand he’s one of five,” Commissioner Jerry Eversole said. “As far as I know, there’s not another member on court that has problems with Dick Raycraft.”

Eversole and Commissioners El Franco Lee and Steve Radack said a closed executive session of Commissioners Court is the proper forum to discuss personnel matters.

“Edwin, obviously, was doing things very loosely. How much of that Raycraft knew, I have no idea,” Eversole said. “If the county judge … has had problems with Raycraft for a year and a half, why hasn’t he brought it up? If he’s got a problem, that’s what we’ve got Commissioners Court for.”

Radack said Raycraft, 71, has been open about his looming retirement and said it may make sense for a succession plan to be drafted. He added that Raycraft, whom he described as “an extremely honorable man,” did not need to do so as a result of Harrison’s actions.

“If (Emmett) has a case that he thinks he needs to make, he can put it on the agenda and attempt to make it. Let’s talk about it,” Radack said. “That’s the purpose of Commissioners Court.”

Seems like an awfully laid-back attitude to take about this. I’m sure everybody likes Dick Raycraft. I’ve never spoken to the man, but I’ve always had a positive impression of him from previous news stories. But c’mon, one of his direct employees is charged with allegedly bilking the county out of millions of dollars, and all the Commissioners can say is how their noses are out of joint because Ed Emmett talked about it out of school? I don’t think it’s unreasonable to ask why it is that Judge Emmett is the only member of the Court who seems to have a problem with Raycraft’s supervision of his office. Are the Commissioners not concerned about this, or are they just doing their usual diva act so that everyone is reminded who’s really the boss? Perhaps a little sense of urgency from them, to borrow a phrase from the business world, is in order here.

Meet the Harris County redistricting map

On the agenda yesterday at Commissioners Court – the long-awaited redistricting plan for County Commissioner precincts.

The proposal would bring significant changes to several precinct boundaries, seeking to make the populations in the four commissioners’ precincts roughly equal, as required by law, and based on the 2010 Census. The draft will be the subject of several public hearings in the coming weeks.

The map moves roughly 100,000 residents from two fast-growing precincts in the county’s west, north and northeast — represented by Commissioners Steve Radack and Jerry Eversole – to two slower-growing precincts in the south and east – represented by Commissioners Jack Morman and El Franco Lee.


Richard Murray, a University of Houston political science professor and redistricting consultant, said the proposed changes would be the most sweeping the county had seen since the 1980 Census, after which Precinct 1 was redrawn as a black opportunity district. Lee has held the seat ever since.

Attorneys from Andrews Kurth also helped draft the map.

Radack’s Precinct 3 would remain the largest, with 1.04 million residents, down from 1.15 million; Lee’s Precinct 1 also would be home to 1.04 million people, up from about 940,000.

Eversole’s Precinct 4 would shrink to 1.02 million from 1.12 million. Morman’s Precinct 2 would remain the smallest, rising from about 883,000 to 991,395 under the proposed map.

The largest territory swap under the proposal would happen in northeast Harris County, where Morman would pick up the Atascocita area and land around Lake Houston from Eversole.

Greg puts the numbers into some perspective. You can see the map here – I’ve also uploaded a copy here in case that one gets moved. You can see the chart in the lower left as a Google spreadsheet here. Note that the second group of numbers are the Voting Age Population (VAP) numbers, which superficially make Morman’s Precinct 2 look like a Hispanic opportunity district, but keep in kind that the numbers that matter are the Citizen Voting Age Population (CVAP) numbers, which will surely make Anglos the plurality, if not the outright majority, in Precinct 2. Given the addition of the Atascocita area, assume Precinct 2 has been made redder as well. I’m sure Greg will have those details soon enough.

In any event, there will be four public hearings, one in each precinct, at which you can register your feedback:

Monday, July 25, 6: 30 p.m. – East Harris County Activity Center (7340 Spencer Highway, Pasadena)
Thursday, July 28, 7 p.m. – Harris County Cavalcade Office (3815 Cavalcade St., Houston)
Friday July 29, 6 p.m. – Mangum-Howell Center (2500 Frick Road, Houston)
Monday, Aug. 1, 4:30 p.m. – Trini Mendenhall Sosa Community Center (1414 Wirt Road, Houston)

I presume some variant on this map will be adopted shortly thereafter. What do you think about this proposal?

The Sports Authority wants you to know it’s working hard for you

I feel like the Chron should send a bill for its standard advertising rates to the Harris County-Houston Sports Authority for running this op-ed by its chair, J. Kent Friedman. It’s one part victory lap for negotiating the Dynamo Stadium lease and one part “Hey! Look at all this stuff we’re doing!” rah-rah. I like the Dynamo Stadium deal as much as the next guy, but the basic outline for it was in place long before the HCHSA got involved at El Franco Lee’s insistence earlier this year. As for the rest, nice work and all, but next time just send out a press release, OK?

On a side note, since the recent Port Commission kerfuffle, I thought it might be useful to examine the membership of the boards and commissions I happen to blog about. The Sports Authority board is thirteen members, six each chosen by Houston and Harris County, plus one – Chair Friedman – chosen jointly. Of the six board members selected by Harris County, five are white and one is African-American. Of the six chosen by the city of Houston, two are white, two are Hispanic, one is African-American, and one is Asian. Of the five non-white members on the board of 13, four were city of Houston appointments. Oh, and both of the women on the board – one white, one Hispanic – were City of Houston appointees. Just thought you’d like to know.

The single easiest pickup opportunity Democrats will have in 2012

I trust you are familiar with Roy Morales. He’s run for City Council, he’s run for Mayor, this year he ran for Congress (he lost to Rep. Gene Green), and I presume he’ll run for something in 2011. And in 2012, he will (again, I presume) run for re-election to the office he now holds, which is Harris County Department of Education Trustee. Morales was elected to this office in 2006. He ran unopposed.

I knew his term of office was coming up in the next cycle (as is that of one-man clown car Michael Wolfe), so I went back to check some data. The first thing I realized was that Morales did not run countywide. Of the seven HCDE Trustees, three are at large – i.e., elected countywide – and four are not. The next thing I noticed was that the undervote rate in his race was ridiculous – nearly 70% of the people voting in his race did not cast a ballot. (See page 30.) So I went back to the precinct data, where I discovered that the number of straight-ticket Democratic votes in the precincts where he was on the ballot far exceeded Morales’ vote total, 59,809 to 41,231. In other words, anyone with a heartbeat running as a Democrat would have defeated him. And I said to myself “WTF?”

That made me want to find out just what exactly the district was that he ran in, where it was and what it looked like. This led me to the HCDE Trustees page, where I noticed they’re not called “districts”, they’re called “precincts”. There are four of them, with Morales being in Precinct 1. And that’s when it hit me…

Roy Morales ran unopposed as a Republican in El Franco Lee’s precinct.

Let me say that again.

Roy Morales ran UNOPPOSED AS A REPUBLICAN in El Franco Lee’s precinct.

To give that a bit more perspective, Fred Head, our useless candidate for Comptroller that year who got 41.85% overall in Harris County, received 68.30% of the vote in Precinct 1.

Now, I’m pretty sure I didn’t know that the HCDE existed as a political entity in 2006. I didn’t really pay attention to it till 2008 when Democratic candidates Jim Henley and Debra Kerner got elected to at large positions. Prior to that point, everyone on the board was a Republican. As we can see, that should not have been the case, but there you have it. In 2012, there’s absolutely no excuse for there not to be a Democrat challenging Morales for that seat. Whoever does is as sure a bet as you’ll find to win. You know that old expression about how 90% of success is showing up? It’s even higher than that here.

Someone should also challenge the ludicrous Michael Wolfe as well; if 2012 is anything like 2008, both seats will go Democratic. But one pickup is virtually guaranteed as long as someone with a pulse pays the filing fee.

Public defender office gets OK from Commissioners Court


The Harris County Commissioners Court voted Tuesday to start a public defender office on an experimental basis, as long as the state covers the $4.4 million cost for the first year.

The unanimous vote authorizes the county to apply for a grant from the Texas Task Force on Indigent Defense. If awarded the money, Harris County would open an office with lawyers dedicated to representing indigent defendants full time in October. It would start with mis demeanor mental health cases and felony appeals cases.

Within two years, it would expand to a staff of 68 handling about 6,400 criminal cases of all types in the civil and district courts. The office’s lawyers would be involved in about half of all felony appeals, about a quarter of juvenile cases and smaller percentages of adult misdemeanors and felonies, according to projections provided by Caprice Cosper, director of the county’s Criminal Justice Coordinating Council.

A public defender office would not replace the current system, in which judges choose defense counsel for the indigent from a randomly generated list of lawyers. The result would be a hybrid system for indigent defense in which the public defender and judge-appointed lawyers would share the caseload.

You can learn more about the Task Force on Indigent Defense here; my thanks to Scott Henson for leaving a comment in my previous post about them. Here’s hoping the grant application is successful.

Another step forward for a public defender’s office

I’m not sure exactly what this entails, but it’s good to see progress.

Harris County plans to launch a limited public defender office in October if it receives a $4.4 million state grant.

The office would start with 30 people defending the indigent on appeals of felony cases and in misdemeanor cases with mentally ill defendants.

If approved, the state money would cover the cost of the office for the first year and a decreasing share of the costs the following three years. At the same time, the public defender office would expand to take on adult felony defendants and juvenile defendants on its way to becoming a full-service in-house defense firm for local criminal court cases.

Currently, judges appoint lawyers for indigient defendants from a randomly generated list. The county spent $33.8 million last year on court-appointed defense.

The proposed public defender office would not replace the current system, but result in a hybrid, said Caprice Cosper, director of Harris County’s Criminal Justice Coordinating Council.

See here, here, and here for some background. I don’t know what state funds are being applied for or what the criteria are for getting them, but I presume the ducks will be in order. There’s an item on tomorrow’s Commissioners Court agenda to deal with it. As you know, I think a public defender’s office is a good idea, and I’m glad to see progress being made on implementing it.

Commissioners Court to vote Tuesday on Dynamo Stadium deal

One presumes that since they were the holdup on this, the fact that they’re finally bringing it to a vote means it will go through.

“I expressed concern (weeks ago) when we started getting this kind of Christmas tree built with all other things added to it,” County Judge Ed Emmett said Friday. But he said he now supports the package with its limitations on the Authority’s role and language that does not commit the county to any specific projects in the Reliant and jail-area redevelopment zones.

Though Precinct 1 Commissioner El Franco Lee has publicly insisted that a soccer stadium deal is not his to make, both city and county officials have described him as a driving force behind it. On Thursday, Mayor Annise Parker credited “Commissioner El Franco Lee’s leadership in moving this project forward” during her State of the City speech on Thursday.

Lee could not be reached for comment Friday, though he put the deal on the agenda and the proposed stadium project is largely in his precinct.

Commissioner Sylvia Garcia, whose Precinct 2 contains a sliver of the stadium project, has publicly announced her intention to vote for the deal.

That makes a majority. In the end, it’ll likely be unanimous. Neither of the other Commissioners has said they oppose the deal, and in the usual tradition of the Court, that’s good enough. From here it should just be a matter of setting a date for the groundbreaking.

First steps in dealing with jail overcrowding

They’re baby steps, but they’re in the right direction.

The first of 20 county inmates to get their sentences reduced by two-thirds for completing job training will get out of jail Monday.

The experiment marks Sheriff Adrian Garcia’s first tentative step away from the long-standing practice of two days’ credit for each day served in favor of a 3-for-1 schedule in select cases.

“We’re not just opening the floodgates,” Garcia said Tuesday. “We are making sure we’re trying to use some science to this.”


The small scale reflects Garcia’s caution in considering quicker release times. Last December, Precinct 1 Commissioner El Franco Lee proposed 3-for-1 for inmates for working in county parks and cleaning up bayous. Garcia called for a go-slow approach, and Commissioners Court referred the proposal to a study group.

Because the maximum Harris County Jail sentence is a year, moving from 2-to-1 to 3-to-1 could reduce an inmate’s time from six to four months.

I thought this was a good idea when I first heard about it, and I still think it’s a good idea. It’s an approach we should have been taking all along. These guys are all going to be getting out soon no matter what we do. Giving them some tools to help keep them from coming back, and getting them out more quickly in the process, is a win all around. I hope this program is as successful as it deserves to be and gets expanded soon. And when it does, we can move on to the next logical step, which is putting fewer people into the jail in the first place.

Being caught with a bag of marijuana in Bexar County could no longer mean an automatic trip to jail.

Stealing a few beers or driving without a valid license also wouldn’t necessarily get you arrested.

Those are among non-violent misdemeanor offenses that the Bexar County sheriff wants to start ticketing people for, instead of arresting and taking them to jail. It’s a proposal aimed at relieving occasional overcrowding issues at the Bexar County Jail and freeing up more time for deputies patrolling the streets.

Sheriff Amadeo Ortiz said the proposal isn’t anything new. The state Legislature unanimously passed a law in 2007 that gave law enforcement the discretion to issue tickets for certain minor offenses.

Ortiz said hopes to adopt the law now that new technology is available to the Sheriff’s Office. Earlier this month, the agency purchased 15 mobile identification units to test, he said. The units allow deputies to confirm identities by scanning thumbprints and matching them to jail records. If the devices work properly, the sheriff said he would begin enforcing the law.

Good luck with that, Sheriff. Both the SAPD Chief and the Bexar County DA are resistant to this idea – does anyone know where Chief McClelland stands on it? – and I suspect the first time someone who gets cited and released that would have been arrested doing it the old way goes out and commits some other crime there will be hell to pay. But this is a perfectly sensible way to deal with scarce resources, and over time it will be accepted as such. And then Harris County can follow suit.

Here comes the Sports Authority

Ready or not, here they are to ride to the rescue.

The Harris County-Houston Sports Authority agreed Monday to talk to city and county officials about its possible involvement in a soccer stadium for the Houston Dynamo.

The authority will establish a task force to determine its response to an invitation from the city and county to take “a limited administrative role” in a stadium for the Dynamo. Board Chairman J. Kent Friedman said the task force will be charged with finding out what that its role would be and recommending to the board whether to accept it. It will not involve any tax money from the authority. There is no deadline for the task force to finish.

I still don’t think the Sports Authority is really needed, but if it’s the only way to get El Franco Lee to take action, then I guess that’s how it is. We’ll see if it actually leads to something.

Sports Authority to the rescue?

After many months in limbo, there may finally be a way forward for Dynamo Stadium, though it’s a somewhat convoluted path.

The Harris County-Houston Sports Authority board is scheduled on Monday to discuss becoming the landlord for a professional soccer stadium in Houston’s East End.


[Harris County Commissioner El Franco] Lee repeatedly has said that putting the soccer stadium on the Commissioner Court agenda is not his responsibility. Most of the proposed stadium site is in Lee’s Precinct 1, and the five-member Court consistently adheres to a protocol that puts each commissioner in charge of public works projects on his or her turf.

On Friday, just more than a week after [Mayor Annise] Parker and Lee met, a joint Houston-Harris County statement announced, “Both the City and County have asked the Harris County-Houston Sports Authority to take a limited administrative role in construction of a stadium.”

Harris County Community Services Department Director David Turkel, who has been the county’s lead negotiator on a stadium deal with the city, acknowledged it was Lee who asked that the Sports Authority get involved.

Should the Sports Authority’s board decide Monday to become a player in the deal, it would bring to the table an agency whose board is chaired by Lee’s campaign treasurer, J. Kent Friedman.

Sheesh. Swamplot quotes from a Houston Business Journal article that adds more:

Lee has steadfastly refused to comment on the issue, and did not respond to interview requests. Speaking in Lee’s place during several recent interviews, Turkel has become more guarded, citing the delicate situation and his desire to avoid hampering a possible agreement. In a nutshell, though, Lee wants concessions from the city and the team that he has not yet received.

“Lee is not comfortable putting it on the agenda as is, because it will get voted down,” Turkel says.

For one, the county is looking at who will own the stadium after the lease runs out in about 30 years, and how that would affect a deal in which the city would buy out the county’s share. Precinct 2 Commissioner Sylvia Garcia wants Dynamo family ticket packs priced comparably to movie tickets, which has been more or less agreed upon.

That quote from Turkel just doesn’t square with the way Commissioners Court runs its business. Wanting to get the Sports Authority involved, that makes more sense. It may be a logical move and a good fit to do this, but I think Judge Emmett is right to be concerned that it won’t make the politics of this deal any more popular. It’s also not clear what exactly the Sports Authority would be doing if it gets involved or why their involvement is needed. If they were an obvious piece of the puzzle, you’d think they’d have been mentioned before now. But if the bottleneck is El Franco Lee, and El Franco Lee says he wants the Sports Authority involved to get this moving, well, you do the math. We’ll see what comes out of Monday’s meeting.

East Enders appeal to El Franco

As we know, the main holdup with the proposed East End location for Dynamo Stadium is that County Commissioner El Franco Lee, in whose precinct the stadium site mostly sits, has not indicated that he intends to put the issue on the Court’s agenda. At this week’s meeting, he heard from some constituents who want to see this move forward.

Residents of the Houston East End said Harris County Commissioner El Franco Lee was the key to the construction of a stadium for the Major League Soccer team Houston Dynamo — and accused him of stalling the project.

“Without the Dynamo I don’t think [this area] can survive,” said Khen Ly, the owner of the Kim Sung supermarket, east of Downtown Houston.

Residents pushed Harris County commissioners to sign off on the project Tuesday morning, but Lee refused to take a stand when pressed by East End resident Marilu De La Fuente.

“Mister [Lee], you are known as the Godfather,” she said. “I know know you will do the right thing.”

Much of the 12-acre site proposed for the stadium sits in Lee’s county precinct. He has stayed quiet on the subject for months. Again on Tuesday, he dodged reporters who wanted to ask him about his position.

It would be nice to have some idea of what Commissioner Lee’s reluctance is all about so that it might be addressed if possible, but he has never said. This is Senate-quality dithering here. All I can say to those of you in the area is to keep up the pressure. One presumes that sooner or later he’ll feel the need to deal with it. Thanks to Houstonist for the link.

“There’s no such thing as a project like this without public money”

Dynamo President Oliver Luck throws a little cold water on the claims that a Westpark Stadium could be built exclusively with private funding.

“We have not been presented a plan by the Midway Companies,” Luck said. “I can’t say whether there’s ‘no public money’ involved.

“We (the Dynamo) won’t talk to the city or county about this deal — we have pushed that responsibility to Midway. We know what our conditions are, and basically, it’s replicating the financial structure of the downtown deal. That’s sort of a threshhold question. If they can do that, we’ll go ahead. If they can’t, it won’t happen.”


Midway recently completed a major mixed-use development in the Memorial area, City Centre, where there is a TIRZ — a tax increment reinvestment zone — in place with the city of Houston, that reinvests some property taxes into infrastructure improvements to help spur development.

Sources familiar with the Midway proposal say it is relying on extending a similar TIRZ in the Uptown/Galleria area, which ends at Highway 59, to encompass the Midway property south of Westpark.

That was news to John Breeding, who serves as executive director of both the Uptown TIRZ and Uptown Development Authority, who said neither agency is involved and is waiting to hear more.

Which comes around, again, to Oliver Luck, who knows a thing or two about stadiums from his four years as CEO of the Harris County-Houston Sports Authority. “There’s always infrastructure involved, public services that need to be provided,” he said. “There’s no such thing as a project like this without public money.”

Well, yeah. As I’ve said all along, it’s a matter of how much money the city and maybe the county would have to invest to make this happen, and whether or not that would wind up being less than what the East End stadium would require. Until there’s a real proposal on the table, we can’t make that evaluation. In the meantime, claims about “private financing” just distort the picture.

It should also be noted that the East End stadium deal is much farther along, and really just needs buy in from County Commissioners El Franco Lee and Sylvia Garcia. That deal could be completed quickly if they signed off on it. Residents in the area, who are facing the prospect that the city might view the location as suitable for a new jail facility if the stadium deal falls through, are pushing for it to get done. There’s no organized opposition to the East End proposal, while the Westpark concept would have to overcome pushback from Bellaire Mayor Cindy Siegel and possibly others. The bottom line is that if any stadium deal happens, the East End is still the heavy favorite to be the choice. David Ortez has more.

Finally, on a related note, freshman Bellaire City Council Member Corbett Parker, who has expressed support for the Westpark location and who is a friend of Oliver Luck, explains his relationship with Luck and the Dynamo.

The Dynamo contemplate their options

Is the future of Dynamo Stadium on Westpark? Could be.

Dynamo President Oliver Luck is in talks with a developer about building a soccer stadium on private land about a mile south of the Galleria.

The Dynamo have not abandoned plans to build on a 12 acres of city-owned land downtown, Luck said.

But the Midway Companies approached Luck recently with a concept that would put the stadium in the midst of a 30-acre mixed-used development just west of Loop 610.

“They have not yet presented a full-blown plan to us,” Luck said. “It’s an interesting location and certainly worth looking at.”

Swamplot had the first inklings of this, while Miya, Prime Property, and Hair Balls have more. The good news is that this location appears to be near a University Line station. The bad news is that vehicular access is pretty limited, and I would expect traffic getting in and out to suck. I’d call this better than nothing, but not better than the downtown location. If as Hair Balls indicates, however, that Commissioners Court considers this to be the city’s baby and not any of their business, then it may get serious consideration. I just wonder, if it comes to that, how much money the city and/or county will have to spend at that location to make it viable, not just for a soccer stadium but for that 30-acre mixed use development. The roads are narrow, there are no sidewalks, and I’d bet drainage will be an issue. Midway CEO Brad Freels may say he likes doing things through the private sector, but I don’t see him putting up the cash to fix those things. I think it’s fair to wonder not just if this is a better deal for the Dynamo, but if this is any better a deal for Houston and Harris County than downtown would be.

Dynamo fans rally for the stadium

There was a rally by Houston Dynamo fans over the weekend in support of getting the stadium deal done. Hair Balls and the Chron’s Glenn Davis have coverage. From what I can see, it looks to me like the ralliers have the right idea. From the Chron:

“This is the best stadium deal that has ever been presented in the city of Houston,” says Dynamo fan and local attorney Eric Nordstrom. “At a time of great uncertainty, the club stands ready to pour $60 million of its own money into the stadium. Opponents often insist if the club wants a new stadium they should pay for it themselves. That is exactly what the Dynamo are trying to do.”

That’s the message I would push if I were them. It’s been clear for some time now that the opposition to the stadium is from folks who believe that the city and/or county are proposing to spend millions of dollars on the construction, which isn’t the case at all. I think you have to bat that idea down to make some progress on it. Which isn’t to say that opponents would naturally favor the TIRZ approach, but at least then you can be arguing about what is actually on the table.

From Hair Balls:

According to Nordstrom, this rally was the first of three they hope to organize. The supporters hope to hear from team officials and political leaders at the next rally, namely Mayor Annise Parker and County Commissioners Sylvia Garcia and El Franco Lee. The next rally is scheduled on Saturday, February 20.

Those are the people they need to be focusing on, especially the latter two. My advice would be to do the old-fashioned letter-writing campaign, and to get people to attend Commissioners Court meetings and speak up for the TIRZ deal during open comments as well. I wish them luck in their pursuit.

Post-election Dynamo Stadium update

So where do we stand with Dynamo Stadium now that the Mayoral election is over? Pretty much where we were before it, actually.

Of the MLS teams pushing for a stadium, the Dynamo appear closest to the goal. Team ownership hopes to strike a deal with the city of Houston and Harris County for a 22,000-seat, $80 million venue just east of U.S. 59 downtown.

Under a proposal backed by Houston mayor Bill White, the Dynamo would contribute nearly $60 million to the project, with the city and county each contributing $10 million in redevelopment money. The money would come from a tax increment reinvestment zone.

Mayor-elect Annise Parker has said she supports the proposal.

“She’s OK with the amount of money the city is willing to invest” provided the county puts in its share, Janice Evans-Davis, Parker’s spokeswoman, said Monday. “She is not OK with putting any additional city dollars (into the project).”

County Judge Ed Emmett is optimistic a deal will be reached. But the proposal has yet to see the light of day at Commissioners Court despite more than a year of negotiations among the county, city and team.

Efforts to reach County Commissioner El Franco Lee, whose Precinct 1 would house the majority of the stadium, were unsuccessful.

Commissioner Sylvia Garcia is also involved, as the parts of the stadium that aren’t in Lee’s precinct are in hers. The ball is in their court. If they want this to happen, it will, and if they don’t, it won’t. The question then becomes what if anything will the Dynamo do after that. Will they try to come up with a different scheme, or will they look to pull up stakes and relocate again? If they threaten the latter – and note that they may reconsider suburban options, as Sugar Land is still thinking about sports stadia, even if it’s for a different sport. Would a threat to leave change things one way or another? It wouldn’t shock me to find out. Campos has more.

Getting smarter about crime

The news that Harris County DA Pat Lykos has changed the office’s policy to no longer will file state jail felony charges against suspects found with only a trace of drugs is good news indeed.

Lykos said the move “gives us more of an ability to focus on the violent offenses and the complex offenses. When you have finite resources, you have to make decisions, and this decision is a plus all around.”

She said she did not have figures for how many cases may be affected, because cases are filed as possession of less than a gram.

Of more than 46,000 felony cases filed last year, almost 30 percent, 13,713, were for possession of less than a gram of drugs.

She said that while having a crack pipe will be only a ticketable offense, police still will be able to search suspects and cars if they find one. She noted that other counties, including Travis and Bexar, have similar policies. In Fort Worth, she said, the minimum is twice as large — .02 of a gram.

Lykos said the policy may help reduce jail overcrowding, an an idea “cautiously” embraced by Sheriff Adrian Garcia.

“The sheriff is cautiously in support of the policy,” said Alan Bernstein, director of public affairs for the Harris County Sheriff’s Office.

The new policy will be reviewed after six months in response to concerns expressed by police that crack pipe busts help catch burglars. I think we could probably learn from other counties’ experiences to tell us about that, but I suppose that’s the politics of this. Be that as it may, this will enable to DA’s office to devote more of its resources to more serious crimes, and as with the proposal by County Commissioner El Franco Lee to let more inmates do cleanup work for quicker releases, it will have the effect of easing the jail overcrowding problem. Given how pressing that matter is, it’s very encouraging to see concrete steps like these being taken to deal with it. Kudos to DA Lykos for making the call. Grits and Murray Newman have more.

Putting prisoners to work

This sounds like a pretty good idea to me.

Harris County Commissioner El Franco Lee has proposed that the county consider putting more prisoners to work cleaning local bayous and parks.

The plan would give working inmates three days’ credit per day served in jail instead of the two they receive now so they could earn earlier release, Lee said.

“I’m putting it up for discussion because there has been overcrowding and it is an issue that would bring Harris County in consistency with other parts of the state,” he said.

Part of the rationale for extra credit for work details is that it would free up space in the jail as nonviolent offenders get out more quickly.

This makes sense on a lot of levels. Cleaning parks and bayous is something we would all benefit from. Getting the kind of inmates who would qualify to participate in this out of jail faster helps alleviate the overcrowding problem and saves money. It also apparently helps with recidivism rates. Offhand, I can’t think of any objections to this. Kudos to Commissioner Lee for proposing it.

The Dynamo Stadium issue in the Mayor’s race

Moving away for the moment from ridiculous homophobic scare tactics in the Mayor’s race runoff to an issue of actual substance, we have the matter of the Dynamo Stadium deal and where the respective candidates stand on it.

[Annise] Parker supports the deal as structured by [Mayor Bill] White — in which, her campaign says, the city will recoup some costs for the land.

“She remains firmly opposed to any additional taxpayer dollars going to the Dynamo project, and will not entertain any new stadium projects, especially during these tough economic times. If the county does not do its part, then all bets are off,” according to a statement released by her campaign.

[Gene] Locke, too, pledges not to use property tax money, but he argues that a stadium built with mostly private money is something the city can’t afford not to pursue.

“This stadium will anchor development on the east side of town and help improve Houston’s economy at no additional cost to taxpayers,” Locke said in a statement released by his campaign. Locke supports the three-way $80 million plan, according to the statement, and also intends to negotiate for the city to be reimbursed for land costs.

I wouldn’t go quite as far as Bob Stein does in saying that the difference between the two is “politics, not policy”. As I see it, the place where they do differ is in the event that the county fails to pick up its share of the tab. My interpretation of their stated positions is that Parker may or may not pursue a different deal of some kind, whereas Locke would. One can certainly make the case that Locke, who has an extensive background with this kind of dealmaking – for good and for not so good – and who has the so-far-not-committed-to-Mayor-White’s-deal Commissioner El Franco Lee firmly in his camp, is in the stronger position to close this thing once and for all. That’s kind of a nuanced argument to make on a flyer handed out at a soccer game, and given the public’s limited understanding of the status of the actual deal, which if the comments on this Houston Politics post are at all indicative basically boils down to “Locke wants to spend money on a new stadium and Parker doesn’t”, it’s far from clear that this would be a net positive for him anyway. Be that as it may, I think it’s fair to say that if you really want to see a Dynamo Stadium get built, Locke is your candidate, and if you don’t really care all that much you probably prefer Parker.

That’s assuming the issue is critical to how you vote, of course. The Chron quotes one devoted fan for whom it is, and it’s certainly possible there are others like her. Whether there’s more of them than there are people who would vote the other way is not clear to me. It’s still worth a shot for Locke, and it’s certainly a preferable way to try to win than some other approaches.

Commissioners Court wants a lapdog, not a watchdog

Back in June, we learned that County Attorney Vince Ryan was going after polluters that had been ignoring court orders to clean up their acts. You would think this would be a good thing to do – you know, enforcing the law while helping to make Harris County cleaner – but apparently not if you’re a County Commissioner. They want a County Attorney that does exactly what they tell him to do, nothing more and nothing less.

Members of Commissioners Court this morning informed County Attorney Vince Ryan that he is to come to them for permission to do anything that costs money or employee time.

Ryan had already signed a deal with the city to help it prosecute polluters in exchange for use of experts and monitoring equipment with which the county can build cases.

“I think that it’s your responsibility to do those things that we, Commissioners Court, ask of you, and I see that you’ve got the cart in front of the horse,” Commissioner Jerry Eversole told Ryan.

The county attorney’s office is the legal counsel for the Court and receives its budget from the five-member board. The county attorney is elected by voters, though, and Ryan did not agree that his office is wholly subservient to the Court.

“In most cases you are correct,” Ryan responded to Eversole, “but there are items all through the responsibilities of the county attorney’s office that we are independently charged by state statute or even federal (regulations) in some cases to look at.”

To put it bluntly, Eversole and El Franco Lee, who was quoted later with the same attitude, are full of it. Ryan is an elected official, not an appointed employee of the Court, and he answers to the voters. The Court certainly has the right to question how he’s spending money, and can try to rein him in if he’s acting irresponsibly, but otherwise should defer to him on how he runs his office, not demand that he defer to them. The subtext I get from this is that they don’t want Ryan to think he has any real independence, lest he get it into his head some day to take a critical look at some of the stuff they do. Sorry, fellas, but checks and balances are supposed to work both ways.