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Harris County

Scouting the opposition in CD07

Not impressed so far.

Rep. Lizzie Fletcher

Facing a roomful of conservative voters at a meet-and-greet earlier this month, Republican Wesley Hunt laid out the stakes for his party’s primary in Texas’ 7th Congressional District.

“This is about putting the best candidate forward who can beat Lizzie Fletcher. Period.” Hunt said.

Republican voters still are smarting from their 2018 loss in this suburban west Houston district, where Fletcher, a Democratic Houston energy lawyer, toppled nine-term GOP incumbent John Culberson. Her five-point win flipped the seat blue for the first time since the 1960s, prompting Republicans to take aim at the district almost as soon as Fletcher took office.

The GOP primary field already has come into focus, setting up a clash between Hunt, an Army veteran who works for Perry Homes, and Cindy Siegel, a former Bellaire mayor and METRO board member. Battle lines are sharpening, but not around the two candidates’ conservative bona fides or the strength of their policy proposals. The early contours of the race instead have centered on the question: Who is best positioned to snatch the seat from Fletcher?

Threatening to upend the primary is the potential candidacy of Pierce Bush, CEO of the nonprofit Big Brothers Big Sisters Houston affiliate and grandson of former president George H.W. Bush, who once represented the district.

Bush in an email earlier this month said he still is mulling a run for the seat and has been “flattered by people who are encouraging me to consider running,” though he did not lay out a deadline for a decision.

Meanwhile, both declared Republicans have their electability pitches ready to go. Hunt, 37, contends the party could use a “new generation of leadership,” and he peppers his stump speech with references to his time as a helicopter pilot in the Army, including his combat deployment to Iraq. Siegel, meanwhile, pitches her governing experience serving on Bellaire city council and as mayor, along with a number of boards and commissions.

Also, she contends that it will take a Republican woman to beat Fletcher.

“I feel that way strongly,” the 64-year-old Siegel said. “It’s coming as no surprise to anyone, on a national basis: Women have moved away from the Republican Party.”

[…]

In 2018, Trump’s name did not appear on the ballot, but scores of voters in Texas’ 7th said they viewed the election as a referendum on the president nonetheless. Now, the president’s down-ballot impact is set to become amplified, for better or worse, with his name likely atop the Republican ticket in 2020.

After the president lost the district to Clinton in 2016, 48 to 47 percent, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee took notice and weighed in heavily on Fletcher’s behalf, spending north of $3.5 million on the seat in 2018.

This time, House Democrats’ campaign arm again figures to play a heavy role, making early attempts to muddy the GOP waters. When Trump visited Houston in April, for instance, the group sent reporters a news release with the subject line: “With Trump in Houston, How Far Will Hunt and Siegel Go to Win Him Over?”

That last bit is more important than who wins this primary, because whoever it is will have Donald Trump as their running mate. Unless the national mood starts souring on Democrats, I think that’s going to be too big an obstacle to overcome.

Beyond that, it’s just too early to have any opinions about these two, or possibly three, candidates. I fully expect one or two other names to pop up, though whether the field expands like it did on the Democratic side in 2018 I couldn’t say. Given the need to raise funds for this race, time is starting to run out for any other wannabes.

Speaking of fundraising, here’s a data point to note for when Hunt and Siegel file their Q2 finance reports. The top four Dem contenders in CD07 raised $1.2 million combined as of July 2017. Fletcher had the second most, with $365K. The eye-popping early numbers all around the country were a leading indicator of Democratic enthusiasm for the 2018 election. I’ll be very interested to see how things look this time around.

One more thing. What happens to CD07 in the 2021 redistricting cycle. Before the 2018 election, when I figured John Culberson would still be the incumbent, my thinking was that Republicans were going to have to shift some of the district out of Harris County – maybe into Montgomery, maybe into western Fort Bend, maybe northwest into what’s now part of CD10 – to keep it red enough for him. At the very least, they’d have to take some of the bluer-and-bluer inner Harris parts out to keep things in their favor. What happens now if Fletcher wins again? Well, they could try this anyway, to take that seat back by other means. Redistricting doesn’t happen in a vacuum, though, and with CDs 02, 10, and 22 all getting competitive it might be too much to save everyone, especially in a solidly blue Harris County and a much more balanced state as a whole. It would not shock me if the Republicans basically gave up on CD07 and used parts of it to shore up those other districts, especially CD02. That’s more or less what they did with the State House in 2011, making HD133 (which they had lost in 2008) redder while making HDs 137 and 149 bluer. Incumbent protection is still a thing that matters, and in a state with fewer safe Republicans, it may matter more than ever. Just a thought.

Joint primaries

Another potential change to how we vote is in the works.

Diane Trautman

Harris County primary voters could see a big change at the polls in 2020 if local party leaders agree on a new proposal.

Under the current system, voters go to the polls and they’re asked to say which party primary they want to participate in, Republican or Democratic. Voters line up separately. But Harris County Clerk Diane Trautman said Tuesday that combining the lines would be more cost-effective and give voters more privacy.

“You won’t see a Republican party here, Democratic party here. You’ll see one of each at each table, and you’ll have three lines that you could go in,” Trautman said.

Voters would check in at joint primary tables and select one party on an iPad.

“The other thing they’re going to notice is that there aren’t any lines outside the door,” Trautman said. “So that will be refreshing.”

She said the new plan addresses the biggest complaints she hears from voters.

Harris County officials hope to reach an agreement with party leaders by the end of the month. If approved, the new system would be in place for the next primary in March 2020.

The HCDP has agreed to this. The Republicans, not so much.

Harris County Republican Party Chairman Paul Simpson said Texas law allows parties to run their own primary elections, and he is reluctant to cede that role to the county clerk.

“The Democrat county clerk’s proposed joint primary elections would empower the bureaucrats and, worse, let one party’s workers run the other party’s primary election that selects its candidates, running the risk of disenfranchising, inconveniencing, and confusing voters,” Simpson said in a statement.

I actually have some sympathy for Simpson’s position. I have no doubt that if Stan Stanart had proposed this, I’d be suspicious, even with the knowledge that Harris is the only major county in the state that doesn’t hold joint primaries. I’d need to be convinced as a Democratic primary voter, and I’m sure Paul Simpson believes his voters will need to be convinced, too. (He’s on the ballot in 2020 as well, you know.) That said, I hope he goes into the discussion with an open mind. This makes sense on a couple of levels. One, you don’t have to announce your preference in front of strangers, which is the privacy appeal. Sure, anyone with VAN access can look up your record, but how many people do that? It’s also a more efficient use of resources, which should help shorten lines. Again, if there are questions or concerns, then let’s ask the party chairs in the other counties that do it this way, and see what they have to say about it. I’m happy to let Paul Simpson voice his worries, but let’s not be ruled by fear.

On prosecutor caseloads

I’m still thinking about this.

Kim Ogg

When a line of prosecutors stepped up to the microphone at Harris County Commissioners Court in February, they told tales of long hours, endless to-do lists and bloated caseloads well into the triple digits.

Their impassioned pleas and barrage of data were part of the push by the Harris County District Attorney’s Office for an unprecedented $21 million expansion that would add more than 100 lawyers to its staff.

But despite a weeks-long campaign, District Attorney Kim Ogg’s budget request failed. Now, four months later, records obtained by the Houston Chronicle and The Appeal indicate that the attorney caseload figures used to justify the request appear to overstate the office’s workload.

The data presented to commissioners and the public did not reflect that about two-thirds of the felony trial bureau attorneys consistently handle a smaller number of complex cases. Instead, it frequently presented the caseloads of the remaining third of the attorneys — those who handle over 900 cases on average — as representative of the whole trial bureau. The office also counted every charge in an arrest as a separate case and included more than 200 cases put on hold after defendants had not yet been arrested or had fled after violating the conditions of their bonds.

Based on the numbers provided by the DA’s office, an average caseload for “felony two” and “felony three” prosecutors combined would be less than 600, if all positions were filled in each court — and would be even lower if chiefs were included. Exact staff assignments that month were not released with the data.

[…]

Four members of the Commissioners Court—including all three Democrats who voted against the budget request in February—did not comment on the caseload figures.

But Commissioner Steve Radack, a Republican who offered staunch support for Ogg during the budget cycle, said that he did not feel the DA’s office misrepresented data and reiterated his concern about the county’s refusal to fund Ogg’s request for more prosecutors.

“It’s extremely unfortunate that she didn’t get it,” he said. “Frankly, it’s a misjustice.”

During budget discussions in February, County Judge Lina Hidalgo — the Democrat who heads up Commissioners Court —questioned whether prosecutors could simply lower their caseloads by charging fewer people and leaning more heavily on diversion alternatives.

“This is not the only way,” she said, “and certainly not the most cost-effective way to decrease prosecutor caseloads.”

Though Adam Gershowitz — a William & Mary Law School professor who co-authored a 2011 study on district attorney caseloads — raised concerns about the representations in the data, such as the inclusion of bond forfeitures, he stressed that too few prosecutors can have a negative effect on the legal system, leaving people waiting behind bars as their cases get reset instead of resolved.

“We could have debates about if (prosecutors) should charge less and maybe they should,” he said. “But they are overburdened and it’s bad on so many levels when the district attorney’s office is overburdened.”

There’s a lot more, so read on for the methodology and the questions about how cases were counted. One issue was with classifying all types of prosecutors as having similar workloads even though one group has many more cases than the others, and classifying things as active cases that aren’t really. The explanations for why things were counted as they were don’t really make sense. Even with that, there’s support – not unanimous by any stretch, but it’s there – for more prosecutors, and for managing caseloads. Maybe if we can all agree on what the case numbers actually are, we can better agree on what the number of prosecutors should be.

We still have a lot of broken flood mitigation infrastructure

Did I mention that hurricane season is underway?

As the Atlantic hurricane season arrives Saturday, Harris County leaders say the region remains extremely vulnerable to major storms two years after Hurricane Harvey’s unprecedented rains swamped the Houston area, forcing leaders to consider how flood protection projects can be sped up.

Ninety-five percent of the county’s flood control infrastructure damaged by Harvey has yet to be repaired, a testament to the scope of the monster storm and the laggard pace at which the federal government disburses funds. Though the county flood control district has begun projects supported by a $2.5 billion flood infrastructure bond passed by voters this past August, no major improvements have been completed.

The Harris County Flood Control District made $5 million in emergency fixes in the months following Harvey, such as clearing a dangerous silt build up in waterways leading into Addicks Reservoir. Engineers, however, had to wait for federal aid to begin the bulk of needed repairs.

“We literally could not start the construction before grants were in place because we would not have been reimbursed,” said Alan Black, the district’s director of operations.

[…]

The precarious state of Harris County’s flood control infrastructure leaves the region more vulnerable to storms like Harvey and Tropical Storm Allison in 2001, where rainfall rather than high winds posed the greatest danger.

“If we have an exposed area where we’ve had erosion and slope failures, then yes, we’re susceptible to more damage,” Black said. “There’s no doubt about that.” The county has more than 200 sites across its 23 watersheds with eroded banks, collapsed slopes or submerged trees.

The flood control district is relying on three federal grants, totaling $86 million, to fund the repairs. The first appropriation arrived last August; the remaining two were delayed by the 35-day federal government shutdown beginning in December and were not approved until the spring. Now that Harris County has hired construction firms, the flood control district expects to complete the repairs by September 2020, three years after Harvey.

The good news is that we are expecting a modest hurricane season. The bad news, well, you already know what that is. We need some good luck this year, because our shields are down, and they’re going to be down for awhile.

Moving ahead with voting centers

The first time was a success, so we’re going to keep using them.

Diane Trautman

Harris County Commissioners Court on Tuesday voted unanimously to apply for state approval to expand the use of countywide polling places to general elections.

County Clerk Diane Trautman said a trial run of the system during the low-turnout school board elections in May was successful. Trautman’s goal since taking office in January has been to implement countywide polling, where voters can cast ballots at any location rather than in assigned precincts, in high-turnout general elections which can draw more than 1 million voters.

Previously, Harris County featured countywide voting only at a small number of early voting sites, and never on Election Day.

“I am very pleased with the results of the May election,” Trautman said Tuesday. “As I hoped, in using a small election, we would find areas where to improve, and we did.”

[…]

Precinct 4 Commissioner Jack Cagle, who in the past has raised concerns about elderly voters losing their longtime polling places to consolidation, asked Trautman to promise to keep all polling places open. Trautman replied she would not close any sites.

County Judge Lina Hidalgo said the addition of countywide polling centers should make voting more convenient, since residents can use sites close to work or school, and boost turnout.

“It’s bringing that increased access to the vote to so many more people,” Hidalgo said.

A Rice University survey of 256 voters in the May election by Elizabeth Vann and Bob Stein found that most residents visited polling sites within one mile of home.

“Did voters seem satisfied? Overwhelmingly,” Stein said. “About 90 percent claimed they were satisfied finding their location.”

Stein, a professor of political science, cautioned that higher-turnout elections will bring additional challenges, such as long lines and parking problems. He said he plans to study the 2019 Houston municipal elections in November, which will have higher turnout than the May school board balloting, but still low compared to a November midterm or presidential election.

I’m very glad to hear that the people who voted liked the experience. I’m a confirmed early voter, so nothing will change for me, but lots of people vote on Election Day, and this should make it better for them. I have very modest expectations about how it will affect turnout, but I do think it will help keep lines from getting too long. There are improvements I’d like to see made in how the returns are reported, which I hope can be in place for this November. Otherwise, I look forward to getting this implemented.

New fronts in the war on mosquitoes

Science marches on.

In the center of Anita Schiller’s dragonfly-ring-clad hand, a dragonfly nymph is scooting around.

The dedicated naturalist and entomologist is explaining how the insect (which is a water-dwelling dragonfly with gills before it grows wings) expels water from its posterior in a squirting fashion. She laughed and called it “fart propulsion.”

Schiller is leading a team of four from the Harris County Precinct 4’s Biological Control Initiative through a man-made flood control site at the corner of Spring Cypress Road and Telge Road. They are releasing dragonfly and damselfly nymphs into the water, along with carnivorous plants, to help reduce the infectious mosquito population.

“What we’re bringing in will help stack the deck against mosquitoes,” Schiller, director of the initiative, says. “Mosquito suppression is built into the design of the project.”

The Biological Control Initiative started in 2012 with a mission to “find native agents to benefit from the locally adapted phenotype” to counter the mosquito population.

So, what exactly does that mean?

The agency rears human-friendly biological agents, such as dragonflies, damselflies and carnivorous plants, in a lab to be released into the wild to control the blood-sucking and potentially diseased mosquitoes that afflict Southeast Texas year round.

Dragonflies are robust, while damselflies are more dainty-looking. But both are ferocious eaters as adults and gleaning eaters as nymphs.

Introducing native and naturally flood-resistant plants into wetlands and areas of unavoidable standing water gives a larger return-on-investment than just a pesticide approach, Schiller says. The plants also don’t require regular maintenance.

The initiative has also garnered attention for its introduction of “mosquito assassins” in the Houston area. These mosquitoes, which are typically larger than other native species, do not feed off humans and instead work to eliminate the dangerous mosquitoes, such as Asian tiger (Aedes albopictus), southern house (Culex quinquefasciatus) and yellow fever (Aedes aegypti) mosquito larvae.

As the story notes, Harris County is also using mosquito traps and mutant mosquitoes to control our skeeter population. It’s a big deal, because mosquitoes mean Zika, and standing water means mosquitoes. Do your part to combat the buzzing menace by emptying out whatever pots or containers you have in your yard that fill up with rainwater after a storm. The BCI will take it from there.

Fee collecting time

Worthwhile effort, but keep expectations modest.

Marilyn Burgess

Harris County has an $80 million backlog of uncollected civil court fees dating back to the 1980s, new District Clerk Marilyn Burgess said, prompting her office to launch an aggressive collection effort.

Burgess said she was shocked when an employee told her shortly after her election in November that the county had stopped attempting to collect the fees in 2011 — a revelation that surprised the county’s auditor. She has since launched a new collection effort, but only expects to successfully recoup about $20 million, from the past three years of billing.

“It’s important to the county, because if we collect that, that’s $20 million less that Commissioners Court has to assess in property taxes from the taxpayer,” Burgess said.

An influx of millions would provide a boost to the county court system, which is still struggling to recover from Hurricane Harvey and is looking for ways to pay for a long-delayed new family courthouse.

[…]

According to Burgess, an account manager informed her in November that he had told his supervisors that the district clerk’s office was failing to collect certain categories of civil court fees. The department’s accounting system shows the district clerk mailed invoices for these fees eight times from 2001 to 2011, but not again until January, when Burgess took office, she said. About one-third of fees owed to the district clerk remain unpaid from 2017, for example.

Starting with the most recent bills, Burgess said her staff will work to collect fees as far back in time as possible. At a certain point, she said, labor and postage become more expensive than what the county could hope to collect.

“Right now, we’re doing pretty good with what we’re collecting, but we’re in 2018,” Burgess said. “When the payments stop coming, we won’t go any further back.”

Some of this is process, which can always be improved, and some of this is effort, which will run into diminishing returns. The city did something like this for debt collections back in 2011, at a time when finances were very tight. It made sense, and it did make a dent, but you’re never going to come close to the topline amount. We’ll see how well District Clerk Burgess does with her initiative.

Another big flood would be bad

Breaking news, but this is worth paying attention to.

Housing sales would drop, gasoline prices would increase and Texas would lose hundreds of billions of dollars in economic output if a major storm struck an unprotected coastline, according to a new study.

The joint study by Texas A&M University at Galveston and the Texas General Land Office assesses the storm surge impacts on the three counties along Galveston Bay — Galveston, Harris, and Chambers — and explores how flooding from a severe storm would impact different sectors of the local and national economies.

The study finds that a 500-year storm would result in an 8 percent decrease in Gross State Product by 2066, an $853 billion loss. (A 500-year flood has a 0.2 percent chance of occurring in a given year. Hurricane Harvey was the third such event in the Houston area in three years.)

With a coastal barrier in place, the study found, economic losses would be significantly less harmful. Gross State Product would still decline after a 500-year storm, but only by 2 percent. Housing sales would decrease by 2 percent, while petroleum and chemical output would decline by 3 percent and 5 percent, respectively.

[…]

The economic outlook for an unprotected Houston-Galveston region ravaged by a storm surge is bleak, the report shows.

Housing sales would decline by nearly 8 percent, a $39.5 billion loss. Revenues in the petrochemical sector would decline by 19 percent, a $175.4 billion loss, while prices on petroleum products would increase by 13 percent.

Nationally, following an unprotected, 500-year surge event in Galveston Bay, the U.S. Gross Domestic Product would be 1.1 percent lower by the end of the 50-year period, an estimated $863 billion dollar economic decline.

The GLO press release is here, and the website showing the result of various scenarios is here. The Army Corps has recommended a particular plan for a coastal barrier, though some people disagree with the option that was selected. Be that as it may, the point here is that however expensive an Ike Dike may be, the cost of doing nothing is potentially much greater, with long-lasting effects. We have seen very clearly that the “500 year” part of “500 year storm” doesn’t mean what it once did. How much are we willing to risk remaining unprotected when the next one hits?

Orlando Sanchez’s water-pourer lawsuit dismissed

Hey, remember when former Treasurer Orlando Sanchez filed a million dollar lawsuit against the doofus who poured a glass of water over his head at the press conference where Sanchez was begging the state to take over HISD? Well, the guy’s lawyer contacted me recently to let me know that the lawsuit had been dismissed, with Sanchez ordered to pay court costs. You can see a couple of the defendant’s motions here and here. The long and short of it is that the civil standard for assault is the same the criminal standard, and since Sanchez suffered no injury there was no assault as defined by the law. In addition, the defendant had a legitimate claim that his water-pouring constituted an expression of free speech, presumably in the Nigel Farage getting milkshaked mode. Add it up and it’s one ex-lawsuit. Looks like Orlando Sanchez is going to have to find another way to get fame and fortune.

Our measles risk

Do I spend too much time worrying about stuff like this, or do I not spend enough time on it?

Harris County is one of the nation’s most vulnerable counties to a measles outbreak, according to a new study based on international travel and the prevalence of non-medical vaccine exemptions.

The study, published Thursday in the journal Lancet Infectious Diseases, ranks Harris County as the county 9th most at risk of having clusters of people contract measles, the highly contagious, potentially fatal virus that has re-emerged as a public health threat after having been largely eradicated at the turn of the century. Tarrant and Travis counties also are at high risk of an outbreak, according to the study.

“Texas’ showing is on par with the other 16 states that allow vaccine exemptions for conscientious or personal reasons,” said Sahotra Sarkar, a University of Texas Austin professor and the study’s lead author. “You can expect the state, like other parts of the nation, to see more cases.”

Sarkar said Harris County’s vulnerability is mostly the result of its considerable international travel. The county’s number of non-medical vaccine exemptions was not among the state’s highest in a Texas health department report released earlier this week.

[…]

The new study was conducted by Sarkar and a Johns Hopkins University researcher using risk assessment models similar to one they used to correctly predict that Zika, the mosquito-born virus that can cause serious birth defects, would first affect Texas and Florida after it began spreading from the Southern Hemisphere midway through this decade. It also correctly predicted areas already experiencing measles outbreaks, such as Washington, Oregon and New York.

The authors didn’t consider the locations of measles cases already recorded. Instead, they looked at non-medical vaccine exemptions, international air travel and the incidence of measles in countries from which people came to the United States, particularly India, China, Mexico, Japan, Ukraine, Philippines and Thailand. In all, some 112,000 people have been diagnosed with measles outside the U.S. this year, according to the World Health Organization.

Peter Hotez, a Baylor College of Medicine professor of infectious disease and vaccine advocate, called the new study an advance over research he published last year that identified “15 hotspots” of vaccine exemptions among a subset of states. Harris County ranked seventh on that list.

“I think this is a nice refinement on our first attempt,” said Hotez. “It confirms the high risk of Texas counties to measles, something that we’ll need to consider seriously when planning for epidemics.”

It’s not clear what if anything can be done to mitigate this particular risk, so I’m back to wondering how much I should worry about it. Keep working to close the gap in vaccination rates, I guess. It annoys the crap out of me that we have to worry about this sort of thing in 2019, but here we are.

Kinder Houston Area Survey 2019

It’s one of the best things about Houston, year after year.

As Houston recovered from last week’s punishing rains, Rice University researchers reported Monday that public concern about flooding has diminished, while residents are ambivalent about certain policies aimed at easing the problem.

Researchers compiling the Kinder Houston Area Survey asked residents what they considered Houston’s biggest problem, and the share who named flooding this year fell to 7 percent from 15 percent last year. Only 1 percent cited flooding as the top problem in 2017, before Hurricane Harvey deluged the state with unprecedented amounts of rain.

Typical of human nature, the preoccupation with flooding fell with time, survey author Stephen Klineberg said. In each of the past three years, the most commonly cited top problem facing the Houston area was traffic, a frustration that residents confront daily.

“It is fair to say that the salience, the preoccupation with flooding, has gone down,” Klineberg said, “because it’s been a year and a half since Harvey.”

[…]

The 2019 results generally paint a portrait of an increasingly accepting and liberal place. The local economy is more stable. We are embracing our diversity.

But it also points to pressing problems: Financial insecurity, a failing education system and a shrinking determination to face flooding head-on. “The big story overall is the jury is out on Houston,” Klineberg said. “We understand better than we have before the challenges that we face.”

The city’s future, he says, hinges on the solutions in which area leaders invest.

[…]

Other findings: Support for immigration and gay rights continues to grow. So does the percentage of those who say they are friends with people of different ethnicities.

Klineberg’s big concerns include what he sees as the education system’s failure to prepare students to work. Jobs increasingly require a post-secondary education, he writes, and fewer Harris County residents are achieving this goal.

The survey shows that area residents, especially African American and Hispanic respondents, recognize this need for further education. And unlike in the past, more people than not think schools need more money — something Klineberg says is “a powerful kind of transformation.”

Financial insecurity is another concern. Nearly four in 10 reported that they did not have $400 in savings for an emergency. One-fourth said they did not have health insurance.

The city’s diversity and its challenges with education and jobs are likely to ripple across the country, in Klineberg’s view. “We’re there first,” he said. “We are a model for what is going to happen across all of America.”

The finding that support for various flood mitigation proposals has waned is the topline attention-getter, but it doesn’t surprise me that much. Not because I’m cynical, but because these things are hard to do. No one makes foundational changes without resistance and reluctance and false starts. People are going to be ambivalent and have buyer’s remorse. The best thing to do is to do things that will have the greatest positive impact, and ride it out till people get acclimated to it. That’s just life. As for everything else, there’s a ton to read on the general Houston Area Survey page and the 2019 Houston Area Survey page. Check ’em out.

Lineup shuffling at the DA’s office

This was a surprise.

Kim Ogg

Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg’s top lieutenant is out the door after the latest staffing shake-up at an office already plagued by high turnover and ongoing retention problems.

Tom Berg, a former defense attorney who came on board at the start of Ogg’s administration, confirmed his departure early Tuesday – and though initially he described it to the Chronicle as a firing, officials later said that he resigned when offered a different job title.

“I realize that as the office has evolved its needs have necessarily changed,” Berg wrote in a letter to Ogg dated Tuesday. “I could not anticipate or adjust to each aspect of the transformation and acknowledge your need to have a First Assistant who is philosophically more aligned with your course for the future.”

It’s not clear if a specific incident prompted the move. Two other employees – Human Resources Director Dean Barshis and Outreach Coordinator Shekira Dennis – are shifting roles in similarly unclear circumstances.

[…]

As of April, more than 140 prosecutors had left under her tenure, generating a sharp uptick in turnover.

Ogg has attributed the turnover to fallout from Hurricane Harvey, which has left courtrooms scattered across a number of buildings and prosecutors working in makeshift offices.

Some local attorneys chalked up the departures to leadership issues.

“There’s a lot of different things going around — they’re overworked because of the hurricane or they’re not going to trial — but really it’s that there’s no leadership,” said Josh Phanco, a longtime felony prosecutor who left the office earlier this year. “There’s no one you look at and say, ‘Oh, I want to be that guy.’ They all got fired.”

As the story notes, a lot of assistant DAs and other employees left – some voluntarily, others not – after Ogg was inaugurated, and it has continued since then. The same thing happened following Pat Lykos’ victory in 2008 (and would have happened if C.O. Bradford had won instead), as both of these elections represented a change of direction for the office. It’s been bumpy, and that has had a negative effect on how the office has performed, but that is what happens when a large organization undergoes a significant shift in philosophy and operation. I’ve no doubt that plenty of things could have gone better, and of course plenty of experience has been lost. That’s by definition, and it’s part of the point. Kim Ogg will have to defend her record when she runs for re-election next year, but in the meantime and with all due respect, I’m going to take the criticism of people who worked for the previous DAs with a certain level of skepticism.

I’ve met Tom Berg and I’m friends with him on Facebook. I’m sorry to see him go, I don’t know what might have happened, but I wish him all the best. His successor is now in place.

A day after Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg forced out a top lieutenant in the latest office shake-up, officials confirmed Trial Bureau Chief David Mitcham will step in to assume the role as First Assistant District Attorney.

“David has a long and distinguished career as a criminal trial lawyer and prosecutor; he’s handled thousands of cases and understands the needs of our staff because he has walked in your shoes,” Ogg wrote Wednesday in an office-wide email announcing the change. “While you all have known him over the past two and one half years as the Trial Bureau Chief, I have known David for more than three decades as a colleague, friend and outstanding lawyer.”

Best of luck to David Mitcham.

House passes a bail reform bill

For what it’s worth.

Rep. Kyle Kacal

The Texas House gave an initial stamp of approval Thursday to a bill that addresses bail practices, which courts recently deemed unconstitutional in the state’s two most populous counties for discriminating against poor criminal defendants who can’t pay for their release from jail.

But a last-minute amendment actually limits who can be released from behind bars without having cash.

Reform advocates have called for a system that could get poor, nonviolent defendants out of jail before their trial, but the amendment by state Rep. Oscar Longoria, D-Mission, is more restrictive than current law on no-cost releases. It would not allow judicial officers to release defendants on no-cost bonds for numerous reasons, including if they haven’t shown up to a court hearing in the previous two years, were charged with a violent offense or were charged with a crime that involves more than 4 grams of a controlled substance.

House Bill 2020 was one of several bail reform measures filed this year after federal court rulings, jail deaths and a state trooper’s murder drew attention to Texas’ pretrial jailing practices after the last legislative session. As it was presented to the chamber, the bill would have required officials to consider a defendant’s risk of danger or skipping court before making bail decisions. The successful amendment nixed that requirement if a defendant is released on a preset bail amount.

The bill’s author, state Rep. Kyle Kacal, R-College Station, said he worked in coordination with Republican Gov. Greg Abbott’s office on the measure, but it has changed significantly since it was filed in March. One of the most notable revisions before coming to the floor was that it no longer puts the power over systemic bail changes under the governor’s office.

[…]

Longoria’s amendment drastically alters the bill, but he emphasized that the move to restrict release for defendants on personal bonds — which have no upfront cost — for some defendants was based on safety, noting that it limited no-cost release for sexual assault and family violence offenses.

“It was more of a community safety issue,” he told The Texas Tribune after the bill passed. “A lot of judges don’t have the proper training to basically admonish the defendants and set proper bond.”

The amendment went against what many advocates have pushed for, and Marc Levin with the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank, said he would push to have the Senate remove it if the bill finally passes the House.

“It certainly would contribute to inequality in the system, and it could contribute to dangerous people who have money being released when they shouldn’t,” he said.

Some bail reform advocates have also criticized the bill for still relying on money bail instead of presuming release on no-cost bonds for nonviolent defendants. At a hearing last month, the criminal justice advocacy group Texas Fair Defense Project claimed the bill at that time didn’t adequately address federal court rulings that said Harris and Dallas counties’ bail practices kept people in jail simply because they were too poor to pay their bonds, and the group called for individual bail hearings within two days. The organization also said the bill’s requirement of a risk assessment would prohibit judges from automatically releasing from jail most misdemeanor defendants on a no-cost bond. Newly elected judges in Harris County adopted that practice amid legal woes the county faced from the federal ruling.

“We would like to see … that they’re still allowed to make a decision to automatically release defendants on really low-level, nonviolent offense,” Emily Gerrick, a staff attorney for the organization, said at the hearing.

Amendments to allow counties to release defendants on no-cost bonds before a risk assessment and to address the court rulings that called for individualized bail hearings failed Thursday.

See here and here for the background. Earlier bills by Rep. Andrew Murr and Sen. John Whitmire appear to be dead at this point, so it’s this bill or nothing. Grits believes none of these bills were going to address the main constitutional flaws in the existing system, which should be clarified in the coming months by the Fifth Circuit. After reading through this story, I’m inclined to agree. If this bill falls short of what the court is likely to order, what’s the point? Whatever the case, it’s up to the Senate now.

First test drive of Harris County voting centers

Overall I thought things went well for the Saturday election – final results were all in by 9 PM or so – but Campos observed a few issues.

Diane Trautman

Commentary is all for the voting centers on Election Day. If my precinct is in the Heights, I can vote on Election Day at the Community Center in Baytown if I am with my Dad. The issue is how the results are reported and presented to the public on Election Night.

When the first Election Day results were posted at 8:19 pm, the Election Day posting said Precincts Reporting 296 of 296 = 100%. In the past that meant all the precincts were counted. Everything is in. It makes it appear that since all the precincts are reporting they have all been counted, like it says when you look at the individual races on the posting. For example, in the South Houston Mayoral race, it said all 3 precincts had been counted but in the Election Day vote column, zero votes had been tallied. That’s the image I posted on my Today’s Take tweet.

If you go to the @HarrisVotes Election Day – Beta page you get a more detailed view of the reported votes. On that page, if you look closely at a tab, it told you how many of the voting centers had reported. There were 111 voting centers, which are the voting precinct locations and many precincts are combined – that’s why we don’t have 296 voting centers.

The Election Day – Beta page was first introduced and used in the December 11 State Senate District 6 Special Election and again for the State House District 145 Special Election and Runoff. In those races, voting centers were not used and they were the only races on the ballot. In those elections, on the Beta page, when you looked at the precinct-by-precinct results, a green check by the precinct indicated all the votes from the precinct were counted and complete. This past Saturday, on the Beta page, every precinct had the green check at the first posting at 8:19 pm even though some of them had not reported or counted a single Election Day vote like in South Houston.

Commentary got a few calls from folks wondering what to make of the way the results were being reported and it took part of the evening for me to figure it out.

@HarrisVotes needs to figure out a way to report and present where most folks can understand. If you can vote at any of the voting centers in the county on Election Day, then you are not going know if a voting precinct has been fully counted until the last voting center has reported. That is a significant departure from the past. So, in a very close district race, you are going to have to wait until all the voting centers in the county have reported for you to know whether you won or lost. Maybe @HarrisVotes can post which voting centers have reported so we can get a sense of what is out there.

@HarrisVotes should have added to their tweet yesterday that they understand there was a bit of confusion on how some were interpreting the posting of the results Saturday evening and they will be working to resolve those for future elections. It would probably be Ok if they ask some of the pros who regularly visit their webpage at 7 pm on Election Night for our thoughts. Just saying.

In a way, @HarrisVotes is lucky they rolled it out for this past election and they can fine tune it so to speak. If they would have rolled it out next March for the party primaries where more meaner folks than Commentary are involved, a sh_tstorm would have ensued on Election Night.

I noticed the same thing in the Pasadena City Council elections. Initially, while the election night returns page was saying that all 296 precincts had reported, it was showing single digit Election Day vote totals in each of the individual Council races. That sure didn’t seem right. On the plus side, the next time I refreshed the page, maybe 15 or 20 minutes later, a fuller set of numbers had been reported. I don’t remember now if there was another update after that – I was paying more attention to the San Antonio Mayor’s race by that time – but because I couldn’t rely on the number of precincts reporting to tell me the state of progress I had to keep checking in to see if anything had changed. After awhile, it was clear that we were done.

This is surely fixable, and it’s the reason why the shakedown cruise was done during a low-turnout May election. I think a running total of vote centers that have reported, along with a table showing which ones and where they are – be sure to include what State Rep District they’re in, with City Council district for races like the one this November – would fit the bill. We could approximate that in the past by seeing how many precincts were yet to report in district races; it was how I felt confident, with a hundred or so precincts still out, that Lina Hidalgo was going to catch up to and pass Ed Emmett in 2018, by noting that nearly all of the outstanding precincts were in heavily Dem districts. Give us something like that now, and all will be well. Candidates, reporters, and other election nerds will thank you.

Another view of pollution enforcement

The state has its role, but it’s not all on them.

Almost two months before a massive chemical fire erupted in Deer Park, sending a dark plume of smoke over much of Harris County, Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia asked the head of the county’s Pollution Control Services Department what additional resources he needed.

County officials were nearing the end of a third day of annual budget hearings and Garcia was concerned the department lacked the manpower and equipment to properly monitor air quality in his eastern precinct, let alone the entire county.

So, he asked Director Bob Allen for a wish list.

“Nobody’s ever asked me that before,” Allen replied at the Jan. 11 hearing in the Commissioners Court chambers. He said the department could use additional air monitors — especially mobile ones — and noted Pollution Control had fewer employees than in the 1990s.

Garcia last week said he was struck by Allen’s “deer-in-the-headlights look.” He wondered why previous Commissioners Courts had not pressed Allen for more details, and why he appeared unprepared to outline an ambitious vision for Pollution Control.

In the end, the court in February approved a 28 percent budget increase for the small department, giving Allen an additional $1.2 million. The department inspects facilities and enforces state and local air, water, solid waste and storm water regulations.

The investment made little difference four weeks later when a storage tank farm at Intercontinental Terminals Co. ignited on March 17, burned for more than 60 hours and sent Harris County emergency responders scrambling to monitor pollution and keep the public informed of dangers.

The ITC fire, followed by a fatal explosion and blaze at the KMCO plant in Crosby two weeks later, tested the capabilities of several county departments and spurred the longest activation of the emergency operations center since Hurricane Harvey.

County leaders said Pollution Control, however, was uniquely unprepared for the fires. Department staff were unable to quickly test air quality and report results to the public, forcing the county to hire outside consultants and design a website from scratch. Garcia said he lost faith in Allen’s leadership.

Unlike the city of Houston and federal Environmental Protection Agency, Harris County had no mobile air monitoring vehicle especially useful in emergencies. Five of the county’s 12 ozone monitors were broken, and Pollution Control’s fast-response team consisted of four members.

“We do not have the staff to sustain a response to the scale of ITC,” said Craig Hill, field manager for Pollution Control. He estimated the conflagration — which required the assistance of Louisiana firefighters to extinguish — was the largest the department had ever encountered.

The ITC fire was the first major emergency for Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo, who said the incident exposed significant gaps in the county’s capabilities. Hidalgo said residents shared concerns about daily air pollution, let alone from chemical fires, at a February town hall in Pasadena. She said county government in the past has taken a too-lax approach to potential disasters at industrial sites along the Houston Ship Channel.

“We’re not just going to hope that this doesn’t happen again,” she said. “We’re going to do a thorough analysis and share the results, and do that quickly.”

There’s a lot more, so go read the rest. Here’s that website that the county got set up to track air quality results, in case you’re curious. It’s amazing, and in many ways quite telling, that none of this capability had existed before. We’re pretty good on disaster preparedness when the disaster is a weather event, which we can usually see coming. The man-made kind of disaster, which let’s be honest should be at least as predictable given what we do in this county and the lax enforcement around it, we’re caught flat-footed. I for one am very glad to see that’s no longer the case.

Today is May Election Day

From the inbox:

Harris County Kicks Off First Election With Countywide Polling Place Program

Houston, TX– Saturday, May 4, 2019, is Election Day for approximately 708,000 eligible voters in Harris County.  This election is the first since being approved for a Countywide Polling Place Program, which means voters will be able to cast a ballot at any of the 113 Election Day Polling Locations.  All polling locations will be open from 7:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m.

The Harris County Clerk’s office will conduct elections for 23 local jurisdictions across the county. Voters residing in these jurisdictions can find their individual sample ballots, Election Day polling locations, and utilize the new wait time feature at www.HarrisVotes.com.

“Since voters can choose to cast a ballot anywhere in the county, harrisvotes.com will help them find their specific sample ballot, the nearest 5 polling locations and let them know what the anticipated wait time is at each location,” explained Harris County Clerk Dr. Diane Trautman.

At the end of the Early Voting period, only 18,216 votes had been cast in the election or about 2.7%. An approximate additional 30 local jurisdictions in Harris County will also conduct elections on the same day.

For more information about the May 4 Joint Election and the Countywide Polling Place Program, voters may visit www.HarrisVotes.com or call the Harris County Clerk’s office at 713.755.6965.

See here for more on the races of interest. If you live in Sugar Land or Pasadena, I hope you had a chance to listen to my interviews with Nabila Mansoor and Steve Halvorson. I’ll round up the results tomorrow. If you live someplace with an election happening, get out there and vote.

McLeod wants back on the bench

That’s fine. He’s got ten months to make his case to Democratic primary voters.

Judge William McLeod

The Harris County Civil Court At Law judge who inadvertently resigned his post in March, and unsuccessfully lobbied Commissioners Court to allow him to remain on the bench, said he plans to run for his former seat in 2020.

Judge Bill McLeod also blasted the three Democratic members who decided to replace him, whom he says had already made their decision before McLeod pleaded for a reprieve at the April 9 Commissioners Court meeting.

“The manner in which commissioners handled it was really a disservice to Harris County voters,” McLeod said Sunday. “I want to take my bench back.”

[…]

McLeod’s resignation spurred a special election in March 2020 to fill the remainder of his term, which runs through 2022. McLeod told Commissioners Court he abandoned his plans to run for the state Supreme Court, and instead wishes to regain his old seat.

Briones said she will campaign next year to remain in the post. Her first day on the bench is Monday.

McLeod said he will make a formal announcement May 15, and plans to return to private practice as a civil litigator until the election.

See here and here for the background. I said my piece in those two posts and don’t have anything to add to that. I have no preference at this time for who should sit on that particular bench. Briones and McLeod will make their cases for themselves, but with all due respect there are other races higher on my mind right now.

County brings charges related to ITC fire

Bring it on.

Kim Ogg

Responding to what it called “criminal levels” of contamination, the Harris County District Attorney’s office said Monday that it has charged Intercontinental Terminals Company with five misdemeanor counts of water pollution arising from a March plant fire that sent toxic chemicals into nearby waterways and a thick plume of smoke over the Houston area for days.

“The discharge from the ITC fire into Tucker Bayou is a clear water pollution case,” said Alex Forrest, the environmental crimes division chief for the DA’s office, in a written statement. “We are looking forward to reviewing the reports of other local and federal agencies, as they complete their investigations, so that we can determine if other charges will follow.”

The charges are the most recent example of District Attorney Kim Ogg’s more aggressive approach toward chemical companies in the aftermath of environmental disasters that have outraged the public and drawn national attention.

“This is the beginning of our review, not the end,” said Dane Schiller, a spokesman for the DA’s office.

According to the DA’s Office, water pollution in Tucker Bayou was at “criminal levels” from March 17 through March 21. Prosecutors filed one count for each of the five days the company allegedly violated the law at its Deer Park plant. Each charge carries a fine of up to $100,000.

“People living in Deer Park and the other neighboring residential areas near ITC’s plant deserve protection,” Ogg said. “When public health is at risk, it’s a public safety concern.”

An attorney for ITC, which stores petrochemicals for companies including Chevron, Philips 66 and Exxon, defended its efforts.

“Although we have not seen the charges, there is no question that there was a large fire and an enormous effort to extinguish it which resulted in a discharge into Tucker Bayou,” said Michael Goldberg, an attorney for ITC, in a written statement.

[…]

Monday’s court action against ITC marks the second time Ogg has pursued criminal charges against Houston-area companies in high-profile pollution cases. After a chemical fire during Hurricane Harvey in 2017, Ogg brought a criminal case against the chemical company Arkema and two of its executives for the “reckless” release of an air contaminant.

Investigators found that the company’s emergency plan provided little direction to employees on how to handle major floods, and as a result, it couldn’t keep combustible organic peroxides cool, according to federal documents. Over the next week, nine trailers of organic peroxides erupted in flames, sending pillars of fire and thick plumes of black smoke into the air.

Prosecutors recently charged the company and a third executive with reckless assault, citing injuries sustained by two deputies who responded to the scene based on the company’s assurances. Company officials have defended their actions in both suits and accused Ogg’s office of prosecutorial overreach.

See here for more about the Arkema indictments, which as far as I know have not progressed past that stage yet. These charges came right after Kim Ogg requested more environmental prosecutors. I don’t know if the one has to do with the other, but either way I expect that division to be busy. It’s one thing to file charges, it’s another to get convictions, and still another for those convictions to withstand appeal. We’ll keep an eye on these.

Prosecuting polluters

It really shouldn’t have to come to this, but here we are.

Kim Ogg

The Harris County District Attorney’s office is calling for a tripling of the number of prosecutors dedicated to environmental crimes in the wake of a series of chemical plant fires that has raised public health concerns.

In a letter Thursday to the county judge and commissioners court, Vivian King, the chief of staff of the district attorney’s office, requested $850,000 to fund eight new positions: four prosecutors two investigators and two paralegals. The county currently has two prosecutors and one administrative assistant devoted to environmental crimes. The request is scheduled to come before the commissioners court on Tuesday.

On March 17, an Intercontinental Terminals Co. tank farm in Deer Park caught fire and burned for several days, closing the Houston Ship Channel and drawing national attention. No injuries were reported. A couple of weeks later, one person was killed and two others were critically injured when the KMCO chemical plant in Crosby caught fire. A fire also broke out at Exxon Mobil’s Baytown refinery in mid-March but was contained hours later. The investigations are ongoing.

“With Arkema and ITC and all of the alleged criminal acts intentionally polluting our waters supply with cancer agents, we don’t have the staff to investigate and work on these cases,” King said during an interview.

The DA’s environmental crimes division handles 400 to 500 cases a year, the bulk of which are related to illegal dumping and water pollution perpetrated by smaller companies or individuals — not the big corporations, King said.

[…]

Traditionally the county has not criminally prosecuted the large petrochemical industry, King said.

She stressed that the DA’s office welcomes an industry that’s a major source of employment and an important contributor to the area’s economy.

“However,” she added, “as public servants we get a lot of complaints about the very few companies that commit criminal acts by intentionally not following laws and regulations governing hazardous waste and chemical emissions and putting cancer agents in our water supply and the air we breath.”

And they currently don’t have the staff to handle it all, even less so to take on the big cases. A private attorney is working pro bono on a case involving Arkema.

Let’s be clear, it would be best if most of this work were done by the TCEQ. If they were an agency that took their mandate seriously – and, let’s be clear again, if the mandate they were given by the state were more serious – they would be in position to reduce the risk of catastrophes like these. Better enforcement up front is always the better way to go. In the absence of that, and with constraints on civil action, what other option is there for the most egregious offenders? If and when the state does its job, entities like the Harris County DA will be able to back off. This request was part of the larger ask for more prosecutors that was rejected in February. It was unanimously approved by Commissioners Court yesterday, so that’s good. I suspect there will be no shortage of work for this team.

Meet the new marriage license

Time for a change.

Diane Trautman

A sketched portrait of a bride and groom has been nixed from Harris County-issued marriage licenses to make the records more inclusive to “all unions, backgrounds and faiths,” according to clerk officials.

The ornate image of a woman signing a book with the groom looming nearby has been on the document since 2012, when former Harris County Clerk Stan Stanart decided after taking office that the licenses were “not that appealing” and needed to better reflect “one of the most important days of a couple’s life.”

A keepsake version of the license now features intertwined rings instead.

Diane Trautman, the newly elected Democrat, chose to reverse her predecessor’s romantic flair on the government-issued licenses soon after taking over the county position. She unseated Stanart, a Republican, in last November’s election.

A news release from the Harris County Clerk’s Office on Thursday quietly announced the artistic changes without mentioning what prompted the tweaks, which happened nearly four years after the landmark Supreme Court ruling in 2015 that legalized the same-sex unions.

“It is important that marriage licenses are reflective of the diverse nature of Harris County and is inclusive of all relationships,” Trautman said in a written statement.

You can see the press release, plus images of the new license and the new keepsake version of the license here. The County Clerk represents all of Harris County, which includes people who would not fit the image on the old license. This was an easy call, and I applaud it.

(I was married well before Stan Stanart’s redesign in 2012. Our marriage license is in the safe deposit box at our bank. I see it a couple of times a year, and offhand I have no memory of what it looks like. I don’t know how important the document itself is to people once the wedding is over and official. It’s not in the top twenty of things I think about when I think about my wedding, or my marriage. So if for whatever the reason you feel outrage about this change, please don’t feel it on my behalf.)

Missing In Harris County Day

I had no idea this was a thing.

Last year, 40,175 children were reported missing in Texas (over 9,600 of these from the Greater Houston area). And while many of these cases ended up solved, as of December 31, 8,360 missing persons cases (children and adult) remain open in the state. Hoping to bring these numbers down, Texas Center for the Missing (TCM) — in conjunction with the Harris County Sheriff’s Office, Houston Police Department, and the South Texas Human Rights Center, among others — is hosting Missing in Harris County Day this Saturday, April 27.

According to TCM Chief Executive Officer Beth Alberts, Missing in Harris County Day was started in 2015 by Dr. Sharon Derrick, then a Forensic Anthropologist with the Harris County Institute of Forensic Sciences. Alberts said Derrick wanted to replicate a similar event held in New York that was able to successfully match DNA from family cheek swabs taken at the event to unidentified remains in morgues and graves around the country.

In Missing in Harris County Day’s four-year history, it has solved 13 cold missing persons cases, the oldest of which was over 20 years old.

When asked about what happens at the event, Alberts said, “Families will arrive on Saturday and complete a missing person report (if they have not already done so) giving law enforcement detailed physical description of the person, the time/date/location and clothing description when last seen. That information will be entered into the appropriate agency’s database and uploaded to the National Crime Information Center database. DNA collected that day will be cross-referencing with existing DNA in national databases.”

See here for the details. The event is tomorrow from 10 to 3 at the Children’s Assessment Center Training Center, 2500 Bolsover Street, Houston, TX 77005, which is in the Rice Village. There’s some things you need to bring if you want to participate, so click over and read the instructions. I wish everyone who does this the best.

Early voting for the May elections has begun

From the inbox:

Early Voting for the May 4, 2019 Joint Election starts Monday, April 22 and ends on Tuesday, April 30. During that period, Harris County voters may vote at any of the 25 Early Voting locations designated throughout the county. Polls will be open from 7 am to 7 pm, except for Sunday, April 28, when polls are open from 1 pm to 6 pm. Ballot by mail applicants must submit their applications by April 23.

Launching this election, voters will be able to see the approximate wait time at each polling location. This new Wait Time feature will be available on our website alongside a map of all the Early Voting locations.

“In an effort to make voting easier and more convenient, Early Voting hours have been extended and a Wait Time feature have been added to the website to help voters avoid lines” said Harris County Clerk Diane Trautman. “I encourage all of the nearly 785,000 registered voters that are eligible to cast a ballot in this election to exercise their right to vote.”

The Harris County Clerk’s office will conduct elections for 23 political subdivisions across the county. Voters residing in these political entities can find their individual sample ballots, the Early Voting schedule, and the Election Day polling locations at www.HarrisVotes.com.

An approximate additional 30 political entities in Harris County will also conduct elections on the same day. Voters should communicate directly with political entities conducting their own elections to obtain more information.

For more information about the May 4 Joint Election, voters may visit www.HarrisVotes.com or call the Harris County Clerk’s office at 713.755.6965.

###

Entities Conducting Elections with Harris County

City of Humble, City of Pasadena, City of South Houston, City of West University Place, Channelview ISD, Cypress-Fairbanks ISD, Goose Creek Consolidated ISD, Humble ISD, Pasadena ISD, Cypress Klein Utility District, Encanto Real Utility District, Greenwood Utility District, Bridgestone MUD, Crosby MUD, Faulkey Gully MUD, Trail of the Lake MUD, Harris County MUD No. 5, Harris County MUD No. 44, Harris County MUD No. 55, Harris County ESD No. 60, Harris County Fresh Water Supply District No. 1A, Harris County Fresh Water Supply District No. 58, Harris County Water Control and Improvement District No. 109.

You can see what the Wait Time feature looks like here. It’s pretty cool, and something we’ll surely need going forward, though for this election I doubt you’ll see anything but green lights. The City of Pasadena elections are the biggest ones of most interest within Harris County, with the balance of power on Pasadena City Council being up for grabs. See my interview with Steve Halvorson for more on that.

Early voting information for Fort Bend County is here. Fort Bend ISD and the City of Sugar Land, where Nabila Mansoor is running for City Council District 2, are races to watch.

Early voting information for Brazoria County is here. There’s a lot of energy right now for three candidates for Pearland ISD Board of Trustees: Al Lloyd, Dona Murphey, and Joseph Say. If all three win, they’d join Trustee Mike Floyd, elected in 2017, to form a majority on that Board.

Elsewhere, there are Mayor’s races in San Antonio, Dallas, and Fort Worth, none of which I have followed closely. There’s a longer story to write about why we still hold these municipal elections in May of odd-numbered years, but that will wait till another day. For more about the Harris County races, see this Chron story. Is there an election for you to vote in? Leave a comment and let us know.

Ogg hires Bradford

A familiar face for the DA’s office.

C.O. “Brad” Bradford

Former Houston City Councilmember and Police Chief C.O. “Brad” Bradford has joined the Harris County District Attorney’s Office as a senior adviser.

District Attorney Kim Ogg has hired Bradford to serve in a senior-level position as special prosecutor and law enforcement liaison, said spokesman Dane Schiller.

“We welcome his expertise and experience as a respected member of the community, a lawyer for 25 years, and a former chief of the Houston Police Department,” Schiller said, declining to offer details about the motives for the high-profile hire.

Bradford said he would be using his expertise in both law enforcement and jurisprudence to analyze the processes of the DA’s office, the criminal cases police bring for prosecution and how the DA’s office handles those cases.

“Thousands and thousands of cases are being filed by police, and there’s a need to look at those cases and see if something can be done other than the police filing formal charges on those people,” Bradford said. “Some of them, you lock them up in jail still; they need that. Others may need prevention programs. They need mental health treatment. They may need diversion.”

The new hire comes on the heels of repeated requests for more prosecutors, the most substantial of which — $21 million for over 100 new positions — the Harris County Commissioners Court shot down earlier this year. The initial wave of new positions would have targeted felony courts, where lawyers are most needed given the post-Harvey backlog, Ogg has said.

The rest of the story is a recap of Bradford’s career – for the record, he served three terms on City Council, not two – quotes from various people of varying quality, and mention of the continued turnover at the DA’s office. I care more about what Bradford will do with the DA. He’s a sharp guy with a good grasp of policy, and I think he could be a good bridge between Ogg and the police, who as noted by some of those comments I didn’t include in this post haven’t always liked Ogg’s policy changes. I had some issue with him as Council member, as he was often a foil to Mayor Parker, but he was a strong advocate for his positions. While I’m sure some of his role will involve talk and diplomacy, I figure you don’t hire a guy like C.O. Bradford to be behind the scenes. I’ll be very interested to see what he gets up to.

We’re still figuring out how to do development in a floodplain

From the inbox:

The Greater Houston Flood Mitigation Consortium has released dual research reports that examine current standards in the area’s drainage, detention, and development regulations. The reports also include findings that encourage implementation of new and updated flood management infrastructure approaches and regulations to mitigate the risk of future flooding.

According to Consortium Project Manager Christof Spieler, “This research is intended to inform and unite our city and county leadership, development community and residents in planning for our region’s future. Some of the current regulations are not sufficient to address current flood risk and are further compounded by our region’s growth. Taking time to consider how we could benefit from updated regulations isn’t trying to limit that growth, but would set into motion the research and creative solutions required for growing in more resilient ways.”

Research Paper 1: Detention & Drainage Regulations:

According to researchers from Rice University’s SSPEED Center and report contributors Houston Advanced Research Center, as more and more land in and around Houston is developed, runoff and an inability for the land to absorb water from heavy rain events become contributing factors to flooding. The report goes on to identify areas where current detention regulations, which are in place to prevent those negative impacts, may in some situations be allowing new development to increase downstream flooding.

Specifically, the report findings state current regulations, with the biggest impact being from projects of 50 acres or less on greenfield sites:

  • Overestimate the runoff from some undeveloped sites and, as a result, underestimate detention required to maintain current conditions;
  • Use one-size-fits-all drainage formulas that do not reflect the variation in soils, vegetation and topography across the county; and
  • Only address maximum flow rate, not total runoff volume, meaning the cumulative effect of multiple developments can still increase flood levels. Further, downstream flooding can last longer while multi-day events can have a greater impact even if current requirements are met.

Suggestions to improve current regulations:

  • Increase the default minimum detention requirements set by the City of Houston and Harris County Flood Control District for development sites of all sizes to be a more conservative figure.
  • Allow developers / property owners with sites of any size to provide less than the default minimum detention requirements, provided there is an engineering study, based on field operations, that quantifies pre-development runoff.
  • Install gauges to collect measurable data on runoff in a variety of undeveloped watersheds.
  • Commission engineering studies for the undeveloped portions of Harris County’s major watersheds to understand cumulative effects and determine appropriate parameters.
  • Based on the studies, set specific criteria for the watershed, which could be coordinated across multiple jurisdictions in the watershed.
  • Require evaluation of cumulative effects across entire watersheds.
  • Require evaluation of multi-day events (three, five or seven days) as well as storms lasting a day or less.

Research Paper 2: Development Regulations:

According to the researchers from Kinder Institute for Urban Research Rice UniversityTexas Southern University, and Houston Advanced Research Center, the region can embrace a form of growth and innovation that sees opportunities in rules and systems that encourage resilient growth to avoid placing people and property in harm’s way.

Suggested approach for considering new regulations and policies:

  • Create regulations and policies to ensure both residents and officials understand that there is a range of flood risks both in and outside of current mapped floodplains.
  • Create systems that utilize both green and gray infrastructure elements for public and private infrastructure to maximize our ability to mitigate flooding.
  • Create land use and development policies that minimize future risk and address existing issues rather than relying too much on expensive infrastructure projects.

The report points out that these regulations are instituted and enforced by a variety of jurisdictions and operate within a legal framework set by the Texas Legislature. Changing the framework can require actions at many levels, and no one entity is solely responsible. Keeping the above points in mind and considering best practice research, key report takeaways include:

  • Tailor new developments to avoid at-risk areas in such a way as to keep people and structures from harm’s way and to reduce the number of existing vulnerable residents and structures.
  • Adopt regulations that inform residents about their flood risks and their options to mitigate those risks. This information should be proactively accessible to homeowners and renters both in and out of the mapped floodplains.
  • Provide public funding and programming to assist low-income residents in bringing their older, flood-prone homes up to new standards.
  • Require design standards and development permitting to incorporate broader resilience goals to help facilitate a more resilient region.
  • Implement regulations and design standards to encourage both green and gray infrastructure solutions to maximize our ability to reduce flooding. In order to see their use increased, green infrastructure efforts should be incentivized or even required, as the City of Houston is now studying.
  • Successful stormwater and floodplain management needs to be implemented at the regional level with the cooperation of city, county and regional institutions. Stormwater and floodplain management professionals within these institutions are best suited to put into place new and emerging best practices.
  • Balancing economic goals with regulatory reform can be a struggle. As new data and technology reveal a new picture of flood risks for the Houston region, this balance will likely shift, resulting in the need for a new set of regulatory practices. This report summarizes best practices that are potentially relevant for the Houston region.

A link to both reports can be found at  houstonconsortium.org.

flooding, harvey
See here and here for previous research, and here for the Chron story. I don’t have anything to add, I just hope Commissioners Court and the Lege are paying attention.

Wolfe censured by HCDE

A new episode of the Michael Wolfe reality show.

Harris County Department of Education’s board voted to censure Trustee Michael Wolfe over sexual harassment allegations hours after a state district judge denied his request for a temporary restraining order.

Trustees on Wednesday voted 4-2, with Trustee Don Sumners abstaining, to issue the formal reprimand. Trustee George Moore broke with others in the board’s new majority, of which Wolfe is a part, to vote in favor of the punishment. Moore would not comment about his vote.

At the board meeting, Wolfe said the allegations were politically motivated and he had not had a proper chance to defend himself against such controversial allegations.

“If any of you were in my shoes, you would want your due process in court before being branded a sexual harasser,” Wolfe said. “I’m shocked these allegations have gotten this far, especially in America.”

Wolfe had tried to stop the censure vote Tuesday evening by having his attorney file a petition for a temporary restraining order and arguing for the order Wednesday afternoon.

A state district judge denied Wolfe’s request. Civil Court Judge Steven Kirkland said he was reluctant to get involved in a “political squabble” or to interfere with an elected board’s right to formally punish its own members.

He asked Jared Woodfill, an attorney for Wolfe, whether the censure would result in Wolfe losing his elected position, prevent him from voting on future items or would force him to register as a sex offender. Woodfill said no, but pointed out the official punishment would brand his client as a sexual harasser and could make it more difficult for him to gain future employment.

“There’s no statutory authority for me to interfere with another governmental body and no clear basis for me to jump in and do this,” Kirkland said. “It is not under an authority of the court to interfere with what is, essentially, a political question.”

See here and here for some background. As is usually the case with anything involving Michael Wolfe, you need to read the whole thing, then wash your hands afterwards. Have I mentioned that he’s up for election in 2020? Having him provide opportunities for Jared Woodfill to lose in court is a point in his favor, I’ll admit, but voting him out will still be sweet.

We’re gonna need a bigger meeting room

Seems reasonable.

With a newfound public interest in Harris County Commissioners Court meetings, which at times have been so crowded that would-be attendees have been turned away, court members plan to build a larger chamber.

Commissioners Court [asked] County Engineer John Blount to design a new chamber on the first floor of the county administration building at 1001 Preston. The current chamber, on the ninth floor, has a capacity of 90 people. Blount said a first-floor chamber could fit as many as 220.

“We have to get a better courtroom,” Blount said. “If people had to do it again, no one would ever put the highest-occupancy facility on the highest floor of the building.”

The new chamber would occupy the west half of the first floor, which currently houses some employees of the county tax assessor-collector’s office. The office’s customer service windows on the east half of the floor, where residents can pay taxes or register a vehicle, would remain the same.

Blount said the county could design the new chamber in four to six months and complete construction about a year after that. The work would not affect in-progress renovations on the first floor, which include the replacement of exterior windows and doors. Blount said estimating a cost to build a new chamber would be a “pure guess” at this stage,

“There’s not a lot of structural work. It’s pretty straightforward,” he said.

[…]

The Harris County Precinct 1 Constable’s office, which protects downtown county properties, said a first-floor courtroom would require fewer deputies, spokesman Kevin Quinn said.

Security staff have to perform extra work on the ninth floor, he said, because the metal detector checkpoint is between the court chamber and the elevators to overflow rooms.

“Every time people come back and forth, they have to be re-screened,” Quinn said.

Seems pretty reasonable to me. The existing space is overcrowded, inconvenient, and requires extra security personnel. The proposed new location will have adequate seating for everyone, will be easier for everyone to get to, will require less security presence, and will be inexpensive to construct. Go for it.

Using Beto 2018 to project Beto 2020

The NYT recently took a deep dive into the 2018 election data from Texas, and came out seeing a real swing state, partly because of Beto and partly for other reasons.

Mr. O’Rourke’s close result wasn’t because of an exceptional turnout that will be hard for other Democrats to repeat in 2020. Republican voters, defined as those who have participated in a recent Republican primary, turned out at a higher rate than Democratic ones. Neither the Hispanic nor youth voter share of the electorate was higher than it was in 2016, when President Trump won the state by nine points.

On the contrary, Democrats in 2020 can be expected to enjoy a more favorable turnout because presidential races tend to draw in more young and Hispanic voters. Mr. O’Rourke might have won Texas last November if turnout had been at the level of a contested presidential race, based on an Upshot analysis of Times/Siena poll responses, actual results and voter file data from L2, a nonpartisan voter file vendor.

The data yields an estimate of how every registered voter in Texas would have voted, based on a long list of geographic and demographic factors that predicted vote choice in the Times/Siena polling. Importantly, turnout in 2018 is among those factors, which allows us to fully untangle how much of Mr. O’Rourke’s strength was because of strong turnout among his supporters.

The data indicates that two opposing turnout trends influenced the results. The electorate was older, whiter and more Republican than the state as a whole — or than the 2016 electorate. But an O’Rourke supporter was generally likelier to vote than a demographically and politically similar supporter of Mr. Cruz. This was the pattern nationwide, so it is not obvious that this can be attributed to Mr. O’Rourke specifically; it could have been the favorable Democratic environment more generally.

Either way, the extra turnout boost probably cut Mr. Cruz’s margin of victory by two points.

Mr. O’Rourke might have won with a turnout of around 10 million voters. (The actual turnout was around 8.4 million.) Without the extra edge of a Democratic wave year, it might have taken 11 million votes, a number that is not out of the question in 2020 if Texas is contested as a battleground state.

So how did Mr. O’Rourke fare so well? He did it through old-fashioned persuasion, by winning voters who had voted for Republicans and for minor-party candidates.

[…]

No matter how you explain it, the president’s disapproval rating in Texas would seem to imply that there’s at least some additional upside for Democrats there, beyond what Mr. O’Rourke pulled off. And the president’s far lower approval rating among all adults (as opposed to among registered voters) hints at another opportunity for Democrats: mobilizing unregistered voters. In both cases, Hispanic voters could represent the upside for Democrats.

Mr. O’Rourke’s strong showing had essentially nothing to do with the initial vision of a Blue Texas powered by mobilizing the state’s growing Hispanic population. The Texas electorate was only two points more Hispanic in 2018 than it was in 2012, but President Obama lost the state by 16 points in 2012, compared with Mr. O’Rourke’s 2.6-point loss.

At the same time, Mr. O’Rourke fared worse than Mr. Obama or Hillary Clinton in many of the state’s heavily Hispanic areas, particularly in more conservative South Texas. This could reflect Mr. Cruz’s relative strength among Hispanic voters compared with a typical Republican.

Instead, Mr. O’Rourke’s improvement came almost exclusively from white voters, and particularly college-educated white voters. Whites probably gave him around 33 percent of their votes, up from a mere 22 percent for Mr. Obama in 2012.

I’ve been sitting on this for a little while, in part because of there being lots of other things to write about, and in part because I’ve been thinking about it. I want to present a few broad conclusions that I hope will help shape how we think about 2020.

1. I haven’t tried to study this in great detail, but my general sense since the 2018 election has been that Democratic base turnout could have been higher than it was, and that to carry the state of Texas in 2020, the Democratic Presidential nominee will need to aim for five million votes. Both of these are validated by this story.

2. The other point, about persuasion and flipping people who had previously voted Republican, is another theme I’ve visited a few times since November. Some of the districts that Dems won in 2018 – CDs 07 and 32 in particular – just weren’t going to be won by better base turnout. Better base turnout was always going to be needed, it just wasn’t going to be enough. Remember, in a Presidential year, John Culberson won CD07 by eleven points, and Republican judicial candidates won it by similar margins. There weren’t enough non-voting Democrats to make up for that.

3. The key to the above was Trump, and that statement in the story about “winning voters who had voted for Republicans and for minor-party candidates” (emphasis mine) was the mechanism. CDs 07 and 32 were on the map, as were other districts like SD16 and the Dallas County State Rep districts, because they had been carried by Hillary Clinton. You may recall that I was skeptical of these numbers because it was clear that Clinton won those districts because a number of nominal Republicans just didn’t vote for Trump. It was an open question to me what they’d do in the next election. Clearly, now we know.

4. To be more specific, the not-Trump voters, who include those who voted for Gary Johnson and Evan McMullen and Jill Stein as well as those who actually crossed over to Clinton and those who skipped the race entirely, really did vote for Democratic candidates in 2018, at least in some races. Those candidates included Beto, most of the Congressional Dems, Mike Collier, Justin Nelson, Kim Olson, most of the legislative Dems, and some other downballot Dems. Some Republicans held onto the not-Trumpers – Greg Abbott, Glenn Hegar, George P. Bush, and Christie Craddick – but by and large these people were quite willing to stray. The proof is in the districts where the Trump percentage from 2016 was the ceiling for these Republicans in 2018.

5. Given this, the basis for Texas as a swing state, as well as a Congressional battleground, in 2020, is precisely the idea that these voters will again not vote for Trump, and base Democratic turnout will be higher. Implicit in this is the idea that the not-Trump voters who were also not-Hillary voters will be more inclined to vote for the 2020 Dem, which I think is a reasonable assumption. Dems will have their work cut out for them – we’re talking a million more votes than Beto got, which was 200K more votes than Hillary got and 500K more votes than Obama ’08 got – but the path is clear.

6. For example, Beto carried Harris County by 200K votes, with 1.2 million votes cast. If turnout in Harris is 1.5 million – hardly crazy, assuming 2.4 million registered voters (registration was 2.3 million in 2018), which in turn would be turnout of 62.5%, basically a point higher than it was in 2016 – you can imagine a Dem carrying the county 900K to 600K, which is about where the Republican vote total has plateaued. That’s 20 percent of the way to the goal right there, and it doesn’t even assume a heroic turnout effort.

7. Do I think Democratic turnout in Texas will be better if Beto, or for that matter Julian Castro, is the nominee than if someone else is? Maybe, but honestly I don’t think it would be by much, if at all. I think it really is about Trump more than it is about who the Dem is. Beto was very much the right candidate at the right time in 2018, but I don’t believe 2020 depends on him. I do think Beto as a Senate candidate may well have outperformed any Dem Presidential candidate (with the possible exception of Castro) in 2020, but that’s not the situation we will have. As a Presidential candidate, I don’t think he’d be that much different.

8. Bottom line, keep registering voters, and keep talking to people who haven’t been habitual voters. We’re going to need everyone working together to make this happen.

Bail lawsuit settlement outline taking shape

We should have a final version in a couple of weeks.

A proposed settlement in the landmark Harris County bail lawsuit would significantly change how the county treats poor defendants in misdemeanor cases by providing free social and transportation services and relaxing penalties for missed court dates.

The draft deal includes a number of reforms aimed at ensuring poor defendants arrive for court hearings and are not unfairly pressured into guilty pleas. They would, among other changes: require Harris County to provide free child care at courthouses, develop a two-way communication system between courts and defendants, give cell phones to poor defendants and pay for public transit or ride share services for defendants without access to transportation to court.

“I’m not aware of any county, or city the size of Houston… doing those type of innovative things,” said Mary McCord, a former federal prosecutor who filed an amicus brief in the case on behalf of the poor defendants. “Ultimately, the county is going to save so much money by not keeping these people in jail.”

The proffered agreement would require the county to operate at least one night or weekend docket to provide a more convenient opportunity for defendants with family, work and education commitments. Courts would be barred from charging any fees to poor defendants, defined as those earning less than 200 percent of the federal poverty level, which is about $25,000 for someone with no dependents.

The proposal also would reduce penalties for missed court dates. A defendant could not be deemed to have failed to appear if he arrived in court on the day assigned, even if he was hours late. Defendants would be allowed to reschedule court appearances for any reason at least two times without negative consequences. Judges only could issue bench warrants 30 days after a missed a court appearance, so long as the court already has attempted to contact the defendant with a rescheduled hearing date.

In addition, judges would be required to permit defendants to skip hearings where their presence is unnecessary, such as routine meetings between prosecutors, defense attorneys and judges that do not involve testimony or fact-finding.

At the heart of the 23-page proposed settlement, a copy of which was obtained by the Houston Chronicle, is the codification of a new bail schedule unveiled by the slate of newly elected of criminal judges in January, under which about 85 percent of people arrested on misdemeanors automatically qualify for release on no-cash bonds.

“Our current goal now is to become the model misdemeanor court system in America,” said Harris County Criminal Court at Law Judge Darrell Jordan, a bail reform advocate and the only Democrat on the misdemeanor bench when the case began. “I think the proposals in the settlement, as far as the wraparound services for misdemeanor defendants, is a great step in that direction.”

[…]

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo issued a statement late Friday stressing that the proposal is preliminary, and could change.

“We’re working well with the plaintiffs to reach an agreement that will provide a model for bail reform around the country while also being feasible for the county to implement,” she said.

Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia said he is eager to negotiate a settlement that balances the needs of defendants against those of victims and county taxpayers. He declined to speak to specific provisions in the proposed settlement, but said he has concerns that some may be too expensive or unrealistic.

“I’ll just say there’s a number of things that immediately hit me like, ‘I’m not sure how we’re going to do that,’” Garcia said.

Precinct 3 Commissioner Steve Radack and Precinct 4’s Jack Cagle panned the proposal, which they said is too broad. The pair of Republicans said it should instead focus on implementing bail rules that ignore a defendant’s ability to pay.

“If my learned colleagues are going to strive for free Uber rides for the accused, I’d strongly advocate we provide the same to victims,” Cagle said.

Just a reminder, for anyone who might be fixating on the Uber rides or childcare aspects of this, the goal here is to get people to show up for their court dates. I would remind you that the alternative to paying for those relatively small things is paying to house, feed, and clothe thousands of people for weeks or months at a time, and that we have been doing exactly that for decades now. And if it’s the Uber thing that’s really sticking in your craw, then I trust you support a robust expansion of our public transit and pedestrian infrastructure so that it’s practical for anyone to take a bus to the courthouse. (Though having said that, if Commissioner Cagle was being sincere and not sarcastic, providing rides to the courthouse for victims who need them seems like a good idea to me.)

Again, just to review. Locking people up who have not been convicted of a crime is (with limited exceptions) wrong. Locking people up who have been arrested on charges that would normally not carry jail time if they were convicted is wrong. Locking people up for technical violations that have nothing to do with the crimes with which they have been charged is wrong. We spend tens of millions of dollars of our tax dollars every year doing these things. This is our chance to spend a whole lot less, and to get better results for it.

Was the McLeod replacement too hasty?

Eh, I dunno.

Judge William McLeod

Republican members of Harris County Commissioners Court criticized their Democratic colleagues for quickly approving a new civil court judge at Tuesday’s meeting who had not been vetted by the full body.

The three Democrats voted to appoint Houston lawyer Lesley Briones to replace County Court at Law Judge Bill McLeod, who inadvertently resigned last week. Briones’ name was absent from the agenda, she had only spoken with the Democratic members and just 36 minutes passed between her nomination and approval.

“This is the least transparent appointment I have ever seen,” Republican Precinct 3 Commissioner Steve Radack said. “The unfairness of the process was overwhelming.”

During the meeting, Precinct 4 Commissioner Jack Cagle held up Briones résumé, which he had been handed minutes earlier, and said he may have supported her if he only had the chance to review it. Instead the vote fell along party lines, 3 to 2.

County Judge Lina Hidalgo, who regularly pledges her administration will be more transparent than those past, defended the process.

Hidalgo said Commissioners Court faces several pressing issues, including responses to two massive chemical fires in recent weeks and a looming settlement in the county’s landmark bail lawsuit. When an assistant county attorney warned court members Tuesday that leaving Judge McLeod on the bench as a holdover judge almost certainly would force him to recuse himself from some cases, Hidalgo said the court needed to choose a replacement.

She said McLeod, not Commissioners Court, had created the predicament.

“I decided for myself it wasn’t going to go beyond this court,” Hidalgo said. She added, “This is something we needed to get done and move on from.”

See here for my initial reactions, and here for some further background. I have some sympathy for the Court here. This was a weird situation, not of their own making. I think most people would agree that inadvertent or not, McLeod did trigger the “resign to run” condition. I suspect as much as anything they just wanted to put this mess behind them, so they went ahead and named a replacement. I get it, but I have to agree that Commissioner Cagle makes a good point. They could at least have had something like a Judicial Committee hearing, to give all the Commissioners some time to know who they were voting on. I would hope this situation will never arise again, but in the unfortunate event it does, let’s take that lesson from this experience.

UPDATE: Stace sums it all up nicely.

Commissioners Court replaces Judge McLeod

Unfortunate, but understandable.

Judge William McLeod

A divided Harris County Commissioners Court declined to give County Court At Law Judge Bill McLeod a reprieve Tuesday after he inadvertently resigned last week, opting instead to appoint a replacement.

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said letting McLeod remain as a holdover judge until a special election for the seat in 2020 was too risky, since he almost would certainly have to recuse himself from cases to which the county was a party, as Commissioners Court would have the power to remove him at any time.

Instead, the court voted 3 to 2 to appoint Houston lawyer Lesley Briones to hold the seat through next year, on the recommendation of Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia.

“I think voters deserve a judge who can be absolutely independent, as he was elected to be,” Hidalgo said. “This would put us in the untenable position that he would no longer be an unbiased person, because he would be beholden to Commissioners Court.”

Precinct 3 Commissioner Steve Radack and Precinct 4’s Jack Cagle voted against the appointment. Cagle told Briones he could not support her since the nomination was made just minutes earlier and he did not have a chance to review her qualifications.

Briones, a Yale Law School graduate and general counsel to the Laura and John Arnold Foundation until December, accepted the appointment on the spot.

“I have deep respect for the law and I respect that you made a hard decision, and I respect the consternation in this room,” Briones said. “But know that I will work extremely hard for everyone.”

See here and here for the background. There were some good legal arguments in favor of retaining Judge McLeod, while Judge Hidalgo’s point is worth taking seriously as well. In the end, I didn’t have a strong opinion one way or the other; I think either decision was defensible. JUst a couple of thoughts to keep in mind as we go forward:

– McLeod’s point that the state constitution is incredibly long and arcane is unquestionably true. It’s also kind of disingenuous coming from a judge. More to the point, this is why potential candidates should talk to a political professional or two before making any public statements about running for office, because there are various weird rules related to candidacy that are easy to stumble over if you don’t know what you’re doing. I can think of a dozen people off the top of my head who could have pointed this out to McLeod before he filed his designation of treasurer. You gotta do your due diligence.

– Not to belabor the point, but there’s a reason why basically nobody had been felled by this problem before. As I said in my first post, nearly every story about then-Sheriff Adrian Garcia’s rumored candidacy for Mayor was accompanied by a discussion of how he couldn’t say anything without triggering the resign-to-run provision. Sheriff isn’t judge, but in this case they’re both county positions. One might well wonder if that provision applied to one job, would it apply to another?

– All that said, let’s not get too high and mighty at Bill McLeod’s expense. Yes, this was a dumb and avoidable mistake, but it’s not like this particular cul-de-sac of our word salad that is the state constitution was a cornerstone of our inviolable values as a state. County court judges have to resign to run for another office, but district court judges and appeals court judges don’t. All five Democrats who ran for statewide judicial positions last year were sitting on a bench while running for something else, and last I checked our state didn’t collapse. The fact that Bill McLeod had to resign is a quirk and not a principle, and it’s at least as dumb as McLeod’s unfortunate action. I’m sorry this happened to him. I’m sure we’ll all take the lesson to check and doublecheck whether “resign to run” applies to whatever office one holds before stating an intention to seek another, but maybe we should also take the lesson that these same rules are arbitrary and ought to be reviewed to see if they still make sense. Campos has more.

Using floodplain rules to force environmental safety compliance

A county’s gotta do what a county’s gotta do.

Harris County officials are using flood control regulations passed after Hurricane Harvey to delay the reopening of two chemical companies where fires erupted in recent weeks, killing one worker and sending large plumes of black smoke into the Houston area.

The Harris County Attorney’s office cited the post-Harvey rules on floodplain construction and stormwater drainage in its civil lawsuits against KMCO and Intercontinental Terminals Co., where cleanup is still ongoing after the fires.

“We don’t shy away from going after the biggest, baddest companies out there,” said Harris County Attorney Vince Ryan. “It sends a message to everyone.”

The county is digging through maps and available data to determine if both companies are in a floodplain. The new regulations put chemical facilities that are in a 500-year floodplain under tighter scrutiny.

The drainage rules restrict discharges of hazardous materials into the county’s stormwater system. If a company is found to have discharged hazardous materials, it can be cited by the county. Larger releases could lead to additional legal action.

The floodplain rules apply to more than facilities with fires and toxic releases and can force companies to meet new requirements when seeking to expand or change an existing facility, said Rock Owens, managing attorney for the Harris County Attorney’s environmental section.

The story doesn’t go into detail about what compliance issues there are and how long they may take to resolve. You may be thinking “why doesn’t the county file a lawsuit against these companies to force them to fix their problems?” The answer is that this used to be how things went, but your Texas legislature has taken steps to shackle counties and their enforcement efforts.

But in 2015, the state Legislature started taking away authority from the local governments. Lawmakers approved a bill capping the amount of money a local government could receive from civil penalties sought in environmental cases.

In 2017, another bill passed forcing local authorities to ask permission from the Texas attorney general before seeking penalties. If the attorney general’s office does not file its own suit in 90 days, the local government can go forward with a civil suit.

Lawmakers are currently considering two bills that would restrict local governments even more.

House Bill 3981, filed by state Rep. Jeff Leach, R-Plano, would give the attorney general the authority to settle lawsuits started by the county, without the approval of the county.

House bill 2826, filed by state Rep. Greg Bonnen, R-Friendswood and three others, would let the attorney general prohibit the county from hiring outside attorneys on cases.

“The concern isn’t that the local governments are intentionally causing any problems with these suits, just that a more efficient state-led effort may at times be more desirable,” said Justin Till, Bonnen’s chief of staff.

More desirable for the polluters, that’s for sure. Let’s be very clear, the main reason why bills like these get passed are specifically to muzzle Harris County’s enforcement efforts. (The city of Houston’s efforts were killed by the Supreme Court.) It’s a pollution-friendly Republican Legislature taking care of bad actors, aided and abetted by the business lobby. You know what I’m going to say next: Nothing will change until we change who we elect.

Revisiting El Franco Lee’s campaign finances

There’s still a lot of cash in the late Commissioner’s campaign finance account.

El Franco Lee

When 66-year-old Precinct 1 Commissioner El Franco Lee had a fatal heart attack in January 2016, his campaign account had $3.8 million. Since then, the cash has been managed by Ethel Kaye Lee, the late commissioner’s widow and campaign treasurer. Lee has invested much of the sum in securities, growing the fund at times to more than $4 million. Under Texas law, she has until 2022 to close the account.

Incumbent politicians often leave unspent campaign funds when they lose elections or die in office, but the size of Lee’s account three years after his passing presents a peculiar case. That Ethel Kaye Lee has the sole discretion to spend the fund potentially makes her one of the most powerful donors in Texas heading into the 2020 general election, University of Houston political science professor Brandon Rottinghaus said.

“A few hundred thousand dollars could mean the difference between a Democrat winning and losing,” Rottinghaus said. “She is in a position to exert tremendous political authority and to potentially sway a half-dozen seats all across the state.”

[…]

Under state law, dormant political campaigns must disburse their funds within six years to any of six sources: the candidate’s political party, a different candidate or political committee, the state treasury, a tax-exempt charity, a school or university for a scholarship program or as a refund to donors who gave in the final two years the candidate accepted contributions.

Ethel Lee said in a text message last week “all campaign funds have been allocated for the El Franco Lee campaign account in accordance with the guidelines from the Texas Ethics Commission. Recipients will be noted in the next compliance report.”

Lee did not respond to additional questions about the account. The next campaign reporting period, which covers the first six months of the year, ends June 30. Reports are due to the county clerk’s office two weeks later.

Lee’s campaign has made one political contribution since his death: $100,000 to Democratic attorney general candidate Justin Nelson in 2018. Nelson said he has known Ethel Lee his entire life and was grateful for the donation, which his campaign did not solicit.

Harris County Democratic Party Chairwoman Lillie Schecter said the party would welcome donations from the Lee campaign, but has yet to receive any. Schecter said Ethel Lee does not regularly participate in party events or campaigns.

See here for the background, and here for the January 2019 report. I don’t know what will happen with all this cash, but I don’t expect much of it to be contributed to campaigns. Commissioner Lee was not known for doing that while he was alive. My guess is it will mostly go to schools and charities, which is fine. We’ll know for sure no later than 2022.

Precinct analysis: 2018 SBOE

There are 15 State Board of Education positions, currently divided 10 GOP to 5 Dem. They’re bigger than State Senate and Congressional districts but no one raises any money for them so they’re basically decided by partisan turnout. As with State Senate districts they were not for the most part drawn to be competitive – more like “these are yours and these are mine”. And yet, here we are:


Dist  18 Dem    Beto    Lupe Collier  Nelson   Olson McAllen
============================================================
SB2    53.6%   51.9%   45.3%   50.4%   51.2%   51.1%   49.8%
SB5       NA   54.8%   48.0%   51.8%   53.0%   52.2%   48.9%
SB6       NA   51.5%   44.7%   49.5%   50.3%   49.5%   45.0%
SB10      NA   50.0%   43.7%   47.8%   48.4%   47.5%   45.0%
SB12   47.9%   51.5%   43.7%   48.5%   49.6%   48.1%   44.9%

SBOE2 is the one Democrat-held district in the table above. We’ll need to keep an eye on it during the 2021 redistricting process. SBOE districts were not part of any redistricting litigation in past cycles, but with three competitive seats up for grabs in 2020, which would swing control of the SBOE if Dems sweep them, I have to assume this will get a bit more focus next time around.

SBOE5 was on my radar before the 2016 election. It was carried by Hillary Clinton and is currently held by true believer wingnut Ken Mercer, so flipping it is both well within reach and a nice prize to have. SBOE6 shifted quite a bit from 2012 to 2016, and even more from 2016 to 2018. It’s all within Harris County and overlaps a lot of the turf that moved in a blue direction. As we’ve discussed before, this is coming from people who used to vote Republican turning away from the Trump Party at least as much as it is from new and newly-activated Democrats. That will be key to taking it over in 2020, as the gap in absolute numbers is just too big to overcome on turnout alone. Dems have an announced candidate for SBOE6 in Michelle Palmer; I’m not aware of candidates for other SBOE slots yet.

SBOE10 will be the toughest nut to crack. It gets about two-thirds of its vote from Travis and Williamson Counties, with about half of the remainder in Bell County. Running up the score in Travis, and continuing the red-to-blue transformation of Williamson will be key to putting this district in play, but all those small rural districts combine to give the Republicans an advantage that won’t be easily overcome. I feel like we can win districts 2 and 5 with Trump still winning statewide, but we’ll need a Democratic majority statewide for 10 to truly be in play. I’ll be happy to be proven wrong about that.

UPDATE Former HCDE Trustee Debra Kerner has informed me that she also plans to seek this seat.

Explode, rinse, repeat

Here we go again.

A massive explosion at a chemical plant in northeast Harris County on Tuesday killed one person and sent two others to the hospital in critical condition, sparking a blaze that sent yet another plume of dark smoke into the sky and forcing residents to temporarily shelter in place.

The fire, ignited by a flammable gas called isobutylene at the KMCO chemical processing plant in Crosby, marked the third time in 17 days that a smoggy cloud of smoke emanated from a Houston-area chemical facility.

It is the first chemical fatality at a Houston-area plant since 2016, when a worker died in an incident at PeroxyChem in Pasadena. In 2014, four workers died at a DuPont plant in La Porte.

Responders extinguished the KMCO fire late Tuesday afternoon, while on-scene investigators with the Harris County Fire Marshal’s Office began conducting interviews to determine where the fire started and what caused the gas to ignite.

“There’s a lot of hot metal in there,” said Rachel Moreno, a fire marshal spokeswoman. “Until it’s safe for our guys to go in, they’ll continue doing interviews of everybody that was at work.”

The response will stretch Harris County’s resources, Moreno said, as the fire marshal’s office begins its second major investigation in less than three weeks. The site of an even larger conflagration at Intercontinental Terminals Co. in Deer Park less than 15 miles away on March 17 remains too unsafe for investigators to visit.

[…]

KMCO, a subsidiary of an Austin private investment firm, produces coolant and brake fluid products for the automotive industry, as well as chemicals for the oil field industry. Its facility, which has a history of environmental and workplace safety issues, sits about 13 miles away from the ITC plant, where Harris County officials continued to detect carcinogenic benzene this week.

The KMCO plant is less than three miles from the Arkema facility where a series of explosions spewed chemicals and sickened residents after Hurricane Harvey in 2017.

Let’s talk about that history, shall we?

“As long as I’ve been doing environmental work for Harris County, I’ve been involved in case with this company, either with the previous owner or the current owner,” said Rock Owens, managing attorney for the Harris County Attorney’s environmental section. “And I’ve been doing this for close to 30 years. This company has been around forever causing trouble.”

[…]

On Christmas Eve 2010, a runaway reaction sent three employees at the plant to the hospital. Workers there couldn’t lower the pressure in a reactor and, as they tried to fix a clogged line, they accidentally mixed a caustic solution with maleic anhydride, a normally stable chemical. The result was an explosion and fire. An explosion in 2011 sent two more workers to a hospital.

[…]

Since 2009, KMCO has paid out more than $4 million in fines or criminal penalties to local and federal regulators.

In 2017, the company pleaded guilty to criminal violations of the Clean Air Act filed by the Environmental Protection Agency and was ordered to pay $3.5 million. The violations were in connection to an explosion at its Port Arthur facility and air emissions at the Crosby plant.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration has issued dozens of violations to KMCO since 2010 and fined the company about $250,000.

The facility is currently not compliant with the federal Clean Water Act. KMCO was in violation of the act for seven of the last 12 quarters, records show. It violated the Clean Air Act three times in the last 12 quarters. EPA data shows the facility also violated the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act in February 2018. That law regulates how facilities handle hazardous and non-hazardous solid waste.

[…]

Harris County first sued KMCO in 1987. The company was ordered to pay $49,750 for violations of the Texas Water Code.

The county sued the KMCO plant in 2008 for spills and fumes that gave neighbors headaches. The lawsuit ended in 2009 with a permanent injunction requiring KMCO to pay $100,000 in civil penalties and to give investigators easy access to the facility and prompt notification of releases.

The county sued again in 2013; that case is still ongoing. Owens said the county attorney’s office is still deciding whether to add Tuesday’s incident to the existing case or bring a separate case against the company.

“While there’s been actions before, it hasn’t been sufficient,” said Luke Metzger, executive director of Environment Texas, an environmental advocacy group. “We should, in the 21st century, be able to prevent these kinds of things from happening.”

A Houston Chronicle report from 2016 found that there’s a major chemical incident every six weeks in the greater Houston area.

You’d really like to think that we could prevent this kind of thing from happening, wouldn’t you?

Sunday, this editorial board demanded that state officials hold polluters accountable — and not just after a disaster.

We didn’t expect to be repeating ourselves so soon.

But this is what happens in a state where environmental regulators are toothless tigers. Where the TCEQ trusts polluters to police themselves — in part out of necessity, since lawmakers don’t adequately fund the agency. Where violators avoid sanctions and routinely endanger Texans’ health without our knowledge. Where Gov. Greg Abbott and Attorney General Ken Paxton talk tough, maybe even file a lawsuit after an incident makes headlines, but look the other way when the smoke clears.

At this rate, the smoke will never really clear. There will be another fire. And another.

Another round of parents fearing for their children’s safety. Another community fearing the effects of chemicals and pollutants they can’t pronounce. Another black eye to Houston’s already bad reputation as a place where one shouldn’t breathe too deeply, a place where profits outweigh concern for public health.

As we’ve pointed out, Texas facilities in 2017 reported releasing more than 63 million pounds of unauthorized air pollution — including chemicals linked to cancer, heart attacks and respiratory problems, according to a report by Environment Texas. But, in the past seven years, TCEQ issued fines in less than 3 percent of such events.

“These repeated, disastrous fires and explosions can no longer be called isolated incidents,” Luke Metzger, director of Environment Texas, told the editorial board Tuesday. “The Texas petrochemical industry has a serious, chronic problem, and Texas workers and citizens are paying the price. How many people have to die, get hurt, get cancer or suffer respiratory failure before the state takes this seriously and overhauls our broken system of oversight?”

Texans, these are questions for Abbott and our other state leaders. It’s up to us to demand the answers.

The only way to get the answers you need is to vote for those who will give them to you, and against those who won’t. If the choices aren’t clear by now, I don’t know what to tell you.