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Harris County

More on McLeod

Here’s the Chron story on the bizarre accidental judicial resignation.

Judge William McLeod

The Harris County attorney’s office was notified in March that Judge Bill McLeod, a Democrat presiding over Harris County Court at Law No. 4, had filed a transfer of campaign treasurer appointment with the Texas Ethics Commission stating he was seeking the office of chief justice of the Texas Supreme Court.

Unbeknownst to McLeod, this filing triggered Article 16, Section 65 of the Texas Constitution which considers such an announcement by anyone holding a county judicial post an automatic resignation.

“This is insane,” McLeod said Wednesday. “All of the judges are going, ‘You did what? How? We didn’t even know (the constitutional provision) existed.’”

McLeod, who was elected in November, hopes that a different provision of the constitution will help rectify his mistake. Article 16, Section 17 states that a county Commissioners Court is not required to appoint a successor after a county officer resigns, and “may allow the officeholder who resigned…to remain in office” as a holdover. If this happens, McLeod would have to run again in 2020 even though he was elected to a four-year term.

[…]

McLeod is not the first judicial officer to fall victim to this provision. In 2013, Irene Rios, then a Bexar County (San Antonio) court-at-law judge, told county commissioners she intended to run for chief justice of the 4th Court of Appeals, triggering her automatic resignation. Rios remained in her seat for four weeks after her announcement before tendering her letter of resignation, and she continued to make legal rulings during that time.

A 1999 amendment to the Texas Supreme Court judicial code of conduct further affirms that judges can continue to hold judicial office while being a candidate for another judicial office.

[…]

Rodney Ellis, a Democratic commissioner, was noncommittal on McLeod’s future, stating: “I firmly believe that any action taken by Commissioners Court on this matter must uphold the Texas Constitution above all else and that principle is what will ultimately guide my decision on Tuesday.”

Commissioner Adrian Garcia and a spokeswoman for County Judge Lina Hidalgo, the two other Democrats on the court, did not respond to requests for comment.

Republican Commissioner Steve Radack said he would not be receptive to appointing a holdover for a judicial post.

“If he’s resigned then how can you justify having him as a holdover?” Radack said. “That’s certainly not the spirit of the law.”

See here for the background. As the story notes, the judicial code of conduct doesn’t override the Constitution, it just allows judges that aren’t subject to that Constitutional provision to run for other office while remaining on the bench. If you look at Chapter 16, Section 65, all the offices in question are county offices except for District Attorney. It’s a quirk of the code that’s surely a holdover from an earlier time (note the inclusion of public weighers), and when you think about it there’s no real logic to limiting that restriction to just those offices. But that’s the Constitution we have, so here we are.

As to what happens, who knows? Either three Commissioners agree with the argument that it doesn’t make sense to kick McLeod off the bench, thus allowing him to hold over till the 2020 election, or they don’t. Note that if McLeod has his sights on the Supreme Court, he would have to step down after 2020 anyway, as he wouldn’t be able to run to fill the remainder of his term. It’s a coin toss either way, and I don’t envy any member of Commissioners Court the decision.

UPDATE: The Washington Post covers the story, reprinted by the Trib.

UPDATE: Here’s a detailed legal argument in favor of retaining Judge McLeod, sent to me by Adam Milasincic. It’s pretty persuasive.

Please delete April Fools Day from your calendar

I just can’t.

Judge William McLeod

An April Fools’ Day resignation prank? One Texas civil court judge wishes it were so.

A newly elected judge in Houston accidentally resigned on Monday, according to local media and a county official, after he shared plans online to run for the state supreme court, apparently unaware that the Texas constitution considers such an announcement an automatic resignation.

The Harris County Civil Court judge, Bill McLeod, did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Tuesday. Local TV station KHOU 11 News on Monday reported that McLeod declined to comment on the move.

Article 16, Section 65, of the state’s constitution says that a judge’s announcement of candidacy for another office “shall constitute an automatic resignation of the office then held.”

The county attorney’s office will present the matter to county commissioners next Tuesday, First Assistant County Attorney Robert Soard said in a phone interview on Tuesday. County commissioners, who can appoint replacements, may decide to keep McLeod in office until there is a special election, KHOU 11 reported.

The judge’s supporters have organized on social media using the hashtag #IStandWithMcLeod. They plan to attend the commissioners’ Tuesday meeting and express their wish that the judge retain his office despite his blunder.

Here’s Judge McLeod’s Facebook page, where I assume this accidental resignation happened. I tried looking for that post, but there were too many posts in support of him to scroll past, so I gave up. Judge McLeod was one of the more energetic campaigners, both in real life and on social media, in 2018 and I’m not at all surprised that people are rallying to his defense. Commissioners Court has the discretion of allowing him to stay in place until the next election, essentially serving as his own appointed interim successor. If he’s lucky, he’ll just have to run again in 2020 – he should have no trouble winning if that happens – and then can run for re-election as usual in 2022. This KHOU story doesn’t mention the April Fool angle, so I’m not really sure if this was a joke that didn’t land or just a foolishly early announcement with unexpected consequences. Either way, it wasn’t the best idea anyone ever had.

(Just so we’re all clear, the Constitutional provision cited in the story applies to the following offices: District Clerks; County Clerks; County Judges; Judges of the County Courts at Law, County Criminal Courts, County Probate Courts and County Domestic Relations Courts; County Treasurers; Criminal District Attorneys; County Surveyors; County Commissioners; Justices of the Peace; Sheriffs; Assessors and Collectors of Taxes; District Attorneys; County Attorneys; Public Weighers; and Constables. That means that among other things, it does not apply to District Court judges or appeals court judges, which is why the Democratic candidates for Supreme Court and the Court of Criminal Appeals in 2018, all of whom were sitting District Court judges in Harris County, did not have to resign. Remember how long there was speculation about Adrian Garcia running for Mayor in 2015 before he ever said anything? That was because he had to resign as soon as he did say it. Let’s all be aware of these things going forward, OK? Thanks.)

UPDATE: Here’s a legal defense of Judge McLeod’s actions. It’s more complicated than it first appears.

Marijuana diversions

Good progress so far. What can we do to build on it?

Kim Ogg

The Harris County District Attorney’s Office estimated on Friday that it’s saved $35 million and arrested 14,000 fewer people since the start of a program to divert low-level marijuana offenses.

The announcement marked the two-year anniversary of the initiative, which allows misdemeanor anyone caught with less than 4 ounces of marijuana to avoid an arrest, ticket or court appearances if they agree to take a four-hour drug education class.

“We know we have reduced the arrest rate,” Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg said at a news conference Friday morning. “That gives law enforcement more time to answer serious calls.”

The initiative launched in early 2017 was one of Ogg’s first steps to reform, earning her accolades among criminal justice reformers and marijuana activists. Since then, the program has expanded to include parolees and defendants on probation – but still some experts have questioned whether the initiative, and Ogg’s office, could go further.

“Compared to past district attorneys in Harris County, Kim Ogg’s record looks promising,” said criminal justice expert Scott Henson, with the nonprofit Just Liberty. “Compared to so-called ‘progressive’ district attorneys at the national level like Larry Krasner in Philadelphia, she looks very moderate.”

Before the program started, Harris County law enforcement agencies typically filed around 10,000 misdemeanor weed cases per year, officials said Friday. Since the program began, that number has dropped to about 3,000 people per year.

[…]

[HPD Misdemeanor Division Chief Nathan] Beedle suggested that Ogg’s office isn’t getting enough credit for the progressive shift in marijuana prosecutions, but reformers like Henson have advocated for dropping marijuana prosecutions across the board – whether or not the would-be arrestee successfully completes an education class.

“In a time when 10 states have already legalized fully, I think that marijuana diversion is probably looked at as less aggressively reformist than it would have been 10 or 15 years ago,” Henson said. “I mean, Greg Abbott thinks it should be charged as a Class C misdemeanor. So she’s not that far out of line with centrist opinion.”

I’m not as inclined to give Abbott credit for his belief. Nothing has passed the Lege yet, and Dan Patrick remains a significant obstacle to any reforms. It’s good that Abbott himself isn’t an obstacle, but let’s hold off on the plaudits till something gets done.

That said, I take Henson’s point that while diversion has been a big change here in Harris County, it’s not on the leading edge of reformist thought anymore. So, while we can be glad for the progress that we’ve made so far, it’s fair to ask what comes next. What can we do to push these arrest numbers down further? What do we need to do to drag the more recalcitrant law enforcement agencies within the county along? What’s the next opportunity once marijuana arrests are mostly a thing of the past? These are the questions we need to be asking and answering.

County Attorney investigating Wolfe

Good.

The Harris County Attorney is investigating a report alleging that a Harris County Department of Education Trustee Michael Wolfe sexually harassed a job applicant and retaliated against her when she refused to date him.

In a letter dated March 5, Vince Ryan asked Harris County Department of Education Superintendent James Colbert Jr. and Board President Josh Flynn to preserve documents related to the allegations and subsequent third-party investigation against Wolfe. Ryan wrote that the review would be completed “within a few weeks.”

Robert Soard, first assistant attorney for the Harris County Attorney’s Office, said Thursday that two senior attorneys are handling the inquiry, which could take several more weeks. He said their work includes reviewing an already published third-party investigation into the allegations, double-checking some points in that report and taking action they deem appropriate. If warranted, Soard said, they could have the authority to remove Wolfe from office.

“I can’t say this would qualify,” Soard said. “But certainly the report… raises questions that need to be reviewed.”

Meanwhile, an attorney representing Wolfe sent a letter to HCDE trustees and Colbert on Wednesday informing them Wolfe would sue if they moved forward with a vote to censure the longtime Republican operative.

Attorney Jared Woodfill said Thursday that attempting to brand Wolfe as a sexual harasser without sworn affidavits or depositions, and only relying on a 15-page third-party investigation that lacked official documentation, would unfairly damage his client’s reputation.

“It’s outrageous to me they would make these types of allegations and not do more to dive into what the truth is before brand someone with this label,” Woodfill said.

See here for the background. Hey, if you’re worried about unfounded accusations against Michael Wolfe, then surely you’re happy to have an official investigation into those allegations. I’m perfectly willing to reserve judgment until the County Attorney presents a report. Not that this should affect how you vote in the HCDE races next year – Michael Wolfe has now twice demonstrated that he is completely unfit for this, or any, office. But one way or the other, we’ll get some clarity on what may have happened in this case.

TCRP report on Texas election administration problems

From the inbox:

Today the Texas Civil Rights Project (“TCRP”) released a report—utilizing data from the largest non-partisan Election Protection effort in the state, provisional ballot data, as well as publicly available information—to analyze the the long-standing failures in Texas election administration infrastructure.

According to the report, Texas Election Protection 2018: How Election Administration Failures Impacted Hundreds of Thousands of Voters, election administration issues impacted, at a minimum, 277,628 voters — a number higher than the margin of victory in Texas’ closely watched Senate race.

“Across Texas, the 2018 election brought a surge of civic engagement energy. We saw record-breaking voter registration and turnout rates in almost every county. Unfortunately, Texas’ election administration did not keep up with voters,” said Emily Eby, report author and staff attorney with the Texas Civil Rights Project. “Through our Election Protection efforts, we heard directly from voters about the problems they encountered in the voting booth due to the state’s unwillingness to bring our democracy into the 21st Century. There is an urgent need for Texas to reform its antiquated election infrastructure immediately and this report sheds light on how many voters were harmed by the state’s election administration failures.”

The 2018 general election saw a wave of renewed civic engagement and democratic participation that swept across the state. Voter registration surged to 79.36% of the citizen voting age population, the highest percentage in Texas since the 2004 presidential election. Of those registered in Texas, 53% turned out to vote (up 20% from the 2014 midterms and the highest in a Texas midterm election since 1970). Despite this renewed wave of civic engagement, Texas’ election administration failed voters.

Findings from the report revealed:

  • Late poll openings, including at least 1,512 voters who had their voting rights curtailed by late openings in Harris County alone.

  • Long lines at polling places, including a three-hour wait time in a polling location in Corpus Christi during Early Voting.

  • At least 262,647 eligible college students lacked an accessible place to vote on their college campuses.

  • Early registration deadlines, overwhelming county administrators who had to process all of the paper applications one-by-one.

  • Noncompliance with federal voting rights laws, including at least 753 voters who were disenfranchised because Texas refuses to comply with the National Voter Registration Act.

  • Provisional ballot problems, including at least 10,831 eligible voters who cast ballots that did not count simply because the voter was in the wrong place on Election Day.

  • Voter intimidation, such as when Alan Vera, a Harris County resident, allegedly attempted to disenfranchise some of his fellow Houstonians by delivering over 4,000 voter challenges to the voter registrar’s office.

  • Voting machine malfunctions, such as the Hart eSlate voting machine malfunction that switched straight-party votes in the Texas Senate race. At least 1,885,066 voters were susceptible to the Hart eSlate machine error.

In addition to highlighting the issues in Texas’ election administration infrastructure, the report recommends key solutions for local, state, and federal policy makers to address the systemic failures before the 2020 election — when voter registration and turnout are expected to reach record levels once again.

The landing page with another summary of the report is here, and the full report is here. Some of the Harris County problems will be ameliorated by the election of Diane Trautman, like when and how long polling places are open. Some issues, like college campus voting locations, are only now getting visibility and can be worked on locally, as was the case last year in Prairie View. Some issues, like expanded voter registration, will require legislative fixes, which very likely means a Democratic takeover of state government; there may be a bipartisan bill in the House for same day registration, but I can’t imagine a scenario in which Dan Patrick or Greg Abbott let such a thing become law. It all starts with winning more elections. The Chron has more.

Harris County sues ITC over Deer Park fire

Go get ’em.

Harris County has sued Intercontinental Terminals Co. for failing to prevent a massive chemical fire that burned for more than 60 hours last week and spewed an unknown volume of hazardous chemicals into the air and nearby waterways.

The county is seeking a temporary injunction and restraining order against the company, alleging that it violated the Texas Clean Air Act and the Texas Solid Waste Disposal Act, among other rules.

The lawsuit accuses ITC of violating the state’s water code, health and safety code and administrative code on multiple days, by “causing suffering or allowing the discharge of at least one air contaminant without a permit and in such concentration and or such duration as to be injurious to human health, welfare or property, or as to interfere with the normal use and enjoyment of property.”

[…]

First Assistant County Attorney Robert Soard said his office will hire an in-house auditor to review ITC’s actions during and after the fire.

Soard also said Harris County will demand ITC cover the cost of the government’s response, which included frequent air and water monitoring, mobile clinics sponsored by the health department and an ongoing activation of the county’s Office of Emergency Management.

You can see a copy of the lawsuit here in the updated version of the story. I hope the county collects on every last penny. These guys need to be held accountable for their failures. Yes, I know, there is a state lawsuit as well, but this is about reimbursing Harris County, in the same way that your insurance company collects from the other guy’s insurance company when the other driver is found to be at fault in your fender-bender. If ITC doesn’t like it, they can do a better job of fire prevention in the future.

Meanwhile, on a semi-related note:

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo has been holding continuous press conferences on the Intercontinental Terminals Co. fire in Deer Park, delivering updates in both English and Spanish.

Despite the effort to communicate with Hispanic viewers, one area commissioner publicly criticized her use of Spanish during a recent press conference.

“She is a joke,” Chambers County Precinct 2 Commissioner Mark Tice said in a comment under a live feed of a press conference Monday afternoon. “English this is not Mexico.”

Tice admitted to making the comment Tuesday afternoon during a phone interview with Chron.com. He also doubled down on the message.

You know the old bit about how every New Yorker cartoon could be captioned “Christ, what an asshole!”? Well, as of today, anything Mark Tice says can be responded to by saying “Christ, what an asshole!” as well.

UPDATE: Tice has apologized following some blowback. My assessment of him has not changed.

Still lots of houses at risk of flooding

This is going to take a long time to really mitigate.

A new study is raising concerns that restrictions on new construction put in place after Hurricane Harvey could leave low-income residents with fewer choices for affordable housing.

More than 475,000 people in Harris County live in multifamily units at risk of flooding, according to the study released Thursday by the Greater Houston Flood Mitigation Consortium. The group includes the University of Houston, the Kinder Institute and the Local Initiatives Support Corporation, among others. Even without the flooding risk, units are becoming less and less affordable.

“The issue of flooding and the issue of affordable housing are very connected,” said Christof Spieler, the consortium’s project manager. “We have a lot of Houstonians who are in the difficult position where the housing they can afford is the housing that puts them at risk of flooding.”

In Harris County, 26 percent of all multifamily units — buildings with two or more units — are currently located within a flood-risk area. After Harvey, Houston leaders passed an ordinance known as Chapter 19 that requires elevation for rebuilding in the flood plain. The down side, according to the consortium, is that this requirement may lead to the loss of affordable multifamily units in the floodplain.

“Chapter 19 has the best interests of people in mind, but I just don’t think that we really thought through the potential impact on multifamily units,” said study co-author Susan Rogers, the director of the University of Houston’s Community Design Resource Center. “I don’t think any of us want to encourage apartment owners to continue to renovate and put people in (apartments) clueless of what could happen to them.”

While most of the multifamily units in Houston that are being rebuilt were permitted before the ordinance took effect, researchers heard through focus groups that property owners are worried about what will happen after the next storm.

“If you’re trying to keep affordable units, but safe and not-falling-apart units, you don’t want reputable property owners to either go bankrupt and abandon their properties to the kind of ‘owner of last resort’ who will potentially not bring things back up to where they should be,” said Kyle Shelton, director of strategic partnerships at Rice University’s Kinder Institute and another of the study’s lead authors.

The press release is here, the full report is here, and Mayor Turner’s response to this report is here. All of the Consortium’s research is here if you need to read more. I don’t have much to add to this, just that if we want to make good policy decisions to fix the mistakes of the past and prevent making more of them in the future, we really need to understand the full scope of the issues. I’m glad we have this group doing that work for it.

An overview on bail reform

From Mother Jones, a look at how bail reform is progressing in Harris County. I’m going to focus on the part about the second bail-related lawsuit, which covers felony arrests.

A federal judge in Harris County is currently considering a case that would transform the way bail is set for people charged with felonies, a population that comprises the vast majority of people in jail awaiting trial.

The lawsuit, filed in January by civil rights groups against the county and its sheriff, argues that detaining felony defendants simply because they can’t afford bail discriminates against the poor and often forces them to take guilty pleas just to get out faster. The suit asks the court to stop the practice of jailing people who aren’t a threat to public safety prior to trial only because they can’t pay. According to the suit, in 2017, up to 85 percent of those arrested for felonies were booked into jail because they couldn’t make bail.

[…]

The settlement [in the misdemeanor case lawsuit] was a watershed moment. “I don’t think we can understate the cultural significance,” says Alec Karakatsanis, who was a lawyer with Equal Justice Under Law when the case was settled and is now an attorney with Civil Rights Corps. Although other counties and states have similarly reformed their bail systems—California abolished cash bail last year, and Washington, DC, largely did away with the practice decades ago—Harris County’s size makes the victory particularly significant.

And while the settlement details were being ironed out, the same lawyers from the misdemeanor case filed the felony suit.

“Once we were having very constructive, productive discussions with the new misdemeanor judges about a final settlement, we realized it was time now to move on to the next piece of the problem,” said Neal Manne, an attorney representing the plaintiffs in both lawsuits.

The felony case, a class action, was filed on behalf of three men who had been charged with nonviolent felony offenses, including driving under the influence and drug possession. The men were assigned bail amounts between $15,000 and $30,000. None of them could pay, and two of them remain detained since being brought into custody in mid-January. (The other made bail after about two weeks in jail.) Like the misdemeanor case, lawyers for the plaintiffs are arguing that such a bail system discriminates against poor inmates who are otherwise low risk.

But if the misdemeanor case was a big deal, the case currently in front of the court will be a game-changer. As of March 2016, misdemeanor defendants comprise only about 8 percent of the county jail’s pretrial population—felony defendants, meanwhile, account for the rest. In fact, 77 percent of the entire county jail population, or approximately 6,000 people, at any given time are felony defendants awaiting trial, most of them for nonviolent offenses. And like people charged with misdemeanors, most of the defendants in jail for felony charges are stuck there because they can’t afford a bond. Although there are no national figures available on how many people are in jail because they can’t pay, data from the Prison Policy Initiative says that every day, 465,000 people are held in jail pretrial, and the organization estimates that hundreds of thousands of these people are there because they can’t afford bail.

If the district court sides with Karakatsanis and his clients, Harris County would be one of the largest in the country to severely limit the use of cash bail. The parties will be negotiating a settlement over the next several weeks, and Manne said he’s optimistic those talks will result in a similar outcome as the misdemeanor suit.

See here and here for some background. The story does not note that there are bills filed in the Legislature that would implement much of the reforms from the Harris County lawsuit statewide. Harris County was a watershed here not just because it’s the biggest county, with the biggest jail population, but also because for the most part, the other big counties have not taken similar action yet. The precedent this lawsuit set will certainly affect any future and current lawsuits in other counties, whether or not the proposed bills pass. There of course remains some resistance to the whole thing, but that is by this point a diminishing position. I look forward to seeing how the negotiations over the felony bail lawsuit turn out.

The Harris County poll you didn’t really need

From the inbox:

Sponsored by HRBC, a survey was released today that reveals many insights into Harris County voters and their feelings towards political leaders and important issues facing Harris County.

“While Harris County voters feel very differently about various leaders and issues, they overwhelmingly believe that our home is a leader in job creation because of its low taxes and regulations,” said HRBC Chairman Alan Hassenflu. “HRBC looks forward to its continued work with state and local leaders to ensure our region and state remains an economic powerhouse,” continued Hassenflu.

The survey was conducted by Ragnar Research Partners, February 24 through February 26, 2019 by telephone, including landlines (28%) and cell phones (72%). Interviews included 400 Likely Voters (LVs) across Harris County. Quotas on age, gender, education, ethnicity, and region were used to ensure a representative distribution. The study’s margin of error is ±5%.

“Generally, we see that voters have a positive outlook for Harris County which is reflected in the optimistic attitudes towards the County’s continued economic prosperity. The voters believe that Texas continues to head in the right direction, but they have a differing opinion on the state of the Nation,” said Chris Perkins, Partner at Ragnar Research.

Click link to review full survey results:

https://houstonrealty.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/03/HRBC_Harris-Co_Memo_vF_190320.pdf

HRBC is the Houston Realty Business Coalition, a group that tends to endorse conservative candidates in city elections; Bill King, Bill Frazer, and Mike Knox were among their preferred candidates in 2015. I’d not heard of Ragnar Research Partners before, but Chris Perkins is a longtime Republican operative who’s shown up on this blog before. He was once part of Wilson Perkins Associates, now known as WPA Intelligence. I tell you all this not to convince you that their data is junk, just to let you know who you’re dealing with.

As for the poll results, I’d take them with a modest amount of salt. Greg Abbott has a 52-36 favorable split in the county, which didn’t stop him from losing the county to Lupe Valdez 52-46 in 2018, while County Judge Lina Hidalgo was largely unknown to respondents. (That didn’t stop 65% of them from disagreeing with Hidalgo hiring some New York-based consultants, with her campaign’s money (not mentioned in the question, by the way) after the election, even though I’d bet my annual salary against Chris Perkins’ that basically nobody had even heard of that before being asked the question.) Donald Trump, on the other hand, was at 39-60 in favorability, which let’s just say is not good and does not bode well for Republicans in the county in 2020. And even though they did their best to tilt the question by associating it with Nancy Pelosi, more respondents preferred Pelosi’s position on the border wall.

Earlier in this post I said I wasn’t trying to convince you that this pollster is shady. Well, let’s revisit that. Here, from the full results page, is one of their “local issues” questions:

Bus Services Are Preferred
Likely voters are split initially on whether building an additional twenty miles of light rail is the best use of $2.45 billion dollars. However, when given the choice, a majority of voters are more likely to agree prefer BRT and providing more express commuter bus service over building more light rail tracks.

Seems straightforward enough, right? Now here are the questions they actually asked:

Question Asked:
20 mi Light Rail: Do you agree or disagree that building an additional twenty miles of light rail is the best use of two point four five billion dollars to help address Houston’s transportation needs?

BRT vs Light Rail: Please tell me which point of view you agree with the most. Some people say, Metro should build more light rail. Other people say, Metro should make fares free and provide more express commuter bus service to job centers other than downtown.

Emphasis mine. That’s not the same choice as they presented it above. I’m not some fancy professional pollster, but it seems to me that if one of your choices is something for free, it’s going to get more support than it would have without the free stuff, and more support than something else that isn’t free.

Anyway. I don’t know what motivated a poll of the county this far out from any election, but more data is better than less data. Even questionable data from questionable sources has some value.

Hogs in the city

Too close, y’all. Too close.

If you have noticed more feral hogs in your Houston-area neighborhood recently, you are not alone. Neighbors across the Greater Houston report the wild animals are more frequently making their way into their subdivisions and streets, leaving properties destroyed in their wake.

The Houston area is not unfamiliar with the battle between feral hogs and residents; last year the Chronicle reported hogs were disrupting neighbors in Liberty and San Jacinto counties; taking over Spring, Tomball and Cypress areas and driving neighbors in the Woodlands insane. 

The hog epidemic is a problem particularly in Texas; the state’s estimated feral hog populations are in excess of 1.5 million, according to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.

In 2017, feral hogs created an estimated economic toll exceeding $1.5 billion in the U.S. In Texas, it is estimated they cause $52 million in agricultural damages every year, according to the Texas A&M Natural Resources Institute.

Steven Horelica, co-owner of Deep South Trapping, a Texas-based hog trapping business, said the Houston area has seen a significant increase in feral hog sightings. He has trapped pigs all over suburban areas in Houston, including Kingwood, Missouri City, Cypress and Liberty.

Over the last few years, the number of hogs he has trapped has increased significantly, from 742 in all of 2016 to 1387 in 2018. So far in 2019, he has already caught 306 hogs.

“Instead of being out in rural agricultural land, they are starting to move into subdivisions and cities,” Horelica said. “It is starting to affect everybody, not just farmers or ranchers.”

Now to be sure, feral hogs have been seen in Kingwood and the Woodlands, as well as western Harris County, for several years. They’re just getting more numerous, which is pretty much the core competency of these buggers. And unlike in rural areas, shooting them with automatic weapons from helicopters is frowned upon in the suburbs. All I know is if they ever make it into downtown Houston, we may as well surrender and hand over control of the state to them. Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that.

Harris County settles ADA voting rights lawsuit

Chalk up another accomplishment for our new county overlords.

The U.S. Department of Justice will monitor Harris County elections, at county expense, for up to four years under the settlement of a federal lawsuit over inadequate access to polling places for voters with disabilities.

Commissioners Court approved the 15-page settlement during at its regularly scheduled meeting Tuesday. The item originally was designated for a closed-door executive session, but court members simply agreed to First Assistant County Attorney Robert Soard’s recommendation they sign off on the deal.

Under the agreement, Harris County will have to make minor accessibility improvements to as many as 300 of its 750 regular voting sites, hire two outside election experts to supervise balloting and designate an in-house Americans with Disabilities Act compliance officer. The county does not have to concede it has violated the ADA in past elections.

“It’s a fair settlement,” Soard said. “It’s a reasonable way to conclude this litigation.”

Toby Cole, a quadriplegic attorney who almost exclusively represents wheelchair users, said the settlement and extended federal supervision are essential because disabled voters often are reluctant to complain about problems they encounter.

“They don’t want to make a huge fuss,” Cole said. “So, you don’t vote the first time, then the second time. We cut things out of our lives already, and voting is one more thing to say is too difficult.”

County Judge Lina Hidalgo said after the meeting she is confident the county will be able to show the federal government much sooner than four years it is capable of running an election in which each polling place meets ADA guidelines.

“We’ve got a court, and a county clerk, and a county attorney that are committed to equitable access to elections,” Hidalgo said. “We’re all working to make sure we adhere to that settlement.”

[…]

Monica Flores-Richart, whom County Clerk Diane Trautman hired in January as the county’s ADA compliance officer, said the office will re-examine each polling place. In most cases, she said problems can be identified and addressed quickly.

“We’re not talking about permanent improvements,” Flores-Richart said. “If there’s a gap of a certain size in the sidewalk, you need to put a mat down. Those are the kind of things we’re talking about.”

The settlement requires the county to submit a new ADA compliance plan to the Justice Department within 120 days. The county also must hire at least 20 contractors, or use county employees, to monitor each countywide election.

See here, here, and here for the background. I’ve expressed a modicum of sympathy for the County Clerk in the past regarding this litigation, which was filed in August of 2016 following a letter of finding in 2014, but if this is all it took to settle the case, I have to wonder why it took so long. Well, okay, I know the answer to that, and it has to do with whose picture you see when you load up the harrisvotes.com website. But seriously, this should have been wrapped up long before now. Be that as it may, kudos to all for getting it done. I share Judge Hidalgo’s confidence that Harris County can complete the terms of the settlement in less than the time allotted. The Trib has more.

Vote centers approved for Harris County

From the inbox:

Diane Trautman

Today, Texas Secretary of State David Whitley approved Harris County as one of six Texas counties with a population of more than 100,000 to participate in the Countywide Polling Place Program. With over 2 million registered voters, this makes Harris County the largest county in the country to implement this program. The state program allows eligible counties to establish non-precinct based Election Day Voting Centers.

“The voters of Harris County have made it clear that a Countywide Polling Place Program would have a positive impact on elections and I am confident that the transition to a Countywide Polling Place Program will be successful”, announced Harris County Clerk Dr. Diane Trautman.

Voters will now be able to vote anywhere in Harris County on Election Day, beginning with the May 4, 2019 Joint Election. All elections, including general, special, joint, primaries, and runoffs will be recommended to use the Countywide Polling Place Program.

“The Countywide Polling Place Program will allow more Houstonians to exercise their most precious right, the right to vote”, stated Dr. Trautman.

Voters can find more information on the Countywide Polling Place Program by visiting www.HarrisVotes.com or by calling the Harris County Clerk’s office at 713.755.6965.

See here and here for the background. The Vote Centers section of the County Clerk page is here, and the plan outline is here.

The Chron story has more:

Proponents of the countywide system tout it as a way to boost voter participation. Supporters also say it eventually could cut election costs because counties can replace smaller precinct sites with larger voting centers. More than 50 Texas counties successfully have implemented the countywide program, including neighboring Fort Bend and Brazoria, and some have seen an uptick in voter participation.

Trautman has said she would start by using the county’s 46 early voting locations as Election Day voting centers, in addition to traditional precinct polling sites, which she would not close before first seeking the approval of residents.

Jay Aiyer, a Texas Southern University political analyst, said Trautman should wait at least a few election cycles before removing any precinct sites to avoid disenfranchising voters.

“Harris County is basically a state,” Aiyer said. “So, what we’re talking about is a pretty fundamental change of an electoral process for an area, or at least a population base, that’s larger than 25 states.”

Some concerns, Aiyer said, include the vast length of Harris County’s ballot and the lack of straight-ticket voting in 2020, the first time Texas voters will be without that option. The change likely will create longer lines at the polls, Aiyer noted.

Harris County Republican Party Chair Paul Simpson decried the move, contending that Trautman, “in a rush to revamp Harris County voting,” is using unreliable technology that would actually depress turnout.

“Trumpeting her new system as voter-approved, Ms. Trautman, in fact, hand-picked groups to support her voting center scheme despite the risk it poses to all Harris County voters,” Simpson said in a statement. “Her unproven voting center scheme might work in a smaller county. But in the large and diverse community of Harris County, it risks vote dilution and discouraging, confusing, and disenfranchising countless voters on election day.”

Lubbock County became the first in Texas to run a countywide polling operation in 2006, under what was then a pilot program enacted by the Legislature. Since then, state lawmakers have made the program permanent, and Travis County, with about 788,000 registered voters as of the November midterms, is the largest Texas county to use the voting centers.

Trautman deliberately sought state approval before the May elections so she could roll out the program during a low-turnout election, instead of during the November 2019 city election or 2020 presidential election when turnout runs much higher. Harris County must secure approval from the secretary of state’s office after the May 4 election to continue using the countywide polling program.

Still, Simpson said he worried that voting centers would be unable to communicate electronically on Election Day to ensure no one votes more than once. County officials have said otherwise, and the state’s elections director, Keith Ingram, wrote in a letter to County Judge Lina Hidalgo Thursday that documentation provided by the county reflects that its polling devices can update the master voter database even upon losing cellular connection.

Former Harris County Clerk Stan Stanart, a Republican whom Trautman defeated, said during the campaign he was open to countywide polling sites. The option is only available, Stanart said, because the county began using electronic poll books, or modified iPads, that communicate with each other to prevent people from voting more than once.

Not that there’s ever a reason to listen to Paul Simpson, but every one of his objections has been contradicted. The vote to apply for state approval was unanimous in Commissioners Court as well, so at every step of the way this has been a bipartisan process. Plus, you know, this is something Trautman explicitly campaigned on, and she won. As they say, elections have consequences.

Metro working on sidewalks

I heartily approve of this.

Metropolitan Transit Authority is taking the lead on leveling sidewalks and bus stops to give riders an easier path to transit — or, in some cases, actual access to it.

“This is a model of what an agency can do,” said Metro board member and disability access advocate Lex Frieden.

Noting will happen overnight to make each of Metro’s 9,000 stops smooth and ready for wheelchairs, but the effort and the money Metro is putting behind it — some of its own and the rest coming from city, county, regional and state sources — is unprecedented.

“This is not just rhetoric, we are funding this priority,” said Roberto Trevino, Metro’s executive vice president for planning, engineering and construction.

Transit officials last year committed to tackling these treacherous trips, noting the deplorable condition of some sidewalks and bus stops in the region.

In many communities, transit users — especially the elderly and those in wheelchairs — are cut off from buses because they cannot make it to the stops because of blocked, buckled or absent sidewalks. When they can get to a stop, they wait exposed to the sun and rain, at places where bus ramps cannot quite line up with the sidewalk, if there even is a sidewalk.

“Some of them are just standing in the grass,” Metro board member Lisa Castaneda said.

Metro jump-started a handful of projects last year to repair sidewalks in key spots, as they assessed which of the system’s bus stops — including those at transit centers — were most in need of fixing.

On Thursday, officials are scheduled to approve a contract with Tikon Group for on-call construction services aimed at bus stops. The on-call contract will give staff the ability to hire Tikon for up to $3.2 million worth of work over the next three years.

Repairs at each stop will vary in price, but officials said the contract likely will lead to repairs at hundreds of bus stops.

[…]

Another $30 million in funding could follow, pending approval from the Houston-Galveston Area Council. The agency’s transportation policy council, which doles out federal money, is finalizing its list of upcoming projects. Staff have suggested giving Metro $30 million for key sidewalk and accessibility projects.

Addressing the problems, however, extends beyond Metro. Within Houston, the city has some oversight of sidewalks but cedes most of the responsibility to landowners, who are supposed to maintain pedestrian access along the property. The city lacks the power in many cases to force improvements, leaving many sidewalks in disrepair, especially in older parts of the city.

Harris County leaders have expressed interest in working with Metro to make some larger improvements, said Metro board member Jim Robinson, the county’s appointee to the transit authority.

I’ve been all in on improving sidewalks for some time now, so this is all music to my ears. I’m especially glad to see H-GAC and Harris County getting into the game. It can’t be said enough: Better sidewalks make for a better transit experience, which will mean more riders. It’s also vital for riders with mobility issues. Everything about this story makes me happy.

Today is Runoff Day in HD145

From the Inbox:

Tuesday, March 5, 2019, is Election Day for voters in Texas State Representative District 145. There will be 27 Voting Locations open from 7 am to 7 pm. Voters may visit the County Clerk’s election page, www.harrisvotes.com for more information.

“Only individuals who are registered to vote in SRD 145 may vote in this election,” said Harris County Clerk Diane Trautman, the Chief Election Official of the county.

At the end of the Early Voting period, only 1,417 votes had been cast in the election. This election will determine who will be the next Texas State Representative for District 145.

“While Harris County is seeking approval to implement a Countywide Polling Place Program, voters should remember that currently on Election Day, they must cast a ballot at the polling location where their precinct is assigned,” stated Dr. Trautman.

State Representative District 145 registered voters can find their sample ballot, as well as their Election Day location, by visiting www.HarrisVotes.com or by calling the Harris County Clerk’s office at 713.755.6965.

The list of polling places is here. You can vote in the runoff whether or not you voted in the original special election, you just have to be registered in HD145. Not many people have voted so far, so your vote counts for a lot. I voted for Melissa Noriega, and I encourage you to vote for her as well.

Meanwhile, early voting in the HD125 runoff is underway.

After a special election with four Democratic candidates and one Republican, the runoff has turned into a classic face-off between one candidate from each party. Former District 6 City Councilman Ray Lopez, a Democrat, narrowly won a spot in the runoff election last month with 19.5 percent of the vote, while businessman and Republican Fred Rangel easily led the pack with 38 percent.

Lopez said he doesn’t consider the previous margin to be indicative of how the runoff will shake out because the district is made up of mostly Democratic voters.

“Crystallizing the message for all Democrats to get behind is important, and I believe we’re doing that,” he said. “All my co-candidates [from the previous election] have endorsed me and supported me. They all realize party unity is important. We don’t want to lose a predominantly Democratic area to a Republican.”

Both candidates have acknowledged school finance reform is paramount in their district, as it is in the Legislature, but differ on secondary priorities. Lopez has championed veteran services and job creation, while Rangel said he wants to see property tax relief and lists his anti-abortion stance as a priority on his campaign’s Facebook page. But most of Rangel’s efforts currently focus on telling people an election is happening, he said.

[…]

Early voting for the runoff is Monday through Friday. The lack of weekend early voting is typical for this type of election, Bexar County Elections Administrator Jacque Callanen said. There are seven early voting sites, and there will be 31 poll sites on election day, which is March 12. Callanen also reiterated that all of the 101,000 registered voters in the district are eligible to vote in this election.

“There’s always confusion when we have a runoff, where some people still think you must have voted in the first election to be able to vote in the runoff,” she said. “That’s not true. If you’re a registered voter in that area, you’re eligible to come to the polls.”

Voters can go to any poll site during early voting but must go to their precinct on election day. Check here for locations. If you’re unsure in which House district you live, you can search by address or ZIP code here. Bring a Texas driver’s license, a U.S. passport, or one of five other valid forms of ID.

Polls will be open from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Wednesday and 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Thursday and Friday.

Get this one done, Bexar Dems. We don’t need any more accidents.

Seriously, what is happening at HCDE?

I’m just flabbergasted.

Six trustees of the Harris County Department of Education’s board have voted to accept an investigation alleging fellow Trustee Michael Wolfe sexually harassed a female job candidate and spread rumors about her sex life after she twice refused to go on a date with him.

The report, compiled by Dallas-based labor lawyer Harry Jones at the behest of HCDE Superintendent James Colbert Jr., also says Wolfe and Trustee Eric Dick skewed the interview process for a board secretary in 2018 to favor friends and people who were “friendly” to their political ideologies.

Trustees, who accepted the report Wednesday, will vote on whether to censure Wolfe at a special meeting that has yet to be scheduled. Jared Woodfill, an attorney representing Wolfe, said his client may sue if the board votes to censure. He said Wolfe denies any wrongdoing.

“It’s a politically manufactured hit job by a person upset with the way Mr. Wolfe voted,” Woodfill said.

See here and here for the background. The story quotes extensively from the report, which is a fascinating read and only 13 pages long, so by all means go through it. I’m just going to pick out a couple of bits:

Mr. Dick heard from a woman I will call “Jane Doe” about Mr. Wolfe asking her out during a job application process, being affected in his decisions based on whether she would go out with him, and being vindictive when she declined to go out with him, even including trying to prevent her working elsewhere.

As I learned from my conversations with Mr. Dick, and looking at his marketing materials, while Mr. Dick is pleasant and chatty, he is prone to irony and drama.

[…]

Mr. Wolfe (who met me at his lawyer’s office, voluntarily) freely admitted:
“We wanted to bring people in who were more friendly – politically and otherwise – to our philosophy; people we could trust. We all had people we wanted to apply for the position. I had two, Eric had two, Louis had one, one was an existing employee, a black lady in her 50s or 60s, and one was from the outside who just had a resume that looked good. She was the no-show.”

Mr. Evans denied having a “personal pick,” but Mr. Wolfe said Mr. Evans’ invitee was a “blonde, young woman from HEB,” who made the top three. Mr. Wolfe said he met the eventual hire, Ms. Smith, a year earlier at the Harris County Republican Primary office.

My impression was that Mr. Wolfe did not even know that what he had just told me was a boon to any decent plaintiff’s attorney who might want to accuse HCDE of deviating from their objective criteria to disfavor and discriminate, and that he was oblivious to the law.

Mr. Evans essentially confirmed my impression:
“Mike is a bit less formal than he should be. I did have to tell him not to ask certain questions. Illegal questions. I don’t think he’s ever held a management position.”

Mr. Flynn flat out told me:
“Michael is a child. He doesn’t even know what he is saying. He may be autistic.”

In any event, the verbally undisciplined Mr. Wolfe sat on the interview committee.

I haven’t even included some of the best parts, so yeah, you need to read this. You may also like reporter Shelby Webb’s Twitter thread about the meeting where this all came out. I don’t know what happens next, but I do know four things: 1) Michael Wolfe is even skeezier and sleazier than I had imagined; 2) Eric Dick may have forced me to say some complimentary things about him in the wake of the recent shenanigans, but he’s still Eric Dick; 3) Jared Woodfill has to make a buck somehow now that he can’t leech off of Republican judges; and 4) assuming that the Lege doesn’t kill off the HCDE, we will have another chance to boot Michael Wolfe off of the Board in 2020, along with Don Sumners. Hold onto that while we wallow in the current chaos.

Commissioners Court appoints a new judge

From the inbox:

Genesis Draper

Based on the motion from Harris County Commissioner Rodney Ellis, Commissioners Court on Tuesday appointed Genesis E. Draper – an assistant public defender in the Harris County Public Defender’s Office – to fill the judicial vacancy at Harris County Criminal Court at Law No. 12.

The seat was left vacant following the unexpected passing of Judge Cassandra Hollemon, who was elected to the bench in November as part of a historical judicial sweep that elected 17 Black women to the county judiciary, all of whom demonstrated a deep commitment to criminal justice reform. During her short time on the bench, Judge Hollemon was a part of the historical decision by the County Criminal Court judges to implement local rule changes for misdemeanor bail protocols, effectively ushering in long-awaited bail reform.

“We can never replace Judge Hollemon, but we can honor her legacy and the will of the voters by appointing Genesis E. Draper to the bench,” said Commissioner Ellis. “Ms. Draper has an exemplary legal career and record of public service that reflects a clear commitment to ensuring everyone receives fair treatment and equal justice in Harris County regardless of who they are or how much money they have.”

After Commissioners Court, Draper said: “This appointment is a tremendous honor. I’m committed to building on Judge Hollemon’s legacy and will continue her work, alongside other members of the Harris County judiciary, to advance the reforms that are needed to transform our justice system into one that delivers equal justice and fair treatment to all people.”

Draper is a graduate of Spelman College and received her law degree from the University of Texas Law School, where she was a member of the Thurgood Marshall Legal Society, Criminal Law Society, Board of Advocates and the mock trial team.

She began her legal career as a public defender in Tennessee and later served as a federal public defender in the Southern District Court of Texas before joining the Harris County Public Defender’s Office in 2017.

“Ms. Draper has a thorough understanding of criminal court proceedings and the Constitution. She also knows firsthand how the racial and economic disparities found throughout the system undermine justice,” Commissioner Ellis said. “I am confident that her appointment to the bench will serve the people of Harris County and help transform our criminal justice system into one that is more fair and just for all people.”

See here for the background. Judge Draper will need to run in 2020 to serve the remainder of Judge Hollemon’s term, then she will be on the off-year cycle with the other misdemeanor court judges. As the Chron notes. Judge Draper is the sixth former member of the Public Defenders Office to get elevated to the bench; the others are Justice Sara Beth Landau, 1st Court of Appeals; Justice Francis Bourliot, 14th Court of Appeals; Judge Danilo Lacayo, 182nd Criminal District Court; Judge Leah Shapiro, 315th Juvenile District Court; and Judge Franklin Bynum, County Criminal Court at Law No. 8, all of whom were elected in November. My congratulations and best wishes to Judge Genesis Draper.

January 2019 campaign finance reports: Harris County

One last set of finance reports I want to look at, from Harris County officials. I’m dividing them into a few groups:

Lina Hidalgo, County Judge
Diane Trautman, County Clerk
Dylan Osborne, County Treasurer
Marilyn Burgess, District Clerk

Kim Ogg, District Attorney
Ed Gonzalez, Sheriff
Vince Ryan, County Attorney
Ann Harris Bennett

Rodney Ellis, Precinct 1
Adrian Garcia, Precinct 2
Steve Radack, Precinct 3
Jack Cagle PAC, Precinct 4

George Moore, HCDE Position 1, Precinct 2
Eric Dick, HCDE Position 2, Precinct 4
Richard Cantu, HCDE Position 3, At Large
Josh Flynn, HCDE Position 4, Precinct 3
Michael Wolfe, HCDE Position 5, At Large
Danny Norris, HCDE Position 6, Precinct 1
Don Sumners, HCDE Position 7, At Large


Candidate     Raised     Spent     Loan     On Hand
===================================================
Hidalgo      239,834   161,503    1,400      51,836
Trautman       4,613       501        0      17,044
Osborne        1,225     2,242        0         122
Burgess        6,647     5,816        0       6,683

Ogg              600    13,936   68,489     212,875
Gonzalez      88,755    26,205        0     114,976
Ryan           6,500    14,656        0      58,464
Bennett        5,250     5,799        0      29,411

Ellis        223,000   310,395        0   2,916,307
Garcia       739,508   310,945        0     531,887
Radack       801,500   331,900        0   1,742,357
Cagle         68,045   113,143        0     171,242

Moore              0         0        0         243
Dick
Cantu          1,070       786        0       1,325
Flynn              0        10        0       1,600
Wolfe              0         0        0           0
Norris
Sumners

Remember that for those who were on the November 2018 ballot, this filing period runs from the 8 day report, which was October 27, through the end of the year. Basically, the last two months, including the last week of the campaign. For everyone else, it’s the usual six month period. HCDE candidates generally raise and spend negligible amounts, so it’s not that odd for some of them to have no activity to report.

$99K of the amount Lina Hidalgo raised was in kind, $95K of which came from the Texas Organizing Project for field work. It’s common for newly-elected candidates to get a surge in financial support right after their election – these are called “late train” donations – but in Hidalgo’s case a fair amount of the contributions reported here were before Election Day. Given her pledge to refrain from taking money from those who do business with the county, it will be interesting to see what her future reports will look like. The Commissioners have not taken a similar pledge, and they tend to be the bigger fundraisers anyway. Keep an eye on Steve Radack going forward – he’s either going to gear up for a tough election, or he’s going to decide to step down and let someone else engage in that battle. If Ed Emmett had been re-elected, it wouldn’t have shocked me if Radack ran again and then resigned after winning, in the grand tradition of Republican county officials, to let Emmett pick his successor. I feel confident saying that Steve Radack will not give Lina Hidalgo the opportunity to replace him.

With the strong Democratic trend in Harris County and the greater level of Democratic engagement – not to mention the possibility of the DNC being here and Texas being contested at the Presidential level – I don’t expect the countywide officeholders to work too hard to raise money for next November. They won’t slack, exactly, but they know they’ve got a lot of support behind them. That said, with Kim Ogg already getting a potential primary opponent, and given my belief that Vince Ryan will also draw one, they may step it up to make next March easier for them. The incentives, and the strategy, are different now in a blue county.

I am going to do one more report, on the Congressional candidates from 2018, two of whom are now incumbents and several others who will be back this cycle. As always, I hope this has been useful for you.

Of course there are bills to do something with that bogus SOS advisory

What else did you expect?

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Among other things,  Senate Bill 960 and Senate Bill 953, filed late last week, would require voter registrars across the state to kick every person off the voter rolls who at one point said they were not a citizen to any government agency.

Beth Stevens, voting rights program director with the Texas Civil Rights Project, said the bills could potentially reduce “protections that a voter has to address a claim that they are a noncitizen.” The nonprofit is one of many groups challenging the state’s effort in court.

“It further adds an element of intimidation of voter registrars,” she said.

[…]

If enacted, SB 960 and SB 953 would require registrars to immediately remove flagged voters from voter rolls. The bills wouldn’t require registrars to notify individuals their citizenship was being questioned. SB 960 would also subject any registrar who does not immediately remove those voters to a civil penalty and a possible Class A misdemeanor charge.

SB 960 would also give the Attorney General’s office the power to petition a court to remove a registrar from office if he or she does not kick those voters off the rolls.

“These two bills – and particularly SB 960 – are very much voter suppression on their face,” Stevens said.

SB 960 was filed by state Sen. Paul Bettencourt, a Republican from Houston. Bettencourt did not respond to a request for comment. He did, however, weigh in on the issue last year and admonished local officials for not pursuing and removing alleged noncitizens from voter rolls.

“This really strikes at the fabric of the integrity of the whole election process,” Bettencourt said in a written statement last June. “The fact is that non-citizens simply cannot vote in our elections.”

SB953 was authored by Sen. Pat Fallon. Of course Bettencourt would have a hand in this. He made his bones as Harris County Tax Assessor finding many creative and legally questionable ways to purge voters he didn’t like. There’s a reason why voter registration numbers in the county were flat for so long. Whether this particular ploy will work or not remains to be seen. These bills can probably pass if the leadership wants them to, but in the absence of a push they may die the usual death by natural causes. I’ll try to keep an eye on them.

Ogg’s second ask

We’ll see how this goes.

Kim Ogg

Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg is planning to head back to county leaders with another request for more prosecutors in light of the massive case review sparked by fallout from last month’s botched Houston police drug raid.

The renewed push for additional positions comes just after a failed bid to get funding for 102 new prosecutors, a hefty $21 million budget request slapped down by the Harris County Commissioners Court earlier this month. At the time, Ogg argued that her office’s overwhelming caseloads were likely among the highest in the country, and that the understaffing at all levels could prevent prosecutors from evaluating cases eligible for diversion.

But now, her new push to expand hinges on the need to review the more than 1,400 cases handled by Officer Gerald Goines, the case agent suspected of giving false information to justify the no-knock raid that left two civilians dead, officials said. In some of the cases, the 34-year officer was a witness, while in others he signed the affidavits underlying warrants, Ogg said Thursday. Of those up for review, 27 are active and at least five involve defendants currently in jail.

“These are individual cases; justice has to be meted out in every one. It takes time, we need some more investigators,” Ogg said. “We can get there with the understaffing that we have, it’s just going to take longer.”

It’s not clear how many new positions Ogg would ask for, but she stressed that the case reviews will happen regardless.

“This review is not contingent on funding, we’re going to do it,” she said. “It’ll just take a lot longer with the few people that we’ve got assigned to our Conviction Integrity Division.”

Because the jobs would go to “trusted, trained” prosecutors, Ogg said, the idea would be to promote from within and hire new positions at a lower level. The review of the 27 active cases can be handled by current staff.

See here for some background. I’ve not gotten any press releases in my inbox from groups that had opposed the previous request, as I had at that time, but that may just be a function of timing. It’s not fully clear to me from this story if what Ogg is requesting is more prosecutors or more investigators, the latter of which may perhaps be less controversial. The reason prompting this request is unimpeachable, but there may be more to it than what is apparent now. If she’s going to make this request at Tuesday’s Commissioners Court meeting, we should know pretty quickly what kind of a reaction this will get.

As for the larger issue, I have not blogged about the HPD no-knock raid mess, as there’s only so much I can keep up with. I fully support the effort to review and revise the department’s policy on no-knock raids, and will note that there has been advocacy in favor of this, here and nationally, for a long time. As is so often the case, it takes a tragedy to focus a sufficient amount of attention on the issue to make anything happen. Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez is making similar changes, though that will have a much smaller effect than what HPD does since the Sheriff’s office rarely conducts such raids. There are also bills in the Legislature, with Rep. Harold Dutton being one of the main authors, to impose restrictions and more stringent processes on all law enforcement agencies. As with bail reform, this is something that has been needed for a long time, and maybe, just maybe, the time is right for it to happen.

Another reason David Whitley has to go

County elections officials feel like they can’t trust him or his office right now. That’s a big deal.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

As the Texas secretary of state’s office rolled out its botched effort to review the citizenship of nearly 100,000 voters, Betsy Schonhoff was local election officials’ main point of contact.

Seven years into her post as the state’s voter registration manager, she was largely responsible for the training provided to county officials ahead of the review. Schonhoff and her team fielded calls from election officials across the state as they began to sift through their lists. And she was the person who reached out to many of them when her agency discovered that thousands of voters’ names had been mistakenly flagged.

But a week and half into the convoluted review efforts, Schonhoff — voter registrars’ main contact within the agency — disappeared.

County election officials who called the secretary of state’s office asking for her were informed she was not available. A county worker who traveled to Austin last week to meet with Schonhoff was told she was out that day.

By then, Schonhoff had been gone from the secretary of state’s office for several days. She abruptly resigned on Feb. 6. But the county workers who relied on her experience overseeing the state’s voter rolls were kept in the dark.

A spokesman for the secretary of state denied that county officials were misled, saying those who called in were “directed to appropriate staff.” But during a call to Schonhoff’s office a week after she tendered her resignation and completed an exit interview, The Texas Tribune was told “Betsy’s not in.”

“It’s extremely odd, ” said John Oldham, Fort Bend County’s elections administrator, complaining at the time that “we don’t know what’s going on.”

The secretary of state’s office has since acknowledged that Schonhoff left. But the maelstrom surrounding her exit highlights the breakdown in communication and frustrations that have emerged between the state’s top election officials and county election offices since the citizenship review effort launched four weeks ago.

I believe the term of art for this is that the SOS office is “in disarray”. Let us continue:

Sharing responsibilities for maintaining the state’s voter rolls, the secretary of state’s office and county election officials regularly review the list of 15.8 million people and counting who are registered to vote in Texas. List maintenance is largely a routine process and typically occurs without incident.

But the state’s latest stab at reviewing the rolls has felt anything but ordinary, according to county officials across the state.

It started with Whitley’s announcement of the new list maintenance process on Jan. 25. For the better part of last year, the secretary of state’s office had been quietly working with the Texas Department of Public Safety to match the state’s voter rolls with data kept on Texans who indicated they were not citizens when they obtained their driver’s licenses or ID cards.

His office had offered trainings for local county officials ahead of sharing the data, and the secretary of state’s advised them earlier in the day that the data would soon be released. But they had no warning about the press release Whitley sent out announcing the review, nor were they aware that Whitley had provided data of the approximately 95,000 voters who were initially flagged to the state’s top prosecutors even before county officials would have access to it.

Oldham said he was tipped off about the announcement by a former local candidate who had seen a draft of the press release the attorney general’s office would send soon after Whitley’s announcement landed.

But others were caught flat-footed.

“Most of the time, it’s just very routine. [The state and counties] work together very well and then every once in a while something like this comes out,” said Douglas Ray, a special assistant county attorney in Harris County. “They characterized it as list maintenance, but it didn’t look or feel anything like ordinary list maintenance.”

And from there it got worse. The data was quickly shown to be disastrously inaccurate, with the SOS office at first quietly admitting as much to county officials. The lawsuits started coming, with county officials themselves being named in some of them for taking action upon receipt of the SOS advisory. And then the crown jewel, in which Keith Ingram threw county officials under the bus in a mealy-mouthed defense of his office’s incompetence. I’m sure this marriage of state and local elections officials can still be saved, but it’s time to get some counseling.

In the meantime, we’re still waiting for Betsy Schonhoff to tell her story in court, and for the reality to sink in on the Republican side that David Whitley’s days in office are numbered. And all of this began because of a zealous and fanatical pursuit of “illegal voters”, a problem that is very small and usually the result of misunderstanding than any bad intent, where all of the proposed “solutions” cause far more damage than they can ever hope to mitigate. All happening against the backdrop of the biggest election scandal I can recall, in which a Republican candidate for Congress and a shady campaign consultant used absentee ballots to actually steal an election, just last year, which now has to be done over. Just curious here, I don’t follow Ken Paxton on Twitter, but has he had anything to say about that? There are indeed lessons to be learned about election fraud. Our state leadership refuses to try.

Early voting begins tomorrow for the HD145 runoff

From the inbox:

Early Voting for the March 5, 2019 Special Runoff Election For State Representative District 145 begins Monday, February 25 and ends Friday, March 1.  During the five day Early Voting period, five locations will be available to more than 70,000 registered voters within the district.  Voters can cast their ballot at any one of the five locations from 7:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m.

 

The Early Voting locations and schedule are as follows:

Harris County, TX Early Voting Schedule and Locations

March 5, 2019 Special Runoff Election For State Representative District 145

Location Address City Zip
County Attorney Conference Center 1019 Congress Avenue Houston 77002
Moody Park Community Center 3725 Fulton Street Houston 77009
Ripley House Neighborhood Center 4410 Navigation Boulevard Houston 77011
HCCS Southeast College 6960 Rustic Street, Parking Garage Houston 77087
Harris County Scarsdale Annex 10851 Scarsdale Boulevard Houston 77089
Hours of Operation
Day(s) Date Time
Monday to Friday February 25 – March 1 7am – 7 pm

“The Harris County Early Voting locations for this election are only available to individuals who are registered to vote in State Representative District 145,” stated Harris County Clerk Dr. Diane Trautman.

For more information about the March 5 Special Runoff Election, voters may visit www.HarrisVotes.com or call the Harris County Clerk’s office at 713.755.6965.  Voters may also visit the website to determine if they are eligible to vote in an upcoming election or review the sample ballot before going to vote at the polls.

Here’s the Chron overview of the runoff. These are the same early voting locations as for the initial election, but by law there are just the five days for it. I do believe we will have higher turnout in the runoff than we did in January, but it will be close. There’s not a lot of money in this race, nor is there a GOP-versus-Dem dynamic, and at least as of today there’s been basically no mud thrown. As is always the case, your vote counts for a lot in these low-turnout elections. I am voting for Melissa Noriega in this runoff, so get out there and either amplify or cancel out my vote as you see fit.

Meanwhile, we have a date in HD125.

Gov. Greg Abbott on Friday selected March 12 as the date of the special election runoff to replace former state Rep. Justin Rodriguez, D-San Antonio.

The race for traditionally blue House District 125 has come down to Republican Fred Rangel and Democrat Ray Lopez. They were the top two finishers in the initial five-way contest earlier this month.

[…]

Early voting for the HD125 special election runoff begins March 4.

You know what I think about this one. Barring anything unexpected, this will be the end of the legislative special election season.

Flood tunnel study funds

Could be cool.

Japanese flood tunnel

The Harris County Flood Control District is set to receive a $320,000 federal grant to study the feasibility of constructing deep underground tunnels to move stormwater to the Houston Ship Channel without overburdening the area’s bayous.

The grant, from the U.S. Economic Development Administration, will fund a four-month investigation to determine whether such tunnels would be a practical and cost-effective addition to the county’s long-term flood protection strategy. The flood control district has begun work on scores of projects funded by the $2.5 billion flood bond approved last summer, though none to date include underground tunnels.

“The study is basically to look at our ground conditions, including our groundwater table, and compare that to existing technology in the tunnel industry to see if there’s a match,” said Russ Poppe, executive director of the flood control district. “If that’s true, then we can start looking at costs, routes and opportunities we can potentially pursue.”

[…]

Jim Blackburn, co-director of the Severe Storm Prediction, Education, and Evacuation from Disasters Center at Rice University, raised no objection to studying the tunnel idea but said he worries that pursuing the proposal could become a boondoggle that siphons money from other, more urgent priorities.

“It’s one of those big dream projects that may take us away from much more reasonable short-term projects,” Blackburn said. “I doubt the feasibility of it.”

See here and here for the background. Looks like we were originally going to get that study last year, but for whatever the reason it didn’t happen. If it’s going to happen this time, it will be after the next Commissioners Court meeting on Tuesday, when they will vote on approving the study and ponying up $80K in matching funds. I’ll check back with it afterward.

January 2019 campaign finance reports: HCC

Here’s our last group of finance reports for people on the ballot in 2019, HCC Trustees. You can find the full list of finance reports here, which includes PACs and past candidates/Trustees. They’re listed alphabetically by first name and the only way to tell if someone has a current report is to click on them, so it’s not the most efficient system. But at least it exists online, an achievement for which I claim some measure of credit. As before, I have separated the three candidates up for election this year (HCC Trustees serve six-year terms, so the default is for three of them to be up in a given cycle) from those who are not on the ballot.

Zeph Capo, District 1
Dave Wilson, District 2
Neeta Sane, District 7

Adriana Tamez, District 3
Carolyn Evans-Shabazz, District 4
Robert Glaser, District 5
John Hansen, District 6
Eva Loredo, District 8
Pretta VanDible Stallworth, District 9 – No January report available as of February 21


Name              Raised    Spent    Loan  On Hand
==================================================
Capo                   0        0       0    2,064
Wilson                 0        0  12,782        0
Sane                   0    4,766       0    6,553

Tamez                  0    1,127       0    4,824
Evans-Shabazz      1,090    1,560       0    1,183
Glaser                 0        0   5,000    8,325
Hansen                 3        0   5,000    8,931
Loredo                 0       72       0      183
Stallworth

Again, pretty boring, but there are a few things worth mentioning. One is that like Diana Davila, Dave Wilson left the “cash on hand” field blank in his form, so it’s your guess and mine how much of that outstanding loan remains available. Not that it really matters, as Wilson has always self-financed his campaigns, and I’m sure he’ll do that again this year. Neeta Sane’s District 7 is partially in Harris County and partially in Fort Bend. That has nothing to do with finance reports, but in November when you’re checking election results, you need to also look at the results in Fort Bend to get the true picture in her race. In 2013, the Harris County Clerk results showed her losing to opponent Anne Williams, which confused me until this fact was pointed out to me.

Yes, John Hansen actually reported a contribution of $3 – it was $2.93, if you want to be exact. I wish I could tell you more about that contribution, but as it was for under $50 it was not itemized. The same is true for Eva Loredo’s $72 worth of expenditures. If either Mr. Hansen or Ms. Loredo would like to fill in the details, I’d love to hear them. I realize that the number of people who could possibly care about this is probably in the single digits, but I’m one of them and I can’t stop thinking about that $2.93 donation to the Hansen campaign. I just have to know more.

What you need to know even more than that is that this is our chance to void ourselves of the rubbish that is Dave Wilson. In our ongoing conversation about how we choose judges, in which I have defended the partisan election model, I’m occasionally asked if that means that I disapprove of non-partisan elections in the odd-numbered years. The answer to that is no, I’m generally fine with that, but let’s be clear that if there had been partisan elections for HCC Trustee, there’s no way Dave Wilson could have gotten himself elected. He would not have made it through a contested Democratic primary, and he could not have won that seat as a Republican. Every election system has its pros and cons, and Dave Wilson exploited a weakness in this one. We can’t let him do it again. At least this time, we know enough going in to make sure he cannot hide under cover of electoral obscurity. Spread the word, and vote his sorry ass out in November.

A lawsuit against bail reform

That would be a No from me.

A Harris County judge has sided with lawyers for the Harris County Sheriff’s Office and a slate of new Democratic judges vying to loosen misdemeanor bail rules this weekend, rather than grant a request of three bail bond companies that would have delayed the start of the proposed revisions .

The companies argued Thursday that the court-ordered bail reform — believed to be a key step in a lengthy legal fight over the pre-trial detention of poor, low-level offenders — would jeopardize their Houston bail bonds business.

“They won’t get to write as many bail bonds as they did before and they won’t make as much money as they did before,” said Allan Van Fleet, a lawyer representing the judges.

[…]

The reform, the companies argue, violates state law because it would guarantee many defendants a specific type of bail without first providing them individual hearings before a judge, and because it would require the sheriff to reject some bonds that otherwise would be valid under state law, among other reasons.

“We have a constitutional right to make our living by bail bonds and if they want to amend the way the things are, they can do that but it still has to be by state law,” said Kevin Pennell, who represented Set ‘Em Free Bail Bonds, A Better Bail Bond and Advantage Bail Bonds in the county suit filed Thursday.

Eightieth Civil Court Judge Larry Weiman countered the argument before he denied the order.

“Doesn’t the court have to balance the constitutional right of the defendants, those who are arrested and charged with a crime,” Weiman asked, before resetting the temporary injunction hearing to March 11.

I’ll bet tobacco farmers used to make a pretty good living, too. I don’t know about you, but I’m not sorry for the societal and legal changes that led to the decline of that profession. There will still be a need for bail bonds going forward. There just won’t be as much of a need for them. That is as it should be. A hearing to review the proposed settlement in the original lawsuit will be on March 8. We’ll see where we stand then.

I still have no idea what’s going on at HCDE

Whatever it is, it’s not normal.

After fiery exchanges and confusion dominated a special meeting Monday by the Harris County Department of Education’s board trustees voted to update the composition of an ancillary board charged with issuing bonds and overseeing construction projects for Texas’ last remaining county department of education.

Board members overseeing the department’s Public Facilities Corporation will largely remain the same, with HCDE Superintendent James Colbert Jr. and CFO Jesus Amezcula earning enough votes to have their terms renewed, and HCDE’s relatively new Executive Director of Facilities Rich Vela named as a new board member. HCDE Trustee Richard Cantu was also voted onto the ancillary six-member board.

Those actions, however, came after trustees lobbed accusations of backroom deals and carelessness at each other during the contentious hour-long meeting. At one point, Trustee Eric Dick called new Board President Josh Flynn a “coward” and a “chicken” for not including public comment on the special meeting’s agenda and implored county entities to examine actions proposed and taken by HCDE’s board.

“I beg the county attorney to have an investigation – I beg them to. I beg the county commissioners to look into this and to do something about it, I beg the county judge to do something about this,” Dick said. “This is outrageous, this is unacceptable, and we shouldn’t be doing this.”

Dick’s frustrations stem from the short notice given before Monday’s special meeting. It was called by Flynn on Friday, giving other trustees and the public 72 hours of notice, the shortest amount of time legally required to notify others that a meeting will occur under Texas’ Open Meetings Act.

[…]

HCDE Superintendent James Colbert Jr., who also chairs the corporation’s board, called a corporation board meeting on Feb. 5, giving HCDE trustees 72 hours of notice before the corporation leaders convened on Feb. 8. Flynn said the move caught him flat-footed and did not give the HCDE board enough time to respond. Colbert, however, said the meeting was necessary to approve some construction business and to address the membership issues detailed in Langlois’ report.

“There was no attempt to circumvent the board’s authority or to not inform the board,” Colbert said. “I just wanted to stay in compliance with contracts that were already issued.”

Flynn said he tried to call an emergency meeting last week but was unable to due to how such meetings are defined by state statute. Instead, he called the special meeting for Monday and included proposals to change the composition of the corporation’s board and to fire and replace Board Attorney Langlois with another attorney.

Superintendent Colbert and Trustee Dick questioned why such changes needed to be pushed through and could not wait for the board’s regularly scheduled meeting on Feb. 27. Others, including trustees Cantu, George Moore and Danny Norris, said they had not yet had enough time to study the PFC or potential candidates to serve on its board. Others, including Superintendent Colbert, questioned why such changes needed to be pushed through so quickly.

See here for the background. Once again I can’t believe I’m about to agree with Eric Dick, but a little scrutiny from the county would not be a bad idea. Really, the problem here is with the two rogue members, Michael Wolfe and Don Sumners. If we can just keep them from burning the place down for the next two years, the 2020 elections will take care of the rest.

Vote centers advance

The other big story from Tuesday’s Commissioners Court meeting.

Diane Trautman

Harris County Clerk Diane Trautman’s plan to shift to countywide voting centers inched forward this week when Commissioners Court unanimously agreed to file an application with the secretary of state asking permission.

Trautman hopes to incrementally open voting centers, where any county resident can cast a ballot on Election Day. Harris County currently uses voting centers for early balloting, but residents are required to use their assigned precinct locations on Election Day.

Michael Winn, who helped launch voting centers in Travis County before joining Trautman’s staff in January, said the change boosted turnout by 10 to 12 percent there. The centers offer voters more flexibility to cast ballots near their school or place of employment, which may be far from their assigned polling place.

The secretary of state must sign off on Harris County’s proposal before Trautman may proceed. She plans to open several Election Day voting centers in a low turnout election, such as a May school board balloting, before moving to a large-scale deployment for a general election.

See here for the background. There have been several public meetings to get feedback about this proposal. More planning will need to be done to determine the number and location of voting centers. I presume that will vary by turnout level, as has been the case with all-precinct locations, so accurately projecting turnout will be key. I have no idea how long this process takes, but we’ll be seeing these things sooner rather than later, at least for some elections.

Commissioners Court rejects Ogg’s request for more prosecutors

I fully expected that Commissioners Court going from 4-1 Republican to 3-2 Democratic after the last election would signal big changes in how business was done in Harris County, but I didn’t expect this to be the first milestone on the new path.

Kim Ogg

Harris County Commissioners Court on Tuesday rejected Kim Ogg’s request for 102 new prosecutors, a stinging public defeat for the first-term Democratic district attorney by members of her own party.

The rejection came less than 24 hours after a former assistant district attorney filed paperwork to challenge Ogg in next year’s primary, a sign criminal justice reformers may have lost patience with the self-described progressive after helping elect her in 2016.

The three Democratic members of Commissioners Court — commissioners Rodney Ellis and Adrian Garcia and County Judge Lina Hidalgo —supported increasing the district attorney’s budget by 7 percent, in line with increases for other county departments. Ogg had asked for a 31 percent increase, which would grow her prosecutor corps by a third and include 42 additional support staff.

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

[…]

Ogg, who did not attend the court meeting, issued a statement after the vote.

“We will continue to fight every day to ensure that justice is done in every case for every crime victim, every defendant and the community,” she said. “Harris County must have a district attorney’s office with sufficient resources to ensure that all cases are resolved fairly and in a timely manner.”

See here for the background and here for an earlier Chron story that previewed the Tuesday Commissioners Court meeting. Ogg had addressed the criticism of her proposal, and also answered the question about maybe hiring prosecutors on a shorter-term basis, but it wasn’t enough to get any of her fellow Dems in line. I would say her best bet right now is to take what the ACLU of Texas said in a press release following the Commissioners’ vote to heart:

“Adding more prosecutors in Harris County is not the ultimate solution for reducing mass incarceration and fighting racism in the criminal system. While the Harris County Commissioners Court has taken a more measured approach than the initial proposal, the addition of new prosecutors must come with clearly defined standards for reducing incarceration — such as expanding pretrial diversion, reducing case disposition time, and reducing existing caseloads — instead of prosecuting more cases. The commissioners were right to call for studies into how best to improve the district attorney’s office, and District Attorney Ogg should commit to specific plans for how any newly hired prosecutors will be used. That’s accountability.”

“There is no question that Harris County prosecutors have high caseloads, but the solution is not to add more prosecutors in a cycle that endlessly ratchets up the size of the criminal system. The smartest way to reduce caseloads is to dismiss more cases, identify more cases for diversion, and invest significantly in substance use disorder and mental health treatment that help people who need it and prevent them from ending up awaiting prosecution in the first place.”

Seems to me this conversation will need to include HPD, the Sheriff’s office, and all of the other law enforcement organizations in Harris County as well. If the DA needs to prioritize what cases get prosecuted, they will need to prioritize what arrests they make. Commissioners Court needs to do its part, too, by working to expand mental health offerings. The Lege could also pitch in here, though for obvious reasons I’ll keep my expectations low. Everyone has a part to play – Kim Ogg’s part is bigger than the rest, but it’s not just her. Maybe by the time next year’s budget is being discussed, we’ll have less to argue about.

And speaking of next year:

Audia Jones, the former prosecutor who on Monday filed paperwork to challenge Ogg, spoke against the proposal. Jones said she left the district attorney’s office in December in part because she said Ogg’s administration has been too reluctant to offer jail diversion to defendants of color, in contrast with their white counterparts.

She said temporary court closures caused by Hurricane Harvey are not a driver of increasing caseloads, as Ogg contends, but rather are a result of her administration’s policies.

Murray Newman, who had some earlier thoughts about the Ogg proposal, notes that Audia Jones is married to Criminal Court Judge DaSean Jones. I’m not sure how that conflict gets sorted out if she wins (one obvious remedy would be for Judge Jones to step down), but that’s a concern for another day. I would have picked County Attorney Vince Ryan as the first member of the class of 2020 to get a potential primary opponent – designating a treasurer is a necessary step to running for office, but it doesn’t commit one to running – but here we are.

RIP, Cassandra Hollemon

Sad news.

Cassandra Hollemon

Cassandra Hollemon took the bench in a sweep of Black Girl Magic, becoming part of the historic moment when 19 African-American women in Harris County won spots overseeing some of the busiest courtrooms in Texas.

In the weeks since taking over Harris County Criminal Court of Law 12, Hollemon helped make a mark on local justice reform when she joined her colleagues in efforts to settle the landmark lawsuit over the county’s cash bail system. She served on the Community Supervision and Pretrial Services Committee, and offered a keen sense of humor with friends and colleagues.

On Monday, she died after weeks of struggling with “health issues,” according to fellow misdemeanor Judge Darrell Jordan. She was 57.

“We are saddened by the passing of Judge Cassandra Y. Hollemon,” Jordan told the Houston Chronicle. “She was a compassionate judge who treated one in a respectful manner.”

Now, the Harris County Commissioners Court will have to pick a replacement, according to Barbara Armstrong, a managing lawyer at County Attorney Vince Ryan’s office. Given the timing of Hollemon’s death, her replacement would take the bench through 2020, with the option to run then in an election to complete Holleman’s unexpired term ending in 2022.

I did not have the opportunity to meet Judge Hollemon during the campaign last year, so I can’t add to her eulogy. She was clearly well-liked and well-respected, and she leaves behind two children and a grandchild, to whom I send out my deepest sympathies. As she was elected to a County bench, her successor will be named by Commissioners Court; had she been a District Court judge, it would have been Greg Abbott appointing a new judge. Rest in peace, Judge Cassandra Hollemon.

How many prosecutors do we need?

Opinions differ, but it’s a big question in Harris County right now.

Kim Ogg

Hanover is one of many prosecutors Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg said are overburdened — the reason she has asked Commissioners Court for a budget that would fund 102 additional assistant district attorneys and more than 40 support staff. Ogg said the surge is needed to clear a backlog in cases exacerbated by Harvey, a driver of overcrowding at the Harris County Jail.

Her proposal to expand the prosecutor corps by a third, however, has evolved into a proxy battle over the future of criminal justice reform in Harris County. Ogg finds herself so far unable to persuade Democrats on Commissioners Court as well as reform groups, who have questioned her self-identification as a progressive and said her proposal would lead to more residents in jail.

“Simply adding prosecutors is the strategy that got us here in the first place, with this mentality that the only thing we can spend money on is police and prosecutors,” said Jay Jenkins, project attorney with the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition.

Ogg, a first-term district attorney who unseated a Republican in 2016 with the support of many progressive groups, said these critics fail to grasp the on-the-ground realities of her prosecutors, whose heavy workloads mean they sometimes are the reason cases are delayed and defendants languish in jail.

Ogg pledged to send the first 25 new hires to the felony trial bureau, where she said they can help achieve the reforms progressives seek, such as identifying low-risk defendants who can be sent out of the criminal justice system without a conviction.

“Who else is going to divert offenders who should re-enter society, and prosecute the people who should be incarcerated to protect the public?” she said. “This is a question of how fast do our funders really want to reform our justice system?”

Ogg laid out her argument in an interview Wednesday at the district attorney’s temporary quarters at 500 Jefferson, where a regular shuttle takes prosecutors to the criminal justice complex more than a mile away.

Ogg said since taking office, she is proud to have diverted 38,000 defendants for a variety of low-level offenses, including marijuana possession, misdemeanor theft, first time DUI and mental health-related charges such as trespassing. With an active caseload that jumped from about 15,000 when Harvey hit to 26,523 this week, she said prosecutors are not always able to give victims and defendants the attention they deserve.

Her staff noted Harris County’s 329 prosecutors are less than half the number in Illinois’ Cook County, which is only slightly more populous.

“With adequate staff, we’ll be able to offer pleas that are reasonable earlier,” Ogg said. “We’ll be able to focus on public safety to make sure we don’t let someone go who is really a risk and threat to either his family or his community.”

She sought to mollify the concerns of progressives who fear it could lead to more people in jail, saying, “There’s no data showing that more prosecutors equals more prosecutions.”

Here are the original statements put out by TOP and the TCJC. This subsequent Chron story gives some more detail.

“We would like to stop the clock and take time to consider other options, primarily looking at funding for mental health issues,” organizer Terrance Koontz said.

Koontz said TOP is looking at housing options for nonviolent offenders who may need to reset their lives.

“We’re talking about individuals who are being arrested for minor drug charges or being homeless on the street or having a mental problem, and they definitely shouldn’t be sitting in jail,” Koontz said. “We are not here to attack D.A. Ogg, we just want more time to consider our options.”

[…]

Doug Murphy, president of the Harris County Criminal Lawyers Association, agrees with Ogg’s proposal.

“Having witnessed the daily reality of their lack of manpower what we’re seeing is Harris County was the fastest moving docket in the country, we called it the rocket docket, and it slowed it down to a snail’s pace,” said Murphy. “What we got is bloated dockets because they don’t have the manpower to work these cases up and marshal the evidence.”

Murphy believes more prosecutors would help pick up the pace of getting cases to trial, resolved and even dismissed. “If I weren’t witnessing daily the backlog and the frustration, I would be in total agreement with the other organization,” Murphy said.

Koontz still worries that more prosecutors would ultimately mean more arrests and more people wrongly incarcerated.

“We just want to consider other viable options outside of just hiring the prosecutors,” Koontz said. “Because although it does not seem like putting more people in jail, at the end of the day we feel like more people will end up in jail than not and at the end of the day its black and brown people who are overwhelmingly being incarcerated.”

Honestly, I think everyone is raising valid concerns. The chaos of Harvey has caused a big backlog for the DA’s office, and it doesn’t serve anyone’s interests for cases to drag out because there just isn’t the time or the bandwidth among overworked assistant DAs to get to them. On the other hand, Kim Ogg made promises about how she was going to reform the system, and a big part of that was not prosecuting a lot of low-level crimes or crimes involving people who need mental health treatment. They also worry that while Ogg might not backtrack on her stated priorities, the next DA who inherits her bigger office may not share those priorities. It’s not at all unreasonable to worry that an increase in prosecutors will be counter to Ogg’s stated goals.

So how to resolve this? Grits suggests increasing the Public Defender’s office by an equivalent amount – Commissioner Rodney Ellis has suggested something like this as well, and the PDO is seeking more funding, so that’s on the table. I like that idea, but I also think it may be possible to assuage the concerns about what happens after the backlog is cleared by putting a time limit on the hiring expansion. Is it possible to hire people on one or two year non-renewable contracts, to get the office through the backlog but then have it return to a smaller size afterward? I’m just spitballing here, but if we agree that clearing the backlog is a worthy goal, then we ought to be able to find a way to ensure that doing so doesn’t lead to mission creep. I’m open to other ideas, but I feel like this is something that needs to lead to a compromise, not one side winning and the other side losing. I hope we can get there.

Let’s check in on the HCDE

How are things with the new Board?

Within an hour and 37 minutes of his first meeting as a trustee on the Harris County Department of Education’s board of trustees, Josh Flynn had a new role: President.

The former Harris County Republican Party treasurer and local accountant, who ran on a platform of bringing more transparency and accountability to Texas’ last remaining county education department, won the votes of three other trustees at the Jan. 16 meeting.

Minutes later, Flynn joined those same three in firing the department’s lobbying firm, a move that raised concerns among other trustees and Superintendent James Colbert Jr. that a lack of advocates in Austin could leave them with little recourse if lawmakers target the agency during the 2019 legislative session. Flynn did not return messages for comment.

Together, the votes signal a new majority on the seven-member board, one that Trustee Don Sumners said will provide a chance to lift the hood on HCDE’s departments and to make the agency more accountable to taxpayers. All four have questioned or criticized the department or some of its actions in the past, and one has filed motions to study closing the agency.

“We’ll probably go through the whole department one division at a time and do some evaluation,” Sumners said. “We really haven’t been able to get to the nuts and bolts very easily, and I think now that we have more interested participation, we’ll be able to realize this department for efficiency. We haven’t been able to do that before.”

Others, however, worry that actions like some of those taken at the Jan. 16 meeting could do irreparable harm to the state’s last remaining county department of education.

“I’m concerned, I’m definitely concerned,” said Trustee Danny Norris, a Texas Southern University law professor who also joined the board on January. “I think the vote to cancel our contract with (our lobbyists) specifically worried me a good bit, because we usually have a few bills to shut us down each session. This session, I’m the most worried.”

[…]

Trustee Eric Dick, a longtime Republican, noted at the meeting that other school districts, political parties and government entities also hire lobbyists. About a week after the vote, he said any government agency that is able to generate more than 70 percent of its budget from sources other than local tax dollars should be a model of good governance that conservatives should want to protect and other government agencies should look to for inspiration. About 28 percent of HCDE’s roughly $117 million budget in 2017-2018 came from property taxes, with the rest coming from state and federal grants, fees paid by local school districts and its cooperative purchasing program.

“You have an organization that actually runs at a profit, that’s actually in the black, that turns one dollar into five dollars. What should happen is ISDs should replicate and try to do something similar. So should the city of Houston,” Dick said. “I think worst thing that you could do is take something that works and cut it up.”

sigh Okay, three things here. One is that Flynn won his race by a tiny margin, 0.6 percentage points, less than 2,000 votes out of over 300K cast. Even in a dominant year for Dems in Harris County, one low-profile downballot race can make a difference by going the other way. Two, assuming the HCDE survives another legislative session, it’s very likely that it will flip back to a Democratic majority after the 2020 election, when At Large members Michael Wolfe (yeah, that guy again) and Don Sumners will almost certainly get voted out. And three, I can’t believe I’m about to say something nice about Eric Dick, but he has the right idea here, and I appreciate his vote on this matter. Let’s hope this is just a minor kerfuffle and nothing bad happens in the Lege.

(It should be noted that among other things, former County Judge Ed Emmett was not a fan of the HCDE and supported eliminating it. I hope Judge Hidalgo is up to speed on this. The HCDE may not have its own lobbyist in Austin, but the county has them. They could advocate for HCDE in a pinch if needed. Something to keep in mind.)

UPDATE: From an email sent out by Andrea Duhon, who was the Democratic candidate against Josh Flynn and who is planning to run for one of those At Large positions next year:

Community advocates, parents, and teachers plan to attend and make their perspectives known at an unexpected Special HCDE meeting this Monday, February 11th at 4:00 PM at 6300 Irvington Dr. to push back against the politically motivated distribution of legal contracts and privatization attempts by Austin politicians.

Expected on the HCDE agenda is an attempt by some trustees to fire the current unbiased education attorney and replace her with the highly partisan law firm Strahan-Cain, of which far right State Representative and education privatization proponent Briscoe Cain is a partner.

The meeting was called late Friday afternoon with little notice and comes at a time when the Texas Legislature is not only in session but is actively pursuing overhaul of state education policy. Also relevant are efforts both past and present by State Senator Paul Bettencourt (R-SD7) to shutdown the department and consolidate public education resources into private buckets. The agenda also calls to replace Public Facilities Corporation board vacancies in an attempt to overturn contracts which have been approved.

Just last month, the HCDE surprisingly selected a first-term trustee as President of its board and voted to eliminate its own representation in Austin by firing HillCo Partners, leaving services vulnerable to attacks.

The community demands the department safeguard the programs and shared services it brings to Harris County and the jobs of more than 1,000 HCDE employees.

Here’s the agenda for that special Board meeting. Note that all of the action items on it were submitted by the Flynn/Wolfe/Sumners troika. Nothing good can come of this.

Trying again for bail reform at the Lege

A very worthwhile pursuit.

Sen. John Whitmire

State Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, and state Rep. Andrew Murr, R-Junction, announced Monday at the Capitol that they have again filed legislation that would implement a risk-assessment tool for judges to use when making bail decisions, among other proposals. Joining them in support of the legislation were the state’s two top judges, Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Nathan Hecht — who has publicly called for a change to Texas’ system for years — and Court of Criminal Appeals Presiding Judge Sharon Keller.

“I don’t believe I’ve seen anything more broken in the criminal justice system than our current bail bond process,” Whitmire said. “If we do not fix it, ladies and gentlemen, the federal courts will.”

Bail is a legal mechanism to ensure defendants appear in court for their hearings after being charged with a crime. The most common practice is money bail, in which judicial officers set a bond amount that defendants must pay in order to be released. In the last few years, lawsuits have popped up all over the country — including in Texas — arguing that the system wrongfully detains poor defendants until their case is resolved while similar defendants with cash are allowed to go free.

In a speech to the 2017 Legislature, Hecht argued for reforms by noting that 75 percent of people in Texas jails have not been convicted. To illustrate what he considers a flawed system, he cited the case of a grandmother who was kept in jail for about two months on a $150,000 bond after allegedly shoplifting $105 worth of clothes for her grandchildren.

The bipartisan legislation filed Monday aims to help poor, low-level defendants get out of jail on free bonds and keep in jail those thought to be flight risks or threats to public safety. The proposed risk-assessment tool would have to be used within two days of arrest to help judges determine the defendant’s level of risk based on criminal history, not just the current offense. The bills are similar to last session’s, when legislation passed the Senate but died before reaching the House floor.

Whitmire blamed his 2017 bill’s failure on the powerful bail bond industry, which includes companies that front the full cost of a bail bond at a fee of about 10 percent. (A defendant being held on a $1,000 bond, for example, could pay $100 to a bail bond company to be released.) He said last session that bail bond companies opposed the bill because it would cut into their cash flow, but those in the industry have argued the measure would lessen a judge’s discretion and threaten public safety by letting more people out of jail.

[…]

To set bail, most Texas jurisdictions use bail schedules, in which a bond amount is set based solely on the criminal charge. The proposed risk assessment tool would also take into account the defendant’s criminal history and age.

If the tool determines that a defendant shows a lower risk of skipping court hearings or posing a threat to public safety, the judicial officer would release the person on a no-cost “personal bond” with or without conditions, like GPS tracking or drug testing. Under the proposed measure, judges and magistrates could still impose money bail if they decided it was the least restrictive way to ensure court appearance and public safety, but they could not use it as a way to detain poor defendants before their trials.

The risk assessment tool is meant to keep poor defendants from being kept in jail before being convicted simply because they can’t afford a low-cost bond amount. Critics of current bail practices have argued that risk assessment tools considering criminal history can reinforce a system that prejudices against poor people of color. If someone was arrested on a charge earlier tied to race or poverty status, that person would be given a higher risk level. But the critics still support the tool over current practices.

“Until we can get some better tools, then the risk assessment system would need to work for now,” said Tarsha Jackson, criminal justice director of the Texas Organizing Project, a nonprofit that advocates for low-income communities and people of color.

The other piece of the proposed legislation would change bail practices — and the Texas Constitution — to allow judicial officers to deny bail if they believe money bail or a personal bond couldn’t reasonably ensure the person would show up for court or if that person might endanger the safety of a victim or the public.

Since release on bail is a constitutional right in Texas except in capital murder cases, changing this part of the law requires voter approval even after the Legislature passes it.

See here and here for the background. Whitmire got his bill through the Senate in 2017, but neither his bill nor Murr’s made it out of committee in the House. This year, we have the settlement of the Harris County litigation and support for the idea of bail reform from Greg Abbott, so perhaps the odds are better. It’s never a bad time to call your legislators and let them know you would like them to support these bills.

Bail reform settlement looks to be a go

Excellent news.

Chief U.S. District Court Judge Lee H. Rosenthal on Friday offered initial support for new bail rules proposed by Harris County, signaling the three-year lawsuit challenging the county’s cash bond system soon may reach its conclusion.

The settlement of the case, which Harris County has spent more than $9 million defending, would seal victory for the poor misdemeanor defendants who brought the suit and allow Rosenthal and both legal teams to turn their attention to a similar lawsuit challenging the county’s felony bail system.

“We’ve actively been talking to each other,” said Neal Manne, an attorney representing the poor defendants. “I think we’d be ready in a month to come back to the court with a final, permanent order.”

For the first time in a federal court hearing, all the parties in the misdemeanor suit stood in agreement Friday afternoon about how the case should be settled. In an unusual scene in Rosenthal’s 11th-floor courtroom, the attorneys in the once-contentious case urged Rosenthal to sign off on new bail rules proposed by the newly elected slate of Democratic misdemeanor judges.

[…]

Rosenthal, who in 2017 agreed Harris County’s bail system was unfair to poor defendants, suggested waiting to see how well the new bail rules work in practice before issuing her approval. With the opening of the new joint processing center for inmates, the judge said minor, unforeseen problems may need to be addressed.

“The devil, in the broader issues, is in the day-to-day,” Rosenthal said. She ordered the parties to return March 8.

Allan Van Fleet, the attorney representing the misdemeanor judges, agreed that the revised bail system will require each part of Harris County’s criminal justice apparatus to cooperate.

“The judges are committed, with the sheriff, the DA, the plaintiffs, that we’re going to work together to get the best system that anybody can come with,” Van Fleet said.

See here for the previous update. We’re headed in the right direction, and we know where we’re going. It’s a new day.

Orlando Sanchez files $1 million lawsuit against water-pourer

Oh, good grief.

Orlando Sanchez

The former Harris County treasurer has sued a man for $1 million after water was poured on his head during a news conference about HISD in December.

Orlando Sanchez, who lost his re-election campaign in November, filed suit on Thursday against Steve Striever.

Sanchez and his attorney said that Striever assaulted Sanchez by “offensive physical contact” during the news conference on Dec. 28, and that he “knew or reasonably should have believed that Orlando Sanchez would regard the contact as offensive or provocative.”

“It’s not about the physical damage, it’s about the bigger effect the damage has,” Sanchez’s attorney Hector G. Longoria said. “It’s the visceral reaction it causes.”

[…]

The $1 million includes relief for past and future mental anguish, according to the lawsuit. The amount would ultimately be for the jury to decide, Longoria said.

Sanchez also demanded a jury trial and requested that Striever turn over material relevant to the incident, including any videos, documents, texts, or phone calls about the press conference or pouring water on Sanchez’s head.

See here for the background. I’ll say again, Steve Striever is an idiot who should at the least have been charged with some form of misdemeanor assault. But a million dollars? For “past and future mental anguish”? I don’t even know what to say to that. But hey, at least ol’ Orlando got his name in the newspaper again. At this rate, he’ll surpass his total coverage from twelve years as Treasurer in no time.

Joint processing center opens

This was a long time coming, but it should be worth the wait.

More than a decade after city voters approved a bond measure to fund it, Houston and Harris County opened a joint inmate processing center Thursday that officials say will eliminate the redundant practice of booking inmates at the city jail before transferring them to the county lockup.

The downtown center, replete with a digital processing system, open booking areas and dormitory-style units, was designed to be more efficient and to square with the city and county’s evolving attitude on criminal justice, officials said.

“This streamlined, expedited booking process is a true game-changer for Harris County law enforcement families,” Sheriff Ed Gonzalez told a roomful of elected officials and law enforcement officers at the new facility Thursday. “Every minute an officer spends escorting a prisoner through the intake process is another minute that they’re off the street keeping our neighborhood safe.”

For years, Houston police have booked suspects at one of two city jails, before transferring them to the Harris County Jail and booking them again. Eliminating the excess work is anticipated to free up about 100 police officers assigned to jail duty.

The city is set to cover 30 percent of the facility’s annual operating costs, amounting to about $14.5 million, said Andy Icken, Houston’s chief development officer.

[…]

The facility’s new digital booking system means officers will be freed from much of the paperwork that typically bogs them down. Officers also no longer will have to escort suspects across public streets, Gonzalez said, because they will be able to park in a sallyport attached to the building. He estimated officers would be in and out of the center within 20 minutes.

The facility, located across from the Baker Street Jail on San Jacinto Street, covers 246,000 square feet and will begin processing detainees Saturday.

See here for the previous update, which was in 2015 when ground was broken following the successful 2013 bond referendum. A 2007 county referendum that would have built more jail space had been voted down, and boy howdy does that look like a good decision in retrospect. This will get people processed through faster, and will cost less to operate. I just hope it won’t be prone to flooding. Kudos all around for finally getting this done.