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Houston

Can we negotiate our way to a Prop B agreement?

It’s complicated.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner’s administration is moving forward with plans for hundreds of layoffs following last week’s voter approval of Prop B despite questions about whether jobs could be saved through renewed negotiations with the city’s firefighters union.

[…]

“Collective bargaining agreements under (Texas Local Government Code Chapter) 174 do supersede any contrary provisions of local legislation,” San Antonio labor attorney David Van Os said. “The Legislature made itself very, very clear on that.”

Craig Deats, who works with police and fire labor groups and has worked for the Houston fire union in the past, said unions routinely use collective bargaining to supersede local rules, most commonly in the areas of hiring and promotional provisions.

“We do that all the time,” Deats said. “The hiring provisions under the civil service act — when cities are bound by that, as Houston is — are something the parties typically bargain to change so as to make them more modern.”

Turner said he agrees a collective bargaining agreement can supersede the city charter, but has said he cannot sit down with fire union leaders without first challenging Prop. B in court, saying “you cannot negotiate the people’s vote.”

“You cannot use the public as a negotiating tool, which is what they’re attempting to do now,” Turner said. “Now, if they want to follow me to the courthouse and agree collective bargaining preempted Prop. B and throw it out, that’s a different thing. But short of that, I have been given a $100 million bill.”

[…]

“Regardless of fiscal realities, the meaning of the charter amendment is clear. Collective bargaining up to that is technically a violation of the charter amendment, even if the city and firefighters agree on it,” said Matthew J. Festa, a professor at the South Texas College of Law Houston. “It doesn’t make it OK to violate the charter just because everybody agrees to violate the charter.”

James M. Douglas, a professor at Texas Southern University’s Thurgood Marshall School of Law, said he believes it would be difficult for the mayor and firefighters to implement the proposition’s mandate through a collective bargaining contract because of the intent of the proposition.

“The ordinance was clear. It didn’t say over a period of time,” Douglas said. “And that was not the purpose of the ordinance to start with. The purpose of the ordinance was to have it done immediately.”

Some city leaders said they were frustrated by conflicting legal advice they had received from the city attorney’s office, and a lack of clarity over what the law allows or what Turner and firefighters would entertain if they returned to the negotiating table.

Well, that would be one reason why some of us voted against Prop B. See here and here for some background. This is just going to have to be settled in the courts, and the city will take steps in that direction after Thanksgiving. You can feel however you want to feel about this, but we all saw it coming from the beginning.

Police raid Jared Woodfill’s office

Oh, my.

Authorities on Monday raided the law office of former Harris County Republican Party chairman Jared Woodfill.

Investigators with the Harris County District Attorney’s office wheeled carts of documents from Woodfill’s office at 3 Riverway at least an hour after they arrived.

[…]

Woodfill is the subject of two separate formal complaints — one to the State Bar of Texas and the other to the Houston Police Department. In both complaints, Woodfill is accused of taking hundreds of thousands of dollars from clients’ trust accounts.

In the criminal complaint, filed in March 2017, Richard Rodriguez accused Woodfill’s firm of stealing more than $300,000 from a divorce trust account. Rodriguez said Monday he believed the search was related to his complaint.

Oh, my, my.

Documents show Woodfill was reprimanded by the state bar two months ago for failure to take reasonable action in another divorce case.

The state bar, which oversees lawyers, ordered him to take classes in billing, trust accounts or law practice management.

All of that on top of two other civil cases in which opponents recently demanded Woodfill pay hundreds of thousands of dollars in unpaid fees.

It’s too early to say what all this is about. We don’t even know for certain that Woodfill himself is the subject of any investigation. But, um, none of this looks great.

Metro’s post-Culberson future

You might not be aware of this, but famously anti-Metro Congressman John Culberson lost his bid for re-election on Tuesday. What might that mean for Metro?

Lizzie Fletcher

In one of the more stunning defeats of incumbent Republicans on Tuesday night, Lizzie Fletcher beat out long-time Congressman John Culberson in the Texas 7th District. It is the first time this seat has been held by a Democrat in more than 50 years.

While Fletcher campaigned primarily on inclusiveness and healthcare, one portion of the platforms on her campaign website should not go unnoticed. “We need to partner with cities, counties, and METRO to bring additional resources and improvements to our region,” she says on her website. “We need an advocate for policies that both maintain and expand our region’s mobility infrastructure. And we need to make sure that Houston receives its fair share of transportation funding to move our citizens across the region.”

This seems like a logical and rational position given Houston’s congestion issues and rapidly growing size. But, she adds one additional note. “John Culberson has failed to be a partner in this effort. Even worse, his record shows that he has actively worked against expanding transportation options in Houston.”

Some might dismiss this as campaign rhetoric, but the thing is, she isn’t wrong. In a now infamous 2014 fundraising event at Tony’s, the posh Italian eatery in Greenway Plaza, Culberson bragged about preventing light rail from expanding to a line planned for Richmond Avenue. “I’m very proud to have been able to protect Richmond and Post Oak from being destroyed as Fannin and Main Street were destroyed,” he said. “This is the end of all federal funding on Richmond.”

[…]

Now that Culberson’s aversion to rail is removed from the district, it will be interesting to see if Fletcher takes up the mantle of public transportation and acts as less of a hindrance — or even an advocate — for programs that would increase rail and other public transit programs through the Houston-Galveston region.

KUHF also asked those questions.

METRO Chairman Carrin Patman said she thinks Lizzie Fletcher will be a huge help as the agency moves ahead with a new regional transit plan.

[…]

But what does Fletcher’s election mean for any Richmond rail plans?

Patman said for cost reasons they’re now considering bus rapid transit for the Richmond corridor, to help provide better connections between downtown and The Galleria. But she added that project would also require help from Washington, D.C.

“Just as we built two of the three rail lines with a federal match, we will need federal money to help implement our expanded transit in the region,” explained Patman.

So first and foremost, Culberson’s defeat means that when he officially opposes the Metro regional transit plan, as I expect he will, he’ll do so as just another cranky member of the general public. And not just with Lizzie Fletcher in Congress but Democrats controlling Congress, there should be a good chance to get the Culberson anti-Richmond rail budget rider removed. That’s all very much to the good, but it’s a start and not a done deal. But as Christof Spieler helpfully reminds us, there’s a lot of work still to be done, as any federal funds only exist as matches to local money. We need to put up the cash first, then we can try to get federal help. Christof has a few suggestions, and I would submit that the changeover in Harris County Commissioners Court, as well as having a potentially friendlier-to-rail representative from the county on the H-GAC Transportation Policy Council, could be game changers of equal magnitude. You want to see this gap in Metro’s transit infrastructure get filled? Start by engaging on the 2019 transit plan referendum, and tell your local officials to support Metro in this effort.

We’ll have to wait a little longer for the inevitable Prop B lawsuit

It’s still coming, just not, like, today.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner on Wednesday said he would delay a City Council vote to hire a law firm to represent the city in possible litigation over Proposition B, the ballot item passed by voters to grant Houston firefighters pay parity with police.

City Council had been set to consider a contract with Norton Rose Fulbright for $1.3 million. The contract would set aside $250,000 for the firm to handle litigation over real estate purchases in connection with infrastructure projects, with the rest set aside for a court fight over the parity measure approved Tuesday.

Meanwhile, Turner said he will look to Fire Chief Samuel Peña to restructure the fire department to absorb the measure’s additional cost, which both Turner and City Controller Chris Brown say will total more than $100 million in its first full year.

Turner said Wednesday he does not know “how we’re going to pay for it,” but he made clear initial layoffs would come from the fire department. For months, Turner has warned that the city would need to make cuts if voters approved Proposition B. It passed with 59 percent of the vote.

The measure would tie firefighters’ pay to that of police of corresponding rank and seniority. City Council, which is not meeting Thanksgiving week, agreed to bring the item up at its Nov. 28 meeting.

“I don’t know the answers,” Turner said. “I don’t know how we’re going to balance the books when we have been given an added bill of $100 million each year.”

He added: “The tough decisions start now. They start right now.”

The mayor said the fire department “restructuring” would include a reduction from four shifts to three, as well as other methods of reducing costs.

See here (at the bottom) for the background. I suppose one possible path to brokering a peace treaty might include an agreement to get everyone possible on board for a push to repeal – not amend, repeal – the stupid revenue cap, which would at least prevent the city from losing revenue for no good reason. There can’t be a vote on that before May of 2021, however, so that may be too long-term for any benefit, but one way or another this needs to be tackled, and it’s in both sides’ best interests for it to go away. I’m just spitballing here. The smart money is still on a lawsuit being filed, and after that who knows.

Omnibus election report

It’s after midnight, I’ve mostly posted stuff on my long-dormant Twitter account (@kuff), and I will have many, many thoughts in the coming days. For now, a brief recap.

– As you know, neither Beto nor any other Dem won statewide, thus continuing the shutout that began in 1996. However, as of this writing and 6,998 of 7,939 precincts counted, O’Rourke had 3,824,780 votes, good for 47.86% of the total. In 2016, Hillary Clinton collected 3,877,868 votes. It seems very likely that by the time all is said and done, Beto O’Rourke will be the biggest vote-getter in history for a Texas Democrat. He will have built on Hillary Clinton’s total from 2016. That’s pretty goddamn amazing, and if you’re not truly impressed by it you’re not seeing the whole picture. We’re in a different state now.

– Beto may not have won, but boy howdy did he have coattails. Colin Allred won in CD32, and Lizzie Fletcher won in CD07. Will Hurd is hanging on to a shrinking lead in CD23, up by less than 1,200 votes with about 14% of the precincts yet to report. He was leading by 6,000 votes in early voting, and it may still be possible for Gina Ortiz Jones to catch him. Todd Litton (45.30% in CD02), Lorie Burch (44.21% in CD03), Jana Lynne Sanchez (45.25% in CD06), Mike Siegel (46.71% in CD10), Joseph Kopser (47.26% in CD21), Sri Kulkarni (46.38% in CD22), Jan McDowell (46.91% in CD24), Julie Oliver (44.43% in CD25), and MJ Hegar (47.54% in CD31) all came within ten points.

– Those coattails extended further down the ballot. Dems picked up two State Senate seats, as Beverly Powell defeated Konni Burton in SD10 (Wendy Davis’ old seat) and Nathan Johnson trounced Don Huffines in SD16. Rita Lucido was at 46.69% in SD17, but she wasn’t the next-closest competitor – Mark Phariss came within three points of defeating Angela Paxton in SD08, a race that wasn’t really on the radar. Oh, and in an even less-visible race Gwenn Burud scored 45.45% in SD09, while Meg Walsh got to 41.60% against Sen. Charles Schwertner in SD05 (he was just over 55% in that race). We could make things very, very interesting in 2022.

– And down in the State House, Dems have picked up 11 seats:

HD45, Erin Zwiener
HD47, Vikki Goodwin
HD52, James Talarico
HD65, Michelle Beckley
HD102, Ana-Marie Ramos
HD105, Terry Meza
HD113, Rhetta Bowers
HD114, John Turner
HD115, Julie Johnson
HD135, Jon Rosenthal
HD136, John Bucy

Note that of those seven wins, a total of four came from Denton, Hays, and Williamson Counties. The Dems have officially gained a foothold in the suburbs. They also lost some heartbreakingly close races in the House – I’ll save that for tomorrow – and now hold 12 of 14 seats in Dallas County after starting the decade with only six seats. This is the risk of doing too precise a gerrymander – the Republicans there had no room for error in a strong Democratic year.

– Here in Harris County, it was another sweep, as Dems won all the judicial races and in the end all the countywide races. Ed Emmett lost by a point after leading most of the evening, while the other Republicans lost by wide margins. Also late in the evening, Adrian Garcia squeaked ahead of Commissioner Jack Morman in Precinct 2, leading by a 112,356 to 111,226 score. Seems fitting that Morman would lose a close race in a wave year, as that was how he won in the first place. That means Dems now have a 3-2 majority on Commissioners Court. Did I say we now live in a different state? We now live in a very different county.

– With 999 of 1,013 precincts in, Harris County turnout was 1,194,379, with about 346K votes happening on Election Day. That puts turnout above what we had in 2008 (in terms of total votes, not percentage of registered voters) but a hair behind 2012. It also means that about 71% of the vote was cast early, a bit less than in 2016.

– Oh, and the Dems swept Fort Bend, too, winning District Attorney, County Judge, District Clerk, all contests judicial races, and County Commissioner in Precinct 4. Maybe someone can explain to me now why they didn’t run candidates for County Clerk and County Treasurer, but whatever.

– Possibly the biggest bloodbath of the night was in the Courts of Appeals, where the Dems won every single contested race in the 1st, 3rd, 4th, 5th, 13th, and 14th Courts. I count 16 incumbent Republican judges losing, with several more open Republican-held seats flipping. That is utterly amazing, and will have an impact far greater than we can imagine right now.

– Last but not least, both Houston propositions passed. Expect there to be a lawsuit over Prop B.

Today is election day

It’s what we’ve been waiting for, for what seems like forever. From the inbox:

Tuesday, November 6, 2018 is Election Day. Voting locations will be open from 7 am to 7 pm. Voters may visit www.HarrisVotes.com, the County Clerk’s election page, for more information.

“There are four important steps voters should take before heading to the polls,” advised Harris County Clerk Stan Stanart, the chief election officer of the County. “Go to HarrisVotes.com and look yourself up, study your personal ballot, see where your poll is located, and make sure you have one of the seven acceptable forms of Photo ID.”

At www.HarrisVotes.com, voters can find the answers to their voting questions. The website now provides voters an interactive Google map with directions to their Election Day polling location from the “Find Your Poll and Ballot” page.

“Please study your personal ballot,” urged Stanart. Voters may bring their marked up ballot into the voting booth to expedite the voting process and are strongly encouraged to review their selections before pressing the “cast ballot” button. Be sure you see the waving American Flag before exiting your voting booth. “If you have a question while voting, notify the election official in charge at the poll.”

There is still time to vote.” concluded Harris County Clerk Stanart. “Remember, on Election Day, a voter must vote at the polling location where their precinct is assigned to vote.”

The Election Day polling locations, a list of acceptable forms of identification to vote at the poll and information about “curbside voting” can be found at www.HarrisVotes.com. For more information, voters may also call the Harris County Clerk’s election information line at 713.755.6965.

Check the elections page for your own county if you’re not in Harris and you need to know where to go. Remember that if you’re in line by 7PM, you still get to vote. I will be at KTRK doing my thing and probably appearing on camera for thirty seconds at some random time. As for what happens today, well, your guess is as valid as anyone else’s. I’ll leave you with two thoughts. First, from Derek Ryan:


In case you’re wondering, turnout in 2008 was 8,077,795, in 2012 was 7,993,851, and in 2016 was 8,969,226. So, you know.

And also, because I didn’t see this in time to post it earlier:

Mayor Sylvester Turner will ask the city council next week to approve a $1.3 million contract with a law firm to represent the city in anticipation of possible litigation over Proposition B, a measure that would grant firefighters the same pay as police of corresponding rank and seniority.

The contract with Norton Rose Fulbright — which could be approved the day after Tuesday’s general election — would set aside $250,000 for the firm to handle litigation over real estate purchases in connection with infrastructure projects; the rest would be set aside for a court fight over pay “parity.”

[…]

The mayor’s office cast the decision as a simple act of preparing for the election.

“The city is seeking outside counsel to review and assess all options in case Proposition B should pass,” mayoral spokesman Alan Bernstein said. “It is a prudent course of action.”

I have believed all along that there would be litigation regardless of the outcome, so they may well need to assess their options in the seemingly unlikely event that Prop B fails. Something to look forward to after the election.

Buzbee for Mayor?

Oh, good grief.

Tony Buzbee, a high-wattage trial lawyer, big-time political donor and Texas A&M University System regent, says he is running to be the mayor of Houston in 2019.

“The mayor’s race in Houston traditionally has been as boring as watching paint dry,” Buzbee said on Fox26 Houston Tuesday night, when he announced his bid. “I think that we have a city that is above average with below average leadership, and I’m considering very seriously, because there’s a lot of people asking me to do this, running for the mayor of this town.”

When pressed, Buzbee confirmed he is running and would donate his mayoral salary, if elected, to “a random voter that I choose every year.”

[…]

Buzbee, a former Marine, has a roster of high-profile clients to his name, including former Republican Gov. Rick Perry, whom he successfully defended in an abuse-of-power case.

Buzbee was appointed to the A&M System Board of Regents in 2013, by Perry, and has been known to host raucous and politician-studded parties at his River Oaks mansion, including a 2016 fundraiser for then-presidential candidate Donald Trump.

Last year, he was rebuked by a local homeowner’s association after he parked an operational World War II-era tank outside his house.

So basically, one part Ben Hall, one part Bill King, and one part MAGA bro. If that’s not a winning combination, I don’t know what is. The Chron has more.

Harris County makes its robot brothel ban official

We can all sleep more soundly now.

Harris County Commissioners Court on Tuesday unanimously adopted new rules to prevent so-called “robot brothels” from opening and more strictly regulate sexually oriented businesses in unincorporated areas.

The county already had been revising its sexually oriented business rules, first adopted in 1996, but decided to specifically address lifelike sex dolls for rent after Toronto-based company KinkySdollsS considered opening a Houston branch where patrons could try out human-like “adult love dolls” in private rooms at the shop.

[…]

Assistant County Attorney Celena Vinson said the county largely adopted language Houston’s legal department had written.

“We wanted to address the sex robot shop that was allegedly going to open in the city, and wanted to ensure our regulations were consistent with what the city of Houston was doing,” Vinson said.

The changes now clearly define sex dolls like the ones advertised by the Toronto firm as “anthropomorphic devices” and prohibit companies from renting them out to customers. Residents of the city and county remain free to purchase such devices for use in their own homes.

See here, here, and here for the background. Despite my best efforts, I still don’t have anything useful to say about this. I just can’t resist blogging about it, and Lord knows we can use the occasional respite from the real news. You’re welcome.

Endorsement watch: City propositions

The Chron says Yes on Prop A:

Here’s the blunt truth: Voting “against” on Proposition A won’t cut your taxes. It will, however, open the door to more municipal debt.

That is why Houstonians should vote “for” Proposition A, which will reaffirm the decision they correctly made eight years ago to fund needed drainage and street improvement projects in the city by a pay-as-you-go system.

A second vote is being taken to fund the Rebuild Houston program because the Texas Supreme Court ruled a similar ballot question in 2010 was incorrectly worded. The earlier proposition asked, “Shall the City Charter of the City of Houston be amended to provide for the enhancement, improvement and ongoing renewal of Houston’s drainage and streets by creating a Dedicated Pay-As-You-Go Fund for Drainage and Streets?”

A subsequent class-action lawsuit said the ballot question should have specifically explained that city residents would be asked to pay a drainage fee through their water bills to fund those infrastructure improvements.

And No on Prop B:

If Proposition B were a referendum on our love and affection for Houston firefighters, as their union president claims, the choice would be easy. We’d back it. And so would Mayor Sylvester Turner, who was endorsed by firefighters in his mayoral campaign after decades of advocating for them. Instead, the mayor is dipping into his personal campaign funds to fight the measure on which too many influential Houstonians have remained mum.

Voters, don’t let the smoke get in your eyes.

In Prop. B, firefighters are asking for more than just appreciation. They’re asking for pay parity with police of comparable rank and seniority. They’re asking for what the mayor says amounts to a 25 percent raise that could cost the city an estimated $100 million the first year, forcing deep cuts to services and nearly 1,000 layoffs of firefighters and police.

Yes, we value firefighters. We value our kids, too. But most of us can’t go out and buy Junior a Lamborghini just because he asks for it.

And we can’t ignore that firefighters’ jobs are different from those of police. Both entail a great deal of risk, but firefighters have long been able to tailor their schedules to accommodate second jobs and businesses. Several Houston firefighters live out of state. And yes, as police point out, firefighters are allotted sleep time during their longer, 24-hour shifts.

Firefighters are asking voters for something police earned through years of hard-fought negotiations that required give and take from both sides.

I still think the ruling against the Renew Houston referendum was a screw job by the Supreme Court, but here we are. You can listen to my interview with Marty Lancton and my interview with Mayor Turner if you want to hear more about Prop B, and in the case of the Mayor, more about Prop A as well.

City seeks more Harvey recovery funds

Good. Seek all you can.

The City of Houston is preparing to ask Congress for $2 billion more to help residents whose homes were damaged by Hurricane Harvey — a request likely to coincide with lawmakers’ consideration of aid to victims of hurricanes Florence and Michael, which devastated sections of North Carolina and Florida.

The city is basing its request on a new study that departs from the traditional method of calculating need. The difference boils down to who gets counted.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development looks at recipients of individual assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to determine how much additional aid is needed. Houston’s study includes many more people affected by Harvey’s flooding, whether or not they applied for aid from FEMA.

“We’re chronically undercounting the most vulnerable populations,” said Tom McCasland, director of the Houston Housing and Community Development Department. “That’s why it’s important not to start with FEMA.”

[…]

Houston based its analysis on flood modeling that uses data points such as drone imagery of the storm and flooding. The city’s Housing and Community Development Department now has maps of every lot and building in the city with blue shading representing areas that were likely submerged.

Houston’s analysis also considered factors such as the building’s size and the lot’s surface permeability to calculate the likely damage caused to the home and its contents.

The conclusion: Harvey inflicted $16 billion of residential damage on the city, $3.1 billion of which the city believes meets HUD’s criteria for unmet need. That’s about $2 billion more than the amount HUD is already sending for unmet housing needs in Houston.

HUD may or may not buy the city’s calculations, but there’s no harm in trying. As McCasland says in the piece, the data the city will generate from putting the request together will be beneficial in itself.

Interview with Mayor Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner

We finish up our interviews for the 2018 election season with Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner and a conversation about city propositions A and B. Prop A, which has largely flown under the radar, is the update to Renew Houston intended to ratify the “lockbox” structure for the fee revenue. Prop B is of course the firefighter pay parity proposal. You’ve heard my interview with Marty Lancton, so here’s the Mayor’s perspective. The city has a very high-level summary of the two propositions here, and you can find the City Controller’s analysis of the costs embedded in this KUHF story. The firefighters have a response to the city’s cost estimate, a copy of which is here. If you’re wondering what the wording of the two propositions are, here’s a copy of my sample ballot, which was the only place I could find it. Here’s my conversation with Mayor Turner:

And that’s a wrap for interviews for 2018. To review all the ones I’ve done before, visit my 2018 Congressional, 2018 Legislative, 2018 Harris County, and 2018 Judicial pages.

Babygate, 25 years later

Boy, I remember this.

Remember Babygate?

Scot Cooper Williams came into this world Oct. 16, 1993 and was the center of a firestorm 24 hours later. His father David, an offensive tackle for the Houston Oilers, had missed the team’s game in New England to be with his wife when he was born.

The coaches were livid. Some of his teammates were upset and angry. A combination of timing of Scot’s birth, fog in New England and David not being able to catch the last flight out of Houston that Saturday night forced David to make a decision that cost him a $111,000 fine.

The story went viral – 1990s style. National headlines. Network television. Talk shows around the country. Everybody had an opinion, especially when the macho culture of pro football collided with changing times around the country (the Family and Medical Leave Act had passed in February 1993).

“It took me a while,” David said of the media frenzy, “to get over it.”

This week marks the 25th anniversary of Babygate and the men in the center of that moment can chuckle a little about it now.

[…]

A quarter of a century ago, then-27-year-old David, who wasn’t one to miss a game for any reason, just wanted to be with his wife when she delivered. Debi had suffered a miscarriage the year before after a tubal pregnancy and he wasn’t leaving her side. They had planned to have a C-section the Monday after the game, but Scot had a mind of his own and Debi went into labor at 4 a.m. Saturday, and David missed the team charter.

David figured Scot would be born, mom and baby would get checked out and he’d have time to catch the last flight to Boston on Saturday night.

But that didn’t happen.

While Debi was in labor, David was on the delivery room phone with coaches and team officials. Time was running out to catch that last flight and the conversation wasn’t pretty.

“It was hard on her at the time … She could hear them screaming over the phone at me,” David said. “Finally the doctor just yanked the phone plug, took the phone off the wall and said ‘We’re not taking any more calls.’ ”

Scot didn’t arrive until almost 6:25 p.m. and, by then, it was too late for Williams to catch the 6:54 p.m. flight from either airport.

“Even if I had left the second after he was born, I still never would have made that plane,” he said. “It was nerve-wracking for me. I’d never been through anything like that. It was tough.”

He said teammates Mike Munchak and Bruce Matthews tried to arrange a private plane through a third party, but when David left the hospital around 11:30 p.m., he hadn’t heard back.

“I had been up with Deb since 4 o’clock that morning and going through that emotional roller coaster of getting screamed at and yelled at by coaches and general manager as I’m in the delivery room,” he said. “My wife’s giving birth and I’m getting screamed at. Man, it isn’t supposed to feel like this.”

David went home, showered and was sound asleep when the person called back. The voice on the other end of the phone said there were no guarantees he would get to the stadium in time. The pilot might be able to get him into one of the New York airports, but then he would have to drive to Foxborough, Mass.

“They were diverting planes everywhere,” David said. “At that point, I said, if he can’t fly me to Boston, just tell him to forget it. I made that decision on my own. I was absolutely exhausted.”

He paused.

“I was just (thinking), ‘Oh my gosh, I’m going to be fired.’ I knew it. I just knew I was going to be without a job the next day. It was crazy, but that was the decision I made.”

Read the whole thing, and marvel at it whether it’s the first you’ve ever heard of this or it takes you down memory lane, as it did with me. Sure seems hard to believe, here in 2018, that a father-to-be missing work to be at the birth of a child would even raise an eyebrow, but it did a lot more than that in 1993. However far we still have to go, we really have come a long way. All the best to the Williams family, for their unwitting role as trailblazers.

The problem with the revenue cap, in two short paragraphs

From the Chron:

The average homeowner has saved a cumulative $436 thanks to the rate adjustments driven by the revenue cap since 2014, an average of $87 per year.

The same adjustments have prevented the city from collecting $533 million than it otherwise would have.

So in return for a negligible reduction in your property tax bill, which you almost certainly didn’t notice, the city of Houston lost over a half billion dollars in revenue over the past five years. That’s more than enough on a per-year basis to bridge all the shortfalls that have been projected, more than enough to cover even the highest-end estimate of what the firefighters’ pay parity proposal would cost, more than enough to hire however many more cops we’re supposed to need, more than enough to make all of the employee pension systems a hell of a lot more stable, more than enough to buy out a crapload of floodplain-located homes, etc etc etc. Amazing what a little thing like $500 million dollars can do, isn’t it? And don’t forget, even though the average property tax cut was small, the biggest share of it went to the people with the most expensive property. (Not to mention, if you’re a renter, you got exactly zero out of this.) This right here is why I hold self-proclaimed fiscal peacocks who favor the revenue cap like a certain former Mayoral candidate I feel no need to name in such contempt. We cannot undo this stupid, harmful policy soon enough.

Trump’s slightly less tiny Ted rally

It’s true what they say, size does matter.

Not Ted Cruz

President Donald Trump’s rally Monday in Houston with U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz has been moved to a bigger venue.

Originally set to take place at the NRG Arena, the event will now be held at the Toyota Center, Trump campaign manager Brad Parscale announced in a tweet Thursday afternoon, describing the demand for tickets as “HUGE and unprecedented.” The Toyota Center can hold about twice as many people as NRG Arena — roughly 10,000 versus 19,000.

Trump set expectations high set two months ago, when he announced he would come to Texas in October to hold a rally with Cruz at the “biggest stadium we can find.” Neither NRG Arena nor the Toyota Center are among the state’s largest venues.

See here for the background. I’m sorry, this will never be not funny to me. I should have something more intelligent to say, but I’m too busy giggling.

Interview with Marty Lancton

As you know, there are two city ballot propositions for your consideration. The one that has gotten the most attention by far is Proposition B, the firefighters pay parity proposal. I consider it a core function of this blog to present information about local issues, especially when those issues are election-related, so I will have two interviews for you about the propositions, with an emphasis on Prop B. Today I have my conversation with Marty Lancton, the President of the Houston Professional Firefighters Association, about the proposition and what it would mean for HFD and the city. I’ll have a conversation with Mayor Turner next week. Here’s what Marty Lancton and I talked about:

Trump’s tiny Texas rally for Ted

Aww, how cute.

Not Ted Cruz

President Donald Trump will make good on his promise to help Texas Republican Ted Cruz, announcing plans to hold a large rally next Monday night in Houston.

The Trump campaign on Monday said the next stop on the president’s midterm campaign tour will be at the NRG Arena, which its website states can hold “less than 10,000” people near the larger NRG Stadium.

In August, Trump said he would do a “major rally” for Cruz in the “biggest stadium in Texas we can find.”

The NRG Arena is not the state’s largest stadium. That honor goes to Kyle Field at the Texas A&M University campus with its seating capacity of 102,733.

That’s the biggest stadium he could find? Really? Maybe that was the biggest stadium he felt like finding. Or the biggest he thought he might have a shot at filling up. Or the biggest stadium he thought Ted Cruz deserved. I could do this all day. I’ve seen some folks suggest on Facebook reserving tickets, then not attending so there will be lots of empty seats. I’ve no idea how well that might work, but I do see people going through with it (you have to go to Trump’s campaign webpage for, and I’d sooner eat paste than link to it, so you’re on your own if you want in), so we’ll see if it has any effect. But seriously, the “biggest stadium in Texas”? It wouldn’t even be the biggest stadium in HISD. Never believe a word Trump says.

Trustees apologize for Saavedra/Lathan mess

It’s a start.

Houston ISD trustees on Monday offered a public apology to students, parents and teachers for their behavior the past 10 months, particularly the chaotic meeting last week when a faction of the board surprised their colleagues and the audience by replacing the interim superintendent.

Trustees said they hoped the apology and pledge to work better with each other is the first step toward quelling infighting on the board, restoring the public’s trust and showing the Texas Education Agency that HISD is capable of governing itself.

“Our actions have not modeled the behavior we desire to instill in our children that we serve,” said Trustee Diana Dávila at a lectern surrounded by her eight colleagues. “We sincerely apologize to all of you.”

[…]

Trustee Jolanda Jones said the board at a special meeting Thursday morning would set an end date for its search for a permanent superintendent, consider hiring an executive coach for the school board and Lathan, and request a new governance counselor from the Texas Education Agency, which has been monitoring the board for months.

The trustees then left the boardroom, refusing to answer questions about what convinced trustees to change course, whether they had broken the law in secretly recruiting Saavedra and why the public should trust this latest pledge to do better.

[…]

Despite her contrition, questions remain about whether Dávila and four colleagues violated the Texas Open Meetings Act by approaching Saavedra about taking over as superintendent before informing the rest of the board or the public.

Saavedra, who served as HISD’s superintendent from 2005 to 2009, told the Chronicle on Sunday that he spoke separately with five trustees — including the four Latino members — in the days before the vote to appoint him.

Of the five trustees who voted for his appointment, Davila, Sergio Lira and Holly Maria Flynn Vilaseca said they met with Saavedra beforehand. The other two “yes” votes, Elizabeth Santos and Anne Sung, did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Joe Larsen, a Houston First Amendment lawyer and expert on Texas’ open meetings and public information laws, said Saavedra’s acknowledgment that he spoke with a majority of trustees privately is evidence that they may have broken the law.

“It certainly would appear to indicate there’s some coordination between those five individuals toward a specific goal, constituting a majority,” Larsen said. “That’s precisely the sort of thing that should have been deliberated in public.”

The district attorney’s office would need to investigate any possible violation of the Open Meetings Act, Larsen said, which is a misdemeanor. A spokesman for Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg said the office does not comment on investigations that may or may not exist.

See here and here for the background. It’s good to hear the Board speak in this fashion, and to apparently recognize the lack of trust they have earned with the public, but suffice it to say that their actions will speak far louder than any words of contrition. I say this as someone who knows nearly all of them – I’ve never met Diana Davila, and I have only spoken to Sergio Lira over the phone – and who likes and respects them. For a broad range of reasons, I really really want them to work together to solve problems and make HISD the best it can be. This is a start, but there’s a very long way to go, and that’s before we consider the possibility that the Open Meetings Act was violated. One step at a time. The Press has more.

World’s worst pastors file suit against Austin’s equal rights ordinance

Exactly what you’d expect from these jerks.

A Houston-based religious nonprofit behind the so-called bathroom bill is suing the City of Austin over its anti-discrimination hiring ordinance. The U.S. Pastor Council filed suit in a federal district court late last week, alleging the city rule’s lack of exemptions for churches or other religiously affiliated groups violates state and federal law.

The suit asks the court to block the enforcement of the ordinance on behalf of its 25 member churches in the Austin area “because these member churches rely on the Bible rather than modern-day cultural fads for religious and moral guidance, they will not hire practicing homosexuals or transgendered people as clergy.”

In a June letter to the Austin City Council, Executive Director David Welch reasoned that the ordinance didn’t provide wide enough berth for religious exemption – and that Catholic churches refusing to hire women as priests or “homosexuals as clergy” would be violating the city law.

“These are the stingiest religious exemptions we have ever seen in an anti-discrimination law,” Welch wrote. “It is inexcusable that you would purport to subject a church’s hiring decisions to your city’s antidiscrimination ordinance.”

In a written statement today, the city defended its anti-discrimination ordinance.

“The ordinance reflects our values and culture respecting the dignity and rights of every individual,” said city spokesperson David Green. “We are prepared to vigorously defend the City against this challenge to the City’s civil rights protections.”

There’s a copy of the lawsuit embedded in the story. This is all transparent bullshit, but that’s par for the course with these clowns. The good news is that the good guys aren’t worried about this, or the accompanying state lawsuit that was also filed.

Texas Values, another conservative Christian organization, filed a separate, broader lawsuit in state district court, also on Saturday, seeking to invalidate the ordinance as it applies to both employment and housing decisions.

[…]

Texas Values’ lawsuit also invokes the Texas Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which says that, in general, governments cannot “substantially burden a person’s free exercise of religion.”

“The city of Austin’s so-called anti-discrimination laws violate the Texas Religious Freedom Restoration Act by punishing individuals, private businesses and religious nonprofits, including churches, for their religious beliefs on sexuality and marriage,” Jonathan Saenz, the president of Texas Values, said in a statement to The Texas Tribune.

[…]

“These lawsuits certainly highlight a coordinated effort among people who want to target LGBTQ people in court,” said Paul Castillo, a senior attorney at Lambda Legal, an advocacy firm for LGBTQ rights.

Castillo said he has not examined Texas Values’ suit but that the city of Austin “is on solid legal ground” in the U.S. Pastor Council lawsuit.

“In order to walk into court, you have to demonstrate some sort of injury,” Castillo said. “It doesn’t appear that the city of Austin is enforcing or has enforced its anti-discrimination laws in a way that would infringe upon these religions.”

He added that the timing of the lawsuits is “certainly suspect” as groups attempt to politicize LGBTQ issues ahead of the upcoming legislative session.

Jason Smith, a Fort Worth employment lawyer, said he expects both lawsuits to “go nowhere.” He points to former Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy’s opinion in Masterpiece Cakeshop, Ltd. v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, which Smith said made it clear that religious beliefs do not justify discrimination.

Still, he said people should be “worried by the repeated attempts to limit the Supreme Court’s announcement that the Constitution protects gays and lesbians.”

There is currently no statewide law that protects LGBTQ employees from discrimination, but San Antonio, Dallas and Fort Worth have nondiscrimination ordinances similar to Austin’s. Smith said the other cities will be watching how the lawsuits in Austin unfold and that some cities may even file briefs to make the court aware of their positions.

Good to know, but as always it all comes down to what the judges make of it. I guess I have more faith in the federal courts at this point than our state courts, at least at the higher levels, but we’ll see. ThinkProgress has more.

Saavedra out

Whiplash.

Trustees are expected to announce Monday that interim superintendent Grenita Lathan will remain at the helm of the Houston Independent School District, an attempt to diffuse fallout from a contentious 5-4 vote last Thursday that was preceded by shouting matches and accusations of racism from board members.

After a six-hour discussion during a weekend retreat Sunday, trustees and Abelardo Saavedra – who led HISD from 2004 to 2009 and was to return Monday as the district’s new interim leader – mutually agreed that he would withdraw, Saavedra said.

“It became apparent to me that the dysfunction is not at the superintendent or leadership level, it’s at the board level,” Saavedra said, adding that he was unaware the move to hire him was going to catch some board members by surprise.

Lathan is expected to return as the interim leader of the nation’s seventh-largest school district while a search continues for a permanent superintendent. District officials said late Sunday that trustees would “discuss the recent vote to make changes to the interim superintendent’s position” at a 5 p.m. Monday press conference, but offered no further details.

[…]

Bob Sanborn, CEO of the nonprofit Children at Risk, said he believes Lathan remaining in her role is good for students, but he said the damage that has been done cannot be reversed by the trustees simply standing together at a press conference.

“Nothing has really been diffused. You still have this divide on the board – racial, political or otherwise, it’s a clear divide – and they’re going to have to work through it if they want a good superintendent, whether it’s an African-American or Latino or any other turnaround leader,” Sanborn said. “They’re going to have to put aside some of these differences and make it work or our school children will be the ones to bear the brunt of their dysfunction.”

See here for the background. If you’re feeling dizzy, you’re not alone. I have no idea what is going on with the Board, but good Lord they need to get it together and work as a unit rather than as factions. None of this should have happened.

Harris County to follow suit on robot brothels

If it’s good for Houston, or not good for Houston, I suppose…

Harris County commissioners are prepared to ban so-called robot brothels, just as Houston did last week.

Harris County already bans live sex acts at any place of business. Robert Soard, First Assistant County Attorney, said that, in his reading, that includes sex with “anthropomorphic devices.”

“Now, that being said, because of changing technology, it might be a good idea to amend the current sexually oriented business regulations,” Soard said.

[…]

Assistant Chief Tim Navarre said they’ll be ready to present it to Commissioners Court within two weeks. “The dialogue is…almost identical to the city’s, so, we’re way ahead of the curve,” Navarre said.

See here and here for the background. Harris County’s sexually-oriented business ordinance has generally been a mirror of Houston’s, so this is not surprising and mostly a formality. Nonetheless, if you ever had an inclination to attend a Commissioner’s Court meeting, here’s a bit of incentive for you to finally do so. Swamplot has more.

Saavedra 2.0

This was unexpected.

In a raucous school board meeting filled with shouting and accusations lobbed by trustees against each other, the Houston Independent School District’s board of trustees late Thursday replaced interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan with former HISD Superintendent Abelardo Saavedra.

The vote, which followed a motion that several board members said came as a surprise to them, returns Lathan to her previous role as chief academic officer.

The vote marks the third leader this calendar year for the 214,000-student school district.

The unexpected discussion came as trustees were about to decide whether to extend Lathan’s contract through Sept. 30, 2019.

[…]

Before trustees voted on Lathan’s contract, trustee Diana Davila proposed a motion to dismiss Lathan as the district’s temporary leader and insert Saavedra.

That motion drew passionate criticism from trustee Wanda Adams, who said there was a racial divide on the board between African-American and Latino trustees. She said the proposal should have been discussed in closed session rather than sprung on the dais.

“This is disrespectful,” Adams said. “I did not know about this at all. Some of my other colleagues did not know about it. Some knew about it — (Sergio) Lira knew about it, Holly (Flynn Vilaseca) knew about it and (Elizabeth) Santos knew about it. It goes back to my original statement about racism on this board.”

In a discussion about this on Monica Flores Richart’s Facebook page, it was suggested that having an interim Superintendent who does not want the job on a permanent basis is better for conducting a national service than having an interim Super who is a candidate for that job. Saavedra (apparently) does not want the job long term, while Lathan does, and has the backing for that of at least the three African-American members of the Board. I think this is a plausible argument, but I agree with Trustee Adams that it’s the sort of discussion that should have been had with the whole Board before making any decisions (much less a motion). For sure, having this kind of public fight won’t do anything to attract decent candidates, and that’s before we take into account the continuing specter of a state takeover. I understand Saavedra has a good record dealing with a district that faced similar problems in recent years, but one wonders how much clout a known short-time boss will have, especially given the recent exodus of senior leaders within HISD. I wish Saavedra all the success in the world in his temporary gig, because we’re sure gonna need it. The Press has more.

Apparently, that pay parity debate did happen

I missed the last twist in this saga, but in the end it did happen.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

After months of trading barbs from a distance, Mayor Sylvester Turner and the head of Houston’s firefighters’ union met in a vigorous but civil debate Saturday, displaying their fundamental differences over just about everything related to the November ballot referendum that would grant firefighters pay “parity” with police officers of corresponding rank and seniority.

The dispute revolves around a divisive question: If the measure known as Proposition B passes, can the city afford it? If anything, the debate at St. John’s United Methodist Church between Turner and Houston Professional Fire Firefighters Association President Marty Lancton revealed how irreconcilable the opposing views on that question truly are.

From Turner’s perspective, Houston firefighters deserve to receive better pay, but not to the extent that their raises “bankrupt the city,” as he claimed Proposition B would do by mandating 29 percent raises for firefighters, at a cost of than $100 million a year.

What’s more, Turner said Saturday, the measure does not call for true “parity” because it mandates only equal pay, ignoring retirement benefits, training and education requirements — in practice granting firefighters better pay, Turner argued.

To Lancton, the city has balanced its budget on the backs of firefighters to the point that the department’s rank-and-file members are struggling to make ends meet, with salaries far lower than those of firefighters in other Texas cities.

“What Houston firefighters seek is fair, competitive pay. Because of low pay, many Houston-trained firefighters are leaving for other departments,” Lancton said. “Our pay is so low that starting firefighters, supporting families, can even qualify for government assistance. We’ve asked the city for competitive pay for nearly a decade. The city has repeatedly rejected our efforts to reach an acceptable contract agreement.”

It goes from there, and I don’t think there’s much that you haven’t seen if you’ve been following this. At last report, Lancton had pulled out of the debate because the firefighters didn’t want Lisa Falkenberg moderating (because they didn’t like the Chron’s editorial stance against Prop B) and had wanted to address the Democratic precinct chairs in an effort to get Prop B endorsed by the HCDP. Neither of these conditions changed – Falkenberg still moderated, and the HCDP precinct chairs are not getting together for an endorsement vote – so I don’t know what changed from the firefighters’ perspective. Be that as it may, I’m glad this happened – the voters deserved such an event. I wish I could have been there but I was out of town. If you attended or saw a stream of it, please leave a comment with your impressions.

The timeline for the Astrodome

Work will get started after the Rodeo.

Soon to be new and improved

According to Ryan Walsh, executive director of the Harris County Sports & Convention Corporation and NRG Park, the final phase of asbestos abatement is scheduled to get underway at the Dome next week and should continue until the end of the year. The work is being done by county engineers deep in the walls of the disused landmark.

“That work will take several months up until the rodeo moves in,” Walsh said Wednesday.

Construction on the project is expected to end in February 2020 and Walsh said this week that soon he will receive a more detailed construction schedule for the months and years ahead.

After the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo concludes its 2019 season more intensive work is expected to begin on the Dome. The rodeo has “gate to gate” coverage of the NRG complex during rodeo season.

I for one am looking forward to seeing what this finished product looks like. I’m also looking forward to an end of the griping about what has and has not happened to and for the Dome, what should have happened instead of this plan, etc etc etc. Not that any of that is likely to happen, but I still look forward to the end of it.

The pay parity proposal debate that wasn’t

Let’s not get ready to rumble!

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Houston’s firefighters union has withdrawn from a Saturday debate with Mayor Sylvester Turner on their proposal to seek pay “parity” with police officers, saying the event’s host, the Harris County Democratic Party, had given the mayor too much control over the event.

The hour-long event would have marked the first time the mayor and the union addressed the contentious issue on the same stage.

“We looked forward to the debate,” Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association President Marty Lancton said in a Wednesday morning statement, “but we recognize that party insiders failed to stop the manipulation of the ground rules to advantage the mayor. We are disappointed in the HCDP’s acquiescence to the mayor, but are grateful for the support of HCDP precinct chairs and the many Houstonians they represent.”

Among the union’s complaints were that Houston Chronicle opinion editor Lisa Falkenberg was to serve as moderator (the editorial board expressed opposition to the parity proposal in July 2017), and that Democratic Party officials did not agree to let Lancton address precinct chairs or let them vote on whether to endorse the proposition.

Alas. Here’s the earlier story announcing the event that was the original basis of this post. I am not able to be there for this not-a-forum, but perhaps you can be.

County Democratic Party Chair Lillie Schechter said the party engaged in “extensive conversations” with both camps on the format of the discussion but respects the union’s decision to withdraw.

“The event details appeared in a Facebook announcement seen and approved by all parties last week. It is unfortunate the firefighter’s union has determined these details do not meet their needs,” she said. “We regret voters will not hear from the firefighter’s union at this time. Mayor Turner and Lisa are welcome to use the full hour we have allotted for this event.”

The party’s leadership committee, after hearing from the fire union at a recent meeting, Schechter said, voted to schedule the debate to hear from both sides. She said the gathering was never envisioned as ending in a vote, saying such votes only occur at quarterly gatherings of all precinct chairs, the last of which was held Sept. 13.

Yes, speaking as a precinct chair, that’s how our rules work. Precinct chairs vote to endorse or not endorse ballot measures like this at our quarterly meetings. We endorsed the flood bond referendum at the June meeting, for instance. There were members from the firefighters’ union at the September meeting, talking up their proposal, but no motion for an endorsement vote. Which I have to say would have been contentious, and because of that I’m glad it didn’t come up. I don’t know what may or may not have happened behind the scenes, but I do know they could have made a pretty big fuss about this at the meeting if they had wanted to.

Personally, I think an event like this, aimed at the general public, rather than an agenda item for a normally dry meeting of precinct chairs, would be a much better way to allow both sides to air their views (I’m assuming that if Lancton had been given time to address us, then Mayor Turner or a representative from his office would have been given time as well). But hey, whatever. Perhaps the Mayor and Lisa Falkenberg can discuss the cost of this referendum.

The cost of Houston firefighters’ push for pay parity with police of corresponding rank and seniority could be 14 percent cheaper than what Mayor Sylvester Turner’s administration has estimated, city Controller Chris Brown said Tuesday.

Brown’s office estimates that the proposal, which will appear as Proposition B on the Nov. 6 ballot, will cost $85.2 million a year, lower than the $98.6 million figure Turner has used. Neither estimate includes the 7 percent raise police would receive over the next two years if the city council approves a new proposed contract this week. That would increase the cost if voters decide to link fire and police salaries.

Brown acknowledged his analysis required a series of assumptions related to how the parity proposal would be implemented, and said the estimate shows the cost of the proposal would be “unsustainable.”

“The controller’s office believes that a sustainable solution exists but can only be achieved through negotiation in the collective bargaining process,” Brown said while presenting his estimate to the city council’s budget committee. “It’s through that process that the men and women of HFD should be able to negotiate a well-deserved raise, but also a well-deserved raise the city can actually afford over the long term.”

Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association President Marty Lancton viewed Brown’s analysis as vindication of his view that Turner’s estimate is inflated.

“As the city controller proved today, the mayor’s Proposition B claims cannot be trusted. His math, like his judgment, is driven by an obsession with punishing Houston firefighters,” Lancton said.

[…]

Brown and Turner’s estimates are nearly identical on the projected increase to firefighters’ base salaries and the associated increase in retirement benefits: that roughly 20 percent increase would cost about $65 million per year.

The two estimates differ mostly on various incentives and allowances known as “special pays,” some of which firefighters receive now but which parity would increase, and some of which firefighters would receive for the first time if voters approve the measure.

Not sure how a reduction in the cost estimate from $98 million to $85 million is a vindication of the firefighters’ case, especially when $85 million is still a pretty damn big number and Controller Brown calls it “unsustainable”, but maybe that’s just me. I continue to believe this thing is going to pass so I sure hope the cost estimates we are seeing are overblown, but all things being equal I’d rather not have to find out. Be that as it may, if you don’t know what to make of all this, go attend the not-a-forum and see what you think.

Please don’t spy on robot brothel customers

This is ridiculous, and not in the fun and amusing way.

Greg Travis

Greg Travis, the councilman of District G where a so-called “robot brothel” would be located in Houston, said on Tuesday that patrons visiting the adult business would be recorded by cameras directed at the location.

“I already have cameras (around the area) and whenever this starts, we will see all people coming and going and we will post it on social media,” Travis said at a City Council meeting where community members, mostly from religious groups, expressed opposition to the business.

The councilman said the news that a Canadian business called KinkySDollS was going to open in Houston the first “robot brothel” in the United States “stunned everybody… it’s gross.”

[…]

Small revisions proposed to the ordinance are intended to include current and emerging technologies in the adult entertainment business, such as the robot brothel. The modifications would expand the definition of an arcade devise to include “an anthropomorphic devise or object utilized for entertainment” of sexual nature.

A city document indicates that the proposed changes would “prohibit entertainment with one or more persons using an arcade devise on the premises.”

“Robot brothels,” function like a showroom where dolls are exhibited and available to customers for rent and use at the place, or for sale.

The Canadian business hasn’t registered in the city as of Tuesday, according to Roberto Medina, senior analyst at the City of Houston’s Public Works office.

See here and here for the background. I remember reading a story in the Houston Press back in the 90s about a self-appointed opponent of strip clubs who hung out on the sidewalk in front of the Men’s Club on Sage and snapped photos of everyone who entered the parking lot. This was before digital photography and the modern Internet, so the reach of her crusade was limited, but my reaction to that story then is the same as my reaction to this story now: Cut that shit out, it’s none of your business. Whatever you may think of strip clubs or robot brothels, they’re legal businesses and I don’t want you recording images of their customers any more than I want you doing so in front of a Planned Parenthood clinic, a vape shop, or Second Baptist Church.

Be that as it may, Council did pass the proposed modification of its sexually oriented business ordinance, which would basically end the “brothel” part of this business, assuming it stands after the lawsuit I figure will be filed. (Thankfully, there was no further discussion of cameras.) By the way, you may have noticed that I’ve altered my nomenclature here, simplifying it to just “robot brothel”. In the end, I found the argument that “robot sex brothel” was redundant. I do note that Texas Monthly has gone the other direction, with “sex robot brothel”. Let the debate rage on! Grits for Breakfast, which elides the brothel aspect of this for a focus on the “sex robot” function, has more.

Robot sex brothel update

It’s all about the permits.

The City of Houston ordered a Canadian company called KinkySDollS to stop the construction of a so-called robot brothel for not having the appropriate permit.

The city, which told the Chronicle this week that they are reviewing ordinances to restrict this kind of enterprise, sent building inspectors to issue a “red tag” to stop work after they noticed they didn’t have the required permits.

To continue construction, the KinkySDollS company will have to first “apply for a demolition permit and submit plans,” said a spokesperson from the mayor’s office.

[…]

They began to build the business in what was previously a hair salon on Richmond, close to Chimney Rock in the Galleria area. Space is located on the second floor of a building and has around 2,500 square feet, according to the salon owner who used to rent that spot.

The concept of the KinkySDollS adult business is similar to a showroom where human-like dolls are erotically displayed and can be rented to be used in private rooms at the location by the hour or half hour. The dolls are made of synthetic skin materials with highly articulated skeletons.

See here for the background. We now have the details about what an effort to ban these places might look like.

Mayor Sylvester Turner will ask the City Council this week to change Houston’s rules on sexually oriented businesses, a change that could prevent a proposed “robot brothel” from opening near the Galleria.

[…]

Traditional sexually oriented businesses like strip clubs long have been prevented from operating within 1,500 feet of churches, schools, day cares, parks and residential neighborhoods — and city-owned Anderson Park is just a few hundred feet from KinkySdollS’ proposed storefront.

The portion of the ordinance Turner wants to revise addresses “adult arcades,” where customers view adult content using an “arcade device.”

The council would amend the definition of an “arcade device” to include not just machines displaying video but also “anthropomorphic devices or objects,” and would prohibit “entertainment with one or more persons using an arcade device on the premises.”

In short, the business could sell the dolls at its proposed location – such models reportedly sell for about $4,000 — but repeated-use rentals would be banned.

I suspect I’ll get my wish to see some litigation come out of this. Beyond that, I don’t really have anything substantive to say, but boy is it going to be hard to resist the temptation to blog about these stories. A style point question: Does it make more sense to say “robot sex brothel”, or “sex robot brothel”? I can make a case for either one, but I feel like we should strive to define a standard, so future generations won’t be confused. Please indicate your preference in the comments.

We need to talk about the robot sex brothel

I can’t avoid it any longer.

In a surprise reveal last week, a Toronto businessman announced that he would be opening the nation’s first robot sex brothel in Houston.

The business, set to open its doors later this month or in early October, will allow customers to rent or purchase a robotic sex doll that, according to the company’s founder, is “warm and ready to play.”

As you might imagine, people had opinions about this.

KinkySdollS, a Canadian company that opened the first North American robot brothel last year in Toronto, unofficially announced via Facebook last month that its first enterprise outside Canada would be in Houston, confirming on the company website that the business was “coming soon” to the Bayou City.

Mayor Sylvester Turner said the city is currently reviewing existing ordinances — or will consider drafting new ordinances — that could restrict or regulate such enterprises.

“This is not the kind of business I would like to see in Houston, and certainly this is not the kind of business the city is seeking to attract,” Turner said in a written statement to the Houston Chronicle.

[…]

The brothel would apparently not be illegal under current laws, according to experts.

“Unfortunately, there are currently no laws in the U.S. to prevent the sale of the type of dolls intended for this ‘robot brothel,’” said Houston attorney Richard Weaver, who specializes in business law.

“Unless a new ordinance is passed, this business will likely open and operate in Houston,” Weaver said.

Albert Van Huff, a Houston attorney who is familiar with Houston’s sexually oriented business ordinances, said that robot brothels would likely fall under the city’s definition of an adult sexual operation, however, and could likely be regulated for visibility and distances from schools, churches and other religious facilities.

I’ll be honest, I kind of want there to be some litigation over this, just so I can read the briefs and see the arguments. You just know there’s an attorney somewhere who’ll be thinking “three years of law school and months of cramming for the bar exam, for this”. Reading the story, it sounds like there’s a solid public health argument for not allowing the dolls to be rented. Beyond that, I confess I don’t quite get all the fuss. In the year of our Lord 2018, I’ve got bigger things to worry about.

The firefighter pay parity proposal sure seems like it’s going to pass

What are ya gonna do?

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner is holding town halls to try to convince voters that the city can’t afford Proposition B, a ballot measure that would tie firefighters’ pay to that of police. It’s turning into an uphill fight.

Mayor Turner argues that full pay parity would cost Houston nearly $300 million, at a time when the city is wrestling with chronic deficits. But Turner is having a hard time getting voters to see this as anything other than attacking the firefighters.

“The default mode is not only to support equity pay but to support it by very big margins,” says Bob Stein, a political science professor at Rice University.

That’s particularly the case if Democrats turn out in larger-than-usual numbers. “You’ll have a lot of voters coming out who are predisposed as Democrats to support equity pay for public employees,” Stein says. “On top of that, the firemen not only have a good campaign message, but they’re going to get national support from national public employee associations and unions to support this equity pay raise.”

I’ve already seen three pro-Prop B signs in my neighborhood. Mayor Turner has been busy holding town halls and writing op-eds, but beyond that I’ve not seen much of a campaign. So yeah, I expect this to pass, quite possibly by a lot. And I’d say Mayor Turner is making the same judgment.

Mayor Sylvester Turner has instituted a hiring freeze across the city government’s roughly 21,400 positions, ordering department directors seeking exceptions to meet with him or his chief of staff in person.

The directive, he wrote in a memo dated Friday, will be reviewed “at a later date this year.” Executive positions are exempt from the freeze, but those already require mayoral approval.

Mayoral spokeswoman Mary Benton said the order was spurred by Proposition B on the Nov. 6 ballot. That measure would give firefighters the same pay as police officers of corresponding rank and seniority, costing the city an estimated $98 million annually.

“The impact would financially cripple the city and force layoffs and cutbacks to services,” Benton said. “The mayor believes it is not prudent at this time to hire additional city of Houston employees, who would lose their jobs as a result of the election.”

I mean, what did you expect? At this point I’d say the city’s best strategy is to find some plaintiffs for the ballot language lawsuit, and hope to get an injunction preventing it from being implemented while it gets hashed out in court. I wouldn’t bet my own money on that outcome either, but the odds have to be better than beating this thing at the ballot box.

Now how much would you pay to fix Houston’s sewer system?

We may be about to find out.

Federal and state authorities sued the city of Houston over its long-running struggle to limit sewage spills on Friday, marking the beginning of the end of a years-long negotiation that could force the city to invest billions to upgrade its sprawling treatment system.

Houston’s “failure to properly operate and maintain” its 6,700 miles of sewer pipes, nearly 400 lift stations and 40 treatment plants caused thousands of “unpermitted and illegal discharges of pollutants” due to broken or blocked pipes dating back to 2005, the suit states. The city also recorded numerous incidents when its sewer plants released water with higher than allowable concentrations of waste into area waterways, the filing states.

The lawsuit by the Department of Justice on behalf of the Environmental Protection Agency and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality wants a judge to force Houston to comply with the Clean Water Act and Texas Water Code — typical orders include upgrading pipes, ramping up maintenance and educating the public on how to avoid clogging city pipes — and to assess civil penalties that could reach $53,000 per day, depending on when each violation occurred.

[…]

The filing was spurred by the intervention of a local nonprofit, Bayou City Waterkeeper, which announced in July that it planned to sue the city over the same violations and which filed its own lawsuit on Friday mirroring the EPA’s claims. It states that the city has reported more than 9,300 sewer spills in the last five years alone.

“The city’s unauthorized discharges have had a detrimental effect on, and pose an ongoing threat to, water quality and public health in the Houston area and have caused significant damage to the waters that Waterkeeper’s members use and enjoy,” the nonprofit’s filing states.

Waterkeeper’s July announcement was required by the Clean Water Act, which mandates that citizens or citizen groups planning to sue under the law give 60 days’ notice, in part to allow the EPA or its state counterparts to take their own actions.

See here for the background. This has been going on for a long time, and the city has been in negotiation for a resolution to this. How much it will all cost remains the big question. The one thing I can say for certain is that no one is going to like it. As a reminder, consider this:

Upon taking office in 2004, former mayor Bill White locked utility revenues into a dedicated fund, raised water rates 10 percent, tied future rates to inflation, and refinanced the debt. That was not enough to prevent the debt mountain from risking a utility credit downgrade by 2010, when former mayor Annise Parker took office, so she passed a 28 percent rate hike.

Remember how much some people bitched and moaned about that rate hike? Get ready to experience it all again.

“Viva Texas! Viva Beto!”

It’s been too long since the last time I posted a video.

It all came from a love of the law and a shared dislike of Ted Cruz.

It was a few bigwig local prosecutors, a capital defense attorney, a seasoned member of the Harris County Attorney’s Office and others who got together over the summer, hoping to unseat the junior senator from Texas – with their music. It was, they promised, not as outlandish as it seemed.

“Before John F. Kennedy the only person to ever defeat Lyndon Johnson for public office was Pappy Lee O’Daniel,” said Special Assistant County Attorney Terry O’Rourke.

“Pappy Lee beat Johnson by having a band and they went around to all these courthouses in Texas playing this song – ‘Pass the Biscuits Pappy’ – and Lyndon Johnson lost that election.”

Seeking to replicate that success, the legally-minded balladeers recorded three songs in support of Democratic candidate Beto O’Rourke, including ditties like “Viva Texas! Viva Beto!” – released on YouTube Saturday.

“We are part of the resistance, we’re it’s tonal dimension,” said David Mitcham, the Harris County District Attorney’s Office trial bureau chief and lead singer of what’s become the de facto in-house band for the DA’s office, Death by Injection.

But the new political rock gathering calls itself The Yellow Dog Howlers.

Here’s the video, in all its glory:

Well, it’s not The Altuve Polka or It’s A Ming Thing, but I give them an A for enthusiasm. And look, it’s not like anyone is gonna write a song about Ted Cruz.

And since they mentioned it, here’s Pass The Biscuits Pappy:

For sure, they don’t write ’em like that any more.

Distributing the VW settlement money

Good for some, less good for others.

Texas cities will soon get millions of dollars to help clean up air quality, but Houston officials say the plan for distributing all that money isn’t fair.

The money is coming from a settlement in the Volkswagen (VW) emissions cheating scandal. Local governments will be able to use the money to reduce emissions from their vehicles and other equipment.

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) plans to give the biggest chunk of the money – more than $73 million – to the San Antonio area, mainly because that city is closer than others to getting in line with federal pollution rules it’s currently violating.

Under the state’s plan, the Houston area, which has worse air quality, would get about $27 million.

The City of Houston says about a quarter of the cheating VW cars that were in Texas were driving in the Houston region.

“So we deserve at least a quarter of those funds, because we’re the ones that were harmed,” said Kris Banks, a government relations assistant with Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner’s office.

See here, here, and here for some background. Mayor Turner expressed his disenchantment with the amount allocated to Houston in a press release; you can see all of the city’s documentation on the matter here. The full TCEQ plan for the VW Environmental Mitigation Trust is here, or you can save yourself some time and read the Texas Vox summary of it. The TCEQ is still accepting feedback on the draft plan through October 8, so send them an email at VWsettle@tceq.texas.gov if you have comments. The Rivard Report has more.

Bring back the Comets

Jenny Dial Creech would like to see one more professional sports team in Houston.

As [Tina] Thompson — the league’s first No. 1 overall draft pick — was inducted into the [Naismith Basketball] Hall of Fame, we were all reminded that the Comets set the bar for greatness in the WNBA.

“The Comets were the impact,” Thompson told ESPN earlier this year. “They made people stand up and watch. They made skeptics of the league and its ability to survive into believers. Houston set a tone. It created awareness and excitement, like a curiosity of, ‘What’s going on over there in that league? What is it that everybody’s talking about?’ Not just in the state of Texas, but also in other states and other cities, because they wanted to kind of know what the fuss was about.”

The Comets were widely supported, averaging more than 11,000 fans per game in their first five years. Cooper, Swoopes, Thompson and their teammates were stars.

Since 2008, a passionate group of Comets supporters has clamored for the return of their beloved team. It’s not that easy, of course.

There doesn’t seem to be a WNBA expansion plan. And though one team, the Liberty, is for sale, the hope in New York is that the new buyer will keep the franchise there.

But even though there isn’t a clear answer to get a team to Houston, the city should jump at any chance to get one.

We were season ticket holders for the Comets from 2001 through their last season. They may have averaged 11K per game in the first five seasons, but it definitely dwindled after that. (I can’t find season by season totals on the internet, so you’ll have to trust my memory on this.) I’d say part of that is that Houston fans can be fickle, and part of it is that the team just wasn’t as good after Cynthia Cooper retired. The team started out with a superstar trio (Cooper, Swoopes, Thompson), and never found another high-level player. There’s only so good that a basketball team can be with two stars and a bunch of mostly interchangeable spare parts. I don’t know what the WNBA’s plans are for expansion in the near to medium term, but if and when that becomes a thing, bringing a Houston franchise back to the league should be a priority. If you don’t remember the Comets or just want a refresher on their history and how damn good they were for those first four years, this Undefeated story from 2016 has you covered.

Southwest Key sues city over permit for child detention warehouse

Screw them.

The Austin-based nonprofit trying to open a shelter to house migrant children east of downtown sued the city of Houston Friday, alleging a discriminatory, baseless and politically motivated campaign to prevent it from opening the facility.

Southwest Key Programs alleges in the lawsuit, filed in federal court in Houston, that the city is “manipulating” its permitting process, invalidating previously issued permits without due process and refusing to conduct inspections or issue new permits. The suit claims these actions are discriminatory based on some combination of the city’s opposition to federal immigration policies, interest in “political gain” or the race, color, national origin, ancestry, alienage or immigration status of the unaccompanied minors who would be housed there.

The lawsuit asks a court to grant Southwest Key monetary damages and declare that it can proceed with its plans to open the facility.

“The city of Houston has ignored its own regulations, and past practices, and has knowingly misrepresented the facts to the state of Texas to deny Southwest Key a license to open the facility,” Southwest Key said in a statement released Friday. “City officials bent the rules and broke the law for the sole purpose of advancing the mayor’s political agenda.”

[…]

“The city is only interested in the safety, security and well-being of children and will continue to enforce all building codes and regulations designed to accomplish that purpose,” Mayor Sylvester Turner said in a statement. “Southwest Key has repeatedly been asked to provide plans that meet existing building codes for the intended use of the facility at 419 Emancipation Street in Houston. They have failed to do so. Hopefully, they will realize that they are not exempt and must follow the rules like everyone else. We continue to wait for them to respond. In the meantime, we will review the pleading and respond accordingly.”

See here and here for the background, and here for the Mayor’s statement. I have no idea if Southwest Key’s claims have any validity, and to be honest I don’t care. Southwest Key can go fuck themselves.

Second look at Metro’s long range transit plan

Still a work in progress, but there’s beginning to be some focus.

Transit officials inched closer Wednesday to asking voters next year for up to $3 billion for two-way express bus service along many Houston freeways, along with a few more miles of light rail.

The first stop for a new transit vision, however, is additional communication with community groups before a more refined plan is approved by Metropolitan Transit Authority, which ultimately will need voter approval to build any of it.

“The target date is still November 2019,” Metro Chairwoman Carrin Patman said of a voter referendum.

During a Wednesday workshop discussing the regional transportation plan, dubbed MetroNEXT, Metro staff detailed a number of proposed projects, developed after months of public meetings during the past 18 months.

The consensus preferences from the meetings, Metro vice president of systems and capital planning Clint Harbert said, is “really taking what we do well and making these trips faster and more reliable.”

As a result, many of the projects rely on roads and freeways, rather than rail. Metro has spent most of the last two decades mired in light rail debates and construction.

Instead, the early draft of the plan – which still will undergo months of community input before it is approved next year – includes only 12 miles of light rail, extending the Red Line north to Tidwell and south to Hobby Airport and the Purple Line to Hobby Airport.

Meanwhile, more than 34 miles of bus rapid transit – using large buses along mostly lanes solely for bus use – would spread westward from downtown. One of the key lines follows much of the path of the proposed University Line, a long-dormant light rail project that has been one of Metro’s most contentious.

The major bus rapid transit corridor would connect Kashmere to downtown, then head west to Greenway Plaza and Westchase. It would have a key connection to the bus transit planned along Post Oak, now under construction.

See here for some background. This represents the least ambitious of the possible plans, and it’s a combination of what’s most doable and what’s least controversial. Nothing wrong with that, I just wish we lived in a world where those conditions allowed for something more expansive. Even at this level, I expect plenty of friction from the usual suspects. Getting the eventual referendum passed will take a lot of engagement. I look forward to doing an interview with Metro Chair Patman about the final version of this for that election.