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Space force!

Yippie.

Not the real Space Force

Gov. Greg Abbott wants the U.S. Space Force headquarters to be at Ellington Airport.

In a letter to President Donald Trump, Abbott said Texas has the universities and human capital needed to support a Space Force and pitched the location next door to NASA’s home for human spaceflight.

“Houston has supported the aerospace, aviation and defense industries for decades, giving it a workforce that can get the Space Command headquarters up and running as fast as possible,” he wrote.

[…]

“Houston, Texas, home of the Astros and the Rockets, has earned its ‘Space City’ nickname,” Abbott wrote. ” … I hope you will agree with me that the Space Command belongs in Space
City.”

Trump signed Space Policy Directive-4 on Feb. 19, calling on the secretary of defense to develop a legislative proposal establishing the Space Force as the sixth branch of the Armed Forces. The Space Force will initially be established within the Department of the Air Force.

The Department of Defense has since sent a bill to Congress. According to CNN, the bill seeks 200 people and $72 million to establish a headquarters for the Space Force.

On the one hand, I’m happy to have stuff come to Houston. If anyplace is appropriate for this, Ellington Field is. I just have a hard time taking the whole thing seriously. But hey, we’ll see.

It’s hard out here on a small theater company

It’s rough going in Houston right now.

Horse Head ended operations earlier this month. But it was far from an isolated case. Many other small theater companies in Houston are also fighting for survival, battling gentrification, donor apathy and increasingly competitive public grants.

In the past two years, one other professional company, 4th Wall Theatre, has announced its closure — before being rescued by a donor. Three others — Mildred’s Umbrella, Landing Theatre and Classical Theatre Co. — have been forced out from their homes. Established mid-tier theaters are seeing no growth. Rents inside the loop continue to rise, while revenue and fundraising have plateaued.

If theaters like these continue to shutter, it would be an enormous blow to the performing arts in Houston, leaving the scene without the vital second-rung of talent to supplement what’s available on the better-funded main stages. The trends have raised concerns among local artists.

“Small to mid-size companies can no longer survive in this climate,” said Matt Hune, artistic director of Rec Room, a theater in East Downtown founded in 2016. “We’re seeing dwindling or capped funding, while prices keep rising.”

Last December, Mildred’s Umbrella and Classical Theatre Company were forced out of their shared space in the Chelsea Market shopping center near the Museum District. The development was sold, to be torn down and replaced with high-end apartment complexes.

This has left both companies homeless, in a search for space. But the Midtown Arts & Theater Center Houston (MATCH), built in 2015 to address the need of Houston’s smaller galleries, music ensembles, dance companies and theater groups for affordable performance spaces, is at capacity. Studio 101 at Spring Street Studios, Mildred’s Umbrella’s former home, became too expensive after then-co-tenant 4th Wall Theatre temporarily shut down in 2017.

Local theaters sometimes help by renting out their spaces to other companies at a discount — the Alley Theatre is housing Mildred’s Umbrella’s performances for two weeks. But artists say they need a permanent solution.

“Inside the loop, there’s nothing affordable,” said Jennifer Decker, artistic director of Mildred’s Umbrella.

Obviously, the sharp rise in property values in what were once cheap inner-city areas is a problem for these theater companies, all of which operate on tight margins. Audience sizes haven’t been great lately, either – one theory I’ve heard is that the type of people who go to smaller and independent theater productions are also the type of people who have been spending a lot more time and energy on politics lately, with the decline in theater-going being a casualty of that. Perhaps that will turn out to be a cyclical thing. I agree with the view that having a thriving local theater scene is a big deal for a city’s overall quality of life and ability to attract high-end jobs. People who have a choice for where to live want to live someplace where there are lots of things to see and do, and especially in a city without natural attractions a strong arts scene is a critical component. There’s still plenty of donor money available for arts, but it tends to be very concentrated at the top. We need to figure out a way to spread the wealth around more, to find more places where theaters can be, and to just generally keep the scene healthy. It will be bad for us all if this ecosystem collapses.

Is the anti-sick leave bill also anti-equality?

Could be. Whose word do you take for it?

Sen. Brandon Creighton

What started as seemingly simple state legislation hailed as good for Texas businesses is drawing skepticism from legal experts and outrage from advocates worried it would strike employment protections and benefits for LGBTQ workers.

As originally filed, Senate Bill 15 by state Sen. Brandon Creighton, R-Conroe, would have prohibited cities from requiring that private companies offer paid sick leave and other benefits to their employees. It also created a statewide mandate preventing individual cities and counties from adopting local ordinances related to employment leave and paid days off for holidays. But it made clear that the bill wouldn’t override local regulations that prohibit employers from discriminating against their workers.

Yet, when Creighton presented SB 15 to the Senate State Affairs Committee, he introduced a reworked version — a last-minute move, some lawmakers said, that shocked many in the Capitol.

Among its changes: A provision was added to clarify that while local governments couldn’t force companies to offer certain benefits, business could do so voluntarily. But most notably, gone was the language that explicitly said the potential state law wouldn’t supersede local non-discrimination ordinances.

There’s widespread debate about what the revised language for the bill means. And the new version has left some legal experts and LGBTQ advocates concerned. Axing that language, they say, could undermine the enforceability of local anti-discrimination laws and allow businesses to selectively pick and choose which of its employees are eligible to receive benefits that go beyond monetary compensation.

“You could see an instance where an employer wanted to discriminate against employees who are in same-sex marriages and say, ‘Well, I will offer extra vacation time or sick leave to opposite sex couples, but I won’t offer those benefits if it’s for a same sex couple,” said Anthony Kreis, a visiting assistant professor at Chicago-Kent College of Law.

A spokesperson for Creighton said SB 15 was filed strictly as a response to local governments — like Austin and San Antonio — imposing “burdensome, costly regulations on Texas private businesses.”

“The bill is limited to sick leave, predictive scheduling and benefit policies,” Erin Daly Wilson, a spokesperson for the senator, said in a statement to The Texas Tribune. “The pro-business climate in Texas is something we have worked hard to promote, and need to protect.”

The anti-sick leave stuff is a bunch of BS to begin with, but it doesn’t address the core question. Does the wording of this bill undermine protection for LGBTQ employees that have been granted via local ordinances? Equality advocates think it may be interpreted that way.

“Millions of people are covered by nondiscrimination protections at the local level (and) stand to have those protections dramatically cut back,” said Cathryn Oakley, the state legislative director and senior counsel at the Human Rights Campaign.

[…]

When touting the legislation at business events, Abbott has focused on the paid sick leave aspect, saying such policies should be discretionary and not mandated by local government.

David Welch, a Houston resident and leader of the Texas Pastor Council, says the bill would create a uniform standard for businesses across the state.

“SB 15 is one step in reversing the continued march toward unequal rights with a hodgepodge of laws throughout hundreds of cities and counties having different laws, language and enforcement,” Welch said in a statement.

The council — which was a backer of the so-called bathroom bill last session — sued the city of Austin over its anti-discrimination ordinance in 2018.

Jessica Shortall, with the business coalition Texas Competes, said the group is still trying to understand the revised bill’s potential effect on cities’ anti-discrimination ordinances. Early analysis of the changes, Shortall said, suggest the “best case scenario is confusion, and worst case is opening a door” to eroding the local ordinances.

Equality Texas has highlighted SB15 as a threat. Who are you going to believe, the people on the sharp end of bills like this, or the people who have made it their life’s work to discriminate against LGBTQ people but are now trying to pretend that this bill they support has nothing to do with their ongoing crusade? If SB15 passes, how long do you think it will take the likes of Welch to file lawsuits to overturn other cities’ non-discrimination ordinances on the grounds that they are in conflict with it? Just look at the never-ending Pidgeon lawsuit for an example. These guys will never quit, and they will take every opening given to them. SB15 sure looks like an opening to me.

One more thing:

Creighton doesn’t intend to add the disclaimer back in at this time. But Rep. Craig Goldman, the Fort Worth Republican who is carrying the House’s companion bill, said he has no intention of stripping the clause reassuring cities their LGBT protections won’t be axed.

Fine by me if this is a point of dispute. Erica Greider has more.

We’re about to find out how much we’ll pay to fix Houston’s sewer system

Be prepared.

Houston would ramp up spending on its sewer system by $2 billion over 15 years under a proposed deal with state and federal regulators that is expected to produce higher water bills as soon as next year.

The Environmental Protection Agency has long been concerned that Houston’s cracked, clogged or flooded sewer pipes spill waste into yards and streets hundreds of times each year, contaminating local streams in violation of the Clean Water Act. Eighty percent of area waterways fall short of water quality standards for fecal bacteria.

Rather than sue the city over these long-running problems, the EPA initiated negotiations six years ago, hoping to produce a “consent decree” specifying projects and procedures Houston would use to reduce spills by upgrading pipes, improving maintenance and educating the public on how to avoid clogging the city’s more than 6,000 miles of sewers.

Mayor Sylvester Turner’s staff now are briefing City Council members on the terms of the proposal, which could reach a council vote in April. The mayor said in a brief interview Friday he wanted to speak with all council members before discussing details of the deal publicly, but four people who received the briefings confirmed the deal’s length and projected cost. EPA officials declined to comment.

How much residents’ water bills would rise remains hazy. The city will soon begin a rate study, as it does every five years, that will incorporate the consent decree and other factors and suggest new rates to take effect in July 2020. Turner said rates would stay well within EPA guidelines designed to avoid burdening poor residents, though a 2016 Houston Chronicle analysis showed significant rate hikes would still comply with that framework.

Councilman Greg Travis said he was told the decree would add 4 percent to rates each year of the agreement, resulting in a more than 70 percent increase by the end of the 15-year term. It’s unclear whether that figure included assumptions about inflation and population growth, which drive automatic rate increases each spring. Some other cities under comparable decrees, including San Antonio, will double their rates during their agreements.

Still, the mayor stressed that the projected overall cost of the deal is “substantially less” than the $5 billion to $7 billion the EPA was demanding in the Obama administration’s final year. City officials made an anti-regulation argument to the Trump administration — “You cannot run our city from D.C., and you can’t impose on us costs that the people themselves have to bear” — and it succeeded, Turner told the West Houston Association at a luncheon last week.

“We’ll finally move forward with something that’s in the best interest of the city of Houston, something that will not cost us nearly as much, and something I believe will be the best deal that any city has received anywhere in the country,” Turner told the crowd.

See here and here for the background. This is what happens when maintenance is deferred for too long, though as noted in my earlier link, both Mayors White and Parker took steps to address the problem. Just please keep in mind that this is a problem of very long standing, and it’s one that affects us all, though it most definitely affects some more than others. And if you hear anyone complain about the forthcoming hike in water rates, please feel free to ask them what level of fecal bacteria in their water is acceptable to them, and how much they would pay to mitigate that.

No DNC for Houston

Alas.

Democratic National Committee officials announced Monday that the party’s 2020 convention would take place in Milwaukee.

The announcement is a setback for Houston, which was a final contender to host the convention. Miami was also on the short list.

Houston Democratic insiders who were pushing for the convention have said the city’s convention center and hotel space were indisputable strengths. But ultimately, the selection of Milwaukee was the decision of one person: DNC Chairman Tom Perez.

It also is an indicator of a Democratic party that is attempting to take back a state it lost in the 2016 presidential campaign.

[…]

The Harris County Democratic Party released a statement Monday morning congratulating Milwaukee Democrats and expressing disappointment at getting passed over.

“We’d like to thank everyone who worked so hard to showcase the unparalleled diversity and culture of our hometown,” the statement read. “Texas is a battleground state and our 38 electoral votes will change the roadmap to winning the White House.”

See here for the last update. This was the safe choice, and as of recent days seemed to be what everyone was expecting. For obvious reasons, I would have preferred Houston, but it is what it is and I can understand the decision. Better luck next time, I suppose.

Firefighter layoffs

Hoo boy.

Mayor Sylvester Turner plans to lay off up to 400 firefighters as he prepares to award pay raises required by Proposition B, the voter-approved charter amendment that grants firefighters the same pay as police of corresponding rank, according to five Houston City Council members who were briefed on the plan Thursday.

The apparent move to fully implement the pay parity measure comes after talks between the city and fire union about phasing in the raises over five or more years became strained last week. Meanwhile, city officials are preparing council members for the difficult task of closing a $197 million deficit in the annual budget that must be adopted for the upcoming July 1 fiscal year. About $80 million of that budget gap comes from the firefighters’ raises, council members were told.

In addition to the firefighter layoffs, Turner will seek to close the deficit by asking all city departments to cut their budgets by at least 3 percent, a move that is likely to require layoffs of, perhaps, 100 municipal workers, the council members said. Councilwoman Brenda Stardig said she was told no police officers will be laid off.

On May 9, Turner’s administration plans to issue back pay to firefighters retroactive to Jan. 1, which will total about $30 million, multiple council members said.

“So, basically, on May 9 you want to be hanging out near a firefighter because he’s going to be buying,” said Councilman Greg Travis. “He’s going to have a lot of money on that day.”

The city plans to mail layoff notices to firefighters within weeks, Travis said. Among the layoffs are 68 fire cadets who Turner has declined to promote amid a citywide hiring freeze than has spanned more than five months. The mayor nonetheless promoted more than 60 police cadets Monday.

The fire cadets filed grievances against Turner Thursday alleging that the mayor was discriminating and retaliating against them.

[…]

Turner, who repeatedly has warned of potential layoffs, told reporters his hands were tied because the charter amendment did not come with a funding mechanism. He also said the fire union rejected a city proposal to phase in pay raises. That offer did not appear to fully implement the charter amendment over the city’s proposed five-year window, falling short of increases in incentive pay that the finance department projects would be necessary to reach full parity.

“People want to put the administration in a box,” Turner said. “If you don’t implement Prop. B, people criticize you for not implementing Proposition B. When we move to implement Prop. B, people say, ‘We don’t want the layoffs.’ Well, you can’t have it both ways.”

During negotiations, the firefighters proposed to phase in Prop. B raises over three years, retroactive to July 1, 2018. The raises then would be distributed based on firefighters’ length of service, with all members reaching full parity by July 1, 2020.

No one can say they didn’t see this coming. One of the main arguments against Prop B was the cost, which would inevitably lead to layoffs because the vast majority of the city’s expenditures are personnel costs. It seems a little crazy that there wasn’t a way to agree to a phase in to avoid any drastic actions, but here we are. Note that the city has very limited capacity to raise revenues thanks to the stupid and harmful revenue cap, and the city is not allowed to run a deficit. That severely restricts options, and that’s the place we are in now. We’ve been through this before, back in 2010 when then-Mayor Parker faced a huge deficit caused by the downturn in the economy. She wound up laying off hundred of municipal employees. Police and firefighters were exempted from that, but this time it’s the firefighter pay parity referendum that is driving a big part of the deficit. Where should the cuts come from this time? You tell me.

One uncertainty appeared to stem from differences in educational requirements between the departments. For example, police officers must have a master’s degree to be promoted to assistant police chief, a stipulation that does not exist for assistant fire chiefs and fire marshals. Some firefighters may receive reduced raises due to the differing requirements, multiple council members said, explaining why the latest cost estimate of $80 million falls more than $30 million below Turner’s previous estimate.

There is speculation this will lead to a lawsuit. I’ve expected that from the beginning. And I fully expect it will still be litigated the next time the Mayor is on the ballot in 2023.

What’s wrong with the I-45 expansion plan?

Urban planner Jeff Speck, in a recent lecture in Houston, lays out the following problems with the planned I-45 expansion:

The brief list of negatives include:

I-45 will wreck your bayou parks.
I-45 will destroy wildlife habitat.
I-45 will make flooding worse.
I-45will impede neighborhood connectivity and access.
I-45 will reduce city revenues.
I-45’s bike facilities are a cruel joke.
I-45’s caps are not likely to succeed.
I-45 is so much money.

Other than that, though, I’m sure it’s fine. Chron writer Allyn West digs a little deeper into that last point.

In 2012, Houstonians were asked to vote on a $166 million proposition to pay for 150 miles of greenways along our bayous. In 2018, Harris County residents were asked to vote on a $2.5 billion proposition to pay for hundreds of projects that would help the entire region with flood control. This year, Metro says it will ask us to vote on a $3 billion proposition to pay for 20 miles of light rail extensions, 75 miles of bus rapid transit and other “systemwide improvements.”

The Texas Department of Transportation, too, is planning to spend $7 billion (and maybe more than that) to rebuild about 24 miles of freeways. The project will reshape roads between Midtown and Beltway 8, some of the most congested stretches in Texas, by merging Interstate 45 with Interstate 69 and rerouting them together northwest around downtown. Unlike with those greenways, flood projects or transit plans, TxDOT never had to ask permission from voters.

Because TxDOT doesn’t have to do that, its massive projects often ignore the reality of people on the ground — the thousands of Houstonians whose neighborhoods will be impacted both directly and indirectly as a result of the I-45 expansion.

“There has never been the same (political) pressure for specificity for highway projects,” Kyle Shelton, the transportation historian and the director of strategic partnerships at Rice University’s Kinder Institute for Urban Research, told me. Unlike transit, for example, freeways have historically been viewed and funded as a “public good.”

It should be noted that the city, the county, and Metro were and will be asking voters to authorize borrowing the money needed for those projects. Had they been funded out of their operating budgets, no vote would have been needed. The point West is making is that this makes the politics of these projects very different. TxDOT starts out with the assumption that it can do whatever it wants, as long as it goes through the regulatory approval process. TxDOT is required to solicit public feedback, and they do incorporate that into their designs, but it’s a lot harder to drum up public opposition and basically impossible to kill whatever it is they’re working on. That’s the nature of the system. It’s worth pausing for a moment and thinking about how the system might be different if, say, TxDOT and Metro – and we may as well throw in HCTRA and the other toll road authorities around the state – had identical hurdles to clear in order to build anything. I don’t know what that might look like, but it’s fair to say it would be different.

In the meantime, the final environmental impact statement for the I-45 project is now available on the project website. You have one last chance to give your feedback to TxDOT on it, so get moving before the 17th of March. Speck’s video will be available on the Kinder Institute YouTube channel, so go watch it when you can.

Turner officially announces his re-election bid

And he’s off.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner made it official Wednesday, launching his re-election campaign for Houston’s top elected office.

Turner announced the news in a 96-second video that appeared on a revamped campaign website, where the mayor also posted notice of a formal kickoff event March 30 at Minute Maid Park.

Election Day is Nov. 5.

Though observers say Turner is the odds-on favorite to win, several politically challenging issues have emerged that could hinder his re-election chances.

Early opponents Bill King, a businessman who narrowly lost to Turner in 2015, and Tony Buzbee, a millionaire attorney, have each taken aim at the mayor over his long-running wage dispute with firefighters. They also have criticized Turner for the city’s recent problems with trash pickup, and levied charges that political donors hold too much sway over City Hall, a notion the mayor denies.

Recently, Turner lost the support of Houston’s largest teachers’ union over the firefighter compensation issue, which now revolves around the city’s slow implementation of Proposition B, a voter-approved charter amendment that grants firefighters the same pay as police officers of corresponding status.

Still, Turner heads into re-election with a multi-million-dollar war chest, according to a January campaign finance report, and a tangible record that he can cite on the campaign trail. That includes a landmark overhaul of Houston’s pension systems, a topic Turner highlighted in his announcement video.

I support Mayor Turner and will vote for him. I’ll stipulate that his first two years, when he pushed pension reform through the Lege, were a lot better than the year-plus since then. The passage of Prop B has done him no favors, but that’s the hand he’s been dealt and he needs to bring it to a resolution. That has also not been the only issue, so to whatever extent one wants to blame Prop B for the rocky road he’s been on, he’d still be bumping around without it. He’s lucky that Tony Buzbee is a joke, and Bill King has nothing to run on now that pension reform has been passed, but that only gets him so far. Sylvester Turner is a smart man, a sharp politician, and a Mayor who has shown he can get things done. He can get himself back on track, and he needs to get going on that. People aren’t really paying attention now, but they are forming impressions. He needs to give them some more good ones.

Senate presents disaster relief bills

Better late than never, though why they’re late remains a subject of interest.

More than a year and a half after Hurricane Harvey ravaged the state, Texas Senate leaders announced a $1.8 billion trio of disaster relief bills on Wednesday that they said would create “a roadmap to prepare our state for future hurricanes and natural disasters.”

The legislation — Senate Bill 6Senate Bill 7 and Senate Bill 8 — would require the Texas Department of Emergency Management to create a disaster response plan for local officials, direct the state’s water planning agency to devise a statewide flood plan and create a “resiliency fund” to support flood projects.

Flanked by senators who represent Harvey-impacted districts, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick acknowledged at a Capitol news conference that storm-ravaged communities have been waiting for a long time to see what the state might do to help them recover. But Patrick and the senators who authored the bills emphasized in their Wednesday remarks that the result was the product of “a lot of thought and input” and is the best possible outcome.

“We said at the time [of the storm] we would dedicate ourselves to helping people rebuild their homes, their businesses, their communities and do all we could to mitigate,” Patrick said.

[…]

Sen. Brandon Creighton, a Conroe Republican who authored SB 7, which would create the flood infrastructure fund, described the package as the “most comprehensive, forward-reaching approach that any state has offered following a disaster.”

His bill is the most expensive of the three. It would withdraw $900 million from the state’s historically flush Economic Stabilization Fund to help local officials put up the so-called “matching dollars” they’ll need to draw down billions more in federal recovery funds.

That’s far less than the $1.3 billion that Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner has asked for on behalf of all 55 Harvey-impacted counties to help with local matching funds. He has said that would draw down another $11 billion in federal dollars for debris removal, for repairs of storm-battered government facilities, and to harden public and private structures so they can better withstand future storms.

A similar bill Creighton filed in early February would allocate $3 billion from the state’s emergency savings account for the fund. But he said in an interview after the news conference that the total price tag of the projects local communities have told the state they want to complete is less than that.

Sen. Larry Taylor, a Friendswood Republican who also spoke at Wednesday’s news conference, said about $200 million of the $900 million allocated under SB 7 would go to draw down federal funds for a multibillion-dollar project to construct nearly 27 miles of coastal levees in southern Orange County and to shore up nearly 30 miles of existing coastal levees in Port Arthur and Freeport. That project is a significant component of a larger coastal protection system that local officials and scientists have long envisioned to safeguard the state from deadly storm surges during hurricanes.

We can certainly debate whether or not there should have been a special session to get all this done. For now, this is what is on the table. I’m going to wait and see what the experts have to say about these bills before I draw any conclusions. Feel free to chime in if you have opinions already.

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.

What can you legally wear when you go to vote?

That’s the subject of a lawsuit involving voters from Houston and Dallas.

A Houston woman who was forced to turn a firefighters T-shirt inside out at the polls and a Dallas-area man who tried to vote in his Trump MAGA cap are suing a long list of public officials in federal court here for violating their free speech rights.

The lawsuit comes in the wake of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in June invalidating a Minnesota law that banned voters from displaying “issue oriented” apparel at the polls. The case filed in Houston federal court Thursday on behalf of two Texas voters was brought by the Pacific Legal Foundation, a California-based nonprofit advocacy group that won the free speech victory in the Minnesota case.

The conservative foundation wants a Houston judge to overturn the Texas law that restricts what people can wear when they vote. Texas is one of several states that still have clothing restrictions on the books. The concern is not just that voters won’t feel free to express themselves, but also that enforcement by poll workers will be “arbitrary and erratic.”

Douglas Ray, an special assistant overseeing election issues at the Harris County Attorney’s Office. said the county will defend itself but Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton — who was also sued — will likely take the lead. County officials last dealt with this issue in 2010, when voters showed up at the polls with Obama-related gear, Ray said. President Barack Obama was not on the ballot, but several measures that reflected his policies were, he said.

“What we tell the election judge is they have the power to adjudicate when they think electioneering is going on and when it’s not,” said Ray. “We tell them to make that determination based on a totality of the circumstances and if it’s consistent with advocacy for somebody or some party that’s on the ballot.”

In the case of the firefighters shirts, Ray acknowledged the county was aware the shirts caused friction at the polls. “We had a lot of trouble with that during the last election because there were people wearing these yellow shirts with red lettering that said ‘Vote for Prop B’ but they were almost identical to a shirt that just said ‘Houston Fire Fighters.’”

He said the shirts had the same colors, logo and lettering but one had “Vote for Prop B” and one didn’t. The county attorney’s office advised election judges that the yellow shirts were problematic if they said something specific about voting.

“But that is just advice,” Ray said. “The election judge in that situation makes the adjudication.”

[…]

The Texas law is more specific than the Minnesota one that the Supreme Court addressed last year, which could help or hurt the case, according to David Coale, a constitutional law expert at Lynn Pinker Cox & Hurst in Dallas. The Minnesota law prohibited voters from wearing political badges, buttons or other political insignia to the polls, while Texas law prohibits inside or within 100 feet of the voting site the wearing of badges, insignia, emblems representing any a candidate, measure or political party appearing on the ballot or to the conduct of the election.

“The Supreme Court said it was a legitimate state interest to have a polling place free of distracting political activity. But by doing so, it still requires the election official to make judgment calls about what ‘relates to’ the election…and also means that the official can get it wrong,” Coale said. “The argument that a ‘MAGA’ hat ‘relates to’ the subject of this election is not a strong one. I think that is why the Pacific Foundation focused on this case as its test case, to get some law made on how far away from the specific subject of an election you can be and still ‘relate to’ it.”

There are always going to be some issues when you are relying on individual election judges to exercise their own judgment in interpreting election law. We see plenty of examples of this every year with the voter ID law and whether or not the name on their ID matches what’s on their voter registration card. Restricting what is allowed at the polling place is much more fraught than that. Wherever a line is drawn for what is acceptable, there will be cases right on that line where reasonable people may disagree. I have a certain amount of sympathy for these plaintiffs, but I don’t know that it adds up to enough weight to warrant throwing out the existing law. I suspect the courts will say that it does, but we’ll see.

Same sex employee benefits lawsuit tossed again

This is great, but as always that’s not the end of it.

The lawsuit dates back to 2013, when pastor Jack Pidgeon and accountant Larry Hicks sued the city to end the policy. In 2015, after the U.S. Supreme Court handed down the landmark Obergefell ruling that opened up marriage rights to same-sex couples in all states, Pidgeon and Hicks continued to pursue the lawsuit, arguing that the decision did not extend to the right to city spousal benefits.

In June 2017, the Texas Supreme Court agreed, ruling unanimously that while same-sex marriage had been made legal, there is still room for state courts to explore the “reach and ramifications” of the landmark Obergefell ruling. The all-Republican high court sent the case back to a Houston trial court for further consideration.

Nearly two years later, Judge Sonya Heath on Monday threw out the case, ruling for Houston in what the city has touted as a major win.

“This is a victory for equality, the law of our nation and human rights,” Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said in a statement Thursday evening. “I thank our Legal Department for its diligent work defending common sense and fairness, and I’m glad we get to continue the policy established by the city 6 years ago.”

Still, that win won’t go unchallenged. Jared Woodfill, the lawyer who represents Pidgeon and Hicks, said Thursday night that his clients will appeal the ruling — and that he expects the case to land again before the Texas Supreme Court and that it could eventually be decided by the U.S. Supreme Court.

See here, here, and here for some background. There’s a bunch of blathering by Jared Woodfill in the story about how unfair it was that a Democratic judge, who ousted the Republican judge that originally gave him an injunction that was quickly overridden, got to rule on his case, while also gloating that Republican judges up the line and on SCOTUS will surely be in the bag for him. He failed to mention that the only reason this case is still being litigated is because the State Supreme Court bowed to political pressure after initially giving him the brushoff. I don’t know what will happen in this case once the appeals process starts up again, but I do know two things. One is that Woodfill and his crank case plaintiffs represent a shrinking fringe, and two is that we need to win more elections so we can pass some more robust laws protecting the fundamental rights of all Americans. (Honestly, just ensuring that no more bad legislation gets passed would be a big step forward.) Mayor Turner’s press release has more.

Skilling officially sprung

There he goes.

Jeffrey K. Skilling, the former Enron CEO who spent the past 12 years in prison for his role in masterminding one of most notorious corporate fraud cases in history, was released from federal custody on Thursday, the Bureau of Prisons said.

In August, Skilling was released to a halfway house at an undisclosed location from a minimum security federal prison camp in Alabama.

Enron’s collapse cost investors billions of dollars and wiped out the retirement savings and jobs of thousands of employees. Skilling, 65, was convicted of 12 counts of securities fraud, five counts of making false statements to auditors, one count of insider trading and one count of conspiracy in 2006 for his role in hiding debt and orchestrating a web of financial fraud that ended in the Houston company’s bankruptcy.

He was sentenced to 24 years in prison and fined $45 million, the harshest sentence of any former Enron executive. Six years ago, Skilling’s sentence was reduced to 14 years by U.S. District Judge Sim Lake.

See here for more on Skilling’s release to the halfway house last year. One of the conditions of his release then was that he had to get a job, but I’m not able to find any information about what that might have been. If he eventually winds up on the speaking circuit like Andy Fastow, I won’t be surprised. In the meantime, I don’t know what there is to make of this news. He did his time and now he’s out, and we’re all that much older. I wonder how long it will be before we see his name in the news again.

City proposes partial pay raise to firefighters

Progress, of a sort.

Houston officials have offered to raise firefighters’ base salaries, but not sufficiently to establish pay parity with police officers as approved by voters, city and firefighter union officials said Wednesday.

“In my mind, the proposal makes no effort to implement Prop B,” union attorney Troy Blakeney said, referring to the ballot item reflecting a city charter amendment approved in a Nov. 6 referendum. “It makes an effort to pay firefighters additional salaries that do not include all the components of Prop B.”

The proposal nonetheless marks the first evident progress made since Mayor Sylvester Turner met last month with Blakeney and Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association President Marty Lancton to discuss Proposition B, which compels the city to pay firefighters the same as police of equal rank and seniority.

City Attorney Ron Lewis confirmed the city had made an offer, but neither he nor Blakeney disclosed the amount.

Still, it was clear Wednesday that Turner and Lancton remain far from an agreement to phase in the raises over time. Both say they support that idea, with Turner arguing the city cannot afford to instantly implement Proposition B.

Lancton told reporters Wednesday that the city’s legal efforts to invalidate the proposition, based on the argument that it is unconstitutional, are hampering negotiations.

“He appears to be a victim of his own ego,” Lancton said of the mayor. “His relentless political and legal war on Houston firefighters and their families must end.”

Turner has said the firefighters’ decision Jan. 15 to seek a court order compelling the city to implement the proposition has similarly soured negotiations. Lancton has said the city should already be paying firefighters because the proposition became law nearly three months ago, which is why the union sought the court order.

See here for some background. At this point, I don’t have anything new to say. I don’t know how this ends and I don’t know how long it will take to get there. If we’re still fighting about this in the next city elections in 2023, I won’t be surprised.

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.

2020 DNC update

Houston remains in the running, but who knows how this will go.

Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez is choosing among Houston, Miami and Milwaukee. In recent weeks, some Democrats have privately suggested Milwaukee would get the nod, and a sense of finality set in once the DNC in December paid what were billed as the last visits to each city before a decision was made.

[…]

Houston, the nation’s fourth-largest city, has few logistical concerns given its big-event capability put on display as recently as the Super Bowl in 2017.

But Houston must prove it can collect the private financing to put on the convention, according to multiple Democrats with knowledge of the negotiations who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the talks candidly. The primary reason for the potential shortfall: Democratic officials asked the bid committee to come up with the money without tapping the oil and gas industry, which has long fueled the city’s economy but has become anathema to the Democratic base as climate change becomes a high-profile issue.

That’s a source of frustration for some Texans.

“Milwaukee’s being funded by Wall Street,” said an exasperated Texas Democratic Chairman Gilberto Hinojosa, a reference to the corporate money that is always a part of both major parties’ conventions.

Houston also has a lingering labor and wage dispute between Mayor Sylvester Turner and the city’s firefighters. A top Democratic official said the party is loath to risk negative media coverage that could harm a presidential nominee who will be heavily dependent on public- and private-sector organized labor — particularly in key Midwest battleground states that delivered President Donald Trump’s victory in 2016.

See here for the most recent update. Obviously, I think Houston is the best choice, but the article makes it sound like Milwaukee is the frontrunner. I’ll grant that people from cooler climes will be less likely to melt on the sidewalk there than here, but come on. Just stay inside and use the tunnels, it’ll be fine. Anyway, I’m sure we’ll know soon enough.

There is no longer a ban on federal funds for rail on Richmond

This is about as bittersweet as it gets.

Rep. Lizzie Fletcher

There are no plans to build light rail on Richmond, but for the first time in a long time there is nothing stopping Metro from asking for federal funds to help pay for it.

The federal spending bill signed Friday by President Donald Trump, averting a government shutdown, lacks a provision in previous funding plans barring the Federal Transit Administration from funding any part of light rail on Richmond or Post Oak.

The provision was added at least eight years ago by former Rep. John Culberson, R-Houston, a fervent opponent of rail plans in the 7th District. Culberson, a member of the House Appropriations Committee that set up the spending bills, added language forbidding use of federal money to “advance in any way a new light or heavy rail project … if the proposed capital project is constructed on or planned to be constructed on Richmond Avenue west of South Shepherd Drive or on Post Oak Boulevard north of Richmond Avenue.”

He was defeated in November by Rep. Lizzie Fletcher, who said last month she aimed to be an advocate for transit.

Friday, she said in a statement she worked with lawmakers “to remove language in the bill that created unnecessary barriers and limited federal funding from coming to Houston for much-needed transportation improvements. Removal of this language will put the power to make decisions about our transit back in the hands of Houstonians.”

This is great, and it’s quite an achievement for Rep. Fletcher to get this done in only her second month in office. It’s just that in a more fair and just universe, we’d already have the Universities line built and would maybe be talking about extending it as part of the 2019 MetroNext referendum, while eagerly looking forward to the forthcoming Uptown BRT line as the completion of the original system. I know, it’s fashionable now to say that we should be wary about investing large sums of money into fixed infrastructure projects like this because driverless cars are coming and will solve all of our problems. My point is we could be celebrating the ten-year anniversary of this line – the Main Street line just turned 15 years old, in case you forgot to send it a birthday card – with millions of passengers having ridden it over that span. People often talk about how the time to have built rail in Houston was years ago. Well, we were on the verge of doing just that following the 2003 election, but politics, shortsightedness, NIMBYism, and the incompetence and mismanagement of the Metro CEO and Board following that election killed this key part of it off. I salute and thank Rep. Fletcher for keeping her word. I just mourn that it comes too late to deliver what had once been promised to us.

Once again with Booker T

On the one hand, I admire what he’s trying to do. On the other hand, I completely disagree with how he’s going about it.

Booker T

Pro wrestler Booker T. Huffman is in a real fight to actualize his run for mayor of Houston.

His announcement in 2016 might have been met with skepticism — oh, another entertainer without a background in politics says he has the answers? — but Huffman, 53, thought he could relate to underrepresented voters and approach policymaking from their perspective because he knows what it means to face the same challenges.

Part of his inspiring life story involves a turnaround after his 1987 felony conviction for armed robbery. He had pleaded guilty, earned his release after serving 19 months of a five-year sentence, and then began a decades-long career in pro wrestling that culminated with an induction into the WWE Hall of Fame.

Huffman trains more than 40 pro wrestlers at Booker T World Gym Arena in Texas City, commands nearly 2.5 million followers on social media and is slated to be a pre-show TV host at WWE’s pay-per-view event Elimination Chamber on Sunday at Toyota Center.

Nothing about Huffman’s success suggests he feels held back by the crime and punishment he had experienced, but more than 30 years later, it is why he cannot get on the ballot. The Texas Election Code and a Houston ordinance use language that has been interpreted to mean felons are allowed to re-register to vote, but they cannot run for political office.

Huffman described his criminal record as a dirt pile no broom can clear.

“I have to be totally clean,” Huffman said.

See here and here for some background on Booker T. As the story notes, he could challenge the Houston ordinance in court to get on the ballot. A candidate for City Council in Austin in 2018 did that successfully, with the Austin City Attorney agreeing with him rather than fighting him in court. For the record, I support Booker T’s efforts on the merits. Felons who complete their sentences should be allowed full participation in all aspects of society, which very much includes voting and running for office. The Houston ordinance, as well as the state law, should be challenged and either defeated or voluntarily changed. It’s the right thing to do.

That doesn’t mean that I want to see Booker T run for Mayor. He’s not qualified for the job and he can’t win (*), though his presence on the ballot would make it easier for Bill King to win. I would strongly encourage Booker T to run instead for City Council, which would accomplish his stated goal of being an example of how someone can rise above and succeed in a system that is stacked against them just as well, while also being an office that’s far more suitable for a first-time candidate. I’m sorry, but after 2016 I have zero patience for unqualified candidates, especially unqualified celebrity candidates, running for powerful executive offices. Participating in the process is great, but it’s on all of us to take it seriously. There are many ways to be an effective and influential member of the political system that do not involve competing for an office you have no business being elected to.

(*) – Tony Buzbee is also unqualified for Mayor and can’t win. We wouldn’t pay any attention to him if he wasn’t rich enough to spend a bunch of money on his vanity project. The only good thing about him is that he will siphon votes away from Bill King. Which is still not a valid reason for him to run.

Superintendent search will continue

For the time being, at least.

Houston ISD’s pursuit of a permanent superintendent will continue after trustees rejected a motion Thursday to suspend the search amid a recently launched state investigation into potential violations of open meetings laws.

Trustees voted 5-3 to continue the search for a permanent leader to replace former superintendent Richard Carranza, who left the district in March 2018 to become chancellor of New York City public schools. Three trustees who favored suspending the effort argued the district cannot attract qualified candidates with the looming threat of sanctions tied to the state investigation, while the five opponents argued the district should push forward despite the inquiry.

“I promised my community that I would do a superintendent search, and that’s what I’m following.” said HISD Board President Diana Dávila, who voted against suspending the search.

[…]

The three trustees who supported suspending the search — Wanda Adams, Jolanda Jones and Rhonda Skillern-Jones — have all advocated for permanently retaining Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan, arguing she has proven her ability to lead the district.

The trio of trustees have been highly critical of five board members who secretly communicated with former HISD superintendent Abelardo Saavedra, then voted in October 2018 to replace Lathan with Saavedra. Allegations of open meetings act violations by the five trustees who spoke to Saavedra triggered a special accreditation agency investigation by the Texas Education Agency. The five trustees have denied wrongdoing.

Supporters of suspending the search argued the potential for severe sanctions tied to the investigation will limit the pool of candidates willing to jump to HISD. If state officials order the replacement of the HISD board, new trustees could immediately replace the freshly hired superintendent.

“I cannot imagine that a highly qualified candidate who is rational and sane would come here in the face of uncertainty, when they may not have a job soon,” Skillern-Jones said.

The five trustees who voted against the motion Thursday — Dávila, Holly Maria Flynn Vilaseca, Sergio Lira, Elizabeth Santos and Anne Sung — have pushed for a nationwide search. Trustee Sue Deigaard, who previously supported giving Lathan a short-term contract and simultaneously conducting a nationwide search, abstained from Thursday’s vote, telling her colleagues she is “not going to be part of this divide anymore.”

“We all need to figure this out and not continue to be divisive on this subject,” Deigaard said.

I mean, as a matter of principle it’s generally a good idea to search far and wide for the best candidate. Under normal circumstances, the HISD job is pretty plum – it’s a big district with a good financial foundation and a lot of high-performing schools, and more than one former Superintendent has gone on to bigger things. For obvious reasons, the job isn’t quite as attractive right now – the search firm says the potential of a TEA takeover has been mentioned by numerous candidates. There’s a good case to be made for Trustee Deigaard’s position of extending Superintendent Lathan for now, and resuming the search later, say in a year or so, when the immediate issues have been clarified, if not resolved. One can also reasonably argue that with so much on the line right now, it’s wiser to leave the Superintendent in place who has been doing the work to get the four schools that need to meet standards up to those standards. By all accounts, the current program for bringing the schools in need up to standard has been working well. I don’t know enough to say that I’d support making Superintendent Lathan permanent at this time, but I’d definitely support keeping her in place for the near term and revisiting the question at a later date. As I’ve said before about all things HISD, I sure hope this works out. The Press has more.

Back to court for Prop B

Here we go again.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Lawyers for Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner filed a motion Friday afternoon seeking to declare Proposition B invalid, contending the voter-approved referendum supporting pay parity for firefighters violates Texas law.

The move is the latest in an extended legal battle between the city and firefighters over the November ballot measure requiring the city to pay firefighters the same as police of equal rank and seniority.

[…]

The city’s motion claims that Proposition B is illegal under the Texas Local Government Code and the Texas Constitution, an allegation the city previously made in December.

The filing is notable, though, because Turner has said he hopes to negotiate a plan with the fire union to phase in pay parity over a number of years, arguing the city cannot find the funds to do so immediately.

His efforts to again invalidate the charter amendment altogether appear to cast doubt on whether both sides can ultimately reach an agreement. Though Turner has said “those conversations are taking place,” neither side has indicated they have made any tangible progress since [firefighters union president Marty] Lancton and Turner met publicly in January.

The day before that meeting, the union sought a court order aiming to force the city to enact parity, a move Turner questioned at the time. Lancton, skeptical of Turner’s sincerity in offering the meeting, said the city’s inaction had forced the union’s hand, while Turner said the union should not have gone to the courthouse on the eve of the meeting.

Here’s the Mayor’s press release, which you can take however you want. I’m mostly noting this for the record, because as far as I can tell there’s no legal impediment at this time to proceeding with Prop B, a subject that I’m sure will continue to arise. The one thing I find surprising is that so far no individual voters have filed a lawsuit over the wording of the ballot referendum. It seems like every other one we’ve had in recent memory has faced litigation over that, some more credible than others, so it’s a little odd to me that this referendum hasn’t had that same experience. Just a though.

January 2019 finance reports: HISD

Odd-numbered years mean three types of elections in Houston – city, HISD, and HCC. We’ve looked at the finance reports for city candidates, now let’s have a look at the reports for HISD trustees, which I’ve separated into those up for election this year and those not up till 2021.

Rhonda Skillern-Jones, District II
Sergio Lira, District III
Jolanda Jones, District IV
Diana Davila, District VII

Elizabeth Santos, District I
Sue Deigaard, District V
Holly Flynn Vilaseca, District VI
Anne Sung, District VII
Wanda Adams, District IX


Name              Raised    Spent    Loan  On Hand
==================================================
Skillern-Jones         0    2,104       0      291
Lira               2,165      229       0    6,007
Jones                  0        0       0   12,259
Davila                 0        0  19,178        0

Santos                 0      452       0    4,354
Deigaard               0      848       0    6,634
Vilaseca               0      688       0    3,818
Sung                   0      308       0    5,290
Adams                  0    2,088       0      238

Pretty boring, I’m afraid. Diana Davila left her “cash on hand” field blank, so I don’t know for a fact that she has zero on hand; she may have some amount of that $19K loan available. I don’t know why Rhonda Skillern-Jones has so little on hand. That may be an indicator that she could choose to step down rather than run for a third term. I’m just speculating here, but given the constant state of turmoil on the Board and the current threat of TEA takeover, it’s not ridiculous to postulate this. I do know that Wanda Adams had put her name in for consideration for the nomination for Justice of the Peace in Precinct 7, Place 1 (to fill the vacancy left after the March primary by the resignation of Hilary Green), though she did not get it. I want to stress again, this is just me thinking out loud, I have no direct evidence of what Skillern-Jones may be contemplating.

Having said all that, as far as we know at this point these four Trustees are running for re-election, and no potential opponents had filed finance reports for this deadline. You find Trustee finance reports on their individual Trustee pages (here’s the Board index page). Later in the cycle when there are formal opponents, there’s usually a separate page with the reports for the Trustees who are running and their opponents, as well as any candidates for open seats if such exist. As we’ve discussed many times before, who even knows if we’ll have Trustee elections this November. Until we know otherwise, I’ll report on their finance reports.

The Southern Baptist Convention’s sexual abuse problems

Some excellent longform reporting from the Chron, with more to come.

Thirty-five years later, Debbie Vasquez’s voice trembled as she described her trauma to a group of Southern Baptist leaders.

She was 14, she said, when she was first molested by her pastor in Sanger, a tiny prairie town an hour north of Dallas. It was the first of many assaults that Vasquez said destroyed her teenage years and, at 18, left her pregnant by the Southern Baptist pastor, a married man more than a dozen years older.

In June 2008, she paid her way to Indianapolis, where she and others asked leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention and its 47,000 churches to track sexual predators and take action against congregations that harbored or concealed abusers. Vasquez, by then in her 40s, implored them to consider prevention policies like those adopted by faiths that include the Catholic Church.

“Listen to what God has to say,” she said, according to audio of the meeting, which she recorded. “… All that evil needs is for good to do nothing. … Please help me and others that will be hurt.”

Days later, Southern Baptist leaders rejected nearly every proposed reform.

The abusers haven’t stopped. They’ve hurt hundreds more.

In the decade since Vasquez’s appeal for help, more than 250 people who worked or volunteered in Southern Baptist churches have been charged with sex crimes, an investigation by the Houston Chronicle and the San Antonio Express-News reveals.

It’s not just a recent problem: In all, since 1998, roughly 380 Southern Baptist church leaders and volunteers have faced allegations of sexual misconduct, the newspapers found. That includes those who were convicted, credibly accused and successfully sued, and those who confessed or resigned. More of them worked in Texas than in any other state.

About 220 offenders have been convicted or took plea deals, and dozens of cases are pending. They were pastors. Ministers. Youth pastors. Sunday school teachers. Deacons. Church volunteers.

Nearly 100 are still held in prisons stretching from Sacramento County, Calif., to Hillsborough County, Fla., state and federal records show. Scores of others cut deals and served no time. More than 100 are registered sex offenders. Some still work in Southern Baptist churches today.

Journalists in the two newsrooms spent more than six months reviewing thousands of pages of court, prison and police records and conducting hundreds of interviews. They built a database of former leaders in Southern Baptist churches who have been convicted of sex crimes.

The investigation reveals that:

• At least 35 church pastors, employees and volunteers who exhibited predatory behavior were still able to find jobs at churches during the past two decades. In some cases, church leaders apparently failed to alert law enforcement about complaints or to warn other congregations about allegations of misconduct.

• Several past presidents and prominent leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention are among those criticized by victims for concealing or mishandling abuse complaints within their own churches or seminaries.

• Some registered sex offenders returned to the pulpit. Others remain there, including a Houston preacher who sexually assaulted a teenager and now is the principal officer of a Houston nonprofit that works with student organizations, federal records show. Its name: Touching the Future Today Inc.

There’s a lot more, so go read the whole thing. Along the way, it references the Paul Pressler scandal, which continues on. Here’s the index page for this series – there are two more stories coming – where you can also search their database of offenders. If there’s one lesson we can learn from the Catholic Church’s long-running scandal, it’s that no matter how much we think we know now, there will be more to come. And it can’t be emphasized enough that both the SBC and the Catholic Church have been among the biggest power players behind all of the main “morality” crusades in recent decades, most prominently restrictions on women’s reproductive freedom and LGBT equality (Paul Pressler was a big donor to the anti-HERO campaign). Never, ever forget any of that.

Another AstroWorld auction

Warm up your credit cards.

Could be yours

If your wallet is as deep as your love for Houston’s AstroWorld, you’re in luck.

An online auction is selling off a little more than 300 items from the theme park that closed its gates in 2005. From character statues to giant welcome signs, now is the time to grab your piece of Houston history.

The number of items available is expected to at least double in the coming days, according to Ken Spicer, president and head auctioneer of SITE Auction Services.

[…]

SITE Auction Services is selling the items through an online venue but plans on holding a live, in-person auction on Saturday, Feb. 23 at Emiliano’s Sports Bark at 7710 East Freeway.

The bar will have the items on display during the week leading up to the auction.

The online auction catalog is here. We last had an AstroWorld auction back in 2006. Who knows when you may get another chance? Don’t miss out.

Architect hired for Ismaili Center construction on Robinson Warehouse site

This is the most exciting bit of local news I’ve seen in years.

What once was there

The worldwide Ismaili Muslim community announced Wednesday it is moving forward with plans to make Houston the site of its first U.S. cultural center and to create an architectural landmark in the heart of the city that will reflect a spirit of tolerance, diversity and learning.

London-based Farshid Moussavi Architecture has won the commission to design the important new building on a high-profile, 11-acre site at the southeast corner of Allen Parkway and Montrose Boulevard. A rising star who also has taught for more than a decade at her alma mater, Harvard University, she was selected from a star-studded selection list of finalists that included David Chipperfield, Jeanne Gang and Rem Koolhaas.

“The rigorous competition was a vivid illustration of the global stature that an Ismaili Center holds in the architectural and built environment community, and of the attractiveness of Houston as a destination city for world-scale architecture,” said Dr. Barkat Fazal, president of the Ismaili Council for USA.

Houston’s Ismaili Center, the seventh globally, will be the institutional, intellectual and cultural center for the Shia Ismaili Muslim community in the U.S.

[…]

The Aga Khan Foundation purchased the Houston property in 2006 and in 2011 donated the seven monumental artworks — Jaume Plensa’s “Tolerance” sculptures of kneeling figures — that are situated just across the street in Buffalo Bayou Park.

Moussavi said she was honored to partner with the Ismaili Muslim community. “Our team brings a broad perspective, with diverse skills and experience in international practice, scholarly research, multidisciplinary thinking and delivering cultural projects successfully in the U.S.,” she said. “It will bring Houston’s diverse communities together in a unique space for cultural, educational and social activities.”

This site has been vacant for twelve years now, since the old Robinson Warehouse was demolished to make room for this very long-awaited Ismaili Center. I have no idea what too it so long to begin to happen – as the story notes, it will still be a few years before construction is done – but after at least one false start, here we finally are. It’s almost as hard for me to believe this site will finally be redeveloped as it is for me to believe that this amazing piece of real estate has been left fallow for over a decade. Maybe now some other famous empty lots, including one just up the road a bit on Allen Parkway, will finally see new life as well. I wish them all good luck.

Measles comes back to Houston

We all vaccinated our kids, right?

Five cases of measles have been confirmed in the greater Houston area, a regional cluster that makes Texas the eleventh state this year to report the highly contagious disease until recently thought virtually eliminated in the U.S.

The cases, all announced Monday, include three in Harris County, one in Galveston County and one in Montgomery County. They involve four children, all under 2 years of age, and a woman between the ages of 25 and 35. All are doing well now.

“This is a reminder for people to be on guard and be up to date on their vaccinations,” said Dr. Umair A. Shah, executive director for Harris County Public Health. “Measles, a serious disease, is in our community.”

Measles, caused by an airborne virus, is particularly dangerous, capable of causing serious neurological disorders and death in infants and the developing fetus in pregnant women. It is spread through direct contact with discharge through the nose and mouth as well as coughing and sneezing.

Shah said it was too early to say whether the five cases might be the start of a local outbreak. The counties are monitoring anyone exposed to the measles patients while they were contagious to see if they develop symptoms. None has so far.

Dr. Peter Hotez, an infectious disease specialist at Baylor College of Medicine and Texas Children’s Hospital, said he’s concerned because in the pre-vaccine era, measles typically peaked in the late winner and early spring. He said “a perfect storm could be coming.”

[…]

It was unclear Monday if a lack of vaccination played a role in any of the Houston-area cases. All four children had received the first of the two shots — the second is given between the ages of 4 and 6 — and the woman said she’d been vaccinated, though the county is still working to confirm that through records.

Shah noted that the first dose of the MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) vaccine is fully protective in 85 percent of those who get it, but there’s no way of knowing if a child is in that group or the 15 percent who need the second shot to receive full protection.

Shah also noted that the person or persons who originally transmitted the virus may have been unvaccinated, he said.

The good news is that this outbreak is limited. This story said that Houston’s vaccination rate is above the national average, while this other story says just the opposite; I’m not sure what to make of that. It’s still a lot of cases at one time, and we’re already close to the nine cases total in Houston from last year. It could be worse, as the people in the greater Portland area can attest, but there’s no reason at all why it should be. You can listen to a short but timely interview with Dr. Hotez about the resurgence of measles here, and Texas Monthly has more.

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.

Does the Astrodome redevelopment need air conditioning?

I hadn’t thought about this, to be honest.

Also not air conditioned

As work continues on the initial stages of preparing the Astrodome for its new life as a parking and events venue, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo raised questions last week about the costs associated with redeveloping the former sports stadium.

Harris County’s new judge, who recently toured the property with officials from NRG Park, said she learned that the $105 million the county allocated to the redevelopment project did not include air conditioning.

“I’m looking to make sure the current plan is fiscally responsible and that it will get us to a point where the Astrodome is self-sustaining,” she said in an interview on Houston Public Media’s “Houston Matters.”

Hidalgo declined to comment further, but current and former county officials said the renovation costs were never meant to include traditional air conditioning. Rather, the climate inside would be maintained by a mechanical forced-air ventilation and convection-based system designed to keep the inside of the building more temperate when it is hot or cold outside.

“The thought process was that further phases would bring in air conditioning,” said County Engineer John Blount, who is managing the project.

[…]

For Ed Emmett, Hidalgo’s predecessor, the Astrodome project was never about nostalgia, but to keep the integrity of the NRG complex intact. The county has a contract with the rodeo and the Texans to maintain NRG Stadium in first-class condition.

“Those tenants are going to start coming to the county saying we need this or that upgrade. There’s no revenue source to provide those upgrades without the Dome,” Emmet said.

As far as the air conditioning, he said the idea was to make the space usable, “but not necessarily at 72 degrees.”

“My purpose from day one was to create nine acres of indoor space protected from the weather, where it would be preferable than being outside,” Emmett said.

I mean, it kind of makes sense. It just has to be cool enough, and contrary to popular belief it’s not always summer here. Seems a little weird to be talking about it now, but whatever.

Take a Tesla to Austin

Because sure, why not?

Want to ride in a Tesla? For $250, you can be chauffeured on a one-way trip between Houston and Austin.

Dallas is just $400 away.

Austin-based ElecTrip is billed as an energy-efficient alternative to private flights or high-end buses. Ride with colleagues or friends, and the per-seat cost — the $250 and $400 price tags are for the entire car, with prices varying based on the Tesla model and membership in a subscription plan — becomes more comparable to commercial flights or high-end bus service Vonlane.

“A lot of people haven’t necessarily ridden in a Tesla yet,” said Eliott Lee, co-founder of ElecTrip, “so it’s a pretty neat experience for them.”

[…]

The trip comes with Wi-Fi, drinks and snacks. Riders are picked up from their door and then dropped off at their destination. ElecTrip uses the Tesla Model X SUV, Model S and Model 3. The $250 and $400 prices are typical for riding in a Model X.

The company has provided more than 150 rides since May 2018. ElecTrip owns one Tesla, and it pays other Tesla owners to use their vehicles. The chauffeurs are selected from highly rated Uber drivers that provide the Uber Black service, described as luxury rides with professional drivers, and Uber Select service, described as premium rides in high-end cars.

I mean, I guess I can see the appeal. If you’re not the prone-to-motion-sickness type, you could read or watch a movie or surf the web in comfort, for a price comparable to flying. (They cite a $550 roundtrip fare for flying from Houston to Austin. I checked Southwest, and that’s fairly accurate. Megabus is still way, way cheaper, though.) I just have to wonder what the size of the market for this is. (I had the same thought about Hitch, which this story references.) They’re averaging fewer than 20 rides per month so far. How many do you think they’d need to do to be financially viable? Is the lure of riding in a Tesla that strong? Color me skeptical.

More road safety, please

Seems like a good idea.

Sheriff Ed Gonzalez

Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez [last] Tuesday called on local law enforcement agencies to devote more resources to improving road safety and to create a new region-wide task force dedicated to reducing the Houston area’s alarming number of road fatalities.

Gonzalez said past efforts have been too isolated, allowing problems to go unchecked despite individual efforts from local departments. The proposed task force would meet monthly.

“Everybody is doing something, but we lacked a coordinated effort to tackle this in a sustainable way,” Gonzalez said at a summit on road safety that brought together law enforcement officials, engineers, medical professionals and other traffic-safety advocates.

The formation of the task force follows a 2018 Houston Chronicle investigation, “Out of Control,” which found that the Houston region has the nation’s most dangerous roads. Harris County leads the nation in impaired driving, and the region has more than 600 fatal crashes a year, the Chronicle found.

Gonzalez asked local departments to try to assign three employees to targeted traffic-enforcement initiatives every month for a year — focusing on areas with a high frequency of speeding or crashes; issuing more warnings to motorists driving dangerously; and trying to deter impaired driving.

The impact of those efforts would be re-evaluated after a year, Gonzalez said.

“This is just kind of a starting point, to get stakeholders in the room,” Gonzalez said, noting after the meeting that similar collaborations usually only occur on high-traffic weekends. “We want to make sure we’re visible, and not just performing spot enforcement — and make it more sustainable.”

See here for some background. We really need to think of road safety as a public health issue. If you live in Houston for any length of time, you’ve either been involved in a serious collision or you know someone who has. We can only do so much about traffic, but we can definitely do more about the insane levels of speeding on the highways, and I say that as someone who usually takes highway speed limit signs as suggestions. Let’s check back in a year and see how this effort has gone.

Early voting ends in HD145

Turnout ticked up considerably on Friday, which is an alternate headline for the one given to the Chron story.

Early voting to fill state Sen. Carol Alvarado’s former seat in the Texas House ended Friday with just 1,528 ballots recorded, setting up what could be one of Texas’ lowest-attended special elections of the last few decades.

Registered voters in House District 145 now have one more chance to weigh in on their next representative in the Legislature’s lower chamber: Election Day is Tuesday, with polls open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.

The early voting tally is about 2 percent of the registered voters in the district, which runs from the Heights through downtown, along Interstate 45, to parts of Pasadena and South Houston.

[…]

The lowest turnout in a Texas legislative special election since at least 1992 occurred in May 2016, when state Rep. Jarvis Johnson won the House seat vacated by Mayor Sylvester Turner, according to Texas Election Source publisher Jeff Blaylock. That election drew 1,841 voters.

See here for my previous update on HD145, as well as my explanation for why voting has been so slow. The comparison to the 2016 special election for HD139 isn’t really a good one, because that election was completely without consequence. It was for the last few months of now-Mayor Sylvester Turner’s unexpired term, during which the Lege was not in session and was not about to do anything. The real election in HD139 was the Democratic primary, which had already been won by Rep. Johnson. All the special did was give him a leg up in seniority over his fellow members of the legislative class of 2016. There was no campaign for this, and he had one token opponent.

A better comparison would be to the March 31, 2015 special election in HD124. Like this one, that was to fill a legislative vacancy following a special election to fill a vacancy in the State Senate. Those voters had an even better claim to fatigue, as the SD26 special election had gone to a runoff, so this was their third post-November campaign. A mere 1,961 people voted in that election, which was 2.25% turnout of the 88,006 registered voters.

The 1,528 voters so far in HD145 represent 2.15% turnout of the 71,229 registered voters (that figure is as of last November). HD145 will easily surpass HD124 in turnout as a percentage of registered voters, as it has already surpassed it in total voters. As I suggested in my earlier post, the turnout in the SD06 special election was 4.69%, and 4.69% turnout in HD145 would be 3,340 voters. We’re a bit short of halfway there now, but it’s certainly doable on Tuesday.

Oh, and I mentioned that the 2015 HD124 election also had a runoff. Turnout in the HD124 runoff was 2,439 voters, or 2.77% of registrations, in an election that was exactly three weeks later. We saw the same pattern in the runoff for SD06 in 2013 and the runoff for City Council District H in 2009, both of which had higher turnout than the original elections. The runoff in HD145, I boldly predict right now, will have higher turnout than this election has.

Is the craft brewing business in a slowdown?

Item one.

Alluring as those wide-open skies and rugged vistas may be, the hardscrabble life in West Texas can be unforgiving. And so it was last year for the region’s popular and award-winning craft brewer, Big Bend Brewing Co., despite a planned expansion to San Antonio that might have turned its luck around.

In December, the 6-year-old brewery surrendered to multiple challenges and announced it was shutting down Big Bend Brewing’s hometown operations and taproom in Alpine and abandoning the move to San Antonio.

“We had high aspirations and lofty goals, and we did everything we could to achieve them,” read the Dec. 21 Facebook post announcing the closure. “We remain hopeful and are working hard to make the stoppage temporary. The goal is to come back better than ever. We are no stranger to adversity – forging a craft beer brand in the rugged frontier of West Texas is no easy task.”

[…]

“The main trend is if you’re a local brewery doing small-batch beers, with an old-school small brewpub and restaurant model – those that are still popping up – if they are well-enough financed, they seem to be doing OK as local or hyperlocal places,” said Travis Poling, co-author of San Antonio Beer: Alamo City History by the Pint.

“But the time of the large regional breweries seems to have kind of come and gone,” Poling added. “Everybody wants to be the next Sierra Nevada or Sam Adams, but … the barrier to entry is a lot higher because there’s a lot more competition not just from larger regional brewers, but also the regional breweries bought up by Anheuser-Busch, Coors, and others.”

The Brewers Association reports there are 6,372 breweries in the nation, and of the $111 billion overall beer market, craft beer accounts for $26 billion, up 5 percent in 2017. Texas ranks ninth in the country for most craft brewers with 251 total breweries, or 1.3 per capita. The industry had a $4.5 million impact on the state’s economy in 2016.

In March, Brewers Association Chief Economist Bart Watson wrote, “Compared to many parts of the U.S. economy, craft’s 5% growth rate [in 2017] is quite strong. That said, it’s probably not as strong as many breweries expected as they built their business plan.”

“It’s a difficult time to invest in craft beer,” [Mahala Guevara, vice president of operations for Big Bend Brewing] said. “There’s been an enormous number of breweries opening in the last five years, and we’ve seen a lot of high-profile closures and reductions-in-force and layoffs. Five years ago, the market was going wild, everyone was making money, experiencing tremendous growth. Now there’s depressed investment in craft beer, so even though people are interested, everyone wants to wait out the business cycle.”

I don’t think the cash flow problems of one brewer in a rural part of the state is representative, but I’m keeping an open mind. Item two:

“I think people think Houston is getting saturated, because they haven’t been to a big beer city,” Platypus Brewing’s head brewer Kerry Embertson told me last week during an interview. “Like, Houston’s beer scene is relatively new. Yes. There are the St. Arnold and Southern Stars that have been around forever. But there’s a bunch of people like us that have been around three years or less. There’s plenty of room to make good beer, and customers will come to your place. Especially as spread out as this city is.”

John Holler, who co-owns Holler Brewing along with his wife Kathryn, just a couple blocks from Platypus echoed his colleague’s thoughts.

“I think Houston can definitely accommodate more breweries,” Holler said, during that same interview for an upcoming story. (Sorry! No spoilers!) “The key is, you know, we can accommodate probably 20 or 30 more Platypuses or Hollers. But not 20 or 30 more Saint Arnold.”

This story was based in part on a recent NYT story on the slowdown in growth of the craft brewing industry, and noted the switch from beer to cider at Town in City Brewery. As far as Houston goes, I think John Holler is exactly right. There’s still plenty of room here for small breweries that mostly serve the neighborhoods they’re in and a few bars and restaurants in town. Very few, if any, of those places are going to grow up to be Saint Arnold, or Karbach. Nothing wrong with that, and no reason to panic. Just a bit of perspective.

We’re already on the next generation of scooters

And of course, they’re coming to Austin.

Already home to thousands of electric scooters, many of them crowding downtown sidewalks, the Central Texas city will be the first to experience a new generation of shareable electric scooters from an Oxnard, California-based company called Ojo Electric. Unlike well-known scooter companies such as Bird and Lime, Ojo’s models are bulkier and include a seat.

Referred to as a “light electric vehicle,” the scooters can travel 50 miles on a single charge and have a top speed of 20 mph, in compliance with city regulations, the company said in a news release. The company says their vehicles are designed for bike lanes and streets.

On its website, the company says that riders can sit or stand, as well as play music or listen to podcasts over the vehicle’s built-in Bluetooth speakers. Ojo says those speakers will also allow the company to communicate traffic, construction zone and speed reduction alerts to riders.

The devices launch in Austin on Feb. 1 and cost $1.25 to start and 18 cents per minute of riding time.

“You can go a little bit faster than the kick scooters that we see on the street,” Elliott McFadden, executive director of Bike Share of Austin, which is working closely with Ojo, told NBC affiliate KXAN, noting that the scooters allow riders to carry things in a basket on the back.

[…]

Promising durability and regular checkups by company employees, Ojo is marketing itself as an alternative to companies such as Bird and Lime, which have been accused of placing unsafe vehicles on city streets, where they’re used by unsuspecting riders who are later injured.

While many Austinites have embraced the electric-scooter phenomenon, especially during the hot summer months, social media is filled with examples of infuriated locals ranting about the number of devices crowding city streets and weaving through traffic.

Basically, these are Vespas, not souped-up Razors. They might be fine for bike lanes, but if they were in Houston they’d be illegal on bike trails. As far as that goes, I’m honestly not sure if I’m relieved or a little insulted that none of these new companies promising mobility miracles have taken their chances in our fair city just yet. I suppose I’m glad to let other cities be the beta testers, but one way or another these things are going to get here, and they will be part of the transit landscape. Given the big Metro election this fall, I’d prefer we get some idea of how well they fit in and what we need to do to take optimal advantage of them before we plot that course. In the meantime, do let us know what you think of these things, Austin. Curbed and Culture Map have more.

HISD back under scrutiny

Let’s hope this turns out to be no big deal.

The Texas Education Agency is investigating possible open meetings violations by some Houston ISD trustees last year when they engaged in private discussions that led to the abrupt ouster of the Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan.

TEA officials notified the district Tuesday that an investigation would begin following “multiple complaints” made to the agency over the vote to replace Lathan with former district superintendent Abelardo Saavedra, according to a letter sent to Lathan and HISD board President Diana Dávila. The Houston Chronicle reviewed a portion of the letter outlining the allegations.

“Houston ISD Board of Trustees may have violated The Open Meetings Act by deliberating district business prior to a regularly scheduled board meeting regarding the potential removal of the current interim superintendent and the installation of a new interim superintendent,” the notice read.

TEA officials confirmed they opened a special accreditation investigation into HISD, though they declined to specify the nature of the inquiry.

A special accreditation investigation gives TEA officials wide discretion to review potential wrongdoing and issue a range of sanctions. If investigators find repeated or extensive misconduct, the most severe punishment could be a state takeover of the district’s locally elected board. However, state leaders could issue nominal punishment aimed at preventing future missteps by trustees.

[…]

The investigation stems from an October 2018 vote by five trustees — Dávila, Holly Maria Flynn Vilaseca, Elizabeth Santos, Sergio Lira and Anne Sung — to replace Lathan.

The vote came with no advance warning to the public, and the board’s four other members have said they were unaware that colleagues planned to seek Lathan’s ouster.

Saavedra backed out of the job three days after the vote, citing “dysfunction” at the school board level. Trustees then voted to reinstate Lathan.

Saavedra told the Chronicle in October that he spoke independently with the five trustees who voted for his appointment prior to the vote. Some of the five trustees have said they communicated one-on-one, but they did not meet as a group.

Under Texas open meetings law, deliberations between school board members about “public business or public policy” subject to a vote must take place at public meetings. State investigators likely will seek any evidence of communications between trustees that could constitute a so-called “walking quorum,” which refers to a deliberative effort by elected officials to communicate as a group in private.

See here, here, and here for more on the Saavedra saga, which didn’t make much sense then and makes even less now. All I can say is that I hope the TEA finds no evidence of the five Trustees forming a non-sanctioned quorum, which would be dumb at the least and a violation of trust at the worst. The TEA already has the power to take over HISD if they feel the need. I sure hope we haven’t given them another reason to consider it.