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Houston

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

We may be about to find out.

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Viva Texas! Viva Beto!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s the video, in all its glory:

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

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

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

Distributing the VW settlement money

Good for some, less good for others.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bring back the Comets

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Southwest Key sues city over permit for child detention warehouse

Screw them.

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

Second look at Metro’s long range transit plan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Speed kills

Good long read from the Chron about our dangerous roads and highways. There’s too much to cover here, so I just want to focus on the why we all speed so much.

Houston drivers likely speed, at least in part, because they believe no one with authority is paying attention.

A Chronicle analysis of municipal court data shows that Houston-area law enforcement’s largest agencies are deploying fewer officers for road enforcement and ticketing fewer drivers, even as fatalities increased in the past two years and the area grows in population.

Houston police officers ticketed 41 percent fewer drivers in 2017 than they did in 2012, even as the number of vehicle miles traveled in Houston grew 23 percent.

That reflects a national trend of less traffic enforcement, according to Hersman, the former chairwoman of the NTSB. Federal statistics show that the share of people coming into contact with police through a traffic stop dropped about 11 percentage points from 2002 to 2011.

“We certainly understand what law enforcement is being asked to do and what they deal with, but the reality is fatalities are going up on our roadways,” Hersman said. “What we are seeing nationwide is law enforcement is not doing traffic enforcement.”

Harris County sheriff’s deputies, for example, issued 28 percent fewer speeding tickets in 2017 than they did in 2015, even though the county gained 100,000 people during that period. Houston police officers issued 16 percent fewer speeding tickets in 2017 than in 2015. Texas Department of Public Safety Troopers operating within the greater Houston region are the exception; they issued 11 percent more tickets for speeding than they did in 2015.

I mostly travel on I-10 these days, and I do see (usually unmarked) patrol cars on the shoulders, and occasionally a pulled-over vehicle getting cited. But this is the exception, and there’s nothing quite like the joy of being tailgated when you’re already doing over 70 on a road with a speed limit of 60. I don’t have any solutions to offer here – we could reduce speeding and the mayhem that accompanies it with higher levels of patrol, but of course that’s going to require more patrol officers, and that’s not in the cards. I just miss working in a part of town where I didn’t have to take highways to get to the office.

Baptist Ministers Association apologizes for its role in overturning HERO

I’m very glad to see this.

The Baptists Ministers Association of Houston & Vicinity issued a joint statement with the Houston GLBT Political Caucus saying the two groups “are building a relationship that recognizes our common equal rights struggle.”

The joint statement follows a controversy earlier this year in which the Caucus faced criticism from some members for allegedly encouraging candidates to seek endorsements from the Baptists Ministers Association, which actively supported the repeal of HERO.

According to the joint statement, the Baptist Ministers Association “apologizes for the pain [its opposition to HERO] caused the LGBTQ community, and we both look forward to ongoing discussions to prevent this from happening again as we collectively fight for the equality of all Houstonians.”

“Though we may not agree on everything, we both realize that [there] is more that unites us than divides us,” said Pastor Max Miller, president of the Baptist Ministers Association. “We are looking forward to more discussions to continue to build on this relationship. Our apology is sincere.”

[…]

Monica Roberts, who chairs the Caucus’ Faith Outreach Task Force, said in the statement that as a black trans woman, she was “happy on behalf of the Houston transgender community to convey to [the Black Ministers Association] how harmful that anti-trans rhetoric was to our community and the trans community at large.”

“We have more in common than not, in terms of wanting a Houston we can all be proud of and in which everyone’s human rights and humanity is respected and protected,” Roberts added. “Trans Houstonians needed to hear an apology, and I am happy it was given. I am pleased that these conversations will continue so that we can continue the process of getting a much-needed nondiscrimination ordinance in Houston.”

The Caucus also apologized for “not directly engaging black and brown communities,” including the Black Ministers Association.

You can see a copy of the joint statement in the story. I don’t know what led to this rapprochement, but it’s great that it happened. Putting aside the fact that HERO was an equal rights ordinance for all of Houston, the fact of the matter is that a large portion of Houston’s LGBT community is people of color, a point that Monica Roberts makes all the time on her blog and on Facebook. There was too much common ground for there to be such antagonism. Kudos to all for this achievement.

The beer boom continues

Raise a glass.

There were a dozen craft breweries across the Houston metro before 2013, and that seemed like a lot at the time.

Now, there are 52.

The new breweries have added 344,487 square feet of industrial space — roughly the size of a 14-story office building — to the local market, according to a new report from commercial real estate firm NAI Partners.

[…]

NAI said cities in Texas are “wildly underserved.” Only 12 of the 52 breweries are inside the 610 Loop, the report said, citing data from the Houston Beer Guide.

The report is here. On the one hand, I’m a little surprised there aren’t more breweries inside the loop, since they’re very much a neighborhood business and benefit from having a lot of potential customers in close proximity. On the other hand, real estate prices are such that it’s practically a miracle any breweries are inside the loop. However you look at it, I do agree there’s room in the market for further growth. We were behind the curve on this trend for a long time, and we’re still catching up.

The city has its own bail lawsuit

It’s not going well.

Houston city officials intentionally destroyed evidence, wiping crucial data from the computer drives of top police commanders that is potentially relevant to a lawsuit about the detention of suspects beyond the 48-hour deadline for a magistrate hearing, a federal judge has ruled.

U.S. District Judge Kenneth M. Hoyt’s rare ruling last week means that if the case goes to trial, jurors will receive an “adverse instruction” about the records destruction. The jury must infer as fact that authorities destroyed evidence, knowingly and routinely detained people more than 48 hours without a probable cause hearing, and acted with deliberate indifference to the fact that they were violating defendants’ constitutional rights, the judge ruled.

The judge did not accuse the city of destroying evidence specifically to help it gain an advantage in the lawsuit, but the action is a blow to any defense the city could mount.

[…]

The 2016 class-action lawsuit challenged the city’s treatment of thousands of people jailed for days after warrantless arrests between January 2014 and December 2016. The complaint accuses officials of false imprisonment and alleges that they violated defendants’ constitutional rights to equal protection and a determination of probable cause by a judge. The case was brought by Civil Rights Corps and the Texas Fair Defense Project — the groups that led the landmark suit challenging Harris County’s bail practices — and lawyers from the Houston firm Kirkland & Ellis LLP.

The suit was filed after the January 2016 arrests of Juan Hernandez, who was held 49 hours before seeing a magistrate on an assault charge, and James Dossett, who spent 59 hours in custody before facing a hearing officer via videolink on a charge of possession of a controlled substance. After a week in custody, Hernandez pleaded guilty. Authorities ultimately dropped the charges against Dossett when police failed to prove he had drugs.

The lawsuit also cites arrests in which defendants were held for more than 10 days before receiving a probable cause hearing. Overcrowding at the county jail creates a bottleneck at the city facility, the suit said.

The plaintiffs’ lawyers argued that the city had a “broad, longstanding, and consistent policy of refusing to release warrantless arrestees” even when more than 48 hours had passed since their arrests, and that the city failed to provide thousands of records relevant to this policy and practice.

See here for some background, and here for an earlier Chron story (embedded in this one and the basis of that post) on the subject. I’m appalled by what’s in this story, which I don’t think can be adequately explained by simple incompetence on the city’s part. There needs to be a serious investigation of who was responsible for what, and consequences to follow. This is unacceptable at every level. The city needs to throw itself on the mercy of the court and make an extremely generous settlement offer to the defendants.

HFD Chief warns of layoffs

To be fair, this isn’t the first time we have heard this.

Houston Fire Chief Sam Peña on Tuesday warned of dire consequences — including possible layoffs of more than 800 firefighters and deferred maintenance or upgrades on aging equipment, if voters approve the firefighters’ pay parity initiative on the November ballot.

Peña’s warning came during a City Council Committee on Budget & Fiscal Affairs meeting to provide city leaders with their first look at how the Houston Fire Department might handle the costs of the ballot measure, which proposes to raise firefighter pay to that of their police peers.

In its latest estimate, the Turner administration says approval of the referendum would cost the city $98 million in its first year and would lead to cuts at the fire department as well as in other city agencies.

“A reduction of this size in personnel cannot be accomplished without a major restructuring of the current operations,” said Tantri Emo, director of the city’s finance department. Emo said the city’s $98 million estimate million came from comparing salaries of firefighters and police at similar ranks, and said the city did not yet have estimates that might factor in costs to the city’s pension system.

Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association President Marty Lancton questioned the city’s calculation on how much pay parity would actually cost taxpayers. Lancton repeated past assertions that the city refused to negotiate or work with firefighters on issues ranging from pay to operations to equipment, but he did not provide the union’s cost estimates.

Emphasis mine. We all agree that this referendum will cost the city some money if passed, right? I mean, there’d be literally no point for the HPFFA to push for it if it didn’t mean higher pay for their members. As such, the fact that the union has refused to provide their own number whenever the city has cited one is telling. Obviously, the firefighters are going to argue that the city is exaggerating the cost, and they’re very likely correct about that. But it’s one thing to say “oh, it will only cost $10-20 million”, which the city probably could afford with at most minimal cuts, and another entirely to say “oh, it will only cost $50-60 million”, which the city can’t do without real cuts and starts to sound pretty expensive besides. If the firefighters can’t or won’t provide their own estimate of how much this will cost the city – and let’s be real, they most certainly do have their own estimate – then the city’s number is the one we must accept. And that’s a number that will absolutely lead to job cuts, including among HFD’s ranks.

Will this affect the outcome of the election? Maybe, if the city can get that message out. Holding a few town halls is nice and appreciated, but it’s not going to spread the message far and wide. Remember, nearly 400,000 ballots were cast in the city in 2010, with over 330K votes tallied in the Renew Houston and red light camera elections. You’re not going to reach that many people without significant outreach, and so far all I’ve seen is one pro-firefighter web ad. If there’s a campaign in the works, it’s going to need to get going soon.

Town hall meetings for city referenda

From the inbox:

Mayor Sylvester Turner

MAYOR TURNER INVITES CITY RESIDENTS TO TOWN HALL MEETINGS ABOUT THE 2 PROPOSITIONS ON THE NOV. 6 CITY BALLOT

Mayor Turner urges all voters who live in the city to learn about the Rebuild Houston and fire pay referendum elections on the Nov. 6 ballot.

He will host the following meetings from 6:30 7:45 p.m.:

–– Wednesday, Sept. 5 – District C –  Metropolitan Multi-Service Center, 1475 West Gray, 77019
–– Monday, Sept. 10  – District H – Moody Park, 3725 Fulton, 77009
–– Wednesday, Sept. 19 – District J – Sharpstown Community Center, 6600 Harbor Town, 77036
–– Thursday, Sept. 20 – District B – Kashmere MSC, 4802 Lockwood, 77026
–– Monday, Sept. 24 – District A – Trini Mendenhall Community Center, 1414 Wirt Road, 77055
–– Wednesday, Oct. 3 – District D – Sunnyside Metropolitan Multi-Service Center, 9314 Cullen, 77051
–– Thursday, Oct. 4 – District I – EB Cape Center, 4501 Leeland, 77023
–– Monday, Oct. 8 – District F – Alief Community Center, 11903 Bellaire Blvd., 77072
–– Wednesday, Oct. 17 – District K – Fountain Life Center, 14083 S. Main, 77035
–– Thursday, Oct. 18 – District G, Walnut Bend Recreation Center, 10601 Briar Forest, 77042

Mayor Turner will make the same presentation at District E meetings hosted by Council Member Dave Martin from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m.

–– Tuesday, Oct. 9 at the Kingwood Community Center, 4102 Rustic Woods Drive, Kingwood 77345
–– Tuesday, Oct. 16 at Space Center Houston, 1601 E. NASA Parkway, Houston 77058

Sorry about the late notice, but this just hit my inbox yesterday, though there was a press release for it last week. Note that the press release I linked to is incorrect about the start date for early voting. It begins October 22, which was correctly noted in the release I got in my mailbox. I’m very interested in seeing what kind of a campaign there is for and against this, but in the meantime there’s this.

Looking beyond HISD’s one year reprieve

As we know, HISD has been in danger of sanctions from the TEA, which could include a state takeover of the district, because of several schools that had rated as “improvement needed” for multiple years in a row. They managed to avoid that fate for this year as most of its schools were granted waivers due to Harvey, while the schools that weren’t exempted met the mandated standard. Next year, however, the schools that received waivers will have to measure up or the same sanctions will apply. As a result, local officials are planning ahead for that possibility.

Local civic leaders are considering whether to form a nonprofit that could take control of several long-struggling Houston ISD schools in 2019-20, a potential bid to improve academic outcomes at those campuses and stave off a state takeover of the district’s locally elected governing board.

Members of Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner’s administration, education leaders and prominent philanthropic and business organizations have convened periodically over the past few months to research and sketch out frameworks for a nonprofit capable of governing some HISD campuses. The discussions remain preliminary — no plans or proposals have been formulated — but local leaders say they their efforts will become more urgent and public in the coming months.

The nonprofit would partner with HISD through a recently passed state law commonly known as SB 1882. Under the law, school districts temporarily can surrender control over campuses to an outside organization — including a nonprofit — in exchange for a two-year reprieve from state sanctions tied to low academic performance, an extra $1,200 in per-student funding and some regulatory breaks. If HISD does not engage in an outside partnership this academic year at four chronically low-performing schools this year, the district risks state sanctions in 2019 if any of the campuses fail to meet state academic standards.

Juliet Stipeche, the director of education in Turner’s administration, said a nonprofit “seems like the wisest catalyst” for a potential private partnership with HISD. Stipeche, an HISD trustee from 2010 to 2015, is among the lead organizers of early talks about a nonprofit.

“Our office is trying to bring together a very diverse group of people to find a new way of partnering with the school district,” Stipeche said. “There’s a clear, obvious sense of urgency given the situation that we have, but there’s also an understanding that this needs to be a long-term project.”

[…]

Houston-area leaders involved in talks about forming a nonprofit for an HISD partnership said many questions remain answered: Who would serve on the nonprofit’s governing board? How would board members be chosen? How would community members engage in the nonprofit’s formation? Who would manage day-to-day campus operations? Which schools would fall under the nonprofit’s purview?

To gain support for a private partnership, local leaders will have to clear several hurdles. They likely will have three to six months to craft governance plans and an academic framework for campuses, a relatively short time frame. They will have to get buy-in from several constituencies that often clash politically, including HISD trustees, school district administrators, teachers’ union leaders and residents in neighborhoods with schools facing takeover. The TEA also would have to approve any proposals.

“We need to be taking advantage of the next year,” said Bob Harvey, president and CEO of the Greater Houston Partnership, the region’s largest business advocacy nonprofit. “We need to work very aggressively. It will take time to put something like this together.”

See here for some background, and here and here for what happened when HISD looked at this kind of solution earlier this year. I guess the first hurdle I’d like to be cleared is an answer to the question of how any theoretical partnership will help these schools succeed beyond what HISD has been able to do with them. In some sense this doesn’t matter since this is one of the options that the Lege mandates, and it’s the option that retains the most local control, which I agree is the better choice. There’s also the option of persuading the Lege to make some changes to SB 1882, which is something that Rep. Garnet Coleman has been talking about. Let’s focus on the bigger picture of getting the best outcome, and go from there.

Emmett speaks post-bond

With the flood bond referendum safely passed, we now turn to what comes next.

Land and housing preservation is key to the Houston region becoming more resilient, Harris County Judge Ed Emmett said Tuesday, on the heels of last weekend’s vote that approved a $2.5 billion flood infrastructure bond.

“We need to not fight with nature, we need to live with nature and allow those areas to be green that need to be green, and frankly, allow those areas to be wet that need to be wet and not try and change that,” Emmett said during a luncheon presentation to members of the local chapter of the Urban Land Institute.

Emmett specifically called for the Katy Prairie, a vast area encompassing much of western Harris and eastern Waller counties, to be maintained and expanded.

“I think that’s a very easy one for the federal government or the state to declare as a nature preserve and just set it aside and move on,” he told the crowd of several hundred developers and real estate professionals in the ballroom of the Junior League of Houston.

[…]

The challenges brought by Harvey will give city and county leaders the opportunity to make positive changes as it recovers, he said.

One such improvement: a better system of urban governance.

If unincorporated Harris County was a city it would be the fifth largest in the U.S.

“We cannot continue to do that,” Emmett said. “We have got to find a way for city for Houston and Harris County to come up with a new structure of urban governance. “I view Harvey as kick-starting a lot of these conversations.”

Preserving the Katy Prairie and other green space was one of the topics I covered with Judge Emmett when I interviewed him about the bond referendum. I agree this is a high priority and I’m glad to hear Emmett talk that way, but let’s be clear that there’s a lot less of it to preserve now than there was 20 or 30 years ago, before Katy Mills and the Grand Parkway were built. We can’t turn back the clock, but the fact that there’s far less of that open space to preserve now means that we have to take it that much more seriously. What’s left is so much more precious to us.

As for the governance issue, I welcome that conversation as well. If there’s going to be an obstacle to the kind of intra-governmental cooperation Emmett envisions, it may well be the Lege, as any new structure to urban governance will likely require new laws, and our Lege isn’t very interested in helping out cities these days. Let’s see what Emmett and the other powers that be in the region come up with, and then we’ll figure out how to make it happen.

In the meantime, the work has begun.

Harris County Commissioners Court on Tuesday gave the green light to 16 new flood control projects, three days after voters overwhelmingly approved a $2.5 billion bond aimed at boosting the region’s protections against future floods.

The projects include de-silting the Addicks and Barker reservoir watersheds, drainage improvements in the San Jacinto River, Cypress Creek, Luce Bayou and Cedar Bayou watersheds, a stormwater detention basin project along Greens Bayou and conveyance improvements on Willow Creek.

“It’s a matter of starting with the low-hanging fruit, the ones that are ready to go, and move forward,” County Judge Ed Emmett said.

As good a place to start as any. There’s a lot more where that came from.

Jeff Skilling released from prison

It’s the end of an era.

Jeffrey K. Skilling, the former Enron CEO sentenced to a long prison term for his role in one of most notorious corporate fraud cases in history, was recently released from a minimum security federal prison camp in Alabama to a halfway house at an undisclosed location.

Enron’s spectacular collapse cost investors billions of dollars and wiped out the retirement savings — not to mention the jobs — of thousands of employees. Skilling, 64, 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. Five years ago, Skilling’s sentence was reduced to 14 years by U.S. District Judge Sim Lake. He is scheduled to be released Feb. 21, 2018, according to the Bureau of Prisons.

Federal prisoners are often released from prison several months early to a halfway house, a highly restricted dormitory-like setting that helps inmates ease back into society. They must maintain curfews, find work and stay out of trouble. A. Kelley, assistant residential re-entry manager for the Bureau of Prisons in San Antonio, said the bureau would not say where Skilling is living.

Been while since there was Enron news. The last post I have is this Andy Fastow update from 2015, and before that this story about Skilling’s sentence being reduced from 2013. Apparently, as part of the early release (I presume they mean 2019 in the story), Skilling has to get a job. One can only imagine the possibilities. I don’t have anything else to add here, just that this is the end of an era of sorts.

Cyber insurance

Seems like a good idea.

Houston City Council on Wednesday unanimously agreed to spend $471,000 on cyber insurance, becoming the latest Texas municipality trying to bolster its response to growing technological risks.

The insurance can cover up to $30 million in expenses related to security breaches in the city’s network, including crisis response, recovery of losses and answers to legal claims stemming from cyberattacks.

While some data breaches are preventable, the prevalence of cybersecurity threats against city governments nationwide prompted Houston to take steps to insure itself, said At-large Councilman David Robinson, chairman of council’s Transportation, Technology and Infrastructure committee.

“There are those things that are just beyond the reach or scope of expected due diligence and preparation,” Robinson said. “You need to be prepared for the unknown.”

In the event of a cyberattack, such as hacking or phishing, in which people pose as trustworthy sources to obtain money or information, the insurance coverage could pay for crisis management resources, computer forensics, credit monitoring and call center services.

After a security threat is detected, the new policy could cover any loss of income or expense from the interruption of computer systems, according to council background materials outlining the insurance. It could be used to pay the cost of restoring or recollecting data affected by a cyberattack, as well the cost of investigating threats. The insurance policy also can be used for liability claims made against the city for failing to protect data or prevent access to confidential information.

This makes sense. Of course, as an organization you want to do everything you can to prevent an incident, but as we say in the business, it’s not a matter of if you’ll get hacked, it’s a matter of when. Like what happened to Harris County earlier this year. All of your vendors and suppliers and business partners are potential avenues for compromise, too. While I hope we’ll never need to use it, this is a smart investment.

Appeals court allows city to post video of pay parity hearing

Probably doesn’t matter much at this point, but there it is.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

A Texas appeals court on Thursday ordered a state district judge to rescind his temporary restraining order requiring the city of Houston to remove video from its website that depicted a public city council committee hearing over a proposal to grant firefighters “pay parity” with police.

District Judge Kyle Carter should not have blocked the city from posting the video of the committee hearing because it is not clear the meeting constituted illegal electioneering, as the Houston firefighters union had alleged, the 14th Court of Appeals justices ruled.

That restraining order had expired last week anyway, said Cris Feldman, an attorney for the firefighters union, adding that the decision does not preclude a court from coming to the same conclusion that Carter did after further hearings in the case.

[…]

The section of state law banning local governments from using public funds to advocate for or against ballot measures was not intended to restrain public discussion of such issues, the justices wrote Thursday.

“It was not unreasonable or unexpected that statements tending to indicate support for, or opposition to, the charter amendment might be voiced at the meeting,” the nine-page opinion states. “Public funds were not being used for political advertising by making the meeting video publicly available, even though an incidental effect of posting the video on the city’s website may be to re-publish statements supporting or opposing the charter amendment.”

See here for the background, here for the Mayor’s statement, and here for a copy of the opinion. As noted, the TRO had expired on August 14, and the Chron posted their own copy of the video shortly after Judge Carter handed down his opinion, so this is all mostly academic. It may mean something after the election when the lawsuits over the wording of the referendum gets filed, but until then it’s mostly a warm-up exercise.

One year out from Harvey

We’ve come a long way, but we still have a long way to go.

One year after Hurricane Harvey slammed the Texas coast, 8 percent of the people impacted by the disaster have not been able to return to their homes, according to a report from two nonprofits that surveyed Texans about how the storm affected their finances, health and living conditions.

Fifteen percent of the hundreds of thousands of homes damaged by the storm are still unlivable. And of the 1,651 people from 24 counties who answered the survey, 30 percent of those impacted by the storm said their lives are still “somewhat” or “very” disrupted by the devastating storm’s lingering damage.

Those survey results, released by The Kaiser Family Foundation and the Episcopal Health Foundation on Thursday, may be the clearest picture of how many people are still struggling to put their lives back together after Harvey. Federal and state officials aren’t keeping track of how many people remain displaced.

[…]

While most survey respondents said their financial situations and quality of life are about the same as they were before Harvey, 23 percent said that Harvey worsened their financial situation and 17 percent said it lowered their quality of life. Twelve percent of respondents said their financial situation is better and 11 percent said their quality of life has improved.

But the results found that people of color, those with lower incomes and people living in certain geographic areas are not recovering as quickly as many Texans.

“This survey shows how much Harvey continues to haunt many across coastal Texas, with significant shares reporting ongoing challenges with their housing, finances and health,” Drew Altman, president and CEO of the Kaiser Family Foundation, said in a prepared statement.

Among black Texans impacted by the storm, 60 percent say they are not getting the help they need. That compares to 40 percent of Hispanic respondents and 33 percent of white respondents.

For example, Kashmere and Trinity Gardens One Year After Harvey: A Follow-Up Report by Lara Purser:

Rosa Randle, a senior, isn’t the only Kashmere Gardens resident wandering through this labyrinth without a map. She remains in limbo. Lacking critical assistance a year after Hurricane Harvey landed, Ms. Randle’s story is all too common. Mr. Keith Downey, Kashmere Gardens Super Neighborhood President, says he receives calls and texts like hers daily. Nearly one year after reporting on Kashmere Gardens after Harvey, I found residents and community leaders are engaged in short-term relief and recovery as well as long-term planning.

“Posting a flyer just won’t do,” Mr. Downey quips when asked how residents – many of whom lack internet access – successfully connect with Harvey relief services. Handshakes. Hugging. Hearing. That is the gospel Mr. Downey preaches. Human connection helps build trust, he says, and that personal touch encourages residents to advocate for their own needs. He estimates at least 40 percent of Harvey-affected residents in his community are living in homes still needing remediation, are in various stages of repair, or remain displaced altogether and faults his community’s lack of political and economic influence for delays in receiving assistance. FEMA data analysis by non-profit Texas Housers confirms that the highest concentration of residents with unmet housing needs a year after Harvey are in low-income, minority neighborhoods like Kashmere Gardens, where the median household income hovers around $23,000.

The Center for Disease Control ranks Kashmere Gardens among the nation’s most socially vulnerable neighborhoods, as determined by “degree to which a community exhibits… high poverty, low percentage of vehicle access, [and] crowded households.” In short: Hurricane Harvey continues to complicate lives that were complicated enough already.

The canyons of flooded waste are gone making ongoing struggles less visible. It’s hard to understate the extent of loss in this community of 10,000 residents. Based on City of Houston estimates, the Community Design Resource Center at the University of Houston found that a staggering 79 percent of all homes in the Kashmere Gardens Super Neighborhood flooded during Hurricane Harvey. Data from the United Way Community Profile for the 77028 zip code, which includes parts of Kashmere Gardens, show there were twice as many applicants with FEMA Verified Loss (FVL) as other Harris County zip codes. Just half of these FVL applicants received any level of FEMA assistance. Of those households “lucky” enough to get FEMA aid, four in ten still had thousands of dollars of unmet needs in that zip code. This substantial gap in assistance has been met in piecemeal fashion through an estimated 50 organizations and agencies servicing the area. But as Ms. Randle’s experience illustrates, securing help is a long and frustrating journey.

And it’s not just in Houston.

Nobody knows exactly how many of Rockport’s roughly 10,000 residents left after Harvey blasted through here as a Category 4 storm on Aug. 25, 2017, but a loose consensus among local officials is that population is down about 20 percent. According to the Aransas County Independent School District, student enrollment fell about 15 percent after the hurricane, and [Aransas County Judge Burt] Mills estimates the county lost about one-quarter of its taxable property.

A survey released this week by the Kaiser Family and Episcopal Health foundations found that 62 percent of people in coastal areas hit by Harvey, including Aransas County, suffered damage to their homes, while 27 percent said someone in their household experienced job or income loss. Eight percent of the respondents said they haven’t been able to return home.

But Mills is optimistic that the majority of the people who left won’t stay gone forever.

“They’re gonna come back,” he said. “This is home. This is my little piece of paradise, and I believe everybody that lives in Aransas County feels that way.”

But whether Rockport and the surrounding communities can make a complete rebound will depend on their ability to provide affordable housing for the lower-income workers displaced by the storm whose labor fuels the local tourism economy, and on their ability to withstand the rising tides and more extreme storms forecasted for a warming planet.

Go read the rest of both stories. Those of us who are lucky enough to not have been affected by Harvey, or who have been able to get back on our feet, need to remember and advocate for those of us who haven’t been so lucky. We are all in this together. ThinkProgress has more.

Texans’ cheer coach quits

Of interest.

Altovise Gary, the longtime director of the Houston Texans cheerleaders squad who was named as a defendant in one of two recent federal court lawsuits filed against the team, has resigned, a team spokeswoman said Tuesday.

Gary resigned on her own accord, citing what team spokeswoman Amy Palcic described as personal reasons. The team had no additional comment on her departure.

[…]

Gary was named as a defendant in a case filed in May by a former cheerleader who accused her of body-shaming and failing to act on complaints that cheerleaders were physically assaulted by fans. She was not named as a defendant in a second suit filed days later by five former cheerleaders against the team.

Both suits were dismissed and the former cheerleaders’ complaints submitted to arbitration, as required by their contracts with the team.

Houston attorney Bruse Loyd, who filed the first lawsuit that included Gary as a defendant, said he would have no comment on Gary’s resignation.

Houston attorney Kimberley Spurlock, who along with noted women’s rights attorney Gloria Allred filed the second lawsuit, said in a statement: “We believe that our lawsuit and the voices of our brave clients have made an important impact on the Houston Texans. As a result of their courage, there appears to be an important change taking place in the staff.

“However, until there is justice for the cheerleaders by paying them fairly and compensating them by paying them the wages that they are due, we will continue our fight to win them the respect and dignity to which they are entitled and which is long overdue.”

See here, here, and here for the background. I don’t have much to add to this, I will just reiterate my positions that 1) harassment and abuse of any kind should not be tolerated, and 2) it’s a travesty that the multi-billion dollar business that is the NFL refuses to pay its cheerleaders a wage the reflects their worth. Not sure what else there is to say.

July 2018 campaign finance reports: HCC

We come to the end of the campaign finance reports for July. I’ll try to do the 30 day finance reports for Congress and the Lege, but in the meantime here are reports for the HCC Trustees:

Adriana Tamez
Carolyn Evans-Shabazz
Dave Wilson
Eva Loredo
John Hansen
Neeta Sane
Pretta VanDible Stallworth
Robert Glaser
Zeph Capo


Dist  Name             Raised    Spent    Loans   On Hand
=========================================================
3     Tamez                 0      267        0     5,701
4     Evans-Shabazz     5,600    4,134        0     1,653
2     Wilson                0        0   12,782         0
8     Loredo              700       70        0       255
6     Hansen                2        0    5,000     8,928
7     Sane                  0    3,823        0    11,319
9     Stallworth       14,175    2,758        0         0
5     Glaser                0        0    5,000     1,125
1     Capo                  0        0        0     2,064

The weird order to the reports is due to the idiosyncratic way that one accesses HCC finance reports – basically, things are sorted in alphabetical order by first name, so that’s how I prepared this. Sorry, even I have limits. As was the case with the HISD reports, there hasn’t been much fundraising activity for HCC, which isn’t that surprising given that there usually isn’t that much fundraising activity even when there are elections coming up. The main thing you need to know is that 2019 is the year we get the chance to rid ourselves of the stain that is Dave Wilson. Zeph Capo and Neeta Sane will also be on the ballot, but the race that matters is in District 2. Wilson spends his own money on his political endeavors, so pay no attention to his Raised and On Hand totals. Just be prepared to support his eventual opponent (hopefully there will be just one), and never forget this lesson in Why Every Election Matters.

A better match from FEMA

Good news.

Federal officials have agreed to count volunteer work hours and donated materials toward the local match required for disaster recovery grants to repair streets, buildings, utilities, parks and other public facilities — a national policy change, initiated in Houston, that could save local governments tens of millions of dollars.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency agreed to expand its acceptance of volunteer hours and donated supplies after months of discussions with leaders of Houston’s Hurricane Harvey recovery effort. The change is retroactive to Aug. 23, 2017 — two days before the official declaration of Harvey as a major disaster.

Typically, local governments must match 25 percent of the federal government’s contributions during a disaster and its aftermath, and only can count volunteer hours and donated materials toward that match in the removal of storm debris and immediate emergency response efforts, such as sheltering victims. For Harvey, the Trump administration agreed to drop the local match to 10 percent.

Even with the change, Mayor Sylvester Turner said, Houston will still be responsible for a projected local match of $250 million.

“For the first time in FEMA’s history, they are allowing this volunteer program on permanent repairs to be used as a part of that 10 percent local match, and they’re not only allowing it for the city of Houston — for our region — but it’s a national initiative that they would allow in all other disasters now going forward,” Turner said. “That’s a monumental shift, because most local governments are hard-pressed to come up with that 10 percent match.”

There are still a lot of details to work out about what kind of work would count, how to track it and tally it up, and how to ensure that federal procurement rules are obeyed, but the decision to go this way will be a big help to Houston and other communities rebuilding after disasters. Kudos to all for making this happen.

July 2018 campaign finance reports: HISD

Every level of government requires finance reports in January and June, whether or not there is an active election cycle in that year. That includes HISD and HCC, which are the last two groups I’ll be examining. I didn’t get to their January reports, in part because they tend to post them later than other entities, and in part because I was hip deep in primary stuff. But that was then and this is now, and today I have the reports for HISD trustees.

Elizabeth Santos
Rhonda Skillern-Jones
Sergio Lira
Jolanda Jones
Sue Deigaard
Holly Flynn Vilaseca
Anne Sung
Diana Davila
Wanda Adams


Dist  Name             Raised    Spent    Loans   On Hand
=========================================================
I     Santos              525    1,048        0     4,806
II    Skillern-Jones        0        0        0     2,395
III   Lira              2,500        0        0     4,072
IV    Jones                 0        0        0    12,259
V     Deigaard              0    1,927        0     7,452
VI    Vilaseca          2,500      969        0     4,506
VII   Sung
VIII  Davila                0    1,500   19,178         0
IX    Adams             4,400    6,369        0     2,814

Anne Sung did not have a July report posted as of when I drafted this. As you can see, there’s not much to see here, as nobody did any fundraising in the past period. Diana Davila did not include a cash on hand total in her report, which I think is an error, but not one to worry about too much at this time. Rhonda Skillern-Jones, Sergio Lira, Jolanda Jones, and Diana Davila are up for election in 2019, so I figure we’ll start to see action from them soon. You will eventually see a 2019 Trustee Elections link on the Board of Trustees General Information page – the 2017 election link is still there – so until then I presume there’s no one who has formally declared an intent to run. I’ll have the HCC reports next, so let me know what you think.

The firefighter pay parity referendum won’t be decided by the voters

it will be decided by the courts. Here’s a story out of Austin to illustrate.

Former Travis County judge Bill Aleshire has sued the city of Austin in the Texas Supreme Court, challenging the ballot language of a proposition up for a local vote in November.

The lawsuit filed Monday challenges ballot language related to Proposition K, which calls for an outside audit of government efficiency at City HallThe Austin City Council approved the ballot wording last week.

At that council meeting, some supporters of the proposition bristled at the language, which includes a cost estimate for the audit of between $1 million and $5 million. Proposition backers complain the inclusion of the cost estimate will bias voters against the measure because the wording does not mention any possible savings that could result from an audit.

You can follow the links and read the writ, which is embedded in that Statesman. I don’t care about any of that. My point here is that while Council has voted to put the measure on the ballot, we don’t have ballot language yet. Does anyone think for even a minute that the language that Mayor Turner will provide and Council will approve will be satisfactory to all of the stakeholders in this fight? Does anyone think it is possible for this referendum to be a) simple enough for everyone to be clear on what they’re voting on, and b) thorough enough for it to adequately cover all the relevant details? These were the points of contention in the lawsuits over the term limits referendum, and the Renew Houston referendum. I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: The losing side in this vote, whichever side it is, will file a lawsuit arguing that the ballot language was inadequate, inaccurate, unintelligible, whatever else. Given the lifespan of the Renew Houston battle – which as you know is still not over – we’ll be handing this fight off to the next Mayor, and that is very much assuming a second term for Mayor Turner. On top of all of the other reasons why this is a bad idea, this is why this is a bad idea.

Woodfill and Hotze take their next shot at same sex employee benefits

Here we go again.

Anti-LGBTQ activists are again asking a Harris County judge to halt benefits for the same-sex spouses of Houston city employees, according to a recently filed motion.

The motion for summary judgment in Pidgeon v. Turner, a five-year-old lawsuit challenging the benefits, states that the city should not subsidize same-sex marriages because gay couples cannot produce offspring, “which are needed to ensure economic growth and the survival of the human race.”

The motion also asks Republican Judge Lisa Millard, of the 310th District Family Court, to order the city to “claw back” taxpayer funds spent on the benefits since November 2013, when former Mayor Annise Parker first extended health and life insurance coverage to same-sex spouses. And the court filing suggests that to comply with both state and federal law, the city should eliminate all spousal benefits, including for opposite-sex couples.

The motion for summary judgment was filed July 2 by Jared Woodfill, an attorney for Jack Pidgeon and Larry Hicks, two Houston taxpayers who initially brought their lawsuit in December 2013. Woodfill, a former chair of the Harris County Republican Party, is president of the Conservative Republicans of Texas, which is listed by the Southern Poverty Law Center as an anti-LGBTQ hate group.

In his motion for summary judgment, Woodfill asserts that although the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of marriage equality in Obergefell v. Hodges in June 2015, that decision does not require the city to treat same-sex couples equally.

“Obergefell does not require taxpayer subsidies for same-sex marriages — any more than Roe v. Wade requires taxpayers subsidies for abortions,” Woodfill’s motion states.

Alan Bernstein, a spokesman for the city, said it will respond to the motion “in a timely fashion.”

“The City hopes the Judge will be persuaded by the law,” Bernstein said in an email. “The Legal Department defers to the arguments it will make in response.”

See here for previous coverage, and here for the last update. It’s hard to know what will happen here because the basic goal of the lawsuit is so ridiculous and harmful, and the immediate reaction of any decent person who hears about it will be “but marriage is marriage and why would anyone want to do that?” The sad and scary fact is that some people are like that, and that includes some judges. Did I mention that the judge in this case, Lisa Millard, is up for re-election in August? Sonya Heath is her opponent. There’s never been a better time to elect some better judges. Think Progress has more.

ReBuild re-vote approved

Add another item to the ballot.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

City Council on Wednesday unanimously agreed to put the controversial street and drainage program known as ReBuild Houston before voters again in November, but not before tweaking the ballot language in hopes of avoiding future court challenges.

The Turner administration should find out quickly if they were successful.

The lawyer who represented the conservative plaintiffs who got the Texas Supreme Court to throw out the original 2010 charter amendment already has asked a judge to force the city to include ballot language specifically stating that drainage fees will be imposed on and paid for by property owners.

[…]

Turner, however, has said approval of the charter amendment would be limited, calling it an an affirmation of “what already is,” and saying it simply would solidify a dedicated source of funding to continue the ReBuild Houston program as it is being run today. The drainage fee, which is a key part of the program, is not at risk in the November referendum because it was created via city ordinance, not by the 2010 charter amendment.

“I think we all support a dedicated source (of funding),” Turner said Wednesday. “I think we all support the emphasis being placed on drainage, flooding and streets … We’re all passionate about it, but I think there is more agreement than disagreement around this table.”

See here for the background. I confess, it’s not clear to me what the stakes are in this vote, just as it’s not clear to me what the neverending litigation is about. As the story notes, Council voted to approve an ordinance that instituted the fee. Even with the obscure stakes, I doubt there’s any ballot language short of language written by Andy Taylor himself that would satisfy Andy Taylor and his flood-loving plaintiffs. I’d put something on like “ReBuild is what we say it is, mofos”, but then that’s probably why I’m a blogger and not a public official. Be that as it may, a-voting we will go this fall. KUHF has more.

HISD avoids sanctions for this year

Big sigh of relief.

Houston ISD will avoid major state sanctions for at least one year after four of its longest-struggling schools met state academic standards this year, according to preliminary results released Wednesday.

The announcement ensures the Texas Education Agency will not replace HISD’s locally elected school board in the coming months or close campuses that repeatedly have failed to meet academic standards before the 2019-20 school year. Under a new state law, commonly known as HB 1842, the TEA would have been required to implement one of the two sanctions if any of the four HISD campuses received another “improvement required” rating this year due to substandard academic performance.

[…]

The four HISD campuses that made standard to avoid triggering sanctions are Mading and Wesley elementary schools, Woodson PK-8 and Worthing High School. Each of those four had failed to meet standard for four to six consecutive years prior to 2018.

Although HISD will avoid sanctions this year, the threat of state-imposed punishment likely will loom throughout the 2018-19 school year.

Four low-performing HISD schools likely will risk triggering sanctions next year if they fail to meet academic standards when results are released in August 2019. Those four campuses are Highland Heights elementary schools, Henry Middle School, Kashmere and Wheatley high schools.

In an interview Wednesday, TEA Commissioner Mike Morath praised HISD’s accomplishment while cautioning more work needs to be done in Texas’ largest school district.

“Houston ISD has made progress, like many school systems across the state. That’s clear and that’s very good news,” Morath said. “But there’s obviously still a number of schools that need greater support throughout Houston, and I know they’re working diligently on that.”

See here for some background. As noted, the schools that qualified for Harvey waivers will need to be up to standard next year or the same sanctions will apply, but at least that gives the district another year to get there. Getting these found schools up to standard is a laudable accomplishment, and an encouraging sign that what the district had been doing has been working. Kudos to all, and let’s keep up the good work. The Trib has more.

July 2018 finance reports: City of Houston

Every level of government requires finance reports in January and June, whether or not there is an active election cycle in that year. That includes the city of Houston, whose january report data we inspected here. Our next election is in 2019, and while this is still traditionally a little early for there to be much activity, there are the finance reports. Here’s what we’ve got:


Candidate       Office    Raised      Spent     Loan    On Hand
===============================================================
S Turner         Mayor   585,267    137,758        0  2,260,407

C Brown     Controller    13,070     17,650        0     59,164

M Knox      At Large 1    28,225     12,691        0     62,856 
D Robinson  At Large 2    61,650     21,468        0    162,079
M Kubosh    At Large 3    72,475     23,841  276,000     82,360
A Edwards   At Large 4    40,345     26,349        0    147,883
J Christie  At Large 5     3,263      6,055        0     25,918

B Stardig       Dist A    56,439     24,738        0    116,794
J Davis         Dist B    22,750     12,487        0    147,300
E Cohen         Dist C    33,990     18,591        0     57,264
D Boykins       Dist D   126,000     55,556        0     96,400
D Martin        Dist E    43,900     17,226        0    123,730
S Le            Dist F     4,000      6,445   30,823     10,570
G Travis        Dist G    69,468     81,775   21,000     56,571
K Cisneros      Dist H    34,399      5,660        0     49,176
R Gallegos      Dist I    32,875     21,319        0     80,288
M Laster        Dist J    20,330      7,524        0    173,358
M Castex-Tatum  Dist K    15,375        339    3,788     43,822

A Parker                       0     10,383        0     82,854
L Green                    5,500     42,118        0     40,492
Lift the Cap PAC               0          0        0      3,987
Citizens to Keep               0      1,803        0     47,564
 Houston Strong

As you may recall, there wasn’t much in the way of fundraising for anyone except Mayor Turner last time. I don’t know if it’s due to the time of year, the approach of the next election, or the overall political climate, but as you can see nearly all of our elected officials have been busy. The report for Martha Castex-Tatum, who was elected in May to succeed the late Larry Green, is in a shorter period than everyone else since she had to post 30-day and 8-day reports for her cycle; the others are all for the full January through June time frame.

Looking at these numbers, only Jack Christie has acted like the term-limited Member that he is. Brenda Stardig, Jerry Davis, Ellen Cohen, and Mike Laster have been more or less business as usual. I’ve speculated before about the possible future ambitions they may have, and I don’t have anything to add to that. I’m sure there’s a reason why the three non-Cohen members have been stockpiling the loot like this, but until they do something tangible it’s hard to say what that might be.

Which doesn’t mean we can’t speculate at all. I look at what Dwight Boykins and David Robinson are doing and I wonder a little. Both are on the ballot next year for their final terms (as always, modulo future rulings in the interminable term limits litigation), and while Robinson had to fend off four challengers and win in a runoff in 2015, Boykins cruised home unopposed. It could be that Robinson is merely gearing up for the next battle while Boykins is doing his best to keep potential opponents at bay. It could also be that they’re looking beyond their next term to a time when both the Mayor’s office and the Controller’s office will be open seats. I have no idea and no evidence – like I said, I’m just speculating. Dave Martin is also in that “one more term and has a lot of cash” group, but we don’t tend to elect Mayors who fit Martin’s political profile, though perhaps Controller might appeal to him.

Be all that as it may, this is the first time since we switched to four-year terms and no blackout period for fundraising that we’ve seen incumbents establish a clear financial advantage for themselves. No one on the outside has yet taken a concrete step (like designating a campaign treasurer and raising their own money) towards running for a Council seat, but do keep in mind there are several now-former candidates for Congress in town who likely have some cash remaining in their coffers (sorry, I’m only checking on still-active candidates). Surely it would not be a surprise if one or more of them decided to act more locally next year. Given that possibility, it’s hard to blame any of the members who are up for re-election next year to take precautions.

The remaining reports I included because they’re there. As we learned after the death of El Franco Lee, the remaining funds in Larry Green’s campaign account are to be distributed by his campaign treasurer, whose name is Kevin Riles. As we see from Lee’s July report, there’s no particular rush to do whatever that turns out to be. I don’t remember what Citizens to Keep Houston Strong was about, but Bill White is their treasurer. I’m sure we’ll see plenty more PACs and PAC activity as we move towards referenda for firefighters’ pay parity and the revenue cap.

The long range plan for municipal waste

Something you probably missed (I know I did) from recent City Council action.

Last week Houston City Council voted to hire a company that will help local officials create and adopt a long-range waste and recycling plan. This wasn’t all over the news, but it is indeed a big deal—and a significant victory for Texas Campaign for the Environment that was years in the making. It could put Houston on a path to become the largest city in Texas working toward a Zero Waste future!

Most of the rest of the article recounts the fight over One Bin For All, followed by the fight over Mayor Turner’s original proposed recycling deal, which was eventually sent out for a rebid. True to what author Roseanne Barone writes, I couldn’t find any news about this, but you can see the Council agenda item in question here. I don’t know how long this will take to turn into a report for review, but given the way these things go it will either be breathtakingly ambitious but likely infeasible, or overly cautious and thus criticized by disappointed supporters. We’ll keep an eye out for it.

Rape kit lawsuit dismissal will be appealed

To be expected.

Two women who on Friday lost a lawsuit against the City of Houston and a variety of officials over a rape kit backlog will file an appeal, an attorney for the women announced in a news release on Tuesday.

[…]

[Attorney Randall] Kallinen has argued in court that the backlog was “a violation of the due process, equal protection and unreasonable search and seizure clauses of the Texas and United States Constitutions.”

In a news release last Friday, the City of Houston pushed back against those claims, saying that “the plaintiffs did not allege any violations of rights guaranteed by the Constitution, nor did they raise any other legal grounds to hold Houston and its current and former officials responsible.”

The city also argued that there was no longer a rape kit backlog, rendering the women’s legal claims “six years too late.” Two private laboratories eliminated that backlog in 2013 and 2014, the Chronicle previously reported.

In an interview, Kallinen pushed back against this argument, arguing that the women were not aware their rape kits had any problems until police contacted them and that “the statute of limitations should be delayed” as a result, citing what he called “the discovery rule.”

See here for the background. I have no expertise on the legal questions being raised here. My primary interest is in ensuring that we never have another rape kit backlog like this again. It’s shameful enough that it has happened before (twice, in fact). There’s no excuse for it ever happening again.

Deterring dumping

Tough problem, good use of technology.

[Radny] Scales, a Harris County Environmental Crimes Unit lieutenant, and his team of nine investigators depend heavily on video cameras to crack down on illegal dumping, a crime that disproportionally affects the city’s poorest neighborhoods.

The City Council voted last month to add 22 cameras to create a portfolio of nearly 150 total. Precinct 1’s nearly $600,000 program also includes a fleet of drones, as well as several full-time employees.

It’s paying dividends: A two-year program started in 2016 to catch those who illegally dump their trash in remote locations across Houston yielded 694 investigations and 396 charges.

“It’s been working for the city as a whole — better than what we thought,” said Jerry Davis, the councilman for District B, who initiated the program to catch illegal dumping.

The majority are people charged in the crime are private citizens: The average offender is a 50-year-old who dumps 75 pounds of waste, according to statistics the county provided. Contractors looking to dodge the expense of paying to throw away their garbage at a designated facility account for just 20 percent of offenders.

[…]

Beyond just being eyesores, illegal dumping sites present serious consequences, including being safety hazards and serving as a breeding ground for potentially disease-ridden mosquitoes, snakes and other wildlife. Dumping sites can also contribute to flooding and could potentially have a serious impact in future weather disasters.

“When you have drains that have been stopped up because people put furniture and tires and plastic, it’s going to cause flooding,” [Precinct 1 Constable Allen] Rosen said.

Illegal dumping is a big problem in some parts of the city, and has been for a long time. Video cameras are basically the only realistic hope for catching the perpetrators in the act, but it takes a lot of them because stuff gets dumped all over the place. It’s good some real resources being put into this, because it’s a real quality of life issue for a lot of people. I hope this is big enough and sustained enough to put a serious dent in the problem.

Firefighter pay proposal officially on the ballot

As required.

Houston voters in November will choose whether to grant firefighters pay “parity” with police of corresponding rank and seniority.

After weeks of wrangling over the issue — including angry debates, rare legislative maneuvers and allegations of electioneering — the city council voted unanimously Wednesday to place the proposal before voters Nov. 6.

Mayor Sylvester Turner initially gave council the option of scheduling the vote in November 2019 instead, but ultimately pulled that item from the agenda. Still, Turner repeated his concerns about the idea on Wednesday, saying it will cost the city $98 million a year and force layoffs.

The mayor said he intends to host a town hall meeting in each of the 11 council districts before November to educate voters on the issue.

“I don’t have a money-making machine,” Turner said. “I agree they deserve a pay raise, but the question is, what is our ability to pay?”

[…]

Councilman Dwight Boykins was among those who voiced support for the measure, suggesting that the city’s voter-imposed cap on property tax revenues be adjusted to help cover the cost. Boykins also floated the idea of imposing a monthly garbage fee; Houston is the only big city in Texas without one.

Turner and some other council members were, at best, reluctant to embrace those proposals.

Other council members’ concerns took various forms. Councilman Greg Travis suggested the Turner administration and the firefighters were engaged in a game of chicken in which all Houstonians would lose. Councilwoman Brenda Stardig bristled at Turner’s “threats” to cut services if the proposal passes, saying it was a breakdown in contract talks that led the firefighters to push for parity. Councilman Mike Laster, meanwhile, worried the item’s passage would have “serious unintended consequences for firefighters themselves.”

You know the background, but see here for a recent relevant post anyway. I’m going to vote against this, not that it really matters since the inevitable ballot language lawsuit only lacks a plaintiff at this point. I’ll be interested to see who takes what side in this fight – CM Boykins is the first elected official I’ve seen publicly support the idea – and how nasty it gets. Who’s going to run an anti campaign, and who’s going to contribute money to one or the other?I look forward to the 30 day reports. KUHF has more.

Lots of Harvey waivers out there

And good for the school districts that got them.

The vast majority of Houston-area school districts will be eligible for academic accountability waivers this year due to Hurricane Harvey, meaning they will be labeled “not rated” unless they score an “A” grade for excellence, the Texas Education Agency announced Wednesday.

The list of waiver-eligible districts includes 19 of the region’s 25 largest school districts. The six exceptions: Conroe, Klein, Pearland, Tomball, New Caney and Magnolia independent school districts. About 110 school districts were deemed eligible for waivers statewide, stretching from Port Aransas to Houston to Beaumont.

TEA officials on Wednesday also released the full list of roughly 1,200 Houston-area schools that will be eligible for campus-level accountability waivers, which will preclude them from receiving an “improvement required” label this year. The list, as expected, includes six Houston ISD campuses that would have triggered major state sanctions had any one received an “improvement required” rating this year. Four other HISD schools that could trigger sanctions this year are not among the waiver-eligible campuses.

[…]

Most Houston-area districts likely will not receive a letter grade for academic performance in 2018, the first year of the state’s new “A”-through-”F” accountability system, after qualifying for waivers. In previous years, districts were labeled “met standard” or “improvement required.” Campuses still will receive those two ratings in 2018, with the “A”-through-”F” system extending to schools in 2019.

In some districts, including those closed for 10 days or more due to Harvey, every campus also will be exempt from receiving an “improvement required” rating. Those districts include Alief, Fort Bend, Katy, Pasadena and Spring.

In other areas, the district and some — but not all — campuses will be eligible for accountability waivers. In Houston ISD, for example, 185 out of 285 campuses are waiver-eligible.

[…]

Klein ISD Superintendent Bret Champion said he believed any district that lost instructional time due to Harvey should receive an exemption. Klein ISD closed for seven days after Harvey, with one of its 53 campuses shuttered for the entire school year due to storm damage.

“There wasn’t a soul who wasn’t impacted by Harvey is some way, shape or form,” Champion said.

See here and here for some background. I personally agree with Bret Champion, but I wasn’t asked for my input. The stakes are higher for HISD than they are for other districts, but even without that I say the disruption was enough that a do-over for all was warranted. We’ll see what the effect of taking a less-broad approach will be.

Rape kit backlog lawsuit dismissed

Interesting.

A federal judge has dismissed a 2017 lawsuit two rape victims filed against Houston’s current mayor and police chief and five sets of predecessors, among others, for allowing a backlog of rape kits to accumulate over decades without being tested, arguing that failure ensured the plaintiffs’ attackers were on the street when they otherwise could have been behind bars.

Both women were raped by serial offenders whose DNA had long been in police databases, but who went unidentified until Houston paid two private laboratories to erase its backlog of more than 6,000 untested kits in 2013 and 2014.

The plaintiffs sought damages, saying city officials violated their rights to due process and equal protection, and that officials illegally took her property and violated her personal privacy and dignity under the Fourth Amendment.

U.S. District Judge Vanessa Gilmore dismissed the case, saying the suit had not been filed quickly enough and that the plaintiffs’ claims did not cover rights guaranteed by the Constitution.

See here for the background, and here for the Mayor’s press release. Not clear at this time if the plaintiffs intend to appeal the ruling, but that’s always a possibility. The city is working to eliminate another backlog, and I very much hope that includes a more long-range plan to prevent backlogs from occurring in the future. The city – and the county, and the state, and Congress – should not need to be coerced into doing this properly.

ReBuild re-vote

Sort of. It’s complicated.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Eight years after voters narrowly backed the idea, the controversial street and drainage program known as ReBuild Houston is expected to appear again on the November ballot in the form of an amendment to the city charter.

The immediate outcome of the election, however, may be unusually muted: Mayor Sylvester Turner said he will implement the program as it is being run today even if voters repeal the legal language that would force him to do so. The drainage fee at the heart of the program also is not at risk in the election.

“We are simply saying in November to the voters: Go and reaffirm the dedicated purpose for which this fee is intended, put a lockbox around it,” Turner said. “Voters are not being asked to increase the fee or create another fee, just to reaffirm what already is.”

[…]

Responding to a directive from Turner ahead of the fall referendum, [Houston Public Works Director Carol] Haddock said Public Works leaders are re-evaluating how ReBuild money is allocated, with the intention of placing greater weight on the drainage needs associated with a project.

“What the mayor is saying is, back in 2010, this was sold on flooding and drainage. What he’s told me is that 50 percent of the money needs to go into projects that were identified for the purposes of solving flooding and drainage,” Haddock said. “Within the confines of what’s written on the ballot language, we can shift those percentages and we can go to what was promised to the public and we can reformulate this program, reaffirm it, in what they originally bought into.”

Turner said there is much about the program he does not intend to change, noting he sees benefits to pay-as-you-go financing.

He also said that in the context of Harris County’s $2.5 billion flood bond election on Aug. 25 and incoming federal funds tied to Hurricane Harvey, it is not necessary for the city to take on more debt to try to fix the region’s inadequate infrastructure by itself.

“We don’t necessarily have to take a look at another approach,” Turner said. “We just have to tie in with things that are already taking place or in progress.”

See here for my last update regarding ReBuild Houston and the ongoing litigation over it, for which the last court action was in 2015. There was an effort to force something on the ballot last year, but it didn’t happen. We’ll need to see the language for this referendum to get an idea of what it’s about, to be followed of course by the usual threats of more litigation from the usual sources. All of this is starting to make my head hurt, so stay tuned for the August 8 Council meeting, at which some of this I hope will be made more clear.