Off the Kuff Rotating Header Image

Houston

No arbitration

And we’re on to the next phase of the firefighter pay battle.

The Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association on Tuesday asked Mayor Sylvester Turner to enter arbitration to settle its ongoing labor dispute with the city, a request the mayor shot down as he called instead for a return to collective bargaining.

The union’s request came less than a week after a state district judge ruled Proposition B unconstitutional and void. The charter amendment approved by voters last November granted firefighters the same pay as police of corresponding rank and seniority.

Turner made clear Tuesday that he does not intend to accept the union’s request.

“The city of Houston is willing to return to the table for collective bargaining which would be the regular course of business,” the mayor said in a written statement.

[…]

Fire union President Marty Lancton said the mayor had yet to contact the union about sitting down to negotiate anew. He repeatedly has questioned Turner’s claim that the city could not afford Prop B, and on Tuesday cast doubt on Turner’s willingness to negotiate a “fair raise” for firefighters.

Arbitration, Lancton contended, would resolve the pay dispute before Houston’s 2020 fiscal year starts July 1.

“This is a sensible solution,” Lancton said. “We continue to wait for the call that the mayor says he is willing to make. Let’s resolve this now, mayor.”

Turner spokeswoman Mary Benton said the union “knows how to reach the mayor,” and repeated Turner’s statement that his “door is open and he is ready and willing to meet with the fire union.”

So if I’m interpreting this correctly, the Mayor is offering to go back to the collective bargaining process, while the firefighters are saying instead let’s take our respective offers and present them to an arbitrator and let that person make the call. I’m not quite sure what to make of that. I suppose this is the HPFFA’s way of saying they trust the city to negotiate in good faith. If so, all I can say is that the city could say the same about the firefighters. Whatever the case, we’re now at a standoff about how to go about resolving the larger standoff. The firefighters can claim that they have the will of the voters on their side, but unless they win their appeal of the summary judgment declaring Prop B unconstitutional, that only means so much. In the meantime, I’m going to find my happy place and practice some deep breathing.

Kinder Houston Area Survey 2019

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

Double dipping

You almost have to admire the nerve.

CM Steve Le

Houston’s highest-paid city council staffer has continued to collect his $119,600 salary despite being out of the state in a U.S. Army military law training program since January.

Daniel Albert, chief of staff to District F Councilman Steve Le, deployed to Fort Benning in Georgia as part of the Judge Advocate General’s Officer Basic Course from Jan. 21 through March 1, learning military skills and tactics. He then reported to the JAG Legal Center & School in Virginia, where he studied military law from March 4 until Wednesday.

During his training, Albert was on active duty status, earning a lieutenant’s pay. For the first two months of his deployment, however, Albert listed standard 40-hour work weeks on his city time cards.

On March 22, Le and Albert were informed that the Houston Chronicle had requested records relating to Albert’s city work. Two days later, Albert logged into the city payroll system and scheduled six weeks of paid leave, entering 30 days of vacation or other leave — though he had accrued only 11 such days at the time. The next night, records show, he deleted those entries and used the 40 days of paid sick leave he had accumulated instead, scheduling the sick leave to run through this Friday.

City ordinance prohibits employees from working outside jobs while on sick leave. Houston city workers can use 15 days of paid military leave if they apply for that status, but city officials have no record of Albert submitting the required paperwork.

JAG school officials said Monday that Albert still was on site participating in the program, which will train him in military law and begin a years-long commitment representing the Army or Army soldiers as a reservist with the San Antonio-based 1st Legal Operations Detachment.

Le said he asked the city’s Human Resources department and Office of Inspector General to look into the issue several weeks ago after community members raised concerns.

Albert, who did not return calls for comment, said in an email that this OIG probe prevents him from discussing the matter, though he said he was concerned that unspecified “misunderstanding(s) … would condemn a person in public shame before a thorough investigation.”

“I am confident that this matter will be resolved,” he said.

Councilman Greg Travis, who said he feels a kinship to Le as a fellow political conservative, nonetheless blasted the arrangement.

“He doesn’t show up to work, and I think the frustration is shared by everyone on this floor, council staffers and council members,” Travis said of Albert. “When you have somebody in your office who’s unethical, who’s taking money for work not performed, you’ve got to fire them. There’s no way you’re out in another state and you’re performing your job.”

Councilman Dave Martin, another conservative district council member, echoed that.

“It doesn’t smell right and it has never smelled right ever since the day I found out how much money he was making and the fact that I’ve never seen the guy at City Hall — and I see every chief of staff at City Hall every single day because I go to City Hall every day,” he said. “This guy is the anomaly.”

[…]

Le, who is responsible for approving Albert’s time cards, said he approved the lengthy sick leave after Albert told him he had broken his leg and was advised by a doctor to take time off.

Le said he was unaware, however, that city rules prohibit employees from working outside jobs while on sick leave or that Albert had not used vacation days earlier in his deployment. Le said he examines Albert’s time cards but not which types of leave are used. He also said computer problems prevented him from approving time cards for part of the year.

Emphasis mine. This is not the first time that Daniel Albert’s work habits have been questioned, but this particular instance is really egregious. Putting aside CM Le’s professed ignorance of city rules (reminder: Le was elected in 2015, so he is not a dewy-eyed newbie), based on his own words either Albert lied to him about why he was claiming sick leave, or he is lying to us about why he approved the request. I mean, one either has a broken leg or one does not, and that fact ought to be easily verified. I don’t know what the mechanism is to get Daniel Albert to pay back the salary he didn’t earn to the city, but it needs to be used. And the voters in District F will want to know about all this as they decide who to support this November.

So long, red light cameras

Like ’em or not, they’re on their way out, barring a veto from Greg Abbott.

Going, going…

The Republican-led push to rid Texas intersections of red-light cameras moved one step closer to becoming law after the state Senate signed off on a measure with that aim Friday, sending the bill to Gov. Greg Abbott’s desk.

House Bill 1631 cleared the chamber on a 23-8 vote after several back-and-forths among senators about studies that both support and challenge the efficacy of the devices when it comes to promoting safer streets. The Senate left in place a key provision to allow local governments to continue operating cameras until they finish out any contracts in effect as of May 7.

“Red-light cameras violate the right to due process guaranteed under Article 1 of the Texas Constitution by creating a presumption that the registered owner of the car committed a violation when in fact that may not have been the case,” said state Sen. Bob Hall, R-Edgewood, who is sponsoring the legislation originally offered by state Rep. Jonathan Stickland, R-Bedford.

Many city officials and local law enforcement officials oppose the legislation, arguing that cameras reduce deadly accidents and bring in revenue for trauma care centers and local governments. Gesturing toward a binder with 25 studies that suggest the opposite, Hall fended off questions from fellow senators who asked about the potential loss of revenue, particularly the dollars that go to trauma care centers, from fines on drivers who run red lights.

I am officially retired from the business of arguing about red light cameras. I have come to the conclusion that the available data is just simply insufficient to answer the basic questions about their efficacy. You either believe they’re a common sense tool to discourage and penalize running red lights, or you believe they’re an unacceptable infringement on freedom. (You may also think that the contracts cities sign with camera providers are highly sketchy and will lead to cities becoming dependent on the revenue the cameras generate, with the accompanying incentive to mess with yellow light times to maintain the cash flow.) I’m sure I’d have some feelings about this if Houston still had its cameras, but this is the one incursion on local control this session that does not directly affect us. I guess I’m glad that unlike cable franchise fees, the Lege saw fit this time to allow cities that were affected some time to make adjustments.

Prop B ruled unconstitutional

Oh, my.

A state district judge on Wednesday ruled Proposition B, the voter-approved measure that grants Houston firefighters the same pay as police of corresponding rank and seniority, unconstitutional and void.

The ruling came in a lawsuit brought in November by the Houston Police Officers’ Union, which contended that the city charter amendment conflicts with the Texas Constitution.

In her ruling, state District Judge Tanya Garrison found that Chapter 174 of the local government code preempts Prop B. The city, which was named in the police union’s suit, has alleged that the parity measure section conflicts with a provision of Chapter 174 tying compensation for firefighters and police officers to that of comparable private sector employees.

Mayor Sylvester Turner briefly stopped the weekly city council meeting to announce the ruling. The fire union quickly announced it would appeal.

After the council meeting, Turner said the 60-day layoff notices he proposed and council approved sending in recent weeks to 220 firefighters and more than 110 fire cadets and municipal workers to help close a budget deficit exacerbated by Prop. B would be rescinded, along with hundreds of proposed demotions within HFD.

Turner cast the ruling as a “tremendous positive” for the city as a whole, saying he hoped it could spur a “reset” to reduce widespread acrimony over the issue. He also stressed that firefighters deserve a pay raise and looked forward to negotiating one with union leaders.

“They’re deserving of a pay raise that the city can afford and I do look forward to sitting down and talking with them about what would be an acceptable pay raise within the confines of the city’s financial capability,” Turner said. “We’ll do everything we can to move it forward.”

A release with the Mayor’s comments following the ruling, which came down while Council was in session, is here. Judge Garrison had sent the parties to mediation originally, saying she didn’t want to get involved if they could work it out among themselves. They did not, and so here we are. You can see a copy of her ruling here, which is an order granting summary judgment to the plaintiffs, the HPOU. The city is listed as the defendant and their motion was also granted, while the HPFFA’s motion was denied; someone who understands the law way better than I do will hopefully step in to explain how all that worked. Be that as it may, the firefighters will appeal, but that almost certainly means the city is off the hook for this fiscal year, possibly for the foreseeable future.

A tale of screwed cities

That’s my unofficial title for this legislative session.

The interest group representing Texas cities used to be one of the most powerful legislative forces at the Capitol. This session, it has become the GOP’s most prominent adversary.

Its members have been harangued at hearings. Targeted by a proposed ban on “taxpayer-funded lobbying.” And seen multiple proposals sail ahead over its protests.

When, around March, one mayor inquired about the reasoning for a controversial provision in a property tax bill, he said an advisor to Gov. Greg Abbott suggested, “you reap what you sow.”

The message was clear, said McKinney Mayor George Fuller: Local officials had been obstructionists in the past.

Though the antagonistic relationship between Texas cities and the state has been building for years, this session has reached the fever pitch of all out legislative assault, said Austin Mayor Steve Adler, in April. Typically, the Texas Municipal League tracks bills it opposes that are gaining momentum in the Legislature. This session, the group had amassed more than 150.

Among them, was a cable franchise fees bill authored by state Rep. Dade Phelan, a Beaumont Republican and chair of the powerful State Affairs Committee. After the Texas Municipal League warned its members the proposal could cut into cities’ revenue, Phelan had a concise response for the group, which represents 1,156 of Texas’ roughly 1,200 cities.

“When you are in a hole — you should stop digging,” Phelan recommended, in an email obtained by The Texas Tribune.

In an interview, Phelan said he harbored no animus toward the organization, but took umbrage with its opposition to legislation his constituents want. The sentiment is widely-shared in the Legislature, Phelan said, as evidenced by the support the bills on taxpayer-funded lobbying and franchise fees have garnered.

“Those bills have never gotten out of committee before,” he said. The Texas Municipal League represents “their own interests and we are representing the taxpayers.”

“I think there’s a disconnect sometimes,” he added.

The group’s leaders see a different trend. They say model legislation with an anti-city bent has been exported from conservative think tanks and taken root at statehouses across the country. At the same time, Republican strongholds have shifted to the suburbs, making progressive city leaders convenient whipping boys for politicians from the president on down.

There’s more, so go read the rest. It really does boil down to two things. One is the Republicans’ refusal to address our tax system in a meaningful way. There are things we could do to make the property tax system more equitable. There are things we could do with sales taxes to bring in more revenue in a way that wouldn’t be so regressive. Our whole tax system is a byzantine mess, but the only thing that we’re allowed to talk about is cutting property taxes. This session that means putting the screws to cities, even though local property taxes aren’t driving the growth of property tax collections. The Republicans are looking for a political solution, and cities are a convenient target.

Which leads to point two: Cities are liberal and Democratic, so it’s a twofer for state Republicans to stick it to them. And don’t think that having a Republican mayor would change anything:

“I understand the political atmosphere to reduce taxes; there’s no one that would be more aligned with that than I am,” said El Paso Mayor Dee Margo, a former Republican state lawmaker. “But I’m also trying to deal with basics. I say I’m the mayor of public safety, potholes, and parks.”

El Paso’s property values — and so its tax base — is growing at a slower clip than other parts of the state, he said. Though the factors differ from city to city, each municipality has different needs and budgets, and local leaders say they are unaccounted for under a blanket property tax reform policy.

“The frustration is that we are grouped, coupled with across-the-board perceptions,” Margo said.

That’s because your Republican former colleagues don’t care about any of that, Mayor Margo. The only way forward here is to vote them out.

Federal lawsuit filed over homeless feeding ordinance

I’m kind of surprised that this hadn’t been filed before now.

On a recent evening in April, a few dozen people experiencing homelessness lined up outside Central Library in downtown Houston for a free — and illegal — meal of vegetarian chili, macaroni, rice and fruit salad. Volunteers with Food Not Bombs, an international organization with hundreds of local chapters, often serve free dinner here, violating a local ordinance against publicly feeding groups of people without city permission.

Houston’s so-called charitable-feeding ordinance was enacted in 2012 and allows groups and individuals to feed up to five homeless people, no strings attached. To feed more, though, you must register with the city — or face fines up to $2,000 and a misdemeanor charge for violating the Houston Code of Ordinances. Additionally, would-be do-gooders have to take a food handling training class; provide the proposed schedule, time and location of the ad-hoc soup kitchen; detail the food being served; and fill out an online form to receive permission from the city to give food in public.

On Monday, activists filed a federal lawsuit seeking to overturn the ordinance on First Amendment grounds. Food Not Bombs and three of its members are plaintiffs in the suit, filed against the City of Houston in the U.S. Southern District of Texas. The lawsuit accuses the city of infringing on freedom of speech and religious liberties of the anti-war, food-sharing activists. It asks Houston to overthrow the ban and seeks unspecified monetary damages.

The ordinance infringes on “freedom of association” and “political organizing” and is “unconstitutionally vague,” the lawsuit argues. It cites at least 19 pro-food-sharing verses from the Bible. Randall Kallinen, who has filed numerous civil rights lawsuits in Houston, is representing the activists. In interviews with the Observer, he described the ordinance as “totally ridiculous” and part of an effort to “get the homeless out of town.”

While the lawsuit adds to pressure against Houston, the effort to overturn the city’s ban is not new. A parallel lawsuit also involving Kallinen has been floundering in state district court since 2017, and over 75,000 people have signed an online petition calling for an end to the “cruel” ordinance.

See here for some more on the state court lawsuit. A copy of this lawsuit is embedded in the story, and it’s something else. I like to make I Am Not A Lawyer jokes, but I can read legal briefs and motions and generally understand what they’re getting at. This one is in a way a lot easier to read because there’s almost no legal language in it. I mean, there’s a page quoting from the Food Not Bombs website. There’s more than two pages quoting bible verses, and three pages listing organizations that they say oppose the law. The legal arguments section does cite a couple of court cases, but it never quotes anything from the cited decisions, which leaves one to wonder just how those decisions apply to the case at hand.

Most of the arguments they make themselves have to do with the vagueness of the term “those in need” from the ordinance’s definition of “charitable food service”, which is “providing food without charge, payment or other compensation to benefit those in need at an outdoor location not owned, leased or controlled by the individual or organization providing the food.” I mean, I was a math major and I Am Not A Lawyer, but that seems pretty straightforward to me. Their point seems to be that an organization that was handing out food (at an outdoor location not owned, leased or controlled by the individual or organization providing the food) to random passersby would not be in violation of the law. Maybe that could work as a theoretical construct, but I have a hard time imagining it happening in real life.

The writer of this story is clearly sympathetic to the plaintiffs. I get that, but even the lightest critical analysis of the lawsuit shows the problems with it. I’m not sure how the reader is served by that omission. We’ll see what the court makes of this, but color me skeptical.

Chris Bell looking at a Senate run

We haven’t had one of these stories in a couple of weeks.

Chris Bell

Chris Bell, the former Democratic congressman and gubernatorial nominee from Houston, is mulling a bid for U.S. Senate in 2020 against U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas.

Bell told the Tribune on Monday that he is taking a “serious look” at the race in the wake of the recent decision by U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-San Antonio, to pass on a bid against Cornyn. Bell said he is in the “very early” stage of deliberations but believes he would need to make a decision by this summer to be able to run a viable campaign.

There are already several Democratic candidates, including former U.S. House contender MJ Hegar, and a couple of other prominent names are still weighing whether to run. Bell expressed confidence that he could break through.

“I certainly think it’s a field I could compete in,” Bell said, touting his long record helping build up the party in Texas. “Many of us believe this is the year the pendulum finally swings.”

[…]

Bell, who now has his own law firm in Houston, said he thought he was done with running for office but like many Democrats, he felt compelled to “stay involved or get involved” after President Donald Trump’s election in 2016. Bell said he had hoped Beto O’Rourke, the former El Paso Congressman who made an unsuccessful but high-profile bid for U.S. Senate last year, would run for the U.S. Senate again in 2020. After both O’Rourke and Castro opted against challenging Cornyn, Bell began considering what he could bring to the race.

“I think a big part of my message would be a lot of people are looking to Texas now for guidance, and we’re in a perfect position to lead,” Bell said, pointing to issues such as immigration reform and climate change. He also echoed other Democrats in claiming Cornyn has been afraid to stand up for Texas, shrinking behind Trump as well as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.

I like Chris Bell. He was a good member of Congress, whose career there was cut short by the DeLay re-redistricting of 2003. He was a better candidate for Governor in 2006 than he’s ever gotten credit for, and if the trial lawyers had gotten over their obsession with Carole Keeton Strayhorn and figured out they needed to help push Democratic voters to support the Democratic candidate in that year’s multi-candidate pileup for Governor, he might have won. (VaLinda Hathcox, the Democratic candidate for Land Commissioner in 2006, got more votes in her race than Rick Perry did. Look it up.) He ran a progressive campaign for Mayor in 2015. (*)

All that said, I’m hard pressed to think of anyone who’d be excited by a Chris Bell candidacy. Going by the criteria I suggested for potential John Cornyn opponents, he doesn’t really meet any of them. He’s held office and run statewide before, and he’ll have some measure of support in Houston. That gives him a shot in a primary, but it would also probably spur Emily’s List to quit waiting to see if Amanda Edwards jumps in and start getting behind MJ Hegar now. It’s fine by me if Chris Bell want to run for Senate. As stated before, I’d prefer a primary with more than one serious candidate in it, if only to ensure that everyone starts engaging voters now. Chris Bell is welcome to run, and may the best candidate win. But that’s about as enthusiastic as I’m gonna get about it.

(*) – He then threw that all away to endorse Bill King in the runoff. Democratic primary voters will remember that. The Chron has more.

How should we feel about Joaquin Castro not running for Senate?

The Chron’s Erica Greider has opinions.

Rep. Joaquin Castro

In announcing that he won’t challenge Republican U.S. Sen John Cornyn next year, Texas congressman Joaquin Castro explained that he wanted to focus on the “important and meaningful work” he is doing in Congress.

Many Texas Democrats were saddened by this news because they were hoping Castro would run statewide. Others were disgruntled by it because they would like to flip the Senate seat, and Castro would have been a strong candidate in a year when Democrats hope to recapture control of the U.S. Senate.

I would have been proud to vote for Castro, but have little sympathy for those who denounced his decision as overly cautious. Both he and his twin brother, Julián, have faced this criticism at various points during their respective careers in electoral politics, and it’s not entirely baseless. The Castro twins are deliberate in their decision-making, and reluctant to take unnecessary risks.

[…]

Cornyn was re-elected by a 26-point margin in 2014, but he can hardly be considered invincible given the strong showing of Democrats in last year’s midterm elections. Other Democrats have taken notice. M.J. Hegar, an Air Force veteran and the 2018 Democratic nominee in Texas’ 31st Congressional District, threw her hat in the ring last month. Houston City Councilwoman Amanda Edwards is also mulling a bid, and other contenders may come forward now that Castro has taken a pass on a 2020 Senate race.

And although there’s a sense among Democrats that now is the time to stand up Preisdent Donald Trump, it’s worth remembering that Castro is already in a position to do that as a member of Congress. He represents a heavily Democratic district, and is unlikely to face a primary challenge. His stature in Washington has grown with the Democratic takeover of the House last fall, as has his presence in the national media: he’s a frequent guest on cable TV news shows to discuss the Russia investigation or Trump’s border policies.

Frankly, Castro can probably serve as the congressman from Bexar County until he decides to do something else.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but the issue is not that Joaquin Castro decided to stay put in Congress. The issue is that someone on behalf of Joaquin Castro let it be known that he was “all but certain” to announce his candidacy. If you do that, and then you follow it with weeks of silence and an announcement that you’re not running, well, people are going to wonder what you were thinking, and doing. Had it not been for that initial “all but certain” trail balloon, we wouldn’t be having this conversation now. I wish I knew the story behind how and why that story got floated in the first place. Maybe some day we will.

In the meantime, there’s another person out there pondering a possible run, and this story about Stacy Abrams’ visit to Houston checks in on her.

The annual fundraising event drew a who’s-who of local Democrats, some of whom expressed similar optimism about the upcoming election cycle — including At-Large Councilwoman Amanda Edwards, who told reporters she still is mulling a run for the U.S. Senate seat held by Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas.

“I’m feeling encouraged right now,” Edwards said. “I think that change is on the horizon in Texas, and I think the 2020 election cycle is when it will take place.”

Edwards said the Democratic nominee would have to “galvanize the base” to beat Cornyn, adding that her prospective campaign would draw lessons from the one run last cycle by Beto O’Rourke, whom Edwards said she has spoken with about her own possible run.

I remain skeptical of an Edwards candidacy, for basically the same reason why I was initially skeptical of Joaquin for Senate: Edwards has no opposition of note for re-election to Council At Large #4, and four years from now she’d make a very credible candidate for Mayor if she wants to do that. Would you give that up for a longshot at the Senate? Maybe Amanda Edwards would, I don’t know. I feel like she’s unlikely to draw this decision out for too long – if nothing else, the filing deadline for Houston municipal elections is the end of August – but we’ll see.

Census outreach

I am puzzled why this is controversial.

A divided city council on Wednesday approved a $650,000 contract aimed at boosting the number of Houston residents who participate in the 2020 census, a measure that generated partisan debate in which some council members worried the outreach would have a liberal bent.

Under the contract, Lopez Negrete Communications — a firm specializing in Hispanic marketing — will conduct outreach intended to improve response rates in the 2020 national survey. Council members passed the deal on an 11-6 vote, with most of the council’s conservative cohort voting against it.

The hour-long debate centered around allegations from a handful of council members who said subcontracting companies or partnering organizations may conduct census outreach in a way that is slanted toward Democrats or liberals.

Mayor Sylvester Turner repeatedly dismissed the idea, telling council members the contract “has no partisan bent at all,” and would bring in more money to Houston, because the federal government distributes funds to cities and other local communities based on census data.

The mayor has said a signficant undercount could impact city services, with each uncounted person costing the city about $1,500 in federal funding. In 2018, the Census Bureau posted a slow population growth estimate for Houston, creating a $17 million hole in the city budget.

At-Large Councilman Mike Knox clashed with Turner over the deal, expressing concern that the main firm would partner with organizations that have unknown “missions and agendas.” For instance, Knox said council could not prevent organizations from conducting voter registration efforts amid census outreach.

[…]

District I Councilman Robert Gallegos, a vocal supporter of the contract, criticized his colleagues for opposing it, saying outreach is needed to counteract the impact of a possible census citizenship question.

“Residents in my district are fearful of filling out that census,” said Gallegos, whose southeast Houston district is overwhelmingly Hispanic.

He also said it was “frightening” that Knox took exception to the deal over concerns that those conducting census outreach may also register people to vote.

“That right there, I just thought it was a joke,” Gallegos said after the meeting. He said Houston would risk losing social programs and political representation if the city’s population is under-counted.

Either Lopez Negrete will do a good job of delivering the service they have been contracted to provide – boosting the response rate on the Census, to ensure that Houston is properly counted and thus gets its fair share of political representation and federal resources – at a fair price, or they won’t. I’m not saying a firm’s politics or values can’t be an issue, but the job has to be the first priority, and I don’t see anyone raising concerns about that. As for Mike Knox’s issues with Lopez Negrete possibly registering voters, I presume this is the usual Republican fear and loathing, and I have no time for that. Let’s make sure all our people get counted. That’s what matters. KUHF has more.

Firefighters get Prop B back pay

Good for them.

The city of Houston on Friday issued lump-sum paychecks to more than 3,900 firefighters, a move Mayor Sylvester Turner said reflects the implementation, retroactive to Jan. 1, of Proposition B, the measure granting firefighters the same pay as police of corresponding rank and experience.

Marty Lancton, president of the Houston fire union, said that contrary to the mayor’s “Orwellian claims,” the paychecks did not fully equalize base and incentive pay between fire and police, as laid out in Proposition B. Lancton said the city “badly botched” implementation of the measure.

The back pay, worth $27.4 million, comes a week after Turner and the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association ended court-ordered mediation without an agreement to phase in the raises over several years.

[…]

For now, the fire department’s biweekly payroll will increase from about $10.2 million to $12.3 million, Turner said. The city has dipped into its reserves to fund raises from Jan. 1 through June 30, which Turner said will cost $31 million. Lancton also has questioned the accuracy of that figure.

Both sides, meanwhile, are awaiting a state district judge’s ruling in a lawsuit brought by the Houston Police Officers’ Union, in which the police union and city have alleged Prop B violates the Texas constitution.

I don’t have anything to add to this, I’m just noting it for the record. I look forward to the day when I will be able to get all of this out of my brain, as I hope to do with Game 6 of Rockets-Warriors.

Cable franchise fees

Hey, remember how the city of Houston had to lay off a bunch of workers to to close a $179 million budget deficit? Well, there’s more where that came from.

The Texas House on Thursday approved legislation that would limit fees telecommunication and cable companies pay cities to use their rights of way, likely opening up a new spending gap of at least $12 million two days after Mayor Sylvester Turner laid out his proposed budget for the upcoming fiscal year.

Senate Bill 1152, authored by state Sen. Kelly Hancock, R-North Richland Hills, passed the House on a 92-50 vote on the third and final reading Thursday. The legislation, which had received Senate approval early last month, heads back to the upper chamber, where lawmakers will decide whether to approve the House version.

The measure would eliminate what cable companies and some lawmakers say is an outdated double tax levied on companies that transmit cable and phone services over the same lines. The bill would eliminate the lesser of the two charges, starting next January.

Opponents say the bill amounts to a gift for large telecom firms, which would not be required to pass the savings on to consumers because the state is barred from regulating cable rates. Turner had urged lawmakers to oppose the measure, saying it would deliver a financial hit to Houston.

Those who back the bill say companies still would pay millions for the remaining charge, arguing that cities would lose only a small portion of their revenue. The House companion bill’s author, state Rep. Dade Phelan, noted Wednesday that only one other state — Oregon — still charges both fees.

Turner blasted lawmakers in a statement Thursday, accusing them of attempting to “unconstitutionally take the value of Houston’s right-of-way” through the bill. He also lauded state Rep. Harold Dutton, D-Houston, for attempting to stop the legislation through a procedural maneuver.

[…]

A Legislative Budget Board analysis determined that Houston would take in $17.1 million to $27.5 million less revenue under the bill. Estimates for other cities include $9.2 million in Dallas, $7.9 million in San Antonio and $6.3 million in Austin.

An updated estimate provided by the city Thursday projected it would receive $12.6 million to $24.4 million less revenue during the 2020 fiscal year, which begins July 1.

It sure has been a great session for cities, hasn’t it? Here’s that earlier story, which I confess I never got around to blogging about. You know who else has had nothing to say about it? Bill King and Tony Buzbee. Way to be looking out for the city’s financial interests, y’all.

As for the fee itself, I can see the argument for getting rid of it, but let’s be clear about two things. One, if you believe this will result in a reduction in your cable or internet bill, I have some oceanfront property in Lubbock you might be interested in. And two, given the financial hit this will impose on cities, would it have killed anyone to phase this in after a year or two, so cities – all of which are required to have balanced budgets – could have had some time to adjust? What exactly was the rush here? Look at the roll call vote, and if you’re in one of those cities – especially Houston – and your Rep supported this, please call their office and ask them that question.

Buzbee files another lawsuit

Tony Buzbee does what Tony Buzbee does.

Houston mayoral candidate and attorney Tony Buzbee has filed a lawsuit on behalf of two companies that allege they were fraudulently listed as subcontractors by two companies that later secured millions of dollars for Hurricane Harvey relief work from the city of Houston.

Filed Tuesday in Harris County, the action alleges that Blessed Enterprises and A-Status Construction LLC were unaware that they were listed as minority-owned subcontractors by Burghli Investments and Tegrity Houston LLC, which each received $66 million from the city to help rebuild or rehabilitate homes affected by the storm.

They allege that the companies committed “fraud, misappropriation and implied breach of contract” in order to meet diversity goals and obtain contracts that were approved by City Council. The owners of the companies represented by Buzbee said they learned they were listed on the bids through a website run by the Office of Business of Opportunity, which monitors the program.

[…]

At a Tuesday press conference, Buzbee said he filed the lawsuit out of concern for minority-owned businesses that “routinely are shut out” of the bid process and “never get a piece of the pie.”

The companies he represents are both certified for business with the city, but say they have never received a contract. They say the city’s bid process is unfair, and that the allegedly fraudulent use of their names could damage their reputations and, thus, their ability to get future contracts.

“I worked hard to get where I am,” A-Status Construction owner Raquel Boujourne said “I find it extremely unfair to see these same companies be awarded contract after contract while I am over here working my butt off… Businesses like ours, the little guys, are taken advantage of and the city does not lift a finger to do anything about it. It is a huge problem.”

Buzbee also claimed that Burghli Investments received business with the city because it gave campaign contributions to Turner, despite having been sued multiple times for tax delinquency.

The city’s bidding process, Buzbee said, is “not about who you are, it’s about who you know.”

Turner called the allegations “ludicrous” and “vague.”

“Mayor Turner has received no donation from the owner of Tegrity,” a spokesperson for his re-election campaign said in a statement. “He received one donation from Deanna Burghli of $2,000 in December 2015 before he was elected mayor. In that same month, Mr. Buzbee and his wife both maxed out donations to Mr. Turner of $5,000 each, along with donations from his law firm staff. This again shows Mr. Buzbee will say, do and spend anything to be elected mayor.”

Like I said, this is what he does. I’m starting to think that filing all the lawsuits and conducting crappy robo-polls are the entirity of Buzbee’s campaign strategy. Though honestly, I shouldn’t underestimate his ability to dream up stupid stunts. It’s his money, but boy I wish he’d have picked a less public midlife crisis to pursue.

The firefighters have a new enemy

It’s a renewable resource.

CM David Robinson

Houston City Councilman David Robinson said he returned $7,500 in campaign contributions from the city’s firefighter union because of ethical concerns.

Robinson was one of two council members who said they received text messages from Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association President Marty Lancton asking them to return campaign contributions from the union’s political action committee. They said they received those texts after city council last month voted to send 60-day layoff notices to 220 firefighters to help offset the costs of implementing Proposition B, the voter-approved charter amendment that requires the city to pay firefighters the same salaries as police of corresponding rank and seniority. Robinson and Councilmember Martha Castex-Tatum, who said she also was asked to return her donation, voted for the layoff notices.

In an April 29 letter to Lancton, Robinson wrote that he believes it is “improper” to keep the donations he has received from the HPFFA’s political action committee since 2016 if they were intended to sway his votes on issues related to Prop B. The letter said a check for $7,500 was enclosed.

“I also did not realize, until I read your text, that you expected a certain vote or outcome in exchange for those donations,” Robinson wrote. “I find it highly inappropriate for your organization to expect that I would take specific actions on your behalf in return for contributions.”

[…]

Though the requests to return political contributions are not illegal, they could backfire on the fire union, Rice University political scientist Mark Jones said.

For the most part, Jones said, the union rarely has acted in ways that could turn public opinion against them. The requests, he said, could make people view the union is “corrupt” and “petty,” while elected officials such as Robinson appear above the influence of outside interests.

“This time they overstepped, and they’re the ones looking bad, not the elected officials,” he said. “If anything, it makes elected officials look good.”

There’s more to the exchange, including Lancton’s response, which I’ll leave to you to discover for yourself. Robinson has one Republican opponent so far, though there’s plenty of time for others to arise. He’s also got $200K in the bank, which I daresay made returning that one check a bit easier. As for the firefighters, it’s all fun and games until the people you pick fights with win re-election. We’ll see how that goes.

Here’s the Mayor’s budget

A lot of people won’t like it, but this is what happens when you heap a big expense on top of an already tight fiscal situation.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner on Tuesday proposed to close Houston’s $179 million budget gap for the upcoming fiscal year by tapping into the city’s reserves, eliminating more than 60 vacant positions and laying off more than 300 city employees.

Turner’s proposal would reduce the overall budget of city departments by about $36 million, a figure that includes layoffs of firefighters, fire cadets and municipal workers, all of whom have received pink slips.

The mayor’s budget also would draw $116 million from the city’s reserves, which Turner said the city can afford because it will end the 2019 fiscal year with a higher-than expected general fund balance. The next fiscal year begins July 1.

Laying out the final budget proposal of his first term, Turner framed the financial plan as conservative and said his administration “scrubbed every department” in search of places to trim costs. The budget also uses a conservative projection for the amount of new property tax revenue Houston may take in, Turner said.

[…]

Turner said a large chunk of the 2.2 percent increase in general fund spending is driven by the cost of Proposition B, the voter-approved charter amendment that grants firefighters the same pay as police of corresponding rank and seniority. The raises will cost $79 million during the next budget year, Turner said.

District E Councilman Dave Martin agreed with Turner’s fiscal assessment of the budget, contending that the city has faced a challenging situation with small revenue growth projections — about 2 percent in property taxes and 1 percent across all sources — amid large added costs such as Prop B.

“We’ve been working on this for nine months, accumulating a healthy fund balance, not filling slots that were available for employment,” said Martin, who chairs the council’s Budget and Fiscal Affairs Committee.

Under Turner’s proposal, public safety — which includes the fire and police departments, the municipal courts and emergency operations — would make up about 58 percent of the general fund budget, at a cost of $1.5 billion. The fire department’s budget would increase to $558 million, a 4.5 percent boost over how much the city estimates it will spend on the department this year.

The fire department was allocated $503 million in the current budget. Total projected spending, however, has grown to about $534 million with the city covering Prop B raises retroactive to Jan. 1. Turner said the adjusted paychecks would go out Friday.

[…]

Controller Chris Brown, the city’s elected budget watchdog, said he does not feel confident that Turner has accurately projected Prop B’s cost because the mayor has yet to supply his office with financial data backing up the $79 million estimate. Brown also wants to generate his own independent figure, which he said he cannot do without certain incentive pay data.

Turner told reporters Tuesday that the city attorney, Ron Lewis, had determined the city’s interpretation of Prop B would withstand legal challenges.

Still, Brown said the city has little breathing room if a judge rules the firefighters are owed more. He noted that the budget would dip the city’s target fund balance within striking distance of the minimum level allowed by city policy. The city’s reserves must make up at least 7.5 percent of the city’s general fund budget, and the 2020 budget target would leave the balance at $171 million — 7.9 percent, $9 million above the threshold.

“What if a judge says, ‘You know what, we think that this is $100 million,’ and we need to pay immediately this additional money?” Brown said. “Where is that money coming from?”

I see on Twitter that some firefighters have highlighted the above quote from Controller Brown, while in this article Marty Lancton again complains that Mayor Turner isn’t implementing Prop B exactly the way he wants it to be implemented. Well, someone has to talk about the cost of Prop B. As for Brown, he’s just doing his job. And the possibility that the cost of Prop B could go up on a judge’s order is a good point and more than a little disturbing.

From here, the budget goes through Council, where they can propose amendments and do whatever they’re going to do with it. I’ll be very interested to see if any of the ones that voted against the layoffs have anything constructive to suggest for how to avoid, or at least reduce them. The budget vote is scheduled for June 5, so mark your calendar.

Metro’s challenge

It’s all about BRT.

Houston transit officials are betting on bus rapid transit as a big part of the region’s long-term plans, at times going as far as calling it the “wave of the future.”

If seeing is believing, however, voters in the region will go into the election booth blind when it comes to bus rapid transit, or BRT. Houston has local buses, MetroLift buses, commuter buses and even articulated buses on major routes, but BRT is MIA.

“(Light) rail seems to be very well maintained and it has a high degree of reliability,” said Lex Frieden, a Metropolitan Transit Authority board member. “BRT, since we have not experienced that, we can only imagine how a bus can be as stable as the sense you have on a train. How can it be as reliable as a train? Part of the issue is familiarity.”

Growing transit, specifically via BRT, is a major component of the $7.5 billion plan Metro developed over the past 18 months. The agency is expected to ask voters for authority to borrow money in November, with the specifics of the projects still under review. Plans include 20 more miles of light rail, two-way HOT lanes along most freeways and about 75 miles of BRT.

Bus rapid transit uses large buses to operate mostly along dedicated lanes, offering service similar to light rail without the cost or construction of train tracks. It has proven successful in communities such as Cleveland and Los Angeles.

The first foray into BRT in the region will be along Post Oak Boulevard in the Uptown area. Drivers already have felt the construction pain, but riders will not hop aboard until next March, months later than initially scheduled when construction began in 2016.

In the interim, Metro will try to convince people to support something most have never seen. Part of that will mean getting people to reconsider their own biases.

“The second people hear bus, they have an image in their mind,” said Metro board member Sanjay Ramabhadran.

[…]

If voters approve, BRT could become a big part of regional transit. Metro plans BRT along five major corridors, at an estimated cost of $3.15 billion. The routes mostly mirror where Metro previously proposed rail, most notably between the University of Houston and Uptown and from downtown to Bush Intercontinental Airport.

The former, once dubbed the University Line, long has been a point of contention. Voters in 2003 narrowly approved the Metro Solutions plan that included light rail from UH, through downtown and on to Uptown, but the project sputtered under intense opposition from residents along Richmond Avenue.

Now resurrected as a bus rapid transit project, the pains of the previous rail fight linger. Transit critics still question Metro’s ability to execute a major project that does not disrupt traffic, noting the Post Oak project has taken longer than expected and derailed driving along the street.

Rail backers, meanwhile, insist trains are superior, with some opposed to any Metro plan that does not include trains to and from downtown and Uptown.

I mean, we don’t have BRT now, but we almost had it for the Green and Purple lines back when Frank Wilson and David Wolff were screwing things up at Metro. There were questions about the funding for those lines, which were eventually resolved in Metro’s favor. (I wrote about this stuff at the time, but I’m too lazy to look up the links right now. Please take my word for it.) The concept isn’t completely new to Houston, is what I’m saying.

Be that as it may, I’m not too worried about BRT being a negative for Metro in the referendum. The question, as is usually the case with referenda, is who will oppose this, and how much money they will put into opposing it. Will John Culberson rise like a white walker and raise a bunch of untraceable PAC money to block the issue? (We still don’t know who funded the anti-Metro effort from 2003, by the way.) How will the Mayor’s race affect this? We know Bill King is anti-rail, but I don’t know what (or if) Tony Buzbee thinks about it. It’s too early to say how this will play out. Metro does have to come up with a good marketing plan for its referendum, once it is finalized – they’ve been busy running a bunch of generic feel-good spots during the NBA playoffs – but get back to me when and if organized opposition arises.

Mediation fails to achieve Prop B agreement

I have three things to say about this.

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner on Friday said a court-appointed mediator has declared negotiations between the city and firefighters union over the implementation of Proposition B at impasse, potentially leaving the future of the measure in the hands of a state district judge.

The announcement ends what had appeared to be some progress toward resolving the months-long dispute over how to phase in raises to firefighters required by the pay parity measure voters approved last November. The charter amendment requires the city to pay firefighters the same as police of corresponding rank and experience.

[…]

State district Judge Tanya Garrison had ordered the city, firefighters and the Houston Police Officers Union into non-binding mediation three weeks ago. Garrison’s order came as part of a legal battle between the three sides over the constitutionality of Prop B; she declined to rule on that issue until the three parties reached a settlement on implementation or an impasse was declared by the third-party mediator.

The three groups had met at least three times since.

At issue is how to implement the raises. The fire union has said it would ask its members to consider a three-and-a-half-year phase-in as long as no firefighters are demoted or laid off. Turner had said the city cannot avoid layoffs unless Prop B raises are phased in over five years.

At a Friday morning press conference, however, Turner said the city had agreed to the fire union’s previous offer to phase in the raises over three and a half years, with no firefighters demoted or laid off.

Turner said the union then refused to accept that agreement, as well as another offer that would have given it hundreds of millions of dollars in a block grant-like arrangement that the union could use at its discretion.

He accused the union of repeatedly “moving the goal posts,” and said that agreeing to its full demands would devastate Houston’s finances and credit rating.

“The city cannot go beyond what we have proposed without bankrupting the city,” he said. “As long as I am mayor, we are not going to bankrupt this city. Everyone in the city would pay the price.”

Mediator David Matthiesen did not respond to a request for comment Friday.

In a statement, the fire union said it had agreed to take a four-year phase-in to its members if pay parity was implemented “effective immediately,” the city agreed to no layoffs and if the city disclosed “what each firefighter will earn in salary and incentive pay.”

HPFFA President Marty Lancton also said the city demanded in negotiations that Prop B be rescinded and declared unconstitutional, a request he adamantly opposed.

“Citizens’ rights to petition the local government must be protected,” he said.

1. You really have to admire Marty Lancton’s ability to keep the focus of this debate on one point, which is the pay raise that the voters agreed to give the firefighters. The fight here is not over whether or not to implement Prop B, it’s over how to do it. That’s what the mediation was about, that’s what the layoffs are about. The firefighters don’t like the way the city is implementing Prop B and have been complaining nonstop – and very successfully, at least from a short term political perspective – about it. Their grievance is that some firefighters will be laid off, and some others demoted, in order for the city to pay for Prop B. If the city had decided instead to lay off police officers, solid waste workers, and more municipal employees instead, there’s nothing in the firefighters’ rhetoric to suggest they’d have had a problem with that. Beyond the fact that it was clear from the beginning that the city could not afford Prop B, this right here is why I don’t have much sympathy for the firefighters.

2. That said, part of the litigation that was brought by the police officers’ union was a claim that Prop B is illegal and should be invalidated by the court. The argument here is that the pay parity law conflicts with state law about collective bargaining. I Am Not A Lawyer, and I have no insight into that question. I had thought originally that the litigation over Prop B would follow the template of previous lawsuits over city referenda and be about ballot language. I was wrong about that, which is why I like to emphasize my not-a-lawyer status in these matters. Be that as it may, it seems like a big stretch to get an election overturned. I will be surprised if Judge Garrison (who, full disclosure, is a friend of mine) rules for the plaintiffs. But again, I Am Not A Lawyer, so place your bets at your own risk.

3. The last couple of paragraphs in this story are about how the people other than Sylvester Turner who are running for Mayor are also critical of his handling of Prop B implementation, without a single word being quoted about what these alternative Mayors think should be done instead. They don’t like what the Mayor is doing, they oppose what the Mayor is doing, but what would they be doing if they were Mayor? You cannot tell from reading this story. Perhaps the reporter chose not to include what they said about that, perhaps the story editor excised it for space, or perhaps none of them had anything useful to say on the topic. You can probably guess which one I think it is.

Still waiting to see if an anti-Texas Central bill passes

There’s still time, and anything can happen in the Lege, but so far it’s looking like Texas Central will make it through more or less unscathed.

High-speed rail developers have been eyeing a 240-mile stretch of mostly rural land sandwiched between the urban hubs of Dallas and Houston for years. Their goal: buy it up and build America’s first bullet train.

But several rural landowners don’t plan on giving up their private property without a fight. And their supporters in the Legislature have filed so many bills that could disrupt Texas Central Partners LLC’s plans that there’s an entire subcommittee tackling the ongoing battle over the multibillion dollar project.

“We know why all the bills before this subcommittee were filed,” said W. Brad Anderson, an eminent domain attorney working for Texas Central. “The underlying purpose of those bills is to stop the high-speed rail.”

Texas Central is used to such legislative opposition. For the past two sessions, opponents have filed bills aimed at crippling or killing the high-speed rail project, but it’s remained relatively unscathed. This year, there are more bills than ever before, according to grassroots group Texans Against High-Speed Rail president and chairman Kyle Workman.

[…]

“The majority of all rail bills, if not all, are anti-rail,” said state Rep. Terry Canales, D-Edinburg, who chairs the House Transportation Committee and created the new high-speed rail subcommittee.

Many of the bills follow a similar pattern: they would require a high-speed rail developer to raise money needed for construction, acquire federal permits, or secure necessary land before surveying or building any part of the line. And in some cases, lawmakers don’t want developers to be able to collaborate with the state on how to access rights-of-way around highways.

At a hearing last week, Texas Central representatives said the bills so far unfairly target the project and impose unfair requirements that other similar projects, like natural gas pipelines, don’t have.

But Kyle Workman said in an interview with The Tribune that the package of bills doesn’t target Texas Central. Rather, he says regulations are necessary for the new high-speed rail industry so private property rights and government resources are protected if a company can’t follow through on a project due to, for example, lack of funding or inability to get permits.

“If I was a power line company and I was going to run a brand spankin’ new power line system that had never been done before….We’d have to get that approved first,” he said.

[…]

Dallas and Houston city representatives criticized the flurry of legislative moves as potentially significant obstacles to their cities’ growth.

Molly Carroll, executive project manager for the high-speed rail project with the City of Dallas, said the bullet train could revitalize an “underserved” area of the city just south of downtown — fostering an estimated 500 jobs and 20 million square feet of new development valued at $8 billion.

“The high-speed rail project is a catalyst project the city has needed to kickstart the rebuilding in this part of our city,” she said. “This is a once-in-a-generation project and opportunity that the city of Dallas and the great state of Texas cannot afford to miss.”

Advocates and legislators on both sides say it’s too soon to know the future of high-speed rail reforms this session – but Workman said, even without a legislative victory, the session would still be a success.

“Are we going to get all these bills passed? No…We might not get any passed, but we’re raising awareness on the issue,” he said. “Texas Central has a lot of muscle, but we’re staying after them.”

See here for the previous update. I mean, maybe I’m reading too much into what Kyle Workman is saying, but that sure sounds like lowering expectations to me. The basic equation here is that there are more urban and urban-area legislators than there are rural legislators. The rurals need to get a lot of support from their colleagues in other parts of the state, including urban areas, in order to have sufficient numbers to pass a bill. For the most part, they have not been able to do that. I’m hoping that continues.

Layoffs and demotions

I’m so ready for this to be resolved.

Houston firefighters have started to receive layoff notices amid the implementation of Proposition B, Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association President Marty Lancton said in a statement Wednesday.

Houston City Council voted last week to layoff 220 firefighters to help offset firefighter raises mandated by the voter-approved proposition. The union said the firefighters received the notices via email Tuesday in what Lancton called a “slash-and-burn plan” from Mayor Sylvester Turner.

Lancton also expressed disappointment with Houston Fire Chief Samuel Peña over the layoffs.

“We are deeply disappointed that Samuel Peña has become the first fire chief in Houston history to willingly execute mass layoffs and demotions of firefighters,” Lancton said in a statement. “From the city’s founding to the Great Depression, to two world wars and deep downturns of the energy industry, no fire chief had taken this course of action until today. Chief Peña now is alone among all Houston fire chiefs in that dubious distinction.”

Hundreds of HFD personnel also received demotion notices Wednesday, according to a letter provided to Chron.com. The firefighters union estimates upwards of 450 HFD personnel will be demoted.

This all follows a week in which CM Dwight Boykins made some loud claims about Council not being briefed about demotions, only to be smacked down by other Council members and HFD Chief Pena. Meanwhile, mediation is still underway, so the chance remains that all this can be reversed. (Or maybe not.) Pour yourself a drink and sit for awhile.

Also, too: This is the part where I point out that for all of the artillery being aimed at Mayor Turner, I’ve yet to see any suggestion for what alternatives exist to all this. Here are the constraints that must be satisfied:

– Prop B implemented, with the accompanying increase in expenditures by the city.
– No layoffs or demotions.
– The budget must be balanced, as mandated by city charter.
– The city cannot raise any new revenue beyond what is allowed by the revenue cap, which in the past five years has cost the city half a billion dollars via mandated tax cuts.

Feel free to leave your suggestions in the comments. If you say that’s not your job, that’s the Mayor’s job, I’ll say sure, but we have a couple of Mayoral wannabees who are busy lobbing spitballs about this without offering any of their own ways forward. (Though, in fairness, one of them is busy engaging in silly Twitter fights, so at least he has his priorities straight.)

Missing In Harris County Day

I had no idea this was a thing.

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

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

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

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

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

Council approves firefighter layoffs

And here we are.

City Council voted Wednesday to send 60-day layoff notices to 220 Houston firefighters to help pay for Proposition B, the voter-approved measure giving firefighters equal pay to police officers of corresponding rank and experience.

The 10-6 vote followed more than two hours of discussion. Mayor Sylvester Turner and the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association, meanwhile, continue to meet in mediation over how to implement Prop B.

Turner estimates the raises will cost the city roughly $80 million annually. He repeatedly has said that unless the union agrees to phase the raises in over five years, hundreds of firefighters and municipal employees will face layoffs.

The union has agreed to a phase-in over three and a half years, though Turner maintains that time frame would still necessitate some lay-offs.

Turner and the union will meet again Monday, but they face a looming deadline: The city must approve a balanced budget for the next fiscal year by July 1.

See here and here for the background. I’d have preferred a more decisive vote if I were Mayor Turner, but the die has been cast nonetheless. Maybe this will provide some incentive for a mediated agreement to be reached. If that happens soon, there would be time for Council to rescind this vote. Let’s say I’m not optimistic, but I won’t mind being wrong.

UPDATE: A later version of the story says who voted how:

For the layoffs: Jerry Davis, Ellen Cohen, David Martin, Greg Travis, Karla Cisneros, Robert Gallegos, Martha Castex-Tatum, David Robinson, Amanda Edwards and Jack Christie

Against: Dwight Boykins, Mike Laster, Mike Knox, Michael Kubosh, Steve Le and Brenda Stardig

I’m mildly surprised by Mike Laster, but otherwise this is about what I would have expected.

UPDATE: CM Travis’ office has emailed me to say he was not in attendance at Council yesterday due to a death in the family. As such, the vote was 9-6.

Why is allowing ads on Metro buses so hard?

The Chron editorial board weighs in.

The Metropolitan Transit Authority should proceed cautiously as it considers lifting its ban on commercial advertising on buses, rail cars, stations and shelters. That prohibition has served Houston well over the years, working together with old efforts by the city and Texas Legislature to greatly reduce the billboards that were once so ubiquitous here.

Before the laws changed in the 1980s, Houston had more than 10,000 billboard pedestals displaying so-called off-premises advertisements. Thanks to tough laws preventing new structures from being added, that number is now fewer than 1,500.

If Metro changes its rules, the city could suddenly see hundreds of new, large-format billboards on buses rolling through our neighborhoods.

That doesn’t sound like progress to us.

[…]

Fortunately, plans to vote on this proposal have been delayed, as Houston Chronicle transportation writer Dug Begley reported Monday. The matter is being sent back to committee, and a vote isn’t expected until June.

We urge Metro to concentrate on three priorities between now and then:

Let the public be heard. No public hearings are required, other than the always-available public comment sessions at regular Metro board meetings. But the board should hold them anyway, choosing two or more times when riders and non-riders alike can show up to speak for or against the proposal. It’s that important.

Quantify the upside with as much precision as possible. So far, putting a finger on how much revenue can be expected has been difficult, but without a reliable figure any decision made will be made blind.

If the ads are allowed, dedicate the revenue to specific improvements that everyday riders can feel. For example, ads on the buses could be linked to specific increases to frequency or ads on shelters could be linked to building new ones. Dropping the new funds into general revenue to be spent willy-nilly shouldn’t be an option.

See here for the background. I mean, we’ve been talking about this for a decade. Even the US Senate moves faster than this. I’m fine with the three priorities, though honestly I have no idea what there is left to talk about. Let’s move forward and do what basically every other major city has been doing for many years.

Off and running for Council

I confess I haven’t paid very much attention to the Houston city races so far. Part of that is the existential angst I feel at being forced to take seriously anything Bill King or Tony Buzbee says, and part of that is because the Council races haven’t really started taking shape yet. Oh, there are plenty of candidates, as this Chron story details, but right now it’s basically spring training, as everyone works to raise some money and put up a website and start making the rounds to civic groups and political clubs and what have you.

This is going to be a weird election, because it’s been four years since the last city election and it’s the first time we’ve experienced that, because of the contested Mayor’s race, and because our city elections are by definition a little weird. It’s just that like Tolstoy’s unhappy families, every city of Houston election is weird in its own way.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

More than six months remain until Nov. 5, when voters will cast ballots in the races for mayor, controller and 16 city council seats, but challengers already are taking swings at incumbents and candidates are lining up to replace term-limited office-holders.

“The mayoral race got off to an early start, and that’s having a contagion effect on the council races,” said Mark Jones, a political science professor at Rice University. “In some ways, it’s this big collective action problem. I think most people would prefer not to get mixed up in the process so early, but, for instance, if one person starts running hard for At-Large Position 5, everyone else has to, lest they get left behind.”

Activity on the campaign trail has started earlier than ever, prompted by a pace-setting mayoral race that has seen candidates Tony Buzbee and Bill King repeatedly lambast incumbent Mayor Sylvester Turner, saying he has mismanaged the long-running Proposition B firefighter pay parity feud and accusing him of failing to adequately distance City Hall from campaign donors. Turner has denied both charges.

District D Councilman Dwight Boykins also could join the mayoral field and will decide sometime in June whether to mount a run or seek re-election to his council seat, he said Monday. Also mulling a run for higher office is At-Large Councilwoman Amanda Edwards, who said she has yet to decide whether to take a swing at the U.S. Senate seat held by Republican Sen. John Cornyn.

Prospective candidates for those two seats may be waiting on the sidelines, or seeking other council seats for now, as they wait on the incumbents’ decisions, said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston.

“It’s a domino effect,” Rottinghaus said. “There are a couple of offices that are holding up decisions on other races down the ballot, and Edwards is an example of that.”

[…]

So far, five incumbent council members remain without official challengers: Greg Travis (District G), Karla Cisneros (District H), Robert Gallegos (District I), Martha Castex-Tatum (District K) and Edwards.

Travis, Cisneros and Edwards each are coming to the end of their first four-year terms on city council. Castex-Tatum won a special election year to replace former Councilman Larry Green, who died of a drug overdose.

Gallegos, meanwhile, is one of a handful of council incumbents first elected in 2013 who still is eligible for another term.

The shift to four-year terms likely has emboldened potential challengers who ordinarily would wait out an incumbent’s two-year term, but are less keen to sit on the sidelines for four years, Rottinghaus said. More than half the incumbents seeking re-election have drawn opponents.

You can read on for more about the Council candidates, but bear a couple of things in mind. One is that the only “official” candidate list is maintained on paper by the City Secretary. Filing a designation of treasurer is a necessary condition for running, but doesn’t mean you’ll actually file by the deadline, and it doesn’t mean you’ll file for the race you now say you’re running for. People jump in and drop out and change races all the time up till deadline day. Civic heroes like Erik Manning maintain candidate databases, for which we are all grateful, but in the end nothing is official till the filing deadline passes. You will get some idea of who is out there and who is serious about it when the June finance reports get posted, but again, things can and will change between then and the end of August.

Anyway. I really don’t know what I’m going to do about interviews – there are just too many candidates for the amount of time I will have. I’ll figure something out, and should start doing interviews in July. I’ll put up my own Election 2019 page sometime before then. In the meantime, start familiarizing yourself with these names. We’re all going to have a lot of decisions to make in November.

Off to mediation we go

Hope for the best, y’all.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mediation soon will begin in a lawsuit between the Houston police and firefighters unions over Proposition B, the voter-approved measure that gives firefighters equal pay to police officers.

In a Monday morning filing, State District Judge Tanya Garrison ordered the Houston Police Department, Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association and the city to meet Monday or Tuesday.

The parties last week agreed to turn to mediator Dave Matthiesen over Prop B, though representatives from the HPFFA said they would need more time to brief members.

In her filing, Garrison pushed back against HPFFA’s claim, saying it had plenty of time to prepare for mediation. She also ordered the parties to continue meeting until “a settlement is achieved” or “in the sole determination of Mr. Matthieson, they have reached an impasse.”

[…]

At a press conference Monday, some members of City Council joined with municipal employees to reiterate their support for mediation and a five-year phase-in.

Among the first positions cut will be librarians, dental assistants, custodians, a park ranger and an electrician, District I Councilman Robert Gallegos said.

“It’s totally unfair to them,” he said. “I don’t believe this is what Prop B is about and I’m sure that’s not what the voters intended. Firefighters do deserve a pay raise, but not at the expense of innocent municipal employees.”

See here for the background. Matthiesen is an attorney and Democratic supporter who is well known to all parties involved, so at least that was easy enough. I don’t envy him the task, but maybe everyone’s ready for this to be over already. As the story notes, Council will still proceed with voting on layoffs tomorrow, as this is part of the budget work. My guess is that this can be unwound if a suitable agreement is reached, but it’s also a bit of pressure on the firefighters, as this is where it officially gets real. I do wish the story had listed all the Council members at that press conference, if only so we can have a clearer idea of what the whip count looks like right now, but we’ll find out soon enough.

Ogg hires Bradford

A familiar face for the DA’s office.

C.O. “Brad” Bradford

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We are still talking about Metro maybe allowing ads

This is one of the longer ongoing story lines I’ve followed on this blog.

The red and blue stripes on Metro’s buses and trains soon could be joined by advertisements for Red Lobster and Blue Bell, a nod to the agency’s efforts to seek out new sources of revenue.

Transit officials are considering changes to Metropolitan Transit Authority policies that would allow advertising inside and outside buses and trains, at bus stops and stations, parking garages and perhaps even the station names.

“We’re making our way through it, forming a plan, and then we’ll go from there,” Metro CEO Tom Lambert said, acknowledging he expects staff to recommend paid ads on and in the agency’s buses and trains.

Transit officials initially were poised to approve some of the changes this month, but held back in favor of more discussion. Authority board members and observers said several matters would need to be resolved before any changes can be made, notably the need for clear rules of what Metro will and will not accept and how large ads can be.

“Part of my concern is not so much doing it, but when you mix a bunch of ads it looks awful,” Metro board member Jim Robinson said.

Metro Chairwoman Carrin Patman said officials plan to consider an ad policy as early as next month. If approved, agency staff can begin to solicit proposals from firms interested in overseeing the advertising — essentially selling the space — and then dividing the revenue between the company and Metro.

[…]

Metro does allow certain sponsorships and wraps its own buses and trains for internal marketing efforts. The changes under consideration would open up many avenues of for ads.

“Basically, inside and outside all our assets,” said Debbie Sechler, Metro’s executive vice-president for administration.

Ads could accompany the log-on if Metro offered Wi-Fi, or even the agency’s website, where many riders go for schedule and customer service information.

The goal, Sechler said, would be to use the revenue to improve the system, primarily in enhancements for riders.

Patman said officials are open to ads “in light of our need to look at all conceivable funding sources” as Metro looks to expand bus and rail offerings in city.

Because Metro excludes commercial advertising, companies have been reluctant to discuss how much revenue the system could expect, Sechler said. At a meeting Wednesday, she estimated all types of advertising could generate in excess of $10 million a year, though it is likely an advertising firm handling the marketing of Metro’s buses, trains and shelters would take a portion of that.

Metro’s yearly operating budget is around $700 million.

The decision board members face is whether the financial gain is worth whatever sacrifice could come with paid ads.

“My concern is the difference between what we bring in and what we are obligated to, that may not be enough to justify changing the look of our brand,” board member Lex Frieden said.

We’ve been talking about this since at least 2008, with the most recent mention I can find being in 2015. Previous attempts at this occurred in 2010 and 2012. We have definitely hashed this out, and we have always stopped short. My opinions, for what they are worth:

1. Basically nobody objects to ads inside buses and rail cars, so I have no idea why we aren’t already doing those.

2. People do have opinions about ads on the outside of buses and trains, and I’m fine with everyone who has an opinion getting some input on what the parameters will be for external ads – size, number, placement, what have you.

3. Metro should be very clear about what kind of ads it will allow and reject. There are always controversies whenever there are provocative ads being bought on buses and trains. Having clear and unambiguous standards will help buffer against some of that.

4. The amount of money Metro can make from ads is relatively small compared to its operating budget, but still millions of dollars a year. As the story notes, this can be used to pay for free-fare promotional days, and (my preference) it can be used towards the installation of bus shelters and the repair and improvement of sidewalks around bus stops. Imagine how much of this could have already been done if Metro had taken action to allow ads back in 2008, or 2010, or 2012, or even 2015.

5. In short, do it. Seriously, why are we still talking about this?

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

From the inbox:

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

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

Research Paper 1: Detention & Drainage Regulations:

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

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

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

Suggestions to improve current regulations:

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

Research Paper 2: Development Regulations:

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

Suggested approach for considering new regulations and policies:

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

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

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

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

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

Here comes the Kroger driverless grocery delivery car

Who wants to order some groceries, in certain selected ZIP codes?

Kroger, the nation’s largest grocer, has launched a self-driving grocery delivery service in Houston, the latest salvo in a hyper-competitive grocery market that has supermarket chains investing heavily in new technology to win over online shoppers.

Company officials on Tuesday showcased the first of dozens of autonomous delivery vehicles planned for Houston: Toyota Priuses outfitted with cameras, sensors and self-driving computer software. Shoppers at Kroger’s Meyerland store who live in ZIP codes 77401 and 77096 can order groceries through the company’s website and have their purchases pull up in a self-driven Prius. The Cincinnati-based grocer plans to bring the autonomous delivery service to its Buffalo Speedway store later this year, with plans to ultimately expand the program citywide.

“We are creating a seamless shopping experience for our customers so they can get anything, anytime and anywhere,” said Marlene Stewart, Kroger’s Houston division president.

[…]

In January 2018, Kroger partnered with Nuro, a Mountain View, Calif.-based self-driving delivery startup, to develop a grocery delivery service. Nuro, founded in 2016 by a pair of Google veterans, has raised $1 billion from investors, including Silicon Valley venture capital firm Greylock Partners and Japanese holding conglomerate SoftBank, to make autonomous vehicle deliveries affordable for the mass consumer.

“We believe this technology isn’t just for an elite group of people, but for everybody,” said Dan Mitchell, Nuro’s head of product operations and community engagement.

The Kroger-Nuro partnership launched a pilot program in Scottsdale, Ariz., in August. Over the next seven months, the companies made more than 2,000 deliveries to customers living in one ZIP code around a Fry’s Market, a Kroger subsidiary. Mitchell said the autonomous vehicles were well-received in Arizona, with shoppers reveling in novelty of self-driving cars by taking photos and sharing them on social media.

Deliveries cost $5.95, which is less expensive than Kroger’s $11.95 delivery service through Shipt, whose human couriers bring groceries to the door. Customers using the autonomous vehicle delivery service will have to pick up their groceries from the vehicle curbside, notified of their arrival via text message.

Nuro’s autonomous vehicles will have a safety operator at the driver’s seat who can take control in case of emergencies, as well as a co-pilot monitoring the technology. The vehicles had no accidents during its Arizona pilot program, Mitchell said.

Quincy Allen, district engineer for the Texas Department of Transportation, said governmental agencies will closely watch Kroger’s autonomous delivery program as it expands.

“Safety remains our top priority, and we expect Kroger and Nuro to meet our safety standards,” Allen said.

See here for the background. I presume one reason for the difference in price is that the human couriers will carry the groceries to you, while with the autonomous car you have to schlep them yourself. I’d be interested to see if there’s a sufficient market for both options going forward. Those of you in ZIP codes 77005 and 77025 who order from the Kroger at 5150 Buffalo Speedway will get the chance to try this in a few months. Do you get groceries delivered, and if so do you find this appealing? Leave a comment and let us know.

Mediation ordered in Prop B lawsuit

This ought to be interesting.

A state district judge on Thursday ordered the city, the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association and the Houston Police Officers’ Union to enter into mediation as they seek to resolve lingering differences over the implementation of Proposition B, the measure granting firefighters the same pay as police of corresponding rank and seniority.

Judge Tanya Garrison of the 157th Civil District Court ordered the mediation after hearing arguments in a lawsuit seeking to invalidate the pay parity amendment. During the hearing, Garrison said she would not issue a ruling on the case “any time soon,” concluding it would only set back ongoing negotiations to phase in firefighters’ Prop B-mandated raises.

“If I make a decision on this one way or the other … it will be the equivalent of throwing a bomb in the middle of the attempts to negotiate a resolution,” Garrison said.

The judge gave the parties until noon Monday to agree on a mediator. The court would appoint a mediator if they cannot settle on one.

The mediation is mandatory but not binding.

The mediator may suggest ways to resolve the dispute but cannot impose judgment, according to a list of rules attached to Garrison’s court order. If the parties do not voluntarily agree to a settlement, the issue returns to Garrison.

See here, here, and here for the background. As long as the mediator isn’t Tony Buzbee, I’m sure it will be fine. As a reminder, City Council will vote on the layoff plan on Wednesday (the agenda item was tagged last week), so perhaps that will provide some incentive to make things happen. In other news, the city provided financial data that the firefighters’ union had been demanding, though whether that will settle that argument or be the cause of further arguments remains to be seen.

This was a busy week for dumb lawsuits

Exhibit A:

“Objection Overruled”, by Charles Bragg

Houston mayoral challenger Tony Buzbee followed through his pledge to sue Mayor Sylvester Turner Wednesday, claiming that donated billboards for the city’s AlertHouston! campaign violate campaign finance laws because they feature a photo of Turner.

The lawsuit, filed in the 281st state district court, names Turner and Clear Channel Outdoor Inc., the company that donated the 27 billboards, as defendants.

Buzbee’s petition claims Clear Channel is “blatantly supporting” Turner in the November mayoral race “by plastering his smiling face across this city while promoting him as a civic-minded, safety conscious leader.”

The billboards promote AlertHouston!, a system that sends alerts to Houston residents during emergency situations.

I’m not going to waste our time on the details here. Let’s refer to this earlier story for the reasons why this is dumb.

Buck Wood, an Austin-based campaign finance lawyer, equated Buzbee’s allegations to a hypothetical real estate agent who, after announcing a run for public office, would then have to take down any advertisements for their private business.

“I have never seen anything like that,” he said.

Proving the billboards are illegal, Wood said, would require Buzbee to show that the company and Turner struck a deal explicitly aimed at aiding the mayor’s re-election.

“You’d have to have good, strong evidence that they put up these pictures just for the purpose of helping elect him,” Wood said. “…You’d have to prove a conspiracy, and that’s basically impossible to do in this situation.”

Each year around hurricane season, former Harris County Judge Ed Emmett would appear on billboards, in some years directing people to the county’s Homeland Security and Emergency Management website. Emmett said he used campaign funds to pay for the billboards during election years.

I mean, I know Tony Buzbee is supposed to be a super duper lawyer and all, but maybe he might have asked another lawyer about this first? Just a thought.

Exhibit B:

Months after being denied media credentials for the Texas House, the conservative organization Texas Scorecard — a product of Empower Texans, a Tea Party-aligned political advocacy group with one of the state’s best-funded political action committees — has filed a First Amendment lawsuit arguing that its rejection from the lower chamber constitutes “unconstitutional viewpoint discrimination.”

Before the legislative session kicked off in January, two employees of Texas Scorecard, Brandon Waltens and Destin Sensky, applied for media credentials in both chambers of the Legislature. In the Senate, their credentials were granted; in the House, they were denied. The two chambers follow similar rules about who is allowed special journalistic access to the floor, and both prohibit lobbyists. But the chambers’ political atmospheres are different.

House Administration Chair Charlie Geren, a Fort Worth Republican who has sparred with Empower Texans and its PAC in the past, told the group in a January rejection letter that it was ineligible for media credentials because “the organization you are employed by, Texas Scorecard, has a close association with a general-purpose political committee (GPAC) and that the organization’s website prominently displays advocacy on policy matters before the legislature.” As evidence of the group’s affiliation with the PAC, Geren cited the organizations’ shared address — but by the time Geren’s letter was issued, the lawsuit claims, they no longer shared that address.

Empower Texans PAC has backed primary opponents to Geren and has given Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who leads the Texas Senate, more than $850,000 in the last five years.

Now, Empower Texans is very likely to get a friendly hearing from the State Supreme Court, so at least from a strategic perspective, this isn’t a dumb lawsuit. It’s very likely to be a successful lawsuit. But come on. If these Empower Texans flunkies count as “journalists”, then that word has no meaning. All of us are made a little more dumb by the existence of this lawsuit.

What will Council do about Prop B layoffs?

We’re gonna find out.

Mayor Sylvester Turner told the Houston fire union Monday he would provide it with financial data leaders requested, a sign of progress at a critical point in negotiations between the mayor and union to phase in Proposition B raises for firefighters.

Officials from the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association have asked Turner to open the city’s books, allowing firefighters to verify that the mayor’s offer to phase in the pay raises over multiple years honors the terms of the charter amendment, which requires the city to pay firefighters the same as police of corresponding rank and seniority.

Turner’s refusal to do so has been a key sticking point preventing a deal, union President Marty Lancton said.

The development comes two days before Houston city council is scheduled to consider a measure to lay off 220 Houston firefighters, which Turner has said is necessary to offset the cost of pay raises if Prop. B is not phased in over multiple years.

[…]

Fire Chief Sam Peña said he was “encouraged” by Monday’s talks, even if they did not produce immediate results.

“Anytime we’re sitting at the table and having a conversation is progress,” he said.

Peña said he was not sure whether Wednesday’s scheduled council vote would be delayed, but the department is moving ahead with implementation of Prop B anyway.

“The process needs to move forward, because the books do need to be balanced by the end of the fiscal year” in June, he said. Among the biggest changes Peña has sought is a switch from a four-shift work schedule for firefighters to three. Currently, firefighters work 20 24-hour shifts every 72 days, with occasional extra shifts for which Peña has said there is a high absentee rate.

The new, three-shift model would give firefighters regular days off. Peña said he was considering that switch even before Prop B’s passage as a way to save money that could be reinvested in fleet upgrades, among other things. Now, he said, it is about maintaining public safety while confronting HFD’s roughly $25 million share of Prop B’s annual costs.

The proposal headed to council on Wednesday shows that most of the staff reductions would come from firefighters, engineers and captains, though Pena said that absent any phase-in agreement, some employees could be demoted instead of having their positions absorbed through attrition.

See here for the background, and here for Mayor Turner’s letter. According to KUHF, the firefighters’ union tentatively agreed to the 3.5-year phase-in idea, though it sounds like there may still be sticking points as Mayor Turner is not saying that will eliminate layoffs – he’s been clear about needing a five-year plan for that – but merely reducing them. Like I said, we’ll see. In the meantime, 47 city employees who had nothing to do with foisting a large new budget item on us received their layoff notices late last week. I personally find that to be the most upsetting part of this whole saga. Just so we’re all clear, the stupid revenue cap prevents the city from raising taxes to pay for Prop B, and the city charter mandates a balanced budget. That’s why layoffs are inevitable barring a sufficiently slow phase-in. It was true (and communicated) before Prop B was ratified, and it remains true now.

Is there a city/firefighters agreement in the works?

They’re talking, for whatever it’s worth.

Officials from the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association said Friday they would seek union members’ approval of a 3.5-year phase-in of Proposition B if the city meets certain conditions.

After meeting with the union to discuss the terms, however, Mayor Sylvester Turner released a statement saying the provisions were “not consistent” with discussions held at the meeting.

Union president Marty Lancton said he had in fact laid out the union’s terms to the mayor, which include a guarantee that no firefighters will receive layoffs “before, during or after implementation of Proposition B.”

“We said it implicitly and explicitly,” Lancton said.

The mayor acknowledged the union delivered a copy of the letter, but accused Lancton of publicizing it before the meeting. Lancton also said this was untrue.

Aside from the no-layoff guarantee, union officials said any phase-in agreement would have to be ratified through a collective bargaining agreement.

Lancton also said Turner’s administration must provide the firefighters with “complete access to city financial and budget information” and implement “complete parity,” including base and incentive pay, with Houston police officers.

The two sides were scheduled to meet again next week before Houston City Council considers a measure at its Wednesday meeting that would authorize 220 firefighter layoffs.

See here for the latest update. I mean, maybe they’ll hammer something out and maybe they won’t. Deadlines have a way of focusing the mind, especially when layoffs are on the other side. I’ll reserve judgment about what may or may not be involved until there’s a resolution, but I will say this: Very early on in this process, Mayor Turner’s position was that Prop B had to be implemented all at once, there was no legal path to negotiating a phase-in. Everyone seems to have forgotten about that, which in and of itself doesn’t bother me too much since I like the idea of phasing it in regardless. But if this is true, then all it will take is someone filing a lawsuit to screw this all up. Let’s worry about that another day, as it’s not a thing until and unless a phase-in deal is ratified. There’s plenty of trouble here already without borrowing more.

Instagram in space!

Far out. Like, literally.

Internet service can sometimes be spotty here on Earth. Just imagine checking email from the moon or searching Google from Mars.

A Houston satellite and artificial intelligence company wants to make that possible through an “interplanetary internet” that someday could connect Earth to mining companies on the moon and human colonies on Mars and other planets. It ultimately would require a network of satellites stretching for hundreds of millions of miles and technology compensating for the movement of planets to prevent the interruption of data streaming at the speed of light.

But you’ve got to start somewhere.

“I fundamentally believe that we will be an interplanetary species,” Ben Lamm, chief executive of the parent company of Hypergiant Galactic Systems, the Houston firm aiming to build out the worlds-wide-web. “We need to start building the core infrastructure for the interplanetary internet now.”

Hypergiant Galactic, a subsidiary of Hypergiant Industries of Austin, is launching its effort as NASA talks about returning to the moon and sending humans to Mars. Hypergiant Galactic expects to begin building the outer-space internet next year by launching a series of small satellites that would be positioned at different points in space to create a network to relay signals from Earth until reaching the end destination, such as the moon, another planet or a space ship. (Kirk to Enterprise?)

Phase one, which includes connecting Earth to the moon and Mars over the next decade, would cost tens of millions of dollars, according to Hypergiant. Once the project moves beyond Mars, costs vault into the hundreds of millions.

The satellites also would store a 30-million page archive of human knowledge that will act as a scaled-down version of the internet so, for example, colonists on Mars could access it quickly, without having to wait long periods for pages to load as signals move from Mars to Earth and back. The archive would be updated frequently, and ultimately built out into a more robust subset of the internet.

The archive also aims to preserve and protect the legacy of the human race by placing it in off-world storage should cataclysm strike the planet. The archive, assembled by the nonprofit Arch Mission Foundation and stored on long-lasting metal disks as a backup to the version that can be updated from Earth, includes everything from Wikipedia to the Harry Potter series to the world’s many languages and mathematical equations.

I don’t really have anything to add to this. It caught my eye and I thought it was cool. Plus, it gave me a reason to embed this video:

Give the aliens all our best, Janet.

Using floodplain rules to force environmental safety compliance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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