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Judge orders firefighters’ petitions to be counted

Can’t say I’m surprised.

A state district judge on Tuesday ordered Houston’s city secretary to finish reviewing firefighters’ petition asking for pay parity with police, giving her until April 27 to validate the eight-month-old signatures.

Firefighters submitted a petition last July asking for a ballot referendum that would grant firefighters the same pay as police officers of equal rank, but City Secretary Anna Russell did not validate it in time for the November election.

Leaders of the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association sued in December asking the court to give Russell 30 days to review the petition signatures, and last week appeared before state District Judge Dan Hinde.

Hinde did not immediately issue a ruling, but sided with firefighters on Tuesday.

“The city secretary’s continuing failure to count signatures and verify the sufficiency of the pay parity petition constitutes a continuing failure to fulfill her ministerial duty,” Hinde wrote. “The city secretary has been and remains in default of her ministerial duty.”

See here for the background. I mean, look, the petitions were delivered to City Hall last July, which is to say eight months ago. Given that there were other petitions ahead of it, I could believe that Secretary Russell might not have been able to get them checked out in time for last November, but this is ridiculous. It didn’t take nearly this long to verify the anti-HERO petitions, for example, and as I recall her staff worked overtime to do that. I think this is a lousy proposition and I plan to vote against it, but at some point the job just needs to get done.

Now if the deadline to count the valid signatures is April 27, that means this will be ticketed for November, assuming enough of the sigs do check out. (Boy, wouldn’t that be a farcical conclusion to this saga if the verdict is “sorry, you fell short”.) From a participatory democracy perspective, having this voted on in a large November turnout context is better than a single-digit May electorate. Of course, since we know someone is going to sue to have the election overturned no matter what the outcome is – there’s literally no chance that the referendum can be written in a way that is both fully explanatory and not confusing; the ballot language lawsuit can be drafted now and ready to go as soon as the vote totals are in and a suitable plaintiff can be located – I feel like we could save ourselves the trouble by just flipping a coin to determine who “wins” and then going straight to the litigation. Eventually, the Supreme Court will tell us what their preferred result is, and we can take it from there.

UPDATE: The KUHF story, which includes a copy of Judge Hinde’s ruling, confirms that the next opportunity for this to be on a ballot at this point is November.

“We (Heart) Houston” someplace else

Your favorite Instagram spot is moving to a new location.

The “We Love Houston” sign you’ve seen either near I-10 or in Instagram selfies is on the move.

Artist and die-hard Houstonian David Adickes told Chron.com in previous interviews that he planned to move the work, which features concrete letters ranging from 5 to 9 feet tall, separated by a 9-foot-tall heart, from a spot just south of I-10 East near Yale to more hospitable surroundings for the art and its fans.

Housing development behind the installation had cluttered the sentiment since it appeared back in the summer of 2013. It used to be at his former art studio SculpturWorx off Summer Street, near his Beatles statues and presidential heads.

[…]

According to KTRK-TV the signage is moving to a promenade near the 8th Wonder Brewery, which is the current home of the towering Fab Four statues. Chris Alan, who runs the Houston pop-culture site It’s A Houston Thing, told the outlet that this way Houstonians will be able to safely take pictures in front of it.

That’s something that Adickes had always wanted anyway. He is a fan of people of all walks of life enjoying his outsized art.

See here for some background. My fandom of all things Adickes is well known, and that includes this particular piece. Which was near where I live, but as of Sunday is not any more. I’ll miss it now that it’s fone. Here’s a map showing the new location. Having it at a brewery does have some advantages, and maybe now I’ll remember to get a picture in front of it.

Another designation for the Astrodome

It’s quite the historic place.

All this and history too

The famed Astrodome will be designated as a Recorded Texas Historic Landmark — the highest honor the state can bestow on a historic structure.

The marker will finally and officially tell the story of the “Eighth Wonder of the World” and, hopefully, create a snapshot destination.

“The dome has never had an actual historical marker,” said Mike Vance, a member of the Harris County Historical Commission which is the local arm of the Texas Historical Commission.

The Texas commission approved the stadium in January among 172 new historical markers statewide for 2018.

[…]

The Astrodome received its strongest protection in a 2017 state antiquities landmark designation, which requires clearance from the Texas Historical Commission for any alterations. Becoming a Recorded Texas Historic Landmark adds another measure of protection.

“It’s a higher standard you have to reach to qualify for that kind of marker,” said Vance. “That means that it’s a building and it has to be intact in the judgment of the Texas Historical Commission — and the dome, thankfully, is.”

In addition, the sign’s unveiling will be “something tangible and visible,” unlike the antiquities designation, Vance said.

So let’s get a couple of things straight at this point.

1. There’s no way the Astrodome gets demolished. You can argue that it was wrong to pursue these historic designations, and you can argue (incorrectly) that the Dome should have been demolished after the 2012 bond referendum was voted down, but those ships have sailed. The Astrodome is basically in the same class as the Alamo now. It’s not getting demolished.

2. Given #1, that means the choices before us are Do Something, and Keep Doing Nothing. It should be clear to all that nobody wants to Keep Doing Nothing. Ed Emmett certainly doesn’t want to do nothing, and the people who are most vocally opposed to the plan that Emmett has put forward are the ones who are most vocally upset about the state of the Dome now after years of nothing being done. Nobody wants to do nothing.

3. So, one way or another, we are going to do something about the Dome, and that means that one way or another we are going to spend some money on doing something about the Dome. The something that is on the table and currently in progress is the Emmett plan. One argument being made by those who don’t like the Emmett plan is that we should have a public vote to approve spending money on the Dome before we do so. I oppose this for two reasons. One is that we don’t as a matter of course have public votes to approve the spending of money by government entities. We vote to approve the borrowing of money, but not the spending of money. I have zero interest in setting that precedent, and I can’t think of a single reason why anyone of a progressive bent would want to set that precedent, either. And two, public votes like this have become little more than preludes to litigation over the result of those votes, often on ridiculous pretexts and often taking years to resolve. You want to ensure that nothing continues to get done on the Dome for another five or ten years, maybe more? Insist on a vote before authorizing any money to be spent on it. It’s more effective than any filibuster.

March For Our Lives rally

On Saturday, March 24, community members from Houston will gather for a “sibling march” as part of the March for Our Lives movement. The march is one of hundreds happening around the country planned by students and survivors of gun violence in communities big and small, in all 50 states. The national day of action will focus on calling for lawmakers to make students’ lives and safety a priority and to pass common-sense gun safety legislation. The March will take place on Saturday, March 24th at Tranquility Park in downtown Houston starting at 9 AM. To RSVP please text March to 644-33 or go on to the Facebook invite to tell organizers you’re coming.

I don’t have to tell you that Texas is a pretty cordial state for gun ownership. The Republican-controlled Legislature has been working to make it more so in recent years, thanks to open carry and campus carry laws. There are quite a few legislators who think we haven’t gone nearly far enough, too. Their endgame is the bizarrely-named “constitutional carry”, in which there are basically no restrictions on ownership or limits on where you can bring your guns. You want to fight back against that, this is a good place to start. It is just a starting place, though, because the ultimate goal is to elect more people who agree that gun ownership and possession can and should be subject to reasonable and rational limits. Some come out to Tranquility Park on Saturday – and be sure to RSVP to the event, so organizers know how many people to expect – and stay engaged and active afterwards. You can live in the world you want, or you can live in the world we have now. The difference between the two is what you make of it.

More on the HFD sex discrimination lawsuit

Is anyone surprised that a lot more female firefighters have come forward to describe incidents of harassment at HFD since the initial story was published? Because if you are, I don’t think you’ve been paying much attention to the news over the past year or so.

Nearly 10 years after a sexual harassment scandal roiled the ranks, the Houston Fire Department remains a hostile work environment for some women, according to more than half-dozen current and former firefighters who spoke to the Houston Chronicle about workplace conditions and gender bias.

“It’s still uncomfortable,” said one longtime female HFD veteran, who like most, did not want to be named for fear of retribution. “Houston still has not embraced the diversity of women within the department.”

And while women have made gains since the incidents in 2009 led to a widespread investigation, a Department of Justice lawsuit filed recently against the city has brought renewed scrutiny to gender issues at HFD, where fewer than 4 percent of the department’s 4,000 firefighters are women.

Some women have left the department in frustration. Others stay silent, enduring daily tensions to pursue their lifelong dreams, they told the Chronicle.

“It’s a Catch-22,” said another longtime female firefighter. “Most grin and bear it. They don’t want that label, ‘she’s a problem child,’ or, ‘Don’t say anything around her or she’ll file a grievance.’

“I just want to be treated fair.”

[…]

One aspiring firefighter said she’d always wanted to join the Houston Fire Department.

She put her financial security on hold to go through the months-long academy, earning just $800 every other week. She thought she’d find a teamlike atmosphere but was met instead with instructors who she believed wanted her to fail.

She quit on the verge of graduation and found a better-paying job as a paramedic elsewhere.

“I have no desire to work for a place like that,” said the former trainee, who attended HFD’s academy within the last five years. “I’d rather drive an hour or more to a different fire department where people treat others like human beings, and you don’t get discriminated against because you weren’t born a male.”

Another woman who recently attended the academy described an atmosphere where instructors did not acknowledge women and appeared to purposely sabotage training routines to make it more difficult for them. In one instance, she said, an instructor made her carry a fully charged firehouse into a burning space in a more difficult posture than she’d been trained, and with less line available on the ground.

She’d hoped to find a “family of people that support each other,” but said she was disappointed.

She described a hostile work environment where her male colleagues routinely refer to women as “bitches,” and frequently make derogatory comments after responding to medical calls where the people they were helping were a gay or lesbian, she said.

“I see a lot of sexism and racism,” she said. “It’s really harder being a female in the fire department, point blank … You have this idea how it would be and it’s not like that at all.”

See here for the background, and click over for more, because there is more. This is what I mean when I said there are plenty of people at HFD who know who did what to whom. The higher-ups are all saying the right things – Chief Pena, the union officials, etc – but we need to hear it from the rank and file as well. If HFD wants to rid itself of the “cloud” that persists over it, there needs to be a top-to-bottom commitment to root this kind of behavior out. I guarantee you, HFD knows who the bad actors are. What are they going to do about them?

Houston makes final cut for FIFA 2026 bid

Now it’s up to FIFA.

The Houston Dynamos might have to make some room: Space City has been included in the bid to host the 2026 FIFA World Cup.

On Thursday, officials announced that Houston is one of 23 cities that are a part of the “United Bid,” a joint bid by Canada, Mexico and the U.S. to host the World Cup.

If the bid is successful, Houston could see international teams battling it out at NRG Stadium.

“Canada, Mexico, and the United States have joined together to deliver a United Bid that offers FIFA and its member associations the power of unity, the promise of certainty, and the potential of extraordinary opportunity,” John Kristick, Executive Director of the United Bid said in a news release.

See here for the background. The original list had 49 venues in 44 cities, so it was about fifty-fifty for Houston to make the cut. At this point, if United Bid wins, we’re in. I’ll definitely buy some tickets if we do. US Soccer has more.

January 2018 finance reports: City of Houston

We didn’t have any city of Houston elections in 2017, and while we ought to have some charter amendments on the ballot in 2018 we won’t be voting for people till next year. Still, everyone has to file campaign finance reports. Let’s see how everyone has been doing since last July.


Candidate       Office    Raised      Spent     Loan    On Hand
===============================================================
S Turner         Mayor   308,744    123,288        0  1,901,225

C Brown     Controller     1,400     19,559        0     62,811

M Knox      At Large 1    36,125      8,191        0     51,946
D Robinson  At Large 2    41,575     12,117        0    126,924
M Kubosh    At Large 3     8,575      7,364  276,000     32,267
A Edwards   At Large 4    16,900     24,311        0    140,866
J Christie  At Large 5     1,264      3,892        0     28,711

B Stardig       Dist A     3,750     18,173        0     89,964
J Davis         Dist B     5,934     15,988        0    137,038
E Cohen         Dist C    10,100     31,528        0     41,691
D Boykins       Dist D    27,950     66,249        0     18,492
D Martin        Dist E     2,510     26,887        0     92,371
S Le            Dist F    21,800     11,237   30,823     13,015
G Travis        Dist G    27,050      8,211   76,000     70,817
K Cisneros      Dist H    
R Gallegos      Dist I    32,850     12,963        0     69,181
M Laster        Dist J       300      8,510        0    161,402
L Green         Dist K    29,100     36,617        0     77,110

I started writing this post before the tragic death of CM Larry Green. CM Green was among the members who are term-limited; the others are Stardig, Davis, Cohen, Laster, and Christie. I did not find a finance report for Karla Cisneros; she had $25,336 on hand in the July ’17 report. No one raised a whole lot – not a big surprise, especially given how there was already a bunch of Congressional fundraising going on in the latter half of 2017 – and in fact many people spent more than they took in. If one of the potential negatives to the change to four-year terms was that it gave incumbents that much more time to accumulate cash, I’d say that effect has so far been muted. Among the first-termers, Amanda Edwards was a big money-raiser in 2015 and Greg Travis still has loan money. Mike Knox got a boost in this period, which he will need because he’s got a big target on his back for 2019. Steve Le doesn’t have much on hand, but he too can self-fund to an extent.

While those term-limited candidates continue to be among the top cash-holders, none of them increased their shares during this period. I continue to believe that at least some of them have another candidacy in their near-term future, but that’s just my impression. Some of the possibilities they may contemplate will depend on how the 2018 elections go. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves, though. I’m just reporting what we know now. I’ll check back in July. Look for a post on the HISD and HCC reports as soon as I can get around to it.

Just a reminder, the I-45 construction is going to be massive

I can’t quite wrp my mind around the scope of it. I suspect a lot of us feel the same way.

Birds flitting in and out of the grass and trees along this strip of marsh pay no heed to the roar from interstates 45 and 10 on the horizon, but to Houston Parks Board officials the sound is an ominous reminder of what could come.

Defenders of this long-sought “linear park” that leads from the Heights to downtown Houston now see a threat from the Texas Department of Transportation and its mammoth, once-in-a-generation project to relieve chronic congestion along I-45 and on the broader downtown highway system.

The project, already years in the making, reflects unprecedented levels of listening by TxDOT, which fairly or not has a reputation of building through communities rather than with them. Yet concerns linger over this pristine spot on White Oak Bayou, which TxDOT would criss-cross with seven new spans under the current version of its ambitious plan to build Houston’s freeway of the future.

“If that happens, the gateway to White Oak Bayou Greenway will be a freeway underpass,” said Chip Place, director of capital programs for the Houston Parks Board.

The parks board and a handful of other groups — joined by elected officials — have raised these and a number of other issues with the freeway redesign following the release of the project’s draft environmental report. Disenfranchised communities fear rebuilding the freeway and its connector ramps will further cut them off from economic gains so that other people can shave a minute or two from their daily commutes.

Their message is clear: Houston has one chance in five decades to remake the spine of the region’s north-south traffic movements. Good isn’t good enough. It has to address everything to the best of everyone’s abilities.

You can read the rest. We’re two or three years out from the start of construction, which is on a ten-year timeline. I’ll stipulate that TxDOT has done a good job of soliciting and incorporating public input on this thing. It’s just that I don’t think there’s any way to do this that doesn’t fundamentally change the character of every part of town the redesigned highways pass through, and not in a good way – I think the best we can hope for is that it doesn’t do much harm. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go bury my head in the sand for a little while.

Shipley responds to harassment allegations

Admit nothing, deny everything, make counter-accusations.

The sexual harassment lawsuit filed against the owner of Shipley Do-Nuts this month is the latest in an ongoing legal fight between the doughnut maker and other former workers over an alleged fraud scheme.

Three women claim Lawrence Shipley III routinely groped them and used racial slurs for Hispanics in a lawsuit filed in Harris County district court earlier this month.

He has flatly denied those allegations, and says the women are retaliating against his company after it fired a former plant manager for allegedly steering more than $1 million worth of contracts to distribution companies he owned.

Shipley sued Julian Garcia, the plant manager, for the alleged fraud scheme in September.

“These people were employed and cared for by my family for over 20 years,” Lawrence Shipley wrote last week. “What they are doing now is nothing more than hateful retaliation for becoming corrupt, entitled and self-serving.”

Murphy Klasing, who is representing Shipley Do-Nuts, said he was unsure of exactly what roles Esmeralda Sanchez, Martha Garcia and Elizabeth Peralta played in Julian Garcia’s alleged scheme.

See here for the background. I don’t see any reason to believe Shipley’s claims about his accusers, but one way or another the story will come out. In the meantime, I’m still not buying any of his donuts.

What are the elections of interest this May?

That’s a question I’m asking as well as one I’m trying to answer. Normally, there are no elections in May of any kind of year for Houston folks, though there are some for parts of Harris County and surrounding areas. This year for the uniform election date of May 5 we do have the special election in City Council District K to succeed the late CM Larry Green. The filing deadline for this is March 26, so we should know in very short order who is in the running.

We should also know by March 26 whether that firefighters pay parity proposal will be on the ballot or not. The firefighters would like to know about that, too.

There is one legislative special election on tap for May 5. State Rep. Leighton Schubert in HD13 stepped down earlier this year, so this race is to fill out the remainder of his term. That doesn’t really mean much unless the winner of that race also wins in November, in which case he or she will have a seniority advantage over all the other members of the class of 2018. If I’m reading this list correctly, there are three candidates – Democrat Cecil Webster, Republican Ben Leman, and Republican Jill Wolfskill. Webster is on the November ballot – he also ran in 2016, getting 21.4% against Schubert in a district that voted 76.8% to 20.4% for Donald Trump. Leman and Wolfskill are in the runoff for the GOP nomination. If Webster can somehow make it to the runoff for this, even with the low stakes, it would be quite the achievement.

Closer to home, I know there are elections in Pearland for Pearland City Council – they have three-year terms, so they have elections every year – and Pearland ISD – I don’t know offhand what their terms are, but as you can see on the election results page, they have those races every year as well. Dalia Kasseb, who ran a strong race for Pearland City Council last year, is making another run this year. She is on the list of TDP-endorsed Project LIFT slate, as is Al Lloyd for Pearland ISD.

There are other races on that slate, though none in the Houston area. I’ve seen ads on Facebook for a candidate running for Deer Park ISD, but at this time I know nothing about her. Ballotpedia says these are three-year terms but there isn’t a page for 2018 yet. These elections are apparently not conducted by the Harris County Clerk, and I’m not seeing anything on the DPISD Board of Trustees webpage, so I’m throwing this out to y’all – if you know anything about this, please leave a comment and let me know.

So there you have what I know about elections for this May. What am I missing? Please fill me in.

There should be plenty of interest in the HISD Superintendent job

That’s what the Board is prepping for.

Richard Carranza

HISD trustees likely will have no shortage of potential candidates from the across the country willing to take over for Superintendent Richard Carranza, who announced last Monday that he will leave the district this month to become chancellor of New York City public schools. Board members also could consider several internal and regional candidates with long histories of service in Houston education or experience as a superintendent, albeit on a smaller scale.

“I truly believe that there are folks out there internally, in this state and this nation that are very capable and are committed for the long haul to ensure there’s progress,” HISD Trustee Sergio Lira said.

HISD’s superintendent will face myriad obstacles: an education finance system that is draining money from the district, the threat of a state takeover due to chronically failing schools, and a burgeoning class and racial divide over allocation of resources.

Those issues will be well-known to internal or regional candidates. Dan Domenech, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators, said national candidates also would be prepared for the chaos that comes with a running large, urban school district.

“The folks that are applying understand it’s a challenge and know the difficulties, like the lack of resources and the politics,” Domenech said. “These are not easy districts to run.”

HISD trustees will have several selling points to offer potential candidates.

As the largest school district in the nation’s second-largest state, with a student population of about 215,000 children, the position of HISD superintendent offers immense prestige. Board members have signaled they want to become more cohesive after years of division. City leaders also have pledged to become more engaged in aiding the district, particularly with low-performing schools that are drawing scrutiny from state leaders.

“I think we, as a city, need to demonstrate that we’re on the same page in terms of focusing on the most vulnerable children and communities that need to be served,” said Juliet Stipeche, director of Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner’s Office of Education and a former HISD trustee. “It will require somebody that’s up and ready for a strong challenge in an area that’s filled with opportunity.”

See here and here for the background. There are a few names of current HISD people mentioned in the story as well as possible candidates, but none of them appeared to be obvious frontrunners. For all its challenges – indeed, because of all its challenges – the HISD job is going to be attractive to a lot of candidates. It’s a big and diverse district, with a lot of resources even in tight budgetary times, and the opportunity is there to leave a mark and establish oneself as a visionary leader. Carranza’s departure is ill-timed for HISD, but the fact that he got poached by the New York school district shows that he was held in high regard, which will be a plus for everyone who might consider following him. We should see some talented applicants come forward for this position. We just need to pick the right one.

Firefighters sue to get their pay parity petitions certified

I’m just going to put this here.

Houston firefighters on Monday asked a judge to force the city secretary to validate signatures on an equal pay referendum petition that has been backlogged in City Hall for eight months.

The referendum would require firefighters to receive the same pay as police officers of corresponding rank. It was first submitted to the city in July but wasn’t validated before the November election. In December, leaders of the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association sued, asking a judge to give City Secretary Anna Russell 30 days to count and validate the petition signatures.

State District Judge Dan Hinde did not issue an immediate ruling after a three-hour trial Monday.

City attorneys argued the firefighters’ claim lacks the urgency needed to secure a court order.

State law forced Russell last year to count a petition related to alcoholic beverages in the Heights within 30 days, after which she returned to tallying a pension-related petition to amend the city charter that her office received in April, said Assistant City Attorney Brian Amis.

The firefighters’ petition, which also would amend the charter, was submitted in July. State law sets no deadline by which charter petitions must be validated.

When neither petition was verified in time for the November 2017 ballot, Amis said, that removed any urgency behind the count, as the next municipal election will not be held until November 2019.

See here, here, and here for some background. There’s a long section in the story that goes into City Secretary Anna Russell’s process for certifying petitions and how she doesn’t take direction from the Mayor or accept help from the petitioners, both of which I think are good things. I’ll say that it feels a little ridiculous to me that this hasn’t been completed by now – I mean, if it had taken this long to count the anti-HERO petitions, that one may never have gotten on the ballot. On the other hand, maybe this isn’t the sort of thing that should be decided by an oddball sure-to-be-under-ten-percent-turnout election in May. And on the other other hand, I’m hard pressed to imagine any ballot language that won’t be seriously challenged in court regardless of the outcome, which given past history makes one wonder if it wouldn’t be more expeditious to litigate first and vote later. All I know for sure is that as with the District K special election, if we don’t have this ready for the ballot by March 26 – that is, two weeks from today – it ain’t happening in May. Good luck sorting this all out.

No decision on Carranza replacement yet

Tabled for now, but likely not for long.

Houston ISD trustees on Thursday opted not to appoint an interim superintendent at a school board meeting, leaving it unclear who will run the district after Superintendent Richard Carranza’s anticipated departure later this month.

Board members did not discuss potential candidates or options for moving forward during closed or open session Thursday because one trustee was absent. They are expected to consider options for appointing a temporary district leader at a March 22 meeting.

Trustees faced a relatively subdued crowd given Carranza’s abrupt announcement Monday that he plans to leave the district after 18 months to become chancellor of New York City public schools. They never referred to Carranza by name during the meeting or commented at length about his decision to leave, making only glancing references to his departure.

“The sky is not falling around replacing our superintendent,” HISD Board President Rhonda Skillern-Jones said. “We do have some heavy lifts, but we’ve had to do some heavy lifts before.”

[…]

Skillern-Jones said board members discussed some legal matters surrounding Carranza’s departure during closed session, including their ability to re-hire the search firm that helped them land Carranza, who formerly presided over San Francisco Unified School District. Trustees expect they will be able to use the search firm, Hazard, Young, Attea & Associates, free of charge because Carranza remained in HISD for less than two years.

See here for the background. The main question, as outlined in this this earlier story, is whether to “name a short-term interim superintendent and immediately begin a search for a more permanent replacement; name a long-term interim superintendent and postpone a superintendent search for a couple months; or post the position and hire a new permanent superintendent immediately”. I assume the third choice is basically a promotion from within the existing HISD hierarchy, while the other two would be a national search. The indication that the board could re-use the search firm that recommended Carranza suggests the board may be leaning towards one of those options. There’s a case to be made for hiring someone local – as one person in the story suggests, a local person may be less likely to be wooed away. I don’t know that I buy that – there isn’t a long history of HISD superintendents being poached, and the non-local Terry Grier stayed through the end of his contract – but it’s a point to debate. All I really care about is that they find someone who is up to the job.

Special election set for District K

Mark your calendars.

CM Larry Green

Voters in southwest Houston will select a replacement for the late City Councilman Larry Green in a May 5 special election, Mayor Sylvester Turner said Wednesday.

Green, who was found dead at his home Tuesday morning, remains the only councilman ever to lead District K, which was created after the 2010 Census prompted the council to expand from nine to 11 districts, plus five at-large seats.

No cause has been announced in the 52-year-old’s death, but police do not suspect foul play.

Turner said state law dictates that City Council call a special election by March 20 and that candidates file for the office by March 26. The district stretches from the NRG Park area to Fort Bend Houston and Westbury.

See here for the background. I’m sorry to post about this business so soon after CM Green’s tragic death. I’ve been reading one remembrance of CM Green after another from mutual friends. Lots of people knew him, and everyone who knew him liked him. We’re going to feel this loss for awhile.

Nonetheless, here we are. I was confused by the wording in the Chron article, which led me to think there would be some process other than a special election to fill this vacancy. I should have known better. The special election will be in May, and yes it will be a different day than the primary runoff. This is all per state law, as I have learned on some Facebook discussions. Having two different elections in May will be confusing, but I don’t think it’s any more confusing than trying to have this at the same time as the primary runoffs would have been. I suspect if we did it that way some number of people would not vote on the belief that they couldn’t since they hadn’t voted in the primary. It will be up to the candidates to explain to the voters what they’re running for and when their election is. I figure we’ll begin to see people express their interest in this seat next week. Oh, and while the winner in this election will have to run again in 2019, he or she will still get to run for a second full term in 2023 if they win. We’ll keep an eye on this.

RIP, CM Larry Green

Very sad news.

CM Larry Green

Houston City Councilman Larry Green was found dead at his home late Tuesday morning, prompting an outpouring of sadness from City Hall to the southwest Houston district he represented for more than six years.

The cause of death was not immediately known, though Houston police said foul play was not suspected.

Green, 52, remains the only person elected to lead District K, one of two seats added after the 2010 Census led the council to grow from nine to 11 districts.

Green’s ubiquity at civic club meetings and dogged work ethic took a district created from the “stepchildren” neighborhoods of two former districts and made it “better than the sum of our parts,” as Westbury civic leader Becky Edmondson put it. Texting Green at midnight often would produce an answer, she said. Meyerland/Westbury civic leader Art Pronin agreed — but put the time at 1 a.m.

“He’s at my civic club meeting, he’s at the coalition meeting, he’s at the Super Neighborhood meeting,” Keswick Place civic leader Linda Scurlock said. “He’s there. He’s not on a pedestal. I’ve lived in this community for 41 years, and we’ve never had a council member like that. It was like your friend. I’d call him all the time.”

Even residents pleased with their representatives do not always view those politicians as “friends,” but Edmondson used the same word. When she informed her daughter of Green’s passing, her daughter wept. And when her 9-year-old grandson heard the news, he cried, too.

“He’s been planting trees with Larry since he was 2 years old. He considers Larry as his friend,” Edmondson said. “He was a leader for the city, he was our advocate in District K – and he was my friend. And he was a friend to hundreds of other people like me that met him during his tenure. I’ll really miss him.”

I interviewed CM Green in 2011, when he ran for the then-new District K, but I had met him a few years before that. He was thoughtful and passionate about his community. I liked him, both as a person and as a Council member. He won that race, for a new seat in a part of town that did not lack for political talent, with little opposition. Especially on a day where we’re all feeling positive about the political process, I’m stunned and saddened by the loss of CM Green. My sincere condolences to his family and many friends.

[Mayor Sylvester] Turner’s communications director, Alan Bernstein, said late Tuesday the city legal department still was reviewing the procedures for naming Green’s replacement. The city charter authorizes council to fill vacancies by majority vote, but does not specify a timeline for doing so.

To be honest, I had assumed there would be a special election, probably in November but possibly in May, to serve the remainder of CM Green’s term. That’s what happened with other vacancies in the past. I’m not sure if the process is different in the event of a member’s death, or if this was an effect of the term limits referendum. Whatever the case, that person will have to run again for a full term in 2019. There will be time later to think about that in more detail.

Carranza departs

This sure came as a surprise.

Richard Carranza

As Houston ISD officials wrestle with how to fill a $115 million budget shortfall, stave off a potential state takeover and work to recover after Hurricane Harvey, Superintendent Richard Carranza announced Monday he would leave the district after less than two years on the job, accepting an offer to lead New York City’s school system.

Carranza appeared Monday afternoon at a press conference with New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio. Carranza’s status with Houston ISD was not immediately available. De Blasio said those details are being worked out, but the outgoing chancellor is expected to remain on board until the end of March.

At a press conference announcing his appointment Monday afternoon, Carranza said the chance to take over the nation’s largest school district and alignment with De Blasio’s agenda were primary factors in accepting the job.

“There is no other New York City Public Schools,” Carranza said. “It was an opportunity that I could not say ‘no’ to.”

Houston ISD board members are expected to meet Thursday to discuss the district’s next steps.

“We the board wish Carranza the best in his endeavors and appreciate the leadership he brought to this district,” Houston ISD Board of Trustees President Rhonda Skillern-Jones said in a statement. “We are committed to continuing the work he began and moving the district forward.”

Carranza’s departure leaves Texas’ largest school district leaderless as it faces consequential challenges. The district faces a $115 million budget shortfall and potential state takeover due to poor academic performances at a handful of the district’s more than 280 campuses.

I think it’s fair to say nobody saw this coming. It’s a little hard to judge Carranza’s tenure in office because he wasn’t here for that long, and there’s a lot of unfinished business that will need to be taken up by his successor. You can’t blame him for taking the opportunity, but the timing isn’t great for HISD. We’re going to need to find a new Super quickly, and that person will have a full to-do list when he or she arrives. Will the Board look for someone who will be gung ho about implementing the proposals Carranza laid out, or will they seek a different direction? Or will they just try to hire the best person they can get and let that person figure it out? A challenging and tumultuous year at HISD just got more so. I wish the Board all the best with the task they now have before them. HISD’s news story is here, and the Press has more.

Oh, no, Shipley’s

Disgusting.

Three former Shipley Do-Nuts employees are suing the company’s owner for allegedly groping them and making racist remarks, accusations that are consistent with a bevy of civil rights lawsuits filed by former workers since 2004.

The women claim that Lawrence Shipley III “regularly subjected them to unwelcome touching, other inappropriate physical behavior and unwelcome sexual comments,” according to a lawsuit filed in Harris County on Friday against the donut company and its owner.

“(Shipley) hugged Elizabeth Peralta tight across her front and touched her rear and buttocks,” the suit says. “He stared at her breasts and crotch areas. He spanked her rear.”

The other plaintiffs allege similar action from Shipley while working at the Houston-based chain’s North Main Street location. During one incident, plaintiff Esmeralda Sanchez claims Shipley did not punish a male supervisor who made sexual innuendos to her, instead saying that the way she dressed encouraged the behavior. They seek more than $1 million in damages.

The three women are also plaintiffs in a federal lawsuit filed against the company last year for failing to pay overtime, an allegation that’s been lodged many times against the company in suits.

In an email Sunday, Lawrence Shipley said his accusers were caught “red-handed in an elaborate corruption scheme whereby they duped the Shipley companies and more than 20 franchisees out of legitimate delivery and freight services for their own financial gain.”

“And if I were to become somebody I’m not and stumble over to the dark side, it wouldn’t be with these low lifes,” he wrote. “What a baseless, pathetic accusation. That’s my comment.”

An attorney for the three women said it was unclear what Shipley meant in his statement. Karla Evans Epperson said she was not aware of any legal actions against her clients that would explain Shipley’s comments. Two of the women worked in housekeeping, and the other did clerical work, according to the first suit.

Epperson said she wasn’t surprised by Shipley’s comments, though.

“This isn’t his first rodeo,” she said.

There’s more, so go read the rest. That North Main location is where I take the girls for donuts when they convince us to buy them. Not anymore. I will not darken the doorstep of a Shipley’s till this jackass has sold his shares and they have put in real reforms to treat their employees better and prevent crap like this in the future. What a damn shame.

Feds sue city over HFD sex discrimination claims

Yikes.

The Justice Department has sued the city of Houston over sex discrimination claims launched by two female firefighters who say their male coworkers tormented them by urinating on the women’s bathroom walls and sinks and scrawling vulgar slurs on their belongings.

Male firefighters allegedly turned off the cold water in showers to scald their female coworkers and disconnected speakers to prevent women from responding to calls in a string of bad behavior that eventually escalated to death threats, according to the lawsuit.

“Far too often, women are targeted and harassed in the workplace because of their sex,” said Acting Assistant Attorney General John Gore of the Civil Rights Division. “Employees have the right to work in an environment that is free from sex discrimination and retaliation.”

The conduct continued over time despite at least nine complaints to management, which failed to remedy the situation and allegedly created a hostile work environment for firefighters Jane Draycott and Paula Keyes.

The city did not comment on the suit, while the firefighters’ union pushed to see more evidence released in the case and decried long-standing criticism of the department.

“Dozens of firefighters cooperated in the various investigations of this incident, but unfounded criticism of Houston firefighters has continued for years,” Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association President Marty Lancton said.

[…]

Representatives from the firefighters’ union said the lawsuit underscored the need for city officials to make public the findings of an investigation involving 40 firefighters that were polygraphed and who gave sworn statements or handwriting samples during the investigation.

“From the beginning of this controversy, Houston firefighters have wanted the perpetrator(s) of the incidents at Station 54 found and punished appropriately,” Lancton said, in an emailed statement.

The union leader emphasized that the firefighters exonerated in the course of the investigation deserved to be recognized as such.

“Former Mayor Annise Parker rightly said in 2010 that Houston firefighters were ‘unjustly under a cloud.’ Eight years later, the cloud remains,” he said.

“The time has come for authorities to release all of the evidence in this case. Without a proper conclusion, the unjust ‘cloud’ will undermine a basic tenet of our justice system – innocent until proven guilty.”

The city has since announced that it will defend itself and that it “does not tolerate any form of discrimination or harassment”; you can see the city’s statement here. I thought I’d written more about this in the past, but this is the only post that I can find.

The behaviors alleged are terrible and disgusting. I can’t imagine what it was like to be Jane Draycott or Paula Keyes. The fact that a city investigation failed to find the perpetrators – the story also referenced an unsuccessful FBI investigation – is greatly disheartening, and I think the key to this. Because while it may be the case that “dozens of firefighters cooperated” in those investigations, the one thing that I know to be true is that it is firefighters who did these vile acts, and firefighters who know who did them. And neither the guilty parties nor their buddies, who surely know who they are and what they did, came forward to admit any of it.

So while there is a cloud over the department, it is for that reason that I disagree that it is “unjust”. I guarantee you, there are plenty of firefighters who know who did what and when. Maybe that information exists in the city OIG report, but it doesn’t really matter. Nothing is stopping the firefighters who know the truth from coming forward on their own and telling it. And please, don’t tell me that it would be hard or that they would put themselves at risk or anything like that. It was hard for Jane Draycott and Paula Keyes. Jane Draycott and Paula Keyes put themselves at significant risk, and they very much felt the consequences for that. The firefighters who know the truth can damn well deal with it.

So sure, the city should release its report. Maybe it will tell us things we don’t already know. But some people could tell us even more than that. It’s time they started. The #MeToo movement is ultimately about work, and the women who have been denied the opportunity to do the work they want to do, not just by the lowlifes who harass them but by those who stood by and stayed silent as it was happening. Now, at long last, is HFD’s chance to do something about that. Courthouse News, which has a copy of the lawsuit, has more.

HISD’s budget deficit is a little smaller

A bit of good news.

Houston ISD administrators do not expect to cut magnet programs or re-open the magnet application process ahead of the 2018-19 school year, an announcement likely to ease fears among parents who send their children to choice schools.

Houston ISD leaders said Monday they are lowering the district’s projected budget deficit from about $209 million to $115 million, which would dramatically reduce the level of potential staff and program cuts.

The two announcements reflect the shifting nature of Houston ISD’s plans for major changes throughout the district, which have provoked anxiety among many parents and staff members. District leaders are proposing changes to the district’s magnet and funding systems — with the goal of providing more resources and programs to students in lower-income neighborhoods while facing a significant budget deficit largely brought on by the state’s school finance law.

Administrators are considering whether to phase out some magnet programs that have relatively little student interest or no consistent programming throughout a feeder pattern. District leaders want to better align magnets so students follow the same program from elementary through high school.

Administrators do not expect to cut many magnet programs, but any changes would not be made until 2019-20. Chief School Support Officer Mark Smith said the district did not want to rush any reductions that would force parents to immediately seek new options for their children.

See here for the background. What drove the sunnier budget estimate? Here’s the explanation.

When HISD first began budgeting for the 2018-2019 school year, it was in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Harvey. Using a worst-case scenario, the district’s financial team projected a $208 million deficit based on four dynamic factors: the Local Optional Homestead Exemption (LOHE) lawsuit, a recapture payment to the state, a potential property tax value decreaseand an anticipated student enrollment decline. Taking direction from HISD Board President Rhonda Skillern-Jones, district administrators crafted a revised budget outlook for the 2018-19 school year.

The district’s legal team feels strongly that the state will prevail in the LOHE lawsuit. For HISD, this means a reduction in its recapture payment because the TEA will recognize half of the 20 percent local homestead exemption given to homeowners. A decision in the lawsuit could come after a hearing this spring. A win would reduce HISD’s recapture payment by $51 million.

Under the Texas Education Code, TEA Commissioner Mike Morath has the authority to adjust property values. Based on the damage sustained from Hurricane Harvey and the lasting impact of the storm on our students and staff, we anticipate the commissioner will adjust property values, which in turn, would reduce our recapture payment. Governor Greg Abbott, Lt. Governor Dan Patrick, and other state leaders have publicly stated their support for this action. Click here to review a September 2017 press release from Lt. Governor Dan Patrick that confirms his support for schools districts in Region IV impacted by Hurricane Harvey, which includes HISD. In addition, Commissioner Morath surveyed school districts after the hurricane to gather projections on their property tax collections post-Harvey. HISD estimates a $42 million adjustment for property value loss associated with Hurricane Harvey.

It was prudent to budget under the worst-case assumption, and it makes sense to adjust on the reasonable expectation that he reality is better. HISD still has a big hole to fill, and changes to the magnet programs will be difficult and disruptive, though long overdue. I confess that I haven’t been following all this very closely – sorry, all the election stuff has taken over my brain – but I will get back into it as the process begins.

The latest report on city finances

A little light reading for you.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Even after Mayor Sylvester Turner’s landmark pension reforms, the city of Houston is on pace to spend $1 billion more than it will take in over the coming decade, and must cut spending and raise revenue bring its annual budget into balance, according to an exhaustive new report.

Failing to do so, the authors state, risks letting the city inch toward insolvency with all the symptoms that accompany such a fiscal crisis: Worker layoffs, an erosion in police staffing, fewer library hours, decaying parks facilities, a hollowing out of the city as the suburbs boom.

The analysts from Philadelphia-based consulting firm PFM did not shy away from controversial recommendations, including some that would dramatically restructure city government.

Among dozens of other reforms, the authors suggest Houston should:

  • break up its mammoth Houston Public Works department and consolidate its finance, procurement, human resources, and information technology staff;
  • cut the $9.5 million annual subsidy to the Houston Zoo roughly in half;
  • shrink the Houston Fire Department by up to 845 positions through attrition and lengthen firefighters’ work weeks; reduce the number of fire stations; hire civilians to do fire inspections and take 911 calls; and raise ambulance fees;
  • hire civilians for the Houston Police Department to enable cops now doing administrative tasks to get back on patrol; free up officers’ time by arresting fewer low-level offenders and writing more tickets; use civilians to conduct crash investigations and issue non-moving traffic tickets; consolidate with Metro’s police staff, and, perhaps, local school districts’ too;
  • cut health benefits for active and retired city workers; and
  • submit trash pickup, building maintenance and street repairs to “managed competition,” giving all or part of each task to city departments or to private companies, whichever submits the most efficient proposal.
  • City Council hired PFM for $565,000 in 2016, Turner’s first year in office, to craft a 10-year financial plan. Turner made clear in comments last week, however, that he views some of the recommendations as impractical.

“When you talk about structural changes, just because it’s identified doesn’t mean it’s easily done. It’s not about taking a report and just implementing it,” he said. “There are some things that, from my vantage point, yes, we will accept. There are some things that are going to require additional study. There are some things that will be more long term. And then there are some things that we’ll never get there.”

The report is here; it’s quite long, but the executive summary is only 16 pages, so read that if you want a feel for it. At first glance, a lot of it sounds reasonable and even doable. I appreciate the fact that they recognize that revenue is part of the equation and that removing the stupid revenue cap would go a long way towards alleviating the problem. Some actions could be done by Mayoral fiat, some by Council action, and some will require negotiations with third parties and/or legislative approval. It’s always possible that a report like this becomes little more than a doorstop, but I think we’ll see at least some of it happen.

So where are we on Harvey response?

Stuff is happening.

Local and state leaders are moving toward a major, lengthy and costly overhaul of the region’s flood defenses that includes regulating developmentmassive buyouts of flood-prone properties and flood-prevention projects that have been discussed for decades but never built.

Few of the initiatives will be complete before hurricane season starts in June, but nearly six months after Hurricane Harvey ripped through the Texas Gulf Coast and devastated the nation’s fourth-largest city, leaders are seeking to address long-ignored shortcomings laid bare by one of the most intense rainstorms in U.S. history.

Gov. Greg Abbott says he can write a check for a third reservoir to better protect areas west of Houston from inundation as well as attempt to avoid the types of releases from Addicks and Barker dams that swamped Houston downstream during Harvey.

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner wants to join Harris County in strengthening regulation on the region’s rapid development to protect the city’s population from floodwaters and alleviate the burden on taxpayers to repair and rebuild flood-prone properties.

Harris County leaders want a major bond issue – and a corresponding increase in property taxes – this year to pay for bayou drainage projects and, possibly, broad buyouts in flood-prone areas.

There’s also broad support for legislation that would require buyers of property in reservoir flood pools, which are dry much of the time, to be notified of flooding risks; 30,000 homes have been built in the flood pools of Addicks and Barker, and many owners say they had no idea they were living in an area designed to hold water during times of heavy rain. More than 9,000 of those homes flooded during Harvey.

Some of the local response has been slowed as officials waited to see what Congress will be willing to fund, a logjam that started to break late in the week with the approval of nearly $90 billion for victims of this year’s storms and natural disasters – much of it for recovery, not prevention. But state and local officials tell the Houston Chronicle they remain committed to broader improvements.

That was written before the Congressional budget deal was reached, so that obstacle should be removed, though it’s still not totally clear what that will mean. County Commissioners will need to figure that out for the bond referendum they’re planning. There are now more FEMA funds available for recovery, which is nice but makes you wonder why it took so long.

It’s a little hard for me as someone who wasn’t directly affected by Harvey to judge if “enough” progress has been made. My friends who were flooded out are still dealing with it; one family is about to move back into their repaired home, which was damaged by the dam releases, another has made the decision to sell and live elsewhere, others are in similar places. I can’t speak for them, but we will all have the opportunity to listen to them as the elections approach. I have to assume that every elected official is going to have to answer for his or her actions and decisions during and after Harvey. I feel like this could be a point of weakness for Greg Abbott, and I think that Andrew White’s campaign ad touting his actions during Harvey is a smart move. It’s too soon to say how much of an effect Harvey will have on November – I don’t get the sense that it’s a difference maker in the primaries, but at least on the Democratic side that may be because no one disagrees with the notion that more can and should have been done to aid the recovery and mitigate against future floods – but it will be there. The time to take action to shield oneself against charges that one’s response was inadequate is rapidly running out, if it hasn’t already.

SaberCats Stadium

Houston’s new pro rugby team will soon have a home.

The city’s burgeoning rugby community is poised to have a new home after City Council inked a $3.2 million deal Wednesday that paves the way for the Houston SaberCats to build a 3,500-seat stadium.

The SaberCats, one of seven new Major League Rugby franchises, plans to finish the new facility and two practice fields at Houston Amateur Sports Park, along Texas 288 in south Houston, in time for the beginning of its 2019 season.

The city, meanwhile, will retain ownership of the site, lease the property to the SaberCats for 43 years and use $3.2 million from its 2012 bond package to reimburse the team for the cost of installing a 760-space parking lot and adding public utilities.

“This is a major step forward,” Mayor Sylvester Turner said of the deal. “We say we’re an international city, and this helps to create those venues that can appeal to the interests of a very diverse population.”

SaberCats President Brian Colona echoed Turner’s enthusiasm.

“Obviously, we’re thrilled to have the city council back this thing with great support from Mayor Turner and his staff,” Colona said. “This is the quintessential example of good public-private partnership in order to advance the needs of the community, and we’re happy to be a part of that.”

[…]

As part of the deal OK’d Wednesday, the SaberCats have committed to providing at least 200 hours of free children’s rugby training annually, hosting high school rugby matches and running free rugby camps for children ages 6 through 14, among other types of community engagement.

See here for some background on the SaberCats, who as you can see were formerly known as the Strikers, and here for an earlier article on this deal, which again notes that funds from the 2012 bond referendum that were earmarked for this facility are what’s being used. The main reaction from the SaberCats’ Facebook page is “why only 3,500 seats?”, since a recent exhibition game had 5,000 in attendance. There will be some 4,000 standing room spots as well, so they ought to be covered for now. I’ve never actually seen a rugby game before, I may have to check this out when they have their grand opening. Any fans of the sport out there?

Northwest Mall will be your Houston high speed rail terminal

No surprise.

Texas Central Partners and Houston-area elected officials on Monday announced that the company, which is seeking federal approval for a 240-mile high-speed train line, has chosen Northwest Mall near Loop 610 and U.S. 290 as their preferred site.

The company has an option to buy the land, said Jack Matthews, who is handling property acquisition for Texas Central.

The announcement was largely expected, as the mall site remained the most viable site to put a train station along Hempstead Road in the area around Loop 610. It also emerged from a federal environmental review as the most practical site in terms of displacing fewer homes and businesses. Still, the line will affect landowners along Hempstead as the tracks extend from the proposed station into northwest Harris and southern Waller counties.

[…]

Almost all of the stores within the mall itself are closed. Only a handful of stores and venues with exterior entrances remain open.

City leaders also joined with Metropolitan Transit Authority officials, noting they hoped the station could spur rail development from Metro’s nearby Northwest Transit Center to downtown Houston.

Texas Central CEO Carlos Aguilar said the site was chosen because its location gives the company ready access to many Houston area travelers. The area around Loop 610 and U.S. 290 is essentially the population center of the region, as development has spread rapidly north and west of the urban core.

“This is the best site for Houston for many reasons,” Aguilar said.

That happened on the same day that the public hearing for the draft EIS was held in Cypress. The Dallas end of the line was chosen last week. The Trib adds a few details.

The chosen location is about 1.5 miles from Northwest Transit Center, a major bus hub and the closest public transportation connection. Despite that distance, the company said in a prepared statement Monday that the station will provide “convenient, efficient and direct” connections to the Houston METRO transit system.

METRO does not currently have any light-rail lines in that part of the city. The agency is working on a long-term plan for expanded transit service.

“So we’re in a broad range of conversation and thought as to how to provide that connection,” Texas Central President Tim Keith told The Texas Tribune on Monday.

There’s pictures at Swamplot, so go check it out. It’s true there’s not much there now, but as you can see there are big plans to change that. There aren’t any transit connections yet, but we’re talking about a 2024 debut for TCR, so there’s a lot of time for stuff to happen. I feel confident the forthcoming Metro referendum will include an item to deal with this in some fashion. I’m looking forward to it.

Looking to hire more cops for Houston

We’ll see about this.

The head of the Houston police union announced Wednesday that city leaders had pledged to grow the Houston Police Department ranks by 500 officers over the next five years, far fewer than the city’s police chief said he needs.

“It’s no secret the Houston Police Department has been doing more with less, for far too long,” HPOU President Joseph Gamaldi said Wednesday afternoon at a crowded news conference at union headquarters.

The influx of officers would still be a fraction of the 2,000 new officers Chief Art Acevedo has said he believes the department needs to deal with the city’s growth, but comes as Houston has struggled for years to meaningfully increase the staffing in the department.

Gamaldi’s initiative, which the union is calling the “Drive for 500,” came after union officials visited all of the city’s council members, as well as Mayor Sylvester Turner, and asked them to pledge their support to increase the department that has nearly 5,200 officers on the job.

[…]

Currently, the HPD operates on a yearly budget of $827 million, and it costs the department around $3 million to run each class of recruits through its in-house academy.

The call for more officers comes as the city management last year had to close a $130 million budget shortfall.

The staffing proposal follows a concerted campaign last year to reform the city’s pension system, which officials warned was underfunded and threatened the city’s long-term financial health.

Meanwhile, Chief Acevedo and Gamaldi have stepped up calls for an large infusion of new officers into the department, saying it is dangerously understaffed, particularly compared to other large cities around the country.

Though Houston has fewer police officers per resident than other large cities, I remain unconvinced that we need to go on a hiring spree. At the very least, I’d like to understand what the plan is for a larger force. HPD’s solve rate isn’t so hot, so if the idea is to staff up on investigators with the goal of closing out more cases, then I can be on board with that. If it’s more like hire now and figure it out later, I’ll take a pass.

As the story suggests, hiring more cops would likely be part of the argument to alter or lift the revenue cap. Not my preferred approach, but I admit I’m not representative on this. I am ready for this argument to be fully rolled out, in anticipation of a vote this year.

Public meetings for Texas Central draft EIS

You got something you want to say about the proposed high speed rail line and its possible routes, here’s your chance.

Houston residents are being asked to weigh in on a plan to build a $12 billion high-speed train between the city and Dallas.

The meeting is set for Feb. 5 and will be coordinated by the Federal Railroad Administration, which must approve plans for the Texas Bullet Train.

[…]

Texas Central, which has support from Houston and Dallas city officials, said the line would stop south of downtown Dallas and then in Houston, near Loop 610 and U.S. 290, the Houston Chronicle’s Dug Begley reported.

Relevant info about the meetings is here. The schedule for meetings near us in Houston is as follows:

Madison County – Monday, February 5, 2018, 5 p.m. to 9 p.m.
Truman Kimbro Convention Center, 111 W Trinity St, Madisonville, TX 77864

Harris County – Monday, February 5, 2018, 6:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m.
Woodard Elementary School, 17501 Cypress North Houston Rd, Cypress, TX 77433

Grimes County – Tuesday, February 6, 2018, 6:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m.
Navasota Junior High, 9038 Highway 90 South, Navasota, TX 77868

Waller County – Tuesday, February 6, 2018, 5 p.m. to 9 p.m.
Waller High School, 20950 Fields Store Rd, Waller, TX 77484

You can also provide feedback or sign up to receive updates on the project from the Federal Railroad Administration here. As a reminder, there are three possible locations for the Houston terminal, and one of the goals of the DEIS project is to pick a winner from those three. So speak now or forever hold your peace.

Darian Ward resigns

Adios.

Mayor Sylvester Turner’s press secretary resigned Friday afternoon, three weeks after news broke that she had been suspended for routinely conducting personal business on city time and failing to release public records.

Ward sent or received roughly 5,000 pages of emails about personal business from her government account over the last four years, many of which dealt with reality shows she was pitching to television networks or a charity for which she serves as an advisor.

Ward, who earned $93,712 annually, was suspended for 10 days without pay in late December.

Her resignation came hours before new emails showed Ward again had tried to block the release of a portion of the personal business documents she sent on city time. The Houston Chronicle and other news outlets sought the emails under the Texas Public Information Act.

“I believe many of the documents which include show concepts, treatments, etc. are protected through the Writers Guild Association’s registration. Legal needs to be advised,” Ward wrote to colleagues two weeks ago.

Assistant City Attorney Danielle Folsom replied last week, saying the city attorney’s office “does not believe that registration with the Writer’s Guild of America makes information confidential under the TPIA.”

Ward still wanted to seek an opinion from the Texas attorney general’s office, emails show. Pamela Ellis, founder of a charity Ward was promoting on city time, also asked the city to withhold documents.

As a result, the city released roughly 2,500 pages of Ward’s emails on Jan. 19.
With the release of that first batch, Ward expressed confusion that her attempt to intervene had not fully halted the city’s records release.

“How were emails released when I’m waiting to write the AG’s office?” she wrote to coworkers that evening.

The city distributed nearly 1,200 additional pages Thursday, accompanied by a letter to the attorney general’s office.

“The city takes no position with respect to the public availability of the requested information and will not raise any arguments on behalf of any third party,” Folsom wrote in requesting a ruling from the attorney general’s office.

See here for some background. As I said at the time, if that original story was all there was – if we knew all there was to know when that first story came out – then we’d all forget about it soon enough. That wasn’t the case, and so here we are. We’ve had email in the workplace for some 20 years now, and you’d think people would be clear on what “appropriate use” is by now. I honestly don’t know what Ward was thinking, but at least she’ll have more time to work on that show she’s trying to develop now. Her successor is Mary Benton, like Ward a former TV news reporter, who had worked for Gene Locke during his time as County Commissioner. I know Mary from the local politics scene, and I wish her well in the new gig.

Mayor proposes new floodplain development rules

Good idea.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner on Wednesday proposed tightening development rules to strengthen Houston’s defenses against flooding, the city’s first concrete step to change building practices since Hurricane Harvey inundated hundreds of thousands of homes last August.

Turner’s proposed changes would require all new buildings outside the floodplain to be elevated two feet above the ground, and all new construction within the 500-year floodplain to be lifted two feet above the projected flood level during a 500-year storm. Current rules stipulate that buildings be constructed one foot above the flood level in a 100-year storm.

The mayor also intends to make builders redeveloping large parcels of land provide more stormwater detention than city rules currently require.

“We have had floods in each of the last three years, with Harvey being the worst. There will be other epic rainstorms, and they probably will arrive a lot sooner than 100 years or 500 years from now,” Turner told City Council. “As we build back from the damage to existing homes, we have to build forward to prevent future homes from flooding.”

City officials expect to release proposed legal language in the coming weeks, then submit the new rules for City Council consideration by mid-February. If approved, there likely would be a months-long grace period before the laws take effect, Turner said.

Though not final, the city’s intended overhaul of development rules would be more extensive than those Harris County approved last month.

See here and here for the county’s development changes. As the owner of a pier-and-beam house, I have to say I don’t understand why more houses aren’t built that way, but maybe with this change more of them will be. This won’t be transformative – it only applies to new development – but you have to start somewhere, and given that we didn’t start this years ago, the next best time is now. I look forward to seeing the details.

Texas Central picks its midway stop

Hello, Roans Prairie.

A proposed high-speed train between Houston and Dallas on Thursday announced its midpoint, even as common ground with opponents near the proposed Roans Prairie stop remains elusive.

Texas Central, the company proposing the Texas Bullet Train, said the only stop between Houston and Dallas will occur at a 60-acre site along Texas 30, just west of Texas 90. The spot is about midway between College Station and Huntsville, officials said.

The announcement comes 10 days before a round of meetings to discuss the project, coordinated by the Federal Railroad Administration, following the release in December of an environmental assessment of the train line. The federal agency must still approve plans for the project, estimated to cost at least $12 billion. Public meetings start Jan. 29 in Dallas and move south. A meeting in Houston is planned Feb. 5.

[…]

The so-called Brazos Valley stop acts as the only other place people can hop aboard.

“This will drive growth in Texas not only to the big cities but also to the areas around the station. It’s going to be very exciting,” said Brady Redwine, a vice president of Texas Central, in a statement.

Grimes County residents, however, have been some of the staunchest critics of the project, which has faced stiff opposition from affected landowners and many rural residents who say the line is unnecessary and ruinous to their rustic surroundings.

Roans Prairie is in fact in Grimes County. One way of looking at this is that it’s a direct response by Texas Central to the criticism that the rural areas between Houston and Dallas where some land will need to be taken for the right of way will see no benefit from the train line. If this goes as planned, then one of the hotbeds of such criticism will in fact get something potentially quite substantial out of this. That could be quite the construction project, on that large tract of basically empty land. Put in the station, some retail, a place to eat, shuttle service to College Station and Huntsville and maybe one or two other places, and now you’ve got a lively enterprise in the middle of what was once nowhere. Will it change any minds? Can’t hurt to try.

HISD working on a bond issue

It’s going to be quite the year for HISD.

Voters living in Houston ISD could be asked to approve a new school bond totaling at least $1.2 billion as early as November, according to a recently unveiled district financial plan.

The bond would finance major construction projects, technology upgrades, fine arts purchases and other capital costs. If the bond request totals $1.2 billion, it would likely come with a tax increase of 3 cents to 7 cents per $100 of taxable value, depending on Hurricane Harvey’s impact on property values, district administrators said.

For a homeowner with a property valued at about $275,000, roughly the average in HISD in recent years, the increase would amount to $80 to $190 per year.

District leaders unveiled the plans over the weekend during a wide-ranging preview of major changes to the district’s budget, magnet schools program and approach to long-failing schools. HISD’s last bond election came in 2012, when two-thirds of voters approved a $1.89 billion request.

District leaders did not present specific projects or amounts, but they’re expected in the coming months to finalize a proposal for school board members. Board trustees must approve sending a bond election to voters.

Administrators said the bond would help finance new campuses in pockets of the city’s west and south sides, where student enrollment has grown, along with upgrades to outdated elementary and middle schools. The 2012 bond largely focused on renovating and building new high schools, with 26 campuses getting about $1.3 billion worth of construction.

The district’s financial staff estimates that a $500 million bond request could be passed without raising taxes, but the amount “would not do much for a school district of this size,” HISD Chief Operating Officer Brian Busby said.

“It would be something that would possibly pass, depending on what you do, but it would not be as impactful as we need a bond to be, based on our strategic vision moving forward,” Busby said.

Add this to the other items already on the plate and once again you can see what a busy year the Board has for itself. The initial reaction I saw to this on Facebook was not positive, which may have been the result of this coming on the heels of the announcement about changes to the magnet school program – lots of people I know are already plenty anxious about that. It’s also a weird year for politics, people feel like there’s too many things for them to keep track of, and I’m sure some people are wondering why there’s another bond issue six years after the last one. HISD bond issues generally pass easily – the one in 2012 got 69% of the vote – but I suspect the Board and Superintendent Carranza are going to have to put together a solid plan and sell it to the voters, with a strong promise of engagement and accountability. I would not take anything for granted.

HISD’s plan to avoid state takeover

We’ll see how this works. As we know, the stakes are quite high.

Houston ISD administrators have proposed dramatic changes to 15 low-performing schools that, if approved, could temporarily prevent the state from taking over the district’s Board of Trustees or shuttering campuses.

In a bid to preempt state intervention and improve academic performance, the district is proposing two options for each of the 15 schools: either allow an outside organization to take control of hiring and curriculum, or close and immediately reopen the campus with entirely new staff and programming before the 2018-19 academic year.

Under the latter option, the campus would only serve limited grade levels in 2018-19 — pre-kindergarten and kindergarten in elementary schools, sixth grade in middle schools and ninth grade in high schools. As a result, the majority of students at any close-and-reopen school would be displaced in 2018-19. Each campus would add one grade level in subsequent years.

The sweeping proposal, which remains in the early stages, comes as Houston ISD faces significant sanctions for its failure to improve chronically low-performing schools following the 2015 passage of a law known as HB 1842.

[…]

District administrators haven’t recommended which schools would employ partnerships or close-and-reopen. They are expected to present recommendations at a Feb. 1 board meeting, with community meetings planned throughout the month. Administrators are aiming for a board vote on the changes by early March.

Add this to the other big changes in the works and you can see what an ambitious agenda the board has for itself. Again, there’s a lot there and I encourage you to read it all, and to get involved in the process. There ought to be plenty of opportunities to engage, so if you want HISD to hear what you think about, get out there and tell them.

HISD faces major changes

This is a very big story, but a key component to it is not discussed here.

Houston ISD officials said Saturday the district will need to cut about $200 million from its 2018-19 budget to bring spending in line with an increasingly gloomy financial outlook.

In an equally momentous move, Houston ISD officials also proposed far-reaching changes to how the district operates its magnet and school choice systems, some of the boldest moves to date by second-year Superintendent Richard Carranza.

Still reeling from Hurricane Harvey, Houston Independent School District officials revealed at a board meeting Saturday that the district is facing a double whammy: A multimillion-dollar, state-mandated “recapture” payment requiring districts with high property values to “share the wealth,” and an expected drop in enrollment and tax revenue because of the devastating storm, which severely damaged schools and delayed the start of classes by two weeks.

The proposed cuts come at an inopportune time, with the district battling to stave off a potential state takeover because of 10 chronically under-performing schools.

Although the measures outlined Saturday are preliminary and could change significantly before HISD’s board votes on them, officials acknowledged that the district is entering an uncertain time.

“It’s a sea change for HISD,” said Rene Barajas, the district’s chief financial officer. “But at the end of the day, from a budgetary perspective, we’re still going to get the job done. It’s just going to be harder.”

There’s a lot more and there’s too much to adequately summarize, so go read the rest. We know about the recapture payments, which even though they have been reduced due to Harvey are still significant. We know HISD has been talking about revamping its magnet programs for some time, and there’s a cost-savings component to that as well. We know that property values and enrollment have been affected by Harvey, and we know how daily attendance determines the amount of money the district gets from the state. So none of this is a surprise, though having to deal with all of it at once is a big shock.

What’s missing from this article is any mention of what the state could and should do to help ameliorate this blow. I think everyone agrees that if a school building is destroyed by a catastrophic weather event, it should be rebuilt via a combination of funding sources, mostly private insurance and emergency allocations from the state. Why shouldn’t that also apply to the secondary effects of that same catastrophe? It’s not HISD’s fault that its revenues, both from taxes and from state appropriations, will be down. There needs to be a mechanism to at least soften, if not remove, this burden. Bear in mind that one reason why the drop in property values is such a hit is because the state has shoved more and more of the responsibility for school finance on local districts. If Harvey had happened even a decade ago, the appraisal loss would still be felt, but not by as much. That’s not HISD’s doing, it’s the Legislature’s and the Governor’s and the Lieutenant Governor’s, all with the approval of the Supreme Court.

But what can be done can be undone. With little to no pain on its part, the Lege could tap into the Rainy Day Fund to get HISD past the worst of this, or it could recognize that the nearly one billion it appropriated last session for “border security” is little more than macho posturing, an endless boondoggle for a handful of sheriffs, and an sharp increase in traffic citations, and redirect some of that money to HISD and any other district in similar straits. There are other things the Lege could do, but all of it starts with the basic principle that the Lege should do something to help out here. When are we going to talk about that?

Extra school days may be coming

Darn that crazy weather.

School districts across greater Houston are working to determine if they need to add extra days to their academic calendars or extra minutes to their school days to make up two days missed this week due to icy weather.

Area students have already missed two weeks or more of classes during the current school year as a result of Hurricane Harvey and the flooding it triggered.

Some of the area’s largest districts — including Houston and Cypress-Fairbanks — have already announced they will likely need to add at least one day to the school year after canceling classes Tuesday and Wednesday. The Cy-Fair and Humble school districts said students will no longer have a day off on Monday, Feb. 19, which will instead be used as a make-up day. That date had already been set aside as a make-up day in the event of unexpected school closures.

Houston ISD Superintendent Richard Carranza said Wednesday that his district, Texas’ largest, would likely need to add two instructional days to its academic year.

“We’re going to try to avoid adding days onto the end of the year. It wreaks havoc on graduation schedules, and lots of students and families have announced dates and have people flying in,” Carranza said. “We’ll do everything in our power to avoid tacking onto the end of the school year.”

As I recall, the last time HISD had to do this they added one day at the end of the year, and also opened schools on Memorial Day. I won’t be surprised if that’s on the table for this year, much to my girls’ dismay. It is what it is, and as noted at the end of the story, we all better hope for good weather from here on out. They’ll let us know when they know.

No Amazon HQ2 for Houston

Never really expected that we’d be a top contender, to be honest.

Amazon ruled out Houston as a candidate for its $5 billion second headquarters on Thursday, delivering a blow to local leaders who had hoped to lure the Seattle tech giant to a four-mile stretch between downtown and the Texas Medical Center.

The largest U.S. online retailer whittled down more than 200 proposals from North America cities to just 20, eliminating Houston but keeping the city’s longtime rivals Austin and Dallas on its short list.

Amazon’s decision marks a setback for local leaders including the Greater Houston Partnership, which led an effort last fall to pitch the city as an attractive market for the company to set down stakes.

“I believe this is a wake-up call for Houston,” GHP CEO Bob Harvey said in a statement. “While there has been growing momentum in the innovation space over the last couple of years, this is a clear indication that we have much more work to do as a region to grow our digital economy.”

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner called Amazon’s decision ” disappointing and heartbreaking.:

But, he added, “It serves as a wake-up call that we must move at a much quicker pace. The city is well positioned, but it’s also is an indication that there is a lot of work that still needs to be done.”

[…]

In his statement Thursday, Harvey said Houston should focus on developing the Innovation Corridor and its technology sector further. He also said Houston should move forward with the proposed Houston Data Science Institute, a data center recently announced by the University of Houston.

“While we are the number one market in the country for STEM talent, we need to bolster our pipeline of digital tech talent that is relevant to tomorrow’s digital economy,” Harvey said. “This means working with our higher education partners across the region to develop and invest in programs that will produce the talent we need to succeed.”

But economists warned that Houston would rank low on Amazon’s wish list in the nationwide bidding war for a campus that could bring 50,000 jobs, saying the city lacked a robust public transportation system. Only 2 percent of the local population takes public transportation to work, according to Census data.

See here and here for some background. On the one hand, it’s always a bummer to miss out. On the other hand, I wasn’t excited at the thought of giving zillions of dollars in incentives and tax breaks to a behemoth like Amazon as deal-sweeteners. There’s too much of that going on already. Doing things like developing the Innovation Corridor and building a Data Science Institute, that’s fine and worthwhile as investments. And let’s be sure not to overlook the feedback about our public transportation infrastructure. Imagine where we could have been if we’d had a Congressional delegation that was unanimous in its support of of more robust transit system. We’ll have an opportunity to support that at the ballot box this November. If we’re serious about wanting to be more competitive with the cities we lost out to, we need to put our money where our mouths are. The Trib, Texas Monthly (which is very skeptical of the chase to lure in Amazon), Swamplot, and the Dallas Observer have more.

The Alley Theater debacle

What a mess.

More than a dozen current and former Alley Theatre employees say the outgoing artistic director, Gregory Boyd, created a toxic work environment at the city’s most renowned theater, describing him as a tyrant who frequently singled out young female actresses for verbal abuse.

The allegations against Boyd, who abruptly retired this week after a 28-year Tony-winning run at the Alley, focus primarily on bullying and abusive behavior directed at young women under his direction on the stage.

Emily Trask, a member of the company for nearly two years, said she quit the Alley in April after reporting to three members of management that Boyd had bullied her, screaming “What the f— is wrong with you?” at a rehearsal, called her a “stupid c—” while giving another actor stage direction and twice touched her buttocks inappropriately.

“I felt I had no choice but to leave what was my dream job,” she said, citing “harassment and what I felt to be an unsafe environment.”

Boyd did not respond to requests for comment on the allegations.

A second actress, who asked not be identified for fear of retaliation, shared a similar story.

The actress said Boyd pinched her buttocks once on stage and once while she was making coffee in a break room. He made sexual comments about her to other actors, she said, and talked about the way she dressed and screamed at her on stage for the smallest of missteps.

“It was a very scary place to work for me,” she said, “a very hostile place.”

Like Trask, she said she complained to management, but nothing happened. “It was like it just got swept under the rug.”

The theater’s administrators and board president declined to answer questions about the allegations against Boyd, 66, who was widely considered the most influential figure in Houston’s theater scene. Boyd was just one year into a five-year contract and was paid at least $420,000 in the fiscal year that ended in June 2016, according to the company’s tax records.

[…]

The Houston Chronicle started interviewing Alley employees in November as the “Me Too” movement spread nationally and current and former employees complained about Boyd . On Dec. 20, the Chronicle asked to review the Alley’s financial records under a state law that requires certain disclosures by nonprofits. The theater declined to produce the records electronically; a date stamp indicated it printed them out on Dec. 29, but the theater told the Chronicle they were ready on Jan. 4.

The Alley’s press release, issued Tuesday, said Boyd had planned to retire last fall but delayed the announcement because of Hurricane Harvey.

“Leading this extraordinary theatre company in this wonderful city for over a quarter century has been an artistic dream fulfilled,” Boyd was quoted as saying in the press release. “With the marvelous efforts of the artists, staff, and Board, we created a state of the art theatre-making complex with performance, production, and administration all in a brilliant, expansive space that welcomes theatre-goers in a unique and exciting way. The Alley’s achievements have been a great source of satisfaction for me and I look forward to new achievements to come in the next era.”

ABC-13’s Miya Shay has been reporting on this as well. The sudden retirement of a 28-year artistic director of the city’s best-known theater, without any fanfare of advance notice or plans for a sendoff by itself raises suspicions, and I suspect there’s still more to the story to come. First and foremost are the questions about how this went on for so long without anyone at the Alley taking action.

The board of the Alley Theatre announced plans Friday to create a special committee to evaluate “the workplace environment” after the Houston Chronicle reported that more than a dozen current and former employees said former artistic director Gregory Boyd had fostered a toxic, abusive culture for decades.

In a 79-word statement, the board did not mention Boyd by name and did not directly address the Chronicle’s report, published Friday, which included interviews with actors and actresses who said Boyd had screamed obscenities at them during rehearsals. Two actresses alleged that Boyd also touched them inappropriately on their buttocks.

“During this transition to new artistic leadership, the Board of Directors has renewed its commitment to providing a dignified and respectful workplace,” the statement said. “The Board has also appointed a special committee to assess the workplace environment and deliver recommendations to ensure the Alley Theatre continues to be a destination for world-class talent.”

[…]

“I think the Alley owes Houston a tremendous apology for misusing the community’s trust and for covering up reprehensible behavior,” said Michael Dragoni, who was Boyd’s assistant from 1996 to 1998 and described the job as “an almost non-stop abusive situation.”

He said he saw Boyd berate actresses and touch a former staff member on her thigh inappropriately until she stood up and left a rehearsal.

“They have known about the toxicity from the beginning, and multiple leaders over the years have turned a blind eye and allowed things to get completely out of control,” Dragoni said.

Greg Lasley, who worked at the Alley from 2006 to 2011 as a bartender, described a “conspiracy of silence there.”

“People would complain, the board would show up and squash the complaint,” Lasley said.

Tony Bradfield, co-owner of Tenenbaum Jewelers, a longtime supporter of the Alley, expressed dismay at the accounts of an oppressive environment.

“I don’t think anyone of either gender, women mostly, should have to go through any of that,” Bradfield said. “I feel strongly about that.”

The Alley’s administration has not offered any response to the allegations against Boyd beyond Friday’s statement.

Here’s the Alley’s board of directors. I agree with Michael Dragoni, but an apology isn’t enough. The Board was clearly part of the problem. If they really want to make amends and move forward, those who were part of the problem should not be part of the solution. Most if not all of them should make plans to step down and let someone else clean up this mess. I hate to see a cultural jewel like the Alley go through such turbulence, but they brought this on themselves by failing to take action on this long-standing and well-known-to-them problem. They need to take the resolution to this seriously. I hope they do.