Off the Kuff Rotating Header Image

Houston

How many rail lines to Hobby do we need?

Maybe just one.

Metropolitan Transit Authority board members on Thursday agreed to plan on one light rail line to Hobby Airport, as opposed to the two initially proposed as part of the agency’s long-term transportation plan.

The first draft of the plan, dubbed Metro Moving Forward, included extensions of both the Purple Line and Green Line to Hobby. The proposal had the Purple coming from southeast Houston near MacGregor Park and the Green coming from near Gus Wortham Golf Course. The projects represented roughly $1.8 billion of the $7.5 billion Metropolitan Transit Authority plans to spend on major projects and improvements over the next 40 years.

Both of the light rail extensions enjoy support from local officials and residents along the planned routes to Hobby, but the plan of two routes to the same airport also drew criticism. Each of the routes also had skeptics, who noted the Purple Line would travel a loosely developed industrial area for part of the trip, while the Green Line’s straightest path – along Broadway – would anger some residents and force Metro to rebuild a street that the city spent money sprucing up for the Super Bowl in 2017.

[…]

Metro CEO Tom Lambert said staff will study the options and return to the board with a suggestion of which line to advance. Based on board comments, however, the Green Line had an edge. Terri Morales noted after driving the Purple Line’s proposed route, she felt there were many more clusters along the Green Line that made sense as potential stations and places where people would want to go.

Metro chairwoman Carrin Patman agreed, noting the economic potential of an East End line.

“I do not think the Purple route as currently designed to Hobby makes sense,” Patman said.

The primary selling point of the Purple Line is it would directly connect the University of Houston and Texas Southern University to the airport.

That potential left the Purple Line some life, in one scenario officials will examine. At the pressing of board member Sanjay Ramabhadran, Lambert said officials will also study if there is an intersection point where it makes sense to extend the Green and Purple light rail lines, then have one of the routes continue the trip to Hobby. That way, both neighborhoods have easier access, without the higher cost of two distinct rail lines.

“I want to see if we have that flexibility to make something work,” Ramabhadran said.

Officials have about three months to work out the details of a final plan, with the revised rail proposal, and then seek more public input. The long-range plan is tentatively expected to be approved by Metro’s board on July 29. The latest Metro can place an item on the November ballot is Aug. 19.

See here for the previous update. There’s more ground covered in the story, so go read the rest of it. I like the idea of finding a way to join the Green and Purple lines on the way to Hobby so that both can ultimately go there. Maybe that means extending the Purple line to Broadway to join it up with the extended Green line. Seems like the simplest solution, though whether it would be the best, or even a workable one, is one for Metro to figure out. We’ll know soon enough.

First city layoff notices sent

Here we go.

The city has sent pink slips to 67 Houston Fire Department cadets, the first documented layoffs resulting from Mayor Sylvester Turner’s plan to implement Proposition B.

The trainees will remain employed through June 7, according to a copy of the layoff notices sent to cadets.

“The City of Houston has experienced a sizable budget shortfall due to the implementation of Prop B,” the layoff notices read, referring to the charter amendment passed by voters last November.

The measure requires the city to pay firefighters the same as police of corresponding rank and experience. Voters approved Prop B by an 18-point margin.

“I want to assure you that the elimination of your position was a business decision and does not reflect your work performance or the value we place on your service to the City,” the layoff notices, addressed from Fire Chief Sam Peña, also read.

Next week, 47 municipal employees will receive layoff notices, Turner said in a statement, while city council will vote April 17 on whether to lay off classified firefighters under the mayor’s plan to pay for Prop B-mandated raises.

[…]

His plan for implementing the raises prompted by Prop B, unveiled last month in talks with city council members, calls for the fire department to decrease its head count by 378 for the upcoming fiscal year, including layoffs.

Turner’s plan also calls for all city departments to cut their spending by 3 percent, which is expected to lead to the layoff of about 100 municipal workers.

In recent weeks, the mayor has said no layoffs would be needed if the raises required by Prop B could be phased in over four or five years.

See here, here, and here for some background, and here for the city’s statement. It will be interesting to see how Council handles this when it comes time to vote. Other than Dwight Boykins, it’s not clear to me who’s with the firefighters on this. This will certainly provide some clarity. As far as a phase-in period goes, if the city says “give us five years and we can avoid layoffs”, while the firefighters say “no, but we can go for three years”, I confess I don’t quite understand why some kind of deal can’t be reached. Maybe that’s just me. For what it’s worth, nothing has to be set in stone till Council votes on the budget. There is still time for an agreement to be reached. How likely that is, I have no idea. But at least theoretically, it could happen.

Explode, rinse, repeat

Here we go again.

A massive explosion at a chemical plant in northeast Harris County on Tuesday killed one person and sent two others to the hospital in critical condition, sparking a blaze that sent yet another plume of dark smoke into the sky and forcing residents to temporarily shelter in place.

The fire, ignited by a flammable gas called isobutylene at the KMCO chemical processing plant in Crosby, marked the third time in 17 days that a smoggy cloud of smoke emanated from a Houston-area chemical facility.

It is the first chemical fatality at a Houston-area plant since 2016, when a worker died in an incident at PeroxyChem in Pasadena. In 2014, four workers died at a DuPont plant in La Porte.

Responders extinguished the KMCO fire late Tuesday afternoon, while on-scene investigators with the Harris County Fire Marshal’s Office began conducting interviews to determine where the fire started and what caused the gas to ignite.

“There’s a lot of hot metal in there,” said Rachel Moreno, a fire marshal spokeswoman. “Until it’s safe for our guys to go in, they’ll continue doing interviews of everybody that was at work.”

The response will stretch Harris County’s resources, Moreno said, as the fire marshal’s office begins its second major investigation in less than three weeks. The site of an even larger conflagration at Intercontinental Terminals Co. in Deer Park less than 15 miles away on March 17 remains too unsafe for investigators to visit.

[…]

KMCO, a subsidiary of an Austin private investment firm, produces coolant and brake fluid products for the automotive industry, as well as chemicals for the oil field industry. Its facility, which has a history of environmental and workplace safety issues, sits about 13 miles away from the ITC plant, where Harris County officials continued to detect carcinogenic benzene this week.

The KMCO plant is less than three miles from the Arkema facility where a series of explosions spewed chemicals and sickened residents after Hurricane Harvey in 2017.

Let’s talk about that history, shall we?

“As long as I’ve been doing environmental work for Harris County, I’ve been involved in case with this company, either with the previous owner or the current owner,” said Rock Owens, managing attorney for the Harris County Attorney’s environmental section. “And I’ve been doing this for close to 30 years. This company has been around forever causing trouble.”

[…]

On Christmas Eve 2010, a runaway reaction sent three employees at the plant to the hospital. Workers there couldn’t lower the pressure in a reactor and, as they tried to fix a clogged line, they accidentally mixed a caustic solution with maleic anhydride, a normally stable chemical. The result was an explosion and fire. An explosion in 2011 sent two more workers to a hospital.

[…]

Since 2009, KMCO has paid out more than $4 million in fines or criminal penalties to local and federal regulators.

In 2017, the company pleaded guilty to criminal violations of the Clean Air Act filed by the Environmental Protection Agency and was ordered to pay $3.5 million. The violations were in connection to an explosion at its Port Arthur facility and air emissions at the Crosby plant.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration has issued dozens of violations to KMCO since 2010 and fined the company about $250,000.

The facility is currently not compliant with the federal Clean Water Act. KMCO was in violation of the act for seven of the last 12 quarters, records show. It violated the Clean Air Act three times in the last 12 quarters. EPA data shows the facility also violated the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act in February 2018. That law regulates how facilities handle hazardous and non-hazardous solid waste.

[…]

Harris County first sued KMCO in 1987. The company was ordered to pay $49,750 for violations of the Texas Water Code.

The county sued the KMCO plant in 2008 for spills and fumes that gave neighbors headaches. The lawsuit ended in 2009 with a permanent injunction requiring KMCO to pay $100,000 in civil penalties and to give investigators easy access to the facility and prompt notification of releases.

The county sued again in 2013; that case is still ongoing. Owens said the county attorney’s office is still deciding whether to add Tuesday’s incident to the existing case or bring a separate case against the company.

“While there’s been actions before, it hasn’t been sufficient,” said Luke Metzger, executive director of Environment Texas, an environmental advocacy group. “We should, in the 21st century, be able to prevent these kinds of things from happening.”

A Houston Chronicle report from 2016 found that there’s a major chemical incident every six weeks in the greater Houston area.

You’d really like to think that we could prevent this kind of thing from happening, wouldn’t you?

Sunday, this editorial board demanded that state officials hold polluters accountable — and not just after a disaster.

We didn’t expect to be repeating ourselves so soon.

But this is what happens in a state where environmental regulators are toothless tigers. Where the TCEQ trusts polluters to police themselves — in part out of necessity, since lawmakers don’t adequately fund the agency. Where violators avoid sanctions and routinely endanger Texans’ health without our knowledge. Where Gov. Greg Abbott and Attorney General Ken Paxton talk tough, maybe even file a lawsuit after an incident makes headlines, but look the other way when the smoke clears.

At this rate, the smoke will never really clear. There will be another fire. And another.

Another round of parents fearing for their children’s safety. Another community fearing the effects of chemicals and pollutants they can’t pronounce. Another black eye to Houston’s already bad reputation as a place where one shouldn’t breathe too deeply, a place where profits outweigh concern for public health.

As we’ve pointed out, Texas facilities in 2017 reported releasing more than 63 million pounds of unauthorized air pollution — including chemicals linked to cancer, heart attacks and respiratory problems, according to a report by Environment Texas. But, in the past seven years, TCEQ issued fines in less than 3 percent of such events.

“These repeated, disastrous fires and explosions can no longer be called isolated incidents,” Luke Metzger, director of Environment Texas, told the editorial board Tuesday. “The Texas petrochemical industry has a serious, chronic problem, and Texas workers and citizens are paying the price. How many people have to die, get hurt, get cancer or suffer respiratory failure before the state takes this seriously and overhauls our broken system of oversight?”

Texans, these are questions for Abbott and our other state leaders. It’s up to us to demand the answers.

The only way to get the answers you need is to vote for those who will give them to you, and against those who won’t. If the choices aren’t clear by now, I don’t know what to tell you.

The further effects of Prop B

I mean, what did you expect?

The Houston Fire Department would idle six to nine fire trucks and employ fewer firefighters per shift, risking a modest increase in response times, if City Council approves a $25 million reduction in HFD’s budget as part of Mayor Sylvester Turner’s plan to fund Proposition B, Fire Chief Sam Peña said.

The mayor and fire union officials disagree whether the proposed cuts would put the public at greater risk. Turner said Wednesday that the city can withstand fewer firefighters, while Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association President Marty Lancton said the cuts “will risk firefighters’ safety and the people we serve.”

Shrinking the department through a combination of attrition and layoffs would mark the first tangible citywide impact of the Prop. B pay parity referendum, creating a difficult choice for City Council members who must approve a balanced budget by June 30 but also risk being accused of undermining public safety during an election year.

[…]

To absorb its portion of the cut — $25 million — the fire department will need to reduce its head count by 378, Peña said, noting that the figure includes employees lost to retirement, resignation and other factors aside from layoffs.

HFD typically loses 150 to 160 firefighters annually through attrition, though Peña said he expects that number to rise this year amid the turmoil of Prop. B’s implementation, leaving perhaps 200 or fewer firefighters to receive pink slips. The city’s fiscal year 2019 budget accounts for 4,090 firefighters.

[…]

Service reductions could be avoided, Peña said, if the city and fire union agree on a way to phase in the pay raises over multiple years. Peña also said he could maintain current levels of service by cutting only 239 positions. A personnel reduction of that amount would save $15.8 million — about $9 million short of what Turner has directed Peña to cut.

Campos has been saying that we should not be in this mess. Here’s a crazy idea: What if – stay with me here – what if Prop B was a bad idea that never should have been put on the ballot, and never should have been approved once it was put on the ballot? What if the reason we’re in this mess is because the voters approved a costly annual expenditure for which no price tag was attached or means of funding was provided?

Let’s try a thought experiment. Suppose Prop B, instead of being what it is, mandated that every firefighter be paid a million dollars a year. What do you think the city’s response would be if that happened? I’m going to suggest they’d do what they’re doing now, which is trying to reduce the obligation so the budget can be balanced, as is mandated by charter. I’m sure people wouldn’t like that solution, but what other options are there? My example is ridiculous, but only in degree. The underlying problem remains the same: This is a large budget item that was imposed on the city. The city cannot raise revenues beyond the limits of the revenue cap. Cutting costs was and is the only option.

We can’t go back and redo Prop B. It passed, and the city has to implement it. Mayor Turner said it was a cost the city couldn’t afford, and that if Prop B passed it would lead to layoffs. He was quite clear about what would happen. Why is this a surprise?

Judge tosses Dave Wilson’s lawsuit against HCC

Sorry, Dave.

Dave Wilson

A judge has dismissed a lawsuit against Houston Community College that had been filed by one of the Board of Trustee’s controversial members.

Dave Wilson claimed in a lawsuit that the college violated his First and 14th Amendment rights. But in a ruling issued Friday, U.S. District Court Judge Kenneth Hoyt said Wilson “failed to demonstrate any injury-in-fact.”

Wilson claimed in the lawsuit that the college’s board violated his free speech and due process rights when they voted to publicly censure him in January 2018. The board’s censure said Wilson’s conduct was “detrimental to Houston Community College Systems and its mission.” The board members also said Wilson violated the college’s bylaws, failed to engage and respect the board’s decision-making process and their differing opinions, and that he did not interact with trustees in a “mutually respectful manner.”

[…]

Wilson, a District II trustee, called Hoyt’s decision a “bad ruling” and said that he was disappointed that the judge didn’t address the fact that he could be censured again.

He and his lawyer are considering an appeal, he said. “We’re still thinking about it, but I wouldn’t be surprised at all if I didn’t appeal it,” he said.

When he was censured last year, the trustees also decided that Wilson was not eligible for travel-related expense reimbursements and would need board approval when requesting funding for community affairs programs for the 2017-2018 college year. They also determined he could not be elected for a board officer position in 2018, all of which Wilson said violated his rights, according to court documents.

But Hoyt concluded that the board’s resolution did not infringe upon Wilson’s First or 14th Amendment rights because Wilson could freely speak in public and could attend and express his views at board meetings, according to a court document.

See here and here for the background. The facts alleged in the suit seemed awfully thin and un-actionable, but Dave Wilson does what he does, and that’s all there is to it. Which means he’s considering an appeal, because what else does he have to do with his time? Well, there is one thing:

Despite Wilson’s volatile relationship with the HCC board, he has no intention of giving up his position as a board member and said he plans to run for re-election in November. He was elected to the board in 2013.

“I love Houston Community College and what they can do for this community, but I hate the way special interest groups are eating away at it and the students aren’t the main focus,” Wilson said.

“Trump wanted to drain the swamp. I’m going to drain the cesspool at Houston Community College,” Wilson said. “I got on the board to clean this place up, and I’m going to continue to work.”

Yes, he’s running for re-election. At least this time, we can see him coming. And we damn well better send him packing.

Garbage fee trashed

Not surprised, though I’d have thought it would get more support that this.

CM Dwight Boykins

Houston City Council disposed of a proposed garbage collection fee in a pair of 16-1 votes Wednesday.

Councilman Dwight Boykins, who floated the monthly fee as a way to help offset the cost of mandated pay raises for city firefighters, was the only person who voted in favor of the idea.

Most of the council’s members, including Mayor Sylvester Turner, previously had said they would not support the idea, which they called “regressive” and framed as a new tax on Houston homeowners.

Members including Turner reiterated those stances Wednesday before scuttling Boykins’ proposal in two separate votes.

“Let me be clear: the administration is not supporting this,” he said.

Boykins had offered three versions of the measure, with fees of $19, $24 and $27 a month. Council combined the two higher-rate options in one measure before rejecting it in a 16-to-1 vote.

See here for the background. Like I said, I didn’t expect this to pass, but I did think there was a chance it could draw enough support to make things awkward. Clearly, that was not the case. At least now we know, there’s no option to raise revenues on the table, not that this was a good one. It’s either layoffs, as already proposed, or an agreement to phase in Prop B in a way that allows the city to absorb the costs over time. The city says that requires five years, while the firefighters have offered three. Maybe there’s a compromise, and maybe someone needs to blink, I don’t know. But this is where we are. The Chron editorial board, which opposed the Boykins plan, has more.

Achieve 180 schools showing progress

I hope it’s enough.

Houston ISD schools covered by the district’s $16 million campus turnaround plan saw modest improvements in the program’s first year — enough to outpace gains reported across the district, but not nearly enough to pull chronically low-performing schools on par with peers.

A report published this week by HISD showed the 44 schools included in the turnaround plan, known as Achieve 180, largely exceeded or mirrored district improvements in 2017-18 on several key academic and behavioral metrics, including state standardized test scores, exclusionary discipline rates and participation in more challenging courses. The improvements were reflected in the number of Achieve 180 schools meeting state standard — and avoiding the dreaded “improvement required” label — rising from 18 in 2017 to 33 in 2018.

In some areas, however, Achieve 180 schools saw little to no positive movement. Student attendance and chronic absenteeism rates remained stagnant, which district officials largely attributed to the effects of Hurricane Harvey. Out-of-school suspension rates barely moved, remaining three times greater than non-Achieve 180 schools. Highly-rated teachers did not move in large numbers to Achieve 180 schools, unswayed by $5,000 bonuses offered by district officials.

In an interview Thursday, HISD’s area superintendent responsible for Achieve 180, Felicia Adams, said district leaders were “pretty satisfied” with the first-year results, especially since some campuses implemented portions of the initiative later in the 2017-18 school year.

“These are schools that have been struggling for quite some time. To at least get out of being an ‘improved requirement’ campus was a major gain for many of them,” Adams said.

[…]

According to the district report, which analyzed student performance in 2017-18 relative to the prior year, math and reading passage rates on STAAR, the state’s primary standardized test, rose about 6 percent in Achieve 180 schools — double the 3 percent increase seen across the rest of the district.

The use of in-school suspensions also dropped by about 21 percent at Achieve 180 schools, roughly the same rate as campuses not covered by the initiative.

Perhaps most notably, about 8 percent more students in Achieve 180 schools took an Advanced Placement exam last year, while 3 percent fewer students in non-Achieve 180 schools sat for a test.

Even with the improvements in STAAR test performance, passage rates at Achieve 180 schools remain roughly 15 percent to 20 percent lower than the rest of the district. In addition, students at Achieve 180 schools passed about 14 percent of their Advanced Placement exams in 2018, compared to 39 percent throughout HISD.

Some Achieve 180 schools also fell further behind last year, including four campuses that have failed to meet state academic standards for four-plus consecutive years.

That, obviously, is the most important metric right now. The overall improvements are great, and one wonders how much more could be done with sufficient resources and some more time, but either those four schools make standard or the TEA climbs aboard. For all the mishegas at HISD this year, and with the continued uncertainty surrounding the HISD Board, Achieve 180 is worthwhile program that has generated real results. Again, as above, I just hope it’s enough.

HISD conservator suspends superintendent search

Halt!

A state-appointed conservator ordered Houston ISD trustees on Monday to suspend their search for a permanent superintendent, an unprecedented intervention in the state’s largest school district.

In a letter sent to HISD trustees, the conservator, Doris Delaney, said she is exercising her legally-authorized power to “direct an action to be taken” by a school board. HISD trustees were days away from naming a lone finalist for the district’s superintendent position, with a final round of candidate interviews scheduled for Monday and Tuesday.

Delaney said she is ordering the search suspended “until the agency has completed its special accreditation investigation” into the district. The investigation, which involves allegations of Texas Open Meetings Act violations by five trustees, has been ongoing since January.

Trustee Jolanda Jones, who is not among the five trustees under review, also tweeted Monday that the investigation has expanded to include “malfeasance regarding contracts” with vendors, offering no additional details. Texas Education Agency officials said they could not comment on the ongoing investigation. Jones could not immediately be reached for comment.

Delaney’s move is a potentially ominous sign for HISD’s school board, which could be replaced by the state later this year due to chronically low performance at a few campuses or potential findings of malfeasance by trustees. If state officials replace HISD trustees, Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath would have the legal responsibility of choosing the district’s superintendent, with no obligation to keep the school board’s choice.

See here and here for some background. On the one hand, I understand where Dr. Delaney is coming from. This investigation is a serious matter, and if it turns out that some number of Trustees were involved in violating the (now less potent) Open Meetings Act, one can make a good case that they have forfeited the right to name a Superintendent. On the other hand, the (resumed) search has been going on for awhile, so maybe she could have said something sooner? I wasn’t sure what to make of that at first, but perhaps this explains it.

Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath sent Houston school officials a letter detailing an expanded role for the conservator, Doris Delaney, according to the news outlet. Her duties now include “attending board meetings and overseeing the district’s governance,” according to the letter Houston Public Media posted Monday.

You can see the letter here. That seems portentious, but maybe I’m reading too much into it. All I know is that I hope this is wrapped up quickly and favorably. I can’t take any more drama. The Press has more.

How would you implement Prop B?

Here, from last week, is Mayor Turner’s official announcement about layoffs, following a failure to come to an agreement with the firefighters’ union about a time frame to fully implement Prop B. Here’s the Chron story about the firefighters protesting the layoffs, which we knew were coming – indeed, we’d known since last year, as that was one of the main points Mayor Turner made during the Prop B campaign. The Chron editorial board agrees with Turner that given the limited options available, layoffs are the only reasonable choice.

Now, to be sure, there is the garbage fee proposal, which Council will vote on this week. It would, at least in theory, pay for the increased costs that Prop B imposes, though there are objections. I’ve laid some of them out – a trash fee should be used for solid waste collection, the potential for litigation is non-trivial – and I’ll add another one here: If a garbage fee is the mechanism for funding Prop B, that necessarily means that only some Houstonians are contributing to that. Anyone who doesn’t live in a house that has city of Houston solid waste service would not be subject to this fee. (At least, I assume so – it’s not clear to me how this fee will be assessed.) Maybe you think that’s a big deal and maybe you don’t, but I guarantee someone will complain about it.

So the question remains, how would you implement Prop B? We all agree Prop B will cost some money to implement. The firefighters have never put a dollar figure on it themselves – they have made claims that the fire department brings in revenues that could be spent on the fire department instead of other things, which doesn’t actually solve anything but just recapitulates the argument that the city should spend more on firefighters. Raising the property tax rate is out, as it would violate the stupid revenue cap. Indeed, as we know, the city has had to cut the tax rate multiple times in recent years, costing itself a lot of revenue in the process. The basic options are a flawed fee that will charge some households up to $300 a year and others nothing, and layoffs. And if you’re going to do layoffs, the ones that make the most sense are the firefighters themselves, as the vast majority of calls to HFD are for emergency medical services and not fires – EMTs are cheaper to hire, don’t require expensive fire trucks to get to where they’re going, and aren’t in scope of Prop B. And that, barring any late-breaking agreement to implement Prop B more slowly, is what we are going to get.

So then, what if anything would you do differently? I’m open to suggestion.

UPDATE: Here’s City Controller Chris Brown saying the cost of Prop B is unsustainable outside an agreement to phase it in over five years, which is what the city has been pushing for.

Still lots of houses at risk of flooding

This is going to take a long time to really mitigate.

A new study is raising concerns that restrictions on new construction put in place after Hurricane Harvey could leave low-income residents with fewer choices for affordable housing.

More than 475,000 people in Harris County live in multifamily units at risk of flooding, according to the study released Thursday by the Greater Houston Flood Mitigation Consortium. The group includes the University of Houston, the Kinder Institute and the Local Initiatives Support Corporation, among others. Even without the flooding risk, units are becoming less and less affordable.

“The issue of flooding and the issue of affordable housing are very connected,” said Christof Spieler, the consortium’s project manager. “We have a lot of Houstonians who are in the difficult position where the housing they can afford is the housing that puts them at risk of flooding.”

In Harris County, 26 percent of all multifamily units — buildings with two or more units — are currently located within a flood-risk area. After Harvey, Houston leaders passed an ordinance known as Chapter 19 that requires elevation for rebuilding in the flood plain. The down side, according to the consortium, is that this requirement may lead to the loss of affordable multifamily units in the floodplain.

“Chapter 19 has the best interests of people in mind, but I just don’t think that we really thought through the potential impact on multifamily units,” said study co-author Susan Rogers, the director of the University of Houston’s Community Design Resource Center. “I don’t think any of us want to encourage apartment owners to continue to renovate and put people in (apartments) clueless of what could happen to them.”

While most of the multifamily units in Houston that are being rebuilt were permitted before the ordinance took effect, researchers heard through focus groups that property owners are worried about what will happen after the next storm.

“If you’re trying to keep affordable units, but safe and not-falling-apart units, you don’t want reputable property owners to either go bankrupt and abandon their properties to the kind of ‘owner of last resort’ who will potentially not bring things back up to where they should be,” said Kyle Shelton, director of strategic partnerships at Rice University’s Kinder Institute and another of the study’s lead authors.

The press release is here, the full report is here, and Mayor Turner’s response to this report is here. All of the Consortium’s research is here if you need to read more. I don’t have much to add to this, just that if we want to make good policy decisions to fix the mistakes of the past and prevent making more of them in the future, we really need to understand the full scope of the issues. I’m glad we have this group doing that work for it.

Garbage fee on the agenda

I don’t think this is going to pass, but it will get a vote.

CM Dwight Boykins

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner on Wednesday said he would put a proposed garbage fee on next week’s city council agenda, but will not vote for it.

Turner agreed to put the idea promoted by Councilman Dwight Boykins as a way to to offset the cost of firefighter raises mandated by Proposition B to a council vote, even as he called it “regressive” and said it would hurt low-income Houstonians.

“I will put it on the council agenda next week to let council members have their say, but I will not vote to impose this fee on the people of Houston,” he said on Twitter.

[…]

Boykins’ original proposal largely fell flat among his council colleagues, some of whom said the fees were far too high. Boykins since has floated lower rates, and said Wednesday that he would call for fees between $19 and $27 a month when council votes.

In a statement Wednesday, Boykins said he was the “only member of City Council to put forth a proposal that creates a steady revenue stream while preventing massive and destructive layoffs.”

“My proposal is an alternative that secures public safety while saving the jobs of up to 500 firefighters, 200 police officers and up to 300 city employees,” Boykins said. “It’s an opportunity for city leaders to lead, and I hope my colleagues will join me in supporting this measure.

See here for the background. As you know, I support the concept of a garbage fee for the purpose of improving and expanding our existing solid waste services. I don’t support it for other purposes, such as using it to pay for firefighter raises. Fees are generally exempt from the revenue cap stricture – Mayor Parker raised a bunch of fees as part of her budget-balancing in 2010-2011, with some language at the time about what it cost to provide various services and how the fees for one service should not be subsidizing the cost of another. That said, I would wonder if something like this, which is both a big increase in what most people pay each year plus an obvious ploy to raise money to pay for something else, would run into a lawsuit challenging its validity under the revenue cap. Surely someone will seize on the opportunity to cause trouble. Be that as it may, the first question is who will vote for this. My gut says Boykins will have some support, but probably not a majority. But who knows? We’ll find out next week.

One more thing:

If the Mayor is opposed [to the garbage fee proposal], why put it on the agenda?

For one thing, so the firefighters will not be able to claim later on that Turner never even put a valid proposal to pay for Prop B up for a vote. The ads write themselves – “He never even gave it a fair chance!” They can still claim he opposed it, of course, but if Council votes it down by (say) a 12-5 margin, that takes some of the bite out of it. Also, too, by letting the vote go on there will necessarily be a discussion about how much the fee would be, which might make people think a bit differently about Prop B. It’s not like the firefighters ever put a price tag on it, after all. If people realize that paying for Prop B will cost them personally $200 to $300 a year – down from $300 to $500 as in the original proposal from Boykins – they might see the Mayor’s point more closely. Finally, if Turner is wrong and the proposal passes, he no longer has to lay anyone off and he can let individual Council members explain their vote. I think letting the garbage fee be voted on makes more sense from Turner’s perspective than refusing to put it on the agenda would have.

Driverless grocery deliveries

Coming soon to Houston.

Some local shoppers soon could see their produce pull up in a Prius in one of the first forays into autonomous vehicles in the Houston area, a move observers said is sure to spur more robot deliveries in the region.

Following its launch in suburban Phoenix, California-based robotics company Nuro will debut automated deliveries at Kroger supermarkets on Buffalo Speedway and South Post Oak, with each store serving two zip codes. Officials did not specify an exact date for deliveries to start, only that the vehicles are in place and operation will start before summer.

“We want to learn as much as possible when we are out there,” said Dave Ferguson, co-founder of Nuro.

The zip codes covered will be 77401 and 77096 at the South Post Oak store, and 77005 and 77025 from the Buffalo Speedway location.

Deliveries will cost a flat fee of $5.95 regardless of delivery size or value, said Matt Thompson, vice president of digital business for Kroger. In Phoenix, delivery is to one zip code around a Fry’s market, a Kroger subsidiary.

“We are really encouraged about the repeat rate we are seeing from the Phoenix area,” Thompson said.

[…]

As Nuro did in Phoenix, deliveries will begin using converted Toyota Prius sedans. Customers will order their groceries online via Kroger and choose delivery instead of pickup. The store, working with Nuro, will load the vehicle and notify the buyer the delivery is on its way. Dispatchers hired by Nuro will monitor the trip from an office in Houston.

Eventually, the sedans will be replaced by Nuro’s own all-electric vehicle, the R1, which is built especially for deliveries. The vehicle, with a top speed of 25 mph, is capable of holding six grocery bags in a compartment, with two compartments per vehicle. The company is working on a second generation vehicle capable of holding ten full grocery bags in each compartment, with refrigeration built into the electric vehicle.

As the story notes, using autonomous cars for deliveries rather than for transporting passengers might be an easier path to optimizing the service and getting widespread acceptance, since deliveries are less time-sensitive and the ride experience is irrelevant. This would be the first implementation of autonomous vehicles in Houston, as Metro’s planned TSU shuttle has been delayed. Multiple cities in Texas have been investigating or piloting autonomous cars since the Lege passed a law in 2017 allowing for it. At this point, there have been a lot of tests or announcements of tests, but I haven’t seen any reporting on how successful they’ve been as yet. We’ll see how this one goes. Would you use a service like this?

Space force!

Yippie.

Not the real Space Force

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

It’s hard out here on a small theater company

It’s rough going in Houston right now.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Could be. Whose word do you take for it?

Sen. Brandon Creighton

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

One more thing:

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

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

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

Be prepared.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No DNC for Houston

Alas.

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

Firefighter layoffs

Hoo boy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The brief list of negatives include:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Turner officially announces his re-election bid

And he’s off.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

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

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

Election Day is Nov. 5.

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

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

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

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

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

Senate presents disaster relief bills

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

Metro working on sidewalks

I heartily approve of this.

Metropolitan Transit Authority is taking the lead on leveling sidewalks and bus stops to give riders an easier path to transit — or, in some cases, actual access to it.

“This is a model of what an agency can do,” said Metro board member and disability access advocate Lex Frieden.

Noting will happen overnight to make each of Metro’s 9,000 stops smooth and ready for wheelchairs, but the effort and the money Metro is putting behind it — some of its own and the rest coming from city, county, regional and state sources — is unprecedented.

“This is not just rhetoric, we are funding this priority,” said Roberto Trevino, Metro’s executive vice president for planning, engineering and construction.

Transit officials last year committed to tackling these treacherous trips, noting the deplorable condition of some sidewalks and bus stops in the region.

In many communities, transit users — especially the elderly and those in wheelchairs — are cut off from buses because they cannot make it to the stops because of blocked, buckled or absent sidewalks. When they can get to a stop, they wait exposed to the sun and rain, at places where bus ramps cannot quite line up with the sidewalk, if there even is a sidewalk.

“Some of them are just standing in the grass,” Metro board member Lisa Castaneda said.

Metro jump-started a handful of projects last year to repair sidewalks in key spots, as they assessed which of the system’s bus stops — including those at transit centers — were most in need of fixing.

On Thursday, officials are scheduled to approve a contract with Tikon Group for on-call construction services aimed at bus stops. The on-call contract will give staff the ability to hire Tikon for up to $3.2 million worth of work over the next three years.

Repairs at each stop will vary in price, but officials said the contract likely will lead to repairs at hundreds of bus stops.

[…]

Another $30 million in funding could follow, pending approval from the Houston-Galveston Area Council. The agency’s transportation policy council, which doles out federal money, is finalizing its list of upcoming projects. Staff have suggested giving Metro $30 million for key sidewalk and accessibility projects.

Addressing the problems, however, extends beyond Metro. Within Houston, the city has some oversight of sidewalks but cedes most of the responsibility to landowners, who are supposed to maintain pedestrian access along the property. The city lacks the power in many cases to force improvements, leaving many sidewalks in disrepair, especially in older parts of the city.

Harris County leaders have expressed interest in working with Metro to make some larger improvements, said Metro board member Jim Robinson, the county’s appointee to the transit authority.

I’ve been all in on improving sidewalks for some time now, so this is all music to my ears. I’m especially glad to see H-GAC and Harris County getting into the game. It can’t be said enough: Better sidewalks make for a better transit experience, which will mean more riders. It’s also vital for riders with mobility issues. Everything about this story makes me happy.

What can you legally wear when you go to vote?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

Same sex employee benefits lawsuit tossed again

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Skilling officially sprung

There he goes.

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

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

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

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

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

City proposes partial pay raise to firefighters

Progress, of a sort.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Flood tunnel study funds

Could be cool.

Japanese flood tunnel

The Harris County Flood Control District is set to receive a $320,000 federal grant to study the feasibility of constructing deep underground tunnels to move stormwater to the Houston Ship Channel without overburdening the area’s bayous.

The grant, from the U.S. Economic Development Administration, will fund a four-month investigation to determine whether such tunnels would be a practical and cost-effective addition to the county’s long-term flood protection strategy. The flood control district has begun work on scores of projects funded by the $2.5 billion flood bond approved last summer, though none to date include underground tunnels.

“The study is basically to look at our ground conditions, including our groundwater table, and compare that to existing technology in the tunnel industry to see if there’s a match,” said Russ Poppe, executive director of the flood control district. “If that’s true, then we can start looking at costs, routes and opportunities we can potentially pursue.”

[…]

Jim Blackburn, co-director of the Severe Storm Prediction, Education, and Evacuation from Disasters Center at Rice University, raised no objection to studying the tunnel idea but said he worries that pursuing the proposal could become a boondoggle that siphons money from other, more urgent priorities.

“It’s one of those big dream projects that may take us away from much more reasonable short-term projects,” Blackburn said. “I doubt the feasibility of it.”

See here and here for the background. Looks like we were originally going to get that study last year, but for whatever the reason it didn’t happen. If it’s going to happen this time, it will be after the next Commissioners Court meeting on Tuesday, when they will vote on approving the study and ponying up $80K in matching funds. I’ll check back with it afterward.

January 2019 campaign finance reports: HCC

Here’s our last group of finance reports for people on the ballot in 2019, HCC Trustees. You can find the full list of finance reports here, which includes PACs and past candidates/Trustees. They’re listed alphabetically by first name and the only way to tell if someone has a current report is to click on them, so it’s not the most efficient system. But at least it exists online, an achievement for which I claim some measure of credit. As before, I have separated the three candidates up for election this year (HCC Trustees serve six-year terms, so the default is for three of them to be up in a given cycle) from those who are not on the ballot.

Zeph Capo, District 1
Dave Wilson, District 2
Neeta Sane, District 7

Adriana Tamez, District 3
Carolyn Evans-Shabazz, District 4
Robert Glaser, District 5
John Hansen, District 6
Eva Loredo, District 8
Pretta VanDible Stallworth, District 9 – No January report available as of February 21


Name              Raised    Spent    Loan  On Hand
==================================================
Capo                   0        0       0    2,064
Wilson                 0        0  12,782        0
Sane                   0    4,766       0    6,553

Tamez                  0    1,127       0    4,824
Evans-Shabazz      1,090    1,560       0    1,183
Glaser                 0        0   5,000    8,325
Hansen                 3        0   5,000    8,931
Loredo                 0       72       0      183
Stallworth

Again, pretty boring, but there are a few things worth mentioning. One is that like Diana Davila, Dave Wilson left the “cash on hand” field blank in his form, so it’s your guess and mine how much of that outstanding loan remains available. Not that it really matters, as Wilson has always self-financed his campaigns, and I’m sure he’ll do that again this year. Neeta Sane’s District 7 is partially in Harris County and partially in Fort Bend. That has nothing to do with finance reports, but in November when you’re checking election results, you need to also look at the results in Fort Bend to get the true picture in her race. In 2013, the Harris County Clerk results showed her losing to opponent Anne Williams, which confused me until this fact was pointed out to me.

Yes, John Hansen actually reported a contribution of $3 – it was $2.93, if you want to be exact. I wish I could tell you more about that contribution, but as it was for under $50 it was not itemized. The same is true for Eva Loredo’s $72 worth of expenditures. If either Mr. Hansen or Ms. Loredo would like to fill in the details, I’d love to hear them. I realize that the number of people who could possibly care about this is probably in the single digits, but I’m one of them and I can’t stop thinking about that $2.93 donation to the Hansen campaign. I just have to know more.

What you need to know even more than that is that this is our chance to void ourselves of the rubbish that is Dave Wilson. In our ongoing conversation about how we choose judges, in which I have defended the partisan election model, I’m occasionally asked if that means that I disapprove of non-partisan elections in the odd-numbered years. The answer to that is no, I’m generally fine with that, but let’s be clear that if there had been partisan elections for HCC Trustee, there’s no way Dave Wilson could have gotten himself elected. He would not have made it through a contested Democratic primary, and he could not have won that seat as a Republican. Every election system has its pros and cons, and Dave Wilson exploited a weakness in this one. We can’t let him do it again. At least this time, we know enough going in to make sure he cannot hide under cover of electoral obscurity. Spread the word, and vote his sorry ass out in November.

2020 DNC update

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

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

[…]

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

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

That’s a source of frustration for some Texans.

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

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

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

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

This is about as bittersweet as it gets.

Rep. Lizzie Fletcher

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

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

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

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

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

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

Once again with Booker T

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

Booker T

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Superintendent search will continue

For the time being, at least.

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Back to court for Prop B

Here we go again.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

January 2019 finance reports: HISD

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

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

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


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

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

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

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