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Early voting ends in HD145

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

Is the craft brewing business in a slowdown?

Item one.

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We’re already on the next generation of scooters

And of course, they’re coming to Austin.

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

HISD back under scrutiny

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

January 2019 finance reports: City of Houston

It’s January, and you know what happens in January: Campaign finance reports get posted. This is a city of Houston election year, so first order of business is to look at the city of Houston finance reports. I’ve put all the candidate reports I could find from the city’s finance reporting site in this Google Drive folder, so they should all be visible. Now let’s look at the numbers:


Candidate   Office     Raised      Spent       Loan    On Hand
==============================================================
Turner       Mayor  1,240,587    633,726          0  2,853,986
Buzbee       Mayor          0    541,957  2,000,000  1,458,042
King         Mayor          0      1,677    110,000    108,516

Stardig PAC      A     16,204     22,507          0    112,005
Peck             A          0        750      5,000      4,250
Davis            B     20,700     13,976          0    153,846
Cohen            C     12,155     17,533          0     51,885
Hellyar          C     26,663      5,398          0     19,957
Nowak            C      5,426      1,356          0      4,069
Kennedy          C     10,355         20          0     10,331
Boykins          D     14,680     89,412          0     22,829
Martin           E     11,750     22,922          0    121,055
Le               F     48,425      7,787     30,823     51,207
Travis           G     49,250     21,020     21,000     86,307
Cisneros         H     25,250      5,645          0     68,167
Gallegos         I     46,525     22,944          0    102,335
Laster           J      8,500     16,174          0    170,823
Castex-Tatum     K     28,710     15,913          0     16,593

Knox           AL1     32,975     15,352          0     87,083
Robinson       AL2     58,850     17,126          0    205,926
Kubosh         AL3     33,875     16,035    276,000    102,700
Edwards        AL4     60,346     45,727          0    168,581
Christie       AL5      7,513     27,448          0      5,983
Alcorn         AL5    145,906      9,483          0    134,922
Boone          AL5          0          0          0          0

Brown   Controller     91,547     17,145     75,000    199,405

McNeese          ?          0          0          0          0
Adriatico        ?      5,300      1,186      5,000     10,350

All Houston Mayors raise a lot of money, and Sylvester Turner is no exception. He also has the distinct advantage of not having a blackout period, as previous Mayors and Council members had, so he has a running start on 2019. Tony Buzbee has already loaned himself $2 million. Well, technically, he contributed it to himself. I can’t remember if you’re allowed to do that, or if he mis-filed this as a contribution when it’s really a loan that he doesn’t necessarily intend to pay back. Whatever the case, expect that he will continue to self-finance. As for King, he hasn’t really gotten started yet. I’ll need to go back and review his finance reports from 2015, but I do know that he loaned himself $650K in that race, and wasn’t that big a fundraiser outside of that. He wasn’t bad, just not in Turner or Adrian Garcia or Steve Costello’s league. My guess is he writes himself another check, but I don’t know how much of one he cuts. He can’t outraise Turner and I don’t see him out-spending Buzbee. I’m not totally sure where that leaves him, but we’ll see.

The Council group can be sorted into three buckets: Term-limited incumbents, incumbents up for re-election, and non-incumbents. I’m going to save the first group for a separate post, as they have the bigger question of “what next” to ponder. The incumbents who are running for re-election are by and large all in pretty good financial shape. Martha Castex-Tatum has the least on hand, but she also ran in recent memory. Dwight Boykins can self-fund if he wants to. He spent the most by far, with the single biggest expense being $6K for a holiday party. Everyone else is about where I’d expect them to be. No incumbent had an opponent who was in position to file a finance report as of January. As noted before, Raj Salhotra has filed for At Large #1; I am aware of some people who are considering At Large #3 and District F. The July finance reports will tell us much more.

Three of the four-so-far contenders for District C have reports – Nick Hellyar, Bob Nowak, Shelley Kennedy; Abbie Kamin didn’t announce till January. It’s too early to tell who might have a leg up on the field. Amy Peck was just getting started in recent weeks in District A. Keep an eye on Sallie Alcorn in At Large #5, who posted big league numbers in this report. Fundraising isn’t destiny, but it does help to get your name out, especially in a citywide race. I’ve also been told that Laurie Robinson will not be running after all, so Alcorn has a big head start. Marvin McNeese and Nelvin Adriatico did not indicate what office they were seeking in their reports.

As for Controller, Chris Brown did the top two things to smooth his path – he raised decent money, and he avoided doing anything that generated negative press. I won’t be surprised if he gets at most token opposition.

I’ll have some thoughts about the outgoing incumbents tomorrow, and I’ll post about the HISD and HCC reports in the coming days. In the meantime, let me know what you think.

HPD and Ring

We don’t have a Ring doorbell so this doesn’t affect me, but I do find it quite interesting.

The Houston Police Department announced Monday that it is joining Ring’s mobile app, Neighbors, in a move officials hope will reduce crime and improve safety in neighborhoods across the city, even as department officials complain of low staffing levels.

The HPD partnership with Ring, a rapidly growing home surveillance company that sells video doorbells and similar products, would help the police department communicate more effectively in real time with residents as crimes occur, Houston Police Burglary and Theft Division Commander Glenn Yorek said.

“HPD will be able to send alerts to neighbors of crime and safety incidents in real time, request information about local crime and safety from neighbors who opt in to sharing for a particular request, and work with the local community to build trust and to make the community safer,” Yorek said, announcing the partnership at the department’s downtown headquarters Monday morning.

The joint venture is the latest for Ring, a seven-year-old tech startup purchased by Amazon for more than $1 billion in February that has grown exponentially in recent years even as it has weathered criticism over its privacy practices and disputes over claims that its products reduce crime.

[…]

An article in MIT Technology Review reviewed Ring’s findings in the Los Angeles neighborhood and found that burglaries in subsequent years rose to levels higher than in any of the previous seven years.

And In West Valley City, Utah, officials performed a test in two neighborhoods of similar size and levels of crime. Both neighborhoods saw a drop in crime, according to the MIT Technology Review story, but the results were surprising: the neighborhood without the devices saw a more significant drop.

Maria Cuellar, an assistant professor of criminology at the University of Pennsylvania, said there is not sufficient evidence to say whether Ring devices really reduce crime.

Ring’s study in Los Angeles was problematic because it relied on small sample sizes, Cuellar said, adding that a properly designed study, or more data and analysis, is needed to tell if Ring cameras are really effective at reducing crime.

I think the question about whether smart doorbell/home security systems like Ring have an effect on crime or not will never be settled. The sample sizes are small, there are likely to be regional variations, and so many factors affect crime that isolating one of them is nearly impossible. There still isn’t a consensus answer to the question of why violent crime has declined so precipitously since the mid-90’s; the lead hypothesis has a lot of evidence behind it, but plenty of people remain skeptical, and even its proponents don’t claim it’s the sole reason. As for the privacy concerns, that’s going to be up to everyone’s individual appetite for that kind of risk. I think if I were the type of person to install a Ring, I’d also want to have my local police department be a part of its Neighbors app. I’m not that kind of person, at least not at this time, so my response to this is mostly to shrug. Your mileage may vary.

Hitch-ing a ride

I’m kind of fascinated by this story about another ridesharing app/service.

High-tech hitchhiking has arrived in Texas.

Austin startup Hitch offers a ride-sharing service connecting people driving between Houston and Austin with people needing rides.

“Over 10,000 cars make trips every day just between Austin and Houston, and 90 percent of them have just one occupant — the driver,” CEO Kush Singh said in a news release.

Here’s how it works: Someone with a 2003-or-newer vehicle who is planning to drive between Houston and Austin downloads the “Hitch – Regional Ridesharing” app and registers as a driver. After a background and driving record check, which can take up to 24 hours, the drivers are authorized to pick up passengers.

Those needing a ride will enter a virtual queue and then proceed to a physical Hitch pickup location, which will be a public place like a coffee shop along the route. Riders are ID verified using scanned driver licenses and facial recognition,  and they must have a valid credit card on file with Hitch.

Drivers simply pull over at a Hitch pickup location and then collect the next person in line. They can pick up multiple riders — with each person allowed one typical-sized suitcase and a small personal item — and the middle seat is never occupied.

The concept is simple enough, and I can see some appeal for both drivers and riders. I have no idea if there’s enough demand on either side of that equation to sustain this, but that’s not my problem. If you want to try this for yourself, be careful about how you search for it, as there are other apps called Hitch out there. I found this particular app in the Google Play store on my Android phone. It had a 2.6 average rating, with five one-star reviews out of eight total. Megabus tickets are pretty cheap, y’all. I’m just saying.

More details on the Metro referendum

Still a work in progress.

A planned 110 miles of two-way HOV along major freeways with eight new park and ride stations is expected to cost $1.37 billion, with another $383 million in improvements to operate 25 percent more bus trips across the region.

The projects promote new services within Metro’s core area and on the fringes of its sprawling 1,200-square-mile territory. Inside the Sam Houston Tollway where buses travel most major streets and are more commonly used by residents, officials want to increase how often those buses come. Outside the beltway where more than 2 million of Harris County’s residents live, park and ride lots will be expanded and commuter buses will go to more places more often.

[…]

Big-ticket items in the plan are directed at faster commutes and more frequent service in transit-heavy parts of Metro’s area. As officials prepare for eight new or expanded park and ride lots and two-way service even farther out most freeways, 14 core local bus routes are primed for development into so-called BOOST corridors aimed at making bus trips along city streets faster by sequencing traffic lights to give approaching buses priority and increasing the frequency of buses.

“From the outset, we are very pleased with where they are putting the investment,” said Oni Blair, executive director of LINK Houston, which advocates for equity in transportation planning.

Still, Blair said the agency is hoping for more specifics on how Metro prioritizes projects, both in terms of funding and the timing with which initiatives are tackled.

“People want to know what they are getting and when,” she said.

Another aspect of the plan will be about getting to bus stops. Officials say they plan to coordinate with city planners and developers to make sure sidewalks lead to accessible and comfortable stops, something many riders say is transit’s biggest obstacle in Houston.

As a reminder, you can always go to MetroNext.org for information about the plan and public meetings to discuss it. In a better world, we’d be starting off with a transit system that already included a Universities light rail line, and would be seeking to build on that. In this world, we hope to build a BRT line that covers much of the same turf west of downtown, and turns north from its eastern end. Which will still be a fine addition and in conjunction with the Uptown BRT line will finally enable the main urban core job centers to be truly connected. The focus on sidewalks, which I’ve emphasized before, is very welcome. We need to get this approved by the voters, and we need to ensure we have a Mayor that won’t screw up what Metro is trying to do. I know we’re already obsessing about 2020 and the Presidential race – I’m guilty, too – but there’s important business to take care of in 2019 as well.

HISD’s last stand

They have their work cut out for them.

Houston ISD’s four Hispanic trustees took hold of the school board’s top officer positions Thursday, led by Trustee Diana Dávila winning election as president of the much-maligned governance team.

Dávila, who has spent a decade on the board spread over two separate terms, will take responsibility for setting the leadership tone in HISD following months of governance strife that has often cut across ethnic and racial lines. Elected officers do not have more voting power than other trustees, but the board president presides over board meetings and drives the agenda.

Dávila said her priorities will include ensuring the district’s longest-struggling schools get resources needed to meet state academic standards, fighting for more education funding and restructuring board meetings to foster greater engagement and transparency.

“I’m looking to be bringing back some of those things we used to do before, making sure that we respect each other as colleagues on the board and respect the administration,” said Dávila, who served as board president in 2006.

The best thing the Board can do at this time is minimize dissension within their ranks, speak with one voice as much as possible, and find a permanent Superintendent. Accomplishing those first two should make the third go more smoothly.

This joint op-ed by Rhonda Skillern-Jones and Elizabeth Santos is a good example of what I’m talking about.

This board was divided on some high-profile issues last year. The two of us have been on opposite sides on some of those fights. But we are united in a vision for a school district where neighborhood schools are cornerstones of their communities, equity is a guiding principle of resource allocation and all students receive educations that are tailored to their individual learning needs.

To achieve that vision, all levels of government involved in making education policy must take a long-term approach that addresses the costs of educating students living in poverty, English language learners and students with special needs. Unfortunately, state funding formulas — which have not changed in 30 years — woefully underestimate these costs.

[…]

Despite all of this, HISD has fared well under the flawed STAAR regime. The district earned an 84 percent rating with 91 percent of schools meeting standard. We reduced the number of schools that could trigger automatic state sanctions from 52 to 4, and we have maintained a recognized financial rating of 90 percent and a high bond rating.

It is baffling that HISD taxpayers are required to foot the entire bill for their district and also forfeit $100 million in “recaptured” dollars — and growing — to supplement the state’s obligation to other districts, while at the same time facing the risk of being stripped of their right to elect their own governing board. That hardly seems democratic or just.

Apparently “no taxation without representation” is just something we teach in our history classes.

I agree with pretty much everything they say in this piece. I hope over the next eight months – and, ideally, a lot longer than that – we can focus on those things, and not on whatever is going on with the Board.

Firefighters go back to court

I dunno, man.

The Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association sought a court order Tuesday aiming to force the city to pay firefighters the same as police officers of corresponding rank and seniority, one day before Mayor Sylvester Turner and the union are set to discuss ideas for implementing pay raises.

The move comes more than two months after voters approved Proposition B, a November ballot measure granting pay parity to Houston firefighters, which would amount to a massive raise that Turner says the city cannot afford. Since the election, firefighters have yet to see their paychecks grow fatter, a delay that has frustrated the union and sown confusion among city workers who face the threat of layoffs.

“By failing to give firefighters a date certain for implementation of voter-approved Proposition B, the City of Houston forced Houston firefighters” to seek Tuesday’s court order, fire union President Marty Lancton said in a statement. “With the election two months behind us, Prop B is now the law. It’s past time for Mayor Turner to respect the will of the voters.”

In response, Turner questioned why the firefighters would ask him to meet, then take court action on the eve of the meeting.

“Now that I’m willing to sit down, what do they do? They go to the courthouse,” Turner said. “Common sense has to prevail here.”

[…]

Since the election, Lancton has asked the mayor to negotiate a contract that would phase in pay parity instead of implementing it in one fell swoop. Until recently, Turner resisted the union’s calls, citing ongoing litigation while at times contending he could not negotiate what voters had already decided.

On Jan. 9, however, Turner invited firefighters to discuss ideas to implement Proposition B, though the mayor’s letter to Lancton did not say whether he is open to negotiating pay raises through contract talks.

“I do not want to lay off employees; and, I interpret some of the things you have said in public to acknowledge the true state of the City’s financial affairs,” Turner wrote to Lancton. “If the sacrifice of city services and city employees and their families in order to finance your pay increase can be avoided, I am open to consideration of your ideas.”

Lancton, responded by saying the union would not participate in “stage-managed, taxpayer-funded public ‘stakeholder’ forums.”

I don’t know what the way forward is. I feel like we’re here now because the firefighters are mad about the pension reform law that got passed. Which confounds me to this day, because were they not listening to what Turner and others were saying on the campaign trail? Did they think they were going to somehow be magically exempt? Anyway, I agree that there should be a date set for when this will be implemented, and a plan that outlines what that will mean. No one knows what it means because that was never part of the marketing for Prop B, but it has to mean something, so let’s get to it. And when the firefighters don’t like what it means, well, the courts will still be there.

Trying to make “pay for play” an issue

Good luck.

With more than nine months to go until Houston’s municipal elections, Mayor Sylvester Turner’s first two opponents turned their attention this week to limiting political donors’ influence at City Hall.

Both challengers, millionaire lawyer and Texas A&M University System Regent Tony Buzbee and Bill King, the businessman and former Kemah mayor who lost to Turner in a close December 2015 runoff, announced they would spearhead separate petition drives to amend the city charter by temporarily blocking political donors from doing business with the city.

The issue of “pay to play” appears likely to become a focal point in the race for Houston mayor, and could feature prominently in city Council campaigns too, all of which will take place as national Democrats vie for their party’s presidential nomination amid growing calls for politicians to reject money that allegedly comes with strings attached.

Buzbee, in a full-page ad in Sunday’s Houston Chronicle, said he intends to lead a petition drive to bar anyone who donates to a city official from doing business with the city for a year.

King on Monday morning announced a similar idea at a press conference, proposing a two-year moratorium for people who give more than $250 to a city official. His idea would extend the ban to prospective lobbyists and appointees to boards or commissions, and cover candidates for mayor, controller and city council. Buzbee has not yet specified if his proposal would cover non-incumbent candidates.

[…]

“The city has long-established rules that govern potential conflicts of interest regarding campaign contributions, including a black-out period and prohibitions on the members of certain boards and commissions,” Turner said. “As with all city policies, we continually evaluate these rules to ensure they are meeting the city’s needs. The city will always entertain ideas and proposals from anyone, especially if they’re not trying to score political points.“

Houston’s charter bars officials from taking or asking for contributions once the city publicly seeks proposals or bids for a contract. They cannot start accepting bids again until 30 days after City Council awards the contract, or decides not to award it at all.

The same section of the charter also prohibits officials from accepting or soliciting vendors’ contributions at any point they know the vendor has interest in a contract. A separate provision also restricts when candidates who are not in office can accept contributions from vendors.

King’s proposal would prevent people who contribute more than $250 to an official from entering into a contract with the city, registering as a city lobbyist or receiving appointments to city boards of commissions.

I mean, I support the idea, it’s just my experience that this particular issue is not one that gets a whole lot of traction among voters. County Judge Lina Hidalgo is being rightly held up as the model, but you may note that this wasn’t what she campaigned on. She campaigned primarily on bread-and-butter issues like flooding, criminal justice reform, quality of life, and making county government more accessible to more people. I’m not saying this can’t be an effective campaign issue. It’s definitely a meritorious issue. I am saying it’s not the sexiest thing to lead with.

One other thing. At the risk of lapsing into whataboutism, as someone whose mailbox is regularly inflicted with King’s grumpy-old-man emails, his interest in this particular aspect of good government is a tad bit limited. I mean, we just re-elected the heavyweight champion of pay for play politics in this state, but good luck finding any mention of Greg Abbott and his penchant for appointing moneybag donors to statewide positions in King’s missives. Yes, I know, King is running for Mayor and not Governor, but he also regularly complains about the national debt, and last I checked he wasn’t running for Congress or (God help us) President. I know, he’s got his own thing to worry about now, but he was emitting those emails back in 2017 when he wasn’t running for Mayor and Abbott was actively blocking a bipartisan anti-pay for play bill in the Lege. The track record is thin, is what I’m saying.

The 2019 elections

We haven’t forgotten that there are some big elections on tap for us this year, have we? Let’s go a quick rundown.

May elections

Election campaigns are already in progress in the cities that have May elections, which includes big cities like San Antonio and Dallas, and smaller cities in our area like Pasadena, Sugar Land, and Pearland. Pasadena will be a hot zone again, with first-term Mayor Jeff Wagner up for re-election and local Democrats hoping to win the District A seat they came so close to in 2017, which would give them a 5-3 advantage on City Council. I don’t have much to say about these races yet, but I will note that my friend Nabila Mansoor is running for City Council in Sugar Land, so I wish her all the best with that.

Houston – Overview

This is the first city election since 2015, thanks to the change in the term limits law. It’s also the first city election since the election of Donald Trump, and the two high-turnout, Democratic-sweep elections in Harris County. How will that affect the course of this election? Normally, even if we have a hotly contested Mayor’s race, we’d be looking at 200 to 250K turnout max – less if the Mayor’s race was not contested – but with all the newly activated people from the past two years, will things change? The betting money always says No until events prove otherwise. The one other thing that may affect turnout this year is the Metro referendum, which itself will be conducted for the first time with no John Culberson in office. So many factors in play, so all I will say for now is don’t believe any firm, confident pronouncements. There’s a lot of room for variance and for doubt at this time.

Mayor

It’s Sylvester Turner versus Bill King, Round 2, with the extra zest (maybe) of Tony Buzbee. And maybe others, too – will anyone be surprised if Ben Hall manages to get a story published about how he’s “thinking about” taking another shot at it? The last Mayor to fail to be re-elected was Kathy Whitmire in 1991. Past performance does not guarantee future outcomes, but I figure there’s a reason for that. It’s Turner’s election to lose, and King doesn’t have his signature talking point from 2015 now that pension reform has been achieved, by Turner. He’s clearly going to attack Turner, but as to what he might campaign on beyond that, I have no idea.

City Controller

Honestly, I’ll be surprised if Chris Brown draws anything more than token opposition. Controller isn’t that sexy a job, and Brown hasn’t done anything to draw the bad kind of attention to himself.

City Council

Districts A, B, C, J, and At Large #5 are term limited. I’ve already received two invitations to like Facebook pages for District C candidates (Nick Hellyar and Bob Nowak), and I’m aware of at least two more such candidates (Shelley Kennedy and Abbie Kamin). Durrel Douglas listed some potential District B candidates a few weeks ago, and there are rumblings in the other slots as well. Raj Salhotra has announced a challenge to Mike Knox in At Large #1, while Laurie Robinson appears to be gearing up for another run in At Large #5. I’ll be reviewing the finance reports for January when they start to come out, which may yield a few more names. For now, let’s just say I expect a lot of activity, and not just in the open seats. Four years is a long time to go between city elections, and lots of people are in a mind to run for something.

UPDATE: Forgot to mention that Sallie Alcorn, who had been Steve Costello’s chief of staff, has announced her candidacy for AL5.

HISD

Assuming we have HISD Trustee elections this November – we should know that for sure by August – the following Trustees are up in 2019: Rhonda Skillern-Jones, Sergio Lira, Jolanda Jones, and Diana Davila. Far as I know, all are planning to run for re-election. Lira was elected to fill out Manuel Rodriguez’s unfinished term in 2017, Skillern-Jones was forced into a runoff in 2015 and has had a rocky tenure as Board President, Davila upset Juliet Stipeche (now Mayor Turner’s education czar) in 2015, and Jolanda is Jolanda. I’m not currently aware of any opponents on the horizon, but I’m sure most if not all of them will draw someone. Assuming, again, we have HISD Trustee elections this November.

HCC

It will have been six long years, but we will finally have the chance to rid ourselves of the stain that is Dave Wilson, in HCC Trustee District 2, this November. Also up for election are Zeph Capo and Neeta Sane.

Metro

All of Harris County will have the Metro referendum, which is as yet unfinished, on their ballot in November. Again, I don’t have much to say about this yet, but this is one of my top interests for 2019. It will certainly be a component of the Mayor’s race as well. I figure if Metro could pass the 2003 referendum they have to be a favorite to pass this one, but you never know with these things.

That’s all I have for now. Next up will be the finance reports when they become available. If you know of any candidate announcements or other related news, leave a comment and tell us all.

FIFA World Cup update

Still a year away from a decision.

Houston is among 17 American cities vying to become one of 10 host cities selected when the finalists are trimmed by 2021. The 2026 World Cup will also include 10 games each in Canada and Mexico. A host city would get six games during the 32-day event.

Bid committee president Chris Canetti is hopeful of Houston’s chances but sees the addition of [John] Arnold as another boon for the bid.

“One of the things that we’re going to need to do as a committee here and as a city is raise funds,” Canetti said. “So when you agree to host a World Cup, there’s an expense that comes with it. This is really the same exact formula that existed when the Super Bowl came a couple years ago, so to have someone like John who’s so well-respected in the community, so well-connected in the community … it’s really important to us to be able to open some doors.

“When you look at Houston as a package, we’ve got everything in place,” Canetti said, referring to the city’s recent history hosting national events and its broad infrastructure. “We look at it as, ‘What’s going to put us on top with the decision makers and let them know that Houston belongs.’ And we think being funded is a great thing.”

Committee members believe Houston’s preparation has helped distinguish the city from its competitors. Still, it’s a cautious optimism. And to an extent, they see the potential for collaboration.

“FIFA’s indicated that they have a preference for some geographic concentration to make travel easier for both teams and fans, so … Dallas and Houston can work together, and they can be complements rather than an either-or situation,” Arnold said, pointing to Houston’s relative proximity to Guadalajara, Mexico City, and Monterrey, three Mexican cities included in the joint bid among Canada, the United States, and Mexico. “The geographic spread of cities will be important, the amount of fan support and community support that each city can show and demonstrate will be important, and I think the culture of soccer that each city shows will be important in that process.”

See here for the previous update. Houston really does have a lot going for it, including a track record of doing well hosting other big sporting events. The World Cup would be bigger still, thanks to the number of matches and influx of international fans, but it’s nothing we can’t handle. Here’s hoping for the best.

Give your input on the HISD Superintendent search

Public meeting notice.

The Houston Independent School District Board of Education is conducting a nationwide search for a permanent superintendent, and trustees are seeking input from the community about the qualities and traits they would like to see in their next district leader.

HISD Board of Education trustees have scheduled several meetings to gather feedback from the community that will be used to develop a superintendent candidate profile. The dates and times for the meetings are listed below.

In March, Dr. Grenita Lathan was named by trustees as HISD’s interim superintendent. Lathan will continue to serve in that capacity during the duration of the search.

The Board of Education has exercised a warranty provision with executive search firm Hazard, Young, Attea & Associates to conduct a superintendent search at no cost to the district.

The Illinois-based firm will help trustees host a series of community meetings, including a districtwide meeting on Saturday, Jan. 19, to gather input from various district stakeholders, including parents and students, school-based staff, district employees, and business and community members. The board will then use that feedback to finalize its superintendent profile and begin searching for candidates.

Input on the search for HISD’s permanent superintendent can also be provided via an online survey on the district’s website, www.HoustonISD.org.

Click over to see the meeting schedule. There’s one in each district, plus at HISD headquarters on West 18th Street just outside the Loop. These run from the 14th through the 24th, so make your plan to attend.

A switch to cider

Some craft brewing news of note.

The taps, they are a-changin’ at Town in City Brewery, where owner Justin Engle has decided to pause beer brewing and focus instead on creating hard cider.

The folks at Town in City began building their reputation in cider about a year ago, when they launched Houston Cider Co., in a shared space with the beer-brewing operation. But this month, Engle said he decided not to renew his brewer’s permit when it expires.

“We were given legal advice that if we were to renew our brewer’s permit prior to the TABC Sunset hearings, that we may be stuck for two years in old TABC rules,” Engle said of the current fight between brewers and legislators to modernize state laws for alcohol sales. “If the new rules are passed, it would still take us two years to get to the next rules. So we decided not to take that gamble, and so we’re not going to renew right now.”

But that doesn’t mean things at the brewery on Cavalcade near the Heights are going quiet.

On Dec. 18, Houston Cider Co. took a leap that Town in City never attempted: It began canning. Now, three of the cidery’s mainstays — Dry, Cherry and Rosé — are available at Whole Foods and a few other shops across the city.

Cider production began outpacing beer production at the Heights brewery back in August, Engle said.

Still, cider isn’t exactly a sure thing — especially not when compared with the ever-growing popularity of craft beer. According to Drizly, an eCommerce marketplace for alcoholic beverages, only 7.1 percent of sales in the beer market went to cider in October, the most recent month for which data are available. At that same time, 26.7 percent of sales were for craft beer.

But there’s another way to read that: Cider isn’t as crowded a space.

See here for some background on the ongoing legislative battle, which begins again in earnest as the Lege reconvenes. I note that one of the two incumbents that CraftPAC had been supporting as of that January publication date was defeated in November (Tony Dale of HD136). Sure hope they backed some other winners, or the slog will be harder than it needs to be. As for cider, the story notes that there are only eight such breweries in the state, with Houston Cider Company being the only one in our fair city (there is another one based in Dickinson that is the nearest neighbor). Here’s a Leader News story from January about their debut.

I blogged about Lerprechaun Cider Company, the first local cider company, back in 2011; they had a product relaunch in 2015 and according to a footnote at the end of this 2017 Houstonia story were never brewing here and had stopped distributing here. Their domain has expired, which I think tells you all you need to know. That Houstonia story was about Permann’s Cider Company, which as of last July was on track to have a taproom downtown. Not sure where that stands – they have a Facebook page that’s had five posts since February and a Twitter account that hasn’t tweeted since last August. I guess this is a longwinded way of saying that I wish the Houston Cider Company good luck, and that hopefully some day they’ll be able to brew beer again, too.

Appeal of bail injunction dropped

Elections have consequences, and thank goodness for it.

Less than a week after the new jurists were sworn into office, Harris County’s misdemeanor judges on Monday withdrew their appeal in the landmark lawsuit over local bail practices that a federal judge said unfairly targeted poor people accused of crimes.

The historic litigation began in 2016, when attorneys and civil rights groups sued the county on behalf of defendants jailed for days because they couldn’t afford bond on low-level offenses. Though Chief U.S. District Judge Lee H. Rosenthal said the practice was unconstitutional and amounted to wealth-based detention, so far the county has spent more than $9 million in legal fees to fight the case, according to Harris County Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis.

But many saw the Democratic wave in November’s elections as a sign of change ahead – and Monday’s court filings look to be one of the first indicators of that shift.

“It’s going to be a new day,” Neal Manne, attorney for the plaintiffs, said in November just after the ballot-box sweep. And now, according to Judge Darrell Jordan – the one misdemeanor judge who did not lose his bench in the last election – the parties have already begun hashing out a settlement they hope to have in place in the next few weeks.

“Our goal is have this accomplished by February 1, 2019,” Jordan told the Houston Chronicle.

One of a series of documents filed in recent days, the two-page motion simply lists the names of the new judges – who automatically replaced their predecessors as defendants in the suit – and asks that the case be dismissed. The court granted the motion and dismissed the appeal by mid-day.

[…]

Mike Fields, the one outgoing judge who supported the lawsuit, lauded the move as a “great first step” toward reform.

“Quite frankly, it’s overdue,” he said. “I remain convinced that fighting against bail reform was a mistake and, I believe, part and parcel of why the citizens of Harris County voted for such a sweeping change in our political landscape. Hopefully, this issue will, finally, be put to bed and taxpayer money better spent going forward.”

[…]

Meanwhile, the Harris County Attorney’s Office issued a statement expressing confidence in the possibility of a settlement.

“The County Attorney’s Office supports the newly-elected judges in their effort to resolve this case on terms they find acceptable,” County Attorney Vince Ryan said in a statement. “This is a case about judicial discretion.”

The next hearing, in Rosenthal’s court, is slated for Feb. 1.

Out-fricking-standing. The new judges are now represented by a pro bono attorney, instead of the high-priced guy that had been arguing the case in court. What this means is that the injunction will remain in place while the settlement is hashed out, with no further briefs or arguments or whatever else before the Fifth Circuit. (The last update I had on this was from August; I don’t think there was any other business on the agenda, but if there was it’s now moot.) Perhaps once we get this settlement in place we can stop outsourcing inmates once and for all. Now we need the city of Houston to get its act together and follow the county’s lead. Bottom line is that this, as much as anything, is what I wanted from the 2018 election. Well done, y’all.

Have you started avoiding the 59/610 interchange yet?

Better get started.

I-69 at the 610 West Loop is a traffic hot spot in Houston. The two freeway segments that meet at the interchange top the list of the most congested in Texas, according to the Department of Transportation (TxDOT).

Danny Perez, a spokesman for TxDOT, says a project the Department has already started is designed to eliminate a lot of the weaving motions that lead to crashes in the hot spot. They want to give drivers more time to make decisions before they have to merge.

“You’ll have increased capacity on connector ramps for instance,” explained Perez. “So if you’re going 610 northbound to 69 going northbound you’ll have a wider connector that will be set further back.”

The project includes higher and wider ramps along with other improvements. Perez says the work could take up five to six years but they’re hoping to finish sooner.

Emphasis mine. See here and here for the background. Note that this is happening as the construction of an elevated busway is already happening. A couple of weeks ago on The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly on Houston Matters, I opined that the end of the construction on 290 just meant that roadwork would shift elsewhere, as roadwork never truly ends but is conserved. It’s like one of the laws of the universe or something. If anyone who was listening to that thought I was joking, well, now you know. Godspeed to us all.

The dino turtles of Buffalo Bayou

I love this story.

The creature didn’t growl and didn’t need to.

The alligator snapping turtle held menace enough in its massive, gaping jaws, which ended in a sharp beak poised like the fangs of an agitated rattlesnake. Its long, plump claws dug into the sand above thorny, wrinkled skin and a deeply-ridged carapace about the size of a large dinner platter.

Wildlife biologist Eric Munscher has wrangled bigger alligator snappers than the young, 42-pound male he hauled onto land Saturday with help from two assistants. But every one he finds matters, because he’s studying the species in a part of Houston so unlikely it has become the talk of the turtle world.

During the past two years, Munscher and his team have tagged 60 alligator snappers — officially Macrochelys temminckii — in an area no one expected to find them, along a nine-mile stretch of Buffalo Bayou.

Munscher, who leads the Turtle Survival Alliance’s North American Freshwater Turtle Research Group, does not want to reveal exact study locations, to protect what he believes may be the largest population of alligator snapping turtles in Texas, and potentially one of the largest anywhere. And he believes the turtles have survived not in spite of, but because of, their heavily populated, citified surroundings. “They lucked into the whole metro thing,” he said. “It’s a good habitat, surprisingly, with a riparian shelf where females can climb up and lay eggs.”

Buffalo Bayou’s opaque brown waters have long yielded other scary-looking predators, including prehistoric-looking alligator gars and the occasional, actual gator. And there are plenty of other reasons not to swim there, including possible bacterial pollution.

“Nobody in their right mind would think of Buffalo Bayou as a refuge,” said Jordan Gray, a former Houston zookeeper and a collaborator on the study who now works at the Turtle Survival Alliance’s headquarters in Charleston, S.C. “It’s not this pristine habitat like the Upper Trinity River, but that’s what makes it so cool, to find this gem of a population.”

[…]

Munscher discovered the bayou’s turtles almost by accident through his day job with SWCA Environmental Consultants, while he was surveying wildlife across one of the city’s large parks. He put out turtle traps near the end of the study, not expecting to find anything special, and was astonished to haul up six alligator snappers.

Those first critters ranged from a 3-pound juvenile to a 96-pound male that could be 80 years old, which suggested an active breeding population.

Munscher contacted Texas Parks & Wildlife, which had not included Harris County in a previous survey of alligator snappers across East Texas, and secured a grant to purchase equipment for a long-term population study in Buffalo Bayou and associated watersheds of Harris and Fort Bend Counties. He is trapping, tagging and releasing turtles at least once a month — a task he plans to continue for 10 years.

“It’s an unheard of study for the species,” he said. “We want to do it because it’s such an unheard of habitat … . If you find a lot of turtles, it means they’re doing pretty well. Nobody’s done anything to them yet; they don’t have a lot of predation going on. We study them over time to see how and why they’re doing so well.”

The largest turtle species in the U.S. and largest hard-shelled turtles in the world, alligator snappers are native to swamps and rivers from Florida to southern Illinois. Experts can’t say how many of them still exist, but they know numbers have declined significantly in the past century, and conservationists have petitioned to have alligator snappers added to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Endangered Species list.

There’s a lot more, so go read the rest. The last time I blogged about alligator snapping turtles, it was because of a story that painted them as in dire straits as a species. This story is a much more pleasant surprise. I hope Munscher and crew find a thriving population in the Bayou.

Orlando Sanchez’s bizarre press conference

What a weird thing.

Orlando Sanchez

It was an absolutely wild afternoon for Harris County Treasurer Orlando Sanchez. He planned to have a news conference across the street from the HISD administration building, but things didn’t go as planned.

Protestors showed up and completely disrupted Sanchez’s news conference. When he tried to get it started, the group would chant things like, ‘Go away, TEA’ and ‘You got voted out.’

Things really got heated when he was answering one of our questions. Someone from the group ran up and dumped water on him.

Someone from Sanchez’s team confronted the man. He ended up on the ground and police were called. Both sides claimed they were assaulted.

The news conference was supposed to be for Sanchez to call for the state to take over HISD.

“Taxpayers are fed up and it’s time for the governor and the Texas Education Agency to step up and make sure that children in HISD, which 83 percent of them are minority, get an education,” said Sanchez.

“To have somebody like that step on my toes like that when I have sacrificed so much for these kids, yeah, it’s emotional,” said HISD Board President Rhonda Skillern. “It is because it’s personal. These kids mean a lot to me; not just my five but all 215,000.”

Click over to see pictures and video. Far as I can tell, the only coverage of this fiasco has come from the TV stations; I’ve not seen anything in the Chron as yet.

Let me say up front that whoever poured water on Sanchez is an idiot, and what he did sure sounds like assault to me. It’s also terrible strategy from a public relations perspective. Sanchez’s purpose for calling the press conference was ridiculous on its face, and would have been easy to dismiss on its merits. Anyone who felt the need to attack Sanchez physically is someone who has no faith in their own political position.

Why do I say that Sanchez’s purpose is ridiculous? The law is clear that the authority of the TEA to step in only occurs after the schools fail to meet state standards. We won’t have that data for several months, a fact that everyone knows. It is entirely possible that the four schools in question, which were all granted one-year waivers due to the effects of Hurricane Harvey, could meet standards this year, as the other schools that had originally been under scrutiny and which did not get Harvey waivers did. One could easily argue that by making this needless and premature call for a TEA takeover, Sanchez is expressing a complete lack of faith in the students at the four schools. That’s an insult to them and their parents and teachers. Maybe he had some qualifiers and weasel words in his prepared text, but still, the message is clear: Orlando Sanchez expects you to fail, and so he wants the consequences of your failure to begin now.

One also can’t help but notice that Orlando Sanchez, who just got voted out of a cushy elected position where he was basically invisible for twelve years and has never before expressed any opinions about education or ideas about how to improve it, is jumping up and waving his arms in front of Greg Abbott at a time when he really needs something to do. It’s a clear grab for attention at a time when the news cycle is quiet and he can still call it in his capacity as an elected official. There’s also the rumors that Sanchez is prepping to run for Mayor (again). No such thing as bad publicity, am I right?

Finally, there will surely be litigation over the process of replacing an elected board with an appointed one – for sure, there’s a Voting Rights Act complaint to be made. There were lawsuits over the closure of North Forest ISD and La Marque ISD, and while the state prevailed in each of them, the situation with HISD, which is a much bigger district with many successful schools and is financially solvent, is vastly different. The state may well prevail in any litigation that will occur, but it will take time. There’s also the very real possibility that the Lege could modify the law in question that delays or makes less likely a TEA takeover. The point here is that in every way, this was way premature, and served to do nothing more than call attention to Orlando Sanchez. On that score at least, mission accomplished.

Better sidewalks needs to be everyone’s job

It’s the only way we’re going to make progress.

Houstonians annoyed by cracked, missing or buckled sidewalks along their streets may be surprised to learn that city rules make residents responsible for fixing them.

At the urging of council members three years ago, Houston Public Works tried something new, launching a program that let homeowners get quotes for sidewalk repairs from city-approved contractors, then pay for the fix.

Though 155 residents signed up and 105 got cost estimates, only two agreed to pay the bill — likely because the average quote was $5,000.

Public Works officials acknowledge the city’s involvement added overhead that resulted in estimates double or triple what a resident otherwise would pay. The program has been scrapped.

Still, city officials say adding more sidewalks is a worthy goal. The issue, Public Works Deputy Director Jeff Weatherford said, is that Houston has no sidewalk repair budget and sets aside just $2.6 million a year to add new sidewalks through a few targeted programs. Compare that with the $83 million needed to fulfill 580 pending requests for new sidewalks.

“There’s a funding shortfall,” Weatherford said. “We’d love to expand it, we’re having conversations about different ways to expand it, we’re looking at priorities for grants, other alternative funding sources. But until we’ve worked out a way to get that, it’s going to be a balancing act.”

Residents can apply to have up to four blocks of sidewalks added near schools and along major streets, but typically must wait three to five years. Residents with disabilities also can apply to have up to 1,500 feet of sidewalks built around their homes. These Pedestrian Accessibility Reviews, which have produced about 75 finished sidewalk projects in the last five years, get top priority.

[…]

Advocates with the 6-year-old Houston Complete Streets Coalition want to work toward a sidewalk plan for the city, assessing the presence and condition of existing sidewalks, compiling the resulting information in a database and using it, alongside identified priorities, to guide decisions on where to install and repair sidewalks.

Michael Huffmaster, who leads the group of civic clubs known as the Super Neighborhood Alliance and represents that group on the coalition, said one proposal is to incorporate public facilities like community centers, libraries and parks into the program that adds sidewalks around schools.

“It’s up to City Council to fund sidewalks at a level that makes a meaningful contribution to the needs of the city,” Huffmaster said. “It’s sad that we put the burden of the sidewalk on the adjacent property owner because it’s an improvement that’s within the public right of way. Mobility in the city, pedestrian safety, should be priorities.”

Weatherford said he does not oppose adding facilities like libraries to the school sidewalk program or the idea of a sidewalk plan, but he said the funding question must be solved first, lest the backlog of unfunded sidewalk requests swell and the new plan sit unused on a shelf.

I have two thoughts about this. One is that the city should revisit that Public Works program, but in a style similar to one that already exists for financing the installation of solar panels: Have the city pay for the work up front (floating a bond if need be for the capital costs), then letting homeowners who get their sidewalks fixed pay that back via a charge added to their monthly water bill. The overall amount the city would have to borrow isn’t that much, and individual homeowners ought to be able to pay it off in three years or so; payment options can be given for that. I don’t see a down side to this.

I would also expand upon the Super Neighborhood Alliance idea. How can we get other government entities involved? As I have said several times before, the city of Houston is also (almost entirely) within Harris County. Metro has done some work at and around bus stops since the 2012 referendum giving them a larger share of the sales tax revenue. I’d like to see that continued and expanded with the 2019 referendum. HISD and the other school districts should kick in for better sidewalks around their schools, as a matter of student safety. H-GAC should seek out state and federal grant money for sidewalks. This still needs to be a primary responsibility of the city, but there’s no reason it has to be the city’s sole responsibility. If we want to solve the problem, we need to make it everyone’s priority.

Watch your packages

They’re disappearing off porches at an increasing rate.

Package thefts have become a growing problem across the country, Texas and Houston as more people shop online. Nearly 26 million Americans have had a holiday package stolen, according to a study by InsuranceQuotes, an Austin-based online insurance marketplace.

In Houston, police say, package thefts have increased by 80 percent since 2015, when the Houston Police started tracking the crime. SafeWise, a home security company research firm, estimates that nearly 20 out of every 1,000 Houston residents have had packages stolen and ranks the city No. 7 in the nation for package theft.

Houston was the largest city on SafeWise’s national list, which was dominated by Texas cities including No. 1 Austin and No. 8 Dallas.

The problem, of course, is exacerbated during the holidays, the busiest shopping season of the year. Americans spent a record $110.6 billion online between Nov. 1 and Dec. 19, an increase of 17.8 percent from last year, according to Adobe Analytics, a research firm tracking online shopping

“When the number of packages goes up, thefts go up,” Houston Police spokesman John Cannon said.

Package theft is difficult to solve — even with the proliferation of security cameras and video doorbells — because it’s a crime of opportunity, said Sgt. Eugenio Gonzalez with Houston Police’s burglary and theft division While there are some groups of so-called porch pirates roaming around snatching packages, many are first-time criminals.

“It’s easy pickings,” said Gonzalez.

[…]

Some consumers are taking matters into their own hands by setting out decoy packages. Recently, a former NASA engineer rigged a package that sprayed glitter and a fart-smell cologne on porch pirates when they opened it — and filmed their reactions. The resulting video went viral on YouTube, with more than 42 million views.

Houston police don’t recommend people set out bait packages to try to catch package thieves. Instead, they encourage residents to call and report thefts and have officers investigate.

Residents should schedule deliveries when someone is home, or have it delivered to people’s workplace or a neighbor’s house, police said. The department also encourages installing video cameras, buying shipping insurance and using package lockers.

“I never tell anyone to take the law into their own hands,” Gonzalez said. “I myself will be getting a Ring video doorbell for my family.”

I wouldn’t recommend the decoy package thing either, but I thank the guy who did do it for the lolz. There are various ways to mitigate against the problem, from secure pickup locations to letting delivery people enter your home to the old-fashioned “drop it off with a neighbor” and “be at home when they deliver” strategies. Or, you know, maybe buy more stuff in stores. I’m just saying.

It’s tree-recycling time

Here’s what you need to know.

You have nearly three weeks to do this. Don’t miss out.

Recapture reinterpretation lawsuit update

This is a bit in the weeds, so bear with me.

Houston ISD likely will keep an additional tens of millions of dollars more in property tax revenues each year following a widely expected Texas appeals court decision Friday.

Judges from the state’s 3rd District Court of Appeals ruled against two small school districts and a nonprofit that sued the Texas Education Agency over its re-interpretation of statutes related to “recapture,” the state’s method of redistributing tax revenues from property-wealthy districts to property-poor districts. The ruling means that property-wealthy districts, such as HISD, will face lower “recapture” payments back to the state moving forward.

HISD officials projected the ruling would result in the district keeping an additional $51 million in 2018-19. District leaders expected the Texas Education Agency to win the lawsuit, so the already factored the $51 million in revenue into the current budget. As a result, the district will not see a windfall that can be spent on additional costs.

The plaintiffs alleged the Texas Education Agency improperly re-interpreted state law to include optional property tax homestead exemptions into “recapture” calculations for districts with wealthy property tax bases relative to their student enrollment totals.

A district court judge granted a temporary injunction in favor of the plaintiffs. However, the appellate court found the plaintiffs could not prove they were harmed by the re-interpretation because it did not cause a shortfall in the state’s Foundation School Program, the fund through which state money is distributed to school districts.

See here and here for the background. Back when we were all arguing about HISD making recapture payments to the state, HISD successfully managed to get the TEA to interpret the law over how such payments are calculated to take into account the Local Option Homestead Exemption (LOHE) that some districts like HISD offer. Taking the LOHE into account, which the TEA had not previously done, causes the recapture formula to produce a smaller bill for districts like HISD that use it. That’s where that $51 million figure comes from. A couple of smaller school districts, along with MALDEF, filed suit over this reinterpretation on the grounds that it would cost them money, which was in conflict with the Foundation School Program. The Third Court of Appeals has ruled that the smaller districts could not prove that they were harmed, so the TEA rule as now interpreted was upheld, which in turn saves HISD some money. Makes sense? Of course, if the Lege follows through on its latest plan to reform school finance, any or all of this could change in ways we don’t yet know. But for now, this is where we stand.

El Nino 2018

Here it comes.

Houstonians can expect more rain than usual — and possibly street flooding — this winter, thanks to El Niño.

The National Weather Service forecasts an 80 percent chance for a weak to moderate El Niño this winter, starting around Christmas and lasting through February. In Houston, El Niño means a warmer and wetter winter that could have more severe storms and a higher risk of localized flooding.

Last week’s storm, which brought high winds and street flooding to the region, is indicative of an El Niño storm, said Ken Prochazka, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Houston.

“After our wet fall, the ground out there is saturated,” Prochazka said. “When we don’t get a chance to dry out, we’re more likely to have runoff and street flooding.”

El Niño occurs when the temperature of the Pacific Ocean off the coast of South America is warmer than usual. The warm Pacific water affects the atmosphere and causes changes in weather patterns around the world.

In the U.S., El Niño accelerates the North American jet stream, pushing storms from the Pacific across the the country at a faster speed. Storms can move across Texas every three to four days during El Niño, dropping more rain than usual.

Houston typically sees 3.6 inches of rain in January. El Niño can bring more rain than that, Prochazka said.

[…]

Houston last saw El Niño-related storms between 2014 and 2016. The city saw particularly strong El Niño storms in 1997 and 1998. El Niño, which occurs unpredictably, can last for a couple of years, Prochazka said.

It is what it is. All we can do is try to be ready for it.

Is there a better way to predict flooding?

This startup thinks so.

An artificial intelligence startup now says it can provide that warning. The company, One Concern, has announced that it can predict whether your block will flood — and if so, by how much — five days in advance of an incoming storm.

Founded by Stanford University graduates, the startup has launched a flood forecasting product called Flood Concern meant to give leaders hyperlocal predictions of where flooding will occur, allowing them to swiftly prepare and respond. High on its roster of potential clients is the Houston area, which lost over a hundred lives and suffered billions in damage last year during Hurricane Harvey.

The startup has begun approaching city officials and leaders in Houston’s private sector about bringing the technology to the region.

“They’re interested in multiple use cases, all the way from planning to responding,” One Concern CEO Ahmed Wani said of the discussions. Texas A&M University has already partnered with One Concern in anticipation of the potential benefits for the region.

“The use of artificial intelligence is potentially a game changer,” said Tony Knap, associate director of A&M’s Superfund Research Center. “It’s a different way of looking at things.”

Artificial intelligence allows computers to look for patterns from past events to predict what will happen in the future. Predictions become more accurate as the system collects more data — the Superfund Research Center is contributing data about hazardous chemicals so that a flood analysis can also understand potential health concerns.

“The aim is to get the prediction correct,” Knap said. “And artificial intelligence is something that we don’t use and they do. So if that can inform the model … it’s good for Houston.”

[…]

Eric Berger, a meteorologist whose forecasts on the Space City Weather website drew 1 million page views a day during Hurricane Harvey, said he could imagine artificial intelligence providing realistic worst-case scenarios for incoming storm systems. But he is skeptical of One Concern’s claim that it can predict flooding on a block-by-block basis.

To illustrate his point, he described a storm he was tracking that Tuesday afternoon that would hit Southeast Texas Friday night. Most of the region would likely see 2 to 4 inches of rain, but certain pockets could receive up to 8 — and those pockets would have a chance of flooding.

But where would they be?

“Three days before this heavy rainfall event, we can say this area is ripe for rain,” Berger said. “We could say that Harris County is at a greater risk than Galveston County. But to specify it even on a city-by-city basis is not possible. … There’s not the underlying meteorological data to support it.”

Here’s One Concern’s press release. As the story notes, Google is working in this space as well, though their claims aren’t as bold. I tend to agree with Berger that the data isn’t there for predictions this granular, but I like the direction they’re going, and I hope they can provide some value now, even if it’s not quite what they hope to achieve.

And now we move forward with Prop B

No other option.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner said Wednesday his administration is moving forward to implement the voter-approved charter amendment granting Houston firefighters equal pay to police of corresponding rank and seniority, though the city has not yet determined when firefighters will begin receiving increased paychecks or how the charter amendment will impact individual city departments.

Turner’s administration plans to lay off hundreds of city employees, including firefighters and police officers, to cover the cost of paying firefighters on par with police officers, a move city officials say will amount to a 29 percent raise costing the city upwards of $100 million annually.

The mayor said he did not know when the city would begin layoffs, but indicated to reporters Wednesday that it likely would take several months to put Proposition B into effect.

“I don’t want anybody to operate under the assumption that even as we move forward to the implementation that checks are going to start flowing in January,” Turner said. “It will take some time.”

[…]

Asked why the city is only now beginning to put Proposition B into effect, Turner said his administration did not take action while the temporary restraining order was in place from Nov. 30 until Tuesday. Proposition B passed Nov. 6 with 59 percent of the vote.

The fire union, meanwhile, has sought to negotiate a new contract with Turner that would allow the city to phase in Proposition B. Fire union president Marty Lancton has cast Turner’s refusal to return to the table as vindictive, and said after state District Judge Randy Wilson’s ruling Tuesday that the mayor could implement the amendment or “pick up the phone and call firefighters so we can work toward a solution that implements the will of the voters in the best possible way.”

Asked Wednesday about the union’s negotiation offer, Turner did not indicate he has was any closer to sitting down with the firefighters, saying that doing so would go against “what people wanted” when they approved Proposition B. The firefighters, who have contended that the police union’s lawsuit is aimed at circumventing the will of the voters, say it is possible to arrive at “a solution that implements the will of the voters in the best possible way.”

The mayor previously has said the city could not phase in Proposition B, and since has accused firefighters of attempting to confuse the issue by calling for negotiations while the lawsuits play out in the courts.

See here for the background. I don’t know what else there is to say at this point. It’s not clear what happens from here, but I’m pretty sure no one is going to like it.

Metro moving forward on 2019 referendum

I’m ready for it.

The Metropolitan Transit Authority is expected to ask voters next fall for more than $3 billion in borrowing authority to implement its next wave of transit projects.

The 20-year plan laid out by Metro officials includes roughly 20 more miles of light rail, 75 miles of bus rapid transit and 110 miles of two-way HOV lanes along area freeways.

The plan, based on studies and public feedback, focuses on beefing up service in core areas where buses and trains already are drawing riders and connecting suburban residents and jobs in those areas.

“We are making sure what we are doing here in the metro service area blends into the region,” Metro CEO Tom Lambert said. “How do we make sure we are putting together an environment and place that connects one mode of transportation to other modes of transportation.”

The overall price tag for the plan is $7.5 billion, more than half of which would be funded via state and federal transportation monies.

[…]

Unlike previous Metro capital plans that spent roughly $1 billion in local money on the Red Line light rail, its northern extension and the Green and Purple lines, the current plan would spend more on buses — specifically bus rapid transit — along key routes where officials believe better service can connect to more places and, in turn, lure more riders. The estimated cost of about 75 miles of bus rapid transit is $3.15 billion.

Officials believe BRT, as it is called, delivers the same benefits as rail, but at less cost with more flexibility, giving Metro the ability to alter service to meet demand. For riders, it would be a rail-like experience and different from buses that operate on set timelines.

“If you can get a service people can bank on and count on, you don’t need a schedule,” Lambert said.

BRT operates similar to light rail with major station stops along dedicated lanes used only by the buses, though they may share some streets with automobile traffic. The region’s first foray into bus rapid transit is under construction along Post Oak in the Uptown area. Service is scheduled to start in early- to mid-2020.

The MetroNext plan calls for at least five bus rapid transit projects:

Interstate 45 — which is poised for its own massive rebuild by TxDOT — from downtown to Bush Intercontinental Airport

Interstate 10 from downtown to the proposed Texas Bullet Train terminal at Loop 610 and U.S. 290

Gessner from Metro’s West Little York park and ride to its Missouri City park and ride

Extending Uptown’s planned rapid transit to the Gulfton Transit Center

A proposed fifth BRT is a revised version of the University Line light rail that Metro proposed and then shelved because of a lack of progress and intense opposition. The line, which some consider the most-needed major transit line in the region, would tie the University of Houston and Texas Southern University areas to downtown and then the Uptown area.

Since becoming chair of Metro in 2016, [Carrin] Patman has said the downtown-to-Uptown connection is the missing link in major transit investment within Loop 610. However, she has stressed that light rail may not be the best mode.

Though officials have pivoted from trains to buses with much of the plan, nearly $2.5 billion in new rail is being proposed, including the extension of both the Green Line along Harrisburg and the Purple Line in southeast Houston to Hobby Airport. The airport legs alone are estimated to cost close to $1.8 billion even though they are expected to draw fewer riders than any of the bus rapid transit routes.

All the details, which as Metro Chair Patman notes can and will change as the community dialogue continues, can be found at MetroNext.org. A press release with a link to Patman’s “State of Metro” presentation last week is here. I will of course be keeping an eye on this, and I definitely plan to interview Patman about the referendum once we get a little farther into the year. And let’s be clear, even if I didn’t have other reasons to dislike Bill King, I don’t want him to ever have any power over Metro. If we want to have any shot at having decent transit in this city, he’s the last person we want as Mayor.

Restraining order lifted on firefighter pay referendum

Back to the planning stage.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

A state district judge on Tuesday dissolved a temporary restraining order blocking implementation of the voter-approved charter amendment granting pay parity to Houston firefighters and denied further attempts by the city and police union to delay the measure.

State District Judge Randy Wilson, ruling in favor of the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association, decided that voters were informed of the amendment’s price tag — more than $100 million a year — before the election and approved it anyway. The measure, appearing on the November ballot as Proposition B, passed with 59 percent of the vote.

“While this Court is sensitive to the budget difficulties the Pay-Parity Amendment will produce, the Houston voters decided they would rather have pay parity,” Wilson wrote.

[…]

The latest ruling comes more than two weeks after the HPOU sued the fire union and city over the parity measure, contending the amendment, which would tie firefighter pay to that of police of corresponding rank and experience, is unconstitutional because it conflicts with a provision of state law requiring firefighters to receive comparable pay to that of private sector employees.

Wilson, ruling that the amendment does not conflict with state law, indicated the city had contradicted its argument in a separate case by claiming that no private sector jobs are comparable to those of firefighters.

The lawsuit has been underway since Nov. 30, when the police union filed the suit against the fire union and the city, and [Judge Kristen] Hawkins granted a temporary restraining order.

The city later filed a cross-claim against the fire union, a remedy available to defendants seeking to take legal action against a co-defendant. In its claim, the city argued that the charter amendment “directly conflicts with the collective bargaining process and guidelines for firefighter compensation” laid out in the Texas Local Government Code, and therefore is invalid. Ultimately, the police union and city sought an injuction and stay on the parity amendment.

As the lawsuit has played out, the separate case referenced by Wilson — filed by the fire union against the city after contract talks stalled last year — has reached Texas’ 14th Court of Appeals.

See here for the background, and here for the Mayor’s statement. Neither the HPOU nor the city plans to appeal at this time, so as things stand the city will need to figure out how to move forward with Prop B while the litigation plays out, as was the case with Renew Houston. It’s not going to get any more cordial from here, that much I know.

Trash fee to pay for Prop B?

Hard pass.

CM Dwight Boykins

Houston City Councilman Dwight Boykins on Thursday proposed charging property owners a monthly garbage collection fee to finance raises for firefighters while avoiding job cuts for other city staff.

Under the proposal, most Houston homeowners would be charged a flat, monthly fee between $25 and $40 to help the city absorb the cost of raises for firefighters mandated by the pay parity charter amendment approved by voters last month.

Unveiled at a Thursday press conference, Boykins’ proposal comes amid a legal challenge by the city over the constitutionality of Proposition B, the charter amendment granting firefighters equal pay to police officers of corresponding rank and experience. The amendment was approved last month by 59 percent of voters.

“I believe the issue of pay parity was settled at the ballot box,” Boykins wrote in a Thursday letter to Mayor Sylvester Turner and his colleagues on council. “As elected leaders, our primary mission is to settle on an appropriate and responsible way forward. To this end, I am convinced that introducing a garbage collection fee is the most plausible plan to provide firefighters a pay raise while ensuring that no city worker loses their job.”

Turner’s office issued a statement in which the mayor said he was opposed to the idea: “Council Member Boykins and the Firefighters Association’s proposal to enact a $25 monthly garbage collection fee to pay for a firefighter’s 29% pay raise, underscores what I have been saying for months. The City cannot afford Proposition B. This measure will cost the city more than $100 million each fiscal year. I will not support forcing Houston homeowners to pay a costly new tax on trash collection to pay for firefighters’ salaries.”

Look, I support the concept of a trash fee. I just want that fee to apply to the function of collecting and managing the city’s waste. More curbside recycling, including plastic bags, curbside compost collection – there are lots of things that other cities that have trash fees do with them. Propose this as part of a zero waste plan, I’ll shill for it all day long. This is not a good use for a trash fee. Nice try, but no.

Precinct analysis: Beto in the city

Last week I got an email from Christopher Busby, who is a regular commenter here. He had previously asked about doing an analysis of Beto O’Rourke’s performance in Houston by City Council district. I told him that the canvass data I had did not include City Council district information, but that one could ask the County Clerk for it. He went and did exactly that, and sent me the result of his work. Here’s what he said:

The numbers as represented are ESTIMATES of the performance of the US Senate races in the City of Houston Council Districts. Many precincts are split among city and non-city portions of Harris County and though I made effort to recheck my work I still do allow that their might be some human error. Without better information as to which voters in represented precincts were city of Houston voters I am unable to give the most precise possible estimates. Regardless I feel comfortable that the below figures are within a decent ballpark of representing the districts.


Dist    Cruz    Beto  Dike  Cruz %  Beto %
==========================================
A     21,716  30,773   447   41.0%   58.1%
B      5,707  42,951   245   11.7%   87.8%
C     35,622  68,794   988   33.7%   65.3%
D     10,370  55,702   352   15.6%   83.9%
E     37,769  30,564   584   54.8%   44.3%
F     12,501  27,958   284   30.7%   68.6%
G     42,720  42,137   698   49.9%   49.2%
H      7,618  29,290   286   20.5%   78.7%
I      7,373  27,002   202   21.3%   78.1%
J      5,711  15,298   159   27.0%   72.3%
K      9,082  35,144   283   20.4%   79.0%

Tot  196,189 378,611 4,528   33.9%   65.4%

I have a couple of things to add here. First, again, the work above was done by Christopher Busby, and I am using it with his permission. Second, do take heed of what he says about these numbers being estimates. I know from experience that it’s not easy to tease out city numbers from county canvasses, precisely for the reason given. There are just a lot of split precincts, for reasons that are not totally clear to me. You can’t do the usual method of identifying all the precincts in a given district and then adding up the votes in them for whatever other race you want to compare, because there are precincts in city districts that have far fewer votes than the precinct as a whole.

I did basically what Christopher did for the 2008 election. I had citywide data as part of the 2012 election thanks to the bond referenda, but didn’t have Council data so I did an aggregate summary. Note that 2008 was with the old Council map, so the districts there are not directly comparable. By my earlier calculations, Adrian Garcia in 2008 is still the reigning champion of Houston, just edging out Beto with 65.6% of the vote. Truthfully, the two are basically tied, since we’re doing our best guesses of fuzzy data. But that’s the ballpark Beto is in.

As for the results in 2018, don’t be too mesmerized by any individual district for the simple reason that turnout in 2018 is likely to be between double and triple what we should expect for 2019, and this is one of those times where the missing voters will be heavily Democratic. District A is open and I’m sure we’ll have a good Dem or two running in it, and I’d love to see a more moderate person take on Greg Travis in District G, while District C may now be legitimately a Dem district – remember, though, Bill King carried it in November and December of 2015 – and District F has a lot of potential if someone can put together a decent ground game. Point being, and this is something Greg Wythe says at every opportunity, the partisan lean of City Council districts depends very much on the turnout context. In the context we usually get, they’re a lot less Democratic than they could be. (Even in this election, note the extreme disparity in turnout between C and J.) This is very much an opportunity, but one of the lessons we should take from 2018 is that this is hard work, and can take a set of circumstances we’re not used to seeing. If you’re looking to make a difference in 2019, look at data from past city elections before you draw any conclusions about what it possible and what is probable in 2019.

Oh Lord, it’s Bill King again

siiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiigh

Bill King, a Houston businessman who narrowly lost his bid for mayor in 2015, filed paperwork with the city secretary Wednesday marking his likely intent to challenge Mayor Sylvester Turner again in 2019.

King lost to Turner, then a state representative, in a runoff decided by about 4,000 votes, or 1.9 percentage points, out of more than 212,000 ballots cast.

Though King’s filing of a campaign treasurer’s report does not lock in his candidacy, he said in an interview that he is “leaning heavily” toward running.

“I’ve been watching City Hall for 40 years, and this is the most corrupt administration I’ve seen,” King said.

For now, King said he plans to conduct some polling — the reason he filed a treasurer’s report — and likely will make a formal decision in the next 60 days. Houston’s municipal elections will not take place until November 2019, with possible runoff elections occurring the following month.

Asked after Wednesday’s council meeting about King’s filing, Turner replied, “Next question.”

There was a time when I had respect for King’s fiscal conservatism. I didn’t agree with him, but he had a plan that he clearly articulated and seemed to believe in, and he repeated it often enough to make you think it might work. Then he supported Prop B, which demonstrated how little he actually meant any of it. But it was a bright shiny opportunity for him, so he took it. Gotta have something to run on now that pension reform has been done, I guess. On the plus side, the presence of Tony Buzbee means he has a chance to not be the worst candidate in the race.

HISD rejects partnership idea

The die is cast.

Houston ISD trustees narrowly voted Thursday to not seek proposals from outside organizations to run long-struggling schools, a decision that keeps those campuses under local control but sets the stage for a possible state takeover of the district’s school board.

Barring an unexpected legislative or legal change, four HISD schools now must meet state academic standards in 2019 after missing the mark for four-plus consecutive years to stave off major state sanctions against the district. If any of those four schools fail to meet standard, the Texas Education Agency is legally required to replace HISD’s entire school board and appoint new members, or close still-failing schools.

HISD could have preempted any punishment for two years if the district temporarily surrendered control of the four schools to outside groups. TEA leaders have previously said they do not see closing schools as a strong option for improving student outcomes, though they have not committed to either option.

In a 5-4 vote following about an hour of debate, interrupted several times by community members who vocally opposed seeking partnerships, trustees opted against directing Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan to issue a request for proposals to take control of an undetermined number of campuses. The four campuses that have repeatedly failed to meet state standard — Highland Heights Elementary School, Henry Middle School, and Kashmere and Wheatley high schools — would have been considered for partnerships.

[…]

Trustees Wanda Adams, Diana Dávila, Jolanda Jones, Elizabeth Santos and Rhonda Skillern-Jones opposed seeking proposals. Trustees Sue Deigaard, Sergio Lira, Holly Maria Flynn Vilaseca and Anne Sung supported the option.

Well, now Mayor Turner can quit pursuing the partnership plan he had proposed. At this point, either the four schools meet standards or we will say goodbye to the Board of Trustees for some number of years. I don’t foresee a bill getting passed to change the law that mandates the consequences, though that is a possibility that is worth pursuing because there’s nothing to lose and much to gain. While I expect there will be litigation over a state takeover – if nothing else, a Voting Rights Act lawsuit over the disenfranchisement of HISD voters seems likely – that kind of action can take years and is highly unpredictable. So it’s basically up to the students and parents and teachers and administrators at those four schools now. I wish them all the very best. The Press has more.

(On a side note, Diana Davila’s 2015 victory over Juliet Stipeche sure turned out to be consequential. I haven’t asked either of her opponents from 2017 how they might have voted, but Elizabeth Santos’ election in 2017 also looms large now. I sure hope we get to have HISD Trustee elections again next year.)

Mayor moves forward with city-led school partnership

We’ll see about this.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

A nonprofit formed by city of Houston leaders may seek temporary control of up to 15 Houston ISD campuses in neighborhoods with historically low-performing schools, Mayor Sylvester Turner said Tuesday.

The nonprofit, created by Turner’s education czar and led by Turner-appointed board members, marks the city’s effort to improve academic performance at chronically low-rated schools while helping HISD stave off state sanctions tied to academic failures at some of those campuses. The director of Turner’s Office of Education Initiatives, Juliet Stipeche, unveiled several details about the nonprofit for the first time last week in an interview with the Houston Chronicle.

In a press release Tuesday, Turner added two new pieces of information to the nonprofit’s plans: The organization is eyeing control of as many as 15 schools, and six people likely will be added to the nonprofit’s current three-person governing board. The campuses likely would be clustered in a few geographic areas, where elementary and middle schools funnel students to the same high school. Turner did not name specific schools under consideration.

[…]

HISD administrators and trustees have shown little appetite for relinquishing control of district schools, though that could change as a February 2019 deadline for submitting partnership plans to the state approaches. Trustees are expected to consider and possibly vote Thursday on authorizing Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan to issue a request-for-proposal seeking potential partners, according to the posted board agenda. Lathan has said she does not believe members of the public want outside organizations running campuses, and trustees have offered relatively little public support for the idea to date.

As HISD officials have spent the past few months making few moves on the private partnership front, Stipeche and other civic advocates have worked to form a nonprofit capable of operating HISD campuses. They have worked at the behest of Turner, who has advocated for avoiding a state takeover of HISD’s school board. It is widely believed that Texas Education Agency leaders, who would decide which sanction to impose if one of the four campuses fails to meet standard, would prefer to replace HISD’s school board rather over close schools.

The group ultimately formed a nonprofit in late November called the Coalition for Educational Excellence and Equity in Houston. City officials have not released a proposal or framework for their plans to operate HISD campuses, though Stipeche said she envisions “working through a collective-impact approach to lock arms with the community, to reimagine what we can do to support our schools.” The nonprofit’s leaders have not held public meetings, though engagement with the effected communities would take place if discussions with HISD turn more serious, Stipeche said.

See here for the previous update, and here for the Mayor’s press release. I really hope HISD will indicate ASAP what their preferred direction is for this, because if the city is wasting its time it would be best to know that quickly. If not – if there is a chance this could become a viable partnership in the event something like it is needed – then the Mayor and the powers that be at CEEE need to get moving with that community engagement, because there’s already a loud group of people steadfastly opposed to the idea. I may be overestimating their presence – I mostly see this activity on the same Facebook group pages that were busy organizing and canvassing for the 2018 election – but it’s also possible that the Mayor is underestimating it. Better I be wrong than he is.

Emmett to teach at Rice

Fitting.

Ed Emmett

Outgoing Harris County judge Ed Emmett said Tuesday he will teach at Rice University, his alma mater, starting in January.

Emmett made the impromptu announcement after a Rice University undergraduate spoke during the public comment portion of Commissioners Court, when he encouraged her to sign up for his class.

“I’ll be teaching a class in the spring and two classes in the fall, and assisting the Kinder Institute on policy projects,” Emmett said.

He will be a non-tenured professor and senior fellow at the Kinder Institute for Urban Research. Though he said he looks forward to taking a step back from politics, Emmett’s first class will focus on policy topics within the Texas Legislature, which returns to Austin in January.

In an interview at his office, Emmett said Rice President David Leebron approached him last month about joining the faculty. Emmett in November lost his bid for a third full term as county judge, a position he has held since 2007.

I’m sure he’ll do a great job, and I’m sure his classes will be popular. I wonder if now that he is freed of the responsibility of governing and of being a politician, he’ll say some things in these classes that he’d always wanted to but never felt he could before. I’m sure we’ll hear about it if he does.