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Interview with Cynthia Reyes-Revilla

Cynthia Reyes-Revilla

We continue today with another interview in District H, where first-term incumbent Karla Cisneros has drawn two challengers so far (the filing deadline is Sunday, so we’ll see if there are others). Cynthia Reyes-Revilla was the first candidate to enter the race, and posted some decent fundraising numbers for the June reporting period. Reyes-Revilla is a realtor and resident of the Near Northside. She has a broad background in civic engagement, serving on PTOs and Shared Decision Making Committees at her neighborhood schools, neighborhood groups such as Near Northside Safety Committee and Northside Dawgs, and on the City of Houston Safety Committee. Here’s what we talked about:

I never did get around to creating an Election 2019 page, in part because the Erik Manning spreadsheet has it all. My roundup of July finance reports that includes District H is here, my interview with candidate Isabel Longoria is here, and my 2015 interview with CM Cisneros, then a candidate for H, is here.

Revisiting City Council redistricting

This would be interesting.

At Wednesday’s council meeting, District E Councilmember Dave Martin said the city should consider redrawing city council district boundaries, particularly in his own district.

District E includes two far-flung suburbs, Kingwood and Clear Lake. Martin said it’s a “ridiculously arranged council district” where it is difficult to coordinate meetings.

“I’ve always felt that the folks in Clear Lake do indeed deserve their own representation there, because it is tough for someone to drive 60 miles on a weekend to get to a certain area,” Martin said.

Mayor Sylvester Turner agreed with Martin’s assessment of District E.

“I will tell you it is an interesting drawing,” Turner said. “Because you certainly cannot go from Kingwood to Clear Lake for a town hall meeting, two town hall meetings.”

Turner said he would support taking a look at the map after the 2020 census.

“I don’t know what the thinking was back then,” Turner said. “But it does seem to be not in the best interest of two areas that are so geographically separated. I think it’s worth taking a look at.”

There’s a copy of the map embedded in the story, and you can also see it here, with links to individual district maps here. It’s true that District E is this two-headed amalgam of far-apart suburbs, with a bit of connecting tissue in between, but any proposed solution to address that is complicated. The problem is that the Kingwood part of E abuts District B, and the Clear Lake part borders on Districts D and I. Any redesign of the current map that would split District E into separate parts has to take into account merging a bunch of white Republicans with a bunch of black and Latinx Democrats. Even before we take Voting Rights Act requirements into consideration, I can guarantee you that a substantial number of people would be unhappy with any alternative.

What you could do is reduce the size of individual districts to be roughly the size of the Kingwood and Clear Lake pieces, then redraw the map with however many districts there would be with such smaller population requirements. That would result in a map with anywhere from 15 to 21 districts, depending on how much you padded out the two halves of E. We can debate whether that’s a good idea or a bad idea, but we’d also probably need a charter amendment to make it happen.

Personally, I’d be willing to at least explore the idea, and maybe have someone draw a few sample maps, to give a picture of what this might look like. Honestly, I think we ought to consider the same for the Legislature, where individual districts have grown in population quite a lot in recent years. This is especially true for Senate districts, which used to be smaller than Congressional districts but are now larger and will get more so in 2021 when Texas is given additional seats in Congress. It’ll never happen of course, but that doesn’t mean we should never think about it.

Interview with Isabel Longoria

Isabel Longoria

As I’ve said before, I’m going to be doing a limited set of interviews this fall, with some more likely to follow for the runoffs. (Which will then blend right into the 2020 primaries, but that’s a whole ‘nother thing.) My schedule and the sheer number of candidates don’t allow for anything more. One race that I do need to focus on is the one in my own district, District H, where two challengers have emerged against first-term incumbent CM Karla Cisneros. Isabel Longoria is someone I’ve known for a few years, through her work on the staffs of Rep. Jessica Farrar and then-Sen. Sylvia Garcia. She has also worked as a political consultant, and serves on the City of Houston’s Planning Commission, the Mayor’s LGBTQ Advisory Board, and a bunch of other things. Here’s what we talked about:

I never did get around to creating an Election 2019 page, in part because the Erik Manning spreadsheet has it all. My roundup of July finance reports that includes District H is here, and my 2015 interview with CM Cisneros, then a candidate for H, is here.

Previous interviews with current candidates

I’ve said a few times that I’m going to be doing just a few interviews this fall. I will start publishing them tomorrow. I may pick up some more for the runoffs, but for now my schedule just does not accommodate anything more than that. But! That doesn’t mean you can’t listen to past interviews with some of the people on your November ballot. Many of the people running now have run for something before, and in many of those cases I interviewed them. Here then is a list of those past interviews. The office listed next to some of them is the office they now seek, and the year in parentheses is when I spoke to them. Note that a few of these people have been interviewed more than once; in those cases, I went with the most recent conversation. Enjoy!

Mayor:

Sylvester Turner (2015)
Bill King (2015)
Dwight Boykins (2013)
Sue Lovell (2009)

Council:

Amy Peck – District A (2013)
Alvin Byrd – District B (2011)
Kendra Yarbrough Camarena – District C (2010)
Carolyn Evans-Shabazz – District D (2017)
Richard Nguyen – District F (2015)
Greg Travis – District G (2015)
Karla Cisneros – District H (2015)
Robert Gallegos – District I (2015)
Jim Bigham – District J (2015)
Edward Pollard – District J (2016)

Mike Knox – At Large #1 (2013)
Georgia Provost – At Large #1 (2013)
David Robinson – At Large #2 (2015)
Michael Kubosh – At Large #3 (2013)
Letitia Plummer – At Large #4 (2018)

Controller:

Chris Brown – City Controller (2015)

HISD:

Sergio Lira – District III (2015)
Jolanda Jones – District IV (2015)
Judith Cruz – District VIII

HCC:

Monica Flores Richart – District 1 (2017)
Rhonda Skillern-Jones – District 2 (2015)

July 2019 campaign finance reports: Open City Council seats, part 2

We come down to the last three open Council seats to examine, all the result of term-limited incumbents. The first post, with Districts A, B, and C, is here, and the rest of the non-Mayoral races is here. As before, my look at the January 2019 finance reports for Houston candidates is here, and all of the finance reports that I have downloaded and reviewed are in this Google folder. Except for the reports that were filed non-electronically, which you can find here. Erik Manning’s invaluable spreadsheet remains my source for who’s in what race.

Anthony Allen – District D
Rashad Cave – District D
Marlon Christian – District D
Jeremy Darby – District D
Carolyn Evans-Shabazz – District D
Dennis Griffin – District D
Nissi Hamilton – District D
Brad Jordan – District D
Travis McGee – District D
Dontrell Montgomery – District D
Kenyon Moore – District D
Jerome Provost – District D

Van Huynh – District F
Anthony Nelson – District F
Giang “John” Nguyen – District F
Richard Nguyen – District F
Tiffany Thomas – District F
Jesus Zamora – District F

Nelvin Adriatico – District J
Barry Curtis – District J
Jim Bigham – District J
Federico “Freddie” Cuellar – District J
Edward Pollard – District J
Sandra Rodriguez – District J

Sallie Alcorn – At Large #5
Brad Batteau – At Large #5
Jamaal Boone – At Large #5
Catherine Flowers – At Large #5
Ralph Garcia – At Large #5
Marvin McNeese – At Large #5
Sonia Rivera – At Large #5
Ashton Woods – At Large #5


Candidate     Raised      Spent     Loan     On Hand
====================================================
Allen
Cave
Christian
Darby
E-Shabazz     4,000       3,715        0       1,468
Griffin         500         125        0         375
Hamilton        320         120        0         200
Jordan       37,804       2,703        0      35,100
McGee
Montgomery
Moore
Provost

Huynh
Nelson         3,845      1,451        0       2,393
G Nguyen      20,250          8        0      20,241
R Nguyen
Thomas        23,441      2,381        0      21,059
Zamora           323        426        0           0

Adriatico     31,807     30,079        0      10,108
Curtis           505          0        0         505
Bigham
Cuellar       19,880      9,351   18,437      10,628
Pollard       66,208     30,774   20,000      45,406
Rodriguez     12,997      3,272        0       9,608

Alcorn       204,247     75,393        0     252,366
Batteau
Boone              0          0        0           0
Flowers       13,543      9,918        0       3,700
Garcia             0          0        0           0
McNeese       23,100     45,893   30,000       7,206
Rivera         2,260      3,895    1,695           0
Woods 

Most of the District D contenders entered the race after Dwight Boykins announced his candidacy for Mayor, so it’s not too surprising that many of them have no report filed. As such, and given that they’re almost all first-time candidates, it’s hard to guess who may be viable. If you dangled me off a bridge I’d pick HCC Trustee Carolyn Evans-Shabazz and former Geto Boy Brad Jordan as the two most likely to make it to a runoff, but that’s in the absence of a lot of information. Ask me again when the 30 day reports are posted, especially if Boykins has not retreated back to this race. Jordan got a lot of press when he announced his entry into the race, and did this interview in June (which I have to say doesn’t raise my esteem for him), and has a domain with a placeholder webpage at this time.

Districts F and J are racially diverse, low-turnout places where it can be hard to get a handle on who’s actually a contender. The last four Council members in F have all been Asian Americans, with the three most recent being Vietnamese, but there’s no reason why that has to be the case. Money is a weak indicator as well, with Richard Nguyen coming out of nowhere to beat then-incumbent Al Hoang, who supplemented his own fundraising, in 2013. He was then defeated by Steve Le in 2015. Tiffany Thomas is a former Alief ISD Trustee, making her the most successful of the candidates with past experience running for office. Jim Bigham ran against term-limited incumbent Mike Laster in 2015, while Edward Pollard unsuccessfully challenged State Rep. Gene Wu in the 2016 Democratic primary. (If you click that link, you will see that there was some ugliness in that race.) Nelvin Adriatico, who filed a report in January, was one of the first candidates for any office to appear on the scene, while Anthony Nelson is among the multitude of younger candidates on the ballot this year.

For At Large #5, it sure looks like it’s Sallie Alcorn and everyone else. She put up big numbers in January as well. Money is less of an issue in district races, where you can knock on a bunch of doors and visit all the civic clubs and neighborhood associations and whatnot and put yourself in front of most of your voters that way. For At Large you need other ways to let people know that you exist as a candidate, and nearly all of them require money. The other way is to run for something every election so that people eventually recognize your name even though you don’t do any actual campaigning. This is the Brad Batteau strategy, and much like the maybe-absent (but don’t say that out loud till the filing deadline) Griff Griffin it will get you some votes. Activist Ashton Woods, the only other AL5 candidate I’m familiar with, filed a correction affidavit on July 23 attesting that server issues on July 15 caused an error the submission of his finance report. I presume that means another report will be posted, but as yet I don’t see it. Alcorn is former Chief of Staff to Steve Costello and has done a lot of other things with the city as well.

Lastly, in searching for a website relating to Carolyn Evans-Shabazz’s Council candidacy (she has a Facebook page but not a website as far as I could tell), I stumbled across this delightful interview she did with four young children when she was a candidate for At Large #5 in 2013. There are other such interviews running through the 2015 election. The BigKidSmallCity domain those were a part of is now redirecting here, so I’m guessing there won’t be more of these conversations, but let me just say that if there is one thing that we could really use right now, it’s this. Please, Jill B. Jarvis, do this again. Thanks very much.

July 2019 campaign finance reports: Open City Council seats, part 1

There are seven more Council races to examine, all open seats thanks to a couple of incumbents either stepping down (Steve Le in F) or running for something else (Dwight Boykins in D, at least for now). I’m going to split these into two posts, with Districts A, B, and C in this one. A look at the Council races with incumbents, plus the Controller’s race, is here. As before, my look at the January 2019 finance reports for Houston candidates is here, and all of the finance reports that I have downloaded and reviewed are in this Google folder. Except for the reports that were filed non-electronically, which you can find here. Erik Manning’s invaluable spreadsheet remains my source for who’s in what race.

Amy Peck – District A
Mehdi Cherkaoui – District A
Iesheia Ayers-Wilson – District A

Robin Anderson – District B
Cynthia Bailey – District B
Patricia Bourgeois – District B
Alvin Byrd – District B
Karen Kossie-Chernyshev – District B
William Dennis – District B
Tarsha Jackson – District B
James Joseph – District B
Alice Kirkmon – District B
Alyson Quintana – District B
Renee Jefferson Smith – District B
Rickey Tezino – District B
Ben White, Jr – District B
Huey Wilson – District B

Kendra Yarbrough Camarena – District C
Candelario Cervantez – District C
Anthony Dolcefino – District C
Rodney Hill – District C
Abbie Kamin – District C
Shelley Kennedy – District C
Greg Meyers – District C
Bob Nowak – District C
Daphne Scarbrough – District C
Mary Jane Smith – District C
Kevin Walker – District C
Amanda Kathryn Wolfe – District C


Candidate     Raised      Spent     Loan     On Hand
====================================================
Peck          31,697     15,122    5,000      20,185
Cherkaoui     11,500      8,681    8,000       2,818
Ayers-Wilson

Anderson      1,465         820        0         540
Bailey        7,400       3,787        0       3,612
Bourgeois
Byrd         15,809      10,731    2,500       7,195
K-Chernyshev
Dennis        1,000           0        0       1,000
Jackson      24,813       5,306        0      20,787
Joseph
Kirkmon
Quintana     10,868       4,632        0       6,505
Smith        53,167      27,958        0      25,208
Tezino
White
Wilson

Camarena     13,638          12        0      13,625
Cervantez     1,954          46        0       1,908
Dolcefino     2,836           0        0       1,750
Hill
Kamin       175,490      44,557        0     141,382
Kennedy      39,651      40,600	       0       6,677
Meyers       25,722      10,004   20,000      34,297
Nowak        13,186       8,697        0       4,488
Scarbrough   31,195       5,849        0      22,195
Smith        58,906      20,696        0      38,209
Walker
Wolfe            63          43        0          20

District A is pretty straightforward. Amy Peck, currently the Chief of Staff for incumbent Brenda Stardig and a two-time candidate (2009 and 2013) before this, is the seeming front-runner. She’s the fundraising leader and there are no other brand-name Republicans in this race for an open Republican seat, which when you look at the field size in basically every other open seat race is kind of a miracle. That said, her haul so far is hardly a deterrent, and there’s still a few weeks for anyone on the fence to jump in. If the election were today, I’d make her the solid favorite. Ask me again after the filing deadline.

District B is always a fascinating mixture of experienced candidates with solid backgrounds and resumes, perennials and gadflies, and intriguing outsiders who could upend the conventional wisdom. Alvin Byrd has been Chief of Staff to two different Council members. Tarsha Jackson was a force with the Texas Organizing Project with a long record of advocacy on criminal justice issues. Cynthia Bailey is a longtime civic activist who’s leading efforts to fight illegal dumping and clean up trash. Renee Jefferson Smith had a day named for her by City Council following her Harvey recovery work. And of course, there’s Willie D of the Geto Boys. He joined the race too late to do any fundraising; the others I named account for the bulk of what has been raised, with Smith in the lead. There are some great candidates running here in a race that won’t get much attention outside the district. That’s a shame.

The district that will get most of the attention, only partly because about half of all the candidates running for anything are here, is district C. Abbie Kamin is the fundraising powerhouse by far, but it’s a big field and it won’t take that much to make it to the inevitable runoff. Kamin is an advocate for voting rights and refugees and generally makes you wonder what you’ve done with your entire life when you look and she what she’s done so far. This is a purple district with a roughly even mix of Republican and Democratic candidates, with Kamin, 2010 candidate for HD138 Kendra Yarbrough Camarena, and entrpreneur/activist Shelley Kennedy as the leading contenders in the latter group. (Nick Hellyar was there with them till he moved to the At Large #4 race.)

Mary Jane Smith is the leading fundraiser among the Republican candidates. Interestingly, her bio notes her political activism and campaign experience, but doesn’t say which party she’s been active with. That’s easy enough to figure out with a little Google searching, but I do find it curious that she wouldn’t fly her flag proudly on her own webpage. (Also, too, if you were a power broker in the last election for a county party chair, you aren’t an “outsider” in any meaningful political sense.) Anyway, Greg Meyers is a former HISD Trustee who ran against State Rep. Hubert Vo a few years ago, and Daphne Scarbrough (you can find her webpage yourself) is a longtime anti-Metro zealot. And yes, Anthony Dolcefino is the son of Wayne. You can’t say there aren’t choices in this race. I’ll fill you in on the rest tomorrow.

Consent decree to fix sewers approved

As we have discussed before, there are concerns about how the extra cost of this decree will affect low-income residents.

Houston is facing a federal mandate to upgrade its embattled sanitary sewer system, stirring concerns among advocates and civic leaders that the estimated $2 billion bill — and the higher rates required to pay it — could overburden low-income families.

The average city sewer bill already exceeds what the Environmental Protection Agency considers affordable for more than 113,500 Houston families, Houston Public Works and Census Bureau data show. That could rise to more than a quarter of all Houston households if sewer costs increase by 19 percent.

Such a hike is unlikely to happen overnight, but the average city water bill has risen 17 percent in the last six years via annual increases for inflation alone.

Mayor Sylvester Turner has not said how much bills are expected to rise as a result of the consent decree, citing a pending rate study, but repeatedly has said costs will remain “well below” the EPA threshold.

Experts, however, say that guideline — which aims to keep annual sewer charges below 2 percent of the citywide median household income — has been “discredited” in large part because it obscures the burden on poor families.

In Houston, for instance, sewer charges could more than double and still remain below the EPA threshold. That is in part because the city’s rates today are modest: A 2017 American Water Works Association report ranked Houston’s average bills and their affordability roughly in the middle of the nation’s 25 largest cities.

“The intellectual case for using median household income as the exclusive determinant of affordability has collapsed,” said Tracy Mehan, AWWA director of government affairs. “What about the employment rate? What about the 50 percent of the population that’s ignored at median levels?”

Adam Krantz, CEO of the National Association of Clean Water Agencies, of which Houston is a member, agreed.

“There is really very little underpinning that 2 percent,” he said. “That being said, it’s what has driven consent decrees in virtually every major city across the country. This needs to be done on a more sensitive basis in terms of what really is affordable.”

[…]

A 2016 Houston Chronicle analysis found that neighborhoods most likely to experience sewer spills were disproportionately home to low-income and minority residents, and 77016 matches that. The area — where 97 percent of residents are black or Hispanic and the median income is a third lower than the citywide figure — tallied the third-highest count of spills from 2009 to 2016.

“Separate and apart from the consent decree, we need to address SSOs (sanitary sewer overflows),” Turner said last week. “And there’s no question many of those SSOs are occurring in low-income, minority neighborhoods.”

See here, here, and here for the background. I don’t know how to address the issue of what poorer people are charged, but past studies suggest that a more strongly tiered rate structure that charged high-volume water users more proportionally would be a good starting point. Maybe spend some money helping low-income people conserve water and thus keep their bills as low as possible. No matter what, this is a long-overdue step, and the benefit of reducing sewer spills will go heavily to those same neighborhoods. We just need to help mitigate the negative effects on them. Council has officially approved the agreement, so now is the time to figure the rest of this out.

July 2019 campaign finance reports: Incumbents and challengers for Council and Controller

Let me start by saying that I began this post before Amanda Edwards became a candidate for Senate. I’m going to keep the AL4 race in here, in part to include Edwards’ June report totals, and in part because I’m just stubborn that way. I did add in the candidates who have jumped into AL4, so this is as up to date as I am. Feel free to tell me who I’ve missed.

As before, my look at the January 2019 finance reports for Houston candidates is here, and all of the finance reports that I have downloaded and reviewed are in this Google folder. Except for the reports that were filed non-electronically, which you can find here. Erik Manning’s invaluable spreadsheet remains my source for who’s in what race.

Dave Martin – District E
Sam Cleveland – District E
Ryan Lee – District E

Greg Travis – District G

Karla Cisneros – District H
Isabel Longoria – District H
Cynthia Reyes-Revilla – District H

Robert Gallegos – District I
Rick Gonzales – District I

Martha Castex-Tatum – District K

Mike Knox – At Large #1
Michelle Bonton – At Large #1
Georgia Provost – At Large #1
Raj Salhotra – At Large #1

David Robinson – At Large #2
Willie Davis – At Large #2
Emily Detoto – At Large #2

Michael Kubosh – At Large #3
Janaeya Carmouche – At Large #3
Marcel McClinton – At Large #3
Goku Sankar – At Large #3

Amanda Edwards – At Large #4
Christel Bastida – At Large #4
Tiko Reynolds-Hausman – At Large #4
Ericka McCrutcheon – At Large #4
Jason Rowe – At Large #4
Nick Hellyar – At Large #4
Letitia Plummer – At Large #4

Chris Brown – Controller
Amparo Gasca – Controller


Candidate     Raised      Spent     Loan     On Hand
====================================================
Martin        49,450     18,939        0     151,184
Cleveland
Lee

Travis        68,234     15,749   21,000     131,691

Cisneros      54,325      8,959        0     109,471
Longoria
R-Revilla     19,408      1,859        0      17,130

Gallegos      65,100     25,016        0     145,090
Gonzales         400      3,627    3,510         400

C-Tatum       37,200     13,664        0      40,128

Knox          40,295     45,555        0      41,171
Bonton
Provost
Salhotra     220,377     30,340        0     178,539

Robinson      88,616     27,043        0     262,221
Davis         10,250      3,051    3,000         807
Detoto         2,600      2,660      500         439

Kubosh        43,875     20,319  276,000     122,870
Carmouche      8,950      5,397    1,000       3,706
McClinton     25,823     21,739        0       8,675
Sankar

Edwards       73,807     42,179        0     192,791
Bastida        1,103         51      200         750
R-Hausman
McCrutcheon    5,100      7,225    5,000
Rowe               0          0        0           0
Hellyar       37,017     34,446        0      20,501
Plummer       64,519     36,356        0      43,795

Brown         66,611     36,522   75,000     234,350
Gasca

I know Tiko Reynolds-Hausman and Isabel Longoria entered their races in July, so they have no reports yet. That may be true for some others as well, but if so I’m not aware of them.

Let’s get the easy ones out of the way first. Greg Travis and Martha Castex-Tatum don’t have opponents. Chris Brown, Dave Martin, and Robert Gallegos may as well not have them, either. I know, there’s still a few months to go before the election, but none of the purported challengers appear to be doing much. Heck, only Sam Cleveland even has a website, though Ryan Lee and Rick Gonzales do at least have Facebook pages. So yeah, nothing to see here.

David Robinson and Michael Kubosh have opponents who have been a bit more active – Willie Davis is a repeat candidate, having run in 2015 against Robinson – but so far don’t appear to pose too much of a threat.

The threat to Karla Cisneros is greater, and potentially severe. I’ve already seen a couple of signs for her opponents in my neighborhood, and while Isabel Longoria hasn’t had a chance to post a finance report yet, Cynthia Reyes-Revilla’s totals are OK. Not terrifying if you’re the incumbent, but not nothing. Keep this one in your back pocket, and we’ll revisit when the 30 day reports are posted.

Had Amanda Edwards decided to stay in Houston and run for re-election, I’d have grouped her with the not-really-challenged incumbents. With AL4 now an open seat, and the field likely to expand further (*checks the Manning spreadsheet one last time to make sure no one else has entered the race*), it’s also open in the sense that there’s no clear frontrunner. Nick Hellyar and Letitia Plummer, who had started out in other races, have the early fundraising lead, but not enough to present a significant obstacle. Hellyar has picked up multiple endorsements from current and former elected officials, which ought to boost his coffers, but we’ll see what that means in practice. We really don’t know anything about this race right now.

And then there’s At Large #1. If you knew nothing about this election and I told you that Raj Salhotra was the incumbent and Mike Know was a challenger, you’d believe me based on their numbers. I can’t recall the last time an incumbent was so thoroughly outclassed in this regard. That’s great for Salhotra, whose biggest challenge isn’t Knox as much as it is Georgia Provost, who nudged past four better-funded candidates as well as ultra-perennial candidate Griff Griffin to make it into the runoff in 2015. She’s going to get her share of votes, especially if the voters don’t know the other candidates on the ballot. Salhotra is well on his way to having the resources to run a sufficient citywide campaign and introduce himself to the electorate. In what should be a prelude to another runoff, he just needs to finish in the top two. So far, so good.

I’ll break up the open seat races into two or three more posts. Did I mention there were a crap-ton of candidates this year? Let me know what you think.

An update on the races in HISD and HCC

As you know, there’s been a lot of action not just in the Houston City Council races but also in the 2020 election races. That doesn’t mean things have been dull in HISD and HCC, which of course have elections this November as well. I’m going to bring you up to date on who’s doing what in HISD and HCC, which as always deserve more attention than they usually get. We will refer to the Erik Manning spreadsheet for the names, though there will be some detours and some plot twists. Settle in and let’s get started.

There are four HISD Trustees up for election this cycle: Rhonda Skillern-Jones (district II), Sergio Lira (III), Jolanda Jones (IV), and Diana Davila (VIII). Lira, running for his first full term after winning in 2017 to succeed the late Manuel Rodriguez. He has no declared opponent at this time.

Rhonda Skillern-Jones has decided to step down from HISD and is now running for HCC Trustee in District 2. That’s the district currently held by the execrable Dave Wilson. (Hold that thought for a moment.) Her jump to HCC has been known for about a week, but as yet no candidate has emerged to announce a run in HISD II. I’m sure that will happen soon.

Diana Davila is being challenged by Judith Cruz, who ran for this same seat in 2010 after Davila’s abrupt departure when she was first an HISD Trustee; Cruz lost the Juliet Stipeche, who was then defeated by Davila in a return engagement in 2015. Davila has been at the center of much of the recent chaos on the Board, especially the disputes over interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan. I would expect that to be part of this campaign.

Jolanda Jones has two challengers for what would be her second term on the Board. One is perennial candidate Larry McKinzie, the other is Matt Barnes, a career educator with some charter school experience that I’m sure won’t cause any issues at all for anyone in this election. Ahem. A possible complicating factor here (we do love complicating factors) is that there has been chatter about Jones running for City Council again, this time in District D. It’s not the first time that this possibility has arisen. To be clear, as far as I know and unlike that other time, Jolanda Jones herself has not said anything about running for Council. This is 100% speculation based on other people talking about it, which I as an irresponsible non-journalist am mentioning without bothering to check for myself. I do that in part because it allows me to dredge up the past discussion we had about whether the term limits law that existed in 2012 would have allowed Jones to run for Council again, and from there to pivot to whether the same questions apply to the updated term limits law. Jones served two two-year terms and would hypothetically be running for a third and final term, which would be for four years. Council members who were first elected in 2011, such as Jack Christie, got to serve a total of eight years via this mechanism, and because the updated term limits law that was ratified by voters in 2015 was written to exempt current Council members who were not on their third terms. Would that also cover a former Council member who had served two terms? I have no idea, but if the question became relevant, I feel confident that lawyers and courtrooms would quickly become involved, and we’d eventually get an answer. See why this was irresistible to me? Anyway, all of this is probably for nothing, but I had fun talking about it and I hope you did, too.

Now for HCC. There are three HCC Trustees whose terms are up: Zeph Capo (District 1), the aforementioned Dave Wilson (District 2), and Neeta Sane (District 7). We’ll start with Sane, whose district covers part of Fort Bend County. She is running for Fort Bend County Tax Assessor in 2020 (she had previously run for FBC Treasurer in 2006, before winning her first term on the HCC Board), and while she could run for re-election in HCC first, she appears to not be doing so. Erik’s spreadsheet has no candidate in this slot at this time.

Zeph Capo is also not running for re-election. His job with the Texas AFT will be taking him to Austin, so he is stepping down. In his place is Monica Flores Richart, who had run for HISD Trustee in my district in 2017. Capo is Richart’s campaign treasurer, so that’s all very nice and good.

And that’s where this gets complicated. Dave Wilson is the lone Trustee of these three who is running in 2019. He is not, however, running for re-election in District 2. He is instead running in District 1, where I’m guessing he thinks he’ll have a chance of winning now that the voters in District 2 are aware he’s a conservative white Republican and not a black man or the cousin of former State Rep. Ron Wilson. I’m sure Rhonda Skillern-Jones would have wiped the floor with him, but now he’s running for an open seat. He won’t have the same cover of stealth this time, though. You can help by supporting Monica Flores Richart and by making sure everyone you know knows about this race and what a turd Dave Wilson is. Don’t let him get away with this.

(Hey, remember the big legal fight over Wilson’s residency following his fluke 2013 election, and how he insisted that the warehouse he moved into was his real home? So much for that. I assume he has another warehouse to occupy, which is totally fine because our state residency laws are basically meaningless.)

Finally, while their terms are not up, there are two other HCC Trustees who are seeking other offices and thus may cause further vacancies. Eva Loredo, the trustee in District 8, has filed a designation of treasurer to run for Justice of the Peace in Precinct 6 next March, while current Board chair Carolyn Evans-Shabazz in District 4 is now a candidate for City Council District D. If Wilson loses (please, please, please) and these two win theirs we could have five new members within the next year and a half, which would be a majority of the nine-member Board. The Board would appoint replacements for Evans-Shabazz and/or Loredo if they resign following a victory in their other elections, and there would then be an election for the remainder of their terms. I will of course keep an eye on that. In the meantime, if you can fill in any of the blanks we’ve discussed here, please leave a comment.

Amanda Edwards joins the Senate race

And then there were three, with a fourth likely to follow and a fifth out there as a possibility.

CM Amanda Edwards

Houston City Councilwoman Amanda Edwards announced Thursday morning she is running for U.S. Senate, joining an increasingly crowded primary to challenge Republican John Cornyn.

It will be a campaign against several Democratic rivals and, possibly, a three-term incumbent whose reelection war chest tops $9 million. But should Edwards win, she would be the first African American Texan to serve in the U.S. Senate.

“As a woman, as an African American, as a millennial — and in certainly as someone who generally … believes in solutions and not just rhetoric — I think I’m going to be the candidate that can do the job,” she said in an interview with The Texas Tribune, emphasizing the need for a nominee who can persuade voters to vote Democratic but also “galvanize our base.”

Edwards, who had been considering a run since at least March, is finishing her first term as an at-large City Council member after being elected in 2015. She said she does not plan to run for a second term in November but will serve out her term, which ends in December.

Edwards launched her bid with a video, set to drum-line music, that reflected on her family’s middle-class struggles and highlighted a key part of her council tenure — the Hurricane Harvey recovery. Over images of Martin Luther King Jr. and Ann Richards, Edwards appealed to “all of the people who have ever been locked out or told that they can’t wait or to wait their turn because the status quo or establishment was not ready for change.”

[…]

So far, Cornyn’s most serious Democratic challenger has been MJ Hegar, the 2018 U.S. House candidate and retired Air Force helicopter pilot. She launched her bid in late April and raised over $1 million through the second quarter.

Since then, another Democrat, Chris Bell, the former Houston congressman and 2006 gubernatorial nominee, has entered the primary, and some progressive operatives have mobilized to try to draft top Latina organizer Cristina Tzintzún Ramirez into the race.

As the story notes, State Sen. Royce West is set to make an announcement on Monday, which is widely expected to be his own entrance into the race. If Edwards’ announcement, which I at least wasn’t expecting, was intended to steal some of West’s thunder, then kudos to her for doing so. I admit I’d been skeptical about Edwards’ intentions, as there had been a lot of “Edwards is considering” mentions in other stories but very few direct reports about her, but here she is.

Edwards anticipates raising $5 million for the primary, and “potentially you’re looking at several million dollars” for the general election, she said. Over and over, she stressed that the Senate race could be nationalized.

“I think with the general, however, this will be a national phenomenon because people will recognize Texas is such a key piece” to changing the direction of the country, she said.

She told the Tribune that she has met with U.S. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer — as did Hegar and West — and had “very, very positive discussions” with him and the Senate Democratic campaign arm. She suggested another heavyweight group, EMILY’s List, which works to elect Democratic women who support abortion rights, is “very much looking at this and looking to get involved in this race.”

“I think they’re very, very excited to see Texas flip, and they’re going to spend resources” to make it happen, Edwards said of national Democrats’ interest in the race.

I imagine EMILY’s List is happy with these developments, though now they’ll either have to pick a favorite among the female candidates or wait till one of them (hopefully) wins and then get involved. As for Edwards, five million is a decent sum for the primary, but the target for November has to be a lot higher than that. John Cornyn is not going to be outraised like Ted Cruz was.

One more thing, from the Chron:

Though she began mulling a run for Senate months ago, Edwards waited to join the race until city council approved Houston’s budget for the fiscal year that began July 1. Edwards serves as vice chair of the city budget committee and helmed several department budget workshops in chairman Dave Martin’s absence.

Edwards’ city campaign account had about $193,000 cash on hand through the end of June. She cannot transfer the money to her Senate campaign, though she may send unspent campaign funds back to donors and ask them to re-contribute.

That helps explain the timeline. With Edwards not running for re-election, the At Large #4 seat is now open, the eighth open seat on Council this election, joining Districts A, B, C, D (for now, at least), F, J, and At Large #5. The impact has already been felt in the field of candidates for AL4. There were four challengers at the start of the week – Christel Bastida, Tiko Reynolds-Hausman, Ericka McCrutcheon, and Jason Rowe – and now there are six, with Nick Hellyar moving over from District C and Letitia Plummer swapping out from AL5. Don’t be surprised if that field grows further, too. We live in exciting times. The DMN has more.

Here come the youths

There are a lot of younger candidates running for Houston City Council this year.

Raj Salhotra

Inspired by the recent electoral success of millennial and Generation Z-aged candidates, more young people are running for Houston city council than ever before, a trend local politicos attribute to the potent national surge of activism stemming largely from President Trump’s election in 2016.

In last year’s midterm election, many of those new, young activists ran for office and won. Since the election, 29-year-old U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has become one of the Democratic Party’s most prominent voices, while locally 28-year-old Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo has led a dramatic political shift on Commissioners Court, which flipped to Democratic control for the first time in decades.

“I think we have to acknowledge the success in the 2018 cycle of millennials and very young candidates,” said education consultant Jay Aiyer, who served as former Mayor Lee Brown’s chief of staff at age 29.

A handful of candidates younger than 30, and at least a dozen more in their 30s, are seeking seats this year on Houston city council, the legislative body for the country’s fourth-largest city. Though council members have little formal power in Houston’s strong-mayor form of government, they approve an annual city budget north of $5 billion and handle constituent services for districts comprised of around 200,000 residents.

Among the youngest contenders are 18-year-old Marcel McClinton, a shooting survivor-turned-activist running for one of five at-large positions; 21-year-old Anthony Dolcefino, a candidate for District C; 24-year-old District D candidate Dennis Griffin; and 29-year-old Anthony Nelson, a Prairie View A&M University student running for District F.

[…]

Raj Salhotra, 28, is one of three candidates challenging At-Large 1 Councilman Mike Knox, a former police officer who is seeking a second four-year term. Also running are Michelle Bonton and Georgia Provost.

Salhotra is calling for the city to offer universal prekindergarten and more public transit, enforce more regulations on “pollutant-emitting plants” and require all new city vehicles be hybrid or electric.

Meanwhile, Knox repeatedly has pushed for the city to rein in what he calls “frivolous spending,” and to focus on core services — public safety, infrastructure, trash pickup — before thinking about anything else.

“The citizens of Houston want our government to spend money wisely and efficiently, and get the biggest bang for our buck,” Knox said. “My votes are designed to help the city stop its overspending habits and get back to focusing on our core responsibilities, and thereby staying within our means.”

Salhotra criticized Knox for, among other things, voting not to join a lawsuit challenging Texas’ anti-“sanctuary cities” law, and called Knox “really out of step with what the vast majority of Houstonians believe in.” Salhotra’s own policy views, he said, are rooted partly in his age.

“I think a lot about, how are the policies we put in place today affecting the next 30, 40, 50 years in Houston?” Salhotra said. “Because I’m going to be living here for the next 60 years of my life, God willing.”

[…]

The race for District C, which includes Montrose, Meyerland and Braeswood, has emerged as the most crowded contest: Thirteen people are running to succeed Cohen, who recently endorsed 32-year-old Abbie Kamin. Other candidates include Candelario Cervantez, 36, Nick Hellyar, 38, and the 21-year-old Dolcefino, son of former KTRK reporter Wayne Dolcefino.

“We’re living in a serious time, we’re at a critical juncture in this city, and certainly in the country, and it’s going to take everyone to be active and fighting — of all age groups,” Kamin said.

As is always the case, some of these candidates are more serious than others, and thus more likely to succeed than others. I’m starting to look through the campaign finance reports, which will give one indicator of how these and other candidates are doing. Turn your nose up however you like at the notion of fundraising being a proxy for candidate seriousness, the fact remains that it’s hard to get elected if no one knows who you are, and getting your name into the minds of voters doesn’t happen by magic or wishful thinking. It costs money to run a campaign, and that money has to come from somewhere.

Be that as it may, there’s another dynamic at play here that needs to be discussed. Historically speaking, at least, the voters in our city elections are old. How old? Here’s some research I did in 2015, which I’m just going to reprint here, as I think the numbers speak for themselves:


2013 voters

Range    Number    Pct
======================
18-30     9,786   5.6%
31-40    15,209   8.7%
41-50    23,508  13.5%
51-60    40,235  23.1%
61+      85,393  49.0%


2011 voters

Range    Number    Pct
======================
18-30     5,939   5.0%
31-40     9,488   8.1%
41-50    17,126  14.5%
51-60    28,601  24.3%
61+      56,664  48.1%


2009 voters

Range    Number    Pct
======================
18-30    10,021   5.7%
31-40    16,798   9.6%
41-50    29,664  16.9%
51-60    43,814  25.0%
61+      74,730  42.7%


2007 voters

Range    Number    Pct
======================
18-30     5,791   5.0%
31-40    10,599   9.2%
41-50    21,090  18.4%
51-60    28,633  24.9%
61+      48,728  42.4%

So yeah, when between two-thirds and three-fourths of your voters are over the age of 50 (a group that includes me now), it’s going to be that much more of a challenge for 20-something and even 30-something candidates to be taken seriously. It can be done – judging by the year of her college graduation as shown on her LinkedIn page, CM Amanda Edwards was 33 when she was elected in 2015 – but it’s a hurdle that older candidates don’t face. Let me know when someone writes a story about that.

Now of course, this calculus can be changed to some extent by simply getting more young voters to the polls. I don’t have the data for 2018, but there’s plenty of evidence nationally that younger voters were a larger part of that electorate than they were in 2016, and much more so than in 2014. That only goes so far, of course – there are only so many people between the ages of 18 and 40, let alone registered voters, let alone actual voters – and turning them out at a higher rate is much, much easier said than done. Perhaps some of the 2018 energy will carry over – I’d expect it to have some effect, though not much – but the fact remains that the regular, reliable voters are the ones who largely determine these elections. That’s the task all of these candidates, of any age, have before them. Good luck.

(Is it just me, or does everyone else always hear the word “youths” spoken in the voice of Joe Pesci?)

Royce West looks ready to announce

Mark your calendars.

Sen. Royce West

Royce West is one step closer to running against Republican incumbent Sen. John Cornym.

The Dallas Democrat has announced a news conference for July 22, where he’s widely expected to launch a campaign for Senate. The longtime state senator would join a Democratic Party primary that already includes former Air Force helicopter pilot MJ Hegar of Round Rock and former U.S. Rep. Chris Bell of Houston. And Houston council member Amanda Edwards is considering mounting a campaign as well.

[…]

West, 66, has hinted at a campaign against Cornyn for months, but has not officially gotten into the race.

He’ll make an announcement at 10 a.m., July 22 and Democratic Party headquarters in Dallas, according to a sign-up link on a website he’s developed for the occasion.

West has represented Texas Senate District 23 since 1993. He’s also a prominent Dallas attorney and one of the leading Democratic Party voices in the state.

See here and here for the background. As the story notes, the field now includes Chris Bell, with Amanda Edwards still on the periphery. I don’t know what if any timetable Edwards has beyond the late August filing deadline for Houston races, but I do know that another candidate for Edwards’ Council seat has emerged (*), so perhaps the consensus opinion is that this is about to be an open seat. My guess is that with West more or less formally in, we’ll hear something one way or the other from Edwards soon. But I’ve also been guessing that for awhile now, so take it with a sufficient quantity of salt.

(*) In the spirit of disclosure, AL #4 candidate Tiko Reynolds-Hausman is a friend of mine. I’ve served on two PTA boards with her, and her daughter and our elder daughter have been classmates and friends for years.

We have a consent decree

It appears to be a done deal.

Houston would add $2 billion to its planned sewer system improvements over the next 15 years under a proposed deal with state and federal regulators that is expected to produce higher water bills as soon as next year.

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

Rather than sue the city over these long-running problems, the EPA initiated negotiations nearly a decade ago, hoping to produce a “consent decree” specifying projects and procedures Houston would use to reduce spills by upgrading pipes, improving maintenance and educating the public on how to avoid clogging the city’s more than 6,000 miles of sewers, 390 lift stations and 39 treatment plants.

Mayor Sylvester Turner announced Tuesday that talks have been completed; his office expects the item to reach a city council vote as early as July 17.

“It’s good for the city of Houston,” Turner said. “I am proud to have resolved this long-standing problem in a way that will fix problems that have challenged our city for decades and will bring enhanced services to future ratepayers for decades to come.”

The deal would prioritize fixes in nine areas that experience voluminous spills during rainstorms. In an effort to reduce the more numerous spills that are a chronic problem when the skies are clear, the agreement would mandate a more aggressive schedule for assessing and repairing the city’s sewer system.

Houston also would commit to clean and inspect its 127,000 manholes and 5,500 miles of gravity-driven pipes every decade, to carry out more preventative cleanings in problem areas, and to emphasize its program to educate residents not to pour grease, oil and other fats down the drain.

[…]

It is unclear how much water bills would rise as a result of the federal decree. The city has begun a rate study that will incorporate the consent decree and other factors and suggest new rates to take effect in July 2020.

Some council members were told in preliminary briefings this spring that rates would rise about 4 percent in each year of the agreement, resulting in an increase of more than 70 percent by the end of the 15-year term, though Turner professed ignorance at that figure Tuesday. Other cities under comparable decrees, including San Antonio, will double their rates during their agreements.

Turner stressed that the projected overall cost of the deal is “substantially less” than the $5 billion to $7 billion the EPA was demanding in the Obama administration’s final year.

Despite the mayor holding a news conference to announce the agreement, the Turner administration considers the decree confidential, distributing it only to the elected council members and topping it with a memo that mentions fines for those who disclose its contents.

See here, here, and here for the background. I don’t understand the reason for keeping the decree secret. I’ll be happy if Council pushes back against that. As for water rates going up as a result, well, we should have been doing this a long time ago, and last I checked fixing broken things isn’t free. I’ll say again, how much is a lower level of fecal bacteria in your water worth to you? It’s worth a gradually increasing water bill to me.

Yeah, scooters are going to come to Houston

The question is when, not if.

Photo: Josie Norris /San Antonio Express-News

[E]ven though there’s a growing interest in alternate forms of transportation, you still can’t rent a scooter in Houston.

Maria Irshad, assistant director of the City of Houston’s Parking Division, said Houston’s infrastructure has had a lot to do with the lack of scooters. But with the development of new on-street bike lanes that may be starting to change.

“One thing Houston is doing, we’re taking a really cautious and deliberate approach to developing a program,” said Irshad. “So we’re watching what other cities do because this is a rapidly evolving form of transportation.”

[…]

Joe Deshotel is Texas Community Affairs Director for Lime, one of the companies hoping to do business here in Houston. He said they’re also trying to make up for past mistakes.

“When you have two or three companies that are professional and have the proper scaled operations for the city, then you really get the kind of program that you want,” said Deshotel.

As for Houston’s timetable for allowing scooter companies to operate, Irshad said there will be more public engagement later this summer. City Council will then have to draft an ordinance regulating scooters, and Irshad estimates we could see them on the streets next year.

I’m a bit embarrassed to realize that there’s been a letter to the Mayor with dockless mobility recommendations since October. It’s a fairly high level outline of proposed requirements for private operators of bikes and scooters and whatever else, and there’s an impressive list of stakeholders that helped put it together. Really, I’m just glad we’re not following the Uber/Lyft model of invade first and ask questions later, which happened in some other cities with scooters as well.

I’ve expressed doubts about how scooters would work here in Houston, as they don’t fit on sidewalks and seem to be in peril from motor vehicles on the road. That dockless mobility recommendations document partially addresses this in that they state that scooter speeds should be capped at 15 MPH. That’s basically what a pedal-powered bike does, for those of us in the non-Tour de France division, and in that case they’d be fine on the off-road bike paths. That still seems limited to me, and it occurs to me that maybe I just think there’s more danger on the streets for a scooter than for a bike. I’m sure we don’t have enough data to assess that, but maybe one of these days there will be a decent study. In the meantime, I concede that I may be overreacting. I look forward to those engagement sessions and to see what decisions Houston makes about scooters.

Two Geto Boys are better than one

Again I say, sure, why not.

Willie Dennis

William James Dennis, a rapper who goes by the stage name Willie D, has filed a campaign treasurer’s report to run for city council, becoming the second member of the Houston-based hip-hop group Geto Boys to seek a council seat.

Dennis filed a report Thursday with the city secretary’s office indicating he will run for District B, joining a field of 11 candidates.

Councilman Jerry Davis represents the district, but he has served the maximum number of terms and cannot run for reelection.

Hilton Koch, a Houston furniture dealer who is serving as campaign treasurer, confirmed Monday that Dennis is seeking the District B seat.

It is unclear, however, whether Dennis legally can be a candidate for council because he is a convicted felon.

[…]

The other candidates in the District B race are Robin Anderson, Cynthia Bailey, Patricia Bourgeois, Alvin Byrd, Karen Kossie-Chernyshev, Tarsha Jackson, James Joseph, Alyson Quintana, Renee Jefferson Smith, Ben White Jr. and Huey Wilson.

As the story notes, fellow Geto Boy Scarface is in for District D, the seat vacated by Dwight Boykins (assuming there are no backsies), where he currently faces a smaller field. I don’t know how Dennis’ past conviction will affect his candidacy, but having a conviction appears to have discouraged Booker T from running for Mayor (to be sure, there may well be other reasons why he hasn’t followed through on that). My opinion is that if you have completed your sentence you should be free and clear, but as far as I know that proposition has not been tested in the courts. So we’ll see. In the meantime, I will note that I am most familiar with District B candidates Alvin Byrd, who lost in the runoff to incumbent Jerry Davis in 2011, and Tarsha Jackson from her time with the Texas Organizing Project. Cynthia Bailey has sent out the most campaign emails, at least among candidates who have bought email lists that include mine.

CM Steve Le not running for re-election

We have another open seat, in District F.

Steve Le

Steve Le

Houston City Councilman Steve Le announced Wednesday he will not seek a second term in November, leaving an open race for his District F seat and ensuring the southwestern district will get a new representative for the fourth straight election.

Le, a physician who practices in Cleveland, narrowly defeated incumbent Richard Nguyen in 2015, winning a runoff by about 230 votes, or 3 percentage points. He had drawn five opponents — including Nguyen — before deciding not to run again.

Le was seen as one of the most vulnerable incumbent council members seeking re-election.

Citing questions and a city investigation into the work habits and time cards of his former chief of staff, Daniel Albert, constituents and neighborhood leaders had called on Le to fire Albert and resign his seat.

[…]

Le also faced residency questions upon taking office, as he had more formal links to a home in Kingwood than to the district address he listed in Alief. His business was registered at the Kingwood property, he was one of five people listed on the deed of trust for the property, and he, at the time, registered three of his four vehicles at that address.

Le did not return calls for comment Wednesday. In a statement to KPRC, he said he plans to return to his medical practice, and pointed to several accomplishments, contending the district’s infrastructure improved during his tenure.

“My goal when running for election was to work with the mayor and current council to implement changes that would benefit the residents of Houston, be fiscally responsible with our budget, improve street and drainage conditions of District F, (and) increase public safety,” the statement said.

In addition to Nguyen, candidates Anthony Nelson, John Nguyen, Tiffany Thomas and Jesus Zamora are seeking to represent the southwest Houston district that covers parts of Alief, Eldridge-West Oaks, Sharpstown and Westchase.

Van Huynh, Le’s chief of staff, said Wednesday he, too, will run for the seat, and has filed a report with the city secretary’s office designating a campaign treasurer.

See here for some background; Le did eventually fire Albert. To be sure, other District F Council members have had questions about their residency before, including MJ Khan and Al Hoang. For whatever the reason, that does not seem to be an obstacle to getting elected in F. Someone can correct me if I’m wrong, but I think Le is the first member of Council to not run for re-election when able to do so since Peter Brown ran for Mayor instead of a third term in At Large #1 in 2009. Chris Bell did the same thing in 2001. Off the top of my head, I can’t think of a recent Council member who stepped down without running for something else. Feel free to fill in the blank if you can.

As always, you can see an up-to-date list of candidates in Erik Manning’s spreadsheet. I guess I need to get an Election 2019 page going, as June finance reports will be coming in. As for the cast in District F, I know Tiffany Thomas and former CM Richard Nguyen; I’m Facebook friends with Anthony Nelson but haven’t met him. Le’s departure may lead to more candidates entering, but if there’s one thing this election has not lacked, it’s candidates.

The Chron covers the #BoycottBoykins story

They don’t mention the hashtag, though.

CM Dwight Boykins

Houston city councilman and mayoral candidate Dwight Boykins is facing backlash for a recent incident in which he allegedly advised a group of students to “keep their legs closed,” among other comments that some attendees said made them feel uncomfortable.

The District D councilman’s remarks came Friday afternoon during a “youth advocacy summit,” where Boykins and Mayor Sylvester Turner separately addressed middle and high school students about getting civically engaged.

While talking to a roomful of teenagers, Boykins told the students to “keep their legs closed” and joked about dating one of them, according to accounts from multiple students.

In a statement issued Monday, Boykins said he was asked to offer the students “words of inspiration” and “help them understand the important role they play in our future.” He said he intended to “speak frankly about the pitfalls which I have seen derail the future of many of our youth, including teen pregnancy…an issue I have firsthand experience with in my own family.”

[…]

An invitation to Boykins, released to reporters Monday, shows he was invited to talk about his personal story, time as a council member and why he is running for office, while Turner was invited to hold an “intimate conversation” on mental health, criminal justice and other policy topics.

Many of the students were “eager to make a difference in the 2019 Mayoral election” and encouraged to volunteer on campaigns, the invitation reads.

In an audio recording of a segment of the event, a female student can be heard confronting Boykins about his comments.

“You’ve made some comments that have made me a little bit uncomfortable. You’ve joked about dating some of us,” the student said.

“Not dating you. I mean, that was an example,” Boykins interjected.

“You’ve pulled and singled out a few of the girls, you’ve told us to keep our legs closed,” the student continued, also alleging that Boykins “didn’t really answer” a question about gender equality.

Boykins responded by apologizing and insisting that he did not intend to make the group uncomfortable.

“That’s really important for me to know that you understand, it wasn’t personal,” Boykins said. “It was trying to warn you guys what’s out there.”

One female student described the room as being “tense, but people were afraid to say something.”

In a second statement Monday, Boykins said “a few seconds” of his talk “overshadowed my entire conversation which was meant to ensure that our youth have the best opportunity to succeed in life.”

See here for the background. There are a few new details but other than the second statement, which to me still sounds like weasel words, nothing substantial has happened since this first came out. But at least now more people are aware of this. KUHF has more.

Sue Lovell announces for Mayor

Sure, why not?

Sue Lovell

Former Houston city councilwoman Sue Lovell announced Monday she is running for mayor, becoming the fourth major candidate aiming to deny Mayor Sylvester Turner a second term in November.

Lovell made the announcement in a news release posted on her campaign website. She joins a field that includes District D Councilman Dwight Boykins, trial lawyer Tony Buzbee, businessman Bill King and at least five lesser-known candidates.

In her announcement, Lovell emphasized her tenure as chair of the city council transportation committee and advocacy for LGBTQ rights. She served three terms on council from 2006 to 2012, including a stint as vice mayor pro-tem.

“Now, more than ever, our citizens trust that public safety will be a priority, that the services they pay for will be delivered efficiently and on time, and that there will be an investment in the city’s infrastructure and their quality of life,” Lovell said in a statement. “I will honor that trust and deliver on those commitments.”

Speculation had abounded for months that Lovell would join the race, representing a challenge to Turner from his left. Lovell also has established herself as an ally to the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association, working for a political action committee that supported Proposition B during last year’s midterm election.

That’s what this is about. It makes me wonder if the firefighters, who had previously endorsed Dwight Boykins before he stepped in it over the weekend, might reconsider their options. Or maybe the two of them will split the pool of pro-firefighter/anti-Turner Democrat voters. I don’t know.

Though Lovell’s name last appeared on the city ballot in 2009, she has remained visible in the community for the last decade and likely maintains some recognition among voters, said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston.

“She’s been out office for awhile, but there are still a lot of people that know and respect her,” Rottinghaus said.

Lovell is likely to cut into the mayor’s progressive base, said Mark Jones, a political science professor at Rice University. Before Lovell joined the race, Jones said, “Turner was going to be the preferred choice of most liberal Anglos.” Those voters are more likely to support Lovell than King, Buzbee or Boykins, Jones said.

Yeah, but she was always an underperformer at the ballot box. In 2007, running for her first re-election, she failed to crack 53% against perennial candidate Griff Griffin. In 2009, she was forced into a runoff against perennial candidate Andrew Burks. I happen to think Lovell was a fine Council member and a master of policy details, but she tends to burn bridges and accumulate enemies. I’ll be very interested to see what kind of endorsements she gets, and what her fundraising is; we won’t know that till the 30 day reports, as that is the advantage of announcing one’s candidacy on July 1.

Appeals court rejects firefighters pension reform lawsuit

This is not related to Prop B. I know, it’s hard to keep all of this straight.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Texas’ 14th Court of Appeals on Thursday sided with the city of Houston in a lawsuit over Mayor Sylvester Turner’s pension reform plan, which the Houston Firefighters’ Relief and Retirement Fund alleged violates the state constitution.

The firefighters’ pension fund sued Turner and other city officials in May 2017, shortly after the Legislature passed — and Gov. Greg Abbott signed — Senate Bill 2190, the legislation overhauling Houston’s pension systems. Firefighters opposed the measure, while Turner and other officials said it resolved a fiscal crisis that could threaten the city’s fiscal solvency.

In the lawsuit, the Houston Firefighters’ Relief and Retirement Fund argued the pension reform law strips its right under the Texas Constitution to “select legal counsel and an actuary and adopt sound actuarial assumptions.”

The pension fund contended the reform plan’s 7 percent assumed rate of return on investment, now codified in state law, gives the city and its actuaries a role in determining the fund’s cost projections, which the fund’s board of trustees said it alone should control.

See here and here for the background. The suit was dismissed by a district court judge, and the appeals court was basically ruling on whether that judge was correct to dismiss or not. You can read the opinion here, but it’s pretty dense and technical, and my eyes glazed over almost immediately. In short, the appellate court said the trial court judge’s decision was fine. The firefighters’ pension fund, who filed the suit and the appeal, will appeal again, to the Supreme Court. So we’re not quite finished with this yet.

By the way, City Council passed the budget

In the end, this was pretty boring. Which is a good thing.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Houston city council approved Mayor Sylvester Turner’s $5.1 billion budget for the upcoming fiscal year with little commotion Wednesday, authorizing a spending plan that was scrambled at the last minute by developments at the Legislature and a judge’s ruling that the voter-approved Proposition B is unconstitutional.

The council voted 12-4 in favor of Turner’s budget after approving a series of amendments during a nearly seven-hour session. The budget covers city spending for the 2020 fiscal year, which begins July 1.

About half the spending — $2.53 billion — will come out of the city’s tax- and-fee-supported general fund, which pays for most of the city’s day-to-day core operations, including public safety, trash pickup, parks and libraries. The city is set to spend about 1.9 percent more than it is projected to spend during the current fiscal year.

The remaining spending will come out of “enterprise” funds, which are supported by fees, including the Houston Airport System, and city utilities, which run on residents’ water bills.

[…]

Also complicating the budget was a bill passed by the Legislature that limits the fees telecommunication and cable companies pay cities to use their rights of way. That opened a spending gap of more than $16 million, according to city budget officials.

Wednesday’s budget approval followed consideration of more than 30 amendments proposed by council members.

Among the amendments approved were proposals to create new finance transparency requirements, change how the city sets its next budget and commission studies that could change how the city’s fleet management and solid waste departments operate.

In the end, there were no layoffs thanks to Prop B getting tossed by the courts. That could still get reversed on appeal so it’s not a settled matter, but for now it’s where we are. A respite from that drama, no matter how brief, is welcome.

Prop B layoffs rescinded

No Prop B, no need for layoffs. Funny how that works.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Houston City Council on Wednesday formally reversed the 220 firefighter layoffs and hundreds of demotions it approved earlier this year, making official Mayor Sylvester Turner’s pledge not to lay off or demote any firefighters in the aftermath of a judge’s ruling that Proposition B is unconstitutional.

Before a state district judge threw out Prop B, the voter-approved charter amendment granted firefighters the same pay as police of corresponding rank and seniority. Turner warned that Prop B would require layoffs to offset the cost of the raises, a point hotly disputed by the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association. City council voted in April to send firefighters 60-day layoff notices, which the panel unanimously rescinded Wednesday.

The council also voted to reverse more than 400 demotions within the Houston Fire Department. The layoff notices had gone to the lowest-ranking firefighters, initially requiring the city to fill in those positions from the top down through demotions.

“This puts everything back the way it existed prior to that vote,” Turner said.

The city also had sent layoff notices to 47 municipal employees, but Turner already had rescinded those unilaterally because those layoffs did not require council approval.

Councilman Dwight Boykins asked Turner if the layoff reversal would impact Fire Chief Sam Peña’s proposed department restructuring, which would move HFD from a four-shift to three-shift model — a move the union opposes. Turner confirmed that Wednesday’s vote has no bearing on the proposed shift change.

Councilwoman Brenda Stardig also asked Turner if the city plans to recoup back pay granted to firefighters before Prop B was ruled unconstitutional. Some department employees received raises the week before the judge’s ruling.

Turner said his administration is “addressing how to deal with that issue,” but in the meantime he sees the raises as a “credit on future negotiations.” The mayor said last month that he did not intend to “claw back” funds from any firefighter.

Obviously, this isn’t the end. We’re about to have an election that will re-litigate this whole thing – though don’t expect anyone to give a plausible answer to how they would have handled this all differently – and that court ruling has been appealed to the 14th Court of Appeals. But in a real sense, this is over. Whatever happens next, it will occur in a context of Prop B not having happened. So maybe now, at least for a little while, we can talk about something else.

Scarface

If CM Dwight Boykins is running for Mayor, then someone has to run for District D.

Brad Jordan

Your mind isn’t playing tricks. A former member of the pioneering hip-hop group Geto Boys could wind up representing a large part of the city.

Brad Jordan, better known as his rap moniker “Scarface,” on Sunday announced his bid for Houston City Council District D. The seat is currently held by Councilman Dwight Boykins, who recently filed paperwork indicating he will run for mayor, according to earlier reports in the Houston Chronicle.

[…]

“It’s official,” the rapper said in an Instagram post. “I’m offering myself for service as the next Houston City Councilmember for District D. Join our movement! More details to come. www.bradfordistrictd.com.”

Fellow Houston rappers Paul Wall and Bun B have already showed their support for Jordan’s announcement online. “I’m here for this!” Bun B said in a comment on the post.

That website is just a placeholder right now, so check back later if you want to know more. I look forward to seeing his finance reports, I’ll tell you that much. I would expect that there will be multiple candidates in this race, even with a big-name person like Jordan jumping in. Welcome to the race, Scarface.

Double dipping

You almost have to admire the nerve.

CM Steve Le

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

The Chron’s Erica Greider has opinions.

Rep. Joaquin Castro

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Census outreach

I am puzzled why this is controversial.

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

The firefighters have a new enemy

It’s a renewable resource.

CM David Robinson

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

Here’s the Mayor’s budget

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

Mayor Sylvester Turner

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

Layoffs and demotions

I’m so ready for this to be resolved.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Council approves firefighter layoffs

And here we are.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Off and running for Council

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

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

Mayor Sylvester Turner

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

Off to mediation we go

Hope for the best, y’all.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

Ogg hires Bradford

A familiar face for the DA’s office.

C.O. “Brad” Bradford

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mediation ordered in Prop B lawsuit

This ought to be interesting.

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

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

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

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

The mediation is mandatory but not binding.

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

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

What will Council do about Prop B layoffs?

We’re gonna find out.

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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