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James Rodriguez

Payday lending ordinance passes

In the end, it wasn’t close.

The Houston City Council overwhelmingly passed restrictions on payday and auto title lenders Wednesday, avoiding rumored parliamentary maneuvers to delay the vote and calling on the state Legislature to follow suit.

The vote was 15-2, with Councilwoman Helena Brown and Councilman James Rodriguez opposed. Rodriguez did not seek to delay the measure as had been speculated.

[…]

“Something must be done; something should be done,” Councilman Andrew Burks said. “Our Legislature, they had the ball and dropped it. I don’t like this, but I have to vote for it because … this is the only thing on the table, and it does do something.”

Councilwoman Wanda Adams, who said her office has helped seniors get back cars that had been repossessed after they defaulted on title loans, praised the outcome.

“I’m so proud to know we are taking a stand in protecting our constituents throughout our community,” Adams said. “I think this is something right.”

The measure will take effect July 1, with the city’s new budget year.

The Chron story from yesterday morning about the vote that was scheduled to take place made it sound like it would be closer, though it didn’t quote any member of Council that claimed to be undecided. The two that did vote against it were not a surprise. It’s what CM Brown does, and CM Rodriguez, the subject of a scathing column by Lisa Falkenberg that made Campos see red, was known to not object to payday lenders. The only question was whether CM Rodriguez would tag the ordinance – he was absent at the Council meeting last week and thus eligible to apply a tag, though that is usually not done – which would have the effect of pushing it onto the new Council. As it turns out, that likely would not have made any difference.

But I’m glad they didn’t wait. This was important, it needed to get done, and now there’s that much more time next year to do other things. Even with the head start, there are still plenty of items on Mayor Parker’s third term agenda. So far, so good. Statements praising the ordinance have been sent out by Sens. Rodney Ellis and Sylvia Garcia, as well as the AARP, who like Sen. Ellis calls the ordinance a message to the Lege to get its act together. PDiddie, Stace, Texas Leftist, Texpatriate, and the Observer have more.

It’s still Gene Green’s world

I have three things to say about this story about Rep. Gene Green.

Rep. Gene Green

Rep. Gene Green

The affable, low-key former printer’s apprentice is a legend across his gritty, blue-collar domain along the 54-mile Houston Ship Channel, where he represents the most heavily Hispanic congressional district in the nation that has not elected a Hispanic to Congress.

By virtue of his seniority and Republican control of every statewide office, Green is effectively the highest ranking Democrat in Texas politics.

“Whatever I do in Congress doesn’t help people unless I’m also back in my district doing things for them,” Green said. “It’s one of the reasons people have developed a trust relationship with me.”

Green, who is not fluent in Spanish, has organized citizenship days to help legal residents apply for U.S. citizenship in a district that is 76 percent Hispanic. He helped conduct a forum in mid-November that enabled hundreds of Houston-area residents to learn about and register for Affordable Care Act coverage in a state with 6.3 million uninsured. And he has sponsored job fairs twice a year to help the unemployed find work.

“We do a lot of things that provide service to people in my district – and that brings visibility,” said Green, who was a member of the Texas Legislature for 20 years.

Green is well known for his constituent service, and I have no doubt that it is a big part of the reason why he has been so successful in office, both in terms of electoral performance and keeping potential primary challengers at bay. But it’s not just about doing well by your constituents, it’s also about getting along with your peers and would-be rivals. Green works well with others, and has mentored or otherwise directly assisted numerous current officeholders. One example of such is State Rep. Armando Walle, whom Rep. Green supported in his successful primary election against Craddick Dem Kevin Bailey. I tend to think of former Rep. Bailey, who was basically a do-nothing that got crosswise with many of his peers for his support of then-Speaker Tom Craddick and who represented a district as Latino as CD29 is, as something like the anti-Gene Green. It’s not really a mystery why some folks are more successful, and thus long-tenured, than others.

Texas has 12 Democratic House members, but “Green stands out as a pragmatist who is not afraid to break with the liberal Democratic House leadership when he disagrees with its position on an issue,” said Rice University political scientist Mark Jones.

Indeed, Green has voted with the House Democratic leadership only 81 percent of the time – well below the 92 percent loyalty of Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Houston, or the 91 percent loyalty of Rep. Al Green, D-Houston.

Green, a loyal oil-patch lawmaker, has backed the Keystone XL Pipeline as well as legislation that would delay implementation of key components of the Clean Air Act related to cross-state air pollution and pollution standards for power plants.

“At least once a week in the Energy and Commerce Committee, I forget that Gene is a Democrat,” said Rep. Pete Olson, R-Sugar Land, who shares many of Green’s pro-energy positions.

Green’s devotion to helping Houston is apparent to colleagues, too.

“Though Gene and I often disagree on policy, he’s always ready to work across the aisle to get things done when it comes to what’s best for the Houston region and Texas,” said Rep. Kevin Brady, R-The Woodlands, who has served with Green for 16 years. “I’ve found his word to be as good as gold.”

Bipartisanship is a means to an end, not an end unto itself. Whether it’s a good thing or a bad thing depends on the particulars. Be that as it may, are there any Republican members of Texas’ Congressional delegation that could be described in similar terms as Rep. Green was in those paragraphs? Hell, are there any Republican members of Congress from any state that could be described in those terms? I’m thinking the answer is No, but feel free to supply an example if you think one exists. Honestly, if there were any such Republicans, I’d expect they’d be getting primaried within an inch of their lives about now.

When the time comes for Green to step down, at least seven Hispanics are widely expected to eye the seat, led by Harris County Sheriff Adrian Garcia, a former Houston police officer and City Council member who has outpolled Barack Obama in Harris County.

Other potential contenders include state Sen. Sylvia Garcia, a former municipal court judge and Houston city controller; term-limited Houston City Council member James Rodriguez; Houston City Council member Ed Gonzalez, a former police officer; and three state representatives: Carol Alvarado, Jessica Farrar and Ana Hernandez.

I’m sure there’s a long line of hopefuls for CD29 when Rep. Green decides to hang up his spurs. This is the first time I can recall seeing Sheriff Garcia’s name associated with this seat, however. Most of the talk I hear about him and other offices he might someday seek center on the Mayor’s office in 2015. If he has his eyes on a statewide office down the line, I’m not sure what the best springboard for him would be. I think he’s in pretty good shape where he is right now, and staying put until he’s ready for something bigger means he’s not putting anything at risk in the meantime, but I’m not his political adviser and I don’t know what he has in mind for the future. As for the other possibilities, I’ll just reiterate what I’ve said before about generational issues. Generally speaking, all things being equal otherwise, I would prefer a candidate that has statewide ambitions in his or her future to one who doesn’t. Our bench isn’t going to build itself, after all.

Chron overview of District I

The Chron covers the District I race.

CM James Rodriguez

CM James Rodriguez

The contrasts in this eastside, heavily-Latino council district are dramatic: from the gleaming George R. Brown Convention Center in the heart of downtown, to older neighborhoods lacking modern street drainage where vacant lots become clandestine dump sites.

Four candidates are campaigning to represent a historic slice of central Houston they all agree has both huge potential and a long list of improvements. The near completion of a multimillion-dollar extension of Metro’s light rail passenger line into the district holds the promise of increased economic development, as well as an anticipated influx of travelers who will use the $156 million international terminal under construction at William Hobby Airport.

Demographics explain some of the challenges facing District I and its 180,000 residents.

The average household income of $36,900 annually is $6,000 lower than the citywide average of $42,960. Educational attainment, while improving, is still low with 45 percent of residents lacking a high school diploma. The district is 77 percent Hispanic, the highest concentration of Latinos in any of the council districts, and, not surprisingly, Spanish is the primary language in 68 percent of the homes.

The incumbent, James Rodriguez, is term-limited. The election is Nov. 5.

The ballot features a longtime community worker/activist turned county jailer, a City Council aide with a decade of experience in the district office, and a private businessman with years of managing large city and school district building projects. Rounding out the race is a grass-roots candidate, who polled a surprising 35 percent of the vote against the well-financed incumbent in the 2011 election.

I interviewed all four candidates in this race – Robert Gallegos, Graci Garces, Ben Mendez, Leticia Ablaza. All but Ablaza also did at least one Q&A with Texpatriate or Texas Leftist; you can find those links on my 2013 Election page. The Chron endorsed Garces in the race.

I found the comment about Ablaza and her “surprising” 35% against CM Rodriguez in 2011 to be interesting. As we know, 2011 was a pretty good year to run against an incumbent Council member, as two of them lost and three others at the citywide level (Mayor Parker, CM Costello, CM Noriega) were re-elected with 55% or less. In all these cases, the incumbent had multiple opponents, so even though the not-incumbent vote was 45% or more, it was split multiple ways, often among candidates with minimal resources. A possibly useful comparison is in District H, where like CM Rodriguez, CM Ed Gonzalez had a lone opponent. Here’s how those races compared:

Dist Candidate Votes Pct ================================== H E Gonzalez 4,347 68.24% H P Rodriguez 2,023 31.76% I J Rodriguez 4,050 64.46% I L Ablaza 2,233 35.54%

So Patricia Rodriguez, who as far as I could tell in 2011 ran no campaign and raised $500 on the one finance report she filed, received 31.76% of the vote. Leticia Ablaza, who did run a campaign and who raised over $7,500 on the two reports she filed, received 35.54%. You tell me if that qualifies as a surprise. I will further note that neither CM Rodriguez nor CM Gonzalez had an opponent in November 2009 (CM Gonzalez of course won a special election in a June 2009 runoff to succeed now-Sheriff Adrian Garcia), but the undervote in each case (see page 6) was 36.52% for Gonzalez and 37.56% for Rodriguez. Again, you tell me what it all means.

To put this all another way, suppose there had been a third candidate in District I in 2011, and suppose that candidate had been of the no-name, no-campaign variety. How do you think the final outcome would have differed? Would you expect it to be something like 65-33-2, 63-35-2, 65-25-10, 55-35-10, or something else? I’ll say this much – if Leticia Ablaza matches her 2011 percentage, she’s not just a lock for the runoff, she’s almost surely leading the pack. I think that’s certainly possible, but I have no idea how likely it is. We’ll know soon enough.

July finance reports for Harris County officeholders and challengers

Odd-numbered years are primarily about city elections, but primaries are just around the corner, and some hopefuls for county and state offices are already out there lining up support and raising money. Here’s a peek at some of the Harris County incumbents that are on the ballot in 2014 and the people that have filed paperwork to take them on.

County Judge

Ed Emmett

Raised = $436,997
Spent = $86,579
On Hand = $496,580

Judge Emmett has no challengers that I’ve heard of as yet. I believe Harris County will be substantially Democratic in 2014, but even if it is, the last man standing on the Republican side will be Emmett, who has been the top Republican votegetter in each of his two elections. It’s possible he could be challenged by someone from the wingnut end of his party – one hears occasional rumblings of such things, but no names have reached my ears so far. If he decides that he’s had enough, I’m sure the primary to succeed him will be fierce on both sides. Emmett got a lot of money from the kinds of people and PACs you’d expect for someone in his position. Among the more interesting contributions he received were $5,000 from the PAC of CM Stephen Costello’s engineering company. He also got $2,500 from Drayton McLane and $10,000 from Bob McNair, so I guess football is a bigger influence than baseball for him.

Commissioners Court

Jack Morman

Raised = $508,820
Spent = $80,867
On Hand = $834,030

As we know, Morman’s race is likely to be the marquee event next year, and he’s fundraising like he is well aware of that fact. Eighteen of his contributions were for $10,000 each, though unlike Emmett he got only $2,500 from McNair and nothing from McLane. One person I have heard so far that is thinking about a challenge to Morman is term-limited CM James Rodriguez, but he has only $10K on hand as of July. Either he’s not that interested, or he’s taking his time about it.

Jack Cagle

Raised = $338,598
Spent = $83,361
On Hand = $346,087

Unlike Morman, Commissioner Cagle is unlikely to face any serious competition next year. Not really much to say about this one.

County Clerk

Stan Stanart

Raised = $37,620
Spent = $7,354
On Hand = $48,764
Loan = $20,000

Stanart will be up for his first re-election after winning in the wave of 2010. He’s an ideological crusader, and his contributions reflect that, with donations from the likes of Norm Adams, Donna Bahorich, and the campaign funds of John Culberson and Paul Bettencourt. He has two opponents:

Ann Harris Bennett – $1,736 on hand after spending $3,194.
Gayle L. Mitchell – Designation of treasurer filing.

Bennett lost to Stanart in 2010, though she was one of the top votegetters among Dems, and lost narrowly to Mike Sullivan for Tax Assessor in 2012. I know nothing about Gayle Mitchell beyond the fact that she has filed the designation of treasurer form for the purpose of running for County Clerk next year.

District Clerk

Chris Daniel

Raised = $0
Spent = $7,190
On Hand = $0

Friends of Chris Daniel

Raised = 27,350
Spent = $21,846
On Hand = $19,898
Loan = $74,500

Daniel’s PAC mostly took in money from other PACs, law firms, and bail bond companies. The expenditures on his non-PAC form were from personal funds, with the intent to seek reimbursement. He has an opponent for March:

Court Koenning

Raised = $54,075
Spent = $5,375
On Hand = $101,575
Loan = $50,000

Koenning is a former Chief of Staff for Dan Patrick, among other things. That’s a crazy amount of money for this race, almost entirely from individuals. Among his donors were Mr. and Mrs. Jerry Eversole, who gave $200, and Ashley and Jeremy Radack, who gave $2,500 and may or may not have any relation to Steve Radack. This will be a race to watch. In browsing the filings, I got a brief thrill from seeing Loren Jackson‘s name, but he was basically cleaning out his campaign coffers by making a payment to the TEC to settle a complaint. I’m sure there will be a Dem in this race, but he or she has not stepped forward as yet.

County Treasurer

Orlando Sanchez

Raised = $10,241
Spent = $7,044
On Hand = $3,165

Sanchez raised more money than I’m used to seeing him take in. Three thousand dollars of his total came from PACs, law firms, and bail bond companies. The first two have a lot of overlap with city elections, the latter one doesn’t, presumably because the jail is a county function. Sanchez got donations of $100 each from Bruce Hotze, Michael Kubosh, and Toni Lawrence.

David Rosen – Designation of treasurer

Stace noted Rosen’s campaign kickoff a few days ago. Rosen lost a Democratic primary for HCDE Trustee last year to Diane Trautman. He has a website up, with a lot more about what he’d do in office than Sanchez has done in eight years. As he noted in an email to me, if he wins he’d be the youngest elected official in Harris County in over 40 years, which is to say since well before he was born. But not me, because I’m old.

HCDE Trustee

Debra Kerner

Raised = $0
Spent = $35
On Hand = $739

HCDE candidates don’t raise much money. For an At Large race, it would hardly matter anyway. No candidate has filed a designation of treasurer yet to succeed Jim Henley.

I expect we’ll see a lot more activity, or at least hear some more active rumors, after Sen. Wendy Davis makes her announcement. For now, this is how things stand.

What to do with that extra money?

Some unexpected good financial news for the city, but what to do about it is the tricky part.

Just months after hiking health premiums, shifting costs to employees and plugging a projected multimillion-dollar deficit in its health benefits fund, the city of Houston has found itself with a sizable surplus in that account instead.

The city had used $14 million to fill the projected deficit in its health fund in January, after predictions about claims and premiums proved inaccurate. In a memo issued this week, Human Resources Director Omar Reid said the city’s calculations were indeed off – but in the other direction, with claims coming in lower than expected.

That, combined with the January payment, leaves the health fund with an $18 million surplus, he wrote.

Fresh off benefit cuts and premium hikes in May, the municipal employees’ union is livid. It is demanding that Mayor Annise Parker rescind jumps in co-pays, deductibles, co-insurance and out-of-pocket maximums, and cut the increase in employee premiums from 14.9 percent to 8.7 percent.

The city’s share of premiums, which covers three-quarters of plan costs, with the rest coming from workers, also rose 14.9 percent in May.

City Councilmen Stephen Costello, Dave Martin and James Rodriguez said they are concerned city staff have shown an inability to project health costs and said the public should be wary, too. Health costs make up almost 10 percent of the city’s general fund operating budget.

“To have a change as drastic as this means somebody really didn’t do a very good job of diligence in their financial analysis of the program, and I’m trying to find out why is that happening,” Martin said. “More importantly, what can we do about it in the future, and how reliable is the data today?”

Rodriguez added, “My faith is somewhat shaken in their ability to calculate these numbers.”

I wouldn’t be too hard on the city’s financial analysts. Clearly, they made overly cautious projections, but I find it difficult to crime them for it given the steady drumbeat of pension-related financial doomsaying we’ve been subjected to lately. How could they be anything but overly cautious in an environment like that? I’m quite certain they’d have been taken to the woodshed for being too exuberantly optimistic if their initial projection had been much lower. The story doesn’t detail how this projection was made, but my guess is that the analysts relied heavily on historical data, most likely without sufficiently taking into account the fact that health care costs have grown a lot more slowly in the past five years than at any time in the past fifty years. Of course, they may have accounted for that but also considered that no one really knows why cost growth has slowed, and no one really knows how long that slowdown trend will last. If they erred towards excessive caution, I can understand their thinking.

Still, that caution had a profound impact on the city’s employees, who paid a lot more for their health care than they actually needed to. The union is right to demand that the employees get their money back. I’m sensitive to the concerns that this could be a blip on the graph, but that gets back to my earlier point about how these projections were done. Now that we have some empirical data, how about we revisit what our assumptions were and see where we might make some adjustments? That should inform how we proceed and how we make it right for the city’s employees, who have given up a lot to balance the city’s budget. They deserve a fair shake.

July finance reports for non-candidates

Not everyone who files a finance report with the city is running for something this November. Term-limited incumbents, and former candidates who still have money in their campaign treasuries are required to file reports as well. Here’s a look a those who did this July:

Dist Candidate Raised Spent On Hand Loan ------------------------------------------------------- AL3 Noriega 25,245 5,224 23,602 11,000 D Adams I Rodriguez 0 3,274 10,293 0 2011 Jones 0 0 3,203 0 2005 Lee 0 0 1,287 0 2009 Locke 0 427 4,065 0 2003 Berry 0 5,000 0 71,622

Here are all the reports. I did not find one for CM Wanda Adams. Doesn’t mean she didn’t file one – as noted CM Cohen filed one but it’s not visible on the city’s finance reports page – but one was not to be found.

Noriega report
Rodriguez report

Jones report
Lee report
Locke report
Berry report

CM Melissa Noriega has some debt, which is why she raised funds this year. I have no idea if she plans to run for something else in the future, but if she does I’ll be in the front row, cheering her on. I’m pretty sure she lives in Commissioners Court Precinct 2, not that I’m hinting or anything. CM James Rodriguez has been reportedly interested in taking on Commissioner Morman in 2014, but if so he hasn’t started fundraising for it.

As for the former candidates, I listed the year of their last election instead of an office, since only two of them held one. I presume at this point that Jolanda Jones is not going to push boundaries and run for District D. It wouldn’t surprise me if she does run for something else someday, but it doesn’t look like this will be the year for that. Mark Lee ran for Controller in 2003 and District C in 2005, narrowly missing the runoff in the latter race. Neither he nor Gene Locke nor Michael Berry seem likely to run for anything again, but one never knows. Unlike Congress and the Legislature, there’s just not that much leftover city campaign money lying around.

January finance reports for Harris County offices

For the most part, it’s way too early to start thinking about the 2014 Harris County elections – we have a legislative session and a city election cycle to get through first – but since January 15 is a reporting deadline for county officeholders, I figure I may as well have a peek at who has what. I’m only looking at offices that are up for election in 2014, so here we go.

County Judge Ed Emmett – $151,586 on hand.

Thanks to his graceful under pressure performance during Hurricane Ike and a generally low-key, get-things-done style, County Judge Ed Emmett has been the top-performing Republican candidate in two diametrically opposite elections, the Democratic wave of 2008 and the Republican tsunami of 2014. Assuming there are no similar forces at work next year, Democrats ought to be in pretty good shape countywide – as I’ve noted before, Democratic turnout was pretty decent in 2010 despite the butt-kicking – but if there’s one person I’d expect to prevail on the R side even if there’s a strong wind behind the Dems’ backs, it’s Judge Emmett. Assuming of course that he hasn’t decided by then that he’s had it up to here with all this stuff and makes a beeline for the private sector, in which case I’d expect a jumble of Dems lining up to run for this spot. I’m sure someone will run regardless, but barring anything unforeseen I’d make Judge Emmett the favorite going in.

County Clerk Stan Stanart – $16,869 on hand

Outside of the big three – County Judge, District Attorney, and Sheriff – countywide offices don’t draw much fundraising attention, so don’t read much into these numbers. That said, 2012 wasn’t exactly a stellar year for Stan Stanart. I don’t know how much people will remember that by next year, but as with Don Sumners it ought to provide his opponent (or opponents if he gets primaried) with a fair amount of ammunition. Talk of an elections administrator has predictably died down again, but if it pops back up that will just remind everyone of why we began speaking of it in the first place. Stanart has overseen the relocation of voting machines to a new home, and the county campaign finance reform page sucks somewhat less than it used to, but beyond that I can’t think of any major achievements he’s racked up. (If I’m wrong about that, please correct me in the comments.) Assuming we don’t have an elections administrator by this time next year, I expect Dems to make this race a priority.

District Clerk Chris Daniel – $15,184 on hand

Unlike Stanart, Daniel has had a fairly quiet term as District Clerk. There was a fair amount of griping after Daniel defeated the well-regarded Loren Jackson in the 2010 sweep – Jackson was easily the top Democratic vote-getter that year – but for what it’s worth I haven’t heard any lately. Daniel has overseen the implementation of a new efiling system for pleadings in criminal cases, FREEfax, so he will have that to point to next year. If Daniel loses in 2014, his successor will be the fifth District Clerk since 2007, when then-District Clerk Charles Bacarisse resigned to challenge Ed Emmett in a primary for County Judge. Theresa Chang, now a County Court judge, was appointed to replace Bacarisse; she was defeated by Jackson in 2008, and Jackson was defeated by Daniel in 2010.

County Treasurer Orlando Sanchez – $1,141 on hand.

2014 will be another quadrennial opportunity to wonder just what the heck any Treasurer does in Harris County, and in particular just what it is that Orlando Sanchez, who was first elected in 2006, does. All I can tell you is that he has a delightfully minimalist webpage, and that this finance report does not include an expenditure on “Glamour” magazine.

County Commissioner Jack Cagle – $99,990 on hand.

Cagle was appointed in October of 2011 to replace the felonious Jerry Eversole in Precinct 4. He easily won a three-way primary and the ensuing November election to complete Eversole’s unexpired term; this will be his first election for a full four-year term. I expect he’ll build his campaign treasury up considerably over the next year or so, but it almost doesn’t matter. Barring any Eversole-like behavior on his part, Cagle ought to be able to keep this job for the foreseeable future. Demographic change will eventually make Precinct 4 more competitive in general elections, but there’s at least one more redistricting cycle in between now and that point. He’s in for the long haul.

County Commissioner Jack Morman – $410,078 on hand.

This is, or at least it should be, the main event in Harris County in 2014. Morman’s win in 2010 was fueled mostly by the Republican wave of that year, but as currently drawn, Precinct 2 is highly competitive, with a slight lean towards the GOP. We are still awaiting a ruling in the federal lawsuit over the County’s redistricting plan. A full range of outcomes – a bit more Republican, a bit less Republican, exactly as it is under the interim map that was used last year – is possible for Precinct 2. The first question is who might run against Morman. To some extent, that may be determined by the result in the SD06 special election. Council Member James Rodriguez, whose is term-limited, is known to be interested in HD145 in the event Rep. Carol Alvarado wins a promotion to the Senate, but he has also expressed an interest in Precinct 2. I am certain he will not be the only person looking at this, and I for one will be a bit surprised if there isn’t a spirited Democratic primary for the right to oppose Morman. Demography, the lawsuit, Democratic GOTV efforts, the number of first-time off-year Republican voters from 2010 who decide to make it a habit, and of course the candidates themselves will be among the factors in determining the winner here. Buckle your seatbelts.

HCDE Trustee Jim Henley – No report, since he has not had a campaign fund since 2008 and thus is not required to file these reports
HCDE Trustee Debby Kerner – $774 on hand.

Going into the 2008 election, Republicans held all seven seats on the Harris County Department of Education Board of Trustees. Henley and Kerner’s 2008 wins in At Large seats, coupled with Diane Trautman’s At Large win and Erica Lee’s Precinct 1 win in 2012, transformed the Board into a 4-3 Democratic majority. If nothing else, that should tamp down on any talk about abolishing the agency, as that was something defeated member Michael Wolfe had pushed. HCDE Trustee is a fairly obscure office, with few resources available for candidates, so as with judicial and other low-profile races they are largely determined by partisan preferences. Henley and Kerner’s overperformance in 2008 – both got 52% of the vote – serves as a reminder that downballot dropoff isn’t always uniform. Still, they’ll rise or fall along with the Democratic Party.

Besides Henley and Kerner, there is exactly one more Democratic incumbent slated for the 2014 ballot: First Court of Appeals Judge Jim Sharp, who carried Harris County by a sufficient margin to win a seat on that bench in 2014. Since then, he has drawn attention to himself in a number of nonpositive ways, and as such it would not shock me if he were to face a primary challenge. Beyond that, it’s all Republican judges, and the slate is bigger in non-Presidential years than it is in Presidential years. If Democrats manage to sweep or nearly sweep these races, I can only imagine how loud the call will be in certain quarters to change the way judges are selected; if Republicans mostly or entirely hold on, I figure the subject will be dormant until after the 2016 election. As has been the case since 2008, I’ll be keeping an eye on the Appeals Court races. If Democrats can ever get a foothold on the First and Fourteenth Courts of Appeals, they’ll be in much better shape to find candidates for the statewide bench in the future.

Two for I

Yeah, we’re still two weeks out from the start of early voting for 2012. But that hasn’t stopped two people from announcing their candidacies for City Council District I next year.

Leticia Ablaza

Graciana ”Graci” Garces, chief of staff for District I Councilman James Rodriguez, is running to succeed him next year when he’s termed out.

If Garces wins, she would continue an intra-office line of succession. Rodriguez had been the chief of staff for his predecessor, Carol Alvarado, who is now a state representative.

Leticia Ablaza, who challenged Rodriguez last year, is also running, she confirmed. Ablaza served as chief of staff for District A Councilwoman Helena Brown for four months before resigning to work on the campaign of Texas Supreme Court Justice David Medina. Ablaza, 39, lives in Glenbrook Valley and has lived in District I for 37 years.

Garces doesn’t live in District I yet, but she will next week, when she moves from Humble into a loft on the edge of Glenbrook Valley. That’s just in time to give her the year’s residency requirement to run for the seat.

Ablaza got less than 30% of the vote in her challenge to CM Rodriguez last year, but she was a first-time candidate and filed late. She certainly has room to grow, and I daresay she’ll be better funded this time around. Garces’ experience in the office and her connections to CMs Rodriguez and Alvarado is the sort of thing that’s usually a big asset, except in those times when the people are in a mood for a fresh face, in which case it’s not. We’ll see how it goes. Other open Council seats will be in At Large #3 and District D; District E would have been open, but CM Sullivan is resigning effective January 2, so his replacement will be elected this year. Finally, as we know, there is already chatter about a challenge in District A. Any other candidate scuttlebutt out there that you’re hearing? Leave a comment and let us know. Campos, who will be working with Garces, has more.

The discussion is closed

I don’t know about this.

The mayor and city attorney are floating the idea of shutting the public out of some City Council discussions.

Houston is unusual, perhaps even unique, among Texas cities in requiring that its council always meet in public.

On Thursday, City Attorney David Feldman unveiled a proposal to authorize closed-session discussions of hirings and firings, lawsuits, real estate transactions and other matters allowed by the Texas Open Meetings Act.

Because the idea would require a change to a 70-year-old provision in the city charter, it would need voter approval. Mayor Annise Parker is considering asking the council next week to place it on the November ballot.

[…]

Councilman Jack Christie said that, based on his 14 years as a state or local school board member, he considered it “common sense” not to discuss in public details about security, for example. He also suggested that public discussion of an employee could expose the city to a defamation lawsuit.

Councilman James Rodriguez spoke most forcefully against closed meetings.

“I think our system works fine, and I’ve seen it work fine. I believe that we’ll lose a lot of good will in the community if we move to try to put this on the ballot,” Rodriguez said. “I believe in transparency. I believe that we need to hash out our issues in the public and work with the public and to have their confidence and trust that we’re going to be open and upfront with issues.”

[…]

Councilman Stephen Costello said he supports the closed-session option, but now is not the time to put it before voters.

“You incite an emotion that you really don’t want the voters to have as they walk into the ballot box,” Costello said. “What we want is voters going in and approving our bond issue, and I’d rather just have the bond issue there up for a vote, or, if we’re going to make some charter amendments, make them noncontroversial.”

On the one hand, I do think it’s appropriate for certain matters to be discussed in private, at least in theory. It’s not like this is unheard of – Commissioners Court, Metro, school boards, nearly every other city council in Texas, they all do this, for good and not so good reasons. I think the list of topics that are allowed to be held behind closed doors should be small and the reasons for doing it should be compelling, but I can see the case for it. On the other hand, I think CM Costello is exactly right – this isn’t the time to put a question about whether to allow non-open meetings on the ballot. Beyond the possibility of a referendum like this doing damage to other ballot propositions, if we’re going to examine this issue we should take our time about it and have a lot more engagement than a Council meeting or two. What’s the case that the city really needs this? Are there some examples that Feldman or Mayor Parker can cite where discussion of a sensitive topic in a normal Council meeting led to harm that might have been prevented if a closed door session had been an option? I get the theoretical case, but is there a practical one to be made as well? If there isn’t, then maybe there won’t ever be a good time to put this on the ballot. PDiddie and Campos have more.

Homeless feeding ordinance, take three

Mayor Parker does a third revision of the controversial proposed ordinance about feeding the homeless.

Parker has whittled an original proposal that would have set rules on preparation, storage and server training down to a plan that mandates only that groups get written permission from the owner of the property to serve meals there. If the property is a city park, the rule still would apply, with permission granted or denied by the city parks director.

Councilman James Rodriguez, whose District I includes downtown, said that although the proposed rules have been scaled back, “We need to start somewhere.” A long-term strategy to alleviate homelessness also will have to include more money for mental health services and long-term housing, he said.

Several of the city’s largest homeless services groups, such as Star of Hope, support the plan. Several smaller charitable groups still oppose the new rules and have distributed T-shirts to homeless people downtown that bear Parker’s smiling visage and the words “The homeless can still eat in public, but now you have to ask me for permission.”

“Anybody that wants to share food anywhere has to have written permission,” said Nick Cooper of Food Not Bombs, which serves meals four times a week in the plaza of the Central Library and has submitted a substitute ordinance seeking a commitment from the city to provide more trash cans and public bathrooms downtown.

According to City Attorney David Feldman, the new ordinance is needed because current laws have “proven ineffective in preventing the sanitation problems that accrue at popular feeding sites” and because as things stand now “the onus is on the property owner to confront and report trespassers”. Stace calls this a “better explanation of a bad idea”. I don’t think it’s an adequate explanation, and as such I can’t say if it’s a good idea or a bad idea. Are there any examples the city can provide of property owners who were bothered by trespassers and couldn’t get the cops to do anything about it for whatever the reason? Putting it another way, is there someone who can testify that this proposed ordinance would help them? We’ve heard quite a bit from those who say that each version of this ordinance would hurt them, and they make a statement that is both powerful and un-answered. When we were talking about food safety and litter, there was at least an intuitive reason for this ordinance. I don’t feel like I have that any more. Who is this ordinance for?

I posed those questions to the Mayor’s office via email, and am awaiting an answer. I don’t know why that information wasn’t front and center from the beginning, but that’s neither here nor there at this point. I do have these two documents from the Mayor’s office with background information about the ordinance and a report on Charitable Food Service prepared by Marilyn Brown, President and CEO of Coalition of the Homeless Houston and Harris County; I also emailed my questions about the ordinance to her. That document summarized four focus groups done with different audiences that have a stake in this discussion – current and former homeless individuals; downtown businesses and management districts; faith-based and volunteer organizations that feed the homeless; and other service providers who also provide food. It’s pretty informal but has some interesting data nonetheless. Neither document answers my question, but they tell me a lot more than I knew before. We’ll see where this goes from here.

Feeding the homeless

I’m still trying to wrap my mind around this.

Mayor Annise Parker is asking the council to adopt rules that would require organizations and people who feed the homeless to register with the city, take a food safety class, prepare the food in certified kitchens, serve only at three public parks, and leave those parks as clean as when they entered them.

Parker described her vision as one in which charities can coordinate their efforts through the city registry to reduce redundancy and waste.

“We’re trying to do this in a way that we don’t waste food so that churches, for example, don’t show up on top of each other trying to feed the same group of 20 guys,” Parker said during two hours of public testimony Tuesday.

Civil rights lawyer Randall Kallinen called the proposed rules an “assault on freedom of religion, freedom of expression and freedom of speech.” The ordinance’s penalties of $50 to $2,000 could make it a crime to feed the homeless, Kallinen said.

[…]

Councilman James Rod­riguez, who represents downtown, said the rule changes would make charity more efficient and coordinated. He said downtown residents complain of persistent litter, defecation and fights that require police intervention and detract from the quality of life and make homes harder to sell.

The proposal was tagged on Wednesday, and with Council out next week it won’t come up again till the 22nd, which will hopefully allow more time for discussion of all the concerns.

The proposed ordinance does not provide a public site for serving meals to the homeless outside of downtown Houston. Although the city’s parks director would be authorized to designate more sites in the future, the proposed rules would limit feeding on public property to Tranquillity Park, Peggy’s Point Plaza Park and undeveloped park land on Chartres, north of Minute Maid Park.

“For the city to designate it to just those three parks makes it hard,” Edward Sweet Sr., bishop of Strait & Narrow Way Temple Full Gospel Church in southwest Houston, said earlier this week. “How will these homeless people get to these three parks without transportation?”

The city is willing to add more parks, said Janice Evans, a spokeswoman for Mayor Annise Parker, but first wants to see how the new rules work in the three designated parks and to gauge whether there is a desire from groups to serve meals at other locations.

The Coalition for the Homeless, which supports the proposed regulations that would institute food handling standards, require trash pickup and have organizations register with the city, expects to produce a map in coming weeks that will show that many of Houston’s estimated 13,000 homeless residents live outside of downtown.

No doubt there are plenty of homeless folks outside of downtown, and that’s a big issue. I’m fine with the cleanup requirements, and the food safety requirements are reasonable as long as they’re not too onerous, but it’s not really clear to me what problem is being solved here. This sounds like the right way to go about it:

Council members Oliver Pennington and Jack Christie said they would like to hold off on mandatory rules until after a campaign that promotes voluntary compliance with some of the proposed rules, such as clean-up of the sites where food is served.

I agree. Let’s try to deal with that in a non-intrusive way, then we can see if there’s anything left that actually requires an ordinance. Campos and Stace have more.

Brown v Rodriguez

I’ve been wondering how new Council Member Helena Brown’s style will play at Council meetings. I didn’t have to wait long to find out.

In this corner...

Councilwoman Helena Brown and Councilman James Rodriguez squared off publicly Wednesday in the kind of bare-knuckled politics usually deployed in a back room.

The outer layer of the onion had them disagreeing on whether the city should spend $2.3 million on a bike path along Sims Bayou in Rodriguez’s District I. Brown called it a “luxury” the city cannot afford in tough economic times.

Underneath that layer, though, Brown had violated an unspoken commandment of the council horseshoe: Thou shalt not question a project in another council member’s district.

And in this corner...

Rodriguez told Brown in no uncertain terms that his constituents support it. And, in so many words, to mind her own business.

“I think you’re going to find out real quick there’s a 16-1 answer to your question,” Rodriguez said. He was prophetic. Brown was the lone vote against the project.

Peeling further, Rodriguez may have a personal motive. After Rodriguez championed historic designation status for Glenbrook Valley, a neighborhood in his southeast Houston district, Leticia Ablaza, a resident of that district, ran against him in November. Rodriguez won handily. Brown, who represents northwest Houston’s District A, hired Ablaza as her chief of staff.

Here’s video of the exchange:

Note the exchange between CM Gonzalez and Mayor Parker about the flood mitigation aspect of the project, and the fact that the Parks Board is paying for the amenities. Which didn’t deter CM Brown, but I suspect she achieved her intended goals. I have to say, it’s just a wee bit disingenuous of Brown to talk about how Houston is paying for frivolities while its infrastructure crumbles, given that her entire campaign was built around opposition to Renew Houston; judging from the crowd that backed her, I’m sure she also opposed the water rate hike that ensured the city is adequately covering its costs of delivering that service. That’s the thing about infrastructure, you have to actually pay for it.

As for the territorial squabble, on a philosophical level I don’t actually have a problem with a Council member – or any other member of a legislative body – questioning a project in someone else’s district. If something is questionable, then it needs to be questioned. Obviously, I don’t agree with the substance of Brown’s remarks – I support building bike paths along the bayous, and again on a philosophical level, I disagree with Brown’s “we can’t afford that!” mindset – but I don’t consider her speaking out in this fashion to be a sin in and of itself. It was a violation of Council’s norms, however, and I’m certain it won’t be an isolated incident. If I were Sean Pendergast, I’d discuss the hypothetical Vegas odds of who Brown’s next mostly likely sparring partners will be, but I don’t quite have that in me. Feel free to speculate in the comments. Campos has more.

“Houston History” Fall 2011 Launch Reception

From the inbox:

Join Council Members Ed Gonzalez, Melissa Noriega, and James Rodriguez, and State Representatives Carol Alvarado and Jessica Farrar for the launch of

Houston History Magazine
 Fall 2011 Issue

Tuesday, December 6
 5:30-7:00PM
Sombreros (formerly Velia’s)
2910 Navigation Blvd.
(Map)

Meet the Authors and Enjoy Sweet Treats

The University of Houston Center for Public History’s “Houston: Nuestra Historia” focuses on the history of Mexican Americans in Houston, an often neglected area of discussion. Because Houston was not established as a Spanish colonial city, its history as one of Texas’s Mexican American communities is often overlooked. This issue focuses on community organizations, culture, politics, and education, all issues that are of great importance to the ethnic Mexican community in Houston.

Please RSVP to Kristin Deville by email or by calling 713-743-3087.

Endorsement watch: Rodriguez in I

The Chron votes for experience in District I.

District I is the cradle of Hispanic municipal political power in Houston, initially represented by Ben Reyes and since then by a string of Latino successors. It encompasses most of downtown as well as east and southeast neighborhoods.

The district has been ably represented for the past four years by native East End resident James Rodriguez, a graduate of Milby High School and the University of Houston. Rodriguez served as chief of staff for four years to former District I councilmember and current state Rep. Carol Alvarado.

[…]

We believe Rodriguez has successfully used his long experience in municipal governance for the benefit of the residents of District I. They will be well served by returning him to office for a final term.

My interview with CM Rodriguez is here.

Interview with CM James Rodriguez

CM James Rodriguez

CM James Rodriguez is running for his third term in District I. He was Chief of Staff for his predecessor, Rep. Carol Alvarado, so he has actually been serving the district a lot longer than that. Rodriguez has been in the thick of a number of things from the last few years, from Metro to redistricting to Dynamo Stadium, and his district includes the fast growing neighborhoods of EaDo. We talked about all of these things and more in our conversation:

Download the MP3 file

You can find a list of all interviews for this cycle, plus other related information, on my 2011 Elections page.

Lawsuit filed against Harris County redistricting

Hot off the presses, here’s a release from CM Ed Gonzalez:

Today, Council Member Ed Gonzalez joined as a plaintiff in a lawsuit versus Harris County over the proposed Commissioners Court redistricting map.

“The proposed map cracks communities of interests and dilutes the voting strength of Latinos in Precinct 2. Despite the fact that Latinos drove the overwhelming growth of the population since the last census and now constitute over 40% of the population in Harris County, Latinos are poised to lose the only seat on Commissioners Court where they have an opportunity to elect a representative of their choice,” said Council Member Gonzalez.

He followed, “The inclusion of a suburban community, Kingwood, into Precinct 2, is neither necessary nor justified. Alternate maps have been drawn by members of the community that show that it is possible to increase the population and voting strength of Latinos in Precinct 2 without adversely impacting neighboring Precincts from electing a representative of their choice.”

“We need a map that is representative of the County and that is fair for Latinos,” concluded Gonzalez.

CM Gonzalez was one of several plaintiffs, as was CM James Rodriguez. You can see a copy of the complaint here, which was filed in federal court. Here’s what the suit asks from the court:

WHEREFORE, Plaintiffs respectfully pray that this Court:

1. Assume jurisdiction of this action.

2. Issue a declaratory judgment, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. §§ 2201 and 2202 and Federal Rules of Civil Procedure Rule 57, declaring that the Plan for Harris County’s Commissioners’ Court boundaries: (1) dilutes the voting strength of minority voters in violation of Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, as amended, 42 U.S.C. § 1973, and in violation of the Equal Protection Clause; (2) is an unconstitutional gerrymander in violation of the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution and Article I of the United States Constitution; and (3) cannot be administered pursuant to Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, as amended, 42 U.S.C. § 1973c.

3. Issue a declaratory judgment, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. §§ 2201 and 2202 and Federal Rules of Civil Procedure Rule 57, declaring that Harris County’s voter registration activities: dilute the voting strength of minority voters in violation of Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, as amended, 42 U.S.C. § 1973, and in violation of the Equal Protection Clause.

4. Issue a declaratory judgment, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. §§ 2201 and 2202 and Federal Rules of Civil Procedure Rule 57, declaring that the voter registration practices in effect since the adoption of the Settlement Agreement are void and that any effort to give them effect must only occur is preclearance is granted.

5. Issue preliminary and permanent injunctions enjoining the Defendants, their agents, employees, and those persons acting in concert with them, from enforcing or giving any effect to the proposed boundaries as drawn in the Plan, including enjoining Defendants from conducting any elections for the Commissioners’ Court based on the 2011 Plan.

6. Issue preliminary and permanent injunctions enjoining the Defendants, their agents, employees, and those persons acting in concert with them, from enforcing or giving any effect to the unlawful voter registration practices.

7. Make all further orders as are just, necessary, and proper to ensure complete fulfillment of this Court’s Declaratory and injunctive orders in this case.

8. Issue an order requiring Defendants to pay Plaintiffs’ costs, expenses and reasonable attorneys’ fees incurred in the prosecution of this action, as authorized by the Civil Rights Attorneys’ Fees Awards Act of 1976, 42 U.S.C. § 1988

9. Grant such other and further relief as it seems is proper and just.

Dated this 5th day of August, 2011.

I am greatly intrigued by the reference to the 2008 lawsuit against Harris County and then-Tax Assessor Paul Bettencourt, which alleged that thousands of voter registration forms were illegally rejected. I’m glad to see this get litigated again, because by all reports I’ve heard the underlying problems have continued. We’ll see how this goes.

UPDATE: David Ortez and Stace have more.

City asks Metro for Harrisburg underpass

From the Inbox:

Houston Mayor and METRO Seek Common Ground on East End Line

Resolution of Harrisburg/Hughes Streets Over/Under Question Becomes a Milestone

The city of Houston has concluded there is “strong sentiment” within the East End community for an underpass at Harrisburg/Hughes St. and has requested METRO’s Board of Directors vote in support of a plan to create a grade separated betterment for light rail and vehicular traffic. This “All-Under Option,” according to Houston Mayor Annise Parker, is intended to “promote pedestrian and vehicular safety in the area and encourage community development, and enhance overall mobility in the East End.” The city has committed $20.6 million in financial support for the project.

Although the underpass route is influenced by numerous considerations, the decision of whether or not to support the request will ultimately rest with the METRO Board of Directors. METRO Chairman, Gilbert Garcia, hopes to bring the complex matter up for vote by the directors this Thursday.

“We appreciate Mayor Parker’s efforts to build consensus in this lingering community debate. I congratulate the Mayor, Council members, Ed Gonzalez, James Rodriguez, and Melissa Noriega, as well as community representatives, the Mayor’s staff and METRO’s staff for working together on this issue.” said Garcia.

METRO President & CEO George Greanias said the “all under option” will take longer to build, possibly two years longer, and the extra cost of $20-23 million does not cover a pedestrian tunnel. “Despite the hurdles ahead, this request is a good example of community partnerships. We look forward to working with the city in seeing this project to completion.” said Greanias.

Of the $20.6 million in financial assistance being offered by the city:

  • $10.0 million – CIP funds previously committed to this issue
  • $4.9 million – Postponement of the Fulton Paving and Drainage Project (Dist. H)
  • $3.2 million – Postponement of the Telephone Road Reconstruction (Dist. I)
  • $2.5 million – Harrisburg TIRZ funds

METRO’s original design for the crossing accommodated light-rail only. The city of Houston, after extensive dialog with the community, commissioned a study on the feasibility of constructing an underpass. The betterment will require collaboration with Houston Belt and Terminal (HBT) Railroad, and creation of a new and temporary terminus at Altic.  Offsetting the higher cost, however, is an added value to railroad operations – the new design, according to the city, will ease flooding impairments. In return for METRO’s support, the city of Houston has offered to make funds available in a timely fashion, as well as collaborate to seek more funds and support METRO in negotiations for necessary concessions from HBT. The matter will go before the full METRO Board of Directors, at its regular monthly meeting Thursday, July 28th.

See here and here for some background. This sounds like the better way to go, and I’m glad to see it happen. Swamplot has more.

UPDATE: Here’s the Chron story.

George Greanias, Metro’s president and chief executive officer, said the need for detailed design work means the underpass likely won’t be complete until 2016, two years after the scheduled completion date for the East End, North and Southeast lines. However, trains will run from downtown to the station nearest the underpass by 2014, Metro spokesman Jerome Gray said.

To help pay Metro’s share of the cost, Greanias said the agency would look to Harris County as well as railroads that benefit from the grade separation. The East End line is not federally funded.

[…]

Council member Sue Lovell, chairwoman of the city’s Transportation, Infrastructure and Aviation Committee, said the decision to build the underpass represents the city’s and Metro’s shared response to a community request.

“Metro could have just built the overpass, but they decided to listen to the community,” said Lovell, who initially opposed the underpass. “They presented to the community that it would cost more, and the community overwhelmingly said they wanted to have the underpass.”

Also, she said, a bigger variety of businesses can be built along an underpass than in the shadow of a viaduct.

“The advantages to economic development in the long run for the neighborhoods more than make up what they may sacrifice right now in the CIP,” she said.

Marilu de la Fuente, president of the Harrisburg Heritage Society and a member of the East End Chamber’s rail committee, said the underpass decision showed the community’s power.

“Finally we got everyone involved,” she said. “They started listening to us and they knew we were a force to be reckoned with.”

No question about that. There was a lot of opposition to the overpass in the community, and a lot of grumbling at that time about Metro ignoring the feedback they were getting. This change of direction says as much about Metro as it does about the power and persistence of the residents.

East End community meeting to consider Harrisburg grade separation

From the Inbox:

East End community meeting to consider Harrisburg grade separation

Wednesday, June 15

Union Pacific’s East Belt rail subdivision is one of the busiest in the city, carrying more than 30 freight trains a day through Houston’s East End. For years, the crossing at Harrisburg has created delays and headaches for motorists and trains alike. The City of Houston first targeted this crossing for grade separation in 1953. Harris County recommended an underpass at this location in 2004. The Gulf Coast Rail District identified this crossing as a priority in 2009.

METRO is currently constructing the East End light rail line down Harrisburg. They must either go under or over the freight rail line, which poses a timely opportunity to finally grade separate the road and the freight line as well. The remaining questions are whether to construct an underpass or an overpass, how much it will cost, and who will fund the improvements.

For more than three years, East End business and neighborhood leaders have fought for an underpass. An underpass will be less obtrusive, require less right-of-way, and project less noise than an overpass, minimizing impacts to Harrisburg businesses. It will also will provide a neighborhood-friendly crossing that’s accessible to bicycles and pedestrians. They recognize that the success of METRO’s rail transit investment depends on creating pedestrian-friendly development around stations, and that an overpass is likely to stymie that process. The underpass proposal has widespread support from both businesses and residents in the East End, including:

  • Greater Eastwood Super Neighborhood (SN 64 & 88), Eastwood Civic Association, Houston Country Club Civic Association, Magnolia Pineview Civic Club, East Lawndale Civic Association, and Idylwood Civic Club
  • East End Chamber of Commerce, East End Management District, Harrisburg Merchants Association, and Historic Harrisburg

In 2010, the City of Houston commissioned a study to determine the cost differential between two overpass options and an underpass. The study estimates that an underpass will cost $43.4 million, or $13.4 million more than a vehicle overpass. You can review the draft executive summary (4.7 mb pdf) which explains the options but does not include final cost estimates. The City should release the final Harrisburg Grade Separation report this week. City leaders have identified some of the funds needed for the underpass, but a significant gap remains. There’s potential to defer other City capital projects to make up the difference, and also for Harris County Commissioner Jack Morman and Union Pacific to help close the gap.

Community meeting Wednesday!

On Wednesday night, Mayor Parker, Council Members Gonzalez, Rodriguez, and Noriega, and METRO CEO George Greanias will host a community meeting about the grade separation. You’re invited hear an update on the state of funding for the project, and have the opportunity to express whether other projects in the City’s capital improvement program (CIP) for the area should be deferred to help the underpass move forward.

What: Harrisburg grade separation update meeting
When: Wednesday, June 15, 2011 from 7:00 pm to 9:00 pm
Where: Ripley House, 4410 Navigation Blvd, Houston, 77011 (map)

I realize money is tight, but in the grand scheme of things $13 million isn’t that much, especially considering the benefit those extra dollars will yield. Everyone with a stake in this – the city, Harris County, Metro, the Gulf Coast Rail District, and so on – should do whatever it takes to get this right. Those of you who live in the area, please do your part and show up to tell them so. Thanks to the CTC for the heads up.

Council approves deal to spin off Convention Center

Meet Houston First, which merges the city’s Convention and Entertainment Facilities Department and the Houston Convention Center Hotel Corporation, which runs the Hilton Americas.

The corporation will not have to come to the council to get expenses approved. The unionized work force of the city department will become private-sector employees of the corporation. The corporation is free to take chances by, for example, launching new trade shows without worrying that taxpayers are on the hook if the event is a bust.

Houston First will rent the GRB, Jones Hall and the Wortham Center from the city.

[…]

The concept has been talked about for a decade, but the plan approved on a 14-1 vote by City Council on Wednesday came together in recent months as Mayor Annise Parker’s administration looked for ways to close a $75 million budget gap without raising taxes.

The budget proposal she released last month banked on council approval of the merger and the $10 million in rent and fees the corporation will pay the city in the fiscal year that begins on July 1.

See here for some background. The story notes that the Mayor’s office overcame some initial skepticism from various Council members, including CM James Rodriguez in whose district the Convention Center is and who was unhappy about not being briefed before the plan came to light. If the end results are similar to those of the Houston Zoo, which was spun off in 2002, then this should work out fine.

Council officially approves new redistricting map

Let the filings begin!

The Houston City Council approved a new political map for the city on Wednesday that expands the council by two seats and gives Houston’s burgeoning Latino population what community leaders see as its best opportunity to capture a third seat in November elections.

[…]

The City Council’s approval of the new District J, which takes in Gulfton, Sharpstown and other southwest Houston communities, creates a political subdivision where 63 percent of the residents are Hispanics, though only 17 percent of the registered voters have Hispanic surnames.

“It doesn’t mean there will one immediately elected, but this is an opportunity for the Latino community to have a good candidate in this district,” said Councilman Al Hoang.

Councilman James Rodriguez said a “wanted” email has circulated among Hispanic leaders seeking the right person for the District J job.

Now that we have actual lines, and no immediate threat that they may be undone by a lawsuit, we will probably see a bunch of candidates pop up for the new and redrawn districts. Along those lines, Ellen Cohen has confirmed she’s running in District C; her press release is beneath the fold. I’m not yet aware of any candidates for Districts J or K yet; Noel Freeman’s roundup of treasurer filings lists a couple of rumored-to-be-candidates, but nothing solid yet. That will change soon enough. A statement from CM James Rodriguez is also beneath the fold. Greg has more.

UPDATE: Stace has more.

(more…)

Mayor presents revised Council map

Here’s the release. There was a press conference today at 10 to roll it out.

Mayor Annise Parker today revealed a second version of the staff redistricting map that incorporates recommendations from members of various Houston communities. The new plan includes four districts in which the total population and voting age population is majority Hispanic; two are majority African American and another is nearing majority African American; one district contains a large and significant Asian population; and three districts have Anglo majorities.

“This new map reflects Houston’s ethnic diversity,” said Mayor Parker. “I am amazed at the level of public participation in this process. It was truly a community effort. I am proud to have presided over a process that was entirely transparent and accessible. I especially thank the members of the Redistricting Oversight Committee, as well as community members as a whole, for their time and input.”

One of the most notable differences between the consensus map and the original is that the consensus map preserves the Hispanic majorities in Districts H and I, respects neighborhood concerns and increases the ability of Hispanics to elect council members in two other districts.

“We are very pleased the mayor and city staff sat with members of Houston’s Hispanic community to find a way to address our representation concerns,” said Laura Murillo, President and CEO, Houston Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. “We support this consensus map, and hope that City Council approves the changes.”

More than 1000 Houstonians attended the City’s 10 town hall meetings – one in every council district – intended to solicit public input before creating the original staff plan. Citizens voiced concerns about neighborhoods, the Voting Rights Act and the ability to elect a council that reflects the diversity of Houston. After the proposal was submitted to Council more than 100 community members came and spoke at the three public hearings.

“The Asian American community of Houston came together to ensure our voice was heard at every opportunity,” said Rogene Calvert, Director, Texas Asian American Redistricting Initiative. “We appreciate the Mayor’s outreach to all communities to produce the best map possible. Redistricting can’t meet everyone’s needs but today we join other Houston minority communities to support this redistricting plan.”

For the first time, Houstonians had access to a computer kiosk loaded with redistricting software and 2010 Census information. Numerous ordinary citizens took the time to draw their own maps and 13 plans were officially submitted for consideration and analysis. Nine met the minimum requirements.

“It is important for Houstonians to know the intricacies of this process, and how hard this committee worked to ensure everyone had the opportunity for equal representation,” said Anthony Hall, Chair, Mayor’s Redistricting Oversight Committee.

The Mayor’s Redistricting Oversight Committee was formed at the beginning of the process to assist and advise the demographer, Jerry Wood, and the mayor. Members include: Anthony Hall (Chair), Roman Martinez, Dr. Adolfo Santos, Zinetta Burney, Sue Schechter, Penny Butler, Gordon Quan, Mace Meeks and Pat Sanchez.

And here’s the map, which is an update to the Robert Jara plan that had been presented to Council last month. You can see the original version of that at Greg’s place. As noted by Marc Campos, CM James Rodriguez has endorsed this plan as well. Ellen Cohen is back where she started in District C, and I remain as always in District H. I don’t know if this means that the 16 single-member district plan is buried or not, but I do expect this plan to be approved, if not tomorrow then next week. Greg has more.

UPDATE: Now Greg has some preliminary data.

More on the new Council map

Here’s the Chron story about the proposed new Council map. Reactions were about what you’d expect for the most part.

“There’s two Latino council members and you have, currently, nine districts,” [District I Council Member James Rodriguez] said. “We’re moving to 11, and we’re going to stay the same. I don’t think that’s progress.”

[Mayor Annise] Parker said a key priority in the proposal, in addition to fairness, was keeping neighborhoods intact.

“We have four majority-Hispanic districts,” Parker said of the plan, noting that the portion of seats in play for Latino voters equates to Hispanics’ 40 percent share of the city’s voting-age population. “Whether or not they are represented by Hispanic public officials, the opportunity is there.”

[Demographer and map designer Jerry] Wood said two key factors make the creation of a third reliably Hispanic district difficult. First, he said, the Hispanic population is integrated throughout the city, leaving few concentrated pockets around which to draw districts. Second, he said, half of Houston’s Hispanic residents were born outside the United States, driving down the number of registered voters.

No voting precinct in the proposed A or F districts — the two most likely to elect a Latino other than the existing H and I strongholds – has a majority of Spanish surnames among its registered voters, Wood said.

A few thoughts here. It is difficult to draw a third seat that would be favored to elect a Latino, for all of the reasons Wood cites, but it is possible to do so. The city has apparently chosen to prioritize keeping neighborhoods together over finding a way to draw a third Latino district. That’s certainly not indefensible, though it is muddied by the fact that one neighborhood did get sliced up, against the wishes of an activist group that attended nearly all of the district meetings on redistricting to advocate for keeping it whole. I’m speaking of the Heights, whose bifurcation allowed the city to restore some Latino voting strength to District H while contributing to the Anglo concentration in J. If you’re willing to do that, why aren’t you willing to do the same in service of a real Latino opportunity district?

But Districts A and F have Latino majorities in them, you say. Well, yes they do. They have them today, in the current map, too. They don’t feel very opportunistic for Latino candidates because while the overall numbers skew that way, the more critical citizen voting age population (CVAP) numbers do not. Here’s a first pass at what the CVAP numbers for the four “Latino opportunity districts” look like. Two of those things are not like the others. It’s disingenuous to claim that A and F represent something new. And I have to say it makes me a little squeamish to see a district that has elected Asian-Americans as its Council member in the last two cycles also be touted as a Latino district. The Asian population is a lot smaller than the Latino population, but it too has grown considerably in the last decade. Can’t we have a map that reflects that growth as well as that of the Latinos?

I know this is hard, and I know that the Planning Department has put heroic amounts of work into creating a map that can never satisfy everyone. I don’t want to sound like I’m blaming them for anything, because I’m not. I also know they’re taking direction from the Mayor’s office, and if the Mayor tells them to tweak things, they can and will. If a third Latino district can’t be created in a way that satisfies the other requirements, let’s be clear about that instead of pointing at illusory opportunities.

Finally, I can’t let this go without mentioning turnout. I have a lot of sympathy for folks like CM James Rodriguez, who says the proposed map “is a plan that Latino leaders, activists and the overall Latino community should not support”, though I note that Stace has a somewhat different take. I strongly believe this process would be easier if Latino turnout in city elections were better, as this would allow smaller CVAP numbers to be relevant. Turnout of registered voters in H and I are always on the low end of the scale. Remember the pathetic turnout for the 2009 special election in District H? That shouldn’t happen. I hope that part of the discussion about how to craft a more representative map also includes a conversation about how to get more people actually involved in the political process. We’re just going through the motions otherwise.

I’m sure there will be plenty more to be said before this is all over. Besides the three Council meetings over the next two Wednesdays devoted to this, there are still approvals to be gotten and a vote by Council to finalize the boundaries. There are still plenty of opportunities to be heard if you want to be. A statement from Council Member Ed Gonzalez is here.

Dynamo Stadium lease deal reached

We didn’t get the World Cup, but soccer fans here had something to celebrate this week.

The Dynamo have agreed to pay $76 million to build a professional soccer stadium in downtown Houston and then lease it from the city and county for $65,000 a year.

The board of the Harris County-Houston Sports Authority, a joint city-county agency that acts as a pro sports stadium landlord, unanimously approved the deal Thursday morning. While the Dynamo will pay most of the cost of construction, the city and county will own the stadium.

Thursday’s approval sets the stage for construction to begin as early as next month just across U.S. 59 from the George R. Brown Convention Center.

The deal still has to be approved by Houston City Council and Commissioners Court, but I expect both to happen this month. Looking through the archives, the first mention I can find of “Dynamo Stadium” is just over four years ago, shortly after they had settled on the team’s name. You can’t say we’ve rushed this, that’s for sure. Construction is projected to take about 16 months, meaning the stadium may be open in time for the 2012 MLS season. In addition to being the home of the Dynamo and TSU football, the new stadium will also be a live music venue.

The Dynamo’s owners, entertainment giant AEG Worldwide, will be looking to book musical acts into the 22,000-seat stadium.

The Dynamo has worked out a somewhat informal non-compete clause with the Toyota Center, but there’s no such agreement with the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion.

The Pavilion’s capacity is about 17,000; with field seats the new stadium could hold 25,000.

“We’re a larger venue…Our parent company is AEG, that’s their business, live entertainment and they do a lot of musical shows across the country,” Canetti said. ” So I suspect that we’ll be looking to do a handful of shows if not more in the new stadium.”

Canetti noted the Pavilion’s success. “I think they have a niche both in terms of where they’re located and the size of the venue and I think we’re going to provide something that’s just a little bit different for everybody.”

Sounds good to me.

No World Cup for you!

Bummer.

In a mild upset, tiny but oil-rich Qatar was awarded the 2022 FIFA World Cup only a few minutes after Russia was awarded the 2018 bid in a process that was decided by a vote of FIFA’s 22-member executive committee today in Zurich.

[…]

The Go Houston Bid Committee held a private viewing breakfast at the George R. Brown so top city and county leaders could watch the announcement’s broadcast together with some of Houston’s top soccer officials and backers.

“There’s 17 other U.S. cities that are as disappointed as we are,” said Robert Dale Morgan of the Houston Bid Committee. “I think the U.S. bid committee did an outstanding job. Whenever you bid on something of this magnitude you know the competition is going to be stiff.”

Harris County Judge Ed Emmett and District I councilman James Rodriguez, two supporters of the city and county’s decision to help the Dynamo build their new stadium on the East End, attended the viewing party.

Both were visibly dejected.

“I’m disappointed that the U.S. will not host the 2022 FIFA World Cup,” Rodriguez said. “Our country would have put on an amazing World Cup. Many thanks to our local World Cup Bid Committee for all of their efforts.”

Emmett, whose children played soccer growing up, vows to continue to help further soccer’s growth in Harris County.

“It’s a major disappointment because I thought the U.S. bid was very strong,” Emmett said. “And locally it would have really benefited us a great deal. The soccer community is ready for it. By 2022, just think about that, that’s 12 years from now and how much more soccer we would have going on in this community. Now I think all we can do is accept the decision, take the energy that we have for soccer here locally and channel it.”

Qatar is apparently going to spend a ton of money on stadia and infrastructure, including solar-powered air conditioners to battle the 120 degree summer heat. I wish them the best of luck. In the meantime, it may be awhile before the US gets another shot at this.

China is already tabbed as the front-runner to host in 2026, and the tournament would be expected back in Europe for 2030. There is no timeline for those decisions.

That’s a little too far into the future for me. Anyone know where the post-2011 Women’s World Cup events will be? I couldn’t find an answer via Google.

Dynamo Stadium deal tagged

While City Council was able to complete the Lakewood Church sale, they were not able to vote on the other major real estate deal on their agenda this week, as Council Member Jarvis Johnson put a tag on the Dynamo Stadium deal.

Johnson said he delayed the vote out of concern the stadium could put the city in violation of its contract with the Houston Rockets that no other municipal venue would be used to compete for major events, such as concerts, through 2013.

Last week, Johnson attended a committee meeting at which Andy Icken, the city’s chief development officer, assured him that no events outside of Dynamo soccer and TSU football would be permitted at the new stadium through 2013, to avoid any conflict with the Rockets.

I don’t know what CM Johnson’s issue was, but if we’ve learned anything about Council by now it’s that tags are just a fact of life. It’s not clear that this will have any effect on the hoped-for completion in time for Opening Day 2012, but it did lead to this:

Councilman James Rodriguez, whose district encompasses the stadium’s planned location, expressed disappointment at the delay.

“I just wish that when council members have questions, that they would be addressed in the committee process, not this late in the game,” Rodriguez said.

Without further comment, he then tagged two items involving Johnson’s district.

And to think, some people believe politics is boring.

Interview with Council Member James Rodriguez

James Rodriguez

James Rodriguez

Next we have Council Member James Rodriguez, who is serving his first term in District I. He’s been busy on a number of fronts, including the construction of the Harrisburg light rail line and the pending Dynamo Stadium deal, as well as becoming a father for the first time in August. Rodriguez is unopposed this November.

Download the MP3 file.

PREVIOUSLY:

Karen Derr, At Large #1
Brad Bradford, At Large #4
Stephen Costello, At Large #1
Lane Lewis, District A
Lonnie Allsbrooks, At Large #1
Noel Freeman, At Large #4
Brenda Stardig, District A
Oliver Pennington, District G
Amy Peck, District A
Herman Litt, At Large #1
Natasha Kamrani, HISD Trustee in District I, not running for re-election
Alex Wathen, District A
Robert Kane, District F
Council Member Melissa Noriega, At Large #3
Jeff Downing, District A
Mike Laster, District F
Council Member Jolanda Jones, At Large #5
Mills Worsham, District G
Rick Rodriguez, At Large #1
Council Member Sue Lovell, At Large #2
Carlos Obando, At Large #5
Richard Sedita, District G
Jack Christie, At Large #5
Dexter Handy, District G
George Foulard, District G
Alma Lara, HISD Trustee District I
Anna Eastman, HISD Trustee District I
Linda Toyota, HISD Trustee District I
Council Member Ed Gonzalez, District H
Council Member Wanda Adams, District D
Council Member Anne Clutterbuck, District C
Progressive Coalition candidates
Council Member Mike Sullivan, District E

Counting on the Census

I wasn’t really paying attention to this sort of thing ten years ago, so I don’t know how much effort was made at the time to get an accurate count of Texas’ residents for the 2000 Census. I can say that there seems to be a lot of focus this time around, and that’s a very good thing, because there’s a lot riding on getting it right.

Census undercounts have historically plagued Texas, and with billions of federal dollars at stake for health care, schools and immunizations, officials say the state could lose millions if the count is not accurate in 2010.

With the census just a year away, communities have organized “Complete Count Committees” to urge residents to participate.

An audit of the past census, conducted almost a decade ago, found that 373,567 Texans were not counted, or 1.76 percent of the state’s population, for an estimated loss of $2,913 per person — or $1 billion — in federal funds from 2002 to 2012.

That census was recalculated, and it was determined that there was a half a percent nationwide overcount, which shows the difficulties in getting an exact figure.

If the undercount had been allowed to stand, losses for Medicaid, child care, block grants, vocational services and other services would have been dire. And the nation’s eight largest counties, including Harris and Dallas in Texas, would have lost more than $100 million each in federal funds, according to the audit for the U.S. Census Monitoring Board.

A lot of the undercount in Texas was along the border, but it happened in the big cities as well. Here in Houston, I know that Council Members Melissa Noriega and James Rodriguez are working with the Census folks to get as accurate a count here as possible. The local effort is called Houston Counts, and they could use your help if you’re so inclined. Click over and fill out the Volunteer/Committee sign-up form (PDF) to pitch in. They’re not exactly overflowing with volunteers right now, so every little bit matters. The Houston metropolitan area should be in line for one of the extra Congressional seats that will come Texas’ way in 2011, but it won’t happen if we don’t count everyone.

Who should represent District H?

That’s the question, isn’t it?

It took only a few minutes at the District H candidate forum Thursday morning for discussion to turn to the elephant in the room.

“District H is supposed to be a Hispanic district,” said Edgar Colon, chairman of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce’s Political Action Committee, reading a question on behalf of an audience member. “Should it be represented by a Hispanic?”

In what is shaping up as a hard-fought runoff campaign between Houston police officer Ed Gonzalez and former public high school teacher Maverick Welsh to fill the City Council seat vacated by Adrian Garcia, that question looms as large as any other in a district originally drawn to elect a Latino.

Stace gives a nice answer to that.

I’ll be the first one to say it. No! It doesn’t have to be represented by an Hispanic. But when you have a highly qualified, progressive-minded product of the district, why not?

As a highly-educated Chicano myself, I’ve been proud to click on a Anglo candidate running against a brown person, especially when the brown person is not a progressive (cough-cough, Roy and/or Danny More-or-Less Mexicano). So, no, it’s not about race, or in this case, ethnicity. As a voter, I’m interested in having a highly qualified candidate with whom I can identify, whether it by that candidate’s story, or something else.

Stace supports Ed Gonzalez. As you know, I broke the tie in favor of Maverick Welsh. You can’t really go wrong either way. I was at that forum, and I thought both candidates answered the question deftly, without getting trapped by it. The right answer to me is that this district, like all of the others, should be represented by someone who can serve the needs of everyone in it. One could just as easily ask the question should District G be represented by an Anglo? Who should represent the city, in which no racial or ethnic group comprises a majority? I say the answer is the same across the board. In this particular case, we have two candidates who I think would fit the bill nicely. It’s up to all of us to ensure that whoever wins lives up to that.

Currently, District I Councilman James Rodriguez is the only Latino among 14 council members, in a city where Hispanics make up nearly 42 percent of the population.

The Department of Justice helped create District H when it forced the city to undertake redistricting in 1979, part of an effort to correct historic voting inequities in Houston and ensure more minority representation on the council. But the district, which includes the Heights, much of the old Second Ward just east of downtown and a wide swath that extends midway between the inner and outer loops around Interstate 45, has undergone dramatic changes since then.

Here’s something you may not know. I didn’t know it until I went looking through the historical election returns on the City Secretary’s webpage. The first election for District H in 1979 was won by Dale Gorczynski, who is now a Justice of the Peace in JP Precinct 1. Here are the returns from that election:


James M. Goins 1,181 Willie D. Hatchett 1,719 Herman Lauhoff 3,977 Russel Stanley 305 Anne Wheeler 2,824 Dale M. Gorczynski 3,274

Gorczynski won the runoff, then held the seat through the 1991 election, after which he did not run again. The first time that a Hispanic candidate won the District H seat was as far as I could tell the first time that a candidate with a recognizably Hispanic surname ran for it, in the open seat contest of 1993 in which Felix Fraga emerged victorious. I knew Gorczynski had been the District H member before Fraga, but I hadn’t realized he was the original Council member.

You can make of all that what you will. I found it interesting that this district that was drawn to be represented by a Hispanic has only recently been actually represented by a Hispanic for a majority of its existence. David Ortez has some tangential thoughts.

More on the City Council redistricting lawsuit dismissal

Here’s the Chron story about the dismissal of the lawsuit, brought by Vidal Martinez and Carroll Robinson.

The lawsuit argued the city was violating its own charter by refusing to redistrict and add two council districts when its population passed the 2.1 million threshhold in late 2006.

U.S. District Judge Sim Lake rejected that contention, finding the plaintiffs had failed to show the city’s charter compelled redistricting. Martinez promised an appeal.

“This is just the first step in a long marathon,” he said, noting that the outcome of the case could depend on a U.S. Supreme Court case dealing with voting rights that originated in Austin. “Nobody should take any happiness out of this very preliminary ruling by the court. In the end, justice has not been done with a 30-year agreement and contract the city made with the Houston Latino community.”

City Attorney Arturo Michel said the ruling upholds the city’s contention that it could not follow federal law regarding redistricting without the accuracy provided by the upcoming decennial population count by the U.S. Census Bureau. Federal law requires precinct-level data for redistricting, which would not be available until after the 2010 count. Using data from the 2000 count, the city argued, would lead to inaccurate district boundaries.

“That will allow you to identify where voters are and come up with the representation system that is the fairest,” Michel said. “What’s more important is that you have a complete and accurate Census count so that you know where people are, and then you can divide your districts in a way that will be fairest to everyone.”

I’m not sure at this point how you can get a resolution from the courts that would be done any sooner than the post-2010 Census redistricting, but we’ll see how that goes. A copy of the opinion can be found here (PDF). It’s pretty complex, but I think Miya summarizes it succinctly enough as “the plaintiffs basically didn’t prove how they were damaged by the city waiting for the census”. And so wait we will, pending a reversal on appeal. Houston Politics has more.

The Census and City Council redistricting

Looks like Mayor White has an interesting ally in the city council redistricting debate.

Frumencio Reyes, the dean of Houston-area redistricting litigation, said he believes the mayor made the right decision in putting off redistricting.

[…]

Reyes, who has taken at least one Voting Rights Act case to the U.S. Supreme Court, said that if the city were to go ahead with redistricting now, it could disenfranchise local Latinos. His rationale echoed city officials: To undertake redistricting, municipalities must use U.S. Census micro-data to develop the precincts that would be used to draw voting districts.

But the Census only completes population counts at that level of specificity every 10 years, as it will do next year. To add two districts, the city would have to use data from 2000. Based on advice from his city attorney and Reyes, White has opted to wait until the 2010 Census results are in, asserting that any plan devised before then likely would not withstand a legal challenge.

“Using the old census numbers would create a tremendous disadvantage for Hispanic voters,” Reyes said. Of all the demographic groups in Houston, the Latino population has grown the most in the past 10 years and has the most to lose by poorly drawn voting districts, he said.

I’ve been arguing that since we’ve waited this long we’d be better off waiting till the 2010 Census numbers are in, so Reyes’ logic makes sense to me. It still doesn’t quite address the issue of why we didn’t take action in 2006, but if you accept Reyes’ reasoning, it’s plausible to think that the 2000 figures would have been sufficiently skewed by then as well. If nothing else, this is a pretty strong answer that the Mayor can give to his critics on this issue.

Reyes is not the only community leader finding himself in an unusual position. Former City Councilmen Carroll Robinson and John Castillo are backing the lawsuit. Like Reyes, Castillo was involved in the 1979 settlement with the Department of Justice that brought about the 2.1 million provision. As an aide to Councilman Ben Reyes in the late 1970s, he pushed the city to add a second Hispanic district, researching the population himself and turning in an alternative plan to what the city presented to the Department of Justice. He played a key role in fashioning District H.

“I’m disappointed that the city has not tried to be compliant with the court order and the settlement that was reached,” Castillo said. “It’s obvious that they did know in 2006 that the threshold had been reached and should have begun to make plans to implement the new districts as soon as possible.”

White announced his intent Wednesday to set up a campaign to involve community leaders, churches and council in the upcoming Census count. The “Complete Count” committee, an idea used during the 2000 Census, would seek to encourage participation in the Census. City officials said the committee will make a special effort to find “hard to reach” communities that some demographers worry are undercounted.

Robinson said the “complete count” effort was a good idea but separate from the requirements in the charter to redistrict. He castigated council members for a separate action taken Wednesday that essentially ratified the 2000 Census count of around 1.95 million people for voting purposes, even though the city has for years used far higher population figures — now reaching around 2.2 million — in official documents, including budget-related calculations

More on that “complete count” story here:

White will chair the “Complete Count Committee” in an effort to publicize the importance of every Houston resident’s participation in the census next year. Federal funding, charity grants and political redistricting at all levels depend on the accuracy of the count.

“People need not be afraid of filling out the census form,” said Councilman James Rodriguez, who will be vice chairman of the committee. “There is a concern in the immigrant community that it will be used to determine their immigration status and it will be turned over to (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) and they’ll be deported.”

Census numbers are never turned over to immigration officials, Rodriguez said, but he added that a massive public relations effort is needed to encourage participation. In 2000, doorhandle fliers used on the East Side featured a prominent Catholic bishop’s photo and instructions in English and Spanish.

Rodriguez wants the committee to begin work in the next few weeks.

Stace is also on the Mayor’s side in this, as is Council Member Rodriguez, who voted with the Mayor on that ordinance Robinson references. I have no idea how the court battle will go, but yesterday was a good day for the city’s position on the public relations front.

Over/under

Some East End residents are still unhappy about the way the Harrisburg light rail line is shaping up.

East End residents overwhelmingly supported the rail line in a 2003 referendum, thinking it would boost the redevelopment already taking place. Back then, however, Metro’s plans did not include a mammoth, six-block-long overpass to cross existing Union Pacific freight rail tracks at Hughes or a rail car maintenance facility near Harrisburg.

Neighborhood residents still support the rail line, but some residents and civic leaders worry the planned overpass will split the neighborhood and inhibit future redevelopment. They also don’t like the extra industry that will be added to the area by the four-block-long rail maintenance facility.

Since Metro announced the plan last summer, residents have grown increasingly resentful and complain that the transit agency is not considering their concerns.

The tension was evident two weeks ago when some community residents and leaders implored City Council and Mayor Bill White to “stop this preposterous overpass.”

For what it’s worth, the issue first came to light in March, at which time the plan was to simply stop the line before the freight tracks. A month later, an agreement was reached to bypass the freight rail tracks one way or another.

Metro’s board voted on the Harrisburg line in June 2006 after more than 70 community meetings, agency spokesman George Smalley said.

Many argue that the overpass would shut off a portion of the boulevard and increase noise throughout the neighborhood.

The proposed overpass, planned to span from Cowling to 66th, would rise 26 feet above a rail line, tall enough to allow a double-stacked rail car to pass below. It would accommodate light rail trains, two traffic lanes and sidewalks.

“It’s going to be just massive,” said Robert Gallegos, president of the Houston Country Club Place Civic Club. “It would be a blight for generations to come that live in the East End.”

Some have called on Metro to build an underpass instead, saying it would be cheaper and less disruptive to the neighborhood.

They cite a 2004 Harris County report that estimated the cost of an underpass at $16 million.

Smalley dismissed the report as dated and said it did not take into account the cost of the actual rail line.

Metro has estimated the cost of an overpass at $45 million. Going under the freight rail line instead would drive the cost anywhere from $67 million to $81 million, Metro estimates.

“It’s long past time for planning and process,” Smalley said. “It’s time to build a better future.”

Councilman James Rodriguez, who represents the East End, agrees with Metro that an overpass is the only feasible option.

“My goal is to get a rail line built on time and allow it to serve my constituents,” he said.

In a letter to his constituents, Rodriguez said that continued debate jeopardized funds promised for the line.

“We run the risk of losing the line all together if we do not move forward and begin discussing the design of an overpass,” he wrote.

That overpass does sound massive. I can definitely understand the concern. I’m not sure that an underpass, if intended for the light rail line and the vehicular traffic, would be any less disruptive, however, since it would probably need to be about as long. I suppose the ideal solution would be to build an underpass for the freight rail line, but I’m guessing that’s out of the question. Not sure what else there is to say, other than Metro needs to engage the community in the design of this thing. Groundbreaking for this line was in June. It’s time to get moving.

Here we go again with City Council redistricting

Or at least, here we go again with arguing about when we should be redrawing City Council lines.

Mayor Bill White’s decision to delay redrawing the boundaries of City Council districts has angered numerous community activists, who say his stance is defying Houston’s charter.

Under a 30-year-old legal settlement with the U.S. Justice Department, the number of council members “shall increase” from 14 to 16 when Houston’s population hits 2.1 million. That settlement later was incorporated into the city’s charter.

The mayor, City Council members and officials all acknowledge that the triggering population threshold has been crossed.

But White and several council members have resisted the push for redistricting, asserting that the city lacks population data needed to redraw district lines accurately. That data will come from the U.S. Census Bureau’s decennial survey in 2010. Pressing on without it, they say, could lead to a court challenge under federal voting rights laws.

[…]

Houston has had more than 2.1 million people since 2006, according to population estimates the city has been using in official documents. To create new districts and change boundaries, however, the city would have to use detailed population estimates for specific tracts of land, city officials said. Though demographers are assumed to estimate the overall city population accurately, the only accurate tract-level data would have to come from the 2000 Census.

Redrawing district lines now would, in effect, be based on almost 10-year-old data, said Jerry Wood, a former city planner and redistricting expert. He noted that the city went through redistricting in 1982 and 1985, based on dated census figures. The estimates used those years were shown to be wrong in the 1990 Census, Wood said.

That possibility, and any lawsuit that could stem from it, led City Attorney Arturo Michel and Chief Administrative Officer Anthony Hall to advise the mayor against redistricting now.

“I have no doubt that our actual population exceeds the threshold number, but there are substantial legal issues about whether federal law allows us to draw districts based on guesses about where people live,” White said.

I appreciate that perspective, and as far as it goes, I agree we’ll have much more accurate data real soon now. But we’ve been talking about this for over three years, and the city could have taken action in 2006 in time for the 2007 elections, but demurred on the grounds that we weren’t really sure we were past the 2.1 million mark. That seems to have been an erroneous belief. Anyway, the last time this came up, the word was wait till 2010. Which makes sense in a vacuum, but it didn’t have to be this way. I have a lot of sympathy for the people who are complaining about it again now.

Presently, in a city made up of 41.7 percent Hispanics, 24.3 percent African-Americans and 5.3 percent Asian-Americans, there is one Latino council member, four African-Americans and one Asian-American.

“We’re the fourth-largest city in America. Let’s act like it,” said Vidal Martinez, an attorney and former Port of Houston commissioner who urged council members recently to take up redistricting now.

But council members noted that much of the city’s growth that would be addressed in redistricting has happened in west Houston.

“We’re going to have to peel away (new districts) from existing western, white districts,” Councilwoman Anne Clutterbuck said. The problem with drawing out districts to address a certain population, like a Hispanic population, is Hispanics are scattered across the city.”

We’re likely, though certainly not guaranteed, to have another Latino member after the special election for District H. That would make Council exactly half Anglo, half non-Anglo, and while that’s not really aligned with the overall population, I’ll bet it’s a pretty fair representation of the population that actually votes. Some Latino leaders have a summit coming up in three weeks to talk about issues like that – see Marc Campos for details. More voter participation, and more Latinos running At Large would make a big difference even with the current lines.

If you’ve read any of my precinct analysis posts from the 2008 election, you know I agree with Council Member Clutterbuck about the electoral map out west. Another question that will need to be dealt with for the eventual map-drawers is what to do with District E. It really doesn’t make sense to glue Kingwood and Clear Lake together, but splitting them apart is likely to create two districts that will tend to elect Anglos, instead of just one. If the goal is to increase minority representation, that will come into conflict. Whenever we do get around to this, it’s going to be a tricky and contentious task.