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Jerry Davis

January 2018 finance reports: City of Houston

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Looking ahead to 2019

Yes, yes, I know. We’ve barely begun the 2018 cycle. Who in their right mind is thinking about 2019? I plead guilty to political insanity, but the beginning of the year is always the best time to look forward, and just as 2018 will be unlike any election year we’ve seen before, I think 2019 will be unusual, too. Let’s just take a moment to contemplate what lies ahead.

I’ve posted this list before, but just to review here are the Council members who are term-limited going into 2019:

Brenda Stardig – District A
Jerry Davis – District B
Ellen Cohen – District C
Mike Laster – District J
Larry Green – District K
Jack Christie – At Large #5

There is an opportunity for progressives to elect a candidate more favorable to them with CM Christie’s departure, and his At Large colleagues Mike Knox and Michael Kubosh will also draw attention. Against that, I would remind everyone that Bill King carried Districts C and J in 2015, so we’re going to have to play defense, too.

It is too early to start speculating about who might run where, but keep two things in mind. One is that there’s likely some pent-up demand for city offices, since there won’t have been an election since 2015, and two is that some number of people who are currently running for something in 2018 will find themselves on the sidelines by March or May, and some of them may decide to shift their focus to a more local race. The point I’m making here is expect there to be a lot of candidates, and not just for the term-limited offices. I don’t expect Mayor Turner to be seriously challenged, but I do expect the firefighters to find someone to support against him. Finally, I expect Pasadena to be a hotbed of action again for their May elections, as Democrats missed by seven votes in District B winning a majority on Pasadena City Council.

The following HISD Trustees are up for election in 2019:

Rhonda Skillern-Jones – District II
Sergio Lira – District III
Jolanda Jones – District IV
Diana Davila – District VIII

Skillern-Jones was forced into a runoff in 2015, but she then won that easily. Lira was elected this year to finish Manuel Rodriguez’s term. Jolanda is Jolanda, and no election that includes her will ever be boring. Davila sued to get on the Democratic primary ballot for Justice of the Peace, but was not successful. I have to assume whoever runs against her will make an issue of the fact that she was job-hopping in the interim.

The following HCC Trustees are up for election in 2019:

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

It is too early to think about who might be running for what in Houston and HISD. It is very much NOT too early to find and begin building support for a good candidate to run against Dave Wilson and kick his homophobic ass out of office. That is all.

Mayor introduces new recycling deal

There’s some stuff to like in this, and there are also questions to be answered.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

The city would send all 65,000 tons of bottles, cans and boxes its citizens recycle each year to a new processing facility to be built in northeast Houston under a 20-year deal Mayor Sylvester Turner will present to City Council next month.

The contract with Spanish firm FCC Environmental, worth up to $57 million, would allow citizens to again put glass in their 96-gallon green bins, along with cardboard, newspaper, steel cans, aluminum and plastic.

Turner, faced with a poor commodities market and rising recycling costs upon entering office last year, negotiated away hard-to-process glass in hammering out a two-year stopgap deal with the city’s current contractor, Waste Management.

Council members raised enough concerns about the new contract’s length and cost and the speed at which it was being considered that Turner canceled a Tuesday committee hearing on the topic minutes before it was to begin and pulled it from Wednesday’s council agenda.

Turner stood firmly behind the deal at a Wednesday news conference, however, saying the proposal would not only return glass to the city’s recycling program but also would require FCC to share in the risk of a crash in the commodities market, ensuring the city never pays more to recycle than it would pay to throw the same materials in a landfill.

“When you take a look at what this offers, let me simply say: state-of-the-art technology, a brand-new facility, including glass, capping the floor of what the city would have to pay should the market turn down,” Turner said. “This is an excellent deal.”

Under the proposed deal, if the revenue generated by selling recycled materials is less than $87.05 per ton, the city would pay FCC the difference, up to a maximum of $25 per ton. If the materials sell for more than $87.05, the city would get a quarter of that excess revenue.

Under the current Waste Management contract, the city’s per-ton processing fee is $92, and there is no cap on the city’s costs. Houston’s per-ton costs have ranged between $20 and $53 per ton under that deal.

Prior to the commodities market crash, the city paid a $65-per-ton processing fee.

The FCC contract also would have the city borrow $2.4 million to add eight new trucks to its aging fleet and repay the loan at a 10 percent interest rate. That is significantly higher than what the city would pay if it borrowed the money itself.

[…]

Councilman Mike Laster, who was to chair the canceled committee hearing on the topic Tuesday, echoed his colleague [CM Jerry Davis].

“There’s still a lot of a lot of questions to be answered,” he said. “That gives me concern, and I look forward to doing all I can to get the best information.”

Texas Campaign for Environment’s Rosanne Barone said the contract’s processing fee and the interest rate on the $2.4 million loan are concerning. A broader worry, she said, is whether the contract leaves the city enough flexibility to capitalize on any improvements in its recycling policies in the future. Her group long has pushed the city to adopt a plan that would help it divert more waste from landfills.

“Using taxpayer money to take out a loan for $2.4 million on eight trucks is not a good use of taxpayers’ money at all,” she said. “But the more important message here is, is this a contract that is going to be functional in the long term?”

That processing fee, which was mentioned several paragraphs after the first section I quoted above and not in any of those paragraphs that discuss current and past processing fees, is $87 per ton. Which is a lot more than the previous deal we had with Waste Management, when they took glass and commodities prices were good, but a bit less than what we’re paying now. Like CM Laster, I’d like to know more before I make any evaluations of this. Having glass included in curbside pickup again is good, and having a price guarantee is good. I don’t quite understand the loan arrangement for buying more trucks, and the length of the contract could be a concern as well. Let’s learn more and see what if any options exist to make changes. The Press has more.

When might the Supreme Court speak on the Houston term limits lawsuit?

So as you know there is an ongoing lawsuit over the language used in the 2015 referendum that altered the city’s term limits ordinance. It was filed shortly after the election, with the city winning the first round in district court. Appeals are ongoing, with the most recent ruling coming this past January on a procedural matter. In addition to all this, the plaintiff in the original suit filed a writ of mandamus with the Supreme Court on June 2 that asks them to direct the district court judge to vacate his previous order allowing the 2015 result to stand and to require city elections this November. I’m on the plaintiff’s attorney’s email list (for my sins, no doubt) and as he sent out a missive last week urging his followers to contact the Supreme Court and ask them to rule on the writ in time for an election to occur, I figured I ought to bring this up.

So as we are now halfway through June, I have to think that time is rapidly running out for a non-farcical election to be conducted this November. Normally at this time, multiple candidates for a variety of offices, especially the open ones, will have been at work for months. There are always people who pop up to run in July and August, including a few at the filing deadline, but by this point you usually have a pretty good idea of who is out there. Funds have been raised, materials have been printed, websites and social media presences have been built, volunteers have been recruited, etc etc etc. Campaigns require resources, and one of those resources is time. We’re basically four months out from the start of early voting. To get a campaign up and running from scratch, especially for an At Large position, that’s not a whole lot of time. It could be done, but it would greatly favor those who already have some of the other resources, namely money and some amount of name recognition. In other words, incumbents and people who can write a check to get their campaign going quickly.

For what it’s worth, the Supreme Court issued a ruling requiring a vote on HERO on July 24, 2015, which was in response to a writ of mandamus. That was about a referendum and thus didn’t directly involve any candidates, though I’d argue that it had a negative effect on the pro-HERO side, since the antis had been gearing up for a campaign for some time by then. Let’s call that the outer bounds of when a writ mandating city elections for this year may happen, though really I’d say that’s too late. Bear in mind that Council members Brenda Stardig, Jerry Davis, Ellen Cohen, Mike Laster, Larry Green, and Jack Christie are all in their last terms one way or the other, so if those terms wind up ending this year instead of 2019, a whole gaggle of hopefuls are going to have to get up to speed immediately. There’s no question that the Supreme Court has no qualms about meddling in the affairs of the city of Houston, but that doesn’t mean it feels compelled to do so. We ought to know soon enough.

Houston will get involved in the SB4 fight later this month

Very good to hear.

Mayor Sylvester Turner plans to ask City Council to vote this month on joining lawsuits challenging the constitutionality of Texas’ new “sanctuary cities” law, ending months of equivocation on the controversial immigration enforcement measure.

If City Council votes to sue, Houston would join San Antonio, Austin, Dallas and several other local governments already challenging the state or planning to do so.

“I will ask this month City Council to consider and vote to join the lawsuits challenging the constitutionality of SB4,” Turner tweeted Thursday morning, after the Houston Chronicle ran a front page story about his decision to remain on the sidelines of debate over the statute.

Here’s that front page story. You can see what a change of direction this is.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Turner has asked the city attorney’s office to review the law known as Senate Bill 4, which allows police to ask people their immigration status if detained even for a routine traffic stop, but otherwise continues to deflect questions about whether he plans to challenge it.

That has meant carefully sidestepping the term “sanctuary city,” while touting Houston as a diverse, “welcoming city” and assuring residents that Houston police will not violate their constitutional rights.

On Wednesday, the mayor attempted to redirect attention to Austin by urging Houstonians to take up their concerns at the Capitol, even though the law has been signed and the Legislature is not slated to revisit the issue during its July special session.

“The right forum to reconsider Senate Bill 4 before it goes into effect on Sept. 1 is Austin, Texas, and I’d encourage people to write to call to drive or go to Austin,” Turner said. “Go to Austin by the hundreds, by the thousands, and ask those who authored, voted for and signed Senate Bill 4 to repeal Senate Bill 4. Those of us around this table, we cannot repeal Senate Bill 4, as we did not author Senate Bill 4.”

So Houston may follow in the footsteps of San Antonio and Bexar County and Dallas, if Council goes along. According to the full Chron story, it looks like that will happen.

Houston could sue over SB4 without City Council approval, but Turner nonetheless promised a vote. City Council is in recess next week, meaning a vote would come June 21 at the earliest.

As of Thursday, the left-leaning City Council appeared to be breaking along party lines, with Democratic members largely favoring a lawsuit and Republican members generally opposed.

District I Councilman Robert Gallegos, who supports a lawsuit, said he worried the law could tear families apart if it causes more parents to be deported, calling it “an open door for racial profiling.”

District C Councilwoman Ellen Cohen also plans to vote to sue, citing concerns that the law could discourage victims from reporting crimes, echoing law enforcement leaders across the state, including Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo.

“We now have a percentage of the population that, out of fear for their own lives and deportation, won’t report, and it jeopardizes women’s lives and others,” Cohen said.

At-large Councilman Michael Kubosh said he opposes a lawsuit because of the potential cost.

“I don’t want to spend the money on a lawsuit that’s already been well-funded by other cities,” Kubosh said. “It won’t have an effect on the outcome of the case.”

He and others also worried that suing the state could put Houston at risk for losing federal funding.

Two council members, Mike Laster and Brenda Stardig, declined to say how they would vote, and at-large Councilman Jack Christie said he was likely to abstain.

“I’m not in favor of suing people to just show where we stand,” Christie said. “We show where we stand by example.”

There’s a sidebar on the story with a vote count for when this does come before Council (and while it could come as early as June 21, you can bet your bottom dollar someone will tag it for a week). Counting Mayor Turner, there are eight Yeses, five Nos, Christie’s abstention, and three who declined to comment or could not be reached. Of those three, I’d expect two Yeses – Mike Laster, who has since suggested on Twitter that he would likely vote in favor, and Jerry Davis – and one No, Brenda Stardig. You should probably reach out to your Council member and let them know how you feel about this. In the meantime, I agree with Campos, this would not have happened, at least at this time, had not there been pressure from the Texas Organizing Project and the DREAMers. Activism works, y’all. The Press has more.

January 2017 campaign finance reports: Houston officeholders

Normally, at this time I would be scanning through Houston candidate campaign finance reports, to see where incumbents stand at the start of the season. Of course, barring near-term court action there is no season for Houston municipal officeholders this year, and unlike past years they have been able to raise money during what had once been a blackout period. It’s still worth it to check in and see what everyone has, so let’s do that.


Name        Raised     Spent     Loan     On Hand
=================================================
Turner     681,972   177,867        0   1,312,028

Stardig *   39,361    24,088        0      79,980
Davis *      8,500    27,439        0     154,707
Cohen *      8,350    21,563        0      77,451
Boykins     26,400    23,820        0         186
Martin       4,250    17,469        0      95,896
Le          13,100    13,519   42,823       2,023
Travis           0    12,984   76,000      23,606
Cisneros     7,500    15,295      273       4,959
Gallegos    20,834    14,742        0      33,077
Laster *     3,000     6,292        0     145,071
Green *     10,000    52,652        0     107,248

Knox         6,275    20,061        0      16,737
Robinson    44,750    15,277        0      52,408
Kubosh      10,925    12,907  276,000      20,824
Edwards     42,401    18,379        0     110,660
Christie *   1,367    22,653        0      18,563

Brown       30,520    52,814        0      41,245


Parker           0    36,503        0     136,368
King             0        50  650,000           0

Asterisks indicate term-limited incumbents. I included Annise Parker and Bill King mostly out of curiosity. Parker can’t run for anything in Houston, but if she does eventually run for something else she can transfer what she has in this account to whatever other one she may need.

Clearly, Mayor Turner has been busy. Big hauls by incumbent Mayors are hardly unusual, it’s just that Turner had the benefit of more time to make that haul. A few Council members plus Controller Chris Brown were busy, though there was nothing that was truly eye-popping. I didn’t look at the individual forms beyond the totals page, so I can’t say what everyone spent their money on, but if I had to guess I’d say recurring fees for things like consultants and websites, plus the usual meals, travel, donations, and what have you. Loan amounts always fascinate me – you have to wonder if any of them will be paid back. Probably not.

It’s not too surprising that the term-limited members are among those with the largest cash on hand totals. They have had the longest to build it up, after all. I have to assume some of them – in particular, Jerry Davis, Mike Laster, and Larry Green – have a run for something else in their future. For what will be mostly a matter of opportunity. Of those who can run again in 2019, I’ll be very interested to see how their fortunes change between now and the next two Januaries. One way or another, 2019 ought to be a busy year.

A look ahead to Houston’s 2017 elections

I want to return to something in that story about Mayor Turner’s 2017 agenda, which was near the bottom but which is a very big deal for the coming year:

A lawsuit over the ballot language used last year to extend terms to a maximum of two four-year terms, from three two-year terms, hovers in the background.

A state district judge ruled in March that the language was “inartful” but legal, and the case now is under appeal.

At stake in the near term is whether Turner and members of City Council must run for re-election in 2017 or wait until 2019.

See here for the background. Usually around this time I’m writing about the upcoming election year and what we have to look forward to. Thanks to this lawsuit, we could have a year with no city elections, or a year in which nobody knows we have city elections until April or May and everyone operates on an insanely accelerated schedule from there. With that in mind, let’s look at our Year of Elections 2017 with a frame of The Elections We Will Have, The Elections We May Have, and The Elections We Could Have.

The Elections We Will Have

Whatever else happens with the term limits lawsuit, there will be elections in HISD and HCC. The following trustees for each board are up for election this year:

HISD – Anna Eastman (District I), Mike Lunceford (District V), Greg Meyers (District VI), Anne Sung (District VII), Wanda Adams (District IX)
HCC – Carolyn Evans-Shabazz (District 4), Robert Glaser (District 5), Chris Oliver (District 9)

Mike Lunceford is not running for re-election, so his seat will be open. Greg Meyers has already submitted his resignation, and a replacement Trustee will be selected by the Board in January. It is not clear if the Board will prefer a caretaker who will not run for election in November or if the new member will try to stake a claim. Anne Sung of course won the special election to succeed Harvin Moore a couple of weeks ago. Whatever happens in November, the Board will have three different members in the traditionally Republican districts than it had at the start of 2016. That has some negative potential, as all three were devoted to public schools in a way that is not necessarily characteristic of modern Republicans, meaning that whoever wins in November could be more antagonistic than what we are used to seeing. We’ll have a better idea when we know who is selected to replace Meyers, and who emerges to run for these seats. As for Eastman, she is my Trustee and as far as I know she is in for another term, but I haven’t spoken to her in the last few weeks, and she has not made any formal announcements. I’m not aware of any reason why Adams would not run for another term.

In HCC, both Shabazz-Evans and Glaser won elections to complete the unexpired terms for trustees who had resigned following their 2011 campaigns. Evans-Shabazz was appointed to replace Carroll Robinson in District 4 in May of 2015, and then was unopposed for election. Glaser won a contested race to succeed Richard Schechter in 2013; appointed replacement Leila Feldman did not run for the seat. Oliver is a multi-term incumbent who easily defeated a challenger in 2011. Sometimes there are interesting things to say or look forward to in these races. This is not one of those times.

There will also be some number of constitutional amendments on the ballot in November, but we won’t know what they are until May or so when the Legislature finishes its business. If the term limits lawsuit goes down, preserving the new four-year terms for city officeholders, these referenda will be the only guaranteed items on your ballot this year.

The most interesting race in the area that is not in Houston will be in Pasadena, where Mayor Johnny Isbell is term-limited out and where the City Council lines may or may not be redrawn, pending the ruling in the voting rights lawsuit that is currently in the judge’s hands. That election will be in May. Other area cities such as Bellaire, West U, Sugar Land, and Rosenberg, also have elections in May. I hope to have some more information about some of these races in a subsequent post. Also of interest in May will be the San Antonio elections, where Mayor Ivy Taylor has some competition for a second full term. I’m sure I’ll do some writing about that as well.

The Elections We May Have

In addition to the statewide ballot propositions, there are two local ones that could be on your November eSlate machine, both of which could be quite contentious. Mayor Turner has stated his intention to put a referendum about the revenue cap on the ballot this year, though one presumes that could change if his pension reform bills do not pass. You can be sure that the opposition to this, mostly from the likes of Paul Bettencourt and no doubt with the help of the statewide Republican cabal, will be ferocious and very well-funded. Which in a way will be good for Mayor Turner, because if he can successfully cast this as a partisan issue, especially a “statewide Republicans meddling in our business AGAIN” issue, he ought to at least begin with the larger share of the vote. Getting those people to vote, whether or not there are other city elections to draw them out, will be the challenge. I suspect Mayor Turner doesn’t do anything without planning out how it will go, so I sure hope he has a plan for this one.

The other possible ballot item we might have is an updated Metro Solutions plan, which may include more rail construction projects, possibly including another shot at the Universities Line. This has been floated as an option by Metro Chair Carrin Patman, but it is not yet clear that it would be on the ballot, and if it would be there this year if so, and it is not yet clear what the scope of it would be. Needless to say, any rail component would generate some opposition, with a new Universities Line plan bringing out the usual suspects, some of whom would already be fully engaged in a revenue cap fight. It’s an interesting question whether you’d rather have this item on the ballot by itself, or in the same space as a revenue cap item. I’m glad that’s not my call to make.

The Elections We Could Have

This is the one that is entirely contingent on the Supreme Court, which as we know has not hesitated to stick its collective nose in our electoral business. If the 2015 term limits referendum is thrown out for having insufficiently clear wording, then the people who will be the most affected are the Council members who are in their last terms: Brenda Stardig, Jerry Davis, Ellen Cohen, Mike Laster, Larry Green, and Jack Christie. Cohen’s District C and Laster’s District J represent challenges for Democrats, as Bill King carried both districts in the 2015 Mayoral runoff. The ideal District C candidate is in the Anne Clutterbuck-Ellen Cohen spectrum, while the low turnout District J will always be a bit of a wild card. Against that, Dems will have opportunities in both Christie’s At Large #5 and first-term CM Mike Knox’s AL #1, though as we have discussed before, cattle call races with lots of similarly-profiled Democrats have benefited Republican citywide candidates in the recent past. The ideal here is for a candidate who begins with a lot of backing to get in and largely hoover up all the support – think Melissa Noriega in 2007, or Amanda Edwards in 2015.

I don’t want to spend too much time on this, as it’s even more speculative than usual, but I do want to at least put a marker on it, since if these elections do happen they may happen all at once, with little warning and not much time to prepare. I’ll be keeping an eye on this, and will be ready for either a busier or more relaxed interview season this fall.

What Council members think about the Uber threat

I was scrolling through Facebook and came upon this post from CM Michael Kubosh:

Mayor Turner wants UBER to stay, but they must follow the city’s ordinance that requires a CRIMINAL BACKGROUND CHECK and FINGERPRINTS. Council Member Michael Kubosh said that all public service drivers for buses, cabs, train, limos, shuttles and jitneys require the same CRIMINAL BACKGROUND CHECK and FINGERPRINTS. They must follow the rules. They came to Houston during the 2014 Rodeo operating illegally and the City Council changed the Ordinance to make room for their business model. NOW LOOK WHAT THEY ARE WANTING.

Which got me to wondering about other Council members and what they thought. Of the five Council members that voted against the original ordinance in 2014, four remain on Council: Kubosh, Jack Christie, Jerry Davis, and Mike Laster. I went looking, via Google, Facebook, and Twitter, to see who else has had something to say.

And the answer is, most of them have not said anything as yet. One who has is Brenda Stardig, who is the Chair of the Public Safety committee:

CM Dave Martin was quoted in one of the stories I blogged about after Uber issued its ultimatum:

“If you don’t want to follow the rules we all agreed to, have a good opportunity in another city,” District E Councilman David Martin said. “But we cannot be blackmailed when it comes to public safety.”

And that’s pretty much it for actual opinions. The only other Council member to say something was Greg Travis:

Mayor Sylvester Turner wants uber to stay in Houston, but wants the company to operate under the same rules as other transportation companies. Uber wants to eliminate regulation for its drivers to have city fingerprint check. Rather, uber wants to use its own background check. Mayor says uber’s background check inadequate. Your thoughts?

Comments on that post ran more in Uber’s favor than against, for what it’s worth. Also for what it’s worth. all four of these Council members – Kubosh, Martin, Stardig, and Travis – are Republicans; so is Jack Christie among the No votes from 2014, while Davis and Laster are Dems. I mention that mostly to note that if Uber is trying to make a free-market/deregulation argument, it’s not working on the kind of people you’d think it might work on. This discussion is just getting started, and Lord knows Uber is willing and able to dump a ton of resources into winning it, so this is hardly a final whip count. But clearly, Uber has some ground to make up to win this one.

RIP, One Bin For All

It had a good run, but at the very least the timing was all wrong.

The One Bin For All program would let Houstonians throw all trash in the same bin, to be separated for recycling later. The hope was to push up Houston’s low recycling rate. But now the city could end up with no recycling at all.

The city council on Wednesday delayed a vote on a new contract with Waste Management, which would cost the city about $3 million more per year because commodity prices for recyclables are low.

Several council members are calling for suspending recycling until that changes.

The One Bin program was not mentioned at all in the discussion.

It turns out Mayor Sylvester Turner is not a fan.

“I’ve looked at and read the paper that’s been presented from what was done,” he said. “I’m not convinced that that is something I want to move forward with right now, if at any time, but it’s not a part of this conversation.”

See here for the last update. Mayor Turner had spoken in generalities about One Bin before now – I’d have to go back and re-listen to the interview I did with him for the 2015 election, but that’s how I remember him speaking about it then as well – so this is a rhetorical shift for him. It’s not exactly a policy shift in the sense that he had never committed to doing anything with One Bin, so think of it more as a door being closed.

As for the Council action, the Chron story from Wednesday before the meeting suggested some pushback on continuing the recycling contract with Waste Management, but nothing more than that.

Until now, Waste Management would resell the recyclables, deduct a $65-per-ton processing fee and give 70 percent of the remaining revenue to the city. If the firm’s costs exceeded the fee the city paid, Waste Management ate the difference. Those terms meant the city could make $25 per ton two years ago, when recyclables were bringing $100 per ton.

Now, with commodities prices at lows not seen since the 2009 recession, Waste Management has been dropping or renegotiating its contracts with Houston and many other cities.

If City Council approves the new deal, the city next month will begin paying a $95-per-ton processing fee. With commodities now earning $48 a ton, that means each ton of material recycled will cost Houston almost $50, at least in the near term.

That’s nearly double what it would cost to truck the recycled items to the landfill, where the tipping fee is $27 per ton.

And, with Mayor Sylvester Turner warning that layoffs will be needed to close a projected $126 million budget gap by July, some council members are inclined to quit recycling until the market improves.

“As much as we are for recycling, I’m also against cutting people that are actually doing city services,” said Councilman Michael Kubosh. “It’s going to hurt to lay people off and then to tell them we laid them off because, ‘Well, we want to recycle.’ We’ve got to think it through.”

Councilman Jerry Davis, whose District B is home to landfill facilities, disagreed, citing studies showing negative health outcomes for those near dump sites.

“If we stop recycling, we’re going to have more crap taken to landfills in District B,” Davis said. “With the rate we’re growing, we have to find a way to get rid of our waste in an efficient manner. What are we going to do when all our landfills are full? I understand commodities are down, but it’s a cycle. I don’t think we need to steer away from sustainability because the market is somewhat volatile.”

See here for the background. The single-stream recycling program has been pretty popular, so I kind of doubt it’s in any danger, but I’m not surprised that there was some grumbling about possibly having to pay for something we used to make money off of. And if the words “garbage fee” are forming on your lips, you may want to bite your tongue.

If you were concerned Mayor Sylvester Turner could consider pushing a new garbage fee to cover that cost, however, think again.

As Turner put it, when asked at today’s post-City Council meeting press conference:

“No. I have never contemplated a garbage fee. When it’s come up, I’ve said to members of my own staff I’m not going to advocate a garbage fee and I’m not going to support a garbage fee. So, absolutely not, no.”

I don’t agree with that – at the very least, I think we ought to keep the option open – but that doesn’t appear to be the case. We’ll see what Council does with this next week.

Chron story on Locke running for Commissioner

It’s officially official now.

Gene Locke

Gene Locke

Harris County Precinct 1 Commissioner Gene Locke, appointed to fill the unexpired term following the sudden death of longtime Commissioner El Franco Lee last month, said Tuesday he may seek the nomination for the powerful local office in the November election.

Locke said he has not made a final decision, but his statement signals a shift for the former city attorney, who previously said he intended to return to his job as a lawyer and spend time with his family after the end of the current term in December.

It also would conflict with County Judge Ed Emmett’s previously stated desire to appoint a caretaker commissioner who would not seek the job beyond Dec. 31

“It’s the number of people who I respect that are asking me to consider it,” Locke said Tuesday.

He declined to name those asking him to run and said he needs to talk to his family about it. He did not give a timetable for when he would make a decision.

[…]

After Lee’s death on Jan. 3, several people announced interest in the office, including Houston Councilmen Jerry Davis, Dwight Boykins and Larry Green. State Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, said last month that he intends to run, sacrificing 25 years of legislative seniority.

“I have a lot of respect for Gene Locke and appreciate anyone who wants to serve the public,” Ellis said in a statement Tuesday.

Davis said the possibility of Locke seeking the nomination would not change anything for him.

“Right now, it’s just the opportunity to talk to different people and see what they want in the county commissioner,” he said.

Harris County Democratic Party Chairman Lane Lewis said Locke had not told him if he was interested in the nomination.

You heard it here first. I mean, look, there are 130 or so precinct chairs who will make this decision. Locke’s task, or any other challenger’s task, is to convince enough of them to make him their first or second choice. I don’t know how that’s going to go, but it will be a campaign and an election like nothing else we’ve seen anytime soon.

More Commissioner hopefuls make themselves known

The race is on.

El Franco Lee

With former city attorney Gene Locke in place to finish the late Harris County Commissioner El Franco Lee’s term, Democratic players are quickly emerging as candidates in the November general election.

State Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, said late Thursday that he intends to run, sacrificing 25 years of legislative seniority in a bid for a powerful local office. City Councilmen Jerry Davis, Dwight Boykins and Larry Green said Friday they have begun campaigning, such as it is, under these unusual circumstances. Councilman C.O. Bradford said constituents had encouraged him to run, and he’s considering it.

[…]

Ellis was the first to go public with his campaign efforts. He began researching what it would take to run for the county position, since his name is on the November ballot for state senator.

A legal memo prepared for county Democratic chair Lane Lewis outlined a path by which Ellis said he could seek the ballot spot. In mid-June the Democratic party chairs for Precinct 1 will vote for a candidate to replace Lee on the ballot.

If the party chose him for commissioner, Ellis could withdraw his name from the ballot for state senator, which would trigger a second process by the Democratic leaders to pick a Democrat for state Senate.

Ellis said a move to local office would bring him back to his political roots.

“I started out in local politics in 1983” to run for the City Council, Ellis said. “I left a great job I loved as chief of staff of a U.S. congressman, Mickey Leland.”

Despite having passed 600 bills in the Legislature, Ellis said, he sees himself as “very much an activist” on local issues like urban homesteading and criminal justice.

When he ran for the state Senate, he always planned to find a path back to local office, “probably to run for mayor,” Ellis said. “I have done a lot of thinking, a lot of praying on this.”

This is from the fuller version of yesterday’s story regarding new Commissioner Gene Locke and Ellis’ first-in-line announcement. Good timing has its rewards. I don’t have much to add except to note again what I’m looking for in a new Commissioner. I’ll leave it to you to decide which of these candidates may fit what I have in mind.

Other runoff results

Here are the rest of the winners from yesterday:

Controller: Chris Brown

At Large #1: Mike Knox

At Large #2: CM David Robinson

At Large #4: Amanda Edwards

At Large #5: CM Jack Christie

District F: Steve Le

District H: Karla Cisneros

District J: CM Mike Laster

HISD II: Rhonda Skillern-Jones

HISD III: Manuel Rodriguez

Here are the Chron stories for the Council/Controller and HISD races. A couple of stray thoughts:

– Chris Brown and David Robinson are to me the big winners of the make-it-partisan strategy that was employed. I was especially worried about Robinson, because an elevated level of African-American turnout would not necessarily favor him. But both won Harris County, by larger margins than Turner (15,000 votes for Robinson, 9,000 for Brown), and both won Fort Bend, so I have to think that the message about who was the Democrat got through.

– That said, I strongly suspect that undervoting was a key in these races, and also in the AL1 race. Brown won early voting by about the same margin as Turner did, but then also won on Election Day. Robinson led early voting by a smaller margin than Turner, mostly on the strength of absentee ballots. He then dominated Election Day. On the flipside, Georgia Provost trailed in early voting, losing in absentee ballots while barely leading the in person early vote. Basically, she collected 10,000 fewer in person early votes than Turner did, while Mike Knox lost only 5,000 votes off of King’s total. This is something I plan to look into more closely when I get the precinct data.

– A lot was made before the election about King leading the vote in District C. It was a small lead, and a lot of District C voters went for Adrian Garcia, Steve Costello, and Chris Bell. If I had to guess right now, I’d say Turner won District C, but other races may be all over the place. King clearly got some crossovers, almost surely more than Turner did, but how many will be hard to tell. I really think the undervotes will tell a big part of the story.

– I’m sad to see CM Richard Nguyen lose, but I can’t say I’m surprised. Again, I’ll be interested to see what the precinct data says. After the Mayor’s race, this one had the lowest undervote rate, at 8.77%.

– Amanda Edwards’ and Karla Cisneros’ wins means that Council will have four women but only one Latino. I’m guessing that’s going to cause some angst.

– Here’s my guess at a whip count if and when another HERO comes up:

Likely Yeses – Robinson, Edwards, Davis, Cohen, Cisneros, Gallegos, Laster, Green

Likely Nos – Knox, Kubosh, Stardig, Martin, Le, Travis

Voted No originally, but maybe could be swung – Christie, Boykins

Counting Mayor Turner, a worst case vote would likely be 9-7 in favor. It would be nice to focus some effort on Christie and Boykins and maybe get that to 10-6 or 11-5. It’s a small thing, but I’d hate to give the other side the talking point that HERO 2.0 was less popular on Council than the original was. If it’s not possible to move that needle, then aiming to take a couple of seats to make up the difference and trying again after 2019 might be the best course of action. Christie’s term will be up, while Mike Knox and Steve Le could be targeted. By the same token, Jerry Davis, Ellen Cohen, and Mike Laster will also be termed out, and those seats would need to be defended, so this strategy has some risk as well. I’m just thinking out loud here. Point being, it’s never too early to start thinking about this sort of thing.

Anyway. Congratulations to all the winners. May you all fulfill your promises to make Houston a better place.

Overview of the open Council seat runoffs

Kind of late in the cycle given the number of lesser known candidates in these races, and not nearly complete, but here it is anyway.

Amanda Edwards

Amanda Edwards

In addition to the first open mayor’s race in six years, Houstonians can expect to see at least four new faces on City Council next year – three of which will come from contests to be decided in Saturday’s runoff election.

In the At-Large 1 race, former police officer Mike Knox faces photographer and philanthropist Georgia Provost.

[…]

In the At-Large 4 race, municipal finance lawyer Amanda Edwards faces former Harris County Department of Education trustee Roy Morales.

Edwards, who has served on nonprofit boards such as Project Row Houses, worked in the Georgia Legislature while in college, then for U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Houston, before heading to Harvard Law School.

City Council must better articulate Houston’s goals, she said, so it does not work at cross purposes by retaining what she views as suburban parking rules, for instance, in areas primed for the sort of density that would enable bicycling and walking.

She said voters must be asked to modify a decade-old cap on city property tax collections at least to protect public safety spending, and rising pension costs also must be addressed.

“I can’t think of more complicated, pressing issues than some of the ones we face right now,” she said.

[…]

The race to replace term-limited Ed Gonzalez in largely Latino District H pits elementary school teacher Karla Cisneros against HPD community service officer Jason Cisneroz.

Cisneroz, an Army veteran, worked at City Hall as a staffer for Gonzalez and former Harris County Sheriff Adrian Garcia. Cisneroz said he believes a staffing shortage at HPD can be resolved, in part, by more effectively coordinating calls for service with other law enforcement agencies.

Cisneroz has emphasized the economic disparities in District H. Corralling stray dogs and catching illegal dumpers, he said, also would be top priorities. He also called for an independent “developer integrity unit” to make sure new projects do not adversely affect roads and drainage in the area.

“People talk about inequality all the time,” Cisneroz said. “I’m living it every day.”

Cisneros, too, has focused much of her campaign on inequality in the district, pointing to her experiences teaching elementary school on both sides of Interstate 45. The former Houston school trustee said many of the city’s tax increment reinvestment zones, which keep some property tax revenues within their boundaries for public improvements, have “institutionalized inequality.” Cinseros said she would work to limit the expansion of these zones and to disband others.

Not very conducive to excerpting, so read it all yourself. If there isn’t a story in today’s paper about the At Large #2 and #5 runoffs, I’ll be very disappointed. I mean, we could have a very different Council next year, with a ton of new faces, and yet I’d bet most of the voters who will cast a ballot today couldn’t name more than one or two of the eight At Large candidates off the top of their heads. I expect the undervote rates to be pretty high – not as high as they were in November, but in excess of 20% per race. We’ll see.

The Forward Times points out another notable aspect of today’s races.

This election is not like any other in Houston’s rich history.

After the November election, Council Members Jerry Davis (District B), Dwight Boykins (District D) and Larry Green (District K) were all re-elected to council. With Council Member C.O. “Brad” Bradford being term-limited, that reduces the number of African American council members to three. As a result of the general election results, however, Houstonians now have an opportunity to vote to have seven African Americans serving on Houston City Council at the same time, by voting for candidates in four At-Large city council races.

In the At-large Position 1 race, entrepreneur Georgia Provost faces Mike Knox; in the At-Large Position 2 race, Rev. Willie R. Davis squares off against incumbent David Robinson; in the At-Large Position 4 race being vacated by term-limited C.O. “Brad” Bradford, attorney Amanda Edwards faces Roy Morales; and in the At-Large Position 5 race, Sharon Moses faces incumbent Jack Christie, who defeated two-term incumbent Jolanda Jones, who fell short in her quest to complete her final term.

Not only would there be seven African Americans serving on Houston City Council, but in the race to replace outgoing Mayor Annise Parker as mayor of the city of Houston, Sylvester Turner also has a chance to be the 2nd African American mayor in Houston’s history. That would make a total of eight African Americans around the horseshoe at Houston City Council.

Some of those eight are better than others, obviously, but no question we could have a historic result. The story notes that we could have had six elected African Americans in 2011, but fell short when Jolanda Jones was defeated. Provost and Moses also have the chance to be the first African American women on Council since Wanda Adams’ departure in 2013. It will be interesting to see whatever happens.

What the passage of the term limits referendum means

It’s a little unclear from this story.

calvin-on-term-limits-for-dads

The passage of Proposition 2 also means some current officeholders will be able to serve longer than the six years they originally signed up for.

Current freshman council members will now be able to serve two more 4-year terms, for a total of 10 years. Those serving their second terms will be permitted a final term of four years, for a total of eight years. Those finishing their third terms this year, including Mayor Annise Parker, are not permitted to run again.

[…]

Polls did show voters were more likely to oppose the measure when told incumbents could benefit, but there was no organized campaign on either side – aside from some radio ads and phone calls funded by GOP state Sen. Paul Bettencourt – and the ballot language did not detail the impact on incumbents. Ultimately, it passed by a wide margin.

Barry Klein, who was involved in the original fight to pass Houston’s term limits in 1991, lamented that his small-government colleagues were too occupied with other issues to mount a campaign.

“The citizens of Houston used to get four elections over eight years and now will get only two, and I think we’re all worse off for that. I really do think it weakens accountability,” Klein said. “The special interests will find it easier now because when they get their man in place they won’t have to worry about him getting replaced because of term limits.”

I don’t often agree with Barry Klein, but on this matter I do. I voted against Prop 2 because I think two-year terms for city officeholders are the better idea. Increasing the number of terms they could serve is to me the much better idea, but that’s not what was on the ballot. We can argue all we want about how much voters understood Prop 2, but first let’s be clear on what this does mean, because the wording of this story is confusing. Searching my archives, I found this story from August, when the term limits item was put on the ballot. Here’s the key paragraph:

The change, if passed, would take effect for officials elected this fall. Current freshman council members could pick up two four-year terms and those serving their second term would be permitted one four-year term. Elected officials who are already term-limited would not be affected by the change.

So the next municipal election will be in 2019, and at this point all terms have become four years. Anyone elected for the first time this year – Greg Travis, for example – can run again in 2019 and serve a total of eight years. Council members elected to their third term this year, like Jerry Davis and Ellen Cohen, can serve until 2019, also for a total of eight years. This is why the original idea was to not put the change into effect until 2020, so no current members would get extra time. And the real lucky duckies, the people who were first elected in 2013, like Michael Kubosh, can run again in 2019, and if he wins he will get to serve a total of 10 years.

So. Did you know this going in? I admit, I didn’t, but then I was always a No vote on Prop 2, so this particular detail more or less didn’t matter to me. If you voted for Prop 2, does seeing this change your mind?

One side effect of this change, which I doubt has received any consideration, is that the turnout level in HISD and HCC elections will vary dramatically in years with and without city elections. How many voters do you think will show up for Trustee races in 2017 if there are no Mayor or Council races on the ballot? I mentioned this as a potential problem for the idea of moving city elections to even years, and it’s as true here. I suppose that’s not the city’s problem, and if anyone in HISD thought about it they didn’t think loudly enough for the rest of us to hear, but there it is. What effect might this have in the off-year odd-numbered elections? Other than lower turnout, hard to say. Maybe it makes it easier for upstarts to get traction, maybe it helps incumbents stay entrenched. We’ll just have to see.

Endorsement watch: For Jerry

The Chron makes another easy call by endorsing CM Jerry Davis for a third term in District B.

CM Jerry Davis

CM Jerry Davis

In this race Davis is the only candidate who understands how the system functions and how a council member can pull the levers of power at City Hall to benefit his constituents.

In the private sector, Davis, 42, serves as executive director of Making It Better, a nonprofit youth program.

In his time on council, he has worked to place security cameras to catch illegal dumpers. He also successfully promoted a controversial tax incentive to encourage Krogers to expand its distribution center in northeast Houston. While we question the efficacy of these enticements, it shows that Davis uses every tool at his disposal to fight for District B.

[…]

The councilman said he supports the Houston equal rights ordinance, but only came to that position after talking with people and educating himself. It is an education that plenty of other politicians could use.

[…]

As Davis faces his third and final term, there is simply nobody else in this race who can match his knowledge and experience. Voters better start looking now for an effective replacement when term limits force him from office.

I agree on all counts. I didn’t do interviews in District B this year, but I have spoken with CM Davis twice before, most recently in 2013. The next Mayor will be glad to have CM Davis on Council with him.

Change to term limits will be on the ballot

Whatever.

calvin-on-term-limits-for-dads

Houston voters will decide whether elected city officials should serve two four-year terms rather than three two-year terms starting in 2016, potentially lengthening the terms of some current council members.

The City Council voted 12-5 Wednesday to place the item on the November ballot. Councilmen Richard Nguyen, Mike Laster, Steve Costello, Michael Kubosh and C.O. Bradford voted no.

The change, if passed, would take effect for officials elected this fall. Current freshman council members could pick up two four-year terms and those serving their second term would be permitted one four-year term. Elected officials who are already term-limited would not be affected by the change.

The council has generally supported lengthening terms, but there was debate about whether such a change should go into effect immediately or in 2020, when no current council members would benefit.

See here for the background. Mayor Parker had pushed for a 2020 start date, but CM Jerry Davis’ amendment to move it to 2016 carried the day. As I said before, I don’t consider this an improvement on the current system and I don’t intend to vote Yes. I don’t know if this issue can get a full public hearing or not with HERO also on the ballot, but I do agree with the Chron editorial board about this:

While we agreed with the ad hoc committee on charter reform at the time, new facts on the ground should lead council members to reconsider their votes. Beyond the fight over the equal rights ordinance, changes to fundraising laws also raise additional issues that haven’t yet been considered. City Hall candidates used to be prohibited from raising money for 10 months between election cycles. This blackout ordinance, passed in 1992, was temporarily blocked by a federal judge earlier this year.

Under the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in Citizens United v. FEC, monetary donations to political campaigns are protected as free speech. Houston policy makers have yet to comprehend the long-term local consequences of this ruling. Before moving forward on a vote, City Council should appoint a commission of experts to study how campaign fundraising interacts with term limits.

As you know, that’s singing from my hymnal. It’s not too late to have that conversation about campaign finances regardless of what happens in this referendum. That lawsuit filed by At Large #1 candidate Trebor Gordon, for which the aforementioned injunction was granted, may also force the issue. (A similar lawsuit was filed in Austin two weeks ago as well.) Let’s tackle the whole question, not just a piece of it. Campos has more.

Change to term limits may be on the November ballot as well

Here we go again.

calvin-on-term-limits-for-dads

Mayor Annise Parker’s proposal would wait until 2020 to lengthen City Council members, the mayor and and controller’s terms; while Councilman Jerry Davis is proposing a staggered roll-out starting in 2016. Supporters say the 2020 plan would be the easiest sell to voters, with no current elected officials standing to benefit.

Though Parker has said the presence of the equal rights ordinance on the November ballot will distract from a “good government” campaign for term limits, she said Wednesday she plans to vote in favor of the 2020 proposal.

“It’s easier for everybody to be able to stand here and say it wouldn’t happen until people were sworn into office in January 2020 than it would happen when people are sworn into office in 2016,” Parker said. “‘And, oh by the way, you’re voting for mayoral candidates and you don’t know if that person is going to serve two years or four years.’ That’s a heavy lift.”

Davis’ proposal would affect only those council members who already have one or two more terms of eligibility left:

Any council member or elected official who is currently in their final term would not be eligible to serve an additional term — Parker, for example.
Any council member or elected official who is in midst of their second term currently would be eligible for one four-year term — Davis is in this category.
Any council member or elected official who is still in their first term currently would be eligible for two four-year terms.

“There’s always going to be a problem with the transition,” Davis said. “And I think with a new mayor coming in, it’s actually a good time. In the essence of good government, it’s a good time.”

I don’t have an opinion on this, because I still believe that the “two four-year terms” plan is not an improvement on the “three two-year terms” status quo. I understand why incumbents don’t want to have to run for re-election every two years – I don’t blame them, but given that Helena Brown and Andrew Burks would still be on Council right now if we were under that plan, my sympathy has its limits – but I don’t care for the alternative. Either increase the number of terms a Council member can serve – six terms has always seemed like a good number to me if we must have term limits – get rid of them altogether, or don’t bother. I don’t see myself voting for this proposal regardless of when it would begin to take effect.

Endorsement watch: Houston GLBT Political Caucus 2015

Congrats to all the endorsees.

A raucous municipal endorsement meeting brought mayoral candidate Sylvester Turner the coveted backing of the Houston GLBT Political Caucus on Saturday, positioning the 26-year state representative to broaden his coalition to include the city’s progressive voting bloc.

Caucus members voted 142-85 to endorse Turner after more than an hour of insult-laden discussion in which they rejected the recommendation of the group’s screening committee to endorse former Harris County Sheriff Adrian Garcia.

Turner also beat out former Congressman Chris Bell, a longtime ally of the gay community who had been considered a likely pick for the group’s endorsement.

Once-shunned, the caucus’ supprt is now highly sought-after by candidates aiming to win over left-wing voters, known for reliably showing up at the polls.

“This is a major step to the finish line,” said Turner, seen as a frontrunner in the crowded mayor’s race. “This is a race about the future of the city versus its past, and this group represents a vital component of Houston’s family.”

[…]

Of the five mayoral candidates angling for caucus support, Turner, Garcia and City Councilman Stephen Costello received the highest ratings from the group’s four-member screening committee.

Committee members said concerns about Bell’s viability landed him a lower rank.

Bell closed out the first half of the year with less money in the bank than any of the other top-tier candidates.

“He’s in a tough position, because absent resources, financial resources, he would need key endorsements like this one to bolster his candidacy,” [consultant Keir] Murray said. “It just makes what was already a tough road even tougher.”

Bell, for his part, remained optimistic after the endorsement vote.

“Obviously not everyone participates in the caucus endorsement process,” Bell said. “I still think I am going to have tremendous support in the progressive voting bloc.”

See here for some background. I followed the action on Facebook and Twitter – it was spirited and lengthy, but everyone got a chance to make their case and to be heard. Here’s the full list of endorsed candidates:

Mayor – Sylvester Turner

City Council
District B – Jerry Davis
District C – Ellen Cohen
District F – Richard A. Nguyen
District H – Roland Chavez
District I – Robert Gallegos
District J – Mike Laster
District K – Larry Green
At Large 1 – Lane Lewis
At Large 2 – David Robinson
At Large 3 – Doug Peterson
At Large 4 – Amanda K. Edwards
At Large 5 – Phillipe Nassif

Controller – Chris Brown

HISD District 2 – Rhonda Skillern Jones
HISD District 3 – Ramiro Fonseca
HISD District 4 – Jolanda Jones
HISD District 8 – Juliet Katherine Stipeche

HCCS District 3 – Adriana Tamez
HCCS District 8 – Eva Loredo

None of these come as a surprise. Several could have gone another way, thanks to the presence of multiple qualified and viable candidates. I look forward to seeing this slate – and the near-misses – do very well in November.

Fighting illegal dumping

Illegal dumping of trash is a huge problem in some Houston neighborhoods. Enforcement is especially tricky because unless you catch someone in the act, there’s little to no evidence to go on. One way to help catch dumpers in the act is with cameras at locations where dumping frequently occurs. Council Member Jerry Davis has been working to get a camera program to fight illegal dumping going. He was able to get some money from the budget to work on this but couldn’t work out the details with HPD. We pick up the story from there.

CM Jerry Davis

CM Jerry Davis

So last year, Davis and his staff instead turned to Harris County for help. He offered Precinct 1 Constable Alan Rosen the $250,000 to purchase, assemble and monitor 25 cameras in areas where people frequently cast off garbage.

Deputies from constable precincts 1 and 5 make up the county’s environmental crimes unit but have jurisdiction throughout the county. The deputies would largely focus on areas in council districts with the most illegal dumping complaints, ranging from Sunnyside to Kashmere Gardens to the East End. The county would own the cameras and keep any funds generated from prosecuting crimes.

In Houston, any amount of illegal dumping can result in fines, and more than 5 pounds can yield jail time.

On Wednesday, City Council approved the agreement, which could span three years with renewals. Harris County commissioners are expected to take it up early next month.

“It was a lengthy process and, yes, we did get a little bit upset at times,” Davis said. “But we just persevered and worked with the legal department to make sure this gets done because the people are counting on it.”

HPD environmental senior officer Stephen Dicker largely agreed with Davis’ assessment of why the city opted to work with the county. Dicker said HPD talks fell apart two years ago when he told the city he would need to add 15 people, effectively doubling the investigations unit, to set up, man and track the new cameras to the tune of $1.7 million. The money simply wasn’t there.

The city’s environmental unit also tends to focus on larger commercial and industrial offenders that have a bigger public health impact, Dicker said.

“The emphasis just doesn’t match up,” Dicker said. “He’s looking at just trash on the streets. We do water pollution, air pollution. Those are much bigger impacts. But we do hope the program with the county works.”

I’m glad to see this because it really is a problem, and for those of us who are lucky enough to live in a neighborhood where it doesn’t happen, we have no idea what it’s like to put up with this. I get why HPD focuses its environmental enforcement efforts on commercial and industrial offenders, but I’m still disappointed that the department didn’t have the capability to take this on, given what a big quality of life issue it is. This is one reason why I keep saying that we need to have a much better understanding than we currently do about how HPD prioritizes its budget, which very much informs how it prioritizes what crimes it pursues. I have no doubt that there wasn’t an additional $1.7 million to be found in the HPD budget as it currently stands, but I also have no doubt that we could re-prioritize that budget in a way that would have allowed this. Maybe we would still not choose to pursue this, but we can’t know that until we have a clearer picture of what HPD does and why it does what it does and doesn’t do what it doesn’t do.

I will also note that one of the things that a garbage fee could help finance is a stronger enforcement organization against all forms of illegal dumping. We fund the Solid Waste department through general revenue, which makes Houston different than other Texas cities. They do a great job, but they could do more of it, and there would be more room in the budget for other things. And no, I don’t expect this to be brought up for discussion any time soon. I’m just saying.

January campaign finance reports – Council

CM Jerry Davis

CM Jerry Davis

Mayoral reports
Controller reports

Four Council members are term limited this year. Two, CMs Stephen Costello and Oliver Pennington, are running for Mayor. The other two, CMs CO Bradford and Ed Gonzales, do not have any announced plans at this time, though both were on the list of Mayoral possibilities at one time or another. While there are some known candidates for these offices, there are many more to come. No one who isn’t or wasn’t a candidate before this year has a finance report, and no one has any contributions to report, so the data we have is somewhat limited.

Brenda Stardig (SPAC)
Jerry Davis
Ellen Cohen
Dwight Boykins
Dave Martin
Richard Nguyen
Robert Gallegos
Mike Laster
Larry Green

David Robinson
Michael Kubosh

Name Raised Spent Loans On Hand ==================================================== Stardig 0 21,191 0 59,517 Davis 0 6,091 0 97,563 Cohen 0 23,304 0 63,769 Boykins 0 5,845 0 1,129 Martin 0 20,345 0 34,339 Nguyen 0 20,120 0 15,020 Gallegos 0 7,326 0 45,021 Laster 0 5,791 0 78,216 Green 0 45,671 0 55,983 Gonzales 0 35,987 0 29,603 Brown 0 3,858 0 34,900 Robinson 0 1,565 0 48,334 Kubosh 0 17,403 10,000 0 Bradford 0 12,282 0 20,088

I’ve included the totals for Helena Brown above, since rumor has it that she’s aiming for a rubber match against Brenda Stardig in A. Beyond that, the two numbers that stand out to me are Boykins’ and Nguyen’s. Boykins was the big dog in 2013, nearly winning a first round majority in a very crowded field. I presume he emptied his coffers in the runoff, I haven’t gone back to look at his last reports from 2013 and his January 2014 report to confirm that. He burned some bridges with his vote against the HERO last year, so it will be interesting to see how things develop from here. As for Nguyen, he came out of nowhere to knock off Al Hoang in F. He then made a courageous vote for the HERO and announced that he was a Democrat. All of these things would put a target on his back even if he had a big cash on hand balance. As for Kubosh, he did a lot of self-funding in 2013, and I’d expect at least some more of the same. It will be interesting to see how much of the usual suspect PAC money he gets. We’ll have to wait till July to find out.

Repair or replace?

Consider this an object lesson in the cost of deferring maintenance.

Mayor Annise Parker

Mayor Annise Parker

A new Houston police headquarters and courthouse complex, discussed for decades, could reach a key turning point this week as Mayor Annise Parker seeks to force City Council members to choose between repairing the city’s existing facilities or tackling an enormous project to construct new buildings – a move that could trigger a tax increase.

If not for the staggering expense of both the “repair” and “replace” options – from $250 million up to $1.2 billion – the choice would be simple: Few, if any, council members question that the city’s criminal justice facilities are fading.

The current complex, on 18 acres just northwest of downtown, houses 1,000 Houston Police Department staff, the main municipal courthouse, a city jail and numerous other operations spread among a dozen buildings, most of them built between 1950 and 1980.

Officials say the facilities are decades beyond their useful lives, cramped, lack adequate parking and sit in the 100-year floodplain. A shoddy sewer line recently created a sinkhole under the courts building, and chunks of the police parking garage have been known to crumble off.

“If you’ve been in through 61 Riesner, it is dilapidated and you’re looking at hundreds of millions of dollars to keep putting Band-Aids on that serious problem over there,” said Ray Hunt, president of the Houston Police Officers’ Union, referring to the main police building on the site. “That complex needs to be leveled, and a new complex needs to be built there.”

The mayor’s decision to place the item up for a vote Wednesday as a non-binding resolution was spurred in part by a desire not to allocate more than the $2.3 million already spent preparing to build a new complex if council was not ultimately going to pursue the project.

[…]

Councilman Jerry Davis said his concerns about the proposed financing mechanisms have not been adequately addressed. He also said it makes more sense to relocate the complex to an underdeveloped area like his district, where it would spur development, rather than rebuilding on the edge of downtown.

“I don’t think you have everyone’s buy-in right now. There’s too much uncertainty,” Davis said. “Before this council member says yes or no, I need to exhaust every question.”

CM Davis’ suggestion may have some merit, especially if it means lower real estate costs. I don’t know what the logistical issues may be in having the justice complex not be as close to the county’s courthouses. Let’s put all the cards on the table and see what the options are and what they might cost. We know that doing nothing costs a lot more than nothing, so let’s see what the best way to fix that is, and let’s not freak out at it.

Parker proposes new firefighter pension plan

We’ll see about this.

Mayor Annise Parker

Mayor Annise Parker

With the city of Houston facing huge and rising pension costs, Mayor Annise Parker on Thursday unveiled a proposal to put new firefighters in a separate, less generous plan that would do away with expensive automatic cost-of-living adjustments.

The move would not affect current firefighters covered by the Houston Firefighters Relief and Retirement Fund, long insulated from reform by the Texas Legislature. It would be an unprecedented change to new firefighters’ pensions and would mark the latest chapter in the contentious relationship between Parker and the city’s firefighters. There are two lawsuits pending between the city and the pension fund; the fund is expected to sue the city over the latest proposal.

Creating a separate plan, Parker said Thursday, is her only recourse for reining in pension costs. Though the city long has had the ability to create the separate pension plan for new firefighters, Parker said, she has waited to do so until now because she wanted to attempt broader pension reforms first.

“But if I can’t solve that one – Legislature won’t help, I don’t have the ability to negotiate – let’s set up a separate pension and create one that is fair and sustainable for both sides,” she said.

[…]

Todd Clark, who chairs the fire pension board, told a City Council committee on Thursday that the proposal would “put a firefighter on welfare,” hurt morale and weaken the department’s ability to retain and recruit staff.

Council members Larry Green, Jerry Davis and Jack Christie pushed back, asking Clark whether there was room for compromise.

“I understand that you think the fire pension doesn’t have a problem, but as someone who has just gone through the budget process for the city of Houston, we have a problem,” Green said. “Our objective is not to become Detroit. What’s the solution?”

Clark responded, “The best thing you can do is just come up with the money. It’s not my job to balance the city’s budget. What the city should be doing is finding ways to meet the promises made, not trying to cut the benefits. No changes need to be made to our system. We’re a very strong and healthy pension system.”

The Mayor’s press release, with more details about her proposal, is here. I think Todd Clark is correct that the current pension is well-funded and in better shape than many others, but I think he’s got a tough sell politically to say that the city just needs to suck it up and pay whatever they’re told to pay, over which the city has no control. I’m not commenting on what’s right or wrong here, just saying that’s a tough sell. On the other hand, CM Costello, the biggest pension hawk on Council, wants this applied to current firefighters as well. That would have been the Mayor’s preference too, but she never got anywhere with the pension fund or the legislature, so it’s also a tough sell. There’s a dispute over whether this proposal can be implemented by Council or if it requires legislative action like any change to the plan for current firefighters would, so if it does get adopted expect there to be a lawsuit.

It’s past time for a garbage fee

Yes, this.

For years, Houston’s Solid Waste Management Department Director Harry Hayes has suggested the city implement a garbage fee to expand curbside recycling and pay for other initiatives. And for years, Mayor Annise Parker has demurred.

Now, with a looming budget deficit that could force widespread layoffs and cuts to services, the idea may see serious discussion at the council table for the first time.

Though Parker has not endorsed any particular path, she acknowledges a garbage fee is among the most important of the dozens of ideas officials are considering as they try to close a $150 million budget gap by next summer.

[…]

For Hayes’ part, he said he has “been like the North Star on this,” pushing roughly the same fee for the same reasons for six years, always reminding council members that Houston is one of the only major cities in the country, and the only one in Texas, without a garbage fee.

“I have consistently stated the same things to both mayors, who have both been huge recycling advocates, and the same thing to all the council members,” Hayes said. “If you’re asking me what to do and I’m your appointed and confirmed expert, here’s what we should do as a best practice in this particular city business.”

The fee Hayes has pitched – $3.76 a month or $45.12 per home, per year – would ensure recycling trucks and containers are replaced on time and without taking on too much debt, would deploy officers to better enforce rules against illegal dumping, and would add neighborhood depository sites.

Hayes said any broader proposal in line with what other Texas cities charge would be designed to generate enough revenue to cover his department’s $76 million budget, removing waste operations from the tax-supported general fund entirely. Such a fee in Houston, Hayes said, would be $15 to $20 a month per home, or $180 to $240 a year.

Using fees for 96-gallon bins, the type Houston distributes, Dallas charges residents about $21.92 a month, San Antonio $17.69 to $19.93, Fort Worth $22.75, Austin $33.50 and El Paso $16. Austin also levies a monthly $6.65 fee that funds other waste operations.

I’ve supported the idea of a garbage fee for some time now. The city would have been able to roll out the single-stream recycling bins a lot sooner with a dedicated fee, instead of having to wait till it had collected enough money from the program itself to finance the purchase of the equipment. How much better it would have been to deal with this back in one of the good budget years when the focus could have been on the improved service that a garbage fee would have meant instead of now when it’s all wrapped up in a deficit-reduction veneer.

The oddball argument was unconvincing to Councilman C.O. Bradford.

“When you look at business magazines, trade publications, economic forecasts, Houston is separate,” he said. “Houston is doing much better than those other cities because we do things differently. We don’t have to do it just because other cities are doing it.”

Councilwoman Ellen Cohen said an informal survey of civic clubs in her district last year showed general support for the $3.76 monthly fee.

“People were willing to consider that,” she said. “For me, we have serious issues ahead and I think everything should be on the table for the purpose of talking about it.”

Dwight Boykins said he is supportive of the garbage fee concept, but is far more comfortable with the lower amount than leaving a $15 to $20 monthly fee in place indefinitely, particularly for low-income residents.

Councilmen Larry Green and Jerry Davis are against the idea, saying constituent surveys have found more opposed than in favor.

All due respect, but the “Houston exceptionalism” argument is hooey. Sometimes, when you’re the only one not doing what everyone else is doing, you’re the one that’s doing it wrong. I get where CMs Green and Davis are coming from, but one of the things that a garbage fee can help finance is better surveillance and enforcement of illegal dumping, which is a huge problem in District B. I hope the potential benefit of this can be made clear – perhaps Director Hayes could put together a short presentation detailing some of the dumping hotspots that would be first in line for enhanced attention with a garbage fee – before any vote is taken.

Diverting ReBuild Houston funds

I don’t know about this.


Expressing impatience with the pace of street repairs under the Rebuild Houston program, City Council on Wednesday voted to siphon off some of the drainage-fee supported funds to speed up projects and help resolve smaller neighborhood problems sought by their constituents.

In an amendment to the city’s five-year $7.8 billion capital improvements program, the council voted to draw down $31 million from ReBuild Houston, prompting a warning from Mayor Annise Parker and Department of Public Works and Engineering officials, who said the move could drive the program’s cash flow into the red within two years and force the delay of other projects.

“Council members today would get a lot of short-term relief, but council members in a couple years may see delays,” Parker said.

Councilman Jerry Davis and other council members pushed back, saying constituent concerns have forced them to look for new funds.

“I respect the voices of the engineers and I respect the voices of Public Works,” Davis said. “But again, this is why we’re voted in to be here to make these decisions based upon the wants and needs of the people.”

Davis said council members would revisit reserve spending if a cash flow problem proved imminent.

Councilman Stephen Costello, who proposed the amendment with Davis, said the $31 million still would be spent using ReBuild Houston’s “first-worst” prioritization model.

[…]

Under the amendment, the $6 million would be made up of any money left over from bond-funded library, parks and street projects. If there is no leftover money – which Parker said was likely – the $6 million would come from ReBuild Houston funds. Those funds, however, would come with charter-prescribed spending restrictions.

Parker warned council members that the $1 million-per-council-district funds would not solve larger neighborhood problems.

“One of the challenges for council members is going to be managing expectations,” Parker said, adding that the funds approved Wednesday are “not going to pave a lot of streets.”

I get why Council did this – ReBuild Houston hasn’t exactly moved at breakneck speed – but that’s not what this fund was for, and I worry that this will set a precedent. Maybe this will turn out to be a good idea, and maybe any future delays will be offset by the earlier completion of some other work. Maybe there won’t be complaints about what gets prioritized from these diverted funds. Maybe, I don’t know. We’ll see. A statement from CM Costello, who opposed this proposal, is beneath the fold.

(more…)

Falkenberg on Wilson and the NDO

Lisa Falkenberg weighs in on the “Reverend RJ Ballard” email.

Dave Wilson

Dave Wilson

The e-mail is the handiwork of Houstonians for Family Values, the group affiliated with none other than Dave Wilson. You may remember him as the old white anti-gay activist who got elected to the Houston Community College board last year in a predominantly black district by leading voters to believe he was black.

He’s still up to his old tricks. He told me this week he’s gotten 10,000 signatures for his anti-ordinance petition, and he’s getting ready to drop a new batch of mail.

“What’s the old adage?” he said, almost gleefully. “Strike while the hammer is hot?”

Yes, this is the guy speaking for “the families.” An affable but bigoted trouble-maker who deals in racial caricatures, and his little friend – Portrait of Man Pointing.

As it happens, the Chron ran a correction on Saturday, which noted that while Wilson did indeed send an email campaigning against the NDO, he denied having sent this particular email that I’ve now reviewed twice. Falkenberg called me on Friday to give me a heads up about that since I had forwarded the email to her and pointed out some of its obvious falsehoods. I looked over the email again after I got her message, and when I called her back I told her that it was possible he was telling the truth. The reason for that, which I hadn’t given any thought to till her call, was that the email in question was sent via Mail Chimp, which as we know from before isn’t secure. Well, crap.

I hadn’t given the matter any thought before this because unlike our previous experience with mysterious Mail Chimp emails, this could hardly be an attempt to slander Dave Wilson. As noted in the correction, Wilson agreed with what was said in the “Reverend RJ Ballard” email and made similar points in the email he did admit to sending. Why would anyone pretend to be Dave Wilson for these purposes? If this was a forgery – and while I have no inclination to give Dave Wilson the benefit of the doubt, I also can’t think of a reason why he’d bother to lie about this – it had to be deliberate – why else include Wilson’s mailing address in the email? I’ve thought about it all weekend, and I can come up with three semi-plausible scenarios:

– The email was sent by someone who has a public reputation for being pro-equality but who secretly wants the NDO to be defeated, and so sent this out under the cover of a well-known bigot figuring his or her tracks would be covered. It sounds even less believable having typed that sentence than it did in my head, but it was the first thing I came up with, so there you have it.

– It was sent by some other Anglo conservative in an attempt to mobilize a group with which he or she has no credibility or influence, done more as a flattering imitation of Dave Wilson than as a forgery. I can almost believe that, but I still get hung up on why the author would bother to include Wilson’s address. You’re already sending it out under a phony name, why confuse things by pointing a finger at someone? Maybe the answer to that is that the sender knew that some smartypants on the Internet would make the Wilson connection and that would serve to amplify the effect of the email. I guess that’s possible, but I’m reluctant to give this hypothetical second emailer that much credit for intelligence.

– Finally, perhaps it was sent by a supporter of the NDO who feared that energy among its proponents was flagging, and s/he thought this might be a shot in the arm for their advocacy efforts. Seems pretty convoluted and with a potentially high downside, but I suppose someone could see it that way. For what it’s worth, even after the second delay, I haven’t seen any signs of proponents losing fervor for the fight, but perhaps someone else saw that differently.

As before, we’ll likely never know the answer to this. If you think you know something about it, by all means leave a comment or drop me an email. And for the record, while Wilson’s denial is plausible, I’m not ready to let him off the hook. Even if he didn’t send this, one way or another he inspired who sent it.

Back to Falkenberg’s column, and her conversation with one of the email’s targets, CM Jerry Davis. Davis says what needs to be said about this:

“The god I serve, to me, loves everyone,” Davis said. “And it’s hard for me to believe that he’s telling me to discriminate against people.”

Yet, his constituents are saying something different: When he polled them, 47 percent came out against the ordinance and about 30 percent for it.

Then there’s other feedback: “Some of the phone calls I’ve received in the last few weeks, it sounds like the same group of people who said ‘we believe in equal rights, but not for blacks; they weren’t meant to be equal to us.’ ”

And isn’t that the classic argument? We believe in rights. Just not for those people.

“I want to make sure I’m not one of those persons who are doing that,” Davis told me.

Good for you, Jerry Davis. People certainly do make some ridiculous arguments when they try to argue against the basic humanity of others. The website Good As You caught a great example of that during the Council meeting, in which CM Ellen Cohen got Pastor Becky Riggle to admit that opponents of the NDO like herself was equally arguing for the right to discriminate against people whose religion they disagreed with. You’d think with all the huffing and puffing lately about folks like Condoleeza Rice beind denied the right to collect a fat speaker’s fee at a commencement ceremony that it might occur to the Becy Riggles of the world that a right to discriminate includes the right to discriminate against them, but somehow that connection never gets made. Just another downside to lacking empathy, I suppose.

NDO delayed two weeks

I thought it would be over by now, but it’s not.

RedEquality

A proposal to extend equal rights protections to gay and transgender Houston residents, which had been swiftly advancing to a City Council vote, stalled Wednesday as council members voted for a two-week delay to allow more public input on the increasingly divisive measure.

Mayor Annise Parker, the first openly lesbian mayor of a major American city, said she had the votes to pass the ordinance Wednesday but hopes to pick up even more before the council’s May 28 meeting. The 12-5 vote in favor of delay reflected not an erosion of support, she said, but the council’s desire to address constituents’ questions.

“There were several council members who fully intend to vote for the item who asked for an opportunity, in the interest of complete transparency and openness on this issue, to have another round of conversations with their various constituent groups,” Parker said. “This has never been about getting something rushed through. It is about getting something right.”

Most opposition has come from clergy, from conservative megachurch leaders to black ministers. Opponents said they, too, plan to continue rallying votes; council offices have been deluged with calls and emails now numbering in the thousands.

The proposal, already delayed one week amid tearful cries of support and angry protestations, has been the subject of intense debate for nearly a month.

Houston political consultant Keir Murray said the delay is driven in part by some council members’ desire to address concerns from community leaders, particularly elderly black pastors, who may be uncomfortable with gay and transgender issues.

“They’ve got the votes,” Murray said. “The mayor and others are just trying to cut colleagues some slack, give them a little time and go back to constituencies and say, ‘We gave you more time to make your voices heard.’ ”

The key piece of evidence here is that an amendment proposed by CM Robert Gallegos that reduced the minimum size for companies to be subject to this ordinance from 50 to 15 was adopted by an 11-6 vote. I can’t think of any good reason to vote for that amendment, then vote against the final ordinance, so I think it is safe to say that it is headed for passage.

But first, more talk.

Steve Riggle, senior pastor of Grace Community Church, said neither his megachurch brethren nor influential ministers of color were engaged in the drafting of the law, saying, “We’re willing to sit down at the table and talk.”

Asked whether there were any protections for gay and transgender residents he could support, Riggle said only, “Let’s sit at the table and see.” But he added, “Gender identity is a term that is a problem.”

Councilwoman Ellen Cohen noted that scores of faith, nonprofit and community leaders have announced their backing for the proposal.

“The idea that somehow this was a secret process, particularly after how many countless hours of public hearings we’ve had over the last few weeks, is interesting,” Parker said.

Councilman Dwight Boykins pushed for the delay, saying he hopes to convene a meeting for pastors and business owners in his south Houston district: “Within the next two weeks, I think we will come to some conclusion where this city will heal this divisiveness in this city today.

“The people in this city, the ones that have questions about this ordinance, have questions that can be dealt with.”

Councilman Jerry Davis held a similar meeting in his north Houston district, and said many pastors left with a better understanding of the measure even if they remained opposed.

If CM Boykins, who voted for the Gallegos amendment, feels he needs more time to explain things to his constituents, then fine. That’s easy for me to say, since I get to do life on the lowest difficulty setting, but my scan of social media after the motion to postpone indicates that the folks who have real skin in the game are handling this latest delay with grace. My hat is off to them for that.

So this will now be decided on Wednesday, May 28. There will be no Council meeting on the 27th, so the 28th will be both a public-comment session and a Council-vote-on-agenda-items session. That means you have one more chance to tell Council in person what you think, and of course you can continue to send them emails, telegrams, mash notes, what have you. The vote may be highly likely to go in favor, but if you’ve got a story to tell it’s important to tell it. Contact the City Secretary and get on the list of speakers for the 28th.

One more thing. In my previous entry, I analyzed Dave Wilson’s latest piece of hate mail and pointed out two ways in which he was being blatantly dishonest. Turns out I wasn’t thorough enough. See the picture at the bottom with the caption about girls claiming to be “harassed” in the school bathroom by a transgender classmate? Though there is no link provided, that was an actual story that ran on some legitimate news sites. However, it was based on a complete lie put forward by a group of haters, and was subsequently pulled down after it was exposed as the fabrication it was. A reporter named Cristan Williams did the legwork, and you can read her story here, with a followup here. The original “story” was first printed last October, and a cursory Google search would at least indicate that maybe it’s not a hundred percent kosher. Given Wilson’s longstanding record of abject dishonesty, it’s far more likely that he knew all this but pushed the lie anyway than that he was confused or minsinformed. The lesson, in case I haven’t been sufficiently blunt, is that you should never, ever believe a word Dave Wilson says. Thanks to Transgriot and Media Matters for the links.

The city and the downtown post office

Not sure what all the fuss about this is about.

Photo by Houston In Pics

Developers eager to purchase the high-profile U.S. Postal Service site downtown – envisioned in recent years as a park, outdoor amphitheater or a development with housing and entertainment venues – are competing for the property with the city of Houston, which is considering putting its new justice complex there.

Some private interests have sought to dissuade city officials from seeking the 16-acre property, at Bagby and Franklin just east of Interstate 45, which went on the market last fall.

Councilwoman Brenda Stardig said she learned the city had bid on the site from developers, and has spoken with Brad Freels of Midway Development about his concerns with the city’s involvement. Freels could not be reached for comment.

Stardig said she is sympathetic, noting the redeveloped site could be a “jewel” for the city, not to mention a boon for city coffers.

“Unless there’s a real need, I’m not very supportive of having the city competing with private developers on prime real estate in the city, from a cost factor and for many other reasons,” she said.

[…]

The city’s interest, said some City Council members and city officials, is driven by a desire to start fresh on the post office site rather than rebuilding at the current cops-and-courts complex at 61 Riesner, where construction crews would have to work around existing facilities. Other officials said the site could have uses other than for the justice complex.

Councilman Jerry Davis said he was told the city could recoup the purchase price of the 16-acre post office site by selling the 18-acre tract on Riesner, which is just west of the post office site.

Any developers stirring dissent about the city’s involvement likely are doing so out of self-interest, Davis said.

“We’re certainly not going to pay more than what it’s worth,” he said. “I do have full faith in our development department – even though I don’t like some things they do – as far as getting an estimated value from outside appraisers.”

The Riesner site is home to five aging facilities, including Houston’s central jail and the main municipal courthouse. A study concluded the buildings need $55 million in repairs.

Police headquarters at 1200 Travis also needs work and is too small, officials have said; it would be sold and consolidated into the new complex. The new facility would not house a jail, thanks to voters’ approval last fall of a joint city-county inmate processing center.

I have no problem with the city bidding a fair market price for this property. They have a purpose in mind for it, and they can recoup much if not all of the purchase price by selling off the properties that would be vacated if they bought and renovated this site. Sure, it would be nice to have some kind of mixed-use development there, and if Metro ever does build an Inner Katy light rail line, this location would be just about perfect to tie it into the existing Harrisburg and Southeast lines, but there’s no guarantee of either of these things happening. If the city’s perfectly legitimate interest in this parcel – and let’s be clear, it may never get past the “interest” stage – forces developers to make more competitive bids, then that’s fine by me. If a private investor winds up buying this property, I feel pretty confident they’ll be able to get a nice return on it.

Counting votes on the non-discrimination ordinance

From the Houston GLBT Political Caucus Facebook page:

Members have asked for the responses on our questionnaires to the questions below. The President of the Caucus, Maverick Welsh, has asked me to post the information. As the chair of the Screening Committee, I have reviewed the questionnaires from 2013 and below is the result:

Mayor–We asked:

Question: If elected, would you be willing to introduce a non-discrimination ordinance, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity or expression in employment, housing, and public accommodation, that provides reasonable exemptions for small businesses, religious organizations, and federally exempt residential property owners?

She answered:

Annise Parker: Yes

City Council–We asked:

If elected, would you publicly advocate for and vote in favor of a non-discrimination ordinance, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity or expression in employment, housing, and public accommodation, that provides reasonable exemptions for small businesses, religious organizations, and federally exempt residential property owners?

They answered:

Jerry Davis: Yes
Ellen Cohen: Yes
Dwight Boykins: Yes
Ed Gonzalez: Yes
Robert Gallegos: Yes
Mike Laster: Yes
Larry Green: Yes
Steve Costello: Yes
David Robinson: Yes
C.O. Bradford: Yes
Jack Christie: Yes

There’s been a lot of speculation about who may or may not support the ordinance that Mayor Parker has promised to bring before council. As yet, there is not a draft version of the ordinance, and that seems to be the key to understanding this. As CMs Bradford and Boykins mention to Lone Star Q, without at least a draft you don’t know what the specifics are. Maybe it’ll be weaker than you want it to be. Maybe it’ll be poorly worded and you will be concerned about potential litigation as a result. It’s not inconsistent for a Council member to say they support the principle and the idea of the ordinance, but they want to see what it actually says before they can confirm they’ll vote for it.

Nonetheless, everyone listed above is on record saying they would “vote in favor of a non-discrimination ordinance, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity or expression in employment, housing, and public accommodation”, and they will be expected to do exactly that. If they want to make arguments about making it stronger, that’s fine. That list above is more than enough to pass the ordinance, so there should be no waffling, no fretting about vote counts, and especially no fear of a backlash. When the time comes, everyone needs to keep their promises. Now would be an excellent time to call your Council members and let them know you look forward to seeing their vote for this NDO.

Council hears the Mayor’s payday lending ordinance

Reaction was mixed, though it appears likely there is enough support to pass.

The proposed ordinance would limit payday loans to 20 percent of a borrower’s gross monthly income and auto title loans to 3 percent of the borrower’s gross annual income or 70 percent of the car’s value, whichever is less. Single-payment payday loans could be refinanced no more than three times, while multiple-installment loans could include no more than four payments. The principal owed would need to drop by at least 25 percent with each installment or refinancing.

Skeptics on council said the proposal could drive payday lenders outside city limits, hurting borrowers’ access to credit. Councilwoman Melissa Noriega also cautioned against viewing all such lending as nefarious, saying she knows a woman who takes out a title loan each year to buy school supplies.

“It’s very important that we not make life more difficult for poor families while we assume that we’re helping them,” she said. “I’m not saying we’re doing that; I just think that’s one of the key concerns here.”

Noriega’s concerns about what would replace payday lenders were echoed by Councilman Ed Gonzalez, who said he worried about constituents visiting a loan shark at the local cantina, and Councilman Jerry Davis, who said he did not want residents turning to “Good Times” character Lenny, a neighborhood hustler, for credit.

“I don’t know that Lenny the loan shark is much worse than the worst of the payday lenders,” Parker replied.

City Attorney David Feldman added that, while many payday lenders fled Dallas when it adopted its restrictions, the same has not been true in San Antonio.

One thing I want to point out: If you go back and review the Mayor’s proposal, you will note that nowhere in there does it put a limit on the interest rate that these lenders can charge. That means they will still be free to impose a 612% APR on their loans, while claiming they’re just charging 20% and doing their best to obfuscate what it all means. Seriously, go read this account by Forrest Wilder of taking out a “payday loan” that turned out to be a new mutation on the form that was aimed at slipping through the city of Austin’s regulations. That’s what we’re dealing with here. I understand Council’s concerns, but for the most part I don’t share them. I don’t see what’s being proposed here as needless or particularly burdensome. The item will be on Council’s agenda for December 11, which means it will likely be voted on the following week after getting tagged. Texpatriate and Stace have more.

Election results: Houston

Mayor Annise Parker

Mayor Annise Parker

Mayor Annise Parker easily won re-election, collecting over 57% of the vote in Harris County to beat Ben Hall by nearly thirty points, and far exceeding the expectations of most observers going into Election Day. I personally thought she had a decent chance of avoiding a runoff, but I wasn’t willing to commit to more than that, and I figured 55% was her ceiling. Good on her for such a strong win, which not only ought to wipe out any lingering talk about her unimpressive win in 2011 but also reinforces my belief, which I have said here several times, that she would be tougher to beat this time around. I’ll do a deeper look at the race once I have precinct data, but a peek at the Fort Bend County results suggests one reason for Parker’s dominant win: She managed a respectable showing among African-American voters. Ben Hall took 62% of the vote in Fort Bend. By comparison, Ronald Green won 89% there, and Brad Bradford coasted with 92%.

Speaking of Ronald Green, he won a much closer race, with about 51.7% of the vote after Fort Bend is added in. This was in line with my expectations for the race – I figured Green would win, but it would be close. I don’t know what his thoughts are for 2015, but I think it’s safe to say he’s probably not the frontrunner for Mayor.

In the At Large races, Stephen Costello, Brad Bradford, and Jack Christie all won easily, while Andrew Burks trailed David Robinson as the two head for a runoff. Going back to the Fort Bend results, Burks managed only 54.5% of the vote there. He could be in real trouble in December. In At Large #3, Michael Kubosh led the field with 28% in Harris and a 42% plurality in Fort Bend. He will square off against Roy Morales, who snuck his way into the runoff ahead of Jenifer Pool and Rogene Calvert, who had about the same number of votes each. The four Democratic candidates combined for 54% of the vote in this race, but the distribution was sufficiently tight that it allowed the two Republicans to finish in the money, not unlike District C in 2005. It will be fascinating to see how this one plays out in December.

While there were some mild surprises among these results, there were two truly shocking finishes. One was in District F, where little known challenger Richard Nguyen knocked off two-term incumbent Al Hoang by a 52-48 margin. That one counts as an even bigger surprise than Helena Brown’s win in 2011. Speaking of CM Brown, she will be headed to a runoff rematch against Brenda Stardig, leading by a 38-29 margin with Mike Knox coming in third at a shade under 20%. For what it’s worth, Brown led Stardig 47-41 after the November vote two years ago. Jerry Davis won in B, Dwight Boykins collected over 40% in D and will face off against Georgia Provost, and Graci Garces led the field of four in District I, with Robert Gallegos clinging to a 20-vote lead on Ben Mendez for the second slot.

The HISD races went according to script, with Anna Eastman and Wanda Adams winning big, with Harvin Moore claiming a closer victory. Unfortunately, the other shocker was in HCC 2, where hatemonger Dave Wilson was leading incumbent Bruce Austin by 26 votes. I can’t begin to say how catastrophically terrible that result is if it stands. Remember, HCC Trustees serve for six years. Dave Wilson is a terrible person who has no business being on any elected body, and he has zero qualifications for this job. He’s been running for various things lately just to be a pain in the ass, and it looks like this time in a low information, low turnout race, he managed to win. I’m so upset about this I’m almost unable to talk about it. I’m thoroughly disgusted by this election. Every time I’m asked to speak about elections, I talk about how HCC races are important but always overlooked. This is why.

In the other HCC races, Neeta Sane was re-elected in a squeaker. She lost Harris County by 300 votes but won Fort Bend by 900. All other races are headed to runoffs – Robert Glaser narrowly missed a majority vote in HCC 5 and will go up against Phil Kunetka; appointee Herlinda Garcia trailed Adriana Tamez in HCC 3; and Yolanda Navarro Flores, who benefited from Dave Wilson’s hatred, will face Zeph Capo. Please check and see if you live in HCC 1, because if you do you really need to show up in December and vote for Zeph.

One last word on the Houston races for now: Turnout was over 175,000 total votes, which approaches 2009 levels. Despite my oft-stated belief that this would be the year that the majority of the votes would be cast before Election Day, thus making odd-year elections more like the even-year elections, that didn’t happen – there were about 94,000 Election Day votes in Harris County, and about 80,000 early and absentee votes. A bigger slice was early, but not the lion’s share just yet.

I will write about results from other races in the next post.

Where things stand going into early voting

A few impressions of the state of the races as we head into early voting.

Mayor – The thing that I will be looking for as initial results get posted at 7 PM on November 5 is how the gaggle of non-competitive candidates is doing. The thing about having nine candidates in a race, even if only two of them have any realistic hope of winning, is that it doesn’t take much support for the long tail to make a runoff a near-certainty. Basically, the amount that the seven stragglers get is the amount Mayor Parker must lead Ben Hall by in order to win the election in November. If the group of seven gets 10%, then Parker needs to lead Hall by at least ten points – 50 to 40 to 10 – in order to win outright. If they collect 20%, Parker needs to lead by 20 – 50 to 30 to 20.

There are no good parallels to this year’s race, but for what it’s worth the three bit players in 2009 got 1.01% of the vote; in 2003 six no-names for 0.65%; in 2001 there were four minor candidates collecting 0.45%; and in 1997, the bottom five candidates got 11.94%. That last one, which may be the closest analogue to this year, comes with an asterisk since two of those five candidates were term-limited Council members, Gracie Saenz and Helen Huey, and they combined for 10.46% of that total. One reason why the past doesn’t offer a good guide for this year is that in all of these races there were at least three viable candidates. Everyone else, save for Saenz and Huey in 1997, was truly marginal. None of Eric Dick, Keryl Douglass, or Don Cook can be considered viable, but they all ought to have a slightly larger base than the perennials and no-names in these earlier races. How much larger is the key question, because however large it is, that’s how big Mayor Parker’s lead over Ben Hall will need to be for her to avoid overtime.

Controller – This race has been Ronald Green’s to lose from the get go, and it remains so. I don’t think his position is any stronger than it was nine months ago, but at least he hasn’t had any bad publicity recently, either. He’s largely held onto the endorsements he’s gotten in the past, though losing the Chron had to sting a little. He’s still an underwhelming fundraiser, but while Bill Frazer has done well in this department he hasn’t done enough to make himself a recognizable name, and that’s to Green’s advantage. Green probably needs Ben Hall to make a decent showing, because while Green did reasonably well in Republican areas in 2009, he will probably lose some of that support this time, and as such he may need a boost from African-American turnout. If Green loses he can certainly kiss any Mayoral ambitions he may have goodbye. If he squeaks by, I can already envision the postmortem stories that will talk about his close call and how that might affect his Mayoral plans. If he were to run for Mayor in 2015, I guarantee that narrative will follow him closely all the way through, just as Mayor Parker’s close shave in 2011 has followed her in this cycle.

At Large Council – I feel confident saying that CMs Costello, Bradford, and Christie will win, though Christie will have the closest call and could conceivably be forced into a runoff. His two opponents have picked up a decent assortment of endorsements between them given their late entries and fairly low profiles. One wonders how things might have gone if someone had jumped into this race early on, as I suggested many moons ago.

I think CM Andrew Burks could be in trouble. He’s done a reasonable job collecting endorsements, but he hasn’t done as well on that score as a typical incumbent does. Like Ronald Green, he needs Ben Hall to have some coattails in the African-American districts, but remember that Burks has not done as well in those boxes as other African-American candidates. But it’s fundraising where you really see the red flags. Combining his three reports for this year, Burks has hauled in about $57K total. His main challenger, David Robinson, reported raising over $66K just on his 30 Day form. Robinson took in another $82K on the July report. He also has over $73K on hand for the late push, while Burks has just $8K. Money isn’t destiny, but these numbers are the exact reverse of what you’d usually see with an incumbent and a challenger.

As for At Large #3, it is as it has been all along, basically wide open with each of the five viable candidates having a plausible case for making the runoff. Bob Stein pegs Michael Kubosh as basically already having a ticket punched for the runoff, but I’ll wait and see. He probably has the best name ID of the group, but that doesn’t mean he’s terribly well known. I just don’t know enough about this one to hazard a guess.

District Council races – A year ago at this time, I’d have marked first term CM Helena Brown as an underdog for re-election. Now I’m not so sure. She’s done well at fundraising, she’s garnered some endorsements – getting the HAR endorsement was both a finger in the eye for Brenda Stardig and a nice bit of establishment sheen for herself – and she hasn’t generated any embarrassing headlines in months. I believe she’s still going to be in a runoff, most likely with Stardig but not necessarily with her, but I think runoff scenarios that don’t include Brown are unlikely at this time. I might bet a token amount on her being un-elected, but I wouldn’t bet any real money on it.

Brown’s freshman colleague Jerry Davis looks to be in better shape. There’s still resentment to him in some quarters, mostly from former CM Carol Mims Galloway and her supporters, but Davis has good support on his side, and he’s gotten the large majority of campaign contributions. Kathy Daniels is a good candidate and she’ll make some noise – a runoff isn’t out of the question – but I see Davis as the clear favorite.

Districts D and I are anyone’s guess. Dwight Boykins has the edge in D, but it’s a strong field, and if Boykins doesn’t clearly separate himself from the rest of the pack he could be vulnerable in December if the bulk of the runnersup back his opponent. Anything could happen in I, where none of the four candidates seems to have a clear advantage over the others. It won’t shock me if it’s a close finish among the four, with a small number of votes separating the runoff contestants from the other two. Some runoff scenarios are preferable to others, but all scenarios are possible.

HISD and HCC – No surprises in HISD. I believe Anna Eastman gets re-elected, Harvin Moore gets re-elected though Anne Sung will have put herself on the map, and Wanda Adams wins in IX. Zeph Capo has run a strong race in HCC1 – this is one of those times where a string of endorsements will mean something – and I believe he wins there. I think Bruce Austin and Neeta Sane get re-elected, but I don’t know about Herlinda Garcia, and I have no clue who will win in the open District 5 seat.

Everything else – I think the two Harris County propositions, for the Astrodome and for the joint processing center, will pass. I think the constitutional amendments will pass, though one or more may fail for some goofy and unforeseeable reason. I do think Prop 6, the water infrastructure fund, passes. The one non-Houston race I’m keenly interested in is the Pasadena redistricting referendum. I have no idea how that is going, but obviously I’m rooting for it to go down.

Chron overview of District B

CM Jerry Davis has three opponents in his first re-election. Since I’ve interviewed CM Davis and one opponent, Kathy Blueford Daniels, here’s what the article says about the other two hopefuls.

CM Jerry Davis

CM Jerry Davis

Each candidate claims to have the best vision and track record to address the many challenges facing the district: high poverty, low graduation rates, crime, abandoned homes, flooding, illegal dumping and decaying streets.

“It’s bad,” said Perkins, 54, who was born and raised in the district and works as a reserve officer for the police department and a security consultant. “People are afraid to go out because there’s so much criminal activity.”

As councilman, Perkins said he would start a “dialogue” among ministers, community leaders, educators and business owners about how to improve the district.

“We need jobs and education programs for our kids,” said Perkins, who thinks Davis has not acted quickly enough to address deteriorating roads and other issues.

Joseph, 34, said he was inspired to run again because of “the public’s dissatisfaction with the current administration,” including what he describes as Davis’ “lack of experience” negotiating, which he said has cost the district millions in capital improvements. Joseph, who founded an organization that helps increase access to youth programs and affordable housing for low and moderate income residents, said his résumé indicates he could better “leverage sources and resources in the community through partnerships and collaborations.”

If elected, Joseph said he would work to create more jobs and expand a program he started to combat illegal dumping by getting more burned-out street lights replaced.

My interview with CM Davis is here, and my interview with Daniels is here. I didn’t interview the other two candidates, but there are written Q&As out there with them – Texas Leftist with Perkins, Texpatriate with Joseph. The Chron endorsed Davis, and I largely agreed with their view of the race. Davis is a recent returnee to the district, having lived in Pearland for some years before moving back for the 2011 election. He faces some resistance in the district because of that, which is something I can understand. I also think that should be more of a 2011 issue than a 2013 one, as he has done a good job on Council. We’ll see what the voters think.

Endorsement watch: Jerry Davis

The Chron endorses Jerry Davis in District B.

CM Jerry Davis

CM Jerry Davis

In his first term in office, council member Jerry Davis launched a pilot project to deploy surveillance cameras to catch illegal dumpers. He and his staff personally went into neighborhoods to mow a weedy lot, or to chainsaw a fallen tree for an elderly resident there. Davis is proud that, under his watch, the city made progress toward razing hundreds of the district’s abandoned houses and strip malls. He’s worked to bring new housing to the district, and says that in the future, he hopes to use the city’s development incentives to attract businesses such as grocery and department stores.

Critics argue that District B’s development is held back by woeful roads and drainage. As opponent Kathy Blueford-Daniels puts it, “Nobody is going to build a new house or start a new business on a raggedy street.” We agree. But fixing such problems takes time – much more time than a single two-year city council term.

Davis deserves another term. In the 2011 election, we endorsed two other candidates instead. (Blueford-Daniels was one of them, and we still think she’d make a fine council member.) But since then, Davis has gained the advantage, overcoming the steep learning curve that any new council member faces – learning the ins and outs of city departments, forming relationships with the mayor and other council members, getting up to speed on city-wide issues such as pension plans, development codes, Rebuild Houston and airport expansions.

That experience and knowledge is valuable to District B. We urge voters to choose Davis.

Normally, it’s not remarkable for the Chron to endorse an incumbent. As noted in the piece the Chron endorsed Kathy Daniels in November of 2011, and Alvin Byrd in the runoff, so this is the first time they’ve given Davis the nod. I think they got it exactly right here – Davis has done a fine job, and Daniels would also do a fine job if she were to be elected. Give a listen to my interviews with Davis and Daniels if you haven’t done so already and hear for yourself.

Going after the dumpers

Glad to see this.

NoDumping

City Council District B will be the site of a pilot program in which five surveillance video cameras have been placed in undisclosed locations, [Mayor Annise] Parker announced. The cameras will be monitored in real time by the Houston Police Department’s Environmental Investigations Unit, which will relay information about illegal dumping incidents to patrol officers for follow-up.

Should the three-month pilot project prove effective, the city will buy another 20 cameras under a budget amendment by District B Councilman Jerry Davis.

“The pile of trash behind me is disgusting,” Parker said on the 1500 block of Maxine. “But the really bad news, the worst news, is that we have problems like this all over Houston. It’s bad enough when we have a condition like this in an out-of-the-way area that no one can see and experience. But we have conditions like this in neighborhoods. On tucked-away corners behind houses that our citizens have to deal with every day.”

This year’s city budget included $250,000 to buy new cameras, as well as upgrade those currently in use. The city long has used surveillance cameras to fight illegal dumping, Parker said, but because of changes in technology, including better visuals and reliability, “it was a good time to do this again.”

Parker hopes the program will identify 50 to 80 illegal dumping cases a month. HPD’s environmental investigations unit has investigated 1,159 cases so far this year, said officer Stephen Dicker.

Here’s the city’s press release on the initiative. Note the use of surveillance cameras, which in this instance strikes me as an appropriate way to deploy them to help fight crime. If you’re wondering about HPD having to watch hours of video to catch these dumpers, technology will lend a hand to that effort. I hope that effort turns out to be very successful.