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Jerry Eversole

It’s getting cheaper to outsource inmates

Now how much would you pay to ship your excess inmates somewhere else?

The county now can send an inmate to Louisiana for as low as $23 a day. Changes to the deal with the private Emerald Correctional Management also now have the company picking up the transportation tab that Harris County used to pay. The Bowie County judge actually called Harris County unbidden to offer a price break. Bowie had charged $42 per inmate per day. It now charges $39 per day for the first 300 prisoners and $38 for the next 100.

“It’s a buyer’s market,” said Jose Jimenez, the sheriff’s director of purchasing and a lead negotiator for jail space.

There’s more where that came from, too. Good for us that other counties’ poor decisions are now benefiting our county’s bottom line, but the real savings will still come from not having excess inmates to ship out.

I have long believed that what our public discourse needs is more penis references. I’d like to thank County Commissioner Steve Radack for doing his part to make that happen:

Commissioners Steve Radack and Jerry Eversole excoriated Sheriff Adrian Garcia during a June meeting for not sending inmates to the cheapest jails. At their prompting, the court last month changed the way it seeks jail deals.

Previously, the sheriff’s office negotiated with public and private jailers and brought the resulting deals to Commissioners Court for approval. Now, the court has turned the job over to the county purchasing agent, which put out a request for proposals from private and public jailers last month.

The new Bowie and Emerald deals result from the old system, Jimenez said, and from negotiations that started before June.

[…]

Radack said that seeking competitive proposals will get the county the best jail deals because it puts the purchasing agent, not the sheriff, in charge. That purchasing agent has independence from both Commissioners Court and the sheriff because he is appointed by a special board that neither controls. Just as Purchasing Agent Kelly Johnson now buys patrol cars for the sheriff, Radack explained, he can use his purchasing expertise to extract better deals for jail beds.

“His stick is a heck of a lot bigger than Adrian Garcia’s police baton,” Radack said.

Did you measure them yourself, Steve, or are you just projecting?

I’d ask why, if this is such a difference-maker, we weren’t doing it long ago, but as the story notes the market for excess inmates has taken a sharp turn in favor of the inmate suppliers in the past two years, so there probably wasn’t all that much to be done before. Plus, Radack never gave a crap about this when his buddy Tommy Thomas was Sheriff. I’ll leave it to you to decide where Thomas’ baton falls on the size spectrum.

How much would you pay for those inmates?

Harris County has a new plan for dealing with its overflow jail population.

Under the new plan, the county’s purchasing agent would ask for all interested bidders to submit their lowest prices for taking inmates, much like it does for the construction of a road. The bid specifications state that the contract is worth as much as $20 million.

The previous practice under which the sheriff’s office negotiated the deals came under fire in June when Commissioners Jerry Eversole and Steve Radack criticized Garcia for not housing inmates in the cheapest jails.

At the time Harris County had 1,221 inmates in other Texas jails, at daily rates that start at $42 per inmate, and only 381 in Louisiana, where the price was $29 a day.

The court subsequently ordered that the contracts be taken over by the county purchasing agent.

Garcia explained that factors such as medical bills and transportation complicate direct price comparisons.

In addition, County Judge Ed Emmett said after the June meeting that Louisiana jails have until recently taken only “cream of the crop” inmates — physically and mentally healthy offenders who are the cheapest to house.

This change in approach is due to carping and whining from Commissioners Radack and Eversole. They got their way, now let’s see if there was anything to their complaining. Not mentioned in this story is any progress being made about not overcrowding the jails in the first place. I seem to recall seeing an ad touting the Republican judicial slate this cycle that talked about what a great job they’ve done dealing with the jail overcrowding problem that they were largely responsible for creating in the first place (they didn’t mention that last bit). Now that they’ve all been re-elected, I hope they remember what they promised.

The county’s budget woes

Don’t look now, but Harris County is running really low on cash.

The $154 million reserve fund Harris County started its fiscal year with is expected to be nearly gone by March as it gets spent to cover shortfalls in property tax collections.

Budget projections released Tuesday show the county entering the fiscal year that begins March 1 with a $5.7 million cash balance on a $1.36 billion budget — a cushion of less than 1 percent. Historically, the county has ended its fiscal year with a cash balance of 15 percent or more.

The situation is dire enough that Precinct 4 Commissioner Jerry Eversole warned that a day of reckoning is on the horizon that may make a tax increase necessary. As Eversole explained it, voters approved tax increases to pay for the construction of civil, criminal and juvenile courthouses. But Commissioners Court, flush with property tax money a decade ago, decided instead to cover the debt payments with its existing property tax collections. In fact, commissioners cut the tax rate four years ago.

Eversole called voting for that tax cut “the worst thing I ever did.”

“You’re absolutely wasting time if you think we can maintain this budget without a tax increase,” he said. “If we can get through 2011, we damn sure aren’t going to get through 2012. So somewhere along the line either this (budget) has to be cut or we’ve got to talk about a tax increase.”

Is the county not required to maintain a minimum cash reserve? If I’ve understood previous coverage, the city and Metro have some kind of requirement imposed on them. Regardless, surely it’s prudent for them to keep a few more bucks on hand than that. Commissioner Eversole is right, this is not sustainable, and as the state will find out next year, you cannot make this work on cuts alone.

I’ve been saying all along that the 2007 property tax rate cut, which was worth $12 a year to someone with a house valued at $161,000 but which has cost the county $25 million in revenue annually, was irresponsible. County Budget Director Dick Raycraft opposed it, too. It’s the main point of disagreement I have with County Judge Ed Emmett. I’m sure the county can find cuts to make up for that lost revenue, but what will the real cost of those cuts be? Among other things, the hiring freeze that the county is under means that the Sheriff’s office is forced to spend millions on overtime. Judge Emmett recognizes that this is more expensive than actually hiring enough employees to do the job, and that’s before you consider the cost of dealing with the lawsuit that was filed by the deputies’ union. Yet Garcia’s request to hire more employees, as well as requests by DA Pat Lykos and County Attorney Vince Ryan, were turned down. Steve Radack can posture and bloviate all he wants about conducting studies and privatizing the jails, but in the end the numbers are what they are.

Finally, there’s been an endless supply of critics of the city’s finances and Metro’s finances in recent years, but they never seem to have anything to say about the county. I’m looking at you, Bill King, and your perch on the Chron’s op-ed pages, but I’ll be happy to hear from anyone who’s wrung his or her hands about entities other than the county.

Eversole and Radack get jail overcrowding religion

Actually, what County Commissioners Jerry Eversole and Steve Radack have is a case of criticize-the-Sheriff-itis.

Harris County Commissioner Jerry Eversole implied at meeting earlier today that the county’s sheriff, Adrian Garcia, acted improperly and wasted tax payer money when he moved inmates from a jail in Lousiana to a jail in Texas.

“If I were doing what Sheriff Garcia is allowed to do, I would be indicted,” Eversole said. “Not just looked at. Indicted! For being able to take a $28 prisoner and put him in a $45 jail. You tell me I wouldn’t be.”

If anyone would know about that, it’s Jerry Eversole. See beneath the fold for a response from the HCDP about this. But I digress.

Eversole, along with Commissioner Steve Radack, was particularly peeved that Garcia recently moved inmates between jails.

“Isn’t it true that we took people out of Louisiana, where we were paying less money to house them, and moved them into Texas where we pay more?” Radack said. “Why did this happen? How did it happen? How many millions did this cost us?”

Eversole added, “I don’t understand how [Garcia] can write a contract, or have it written, without anybody at this table having any say about it,” Eversole said. “Why does the sheriff get to choose?”

Garcia, after the meeting, answered the question quite simply: “I’m the jail administrator,” he said.

But, Garcia said, “Everyday we’re working to make sure we are getting the best market value for that process, and trying to find ways to get these inmates off of the tax rolls all together.”

Radack was all hot and bothered, too.

Maj. Mike Smith, who runs the jails for Garcia, said the death of a Harris County inmate in a Louisiana jail in February prompted a freeze while the death was investigated. The number of Harris County inmates in Louisiana dropped from about 1,000 to 165.

The county resumed sending inmates to Louisiana earlier this month after the investigation cleared officials there of wrongdoing in the prisoner’s death, and the count has climbed by more than 200 just this month.

The sheriff and the county budget director said they expect the county will send a much greater proportion of inmates to Louisiana in coming months.

“It’s too damned late,” Commissioner Steve Radack said at the meeting. “How many millions of dollars did it cost us?”

Sure is nice to see so much concern about how much Harris County is spending on incarceration costs, isn’t it? Well, here’s a fun exercise. Take a look through the Chronicle’s archives for any stories that contain the name Eversole, along with “jail” and “overcrowding”. I did such a search from January 1, 2001 through January 1, 2009 – that is, through former Sheriff Tommy Thomas’ last two terms – and got five articles. I did the same substituting “Radack” for “Eversole” and got 14. Here’s a sample:

From September 27, 2006:

The county may spend at least $260 million to build jails and juvenile-detention facilities as it tries to address state agencies’ criticisms that its jails are overcrowded.

Commissioners Court gave an initial green light Tuesday to building a $245 million adult-inmate-processing center downtown, a $22.5 million adult jail for low-level offenders in Atascocita and possibly an adjacent juvenile-detention facility at that location in far northeast Harris County.

[…]

The sheriff’s office is projecting its jail population will average nearly 9,800 inmates this year, more than 1,330 above jail capacity, says a report by the county’s budget office.

[…]

Commissioner Jerry Eversole, whose district includes Atascocita, praised the proposed location because it is not near residential areas. “It should not cause a tremendous amount of furor from the community,” he said. “It should be a good use of this property.”

The jail could be built in modular units, with the first 400-bed facility open by summer of 2008 and the facility completed by 2010, said Dick Raycraft, county budget and management-services director.

Lots of concern about how much we’re spending to house inmates, no? Here’s another, from December 11, 2006:

County Judge Robert Eckels and other members of Commissioners Court said the jails are needed to reduce overcrowding now and in the coming decades.

The Texas Commission on Jail Standards has cited the jail for overcrowding the past two years. Dormitory-like cells designed for 24 inmates have housed more than twice that number.

Eckels said the county cannot put off building the facilities, since its population is projected to double to 7 million in the next 20 years, and that will increase the need for jail capacity.

Even if some officials oppose the county’s bond proposals, the referendums still are likely to pass, said Commissioner Steve Radack. The last time a county bond referendum failed was in the late 1960s, said Dick Raycraft, director of county budget and management services.

Oopsie. Too bad they didn’t have a Plan B. From December 12, 2006:

Harris County currently spends nearly 16 percent – about $174 million – of its annual operating expenses on the current jail system. Adding the two proposed jails, where construction cost is at least $267 million, would increase maintenance costs to as much as 25 percent, say opponents of the plan. They say the county can maintain public safety without building the facilities.

The county has yet to determine exact costs to operate the proposed facilities. Two county leaders said they were not in a position to discuss what percentage of the county’s budget would be needed to maintain the buildings, but they would not dispute that most likely the percentage would rise.

[…]

Commissioner Steve Radack acknowledged that the county will spend more on jail expenses if the two jails are built. “The public will have to make a decision when it comes to the inmate population,” he said. “And that decision will be does the public want to keep people incarcerated or do they want to pay with damages and break-ins to their property and possibly their lives if we don’t keep people incarcerated.”

Translation: You need to spend hundreds of millions of tax dollars on new jails or WE’RE ALL GONNA DIE!!!!! How much more fiscally responsible than that can you be?

You get the idea. Feel free to do the same search for yourself. The points I’m making are 1) Except for Radack griping about the state not removing convicted felons from the county jails soon enough, neither Radack nor Eversole expressed any concern about jail overcrowding or the costs associated with housing all those needlessly incarcerated inmates while Thomas was Sheriff, even though that’s when all the overcrowding problems happened; and 2) Both were perfectly willing to spend a crapload of money on new facilities, even as Radack now disingenuously criticizes Sheriff Garcia for floating a proposal similar to the one Radack himself backed strongly in 2007. The only difference between then and now – the only reason why they care so much about how much the county is spending on keeping people locked up – is the identity, and the party affiliation, of the Sheriff. The issue just did not exist for them while Tommy Thomas was in office. I know, I’m as shocked as you are.

By the way, Commissioners Court did not take up the matter of the proposed booking center, rendering it effectively dead for this year. County Judge Ed Emmett says he does not expect a bond issue to be on the ballot this November.

UPDATE: I guess I didn’t make myself fully clear here. I’m being sarcastic about Radack and Eversole “getting religion” on jail overcrowding, because the only concern they are expressing is with how much it costs to rent prison space elsewhere. At no point are they saying we need to be incarcerating fewer inmates, they just want to pay less per inmate that we outsource.

(more…)

The cheapest jail cell is the one you don’t use

Sorry, Newton County.

Commissioners Steve Radack and Jerry Eversole held up renewal of a contract with Newton County on Tuesday, and suggested that Harris County needs to do more to get the cheapest possible jail beds.

“If the dollars are the same, I have no problems with what we’re doing, but I’m not believing that the dollars are the same,” Eversole said. “I think the cost per day per prisoner is so much less in Louisiana than we’re getting in Texas.”

[…]

[County budget officer Dick] Raycraft will report to Commissioners Court in two weeks on where Harris County sends its inmates, at what cost and whether it could formally solicit bids from other counties.

“The main thing is to get out of this business of having anybody in another jail,” Raycraft said, by reducing local jail overcrowding through reforms such as diverting the mentally ill to treatment instead of incarceration.

What he said. The county is slowly and hesitantly taking steps in that direction, though there are still some kinks to iron out. At least the basic idea has started to sink in. Grits has more.

Harris County rejoins Texas High Speed Rail group

Harris County is once again a part of the Texas High Speed Rail and Transportation Corporation after Commissioners Court voted to start paying its dues again.

Precinct 4 Commissioner Jerry Eversole put high-speed rail on Tuesday’s agenda, saying Harris County needs to actively lobby for a direct link between Dallas and Houston.

“How can you get something if you’re not even part of the organization that’s putting it together?” Eversole said. He said he hopes some day to see an alternative to “airports and concrete” that could get people from Houston to Dallas in an hour.

[…]

“I don’t see this corporation as the entity that’s going to make it happen, but they’re going to be the driving force that gets the legislators’ attention and gets the governor’s attention,” said [County Judge Ed] Emmett, former CEO of a national transportation trade group. “If we don’t start on high-speed rail now, then we’re going to look up 20 years from now and be kicking ourselves for not doing what we needed to do.”

One could say the same thing now about what we didn’t do 20 years ago, but I suppose that’s neither here nor there. I hope this small step makes it just a bit more likely that Texas will fare better in the next round of funding for these projects.

Eversole opposes Wilson

In his appeal to stay on the ballot after HCDP Chair removed him for not putting in a valid residential address, Dave Wilson contended that only County Commissioner Jerry Eversole, as his opponent on the ballot, has standing to challenge his filing. Apparently, Eversole was listening.

Eversole’s attorney submitted a letter to the 14th Court of Appeals on Friday in support of Harris County Democratic Party Chairman Gerry Birnberg, who refused to certify Wilson as a candidate after concluding that Wilson does not live at the address reported on his filing documents.

[…]

“Wilson called him (Eversole) out,” Eversole consultant Allen Blakemore said when asked why the commissioner entered the Democrats’ internecine fight. “He’s answering an invitation from Wilson.”

All righty, then. What else you got, Dave?

Wilson appeals being booted from the ballot

As expected, renowned homophobe and attention whore Dave Wilson has filed suit to fight being booted from the Democratic Party ballot for County Commissioner.

[HCDP Chair Gerry] Birnberg declared he would not certify Wilson for the ballot because he reported a business address instead of a residential address as required by election law. The move left Eversole without a challenger from either party as he seeks a sixth term on Commissioners Court.

Wilson insists that he lives at his business address, but he said his appeal makes the case that Birnberg does not have the authority to keep him off the ballot even if he submitted a bogus address. Only someone with legal standing — and that would only be Eversole — could make such a challenge, Wilson argued.

I’m no lawyer, but isn’t it always the County Party chair who determines if a primary filing is legal? I would think this argument would have been used before now if it were meritorious, but maybe there’s just never been a case like this one. Any actual attorneys want to offer a viewpoint on this?

Wilson booted from ballot

HCDP Chair Gerry Birnberg has sent a letter to noted hatemeister Dave Wilson telling him that he did not qualify for the Democratic primary ballot because his application did not list his residential address, as required by law. Assuming Wilson does not file a suit to contest this, it means County Commissioner Jerry Eversole gets a much-undeserved free pass in this year’s election. It also means the Democratic slate isn’t polluted by Wilson’s rancid presence, which is the greater good. May this be the last time I ever have to type the name “Dave Wilson” into a blog post.

There’s a fix for that

As we know, Harris County has a budget shortfall of its own to deal with. So the fact that the Sheriff’s Office is spending more than it was allotted is drawing some scrutiny.

The Harris County Sheriff’s Office is projected to overspend its annual budget by $51 million, the third straight year it has blown past its planned expenditures by at least $40 million.

If the projections hold, the $423 million spent by the Sheriff’s Office in the year that ends Feb. 28 would be 14 percent more than Commissioners Court planned when it passed the county budget last year.

The numbers are getting a close look from county officials who have scheduled hearings for next week on what is expected to be $1.4 billion budget for fiscal year 2010-11.

“I would like our budget to reflect reality,” County Judge Ed Emmett said. “I think that’s what people are waiting to hear from the sheriff this time is, ‘OK, why are we over so much?’”

[…]

About two-thirds of the sheriff’s budget goes to running the county jail. It currently houses 1,000 inmates in facilities built for about 9,400 prisoners. The strain has contributed to $34.4 million in overtime this year, as well as millions spent to house overflow prisoners in other counties and Louisiana.

There’s your answer, Ed. The good news is that unlike HPD, whose primary cost drivers have been salaries and pension commitments, solving this particular shortfall is straightforward: Stop locking up people who could instead be out on bail, and expand outpatient mental health services for inmates who would benefit from that. Commissioners Court has appointed a fancy jail czar in place who was tasked with Doing Something to reduce the inmate population, so it’s not like they don’t know what the problem is. Let’s get on with it already.

Of course, for some people, it’s easier and perhaps more natural to just play dumb and haul out the outrage:

“I have asked the budget director to explain to me how the sheriff can be $51 million over and we are expected to carry that by cutting the precincts’ budgets,” Precinct 4 Commissioner Jerry Eversole said.

Eversole said he fears the Sheriff’s Office overspending will come at the expense of maintenance of 2,700 miles of roads and thousands of acres of parks in his precinct.

“Why can’t I be $51 million over budget? That’s what I asked the budget director,” Eversole said. “I think those questions are going to be asked again in open court.”

Yo, Jerry. If you read the sidebar on this story, it says that last year the Sheriff’s Office spent $56 million more than was budgeted. Were you asking these questions then? Seems to me that if all of the people who have been responsible for this problem all along – that would include the Sheriff, the District Attorney, all of those lock-em-up judges, and Commissioners Court – had been doing a better job, we wouldn’t be in this position now.

How Dave Wilson snuck into the race against Eversole

Right wing hatemonger Dave Wilson’s last minute filing in the Democratic Party against County Commissioner Jerry Eversole caused a lot of confusion yesterday as people tried to figure out just who it was that filed. Wilson himself didn’t show his face at HCDP headquarters, as people there would have recognized him. Instead, he sent his campaign treasurer there, and once he felt certain that no Republican was going to file against Eversole, he had his treasurer file the papers. All that is discussed in this Chron story about his filing.

Wilson — who once hosted a fund-raiser for Republican incumbent Jerry Eversole — believes Eversole will resign his seat as a result of a corruption investigation by the FBI, and he wants voters, not the county Republican Party or county judge, to pick his successor.

County election records indicate that Wilson, 63, has voted in eight GOP primary and runoff elections since 1995, but never in a Democratic election.

Harris County Democratic Party Gerry Birnberg accused Wilson and the Republican Party of fraud. Not only is Wilson not a Democrat, Birnberg said, but the candidate sent a representative who signed in as Wilson and allowed himself to be introduced as Wilson to a roomful of applauding Democrats.

Birnberg said he did not realize when Wilson’s representative filed his candidacy papers that it was the same Wilson who sent out 35,000 fliers in November opposing Annise Parker for mayor, in part, because of her sexual orientation.

“We would have recruited a placeholder so we could keep this charlatan out of the race,” Birnberg said.

He said local Republicans should be ashamed to “stoop to such fraudulent chicanery.”

Harris County Republican Party Chairman Jared Woodfill said, “We had absolutely nothing to do with it.”

I actually believe Woodfill on this. Other than a few giggles, the HCRP doesn’t really gain anything by Wilson’s candidacy. Of course, as Coby points out, if the Republican establishment had ever bothered to lean on Eversole to ride off into the sunset and let someone a little less corrupt than him run instead, this never would have happened. But once Eversole decided he was in the clear with the FBI, potential contenders for his seat melted away. Instead, what we have is a “choice” between two unacceptable candidates.

I feel terrible for the people who live in Eversole’s precinct and are thus faced with this stinker on their ballot. Unless a Libertarian or other third-party alternative gets in (memo to the Libs and the Greens: this is a Golden Opportunity for you), the only sensible thing to do is to skip this race. You can still vote a straight party ticket if you’d like. Just be sure to de-select the candidate of your party in this race after you hit the “straight party” button. I did this in 2008 for a Democratic candidate I didn’t want to support, and it worked exactly as I expected it to. Vote straight party, review your choices, uncheck the candidate from this race (if a third party candidate has entered, you can then choose that person if you want to), and cast your vote. It’s easy, and it’s the right thing to do, regardless of which party you otherwise support.

Commissioners Court wants a lapdog, not a watchdog

Back in June, we learned that County Attorney Vince Ryan was going after polluters that had been ignoring court orders to clean up their acts. You would think this would be a good thing to do – you know, enforcing the law while helping to make Harris County cleaner – but apparently not if you’re a County Commissioner. They want a County Attorney that does exactly what they tell him to do, nothing more and nothing less.

Members of Commissioners Court this morning informed County Attorney Vince Ryan that he is to come to them for permission to do anything that costs money or employee time.

Ryan had already signed a deal with the city to help it prosecute polluters in exchange for use of experts and monitoring equipment with which the county can build cases.

“I think that it’s your responsibility to do those things that we, Commissioners Court, ask of you, and I see that you’ve got the cart in front of the horse,” Commissioner Jerry Eversole told Ryan.

The county attorney’s office is the legal counsel for the Court and receives its budget from the five-member board. The county attorney is elected by voters, though, and Ryan did not agree that his office is wholly subservient to the Court.

“In most cases you are correct,” Ryan responded to Eversole, “but there are items all through the responsibilities of the county attorney’s office that we are independently charged by state statute or even federal (regulations) in some cases to look at.”

To put it bluntly, Eversole and El Franco Lee, who was quoted later with the same attitude, are full of it. Ryan is an elected official, not an appointed employee of the Court, and he answers to the voters. The Court certainly has the right to question how he’s spending money, and can try to rein him in if he’s acting irresponsibly, but otherwise should defer to him on how he runs his office, not demand that he defer to them. The subtext I get from this is that they don’t want Ryan to think he has any real independence, lest he get it into his head some day to take a critical look at some of the stuff they do. Sorry, fellas, but checks and balances are supposed to work both ways.

Lawrence backs out of running for Eversole’s seat

And we’re back where we started.

Houston Councilwoman Toni Lawrence has decided she won’t run against Jerry Eversole for the Harris County Precinct 4 Commissioner’s seat.

“I did talk to Jerry on Tuesday and told him I was not going to run against him,” Lawrence said today. “I’m staying out of the race.”

[…]

Lawrence said she never intended to seek the office if Eversole campaigned again.

“We have a lot of mutual friends, we really do, and it was really tough on a lot of those mutual friends,” Lawrence said. “It was putting pressure on those people of who they were going to support and what they were going to do.”

So much for that. I just hope a halfway decent Democratic candidate takes on Eversole, if only so that someone can challenge him on the whole FBI investigation thing. Not too much to ask, is it?

Eversole running for re-election

Surprise!

Harris County Precinct 4 Commissioner Jerry Eversole announced on Friday that he will run for re-election, potentially pitting him against a term-limited Houston city councilwoman and, perhaps, his own tarnished reputation.

Eversole, 66, who was hit with a $75,000 fine in the summer by the Texas Ethics Commission over campaign spending violations, said he decided to seek a fifth term to complete a number of highway projects and a major park complex in his precinct.

“Well, I enjoy the job, I enjoy getting up in the morning and doing what the job involves,” he said on Friday. “At the end of the day, I’ve got projects that were started that I want to see moved along or completed.”

That sound you hear is Toni Lawrence spitting nails. On the plus side, this has the potential to be an even more entertaining Republican primary than Perry/Hutchison. There will be plenty of material for the oppo researchers. I mean, a little more than a year ago, Eversole was convinced that the FBI was out to get him. Surely we’ll be hearing plenty more about that, and who knows what else besides.

County puts off vote on helping the city deny vehicle registration to red light camera scofflaws

No surprise.

For the second time in a month, Harris County Commissioners Court on Tuesday postponed a vote on an agreement with the city to block vehicle registrations for red-light camera violators who do not pay their fines.

Court members said they would not consider the $36,000-a-year contract until it is approved by City Council, and even then made no guarantees they would OK the arrangement.

Compared to the previous story, the rhetoric wasn’t that strong. Judge Emmett wanted proof that the cameras aren’t incorrectly catching people who turn right on red. The cameras have been generating tickets for those who fail to stop before making those turns for two years now, so it shouldn’t be too hard to come up with some data. Commissioner Eversole wanted some assurance about costs. Nobody appeared to draw any lines in the sand, for what that’s worth.

This bit interested me as well:

About one in four violators caught on camera do not pay the civil fines, [Houston Police Department Assistant Chief Vicki] King said. Among them are 500 drivers who have at least four violations, King said.

I’m curious – how many people have been caught multiple times by the cameras, and what percentage of those caught do the repeat offenders represent? Seems to me that if a significant portion of those getting tickets are the same people over and over again, it should change the nature of the argument over the cameras. Is this data available somewhere, or do I need to request it?

Lawrence forms exploratory committee for Commissioners Court

Houston City Council Member Toni Lawrence, the one term-limited member of city government who hadn’t announced a run for somethinge else yet, has now announced that she is forming an exploratory committee for the presumed-to-be-open Commissioners Court seat in Precinct 4. From her press release:

Today, former Cy-Fair high school teacher and current Houston City Council member Toni Lawrence announced the formation of a Republican Primary Exploratory Committee for Harris County Commissioner Precinct 4. She will be transferring more than $100,000 from her city council campaign account into an exploratory county commissioner campaign committee.

Current Precinct 4 Commissioner Jerry Eversole has yet to announce his plans to run for reelection. Lawrence said Commissioner Eversole has worked diligently on the Commissioners Court for almost twenty years, but expressed her view that its time for a new Republican voice for Precinct 4. If elected, Lawrence would be the first Republican female to serve on the Harris County Commissioners Court.

Lawrence, known as one of the hardest working members of the Houston City Council, is completing her third term representing District A and will immediately begin testing the waters by visiting with community leaders and Republican voters across County Commissioner Precinct 4 which overlaps most of North and Northeast Harris County.

“As I explore a run for County Commissioner, I will listen to voters and community leaders’ ideas on how we can make Harris County a better place to live while highlighting my record of accomplishment on the Houston City Council,” said Lawrence. “I feel my experience as a taxpayers’ watchdog, mobility advocate and strong supporter of neighborhood integrity will be a good fit on the Commissioners Court. It would be an honor to continue and expand upon my public service in this new role.”

I’ve posted the full release, which details her Republican credentials for what will surely be a crowded primary, here. We first heard of Lawrence’s interest in this race back in July, so this comes as no surprise. It’s just a question of who else will jump in.

Here comes Addie

Timing is everything in this life.

[Former Houston City Council Member Addie] Wiseman tells me she is going to run a full and vigorous campaign to replace State Rep. Joe Crabb. Details are still being worked out, she didn’t have a campaign manager or a treasurer when we talked. However, she said she’s well prepared and feels this is really a good fit for her.

Wiseman was term-limited out in 2007, so this opportunity is coming along at a good time for her. There had been some talk that she might run for Jerry Eversole’s seat on Commissioner’s Court next year when he steps down, but apparently that’s not the case. I expect she’ll have as good a shot as anyone to succeed Rep. Crabb.

Elsewhere in election news, freshman State Rep. Marisa Marquez of El Paso, who ousted longtime Rep. Paul Moreno in a Democratic primary last year, may have a primary opponent oh her own, and State Sen. Dan Patrick says he is running for re-election next year. I don’t know that this “answers weeks of speculation that he might be appointed to or run for” Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison’s seat in the event she steps down, but it is suggestive, since he was under no real time pressure to announce his re-election bid. Still, if KBH does resign and Rick Perry comes a-callin’, do you think he’d say No? I don’t.

Finally, the word today is that Diane Trautman has announced she will run again for Harris County Tax Assessor. I haven’t seen a press release or anything, but it’s been mentioned a few times on Twitter – I’m guessing she said something at today’s HCDP Brown Bag Lunch event – and there’s now a Facebook page for her candidacy. I’ve heard of another possible candidate for this office, but I don’t know where that person stands as yet.

Eversole sets a record

You da man, Jerry!

Give credit to Jerry Eversole: When he broke the rules, he did it in a big way. The fine levied against the Harris County commissioner this month is the highest in the history of the Texas Ethics Commission.

Eversole’s $75,000 sanction dwarfs the next-highest sanction, a $29,000 penalty slapped on Texas Supreme Court Justice Nathan Hecht last year for failing to report discounted legal services as a political contribution. No other officeholder has been fined more than $18,000, a TEC spokesman said.

The commission chided Eversole for numerous vague expenditure listings. Designations he used, such as “public relations” and “gifts” and “misc.” — which included no other explanation — “did not adequately describe the categories of goods or services received in exchange for the expenditures,” according to the final Order and Agreed Resolution which was made public Monday.

The commission also said there was “credible evidence” that Eversole violated sections of the election code by using campaign money to pay for personal expenses. Specifically, it cited a $10,000 trip to Florida for him, his wife and two friends. Eversole previously has said the trip was a legitimate use of campaign funds.

The infractions are not criminal violations. Local prosecutors said there are no provisions in law that allow them to go after officeholders who abuse campaign funds in this way. But, as a condition of the settlement with the ethics commission, Eversole had to reimburse his campaign $41,357.10. His fine also had to be paid with personal funds.

If the TEC were truly serious about its job, this record would not stand for long. Be that as it may, the most interesting bit in the story is confirmation from Eversole that he will not resign his office before the end of the term. I presume he’s still planning to not run for re-election, but who knows? Now that this is behind him, maybe he’ll decide it’s still too sweet a gig to leave.

By the way, if you want to know what Eversole spent all that money on but don’t feel like slogging through the TEC settlement (PDF) yourself, fear not. John Coby breaks it down for you, with pictures.

Eversole gets slapped by Ethics Commission

County Commissioner Jerry Eversole gets hit with a $75,000 fine by the Texas Ethics Commission for failure to accurately report expenses on his campaign finance reports.

Eversole said he signed what is known as an “order and agreed resolution” so as to dispose of the state’s review of his finances, which began with a series of stories by television station KTRK. Among the issues raised then were campaign money used to pay for collectible firearms, golf outings and vacation trips.

“I have accepted responsibility for the past errors and used it as an opportunity to completely revamp our campaign finance disclosure practices,” Eversole said in a prepared statement. “I am pleased to have put this TEC inquiry behind me, and am ready to move forward.”

[…]

Eversole also agreed to reimburse his campaign $41,357.10. Former County Judge Robert Eckels, hired by Eversole to scrutinize past campaign finances and serve as his new treasurer, said in the prepared statement that all the items paid for with campaign money were “legal and legitimate,” but that Eversole agreed to pay for them personally in order to remove any doubt.

[…]

Despite not facing serious political opposition, Eversole far outspent the other commissioners in 2006 and 2007, the Chronicle has previously reported. Often the classifications for those expenditures were vague. Among the expenses he has labeled as “public relations” or “misc.” were scores of trips to coffee shops and restaurants; several expenses to gun maker Beretta USA Corp.; and $292 spent at Foot Locker. Also among his “public relations” expenses was a $6,850 trip to Florida, which attracted the attention of the DA’s office.

Eversole said in a 2007 Chronicle story that he had “never looked at one of my campaign reports,” adding that he did not believe his filings had to specify the items purchased with campaign cash. Many expenditures fit under “public relations,” he said, so that’s how his bookkeepers classified them.

Hard to believe Eversole had objected to County Judge Ed Emmett’s modest reforms on the grounds that what the TEC already required was good enough, isn’t it? I mean, clearly he’s the kind of guy who needs this sort of thing spelled out to him in excruciating detail. Maybe if that had been the case all along, his wallet wouldn’t be a bit lighter now.

As we know, Eversole still has other issues that are not yet resolved.

The FBI probe, though unconfirmed by the agency, is reported to center on design work done by prominent architect Leroy Hermes on Eversole’s home in the Heights. Hermes’ firm has been involved with county projects, but both he and Eversole insist the residential work was done without regard to political contracts, but because the two are friends. Eversole said he paid Hermes for his help in designing the house, which was built in 2003.

As Eversole is now reportedly planning to serve out the rest of his term, I suppose he’s not too worried about this right now. If and when something does happen on this front, I daresay it’ll be more unpleasant for him than what the TEC can dish out.

Lawrence looking at Commissioners Court

Something I’d realized recently is that almost everyone in city government who is or would have been term-limited out is running or has run for another office. Mayor White is running for Senate. City Controller Annise Parker is running for Mayor. Council members Ronald Green, Pam Holm, and MJ Khan are running for City Controller. Former member Adrian Gonzalez was in his last term when he got elected Sheriff last year. The odd one out was Toni Lawrence, but that may not be the case any more.

So we hear current City Council Member Toni Lawrence is eying her next move, possibly toward County Commissioner. Multiple people have told me that Lawrence is seriously considering running for Commissioner Jerry Eversole’s seat, whenever that becomes available. She has already begun privately gauging support. Contacted last night, Lawrence said it was definitely something she is looking at. This apparently, after another formidable female elected official decided to take a pass at the seat… again, whenever it becomes available, which of course, it’s currently NOT.

Perhaps the FBI will step in and make CM Lawrence’s decision easier for her, though given that she just moved into the precinct, barely in time to be qualified for the ballot, perhaps she’s already decided. In any event, an open County Commissioners Court seat is one of the ultimate prizes in our government, and if Eversole jumps or gets pushed out of the race you can be sure it’ll be a free-for-all to replace him. I’m confident there will be some Democrats in that mix as well; I know there are recruitment efforts going on now. Certainly, as a challenge to an incumbent, even one like Eversole, it’s a steep climb. I don’t recall the exact numbers offhand, but CC Precinct 4 is redder than Precinct 3 – it’s slightly on the Republican side of 60/40, so any Dem would be a heavy underdog, even in an open seat. Still, you can’t pass something like this up, and if the stars line up and you hit the jackpot, it’s huge.

Oh, anyone have a clue who the “formidable female elected official” that declined to run might be? Leave a comment and let me know.

UPDATE: Stace has more, and his post suggests former City Council member Addie Wiseman as a potential candidate.

UPDATE: I’ve received some feedback that that the “formidable female elected official” in question is State Rep. Patricia Harless, who was in line to be appointed to the seat in the event that Eversole resigned. The word now is that Eversole will stay till the end of his term, and Harless will run for re-election to the State House.

Commissioners Court tries again on ethics reform

They meet today to try to get something done.

After months of political maneuvering, County Judge Ed Emmett is asking commissioners to approve a series of ethics reforms. They include the voluntary registration of lobbyists, online posting of officials’ personal and financial disclosure forms and the adoption of a county statement of ethics.

The proposals are weaker than those recommended by an ethics task force assembled by Emmett last year. But even they have been met with skepticism from commissioners.

The continued infighting raises the question of whether any progress will be made on ethics, a centerpiece of Emmett’s election campaign last year after a series of controversies involving county officials. Adding to doubts was Gov. Rick Perry’s veto of a bill, pushed by Commissioner Sylvia Garcia, that would have required a waiting period before former Harris County employees could lobby the county.

Perry said he vetoed the bill because its approach was “piecemeal” and applied only to Harris County rather than the whole state.

Garcia could not be reached for comment Monday.

I did speak to Joe Stinebaker, Judge Emmett’s director of communications, yesterday, and I asked him about Perry’s veto of HB2468. He told me that as this was Commissioner Garcia’s bill, Judge Emmett didn’t have a comment on the veto, and that they were working on getting the reforms that didn’t require legislative action passed. Fair enough.

Commissioner Steve Radack said he would “be interested what the county attorney has to say about” Emmett’s proposals.

County Attorney Vince Ryan said Monday that the ethics measures differ from those that Ryan reviewed earlier at Emmett’s request.
“His proposals are dissimilar enough that, if asked, we will need to review them again,” Ryan said. “We just need to review them again in light of any action the legislature may have taken.”

A review by the county attorney undoubtedly would stall the reforms. Emmett, however, maintained no further study is needed. He noted that Ryan has reviewed the proposals before and that they were written in accordance with what Ryan previously said was appropriate.

“I think he must not have read them because they are exactly what has been put forward before,” the county judge said.

Emmett added that Ryan also campaigned on ethics reform and noted that the county attorney does not have a vote on the matter.

“This is a decision for Commissioners Court, not the county attorney,” Emmett said. “This has been kicking around for a year almost. Let’s talk about this out in the open, but let’s not kick this back to the county attorney.”

I’ve been plenty snarky about this, but I’m feeling a little sympathetic to Judge Emmett right about now. Maybe he should consider working to replace Commissioners who aren’t on board with him. If Jerry Eversole really is out of the picture for next year, that would be a good opportunity to change the balance to one that’s more favorable to ethics reform. Even if this matter is resolved by then, it would be worth doing that.

Ethics reform is hard

It’s been a long and winding road for ethics reform in Harris County, and it isn’t getting any easier.

Harris County Commissioner’s Court next week will consider a series of ethics reforms aimed at increasing accountability for and disclosure of the flow of money through government.

The proposals, which County Judge Ed Emmett placed on next week’s agenda, are weaker than a series of changes recommended last year and include the voluntary registration of lobbyists and the formation of an ethics advisory board. They follow months of delay on ethics reform, which had been a centerpiece of Emmett’s election campaign last year.

It remained unclear Wednesday whether the measures will receive enough support from Commissioner’s Court.

Commissioner Jerry Eversole questioned whether the measures cover any territory the Texas Ethics Commission does not already address. Eversole has been criticized for questionable campaign spending and a history of vague disclosures.

“I have had my problems, but my problems are getting worked out,” he said. “This is putting something into the air that doesn’t need to be put there because the majority of Harris County government has been good.”

Just so we’re all clear, this is the guy who said last year that he expects to be busted by the FBI. I wonder how that’s progressing, by the way. Anybody hearing anything on that?

One recommendation, which would limit the ability of elected officials and department heads from profiting from county connections after joining the private sector, was the subject of a bill sought by Commissioner Sylvia Garcia.

The so-called “revolving door” restriction, which would require former county employees to wait two years before lobbying the county or benefiting from contracts they worked on as employees, was approved by the Legislature. Barring a veto by Gov. Rick Perry, the bill will become law in September.

Garcia said she would have liked to have seen other measures taken to Austin.

“I fully expected the ethics package to be pursued in Austin, but the judge made his decision,” Garcia said. “But I also really think some of these things we can phase in.”

Emmett said the other measures were not pushed in the last legislative session because the county chose to focus on other targets.

“I tend to deal in the art of the possible,” he said. “I have a limited number of things that can be pursued at one time.”

Given the reception Judge Emmett is getting from Commissioners Eversole and Radack, perhaps this was the best that could be done. Assuming that it does, in fact, get done. If it doesn’t, what will Emmett campaign on next year? Somehow I don’t see him promising to work to replace Commissioners who aren’t on board with this.

UPDATE: Texas Watchdog has more.

Hey, remember when we were gonna reform county ethics?

How’s that been going?

Efforts to clean up Harris County government appear to be on indefinite hold as any serious debate about ethics reform has been derailed for months by infighting and political gamesmanship.

Commissioners Court has yet to act on a slate of suggestions prepared by an ethics reform task force that County Judge Ed Emmett appointed as scandals involving his colleagues clouded his Republican primary campaign.

The most significant reforms would require legislative approval, but only one bill has been filed as the biennial session’s end quickly approaches.

That legislation, which aims to block county officials from profiting from their connections after they enter the private sector, was drafted at the behest of Commissioner Sylvia Garcia and does not have the backing of the full court.

When asked why the reform package has gone nowhere, locally or in Austin, court members are quick to assign blame to someone else.

Commissioners Steve Radack and Jerry Eversole said it is up to Emmett to bring the package up for a vote since he is the one who appointed the task force. He does not need court’s permission to push his own bills in Austin as long as he does not claim he is speaking for the entire court, Radack added.

“If Emmett doesn’t have the courage to place the proposals on the agenda, he shouldn’t blame me because I would vote for anything constructive and beneficial to Harris County,” Eversole said in a statement.

You may recall that back in September, Commissioner Eversole said he’d back whatever ethics reform bill came before the court because he expected to be busted by the FBI before the new laws would affect him. That’s the last time we’ve heard anything about ethics reform. As it happens, a couple of days after that Hurricane Ike paid us a visit, and the focus of the County Judge race shifted away from ethics, for obvious reasons. But it never went away, and with the legislative session creeping to a close, it’s getting to be now or never.

Ethics reform became a major theme of Emmett’s campaign last year after Eversole came under fire for questionable campaign spending and former District Attorney Chuck Rosenthal resigned following the release of e-mails that included racist jokes, sexually explicit images, campaign materials and affectionate messages to his executive assistant.

Emmett promised on the campaign trail to push for legislation authorizing Harris County to establish a board to investigate ethics complaints, to require lobbyists to register and to close the revolving door. He acknowledged, however, he has done little lobbying on the measure since Commissioner El Franco Lee twice referred the package to the County Attorney’s Office for comparisons between current law and the recommendations.

County Attorney Vince Ryan submitted his final report in February. The court took no action, and the package has not reappeared on the agenda.

[…]

Failing to adopt the reforms he touted could provide ammunition to a Republican primary challenger in 2010, when Emmett faces running again for his first full four-year term.

Or, you know, for a Democratic challenger in November. Ethics reform was a big part of David Mincberg’s campaign last year. Emmett eventually co-opted some of Mincberg’s ideas when he formed that task force last May, but since then there’s been nada.

Garcia said she agrees with every element of Emmett’s package and would like to add campaign contribution limits and strengthen other financial reporting requirements.

She said she was the under the impression the court supported her revolving-door bill when she took it to [State Sen. Mario] Gallegos, a Houston Democrat.

She said she did not find out that Radack opposed the bill until Thursday night, minutes before she was supposed to testify about the measure before a Senate committee.

Radack said he would support the bill if it was amended to block city officials from remaining in office while running for a county post. Garcia remained Houston’s city controller while she ran for her current seat in 2002.

And there was Adrian Garcia, now Harris County Sheriff, last year. Council Member Sue Lovell is known to be looking at a run for County Clerk next year. You don’t suppose there might be a partisan motive in Radack’s objection, do you? Nah, surely not.

From the “Silver Linings” department

The economic downturn plus the housing market crash means there’s never been a better time for local governments to bid out construction projects, with more contractors than usual getting involved and competing on price.

The increased competition has cut costs on large and small projects by 25 to 30 percent around the region, officials said, allowing local governments to keep up the pace of roadwork and other construction even as they pinch pennies in other departments.

For example, Harris County is close to awarding a $13.1 million contract for a new jury assembly building at Congress and San Jacinto, a project county engineers expected to cost $17 million, said Rich Elwood, who handles the county’s major building projects. Bids for a security system upgrade to one of the county’s jails came in Monday at $5 million, about a third lower than expected, he said.

“This is a great time for a city to get a lot of work done on the cheap,” said Jeffrey T. Nielsen, executive vice president of the Houston Contractors Association, which represents about 400 contractors and suppliers in the eight-county region around Houston. “Our guys are looking for as much work as they can get out and now definitely is the time to build.”

[…]

Harris County Commissioners Jerry Eversole and Steve Radack said they are rushing to get projects ready to bid to take advantage of the lower prices. Radack said he is putting road projects out for bid now that originally were planned for the fall.

“Since you have people out there who, frankly, obviously need work, then look at it this way: We save the taxpayers money and at the same time it’s helping stimulate the economy locally,” he said. “They’re able to keep people employed and we’re able to get the taxpayers a better deal. It’s a pretty logical thing to me.”

Funny how that works, isn’t it? Keep that in mind when you hear news reports today about those silly protests over “wasteful” spending.

Driver!

I feel like I’ve read this story about part-time drivers for Sheriff Adrian Garcia and County Judge Ed Emmett before. It reminded me of this one about state Senate staffer salaries, and this one about City Council expenditures. In each case, it involved a sizable fuss over a relatively small amount of money that was being spent on something that was (to my mind, at least) justifiable. I understand the reason for the fuss, and I don’t have a problem with anyone who wants to kick it up, I just think it’s not that big a deal, but rather is one of those things that looks – or at least, can be made to look – worse than it is. I figure in return for 20% or so of two deputies’ time, we can all rest assured that a couple of busy guys won’t be working their BlackBerrys while driving. I don’t know about you, but I’ve gotten worse trades than that. So put me in Judge Emmett’s corner on this:

Emmett said he believes the commissioners spend too much time worrying about minutiae like his driver and not enough time deliberating over multimillion-dollar projects.

“If the commissioners really want to pitch a fit and say this is the wrong thing to do and they’re not going to approve it, fine. I don’t care,” Emmett said. “But that, to me, would be nonsensical.”

In the end, I suspect this will wind up being more teapot than tempest, but hey, you never know.