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Lina Hidalgo

Study shows a lot of gaps in Harris County’s ability to respond to chemical fires

This quantifies what was painfully apparent in recent months.

Judge Lina Hidalgo

More monitoring and manpower is needed for Harris County to better respond to chemical fires like the three that struck the region earlier this year, worrying residents and shutting the Houston Ship Channel, according to a study evaluating the county’s response to the fires.

The most critical response gap identified involved staffing in the Harris County Fire Marshal’s Office, where another 16 hazardous materials technicians — at a cost of $1.6 million annually — are needed to bring the team up to compliance with national standards. Other recommendations include real-time monitoring of air, soil and water conditions, along with the training and resources necessary to share that information among the various departments — and the public — during a potential catastrophe.

”This is an example of us recognizing the county is not where it needs to be,” Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said Monday, noting the need for better information sharing with the public.

[…]

In all, the report by PENTA Consortium, a private consultant hired by the county, lists 49 recommendations for the commissioners’ court to consider, broken down by issues that need immediate attention and those that should be reviewed longer term.

Some of the recommendations involve little or no additional funding, such as pushing for local authorities to have more active participation within a unified command after an incident; appointing a senior advisor for emergency management for the county judge’s office; and tasking departments to take comprehensive looks at their internal decision-making authorities and processes.

Others require a heftier investment.

Elena Craft, with the Environmental Defense Fund, said she was encouraged by some of the recommendations.

“I think initially some of the gaps seemed like no-brainers,” she said, adding that “having a comprehensive assessment of where those gaps are and a time frame, essentially a road map, of how to fill these gaps was obviously needed.”

The 133-page report is referred to as “gap analysis” because it is aimed at allowing an outside consultant to find areas of improvement or failures in current policies. In addition to staffing shortages, lack of coordination among the local emergency responders also hampered the response to the fires, which sent plumes of black smoke into the region, the study found.

We’ve talked about Harris County’s non-hurricane disaster preparedness before, and I’m glad to see the county is returning to the subject. Hurricane preparedness is vital, of course, but I think we can all agree that chemical fires happen a lot more often. All of the things they are talking about in this story are necessary, and we’ll be much better off when we have a firmer handle on them.

Commissioners Court approves bail lawsuit settlement

Excellent.

Harris County Commissioners Court approved a historic settlement Tuesday fixing a bail system a federal judge found unconstitutional and ushering in a new era for criminal justice in one of the nation’s largest metropolitan areas.

The deal resulted from months of intensive negotiations between the county and lawyers for indigent misdemeanor defendants who sued over a two-tiered system that jailed people prior to trial if they couldn’t pay up front cash bail but allowed people with similar backgrounds and charges to resume their lives and await trial at home.

“This was the result of careful negotiation,” County Judge Lina Hidalgo said just before the commissioner’s voted 3-2 to approve the deal.

The vote split along party lines. Commissioners Jack Cagle and Steve Radack, the only Republicans now on the the commissioners court, voted against it.

The settlement agreement — which still must be approved by a federal judge — installs a monitor to oversee the new bail protocol for seven years. It provides comprehensive public defense services and safeguards to help ensure defendants show up for court. It will allow about 85 percent of people arrested on misdemeanors to avoid pretrial detention. The settlement also calls for transparent data collection, which will allow the county to keep better track of what’s working and what isn’t.

You know the background, so see here for the previous update. I can only wonder what would have happened in a world where Democrats swept the judicial races but failed to win those two seats on Commissioners Court. I feel pretty confident saying that as of July 30 in that alternate universe, there would not be an agreement in place. Elections, they do have consequences. Congratulations one and all for getting this done.

Once more with more prosecutors

This time, it might work.

Kim Ogg

The Harris County District Attorney’s Office is asking county commissioners once again for more prosecutors to handle fallout from the botched Houston drug raid that left a Pecan Park couple dead earlier this year.

The latest $1.96 million funding request that will go to Commissioners Court for consideration Tuesday would add 10 positions to the office, including seven felony chief prosecutors and three investigators housed in the Civil Rights Division.

“What leaders fund speaks to what they think is important and our investigation of the Harding Street shootings is one of the most significant matters we have seen in decades,” District Attorney Kim Ogg said in a statement to the Houston Chronicle. “Community trust depends on us getting to the truth sooner than later; we need to add experienced prosecutors to our Civil Rights Division to handle an investigation this deep and wide.”

[…]

Already, it seems the latest proposed expansion may have more support from the politicians who hold the county’s purse strings. Previously, two Republican commissioners generally voiced their support for adding prosecutors, but this time Democrats look poised to back it as well.

“I’m proud that the district attorney and I have reached common ground in working with an independent consultant to help create a strategy that fosters public confidence in our criminal justice system,” Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia said. “This additional resource is critical to supporting our law enforcement officers.”

Similarly, Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis — who opposed the request last time around — said he will back it.

“The Harding Street tragedy raises concerns that are bigger than one officer — it’s about an entire system that needs to be held accountable,” he said. “I have worked with the DA to ensure this new request includes robust oversight by an independent third party to identify the failed safeguards that allowed for any miscarriage of justice to occur.”

See here for the previous update. If nothing else, it looks like Ogg took to heart the reasons why her previous asks were rejected. She’s already got the two Republican commissioners in line, so passage appears assured, and it’s just a matter of whether or not Judge Lina Hidalgo makes it unanimous. (Also of note: unlike the previous times, I’ve not gotten an email from the ACLU or TOP opposing the request.) Assuming nothing unexpected happens and this does go through, I’ll be very interested to see what they turn up. I feel confident saying there’s more to that botched raid than we know about right now.

HGAC makes its pledge to TxDOT for I-45

Lots of pushback, but not enough to change the outcome.

Local transportation officials now have skin in the game when it comes to widening Interstate 45 north of downtown Houston, approving on Friday a $100 million commitment for the project that has drawn increasing scrutiny and criticism from affected communities.

After five hours and nearly 60 residents — as well as Harris County officials — urging delay of the approval until the Texas Department of Transportation answered lingering questions, however, the go-ahead from the Houston-Galveston Area Council’s Transportation Policy Council fell well short of full-throated support.

“It is one thing to listen, but it is very important we are responsive,” Houston at-large Councilman and transportation council Vice Chairman David Robinson said, telling TxDOT the city’s support comes with the expectation the concerns will be addressed.

“We will not support a project that is not in the interest of our citizens,” Robinson said.

[…]

Though the decision affects only the center segment, criticism is growing along the entire $7-billion-plus, 25-mile project from downtown Houston north to Beltway 8. TxDOT proposes adding two managed lanes in each direction the length of the rebuild, which will require the acquisition of 319 residences and 264 businesses north of Interstate 10; another 916 residences and 68 businesses would be affected by the construction around the central business district, where the project would lead to a near-total redesign of the freeway system from Interstate 69 and Spur 527 to I-10 and I-45.

A major part of the proposed project would remove the elevated section of I-45 along Pierce Street and shift the freeway to flow along I-69 on the east end of the central business district and then follow I-10 along Buffalo Bayou back to where I-45 heads north of downtown.

Construction of downtown segments could start as early as 2021, while the center segment work is not expected to start until late 2023 or early 2024.

The sheer enormity of the project has led to widespread air quality concerns and neighborhood-specific fears along the 25-mile route. That has led some to encourage slow-going before local officials commit their money.

“If it feels wrong and feels rushed, it is because it is wrong and is rushed,” Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo told colleagues on the transportation council Friday. “It is only responsible to wait.”

Hidalgo was the sole no vote against the $100 million, after her proposal to delay the commitment to January 2020 was denied. Harris County Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia abstained on the vote to commit the money.

They were hardly the only people in the H-GAC conference room opposed to moving forward, which grew so crowded an overflow room was opened. Sixty-five people spoke during public comment, 59 of whom urged officials to delay committing the money or reject the widening plan outright.

See here and here for the background. Allyn West live-tweeted the meeting – see here and here for his tweets, which for some reason I can’t quite seem to fully capture in one thread. If you want to know who spoke and what they said, that’s where to look. LINK Houston also tweeted from the meeting, but not in a threaded fashion, so you need to look at their timeline. They do have pictures, so there’s that. As the story notes, the purpose of this vote was to get the I-45 project on the state’s Unified Transportation Program, basically a ten-year plan for major transportation projects. Someone far geekier than I will have to explain how the timing of that works. In any event, this is not the last time HGAC will vote on this item. HGAC still has to approve adding that $100 million to its own plans, so there will be another vote or two on this in 2020 and 2021, depending on when construction is scheduled to start. TxDOT is still getting public feedback, and I suppose there’s still room for the project to be changed, up till the point where something is well and truly finalized. If you want to get involved in trying to affect, alter, or arrest the development of the I-45 expansion, I suggest you read through Allyn West’s tweets, find the organizations that spoke out and best represent your viewpoint, and contact them to see how you can help. There’s still time, until there isn’t. Don’t wait too long.

Final bail settlement reached

We are coming to the end of a very long road.

A long-awaited settlement in Harris County’s historic bail lawsuit won tentative approval Friday from all parties, setting up a possible end to a contentious system that kept poor people behind bars on low-level charges while those with money could walk free.

The agreement — if approved by a federal judge and county officials — would formally adopt the judge’s findings and modernize the way local officials handle bail hearings for the steady stream of people arrested every day on misdemeanors.

Key reforms in the lengthy consent decree include revised judicial protocol, access to more public defense services, open court hours for defendants to clear or prevent warrants, as well as text reminders about hearings and a bail education program for officials and the public. The county will have a court-appointed monitor for seven years to oversee implementation.

The county also would agree to pay about $4.7 million in legal costs for the plaintiffs, on top of the $9.1 million already spent to contest the lawsuit. An additional $2.1 million in legal fees has been waived by the Susman Godfrey firm.

Commissioner Rodney Ellis, who has championed bail and criminal justice reform for decades, called the agreement one of the highlights of his career.

“It’s a major civil rights victory that will have national implications,” Ellis said. “This fixes a broken system that has traditionally punished people based on how much money they have before they are convicted of a crime.”

The deal could provide a road map for other jurisdictions around the country to rethink their bail systems amid widespread overcrowding and a nationwide push for criminal justice reform.

Commissioners Court is set to vote Tuesday on the proposed deal. Chief U.S. District Judge Lee H. Rosenthal could then consider approving it after a hearing Aug. 21.

See here for some background. I got a press release from the Texas Organizing Project on Thursday about this, so I’ve been eagerly awaiting the news story. I can predict with confidence that Commissioners Court will approve this by a 3-2 margin. Elections have consequences. Kudos to everyone who worked hard to make this happen.

July 2019 campaign finance reports: Harris County

Before we get to the numbers, please read this.

El Franco Lee

The widow of former Harris County Precinct 1 Commissioner El Franco Lee has emptied most of her late husband’s $3.8 million campaign account by donating to community groups and charities.

Ethel Kaye Lee, the campaign treasurer, said Thursday she chose the recipients based on the intentions of her husband’s donors.

“The campaign monies were given for two reasons, for support of existing Precinct 1 programs and keeping him elected, so that’s the formula,” she said.

The account donated $3.01 million to 12 groups, including $500,000 to the Precinct 1 Aquatics Program, $200,000 to the St. Paul Scholarship Foundation and $150,000 to the Julia C. Hester House in Houston’s Fifth Ward, according to the campaign’s July finance report. The report covers the period from Jan. 1 to June 30.

The largest expenditure was $1.5 million to the Precinct 1 Street Olympics, a program Lee founded in 1986. The summer event serves thousands of children annually and includes swim lessons, a basketball tournament and career fair. It also supports the North East Adolescent Program, created by Lee in 1989, which seeks to lower rates of teen pregnancy, birth defects and sexually transmitted diseases in poor Houston neighborhoods.

[…]

The Lee campaign also donated to $200,000 to the Baylor College of Medicine’s teen health clinic and $50,000 to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. Two Catholic groups, the Dominican Sisters of Houston and Dominican Friars, Province of St. Martin De Porres, received $50,000 each.

According to the finance report, the campaign had $791,140 remaining on hand as of June 30, which Ethel Kaye Lee has been allocated. Under state law, the campaign has until 2022 to close the account.

See here for the last update, from April. I had noticed all of the activity when I looked at Lee’s report. I’m glad to see this money going to good uses.

Now, on with the show…

Lina Hidalgo, County Judge
Diane Trautman, County Clerk
Dylan Osborne, County Treasurer
Marilyn Burgess, District Clerk

Kim Ogg, District Attorney
Ed Gonzalez, Sheriff
Vince Ryan, County Attorney
Ann Harris Bennett, Tax Assessor

Lloyd Oliver, District Attorney
Audia Jones, District Attorney
Curtis Todd Overstreet, District Attorney

Harry Zamora, Sheriff
Joe Danna, Sheriff

Ben Rose, County Attorney
Christian Menefee, County Attorney

Rodney Ellis, Precinct 1
Adrian Garcia, Precinct 2
Steve Radack, Precinct 3
Jack Cagle PAC, Precinct 4

El Franco Lee
Diana Alexander, Precinct 3

George Moore, HCDE Position 1, Precinct 2
Eric Dick, HCDE Position 2, Precinct 4
Richard Cantu, HCDE Position 3, At Large
Josh Flynn, HCDE Position 4, Precinct 3
Michael Wolfe, HCDE Position 5, At Large
Danny Norris, HCDE Position 6, Precinct 1
Don Sumners, HCDE Position 7, At Large

Andrea Duhon, HCDE Position 5, At Large
David Brown, HCDE Position 7, At Large


Candidate     Raised     Spent     Loan     On Hand
===================================================
Hidalgo      318,967   162,328    1,400     192,572
Trautman      11,325     5,778        0      22,450
Osborne        1,000       155        0       1,201
Burgess        9,626     9,681        0       7,263

Ogg          135,860    22,773   68,489     330,425
Gonzalez     178,024    14,344        0     276,714
Ryan          41,925    15,417        0      85,318
Bennett       21,925    19,205        0      37,313

Oliver
Jones         23,669    11,234        0       9,967
Overstreet
Zamora             0     3,026        0           0
Danna        111,268    66,442    3,500      38,338
Rose          22,345     2,257        0      11,605
Menefee       34,869       326        0      34,542

Ellis        715,266   240,145        0   3,823,509
Garcia       552,590   289,169        0     810,149
Radack         5,000    96,250        0   1,634,106
Cagle        398,900   240,512        0     361,787

Lee                0 3,095,767        0     791,139
Alexander      4,210       445        0       1,982

Moore
Dick               0         0        0           0
Cantu          1,250     1,132        0         337
Flynn
Wolfe              0         0        0           0
Norris
Sumners

Duhon            155       262        0         389
Brown            700       406        0         313

County Judge Lina Hidalgo isn’t taking money from vendors, but that hasn’t stopped her from doing well in the fundraising department. At this rate, she’ll be well funded for her first re-election campaign. On the other end of the spectrum…what’s up with Steve Radack? He knows he’s up for election next year, right? I mean, he does have plenty of money, so one low-activity reporting period is no big deal. It still looks weird.

More aware of their ballot status next year are DA Kim Ogg and Sheriff Ed Gonzalez, and both responded as you’d expect. I’ll get to their situations in a minute, but the person I’ve got my eye on at this time is County Attorney Vince Ryan. He’s never been a big fundraiser, but he brings in a few bucks. If there’s a cycle where he’s going to need them, it’s this one.

And that’s because Ryan now has two primary opponents, Ben Rose and Christian Menefee, and while he has a cash on hand lead, it’s hardly insurmountable. In this high-turnout environment that the 2020 primary will be, Ryan’s biggest advantage will be the name recognition he has after 12 years in office. With a half million people or so likely to vote, it will take a pile of money to reach enough of them to make an impression. In a more typical year, you could hit the club and CEC meetings and hope to interact with enough of the old reliables to have a shot. In 2020, you’re going to have to do much broader outreach. That takes money, and it’s not clear that kind of money exists in the County Attorney race. We’ll see.

And speaking of opponents, we have them in the DA and Sheriff races. If your reaction to seeing Lloyd Oliver’s name wasn’t basically this, I don’t know what to say to you. Audia Jones we know about; she doesn’t appear to have gotten much traction yet, but there’s still time. I can’t tell from the limited information I have seen about Curtis Todd Overstreet to discern whether he’s running as a D or an R. I’m sure that will be clear enough soon. I can say the same about Harry Zamora running for Sheriff, I can’t tell his party just yet. Joe Danna is a Republican who has run for Constable in Precinct 1 a couple of times. His amount raised is not as impressive as it looks – about half of the total is in-kind donations for a fundraiser, and nearly half of the actual cash he got was a single $25K donation from Janice McNair.

Beyond that, not much we didn’t already know. I’m sure there will be a lot more raised in Commissioners Court Precinct 3, and for sure there will be more candidates. At some point I need to take a closer look at the Constable and JP races, because those are another good source of Dem takeover opportunities. For now, this is where we are.

The local response (so far) to the ICE raids

This is good.

Houston’s top elected and law-enforcement officials sharply criticized federal authorities’ plans to arrest large numbers of immigrant families living without legal permission in major U.S. cities, contending that the raids targeting groups of recent arrivals would harm public safety and risk separating children from their parents.

Mayor Sylvester Turner and Police Chief Art Acevedo took to nationally broadcast programs to weigh in against the raids, which are set to begin as early as Sunday in at least 10 cities, including Houston. Officials from Immigration and Customs Enforcement appear likely to target immigrants who recently crossed the border and have been issued a final order of deportation.

“It’s one thing if the focus of these raids is on people with criminal records, people who have committed violent crimes, people who are part of gangs,” Turner said earlier this week on NPR’s All Things Considered.

The raids should not aim to deport people “who have been here for quite some time,” Turner continued, if “their crime is only coming here to seek a better way of living or to provide a better opportunity for their families.”

[…]

Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez said his office would not participate in the raids, arguing that local involvement would “drive undocumented families further into the shadows” and damage community safety.

“It silences witnesses & victims & (would) further worsen the challenges law enforcement officials face,” Gonzalez, a Democrat, said in a tweet.

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo issued a statement containing information about the legal rights that people retain when interacting with ICE agents, such as their right to not answer the door if the agents do not present a warrant.

“These raids seek to subvert our sense of community by putting the very heart of Harris County, our diversity, in the cross-hairs of a shameful political maneuver,” said Hidalgo, a Democrat elected last year.

Turner issued a fresh statement Saturday saying the city would continue to offer services to all residents “regardless of who they are, where they are from, or their documentation status.” ICE had yet to contact the city about the raids, the mayor added.

“The president’s order for concentrated ICE raids against immigrant families in Houston and elsewhere stands against everything we represent as a welcoming city,” Turner said.

This is also good.

U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee met with faith leaders in Houston on Saturday to invite undocumented immigrants to seek refuge in churches, mosques and synagogues and call on religious organizations to open their doors ahead of Sunday’s anticipated deportation roundup by Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers.

“It is to my dismay that I have to come home to find many of those who live in my jurisdiction, my constituency, are panicked, frightened and in fear of their lives,” said Jackson Lee, a Houston Democrat. “I say to the federal authorities: that you are well aware and on notice that you are not able to come into a church and demand anyone that is a representative of the faith to give anyone to anyone.”

Jackson Lee gathered with faith and local leaders Saturday afternoon at the Living Water International Apolistic Ministries in Houston. The ministry, along with half a dozen other churches, announced it would shelter undocumented immigrants on Sunday who fear they are in danger of being taken by ICE.

“We want to be a beacon of light for those who may be in fear. So when I got the call, I couldn’t do anything but accept,” said Apostle Robert Stearns, leader of Living Water. “There is nothing strange to us in doing this. This is our heart and our passion.”

It’s a good start. Now we need to be ready for whatever the response to this is.

TxDOT wants H-GAC to commit money to the I-45 project

I don’t understand this.

To demonstrate local support for the mega-project, the Texas Department of Transportation is asking the Houston-Galveston Area Council’s Transportation Policy Council, the committee that doles out state and federal money controlled by local officials, to commit $100 million to the central 3-mile portion of the freeway rebuild, from Interstate 10 to Loop 610. State officials would cover the remainder of the $1.22 billion cost, or around 91 percent of the total.

If approved this month by the transportation council, the money would not move from HGAC to TxDOT until construction begins, estimated around early 2024. The more immediate effect would be showing support for the increasingly controversial project, and would be reflected in upcoming plans. Further, it would be $100 million that local officials could not direct elsewhere in a region rife with road improvement needs.

Committing the money would have no effect on projects already planned and funded, officials said.

During a June 28 discussion about the project and about whether to commit the money, members of the transportation council were divided. Despite years of community meetings and redesigns of the project, some on the council thought the I-45 plans lack solutions for some of the problems critics identified.

“My concern is we are forced to stick our neck out and put a down payment on a house we have not seen,” Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said.

[…]

Pass up the commitment, transportation officials said, and the state could send its money elsewhere.

“If this would not go forward,” Quincy Allen, district director for TxDOT in Houston said of the state funding offer, “I don’t know when we would have the money to go forward.”

The transportation council is scheduled to meet July 26 and is poised to decide on the money then, though officials could choose to delay. The state’s long-range plan, to be unveiled during a public meeting in Austin that will be streamed online, is set for approval in August. State officials could amend it if Houston-area leaders balk at committing the region’s share.

I have questions.

1. Is this normal? Has TxDOT ever asked any other regional transportation agency to kick in local funds like this? “Local” is a bit misleading – I think what TxDOT is asking is for HGAC to commit $100 million of future grants, which come from state and federal sources, to this part of the I-45 project. My question stands, though – is this something TxDOT has ever done before? If yes, then what were the circumstances and how did it go? If no, why now?

2. What is this money for? I recognize that the I-45 project plans have not been finalized, so a high-level answer is the best we can do. My point here is about whether this money is for the actual highway construction or some ancillary things? I’m not even sure what that would mean, so any clarification would be helpful.

3. What exactly happens if HGAC says “nah, we’re good”? Clearly we can’t answer this without knowing the answer to #2, but at a high level, does this mean there would be some piece of this project that wouldn’t get done, or does it actually threaten the project as a whole? I have a hard time believing that, which brings me back to the question of why TxDOT is making this request. I can’t help but think the answer here is that the project will happen regardless, but there would be some petty repercussions down the line if we locals don’t play ball.

I’m sure there are more questions, but I think that’s a good start. My firm position on this is No until we get some answers.

Still no more prosecutors

I remain fascinated by this dynamic.

Kim Ogg

Harris County Commissioners Court on Tuesday rejected District Attorney Kim Ogg’s request for more staff to handle fallout from the Houston Police Department’s botched Pecan Park drug raid, the second time this year commissioners have turned down Ogg’s push for more prosecutors.

The court voted 3-2 along party lines after a feisty debate involving the court’s reform-minded Democratic majority, officials from Ogg’s office and the outnumbered conservative commissioners. In the end, Commissioners Rodney Ellis and Adrian Garcia joined County Judge Lina Hidalgo in turning down the request.

Added to the court’s agenda late Friday, Ogg’s request would have granted the district attorney’s office 10 new positions — seven felony chief prosecutors and three investigators — to handle what officials in Ogg’s office characterized as an overwhelming caseload aggravated by the Jan. 28 Harding Street raid.

The court’s decision came a day after HPD agreed to give prosecutors thousands of pages of records relating to their use of confidential narcotics informants, avoiding a legal showdown that loomed after prosecutors from Ogg’s office threatened to issue grand jury subpoenas to get the records.

Instead of granting Ogg more staff, Hidalgo, Ellis and Garcia voiced support for an external review by an independent third party. They also cited a Chronicle report that raised questions about caseloads and Ogg’s push for more than 100 new lawyers earlier this year, which the court also rejected.

[…]

In a statement, Ogg said her office “remains dedicated to fully investigating the Harding Street shootings” and said the shooting victims’ family members “and our entire community deserve to know the truth sooner, not later. Unnecessary delay creates hardship for everyone associated with this tragedy. If police misconduct led to the wrongful convictions of anyone, then every extra day served in the penitentiary waiting for justice increases the potential financial liability for Harris County taxpayers.”

Ellis, a longtime criminal justice advocate, told officials from the district attorney’s office that he did not feel comfortable receiving Ogg’s request late Friday, and urged King to meet first with an independent prosecutor before having commissioners vote on additional staff.

Hidalgo suggested that Ogg’s request was a reaction to coverage of the botched raid, telling King that Commissioners Court members “don’t write budgets based on headlines.”

See here for more on the first time Ogg asked for more prosecutors, here for more on that Chron story about caseloads, and here for more about the late ask for more prosecutors this time around. I can think of three things to say. One is that Kim Ogg should listen to Rodney Ellis and consult with someone outside Harris County about their staffing needs before taking any further action. Two, that consultation should include reviewing and revising those numbers the Chron cited, if only to present an alternative report that conforms to the specifications cited. And three, one way or another she needs to build or rebuild trust between her office and the Democrats on Commissioners Court, because she sure isn’t getting the benefit of the doubt from them. The campaign ads for her primary opposition are being written for them.

By the way, Commissioners Court updated the county’s nondiscrimination and anti-harassment policies

Nice.

The Commissioners Court voted 3-2 along party lines to [add sexual orientation and gender identity to the county’s nondiscrimination and anti-harassment policies].

County Judge Lina Hidalgo, along with Commissioners Rodney Ellis and Adrian Garcia — all Democrats — voted in favor. Republicans Jack Cagle and Steve Radack voted against. Prior to the vote, several LGBTQ advocates spoke in support of the proposal, while only one person — Dave Welch of the Houston Area Pastor Council — spoke against it.

Welch told the court that sexual orientation and gender identity are “undefinable” — and claimed the new nondiscrimination policies would “be used as a bludgeon against those who disagree.”

Commissioner Garcia responded with an emotional story about his late brother, Huberto, who died from AIDS in 1995.

“My brother was gay, and he grew up at a time when if you exhibited any tendency … you got beat up,” Garcia said. “So, here we have an opportunity to simply say, ‘People matter, and that people will be protected.’

“My brother couldn’t come home to die with his family,” Garcia said. “California at the time was the only place he could get healthcare”.

[…]

The new policies would take effect immediately and bring Harris County in line with other major Texas counties, including Bexar (San Antonio), Dallas and Travis (Austin) counties. Harris County is the third-most-populous in the nation and has more than 15,000 employees. The policies would also cover several hundred employees at the Harris County Flood Control District (think: Hurricane Harvey).

This only merited a passing mention in the Chron, which I find disappointing. Note that this policy applies only to Harris County employees; Commissioners Court doesn’t have the authority to do this for the county as a whole. Despite the failure of HERO, the city of Houston has long had a similar non-discrimination policy for its employees, which Mayor Parker updated to include transgender employees back in 2010. Elections have consequences, y’all. Kudos to Judge Hidalgo and Commissioners Ellis and Garcia for getting this done.

On prosecutor caseloads

I’m still thinking about this.

Kim Ogg

When a line of prosecutors stepped up to the microphone at Harris County Commissioners Court in February, they told tales of long hours, endless to-do lists and bloated caseloads well into the triple digits.

Their impassioned pleas and barrage of data were part of the push by the Harris County District Attorney’s Office for an unprecedented $21 million expansion that would add more than 100 lawyers to its staff.

But despite a weeks-long campaign, District Attorney Kim Ogg’s budget request failed. Now, four months later, records obtained by the Houston Chronicle and The Appeal indicate that the attorney caseload figures used to justify the request appear to overstate the office’s workload.

The data presented to commissioners and the public did not reflect that about two-thirds of the felony trial bureau attorneys consistently handle a smaller number of complex cases. Instead, it frequently presented the caseloads of the remaining third of the attorneys — those who handle over 900 cases on average — as representative of the whole trial bureau. The office also counted every charge in an arrest as a separate case and included more than 200 cases put on hold after defendants had not yet been arrested or had fled after violating the conditions of their bonds.

Based on the numbers provided by the DA’s office, an average caseload for “felony two” and “felony three” prosecutors combined would be less than 600, if all positions were filled in each court — and would be even lower if chiefs were included. Exact staff assignments that month were not released with the data.

[…]

Four members of the Commissioners Court—including all three Democrats who voted against the budget request in February—did not comment on the caseload figures.

But Commissioner Steve Radack, a Republican who offered staunch support for Ogg during the budget cycle, said that he did not feel the DA’s office misrepresented data and reiterated his concern about the county’s refusal to fund Ogg’s request for more prosecutors.

“It’s extremely unfortunate that she didn’t get it,” he said. “Frankly, it’s a misjustice.”

During budget discussions in February, County Judge Lina Hidalgo — the Democrat who heads up Commissioners Court —questioned whether prosecutors could simply lower their caseloads by charging fewer people and leaning more heavily on diversion alternatives.

“This is not the only way,” she said, “and certainly not the most cost-effective way to decrease prosecutor caseloads.”

Though Adam Gershowitz — a William & Mary Law School professor who co-authored a 2011 study on district attorney caseloads — raised concerns about the representations in the data, such as the inclusion of bond forfeitures, he stressed that too few prosecutors can have a negative effect on the legal system, leaving people waiting behind bars as their cases get reset instead of resolved.

“We could have debates about if (prosecutors) should charge less and maybe they should,” he said. “But they are overburdened and it’s bad on so many levels when the district attorney’s office is overburdened.”

There’s a lot more, so read on for the methodology and the questions about how cases were counted. One issue was with classifying all types of prosecutors as having similar workloads even though one group has many more cases than the others, and classifying things as active cases that aren’t really. The explanations for why things were counted as they were don’t really make sense. Even with that, there’s support – not unanimous by any stretch, but it’s there – for more prosecutors, and for managing caseloads. Maybe if we can all agree on what the case numbers actually are, we can better agree on what the number of prosecutors should be.

Moving ahead with voting centers

The first time was a success, so we’re going to keep using them.

Diane Trautman

Harris County Commissioners Court on Tuesday voted unanimously to apply for state approval to expand the use of countywide polling places to general elections.

County Clerk Diane Trautman said a trial run of the system during the low-turnout school board elections in May was successful. Trautman’s goal since taking office in January has been to implement countywide polling, where voters can cast ballots at any location rather than in assigned precincts, in high-turnout general elections which can draw more than 1 million voters.

Previously, Harris County featured countywide voting only at a small number of early voting sites, and never on Election Day.

“I am very pleased with the results of the May election,” Trautman said Tuesday. “As I hoped, in using a small election, we would find areas where to improve, and we did.”

[…]

Precinct 4 Commissioner Jack Cagle, who in the past has raised concerns about elderly voters losing their longtime polling places to consolidation, asked Trautman to promise to keep all polling places open. Trautman replied she would not close any sites.

County Judge Lina Hidalgo said the addition of countywide polling centers should make voting more convenient, since residents can use sites close to work or school, and boost turnout.

“It’s bringing that increased access to the vote to so many more people,” Hidalgo said.

A Rice University survey of 256 voters in the May election by Elizabeth Vann and Bob Stein found that most residents visited polling sites within one mile of home.

“Did voters seem satisfied? Overwhelmingly,” Stein said. “About 90 percent claimed they were satisfied finding their location.”

Stein, a professor of political science, cautioned that higher-turnout elections will bring additional challenges, such as long lines and parking problems. He said he plans to study the 2019 Houston municipal elections in November, which will have higher turnout than the May school board balloting, but still low compared to a November midterm or presidential election.

I’m very glad to hear that the people who voted liked the experience. I’m a confirmed early voter, so nothing will change for me, but lots of people vote on Election Day, and this should make it better for them. I have very modest expectations about how it will affect turnout, but I do think it will help keep lines from getting too long. There are improvements I’d like to see made in how the returns are reported, which I hope can be in place for this November. Otherwise, I look forward to getting this implemented.

Another view of pollution enforcement

The state has its role, but it’s not all on them.

Almost two months before a massive chemical fire erupted in Deer Park, sending a dark plume of smoke over much of Harris County, Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia asked the head of the county’s Pollution Control Services Department what additional resources he needed.

County officials were nearing the end of a third day of annual budget hearings and Garcia was concerned the department lacked the manpower and equipment to properly monitor air quality in his eastern precinct, let alone the entire county.

So, he asked Director Bob Allen for a wish list.

“Nobody’s ever asked me that before,” Allen replied at the Jan. 11 hearing in the Commissioners Court chambers. He said the department could use additional air monitors — especially mobile ones — and noted Pollution Control had fewer employees than in the 1990s.

Garcia last week said he was struck by Allen’s “deer-in-the-headlights look.” He wondered why previous Commissioners Courts had not pressed Allen for more details, and why he appeared unprepared to outline an ambitious vision for Pollution Control.

In the end, the court in February approved a 28 percent budget increase for the small department, giving Allen an additional $1.2 million. The department inspects facilities and enforces state and local air, water, solid waste and storm water regulations.

The investment made little difference four weeks later when a storage tank farm at Intercontinental Terminals Co. ignited on March 17, burned for more than 60 hours and sent Harris County emergency responders scrambling to monitor pollution and keep the public informed of dangers.

The ITC fire, followed by a fatal explosion and blaze at the KMCO plant in Crosby two weeks later, tested the capabilities of several county departments and spurred the longest activation of the emergency operations center since Hurricane Harvey.

County leaders said Pollution Control, however, was uniquely unprepared for the fires. Department staff were unable to quickly test air quality and report results to the public, forcing the county to hire outside consultants and design a website from scratch. Garcia said he lost faith in Allen’s leadership.

Unlike the city of Houston and federal Environmental Protection Agency, Harris County had no mobile air monitoring vehicle especially useful in emergencies. Five of the county’s 12 ozone monitors were broken, and Pollution Control’s fast-response team consisted of four members.

“We do not have the staff to sustain a response to the scale of ITC,” said Craig Hill, field manager for Pollution Control. He estimated the conflagration — which required the assistance of Louisiana firefighters to extinguish — was the largest the department had ever encountered.

The ITC fire was the first major emergency for Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo, who said the incident exposed significant gaps in the county’s capabilities. Hidalgo said residents shared concerns about daily air pollution, let alone from chemical fires, at a February town hall in Pasadena. She said county government in the past has taken a too-lax approach to potential disasters at industrial sites along the Houston Ship Channel.

“We’re not just going to hope that this doesn’t happen again,” she said. “We’re going to do a thorough analysis and share the results, and do that quickly.”

There’s a lot more, so go read the rest. Here’s that website that the county got set up to track air quality results, in case you’re curious. It’s amazing, and in many ways quite telling, that none of this capability had existed before. We’re pretty good on disaster preparedness when the disaster is a weather event, which we can usually see coming. The man-made kind of disaster, which let’s be honest should be at least as predictable given what we do in this county and the lax enforcement around it, we’re caught flat-footed. I for one am very glad to see that’s no longer the case.

We’re gonna need a bigger meeting room

Seems reasonable.

With a newfound public interest in Harris County Commissioners Court meetings, which at times have been so crowded that would-be attendees have been turned away, court members plan to build a larger chamber.

Commissioners Court [asked] County Engineer John Blount to design a new chamber on the first floor of the county administration building at 1001 Preston. The current chamber, on the ninth floor, has a capacity of 90 people. Blount said a first-floor chamber could fit as many as 220.

“We have to get a better courtroom,” Blount said. “If people had to do it again, no one would ever put the highest-occupancy facility on the highest floor of the building.”

The new chamber would occupy the west half of the first floor, which currently houses some employees of the county tax assessor-collector’s office. The office’s customer service windows on the east half of the floor, where residents can pay taxes or register a vehicle, would remain the same.

Blount said the county could design the new chamber in four to six months and complete construction about a year after that. The work would not affect in-progress renovations on the first floor, which include the replacement of exterior windows and doors. Blount said estimating a cost to build a new chamber would be a “pure guess” at this stage,

“There’s not a lot of structural work. It’s pretty straightforward,” he said.

[…]

The Harris County Precinct 1 Constable’s office, which protects downtown county properties, said a first-floor courtroom would require fewer deputies, spokesman Kevin Quinn said.

Security staff have to perform extra work on the ninth floor, he said, because the metal detector checkpoint is between the court chamber and the elevators to overflow rooms.

“Every time people come back and forth, they have to be re-screened,” Quinn said.

Seems pretty reasonable to me. The existing space is overcrowded, inconvenient, and requires extra security personnel. The proposed new location will have adequate seating for everyone, will be easier for everyone to get to, will require less security presence, and will be inexpensive to construct. Go for it.

Bail lawsuit settlement outline taking shape

We should have a final version in a couple of weeks.

A proposed settlement in the landmark Harris County bail lawsuit would significantly change how the county treats poor defendants in misdemeanor cases by providing free social and transportation services and relaxing penalties for missed court dates.

The draft deal includes a number of reforms aimed at ensuring poor defendants arrive for court hearings and are not unfairly pressured into guilty pleas. They would, among other changes: require Harris County to provide free child care at courthouses, develop a two-way communication system between courts and defendants, give cell phones to poor defendants and pay for public transit or ride share services for defendants without access to transportation to court.

“I’m not aware of any county, or city the size of Houston… doing those type of innovative things,” said Mary McCord, a former federal prosecutor who filed an amicus brief in the case on behalf of the poor defendants. “Ultimately, the county is going to save so much money by not keeping these people in jail.”

The proffered agreement would require the county to operate at least one night or weekend docket to provide a more convenient opportunity for defendants with family, work and education commitments. Courts would be barred from charging any fees to poor defendants, defined as those earning less than 200 percent of the federal poverty level, which is about $25,000 for someone with no dependents.

The proposal also would reduce penalties for missed court dates. A defendant could not be deemed to have failed to appear if he arrived in court on the day assigned, even if he was hours late. Defendants would be allowed to reschedule court appearances for any reason at least two times without negative consequences. Judges only could issue bench warrants 30 days after a missed a court appearance, so long as the court already has attempted to contact the defendant with a rescheduled hearing date.

In addition, judges would be required to permit defendants to skip hearings where their presence is unnecessary, such as routine meetings between prosecutors, defense attorneys and judges that do not involve testimony or fact-finding.

At the heart of the 23-page proposed settlement, a copy of which was obtained by the Houston Chronicle, is the codification of a new bail schedule unveiled by the slate of newly elected of criminal judges in January, under which about 85 percent of people arrested on misdemeanors automatically qualify for release on no-cash bonds.

“Our current goal now is to become the model misdemeanor court system in America,” said Harris County Criminal Court at Law Judge Darrell Jordan, a bail reform advocate and the only Democrat on the misdemeanor bench when the case began. “I think the proposals in the settlement, as far as the wraparound services for misdemeanor defendants, is a great step in that direction.”

[…]

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo issued a statement late Friday stressing that the proposal is preliminary, and could change.

“We’re working well with the plaintiffs to reach an agreement that will provide a model for bail reform around the country while also being feasible for the county to implement,” she said.

Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia said he is eager to negotiate a settlement that balances the needs of defendants against those of victims and county taxpayers. He declined to speak to specific provisions in the proposed settlement, but said he has concerns that some may be too expensive or unrealistic.

“I’ll just say there’s a number of things that immediately hit me like, ‘I’m not sure how we’re going to do that,’” Garcia said.

Precinct 3 Commissioner Steve Radack and Precinct 4’s Jack Cagle panned the proposal, which they said is too broad. The pair of Republicans said it should instead focus on implementing bail rules that ignore a defendant’s ability to pay.

“If my learned colleagues are going to strive for free Uber rides for the accused, I’d strongly advocate we provide the same to victims,” Cagle said.

Just a reminder, for anyone who might be fixating on the Uber rides or childcare aspects of this, the goal here is to get people to show up for their court dates. I would remind you that the alternative to paying for those relatively small things is paying to house, feed, and clothe thousands of people for weeks or months at a time, and that we have been doing exactly that for decades now. And if it’s the Uber thing that’s really sticking in your craw, then I trust you support a robust expansion of our public transit and pedestrian infrastructure so that it’s practical for anyone to take a bus to the courthouse. (Though having said that, if Commissioner Cagle was being sincere and not sarcastic, providing rides to the courthouse for victims who need them seems like a good idea to me.)

Again, just to review. Locking people up who have not been convicted of a crime is (with limited exceptions) wrong. Locking people up who have been arrested on charges that would normally not carry jail time if they were convicted is wrong. Locking people up for technical violations that have nothing to do with the crimes with which they have been charged is wrong. We spend tens of millions of dollars of our tax dollars every year doing these things. This is our chance to spend a whole lot less, and to get better results for it.

Was the McLeod replacement too hasty?

Eh, I dunno.

Judge William McLeod

Republican members of Harris County Commissioners Court criticized their Democratic colleagues for quickly approving a new civil court judge at Tuesday’s meeting who had not been vetted by the full body.

The three Democrats voted to appoint Houston lawyer Lesley Briones to replace County Court at Law Judge Bill McLeod, who inadvertently resigned last week. Briones’ name was absent from the agenda, she had only spoken with the Democratic members and just 36 minutes passed between her nomination and approval.

“This is the least transparent appointment I have ever seen,” Republican Precinct 3 Commissioner Steve Radack said. “The unfairness of the process was overwhelming.”

During the meeting, Precinct 4 Commissioner Jack Cagle held up Briones résumé, which he had been handed minutes earlier, and said he may have supported her if he only had the chance to review it. Instead the vote fell along party lines, 3 to 2.

County Judge Lina Hidalgo, who regularly pledges her administration will be more transparent than those past, defended the process.

Hidalgo said Commissioners Court faces several pressing issues, including responses to two massive chemical fires in recent weeks and a looming settlement in the county’s landmark bail lawsuit. When an assistant county attorney warned court members Tuesday that leaving Judge McLeod on the bench as a holdover judge almost certainly would force him to recuse himself from some cases, Hidalgo said the court needed to choose a replacement.

She said McLeod, not Commissioners Court, had created the predicament.

“I decided for myself it wasn’t going to go beyond this court,” Hidalgo said. She added, “This is something we needed to get done and move on from.”

See here for my initial reactions, and here for some further background. I have some sympathy for the Court here. This was a weird situation, not of their own making. I think most people would agree that inadvertent or not, McLeod did trigger the “resign to run” condition. I suspect as much as anything they just wanted to put this mess behind them, so they went ahead and named a replacement. I get it, but I have to agree that Commissioner Cagle makes a good point. They could at least have had something like a Judicial Committee hearing, to give all the Commissioners some time to know who they were voting on. I would hope this situation will never arise again, but in the unfortunate event it does, let’s take that lesson from this experience.

UPDATE: Stace sums it all up nicely.

Commissioners Court replaces Judge McLeod

Unfortunate, but understandable.

Judge William McLeod

A divided Harris County Commissioners Court declined to give County Court At Law Judge Bill McLeod a reprieve Tuesday after he inadvertently resigned last week, opting instead to appoint a replacement.

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said letting McLeod remain as a holdover judge until a special election for the seat in 2020 was too risky, since he almost would certainly have to recuse himself from cases to which the county was a party, as Commissioners Court would have the power to remove him at any time.

Instead, the court voted 3 to 2 to appoint Houston lawyer Lesley Briones to hold the seat through next year, on the recommendation of Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia.

“I think voters deserve a judge who can be absolutely independent, as he was elected to be,” Hidalgo said. “This would put us in the untenable position that he would no longer be an unbiased person, because he would be beholden to Commissioners Court.”

Precinct 3 Commissioner Steve Radack and Precinct 4’s Jack Cagle voted against the appointment. Cagle told Briones he could not support her since the nomination was made just minutes earlier and he did not have a chance to review her qualifications.

Briones, a Yale Law School graduate and general counsel to the Laura and John Arnold Foundation until December, accepted the appointment on the spot.

“I have deep respect for the law and I respect that you made a hard decision, and I respect the consternation in this room,” Briones said. “But know that I will work extremely hard for everyone.”

See here and here for the background. There were some good legal arguments in favor of retaining Judge McLeod, while Judge Hidalgo’s point is worth taking seriously as well. In the end, I didn’t have a strong opinion one way or the other; I think either decision was defensible. JUst a couple of thoughts to keep in mind as we go forward:

– McLeod’s point that the state constitution is incredibly long and arcane is unquestionably true. It’s also kind of disingenuous coming from a judge. More to the point, this is why potential candidates should talk to a political professional or two before making any public statements about running for office, because there are various weird rules related to candidacy that are easy to stumble over if you don’t know what you’re doing. I can think of a dozen people off the top of my head who could have pointed this out to McLeod before he filed his designation of treasurer. You gotta do your due diligence.

– Not to belabor the point, but there’s a reason why basically nobody had been felled by this problem before. As I said in my first post, nearly every story about then-Sheriff Adrian Garcia’s rumored candidacy for Mayor was accompanied by a discussion of how he couldn’t say anything without triggering the resign-to-run provision. Sheriff isn’t judge, but in this case they’re both county positions. One might well wonder if that provision applied to one job, would it apply to another?

– All that said, let’s not get too high and mighty at Bill McLeod’s expense. Yes, this was a dumb and avoidable mistake, but it’s not like this particular cul-de-sac of our word salad that is the state constitution was a cornerstone of our inviolable values as a state. County court judges have to resign to run for another office, but district court judges and appeals court judges don’t. All five Democrats who ran for statewide judicial positions last year were sitting on a bench while running for something else, and last I checked our state didn’t collapse. The fact that Bill McLeod had to resign is a quirk and not a principle, and it’s at least as dumb as McLeod’s unfortunate action. I’m sorry this happened to him. I’m sure we’ll all take the lesson to check and doublecheck whether “resign to run” applies to whatever office one holds before stating an intention to seek another, but maybe we should also take the lesson that these same rules are arbitrary and ought to be reviewed to see if they still make sense. Campos has more.

Harris County sues ITC over Deer Park fire

Go get ’em.

Harris County has sued Intercontinental Terminals Co. for failing to prevent a massive chemical fire that burned for more than 60 hours last week and spewed an unknown volume of hazardous chemicals into the air and nearby waterways.

The county is seeking a temporary injunction and restraining order against the company, alleging that it violated the Texas Clean Air Act and the Texas Solid Waste Disposal Act, among other rules.

The lawsuit accuses ITC of violating the state’s water code, health and safety code and administrative code on multiple days, by “causing suffering or allowing the discharge of at least one air contaminant without a permit and in such concentration and or such duration as to be injurious to human health, welfare or property, or as to interfere with the normal use and enjoyment of property.”

[…]

First Assistant County Attorney Robert Soard said his office will hire an in-house auditor to review ITC’s actions during and after the fire.

Soard also said Harris County will demand ITC cover the cost of the government’s response, which included frequent air and water monitoring, mobile clinics sponsored by the health department and an ongoing activation of the county’s Office of Emergency Management.

You can see a copy of the lawsuit here in the updated version of the story. I hope the county collects on every last penny. These guys need to be held accountable for their failures. Yes, I know, there is a state lawsuit as well, but this is about reimbursing Harris County, in the same way that your insurance company collects from the other guy’s insurance company when the other driver is found to be at fault in your fender-bender. If ITC doesn’t like it, they can do a better job of fire prevention in the future.

Meanwhile, on a semi-related note:

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo has been holding continuous press conferences on the Intercontinental Terminals Co. fire in Deer Park, delivering updates in both English and Spanish.

Despite the effort to communicate with Hispanic viewers, one area commissioner publicly criticized her use of Spanish during a recent press conference.

“She is a joke,” Chambers County Precinct 2 Commissioner Mark Tice said in a comment under a live feed of a press conference Monday afternoon. “English this is not Mexico.”

Tice admitted to making the comment Tuesday afternoon during a phone interview with Chron.com. He also doubled down on the message.

You know the old bit about how every New Yorker cartoon could be captioned “Christ, what an asshole!”? Well, as of today, anything Mark Tice says can be responded to by saying “Christ, what an asshole!” as well.

UPDATE: Tice has apologized following some blowback. My assessment of him has not changed.

The Harris County poll you didn’t really need

From the inbox:

Sponsored by HRBC, a survey was released today that reveals many insights into Harris County voters and their feelings towards political leaders and important issues facing Harris County.

“While Harris County voters feel very differently about various leaders and issues, they overwhelmingly believe that our home is a leader in job creation because of its low taxes and regulations,” said HRBC Chairman Alan Hassenflu. “HRBC looks forward to its continued work with state and local leaders to ensure our region and state remains an economic powerhouse,” continued Hassenflu.

The survey was conducted by Ragnar Research Partners, February 24 through February 26, 2019 by telephone, including landlines (28%) and cell phones (72%). Interviews included 400 Likely Voters (LVs) across Harris County. Quotas on age, gender, education, ethnicity, and region were used to ensure a representative distribution. The study’s margin of error is ±5%.

“Generally, we see that voters have a positive outlook for Harris County which is reflected in the optimistic attitudes towards the County’s continued economic prosperity. The voters believe that Texas continues to head in the right direction, but they have a differing opinion on the state of the Nation,” said Chris Perkins, Partner at Ragnar Research.

Click link to review full survey results:

https://houstonrealty.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/03/HRBC_Harris-Co_Memo_vF_190320.pdf

HRBC is the Houston Realty Business Coalition, a group that tends to endorse conservative candidates in city elections; Bill King, Bill Frazer, and Mike Knox were among their preferred candidates in 2015. I’d not heard of Ragnar Research Partners before, but Chris Perkins is a longtime Republican operative who’s shown up on this blog before. He was once part of Wilson Perkins Associates, now known as WPA Intelligence. I tell you all this not to convince you that their data is junk, just to let you know who you’re dealing with.

As for the poll results, I’d take them with a modest amount of salt. Greg Abbott has a 52-36 favorable split in the county, which didn’t stop him from losing the county to Lupe Valdez 52-46 in 2018, while County Judge Lina Hidalgo was largely unknown to respondents. (That didn’t stop 65% of them from disagreeing with Hidalgo hiring some New York-based consultants, with her campaign’s money (not mentioned in the question, by the way) after the election, even though I’d bet my annual salary against Chris Perkins’ that basically nobody had even heard of that before being asked the question.) Donald Trump, on the other hand, was at 39-60 in favorability, which let’s just say is not good and does not bode well for Republicans in the county in 2020. And even though they did their best to tilt the question by associating it with Nancy Pelosi, more respondents preferred Pelosi’s position on the border wall.

Earlier in this post I said I wasn’t trying to convince you that this pollster is shady. Well, let’s revisit that. Here, from the full results page, is one of their “local issues” questions:

Bus Services Are Preferred
Likely voters are split initially on whether building an additional twenty miles of light rail is the best use of $2.45 billion dollars. However, when given the choice, a majority of voters are more likely to agree prefer BRT and providing more express commuter bus service over building more light rail tracks.

Seems straightforward enough, right? Now here are the questions they actually asked:

Question Asked:
20 mi Light Rail: Do you agree or disagree that building an additional twenty miles of light rail is the best use of two point four five billion dollars to help address Houston’s transportation needs?

BRT vs Light Rail: Please tell me which point of view you agree with the most. Some people say, Metro should build more light rail. Other people say, Metro should make fares free and provide more express commuter bus service to job centers other than downtown.

Emphasis mine. That’s not the same choice as they presented it above. I’m not some fancy professional pollster, but it seems to me that if one of your choices is something for free, it’s going to get more support than it would have without the free stuff, and more support than something else that isn’t free.

Anyway. I don’t know what motivated a poll of the county this far out from any election, but more data is better than less data. Even questionable data from questionable sources has some value.

Harris County settles ADA voting rights lawsuit

Chalk up another accomplishment for our new county overlords.

The U.S. Department of Justice will monitor Harris County elections, at county expense, for up to four years under the settlement of a federal lawsuit over inadequate access to polling places for voters with disabilities.

Commissioners Court approved the 15-page settlement during at its regularly scheduled meeting Tuesday. The item originally was designated for a closed-door executive session, but court members simply agreed to First Assistant County Attorney Robert Soard’s recommendation they sign off on the deal.

Under the agreement, Harris County will have to make minor accessibility improvements to as many as 300 of its 750 regular voting sites, hire two outside election experts to supervise balloting and designate an in-house Americans with Disabilities Act compliance officer. The county does not have to concede it has violated the ADA in past elections.

“It’s a fair settlement,” Soard said. “It’s a reasonable way to conclude this litigation.”

Toby Cole, a quadriplegic attorney who almost exclusively represents wheelchair users, said the settlement and extended federal supervision are essential because disabled voters often are reluctant to complain about problems they encounter.

“They don’t want to make a huge fuss,” Cole said. “So, you don’t vote the first time, then the second time. We cut things out of our lives already, and voting is one more thing to say is too difficult.”

County Judge Lina Hidalgo said after the meeting she is confident the county will be able to show the federal government much sooner than four years it is capable of running an election in which each polling place meets ADA guidelines.

“We’ve got a court, and a county clerk, and a county attorney that are committed to equitable access to elections,” Hidalgo said. “We’re all working to make sure we adhere to that settlement.”

[…]

Monica Flores-Richart, whom County Clerk Diane Trautman hired in January as the county’s ADA compliance officer, said the office will re-examine each polling place. In most cases, she said problems can be identified and addressed quickly.

“We’re not talking about permanent improvements,” Flores-Richart said. “If there’s a gap of a certain size in the sidewalk, you need to put a mat down. Those are the kind of things we’re talking about.”

The settlement requires the county to submit a new ADA compliance plan to the Justice Department within 120 days. The county also must hire at least 20 contractors, or use county employees, to monitor each countywide election.

See here, here, and here for the background. I’ve expressed a modicum of sympathy for the County Clerk in the past regarding this litigation, which was filed in August of 2016 following a letter of finding in 2014, but if this is all it took to settle the case, I have to wonder why it took so long. Well, okay, I know the answer to that, and it has to do with whose picture you see when you load up the harrisvotes.com website. But seriously, this should have been wrapped up long before now. Be that as it may, kudos to all for getting it done. I share Judge Hidalgo’s confidence that Harris County can complete the terms of the settlement in less than the time allotted. The Trib has more.

January 2019 campaign finance reports: Harris County

One last set of finance reports I want to look at, from Harris County officials. I’m dividing them into a few groups:

Lina Hidalgo, County Judge
Diane Trautman, County Clerk
Dylan Osborne, County Treasurer
Marilyn Burgess, District Clerk

Kim Ogg, District Attorney
Ed Gonzalez, Sheriff
Vince Ryan, County Attorney
Ann Harris Bennett

Rodney Ellis, Precinct 1
Adrian Garcia, Precinct 2
Steve Radack, Precinct 3
Jack Cagle PAC, Precinct 4

George Moore, HCDE Position 1, Precinct 2
Eric Dick, HCDE Position 2, Precinct 4
Richard Cantu, HCDE Position 3, At Large
Josh Flynn, HCDE Position 4, Precinct 3
Michael Wolfe, HCDE Position 5, At Large
Danny Norris, HCDE Position 6, Precinct 1
Don Sumners, HCDE Position 7, At Large


Candidate     Raised     Spent     Loan     On Hand
===================================================
Hidalgo      239,834   161,503    1,400      51,836
Trautman       4,613       501        0      17,044
Osborne        1,225     2,242        0         122
Burgess        6,647     5,816        0       6,683

Ogg              600    13,936   68,489     212,875
Gonzalez      88,755    26,205        0     114,976
Ryan           6,500    14,656        0      58,464
Bennett        5,250     5,799        0      29,411

Ellis        223,000   310,395        0   2,916,307
Garcia       739,508   310,945        0     531,887
Radack       801,500   331,900        0   1,742,357
Cagle         68,045   113,143        0     171,242

Moore              0         0        0         243
Dick
Cantu          1,070       786        0       1,325
Flynn              0        10        0       1,600
Wolfe              0         0        0           0
Norris
Sumners

Remember that for those who were on the November 2018 ballot, this filing period runs from the 8 day report, which was October 27, through the end of the year. Basically, the last two months, including the last week of the campaign. For everyone else, it’s the usual six month period. HCDE candidates generally raise and spend negligible amounts, so it’s not that odd for some of them to have no activity to report.

$99K of the amount Lina Hidalgo raised was in kind, $95K of which came from the Texas Organizing Project for field work. It’s common for newly-elected candidates to get a surge in financial support right after their election – these are called “late train” donations – but in Hidalgo’s case a fair amount of the contributions reported here were before Election Day. Given her pledge to refrain from taking money from those who do business with the county, it will be interesting to see what her future reports will look like. The Commissioners have not taken a similar pledge, and they tend to be the bigger fundraisers anyway. Keep an eye on Steve Radack going forward – he’s either going to gear up for a tough election, or he’s going to decide to step down and let someone else engage in that battle. If Ed Emmett had been re-elected, it wouldn’t have shocked me if Radack ran again and then resigned after winning, in the grand tradition of Republican county officials, to let Emmett pick his successor. I feel confident saying that Steve Radack will not give Lina Hidalgo the opportunity to replace him.

With the strong Democratic trend in Harris County and the greater level of Democratic engagement – not to mention the possibility of the DNC being here and Texas being contested at the Presidential level – I don’t expect the countywide officeholders to work too hard to raise money for next November. They won’t slack, exactly, but they know they’ve got a lot of support behind them. That said, with Kim Ogg already getting a potential primary opponent, and given my belief that Vince Ryan will also draw one, they may step it up to make next March easier for them. The incentives, and the strategy, are different now in a blue county.

I am going to do one more report, on the Congressional candidates from 2018, two of whom are now incumbents and several others who will be back this cycle. As always, I hope this has been useful for you.

Commissioners Court rejects Ogg’s request for more prosecutors

I fully expected that Commissioners Court going from 4-1 Republican to 3-2 Democratic after the last election would signal big changes in how business was done in Harris County, but I didn’t expect this to be the first milestone on the new path.

Kim Ogg

Harris County Commissioners Court on Tuesday rejected Kim Ogg’s request for 102 new prosecutors, a stinging public defeat for the first-term Democratic district attorney by members of her own party.

The rejection came less than 24 hours after a former assistant district attorney filed paperwork to challenge Ogg in next year’s primary, a sign criminal justice reformers may have lost patience with the self-described progressive after helping elect her in 2016.

The three Democratic members of Commissioners Court — commissioners Rodney Ellis and Adrian Garcia and County Judge Lina Hidalgo —supported increasing the district attorney’s budget by 7 percent, in line with increases for other county departments. Ogg had asked for a 31 percent increase, which would grow her prosecutor corps by a third and include 42 additional support staff.

“This is not the only way, and certainly not the most cost-effective way to decrease prosecutor caseloads,” Hidalgo said.

[…]

Ogg, who did not attend the court meeting, issued a statement after the vote.

“We will continue to fight every day to ensure that justice is done in every case for every crime victim, every defendant and the community,” she said. “Harris County must have a district attorney’s office with sufficient resources to ensure that all cases are resolved fairly and in a timely manner.”

See here for the background and here for an earlier Chron story that previewed the Tuesday Commissioners Court meeting. Ogg had addressed the criticism of her proposal, and also answered the question about maybe hiring prosecutors on a shorter-term basis, but it wasn’t enough to get any of her fellow Dems in line. I would say her best bet right now is to take what the ACLU of Texas said in a press release following the Commissioners’ vote to heart:

“Adding more prosecutors in Harris County is not the ultimate solution for reducing mass incarceration and fighting racism in the criminal system. While the Harris County Commissioners Court has taken a more measured approach than the initial proposal, the addition of new prosecutors must come with clearly defined standards for reducing incarceration — such as expanding pretrial diversion, reducing case disposition time, and reducing existing caseloads — instead of prosecuting more cases. The commissioners were right to call for studies into how best to improve the district attorney’s office, and District Attorney Ogg should commit to specific plans for how any newly hired prosecutors will be used. That’s accountability.”

“There is no question that Harris County prosecutors have high caseloads, but the solution is not to add more prosecutors in a cycle that endlessly ratchets up the size of the criminal system. The smartest way to reduce caseloads is to dismiss more cases, identify more cases for diversion, and invest significantly in substance use disorder and mental health treatment that help people who need it and prevent them from ending up awaiting prosecution in the first place.”

Seems to me this conversation will need to include HPD, the Sheriff’s office, and all of the other law enforcement organizations in Harris County as well. If the DA needs to prioritize what cases get prosecuted, they will need to prioritize what arrests they make. Commissioners Court needs to do its part, too, by working to expand mental health offerings. The Lege could also pitch in here, though for obvious reasons I’ll keep my expectations low. Everyone has a part to play – Kim Ogg’s part is bigger than the rest, but it’s not just her. Maybe by the time next year’s budget is being discussed, we’ll have less to argue about.

And speaking of next year:

Audia Jones, the former prosecutor who on Monday filed paperwork to challenge Ogg, spoke against the proposal. Jones said she left the district attorney’s office in December in part because she said Ogg’s administration has been too reluctant to offer jail diversion to defendants of color, in contrast with their white counterparts.

She said temporary court closures caused by Hurricane Harvey are not a driver of increasing caseloads, as Ogg contends, but rather are a result of her administration’s policies.

Murray Newman, who had some earlier thoughts about the Ogg proposal, notes that Audia Jones is married to Criminal Court Judge DaSean Jones. I’m not sure how that conflict gets sorted out if she wins (one obvious remedy would be for Judge Jones to step down), but that’s a concern for another day. I would have picked County Attorney Vince Ryan as the first member of the class of 2020 to get a potential primary opponent – designating a treasurer is a necessary step to running for office, but it doesn’t commit one to running – but here we are.

Let’s check in on the HCDE

How are things with the new Board?

Within an hour and 37 minutes of his first meeting as a trustee on the Harris County Department of Education’s board of trustees, Josh Flynn had a new role: President.

The former Harris County Republican Party treasurer and local accountant, who ran on a platform of bringing more transparency and accountability to Texas’ last remaining county education department, won the votes of three other trustees at the Jan. 16 meeting.

Minutes later, Flynn joined those same three in firing the department’s lobbying firm, a move that raised concerns among other trustees and Superintendent James Colbert Jr. that a lack of advocates in Austin could leave them with little recourse if lawmakers target the agency during the 2019 legislative session. Flynn did not return messages for comment.

Together, the votes signal a new majority on the seven-member board, one that Trustee Don Sumners said will provide a chance to lift the hood on HCDE’s departments and to make the agency more accountable to taxpayers. All four have questioned or criticized the department or some of its actions in the past, and one has filed motions to study closing the agency.

“We’ll probably go through the whole department one division at a time and do some evaluation,” Sumners said. “We really haven’t been able to get to the nuts and bolts very easily, and I think now that we have more interested participation, we’ll be able to realize this department for efficiency. We haven’t been able to do that before.”

Others, however, worry that actions like some of those taken at the Jan. 16 meeting could do irreparable harm to the state’s last remaining county department of education.

“I’m concerned, I’m definitely concerned,” said Trustee Danny Norris, a Texas Southern University law professor who also joined the board on January. “I think the vote to cancel our contract with (our lobbyists) specifically worried me a good bit, because we usually have a few bills to shut us down each session. This session, I’m the most worried.”

[…]

Trustee Eric Dick, a longtime Republican, noted at the meeting that other school districts, political parties and government entities also hire lobbyists. About a week after the vote, he said any government agency that is able to generate more than 70 percent of its budget from sources other than local tax dollars should be a model of good governance that conservatives should want to protect and other government agencies should look to for inspiration. About 28 percent of HCDE’s roughly $117 million budget in 2017-2018 came from property taxes, with the rest coming from state and federal grants, fees paid by local school districts and its cooperative purchasing program.

“You have an organization that actually runs at a profit, that’s actually in the black, that turns one dollar into five dollars. What should happen is ISDs should replicate and try to do something similar. So should the city of Houston,” Dick said. “I think worst thing that you could do is take something that works and cut it up.”

sigh Okay, three things here. One is that Flynn won his race by a tiny margin, 0.6 percentage points, less than 2,000 votes out of over 300K cast. Even in a dominant year for Dems in Harris County, one low-profile downballot race can make a difference by going the other way. Two, assuming the HCDE survives another legislative session, it’s very likely that it will flip back to a Democratic majority after the 2020 election, when At Large members Michael Wolfe (yeah, that guy again) and Don Sumners will almost certainly get voted out. And three, I can’t believe I’m about to say something nice about Eric Dick, but he has the right idea here, and I appreciate his vote on this matter. Let’s hope this is just a minor kerfuffle and nothing bad happens in the Lege.

(It should be noted that among other things, former County Judge Ed Emmett was not a fan of the HCDE and supported eliminating it. I hope Judge Hidalgo is up to speed on this. The HCDE may not have its own lobbyist in Austin, but the county has them. They could advocate for HCDE in a pinch if needed. Something to keep in mind.)

UPDATE: From an email sent out by Andrea Duhon, who was the Democratic candidate against Josh Flynn and who is planning to run for one of those At Large positions next year:

Community advocates, parents, and teachers plan to attend and make their perspectives known at an unexpected Special HCDE meeting this Monday, February 11th at 4:00 PM at 6300 Irvington Dr. to push back against the politically motivated distribution of legal contracts and privatization attempts by Austin politicians.

Expected on the HCDE agenda is an attempt by some trustees to fire the current unbiased education attorney and replace her with the highly partisan law firm Strahan-Cain, of which far right State Representative and education privatization proponent Briscoe Cain is a partner.

The meeting was called late Friday afternoon with little notice and comes at a time when the Texas Legislature is not only in session but is actively pursuing overhaul of state education policy. Also relevant are efforts both past and present by State Senator Paul Bettencourt (R-SD7) to shutdown the department and consolidate public education resources into private buckets. The agenda also calls to replace Public Facilities Corporation board vacancies in an attempt to overturn contracts which have been approved.

Just last month, the HCDE surprisingly selected a first-term trustee as President of its board and voted to eliminate its own representation in Austin by firing HillCo Partners, leaving services vulnerable to attacks.

The community demands the department safeguard the programs and shared services it brings to Harris County and the jobs of more than 1,000 HCDE employees.

Here’s the agenda for that special Board meeting. Note that all of the action items on it were submitted by the Flynn/Wolfe/Sumners troika. Nothing good can come of this.

Joint processing center opens

This was a long time coming, but it should be worth the wait.

More than a decade after city voters approved a bond measure to fund it, Houston and Harris County opened a joint inmate processing center Thursday that officials say will eliminate the redundant practice of booking inmates at the city jail before transferring them to the county lockup.

The downtown center, replete with a digital processing system, open booking areas and dormitory-style units, was designed to be more efficient and to square with the city and county’s evolving attitude on criminal justice, officials said.

“This streamlined, expedited booking process is a true game-changer for Harris County law enforcement families,” Sheriff Ed Gonzalez told a roomful of elected officials and law enforcement officers at the new facility Thursday. “Every minute an officer spends escorting a prisoner through the intake process is another minute that they’re off the street keeping our neighborhood safe.”

For years, Houston police have booked suspects at one of two city jails, before transferring them to the Harris County Jail and booking them again. Eliminating the excess work is anticipated to free up about 100 police officers assigned to jail duty.

The city is set to cover 30 percent of the facility’s annual operating costs, amounting to about $14.5 million, said Andy Icken, Houston’s chief development officer.

[…]

The facility’s new digital booking system means officers will be freed from much of the paperwork that typically bogs them down. Officers also no longer will have to escort suspects across public streets, Gonzalez said, because they will be able to park in a sallyport attached to the building. He estimated officers would be in and out of the center within 20 minutes.

The facility, located across from the Baker Street Jail on San Jacinto Street, covers 246,000 square feet and will begin processing detainees Saturday.

See here for the previous update, which was in 2015 when ground was broken following the successful 2013 bond referendum. A 2007 county referendum that would have built more jail space had been voted down, and boy howdy does that look like a good decision in retrospect. This will get people processed through faster, and will cost less to operate. I just hope it won’t be prone to flooding. Kudos all around for finally getting this done.

Does the Astrodome redevelopment need air conditioning?

I hadn’t thought about this, to be honest.

Also not air conditioned

As work continues on the initial stages of preparing the Astrodome for its new life as a parking and events venue, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo raised questions last week about the costs associated with redeveloping the former sports stadium.

Harris County’s new judge, who recently toured the property with officials from NRG Park, said she learned that the $105 million the county allocated to the redevelopment project did not include air conditioning.

“I’m looking to make sure the current plan is fiscally responsible and that it will get us to a point where the Astrodome is self-sustaining,” she said in an interview on Houston Public Media’s “Houston Matters.”

Hidalgo declined to comment further, but current and former county officials said the renovation costs were never meant to include traditional air conditioning. Rather, the climate inside would be maintained by a mechanical forced-air ventilation and convection-based system designed to keep the inside of the building more temperate when it is hot or cold outside.

“The thought process was that further phases would bring in air conditioning,” said County Engineer John Blount, who is managing the project.

[…]

For Ed Emmett, Hidalgo’s predecessor, the Astrodome project was never about nostalgia, but to keep the integrity of the NRG complex intact. The county has a contract with the rodeo and the Texans to maintain NRG Stadium in first-class condition.

“Those tenants are going to start coming to the county saying we need this or that upgrade. There’s no revenue source to provide those upgrades without the Dome,” Emmet said.

As far as the air conditioning, he said the idea was to make the space usable, “but not necessarily at 72 degrees.”

“My purpose from day one was to create nine acres of indoor space protected from the weather, where it would be preferable than being outside,” Emmett said.

I mean, it kind of makes sense. It just has to be cool enough, and contrary to popular belief it’s not always summer here. Seems a little weird to be talking about it now, but whatever.

Bail lawsuit 2.0

This one will be tougher to tackle, but the principle remains the same.

A hard-fought battle to reform Harris County’s bail system has prompted a second civil rights action.

The legal team that successfully challenged the county’s bail practices for low level offenses on the grounds they unfairly detained indigents, filed a new federal class action suit this week tackling money bail for felonies, which results in thousands of poor defendants being locked up before trial or entering guilty pleas to avoid lengthy incarceration.

This new lawsuit, which hit the docket during the Martin Luther King Jr. Day holiday, claims the county is holding people unjustly, simply because they cannot afford to pay a cash bail. Currently, people arrested who can post a cash bond or hire a commercial bonding company can simply resume their lives as their cases proceed through the criminal docket.

The lawyers argue that pretrial release should not be contingent on how much money a person has. Its one of a number of lawsuits around the country, including one before a district judge in Galveston, attempting to topple bail systems that treat people differently based on their income.

“This mass detention caused by arrestees’ inability to access money has devastating consequences for arrested individuals, for their families, and for the community,” the lawsuit argues. “Pretrial detention of presumptively innocent individuals causes them to lose their jobs and shelter, interrupts vital medication cycles, worsens mental health conditions, makes people working to remain sober more likely to relapse, and separates parents and children.”

[…]

The lawsuit noted there are human costs to keeping people in jail. Since 2009, the complaint stated, 125 people have died while awaiting trial in the county lockup, including a woman who committed suicide this month after she could not pay her original bail of $3,000.

“Now is the time for a new vision and a new era of collaboration and innovation,” the lawyers said in a joint statement to the Houston Chronicle. “We are confident that with the leadership of the county judge, the sheriff, the district attorney, the public defender, and the felony judges, all of whom have expressed their commitment to bail reform, we will be able to resolve this case without wasting millions of dollars of taxpayer money as happened in the prior case.”

Most of the key stakeholders struck a similar note in responding to the new lawsuit.

Tom Berg, first assistant to District Attorney Kim Ogg,said the office is glad to work with the parties toward “a fair, just and speedy resolution” and at the same time “responsibly conserve the county’s resources so that they go for the staffing needed for bail reform implementation and not litigation costs.”

County Judge Lina Hidalgo said the county aims to support public safety, fairness and a cost-effective, fiscally responsible system. She acknowledged that there’s a long way to go.

“We’ve got a system that in a way fails on all three fronts,” she said Tuesday. Hidalgo said the crop of newly elected officials seem dedicated to enacting these types of change.

The sheriff also mentioned safety concerns, saying felony bail improvements require careful examination. However, he lauded the idea of reforming what he has referred to as a “broken system.”

“I support all efforts to improve our criminal justice system that strike a smart balance between our duty to ensure public safety and upholding our American ideal that everyone is presumed innocent until proven guilty in court,” Gonzalez said. “I support equipping judges with the data they need to accurately measure each defendant’s unique risk of failing to appear in court and committing additional crimes before they stand trial.”

Of the three plaintiffs in this lawsuit, two were busted for drug possession and the other for DUI. There’s still a lot of non-violent inmates in the jail awaiting disposition of their case because they couldn’t scrape up a bond payment. As with misdemeanants, the ability to write a check to a bail bond agency has no correlation with whether you will show up for your court date or if you are likely to commit further crimes while out. Again, Robert Durst was out on bail. It makes sense to separate the genuine risks from the harmless shlubs. Will such a system be perfect? No, of course not. Some people who get out on a personal recognizance bond are going to turn out to have been bad risks. But again – I can’t say this often enough – people do that right now, under the current system. We just accept it as the way things are. Well, the way things are is capricious, unjust, and almost certainly unconstitutional, as the system for misdemeanors was as well. We’ll never have a better chance to design a better system. Let’s get to it.

Will we address the unincorporated problem?

The Chron proposes an agenda item for the Lege.

Unincorporated Harris County

The challenges of unincorporated Harris County are nothing new. For decades neighborhoods have sprouted up in the vast prairie west of Houston without any formal municipal governmental structure. Special districts have provided basic needs, such as neighborhood streets and water. The county government picked up the rest — notably law enforcement and roads. No mayors. No city halls. No local sales taxes.

This model is becoming unsustainable. If grouped into a single city, the total population of unincorporated Harris County would be the fifth largest in the United States. Issues like infrastructure costs and upkeep, law enforcement and the basic duties of government are piling up, and commissioners court lacks both the funds and the statutory authority to deal with it all.

Meanwhile, obscure rules written in Austin prohibit these neighborhoods from forming their own cities, which could levy sales taxes and pass ordinances. Already existing cities are hesitant to annex special districts, which often have long-term debt.

So why would the Legislature finally address this big-picture issue after ignoring it for so long?

Hurricane Harvey revealed the weaknesses of these special districts to meet residents’ needs and the ongoing fight over property taxes has the county looking for another way to pay for services.

Formal studies, notably from the Kinder Institute, are being published about the problems in these areas — and potential solutions.

The status quo in the unincorporated county can’t go on forever, and only Austin can change it.

I basically agree with the premise, but I seriously doubt anything will happen this session. This wasn’t a theme that Judge Lina Hidalgo campaigned on, and I expect she’s got her hands (and the county’s lobbyists’ hands) full right now. More to the point, it’s not clear what kind of legislation would be proposed to remedy the problems. Something like this needs to have a vetting period, with opportunities for public input, since any change would affect how current residents of unincorporated Harris County would be affected.

There’s an analogy here to the oft-lamented-by-the-Chron system of partisan judicial elections. What we have now is flawed, and it’s easy to say there must be a better way, but it’s all vaporware until something specific gets proposed and advocated. My suggestion would be to lobby Commissioners Court to put together a committee to study the options and propose something that can be turned into a bill one of our legislators can author for 2021. Something concrete has a chance to be enacted, so start with that and maybe we can actually make a change happen.

Trying to make “pay for play” an issue

Good luck.

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

Appeal of bail injunction dropped

Elections have consequences, and thank goodness for it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

Lina Hidalgo officially sworn in

It’s Judge Hidalgo now, thank you very much.

Judge Lina Hidalgo

Ushering in a new era of Democratic rule, Lina Hidalgo took the oath of office as Harris County judge early Tuesday, becoming the first Latina and first woman to lead the nation’s third-largest county.

Her swearing in minutes past midnight by 151st Civil Court Judge Mike Engelhart capped the remarkable rise of Hidalgo, 27, who just two months ago was a graduate student making her first bid for public office against a popular incumbent.

She takes charge as chief executive overseeing thousands of employees and an annual budget of more than $5 billion. Hidalgo will also lead the county’s Office of Emergency Management, which has already responded to 23 floods this century.

Hidalgo was joined by her parents and other family members. She succeeds longtime County Judge Ed Emmett, a Republican who steered a massive Hurricane Harvey bond package to passage before being swept out of office in November after 11 years.

She said the greatest challenge during her transition to office has been knowing where to start.

“There’s just so much enthusiasm in the community and in the meetings I have,” Hidalgo said. “There’s this incredible desire to bring in new ideas and breathe in new energy.”

Hidalgo was one of scores of Democrats who unseated Republicans in November in a sweep of countywide positions that brought more than 50 civil and criminal judges and other top leaders into key positions. Of the 81 officials at the swearing-in ceremony Tuesday at NRG Center, only Precinct 4 Commissioner Jack Cagle and a justice of the peace were Republicans.

I just want to pause here for a moment so the full impact of that last sentence can settle in on you. The forecast is for more of the same in the foreseeable future.

Hidalgo, who campaigned on making county government more accessible to the public, announced a massive engagement effort. With support from Houston Endowment Inc. and the Ford Foundation, she said Harris County will circulate a survey asking residents how government can be improved.

The Talking Transition program will also include workshops educating residents on how county government functions and town hall forums on topics such as education, housing and transportation.

Several key positions in Hidalgo’s administration remain unfilled, including communication and policy directors. She said her staff continues to vet candidates with the help of a consulting firm that also assisted the administration of New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio.

Hidalgo said she hopes to work with commissioners to quickly settle the federal lawsuit challenging Harris County’s cash bail system. The protracted legal wrangling over the suit — and its $7 million cost to taxpayers so far — has long frustrated Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis, who until now was the lone Democrat on Commissioners Court.

“Like many, I’m hopeful that 2019 will be the year the county settles the lawsuit and ceases its defense of an unconstitutional, unsafe cash bail system,” Ellis wrote in an email to constituents Tuesday.

I for damn sure want to see a settlement, and I want it to be a high priority. I don’t know what the court’s calendar looks like, but I see no reason why there can’t be an agreement in principle between the parties by the end of Q1 2019.

As fort the transition stuff, this is from the inbox on January 1:

Judge Hidalgo’s initiative, Talking Transition: Harris County, will provide a forum for residents to discuss the issues that matter most to them, learn about County government, and weigh in on pressing public policy matters.

The first program of its kind in Harris County, Talking Transition will allow Judge Hidalgo and her team to obtain a qualitative and quantitative analysis of the issues and ideas that most impact County residents, as they work to shape their agenda.

“Throughout my campaign, I pledged to increase transparency and accountability in Harris County government. Too few residents know how County government works and how to engage with it,” said Judge Lina Hidalgo. “For me, public service means ensuring that our most vulnerable residents have the same voice in our local government as the most powerful among us.”

Talking Transition: Harris County is expected to be the largest civic engagement program in the South. It is modeled after similar programs in New York and Washington, D.C., and made possible by the Houston Endowment and the Ford Foundation.

“Houston Endowment recognizes the value of community voice in good governance,” said Ann Stern, president and CEO of Houston Endowment. “By ensuring all voices are heard, we can continue to enhance our region’s assets, achieve equitable outcomes, and resolve issues that are important to the residents of Harris County.”

Talking Transition will address seven public policy areas – education, housing, transportation, resiliency, health, justice, and economic opportunity – through a series of public events across the County. The initiative includes a variety of ways for Harris County residents to interact with and learn more about their local government. The core components include:

Transparency Project: Announcements throughout the County will provide easily-digestible information about how County government works and eye-opening statistics intended to motivate residents to learn more.

Civic Saturdays: Offered at a seven locations around Harris County, Civic Saturdays are a series of full-day public events happening on consecutive Saturdays:

  • Civic School: Features classroom-style lessons for Harris County residents to learn about how County government works.
  • Town Halls: A large gathering organized around a specific policy area that will give residents a chance to share new ideas for improving their communities and to hear from others.
  • Action Plan Workshops: Smaller working groups for people who have devoted time to specific issues to focus on how to best realize community-driven ideas through County government.

Survey: Teams of canvassers will be spread throughout the County to ask residents about what needs to be improved among County services, what would help them engage more with County government, and what needs to be prioritized when it comes to prioritizing the County budget. The survey will also be available both online and at each Civic Saturday.

All Talking Transitions events are free and open to the public. A full schedule of activities will become available online at www.talkingtransition.us.

I’ll be very interested to see how that turns out. In the meantime, best of luck to Judge Hidalgo and all of the newly sworn-in officials.

Precinct analysis: The county candidates

Let’s just dive right in and have a look at the countywide candidates, shall we?


Dist   Emmett  Hidalgo Gatlin  Under  Emmett% Hidalgo% Gatlin%
==============================================================		
CD02  150,630  103,625  5,842  5,005   57.91%   39.84%   2.25%
CD07  135,016  100,412  4,967  4,819   56.16%   41.77%   2.07%
CD08   18,697    9,447    637    423   64.96%   32.82%   2.21%
CD09   28,593   88,998  2,100  2,138   23.89%   74.36%   1.75%
CD10   75,149   36,392  2,371  1,559   65.97%   31.95%   2.08%
CD18   49,933  129,017  4,024  3,463   27.29%   70.51%   2.20%
CD22   16,749   14,075    615    577   53.27%   44.77%   1.96%
CD29   35,187   79,825  2,027  2,255   30.06%   68.20%   1.73%
CD36   65,147   32,155  2,000  1,572   65.60%   32.38%   2.01%

SBOE6 324,964  237,414 12,576 11,692   56.52%   41.29%   2.19%

HD126  31,509   22,699  1,137    879   56.93%   41.01%   2.05%
HD127  43,967   22,708  1,428  1,003   64.56%   33.34%   2.10%
HD128  36,488   14,551    913    716   70.23%   28.01%   1.76%
HD129  39,456   23,578  1,434  1,218   61.20%   36.57%   2.22%
HD130  53,835   20,641  1,569  1,046   70.79%   27.14%   2.06%
HD131   8,046   33,121    717    658   19.21%   79.08%   1.71%
HD132  34,890   30,219  1,421    842   52.44%   45.42%   2.14%
HD133  46,358   23,211  1,452  1,532   65.27%   32.68%   2.04%
HD134  49,748   36,624  1,967  2,626   56.31%   41.46%   2.23%
HD135  28,937   25,825  1,142    804   51.76%   46.20%   2.04%
HD137   8,332   15,311    544    464   34.45%   63.30%   2.25%
HD138  25,835   21,425  1,035    914   53.49%   44.36%   2.14%
HD139  13,097   33,093    889    792   27.82%   70.29%   1.89%
HD140   5,999   17,238    371    438   25.41%   73.02%   1.57%
HD141   4,913   25,991    516    408   15.64%   82.72%   1.64%
HD142  10,202   28,780    661    570   25.73%   72.60%   1.67%
HD143   8,651   19,512    478    593   30.20%   68.13%   1.67%
HD144   9,710   13,289    432    384   41.44%   56.72%   1.84%
HD145  11,430   20,587    722    723   34.91%   62.88%   2.21%
HD146  10,903   31,500    849    870   25.21%   72.83%   1.96%
HD147  13,678   39,732  1,333  1,129   24.99%   72.58%   2.44%
HD148  20,031   26,116  1,339  1,374   42.18%   55.00%   2.82%
HD149  15,412   22,824    702    732   39.58%   58.62%   1.80%
HD150  43,674   25,371  1,532  1,096   61.88%   35.95%   2.17%

CC1    79,769  202,915  5,730  5,571   27.66%   70.36%   1.99%
CC2   116,353  106,823  4,548  4,096   51.09%   46.91%   2.00%
CC3   184,649  140,535  6,765  6,036   55.63%   42.34%   2.04%
CC4   194,330  143,673  7,540  6,108   56.24%   41.58%   2.18%

Ed Emmett was of course the best case scenario for Republicans. He won everywhere it was possible for a Republican to win. He won CD07 by fifteen points, which is a wider margin than John Culberson had in 2016. And with all that, he still didn’t win Harris County. This recalls what I was saying when we first saw poll numbers from CD07, which were showing a close race there. If Republicans, who had carried CD07 by double digits in 2016 and gotten shellacked in Harris County overall were now fighting to have any lead in CD07 in 2018, what did that portend for them countywide? Or statewide, for that matter. You can see how that played out, and why I keep hammering on the theme that the Republicans’ main problem in Harris County is that they are now badly outnumbered. There’s a potentially credible case to be made that Ed Emmett was harmed by straight ticket voting. He lost a close race, so any change of conditions might have helped him. But the notion that Republicans overall were harmed by it is laughable.

One other point: There were about 46K people who either voted Libertarian in this race or who did not vote at all. For Emmett to make up the almost-19,000 vote deficit he had against Lina Hidalgo, he’d have had to win a bit more than 70% of all those voters, if you could go back in time and identify them all and force them to pick their second choice. As it happens – I’m going to skip the table for this, so just trust me – the undervote rate, once you subtract out straight ticket voters, was higher in the Dem districts. That’s probably not the friendliest constituency for him to retroactively woo. Ed Emmett served Harris County with honor and dignity, and he leaves behind a distinguished record. He also lost, fair and square.


Dist  Stanart Trautman  Gomez  Under Stanart%   Traut%  Gomez%
==============================================================
CD02  135,427  116,744  6,717  6,221   52.31%   45.09%   2.59%
CD07  116,383  116,488  5,648  6,706   48.79%   48.84%   2.37%
CD08   17,784   10,221    679    520   62.00%   35.63%   2.37%
CD09   23,329   93,625  2,504  2,376   19.53%   78.37%   2.10%
CD10   71,172   39,707  2,623  1,970   62.71%   34.98%   2.31%
CD18   39,159  138,311  4,892  4,087   21.47%   75.84%   2.68%
CD22   15,265   15,184    857    711   48.76%   48.50%   2.74%
CD29   30,313   82,449  3,916  2,627   25.98%   70.66%   3.36%
CD36   60,467   35,918  2,452  2,036   61.18%   36.34%   2.48%

SBOE6 287,300  269,837 14,477 15,045   50.26%   47.21%   2.53%

HD126  29,277   24,586  1,293  1,074   53.08%   44.58%   2.34%
HD127  41,017   25,198  1,634  1,260   60.45%   37.14%   2.41%
HD128  34,735   15,876  1,142    915   67.12%   30.68%   2.21%
HD129  35,567   26,799  1,739  1,582   55.48%   41.80%   2.71%
HD130  51,064   22,942  1,722  1,365   67.43%   30.30%   2.27%
HD131   6,110   34,855    864    717   14.61%   83.33%   2.07%
HD132  32,579   32,090  1,680  1,023   49.10%   48.37%   2.53%
HD133  40,721   28,089  1,552  2,192   57.87%   39.92%   2.21%
HD134  37,977   47,211  2,090  3,692   43.51%   54.09%   2.39%
HD135  26,584   27,712  1,379  1,033   47.75%   49.77%   2.48%
HD137   7,257   16,167    678    552   30.11%   67.08%   2.81%
HD138  23,336   23,515  1,257  1,100   48.51%   48.88%   2.61%
HD139  10,545   35,238  1,128    961   22.48%   75.12%   2.40%
HD140   5,269   17,569    722    490   22.36%   74.57%   3.06%
HD141   3,921   26,852    622    438   12.49%   85.53%   1.98%
HD142   8,579   30,125    850    662   21.69%   76.16%   2.15%
HD143   7,405   20,178    952    699   25.95%   70.71%   3.34%
HD144   8,949   13,629    786    450   38.30%   58.33%   3.36%
HD145   9,596   21,809  1,226    834   29.41%   66.84%   3.76%
HD146   8,082   34,044    931  1,065   18.77%   79.07%   2.16%
HD147  10,013   42,972  1,576  1,316   18.35%   78.76%   2.89%
HD148  15,587   29,671  1,907  1,695   33.05%   62.91%   4.04%
HD149  14,042   23,985    859    785   36.11%   61.68%   2.21%
HD150  41,087   27,535  1,699  1,354   58.43%   39.16%   2.42%

CC1    61,603  218,965  6,875  6,563   21.43%   76.18%   2.39%
CC2   105,901  114,124  6,772  5,028   46.69%   50.32%   2.99%
CC3   164,601  157,515  7,843  8,035   49.89%   47.74%   2.38%
CC4   177,194  158,043  8,798  7,628   51.50%   45.94%   2.56%

Stan Stanart was very much on the low end of the spectrum for Republican candidates. Nearly every judicial candidate drew more votes than he did. Note in particular the stark difference between himself and Ed Emmett in HD134. The swing/lean R voters were not there for him. He was one of two countywide Rs to lose in HD138, though he did manage to carry HD132.


Dist   Daniel  Burgess  Under  Daniel% Burgess%
===============================================
CD02  141,260  116,519  7,334   54.80%   45.20%
CD07  123,371  114,006  7,852   51.97%   48.03%
CD08   18,163   10,443    598   63.49%   36.51%
CD09   24,355   94,774  2,710   20.44%   79.56%
CD10   72,943   40,231  2,301   64.45%   35.55%
CD18   41,900  139,805  4,756   23.06%   76.94%
CD22   15,794   15,389    836   50.65%   49.35%
CD29   31,677   84,520  3,107   27.26%   72.74%
CD36   62,225   36,222  2,429   63.21%   36.79%

SBOE6 301,347  267,739 17,585   52.95%   47.05%

HD126  30,045   24,900  1,285   54.68%   45.32%
HD127  42,379   25,207  1,525   62.70%   37.30%
HD128  35,350   16,229  1,092   68.54%   31.46%
HD129  37,093   26,728  1,868   58.12%   41.88%
HD130  52,331   23,186  1,577   69.30%   30.70%
HD131   6,394   35,330    823   15.32%   84.68%
HD132  33,433   32,741  1,199   50.52%   49.48%
HD133  43,049   26,936  2,570   61.51%   38.49%
HD134  42,398   44,322  4,252   48.89%   51.11%
HD135  27,386   28,119  1,204   49.34%   50.66%
HD137   7,631   16,369    654   31.80%   68.20%
HD138  24,200   23,659  1,351   50.57%   49.43%
HD139  11,114   35,635  1,125   23.77%   76.23%
HD140   5,450   18,021    577   23.22%   76.78%
HD141   4,114   27,220    501   13.13%   86.87%
HD142   8,918   30,566    735   22.59%   77.41%
HD143   7,755   20,637    843   27.31%   72.69%
HD144   9,208   14,084    524   39.53%   60.47%
HD145  10,182   22,269  1,012   31.38%   68.62%
HD146   8,681   34,241  1,203   20.23%   79.77%
HD147  11,052   43,323  1,504   20.33%   79.67%
HD148  17,008   29,859  1,996   36.29%   63.71%
HD149  14,449   24,305    918   37.28%   62.72%
HD150  42,068   28,023  1,585   60.02%   39.98%

CC1    66,296  220,197  7,525   23.14%   76.86%
CC2   109,601  116,240  5,988   48.53%   51.47%
CC3   172,133  156,516  9,354   52.38%   47.62%
CC4   183,658  158,956  9,056   53.60%   46.40%

Dist  Sanchez  Osborne  Under Sanchez% Osborne%
===============================================
CD02  143,554  114,652  6,909   55.60%   44.40%
CD07  125,682  112,399  7,148   52.79%   47.21%
CD08   18,412   10,220    571   64.31%   35.69%
CD09   25,189   94,006  2,646   21.13%   78.87%
CD10   73,755   39,560  2,159   65.09%   34.91%
CD18   43,632  138,230  4,601   23.99%   76.01%
CD22   16,131   15,097    791   51.66%   48.34%
CD29   33,727   82,733  2,854   28.96%   71.04%
CD36   62,909   35,668  2,300   63.82%   36.18%

SBOE6 306,826  263,570 16,277   53.79%   46.21%

HD126  30,564   24,473  1,195   55.53%   44.47%
HD127  42,897   24,755  1,459   63.41%   36.59%
HD128  35,601   16,037  1,033   68.94%   31.06%
HD129  37,714   26,225  1,750   58.98%   41.02%
HD130  52,878   22,739  1,475   69.93%   30.07%
HD131   6,681   35,063    801   16.00%   84.00%
HD132  33,941   32,283  1,150   51.25%   48.75%
HD133  43,732   26,575  2,250   62.20%   37.80%
HD134  43,286   43,737  3,949   49.74%   50.26%
HD135  27,906   27,692  1,112   50.19%   49.81%
HD137   7,819   16,212    622   32.54%   67.46%
HD138  24,737   23,257  1,216   51.54%   48.46%
HD139  11,586   35,228  1,060   24.75%   75.25%
HD140   5,833   17,684    533   24.80%   75.20%
HD141   4,259   27,067    509   13.60%   86.40%
HD142   9,169   30,316    735   23.22%   76.78%
HD143   8,184   20,271    782   28.76%   71.24%
HD144   9,529   13,786    502   40.87%   59.13%
HD145  10,827   21,703    936   33.28%   66.72%
HD146   9,038   33,897  1,190   21.05%   78.95%
HD147  11,483   42,904  1,494   21.11%   78.89%
HD148  17,912   29,056  1,897   38.14%   61.86%
HD149  14,769   24,032    872   38.06%   61.94%
HD150  42,646   27,573  1,457   60.73%   39.27%

CC1    68,703  217,956  7,362   23.97%   76.03%
CC2   112,338  113,891  5,610   49.66%   50.34%
CC3   175,031  154,383  8,589   53.13%   46.87%
CC4   186,919  156,335  8,418   54.46%   45.54%

Dist   Cowart    Cantu  Under  Cowart%   Cantu%
===============================================
CD02  136,367  120,574  8,171   53.07%   46.93%
CD07  116,611  119,973  8,648   49.29%   50.71%
CD08   17,953   10,600    651   62.88%   37.12%
CD09   23,168   95,724  2,949   19.49%   80.51%
CD10   71,965   41,047  2,462   63.68%   36.32%
CD18   39,150  142,169  5,144   21.59%   78.41%
CD22   15,358   15,745    916   49.38%   50.62%
CD29   29,829   86,321  3,165   25.68%   74.32%
CD36   60,960   37,258  2,656   62.07%   37.93%

SBOE6 288,532  278,836 19,307   50.85%   49.15%

HD126  29,470   25,363  1,399   53.75%   46.25%
HD127  41,600   25,816  1,693   61.71%   38.29%
HD128  34,987   16,505  1,177   67.95%   32.05%
HD129  35,892   27,731  2,065   56.41%   43.59%
HD130  51,661   23,756  1,677   68.50%   31.50%
HD131   6,016   35,627    904   14.45%   85.55%
HD132  32,893   33,181  1,299   49.78%   50.22%
HD133  40,783   28,895  2,879   58.53%   41.47%
HD134  37,785   48,422  4,767   43.83%   56.17%
HD135  26,756   28,684  1,269   48.26%   51.74%
HD137   7,294   16,661    699   30.45%   69.55%
HD138  23,374   24,339  1,497   48.99%   51.01%
HD139  10,484   36,185  1,205   22.46%   77.54%
HD140   5,165   18,317    569   22.00%   78.00%
HD141   3,963   27,323    549   12.67%   87.33%
HD142   8,541   30,867    813   21.67%   78.33%
HD143   7,319   21,069    849   25.78%   74.22%
HD144   8,953   14,300    564   38.50%   61.50%
HD145   9,481   22,947  1,038   29.24%   70.76%
HD146   8,001   34,803  1,322   18.69%   81.31%
HD147   9,954   44,255  1,671   18.36%   81.64%
HD148  15,471   31,235  2,158   33.12%   66.88%
HD149  14,072   24,620    980   36.37%   63.63%
HD150  41,446   28,510  1,719   59.25%   40.75%

CC1    61,305  224,448  8,270   21.45%   78.55%
CC2   106,277  119,247  6,313   47.12%   52.88%
CC3   165,385  162,387 10,232   50.46%   49.54%
CC4   178,394  163,329  9,947   52.20%   47.80%

These three races did not feature a Libertarian candidate. District Clerk was actually one slot above County Clerk on the ballot, followed by County Treasurer and the At Large HCDE Trustee race. Abel Gomez, the Libertarian County Clerk candidate, got 30K votes. Chris Daniel outpolled Stan Stanart by 22K votes, while Marilyn Burgess took 3K more than Diane Trautman. There were 5K more undervotes in the District Clerk race. For those of you who speculate about the effect of Libertarian candidates in races like this, make of that what you will. I would also note that Abel Gomez is a Latino candidate, and these other two races featured Latino candidates. Orlando Sanchez pulled in 33K more votes than Stanart, with Dylan Osborne lagging Diane Trautman by 6K. In the HCDE race, Marc Cowart only got 2K more votes than Stanart, while Richard Cantu outpaced Trautman by 20K. Again, make of that what you will.

That’s all I’ve got from Harris County, at least for now. I’ve got a post on Fort Bend in the works, and we should soon have the state data available to ponder. I know there will be more to look at, but for now I hope this has been useful to you.

Lina Hidalgo gets the national press treatment

You need to get past the first couple of paragraphs, but overall a decent piece.

Lina Hidalgo

Even in defeat, Beto O’Rourke did a big favor to fellow Democrats all over Texas. A couple hundred thousand young people who might otherwise have skipped the election turned out to vote for the charismatic young liberal, and when they did, they also voted for his party down the ballot. The Republicans still won the statewide races, but the margins were the narrowest they’ve been in decades, and in local races, there were a number of upsets by Democrats.

Perhaps the biggest surprise — or accident, as far as local conservatives are concerned — was in the race for the top administrator of Texas’s largest county, the one that surrounds Houston. The winner, Lina Hidalgo, was the most millennial candidate ever, a 27-year-old perma-student who relied on her parents’ financial support to launch her campaign. Her only jobs so far have been the short-term gigs she’s worked amid her schooling.

It’s safe to say she wasn’t chosen for her qualifications. Eighty-seven percent of her votes came from straight-ticket ballots. Now she’ll be overseeing a county of 5 million people — the third-largest in the U.S., larger than 26 states — along with a $5 billion budget and a payroll of nearly 17,000 people. (Only a few local hospitals and grocery stores employ more people, including Walmart, which has 34,000 Houston-area workers.) On top of that, Harris County has a vulnerable population of more than half a million undocumented immigrants, and surrounds a city that’s made entirely of concrete, as though it’s designed to encourage the maximum possible damage from floods — of which there have been two apocalyptic ones in the last decade.

Sometimes during the campaign, it didn’t look like she was even trying all that hard to win. A common refrain in news coverage was that she’d never attended a meeting of Harris County’s commissioners court, the governmental body she’d be overseeing, which is sort of like a city council. In one debate she couldn’t name the city auditor.

But the truth is that Hidalgo is more formidable than her short résumé suggests. To anyone paying closer attention, it was clear that she and the incumbent had fundamentally different ideas about what the administrative position should be. She thought, and still thinks, that there’s a way of transforming it from a mostly managerial role — someone who fills potholes, balances the budget, and cleans up after floods — to one that mobilizes the county’s resources to improve public health, expand public transportation, reform the jails, and reduce global warming.

“Any issue you choose, it’s easy to say, ‘We can’t do anything — that’s not the county’s deal,’ she said in a phone interview last week. “But fundamentally, it’s about priorities. Budgets are about priorities and they’re about values.” When she gets into the details, she’s persuasive — maybe because the transition has given her a chance to study the system up close. On criminal justice, she points out, the county has spent somewhere north of $6 million in the past year fighting a judge’s order to reform its bail system. On health, she cited an independent 2015 report that suggested the county could improve its services by coordinating better among its hospitals, clinics, schools, and public-health department. And on transit, she argued, the county can manage development in a way that discourages sprawl, and can divert some of its money for trains.

Just out of curiosity, can you name the county auditor? (County, not city – that’s an error in the article.) I’ve got the answer at the end of this post.

I feel like people haven’t really wrapped their minds around the ways in which things are likely to change, not just due to Hidalgo’s election but due to the new Democratic majority on Commissioners Court. The Court has always operated in a very clubby you-do-your-thing-and-I’ll-do-mine way, with Republicans having either a 3-2 or 4-1 majority most of the time. The late El Franco Lee, who was one of those Democrats for a thirty year period, did a lot of things for Precinct 1 in his time but was nobody’s idea of an agitator for change at the county level. It’s not just Lina, it’s Lina plus Rodney plus Adrian that will have a chance to shake things up and question things we have been doing for years, if not forever. Some of that is going to generate a ton of friction. As someone once said, elections have consequences.

By the way, later in the article Hidalgo responds to the complaint about her not having attended a Court meeting. She notes she watched them online, then makes the very good but often overlooked point that Court meetings are held during the work day for most people, and in general are not very welcoming to public input. That’s one of those things that I figure will be changed, and it will be welcome. Business is not going to be as ususal.

By the way, the county auditor is someone named Michael Post. Go ahead and do a Google News search for “harris county auditor” or “michael post harris county”, or a Chron archive search for either, I’ll wait. Maybe the reason Lina Hidalgo didn’t know the name Michael Post off the top of her head is because the man and his office have basically been invisible? Just a thought.

Use that mandate in Harris County

Jay Aiyer pens an agenda for Harris County and its Democratic government.

First and foremost, flood mitigation has to be at the top of any list. Harris County has taken good initial steps to improve flood control infrastructure, and the passage of flood control bonds was badly needed. Those steps however, are only the beginning of what needs to be done. Development changes that prohibit growth and expansion in the floodplain, and ideas from experts like Rice University’s Raj Makand to impose a moratorium on new municipal utility districts until the region has a comprehensive plan for flood mitigation should be considered. Infrastructure development in Harris County — everything from toll road expansion to affordable housing construction should be factored into flood control efforts. Flood mitigation needs to be the county’s top priority.

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The need for ethics and transparency is also required at the Commissioner’s Court itself. Unlike Houston City Council or the Texas Legislature, Harris County government remains largely shrouded in secrecy. The lack of broad transparency and pro-forma meetings results in a policy process that is largely kept behind closed doors. Commissioners have wide latitude in how business is conducted within their precinct, but that should be governed by a strong ethics policy that requires lobbyists to register and places limits on campaign contributions. A strong government requires one grounded in ethics and transparency.

Access to the ballot box and the integrity of voting process remains a major concern to all voters. Harris County needs a transparent and error-free voter registration process that works to actively register voters. Texas is eliminating straight ticket voting in 2020 and Harris County needs to start preparing for the longer lines and logistical strains that surround the longest electoral ballot in the country. This means expanding the number early voting locations throughout the county, as well as extending the hours of operation. Harris County also needs to follow other Texas counties and create election day voting centers that allow voters to cast a vote at location throughout the county — not just at a precinct.

Part of the improving voting means replacing the outdated machines. The current click-wheel electronic voting system is outdated and slow in handling our long ballot. Harris County needs to invest in modern, verifiable voting machines that can provide confidence in the electoral process while allowing voters to exercise their vote quickly and efficiently. County government has historically worked to make voting more difficult and cumbersome, and these reforms would be a good first step in reversing that.

Finally, Harris County should also revisit initiatives around the expansion of early childcare. In 2013, the well-meaning pre-K training initiative “Early to Rise,” which called for a ballot initiative to expand pre-K training programs, was strongly opposed by outgoing County Judge Ed Emmett and the Republican majority of Commissioner’s Court. While that initial plan was limited in scope, the idea of a regional approach to expanding early child care is one that needs to be explored. Research indicates that investing in early education initiatives are the best way to mitigate the effects of poverty and improve long term educational outcomes. A countywide program may be the smartest long term investment that Harris County could make.

I endorse all of Jay’s idea, which he proposes as a first-100-days plan, and I’d add a few things of my own, none of which need to be done immediately. One is for Harris County to be a more active partner with Metro, and to be fully engaged in the forthcoming transit plan and referendum. There are a lot of ways the county can contribute to better transit, and with everything Metro has going on now, this is the time. Two, continue the work Ed Emmett started in consolidating services with Houston and other cities, and make non-MUD governance a part of that development reform Aiyer outlines. Three, figure out what the office of the Treasurer can and should be doing. Incoming Treasurer Dylan Osborne has his own ideas, of course, but my point is that back in the 90s Commissioners Court basically neutered the office during Don Sumners’ term. Maybe now the time has come to restore some actual power to that office. Other counties have Treasurers, perhaps we should look to them to see if there’s a good model to follow.

I’m sure there are plenty of other ideas. (The parts that I cut out for this excerpt talked about criminal justice and bail reform, some of which have been going on.) Reviving the pre-K proposal is especially something we should all get behind. The point is, there is much that can be done, and no reason to feel restrained by “we’ve always done it that way” thinking. If it’s a good idea, let’s talk about it and figure out if we can make it work. It’s a new era in Harris County.

Emmett’s farewell

I wish him the best with whatever comes next.

Judge Ed Emmett

Harris County Judge Ed Emmett on Tuesday did not rule out returning to public service after he gives up the gavel in January, but made clear he first would return to the private sector following last week’s re-election loss.

Democrat Lina Hidalgo defeated Emmett, a Republican who has helmed Harris County government since 2007. She will assume office Jan. 1. Meanwhile, Emmett said he planned to work with Hidalgo to ensure she transitions smoothly into the role.

With two Commissioners Court meetings left in his term, Emmett likely will decide on his next move in early December and told reporters he faces “numerous options.”

“You know, I had a life before I became county judge,” Emmett, 69, said after his first post-election court meeting. “As I’ve told many people, you know, I didn’t die.”

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Emmett said he would remain interested in how the revamped court handles Harris County’s growing unincorporated population, and remained willing to offer “anything I can do to help that.” However, Emmett also indicated he would not hover over Hidalgo’s shoulder upon leaving office.

“I don’t intend to be one of those people that every day says something about what’s going on in the county,” he said. “I’m going to move on with my life and she’s going to move on with the county.”

Emmett, a moderate Republican, has been at odds with his party’s more conservative wing, and on Tuesday offered some criticism for those at the top of the ticket, without naming names. During the campaign, he told the Houston Chronicle editorial board that he planned to vote for Mike Collier, the Democratic challenger to Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick.

Every statewide Republican official lost Harris County, including Patrick, who faced a 14-point deficit here. Democrat Beto O’Rourke also trounced Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, at the top of the local ballot. Republicans nonetheless won their statewide elections.

“I think that people at the top of the ticket need to start looking at what they’re saying to the voters, ’cause the voters aren’t buying it,” Emmett said. “And I think voters want to pay attention to competence, and people that will address the needs of their daily lives, and get away from all this other stuff.”

I’m sure we’ve not heard the last of Ed Emmett. I expect he’ll take some time off – he’s certainly earned it – and probably down the line he’ll wind up in some other form of public service, on a commission or board or what have you. He’ll be welcome in whatever capacity he chooses. As for his fellow Republicans, I’m sure they won’t pay heed to what he’s saying. Some lessons need to be learned the hard way, and the ones in Texas who most need that have unfortunately not yet had that experience. Be that as it may, I thank Ed Emmett for his service, and wish him and his family all the best.