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Mike Sullivan

Budget amendment time

Now that Mayor Parker has formally submitted her proposed budget for fiscal year 2013, it’s time for Council members to submit their amendments for consideration. I’m going to start at the bottom of the story with the two proposals that intrigues me the most.

Two members called for a November election to amend the city’s term limits law, which forces council members, the mayor and controller from office after three two-year terms. [CM Wanda] Adams proposes two four-year terms; Councilman Andrew Burks proposes three four-year terms.

Councilman Ed Gonzalez has proposed a ban on plastic bags in Houston. Specifically, his amendment calls for the city to draw up an ordinance within a year that would phase out the use of the bags. Brownsville has banned the bags, and a ban goes into effect in Austin next year.

“We have a number of bayous, and they’re littered with plastic bottles and plastic bags,” which conservation groups spend hundreds of thousands of dollars a year removing, Gonzalez said. He referred to trees on the banks of bayous with bags snagged in their boughs as “urban Christmas trees.” He said he does not envision the city offering businesses a financial incentive to abandon plastic bags.

As you know, I don’t like term limits at all, but if we have to have them I’d rather put the limit at 12 years rather than 6, for the simple reason that I don’t think six years is enough time to really accomplish much as a Council member. As such, I’d take Burks’ proposal over Adams’, though hers is still better than the status quo. However, I would prefer even more to have six two-year terms instead of three four-year terms. My argument for having two year terms instead of four year terms can be summed up in four words: Council Member Helena Brown. Four years is an awful long time to have to wait to correct an error like that.

As for the bag ban proposal, you know I’ve been following developments around the state and wondering when Houston might get in on the act. About time for it, I say. I don’t have a strong preference for any specific approach to this, whether a ban by fiat or by imposition of a tax on bags, perhaps to be replaced later by a full on ban. As long as the city engages all the stakeholders and gives plenty of opportunity for feedback, I’m sure the end result will be fine. All of these proposals assume Mayor Parker supports them, as they are unlikely to get very far if she doesn’t. We know she’s no fan of the current term limits system, and I’ll be very surprised if she doesn’t back up her Mayor Pro Tem on this one.

Council members Stephen Costello and Wanda Adams both call for giving $160,000 to the Houston Food Bank to help it enroll more people in SNAP, the federal program formerly known as food stamps.

One of Councilman Mike Sullivan’s amendments would eliminate funding for affirmative action monitoring on city contracts. Councilman Larry Green proposes increasing it.

From Councilman Jack Christie came a fill-it-or-kill-it plan that would have Council consider eliminating any position that remains vacant for three months.

First-term Councilwoman Ellen Cohen proposed a Houston version of the so-called “pole tax” she shepherded into law as a state legislator. The state law imposed a $5 per customer fee on strip clubs to raise money for sexual assault victims.

In order:

– I approve of the Costello/Adams proposal. Ensuring children have adequate nutrition is one of the best investments you can make. It is, to coin a phrase, a big effin’ deal.

– Sullivan may have won his Republican primary last month, but between this and some of his other amendments, which include a five percent pay cut for the Mayor and Council members, I guess he isn’t finished wooing those voters. I don’t expect them to go far, and as Campos notes, his colleagues who hope to be on Council longer than Sullivan intends to be probably aren’t too thrilled by this.

– I see some merit in Christie’s proposal, but on the whole I’d prefer to err on the side of more flexibility for department heads.

– I’m a tiny bit ambivalent about Cohen’s SOB proposal. No question, clearing the rape kit backlog is a huge priority, and with the favorable resolution of the lawsuit over the state “pole tax” law (that Cohen authored), this is the obvious vehicle for that. I just feel, as I did about the state law, that sexual assault is everyone’s problem and everyone’s responsibility, and as such it feels a little pat to put the entire burden for funding these needed items on strip clubs and the like. It’s a minor quibble, not enough to make me oppose Cohen’s amendment, I just felt like someone had to say that.

There’s more proposals than just these, of varying levels of seriousness and likelihood of adoption. In addition to her pension default tomfoolery, CM Helena Brown has a variety of no-hope amendments, including one to switch the city from a strong mayor system to a city manager system. There are pros and cons to each approach, and without commenting on the merits of one system over the other, I’ll just note that this would be a ginormous, fundamental change to how we do things, and as such would need a ton of discussion and engagement culminating in a charter referendum. All things considered, it’s hard to see this as anything but another attack on the Mayor by her political enemies. Stace has more.

Sullivan confirms he will step down in January

There will be one more election on the ballot this November.

CM Mike Sullivan

Houston City Councilman Mike Sullivan confirmed Thursday that he will submit his resignation next month as a result of his victory in the Republican Party primary for county tax assessor-collector, keeping a promise he made before Tuesday’s election.

Sullivan said his resignation will be effective on Jan. 1. That is no earlier than he would have to resign to get sworn in as county tax assessor-collector should he win the November general election against Democrat Ann Harris Bennett. State law prohibits him from holding both offices.

Giving council six months’ advance notice of his intentions allows it time to place an election for Sullivan’s successor on the November ballot instead of holding a stand-alone election in District E that would cost taxpayers an estimated $150,000 to $200,000.

The risk Sullivan is taking is his pledge to resign whether he wins or loses in November. A general election loss would leave him without a city or county office. In addition, a resignation date of Jan. 1 would leave him just one day short of the five years of city service necessary to qualify for a municipal pension. Hitting the five-year mark would qualify Sullivan for an annual pension benefit of more than $5,000.

“That is a very real possibility,” Sullivan responded when asked by email if he was prepared to forgo the pension benefit. “I’ve always considered it a privilege to serve, and have never viewed it for public gain. If I resign prior to my anniversary date, I will have no regrets.”

See here for some background. Sullivan headed this off as a campaign issue for the primary and will presumably do so as well for the general. I admire him for standing on principle here. He doesn’t have to do it and there is a potential downside for him. Now let’s have a debate about the direction in which we want the Tax Assessor’s office to go.

GOP results, Harris County

Bullet points for all these result posts, I was up way too late last night. See the numbers here and the chat transcript from last night here.

– You could have sold me on any result in the GOP DA primary going into yesterday, but I definitely did not expect such a wide margin. Mike Anderson ran away with it, garnering 63% of the vote. I’m stunned by that. Similarly, I would have had no trouble believing that Mike Sullivan could knock off Don Sumners, but I didn’t expect a 64-36 thrashing. Finally, given the establishment support she had received, I’d have expected Leslie Johnson to do well in the County Attorney race, but it was a rout just like the others, with former State Rep. Robert Talton collecting 66% of the vote. Wow.

– By the way, with Sumners’ defeat, as a chat participant noted we will have our fourth Tax Assessor in four years when either Sullivan or Ann Harris Bennett is sworn in next January.

– All incumbent legislators – State and US House, plus Tommy Williams in the State Senate – won easily, with no one breaking a sweat. HD133 might have been seen as competitive, with the district being significantly reconfigured and Ann Witt throwing a ton of money into it, but Jim Murphy cruised with over 62%.

– Jack Cagle easily won the right to run in November for his Commissioners Court seat. Incumbent Constables all won. A couple of judicial races are headed for overtime. With Dewhurst versus Cruz also being on the ballot for July, there will be some votes to fight over.

– I hadn’t even realized there was a contested race for GOP Chair, but Jared Woodfill won another term.

– Turnout was 152,000. Election Day ballots slightly exceeded early voting plus absentee ballots.

On to the non-Harris GOP races next.

Chron overview of the Tax Assessor primary

Having just reported on the vehicle registration problems at the Harris County Tax Assessor’s office, the Chron now writes about the GOP primary for that office.

A Houston Chronicle story Friday reported Sumners’ staff is working overtime to process a backlog of auto registrations so motorists are not ticketed for driving with expired decals. [Challenger Mike] Sullivan said current and former tax office workers have reached out to share concerns with its operations.

[Incumbent Don] Sumners blamed the backlog on a communication breakdown among staff and county budget cuts. Sumners fired seven managers after taking office, in part to save money, and laid off another 25 clerks after budget cuts came down a year ago.

“In effect, I could take their place because of the experience that I had and the education that I had,” Sumners said. “When asked about what he would do since he doesn’t have the experience, (Sullivan’s) response was, ‘I’d hire people that do.’ That’d be great if there was money in the budget.”

Sullivan said Sumners’ removal of those seven managers was not a benefit to taxpayers because it took out institutional knowledge that could have improved the office’s operations.

“The budget cut that has been imposed on the tax office now is not significant enough to justify the long lines that are there. I’ve worked at City Hall now for five years with decreasing budgets and more demand on services. We have done more with less,” Sullivan said. “After (former tax assessor) Paul (Bettencourt) left the office, there’s been a continual decline and degradation in service, and it’s got to be turned around.”

When you cut funding for a government service, you are arguing – implicitly or explicitly – one of two things: Either the same level of service can be provided with less funding, or the service cutbacks that will be necessitated are good things in and of themselves. By cutting staff, including all those managers whose work Sumners said he could do himself, Sumners is making the former argument. Clearly, however, it is not the case that the service is being provided at the same level as it had been. I continue to be fascinated by the extent to which Sumners is blaming other factors for this drop in service – a three percent increase in new car sales and title transactions (I base that calculation on the numbers cited by Sumners in the original Chron story; budget cuts that led to the staff reductions that Sumners himself implemented; “communications breakdowns”, whatever that means – but I have not seen in either of these stories a statement from him that he owns the problem and is working to fix it. I have a low opinion of Sumners so I can’t say I’m surprised at any of this, but it’s always nice to have one’s opinions validated by the facts.

Sullivan, for his part, lists on his Issues tab a desire to keep all 15 branch offices open and to “reduce long lines at branch offices”. One presumes that would require more staff, which in turn means more money for the Tax Assessor’s office. It’s not clear how he plans to accomplish that, though he does also say that he wants to “embrace new technology to improve services for constituents (i.e., kiosks that accept payments so people do not have to stand in line to make payments; use electronic delivery for tax bills to those who want them as opposed to mailing out physical tax bills)”. That’s all laudable and I’d support it, but it too will cost money up front. Again I wonder what Commissioners Court thinks of all this, since they are both the implicit target of Sumners’ whining about budget cuts as well as the source of any funding Sullivan would request to fix these problems. Sheriff Adrian Garcia eventually convinced the Court to let him hire more deputies to help reduce the amount he had to spend on overtime, so it can be done. We just don’t know yet what their default position is.

Of course, if we really want a change at this position, it’s not the primary that matters but the November election and the candidacy of Ann Harris Bennett, who was one of the Democrats’ top votegetters as the County Clerk candidate in the 2010 debacle. Bennett is certainly qualified for the job, and while she’s not getting much attention now as she’s unopposed for the nomination, she’s one of the most important Democrats on the Harris County ballot this year. I guarantee you, we’ll have far fewer problems with voter registration if Bennett wins this fall. I feel pretty certain that if she can handle that – and she can – she can do a better job with auto registrations as well.

Endorsement watch: Sullivan for Tax Assessor

The Chron made its first primary endorsement on Friday, and I just now noticed.

CM Mike Sullivan

The [Harris County Tax Assessor-Collector’s Office] is, or should be, the quintessential service department – run with the customer’s satisfaction uppermost in mind.

For almost half a century, the late Carl Smith was the agreeable face of the office, the boss who was always available to help our citizens walk through the process.

But in the years since Smith’s death in 1998, a strain of partisan politics has crept into the office in unmistakable and unhelpful ways. It’s past time for that to go. The tainting of a traditional service office with the officeholder’s partisan political agenda has not brought distinction to the tax office.

The incumbent, Don Sumners, served for 10 years in that politicized environment. As head of the tax office since 2008, he has been in the crossfire of ongoing disputes over his department’s voter registration procedures.

Sumners is professionally competent to hold the assessor-collector position, given his background as a certified public accountant. But his continuing incumbency would bring with it the unnecessary baggage of partisanship that has burdened the office since Smith’s time in office.

A Republican primary challenge to Sumners by Houston City Councilman Mike Sullivan, a proven conservative with solid government and private sector credentials, offers GOP voters an opportunity to clear out those remnants of partisan politics while assuring that this department is well run. We urge them to take it by casting a ballot for Sullivan in the May 29 party primary.

Unlike Sumners (or Leo Vasquez or Paul Bettencourt), Sullivan says he’ll be “more proactive” in voter registration, saying “we have a responsibility to register people”. I’ll be voting for Democratic candidate Ann Harris Bennett in November regardless of who wins this primary, but I’m glad to hear Sullivan say that, and I would be delighted if the debate we can have this fall is about who can manage the clerical duties better rather than whether or not the office is complying with the latest court order in the umpteenth lawsuit over its voter registration practices. Having said that, I have no illusions that this is a positive trait for Sullivan in his primary. The kind of person who votes in Republican primaries is not interested in getting people registered to vote. Quite the contrary, in fact. I wish Sullivan well in his race against Sumners, but I will admit to being surprised if he wins.

She showed me her manifesto, I had no reply

I got nothing.

A little light reading before bedtime

District E Councilman Mike Sullivan, until January by far the Council’s most conservative member, was so outflanked from the right by a Council newcomer Wednesday that he found himself uttering into his microphone: “I am not a communist.”

The energy company Entergy is proposing raising rates on 1,500 of his Kingwood constituents by about 13 percent. He championed the Council’s denial of Entergy’s request.

But when the item came up for discussion, District A Councilwoman Helena Brown announced she would vote against the denial. That is, she would support the rate increase.

“We need to support their rate increase because it is justified,” Brown said. She then continued:

I understand my colleague Sullivan expressed the concerns of his constituents in the Kingwood area. But I also understand the folks in Kingwood are conservatives. They do not believe in the regulation of rates of businesses. That’s communism. I will be standing in support of this business and the need that they have.

“Truthfully, I don’t think you have a clue what Kingwood believes in,” Sullivan shot back.

Sullivan explained that a study commissioned by a coalition of cities in Entergy’s service area concluded that there was insufficient evidence to support a rate increase.

“I am not a communist by voting for this rate denial,” Sullivan said.

As Dogbert says, sometimes no sarcastic remark seems adequate. The woman defies parody. If anyone reading this happens to bump into Toni Lawrence or Bruce Tatro, would you mind asking them just what it was they were thinking? Thanks.

January finance reports: City of Houston

Yes, I know, there are no city of Houston elections this year. (Not yet, anyway.) But the candidates and officeholders have to file reports anyway, covering the period from their last report through the end of the year. That period may be from eight days before the December runoff, eight days before the November election, or even the July reporting period if they were lucky enough to be unopposed in November. It’s how you see what the candidates in contested races did in the last days before the election, and it’s how you see who hopped on the late train for a candidate who wasn’t necessarily expected to win. I’ve updated the 2011 Election page to include links to the January finance reports for current and now-former Council members. I didn’t bother with non-incumbents who lost in November or December because life is too short. Here’s a brief summary:

Candidate Raised Spent Cash on hand ================================================ Parker 64,329 260,317 1,272,794 RGreen 30,794 23,785 46,691 Costello 12,250 47,311 655 Burks 25,175 33,426 2,403 Noriega 4,326 14,600 14,108 Bradford 4,453 35,340 20,282 Christie 16,700 51,138 3,156 Brown 6,900 9,664 1,467 Davis 32,630 39,974 20,703 Cohen 24,008 67,375 6,413 Adams 13,100 27,687 59,572 Sullivan 8,200 14,629 53,641 Hoang 3,450 25,472 5,366 Pennington 89,025 167,555 123,326 Gonzalez 5,254 15,908 56,108 Rodriguez 4,729 26,456 21,328 Laster 20,563 23,314 20,473 LGreen 22,470 27,955 576 Lovell Jones 39,810 62,555 6,397 Stardig 13,450 45,176 36,956 Johnson Clutterbuck 0 22,199 38,223

The first thing to note here is the $1.2 million cash on hand Mayor Parker has. This is significant for two reasons. One, obviously, is that it’s the opening bid for how much a Mayoral wannabee will have to raise to be competitive with her next year. She will be able to add to that total this year, while anyone who has not filed a designation of treasurer will not; I will not be surprised if her COH figure tops $2 million in a year’s time. While this certainly isn’t insurmountable, the first question anyone who might want to challenge her is going to get from a potential donor is going to be “How do you plan to raise enough money to compete with Mayor Parker?” Some of them will likely say “Show me that you can raise some money first, then get back to me”, which needless to say makes fundraising that much harder. It’s a barrier to entry, and the higher it is the better off she’ll be next year.

The flip side to that is that she’s really lucky she managed to avoid a runoff. Not only because that meant she could sit on her cash rather than have to spend it in December, but also because by leaving that much cash in the bank she would have left herself wide open to criticism that she didn’t run as hard as she needed to going into November. Look at poor Brenda Stardig, who had a relative ton of cash on hand in her November 8 day report, mostly because she hadn’t run any kind of campaign up till that point. By the time she was forced to kick it into gear, it was already too late, and the money she had wasn’t of much good to her. This is the cautionary tale that the Mayor was fortunate to avoid.

As such, don’t be surprised by the small cash on hand totals that moneybags like Costello and Cohen posted. They emptied their weapons, left it all on the field, and otherwise engaged in all the suitable cliches when it counted. You don’t doubt their ability to replenish their coffers, right? I’ll check back again in July and again next January and we’ll see where they stand.

Of course, for Council members who have their eye on the next office, as CMs Adams and Sullivan do, the calculus is a bit more complex. Well, not for Sullivan, who was unopposed and was thus able to turn his current stash into a decent opening advantage. Adams also has an early financial lead in her race for State Rep, though as she had an opponent last year it wasn’t entirely without risk.

Since I mentioned the late train earlier, I will note that there wasn’t one I could see for Helena Brown. Her late donors list was short and familiar. As for Andrew Burks, his donors were African-Americans – at least, all of the names I recognized belonged to African-Americans – and the usual PAC and law firm suspects that generally give to all incumbents. Not quite the Republican rainbow coalition that may have helped him win the runoff, but a likely indicator that he’ll enter 2013 with a decent sum in his kitty. I will be very interested to see if the usual suspects latch on to Brown or not. They didn’t rush to do so after the election results were in.

Finally, we have the outgoing Council members. With the exception of Jarvis Johnson, who is running for HCDE Trustee, I don’t think any of them are currently angling for another office. Lovell has been interested in County Clerk, but didn’t run in 2010 and I have not heard anything to say she may in 2014. I don’t get a future candidacy vibe from Clutterbuck, Jones, or Stardig, but who knows. They could take a cycle or two off, do some backstage work or some such, and come back later. Johnson has not filed a report with either the city or the county, nor has he responded to my requests for an interview, so other than his candidacy for HCDE I have no idea what he’s up to.

January finance reports: Harris County

January is a very busy month for campaign finance reports, since they are due for all levels of government. I’ve been busy updating the 2012 Primary Election pages for Harris County and elsewhere in Texas with reports as I can find them. Here’s an overview of some races of interest in Harris County. I’ll have similar reports for State Rep and Congressional races next week.

Let me preface this post by saying that I loathe the County Clerks’ Campaign Finance Reports page. You can’t search for an individual by name, you can only search for all candidates whose last name starts with a given letter. All of the reports are scanned PDFs, which means that most of them are handwritten, though even the ones that are electronically generated are then apparently printed and scanned. This has the effect of creating much larger files, which are then harder to navigate, and Adobe being what it is they managed to crash Chrome on my PC and IE9 on my laptop. They do open in the browser with a direct link, unlike the city’s reporting system which opens each report as an Acrobat file for download, which I then have to upload and share to make available on my page, so as long as your browser continues to function that’s nice. All I know is that when I am named Supreme Commander of the world, my first official action will be to outlaw paper filing of campaign finance reports. It’s 2012, for Pete’s sake.

OK, rant off. Here are the highlights:

District Attorney

Incumbent Pat Lykos starts the year in good shape, having raised $194K with $320K on hand; she spent $40K during the cycle. Primary opponent Mike Anderson reported no money raised or spent. He was a late entrant and likely hasn’t had any fundraisers yet. I’m sure he’ll have sufficient resources to wage a campaign. On the Democratic side, Zack Fertitta had an impressive haul, taking in $170K, with $141K on hand. I don’t know exactly when he named a treasurer, but I’m pretty sure he didn’t start raising money until a couple of months into the cycle. His primary opponent Lloyd Oliver, who is listed for some bizarre reason in the county financial reporting system as “Oliver Lloyd” – I only found his report by accident, looking for other L-named candidates – reported no money raised or spent.

Sheriff

Sheriff Adrian Garcia will have a tough race in November, and he starts the year well armed for it, having collected $187K and maintaining $302K. He has two primary opponents – Delores Jones has $1,038 on hand, while perennial contender Charles Massey El had no report visible; yes, I checked under M and under E. There are eight Republican hopefuls, but only four filed reports. Ruben Monzon raised $33K; Carl Pittman raised $13K and reported $24K in loans; Brian Steinacher claimed the princely total of $750 raised. The most interesting report belonged to Louis Guthrie, who claimed to raise $96K with $30K in loans. That caught my eye at first, but he only listed $21K on hand, which made me suspicious enough to read the whole report. The individual contributions he detailed added up to only $6450 in cash plus about $18K in kind for things like printing and food, which are usually considered expenses. Something is definitely off there, but even if you took him at his word, the four of them together raised less than Garcia did.

County Attorney

Not really on anyone’s radar since it’s a lower profile office and there are no contested primaries, but Democratic incumbent Vince Ryan raised $29K and has $126K on hand. Republican challenger and former State Rep. Robert Talton raised $14,650 and had $10,500 in loans, but spent $14,978 and was left with $10,367 on hand.

Tax Assessor

In the battle of Guys Whose Surnames Both Start With The Letter S And Are Thus Convenient To Find In The Otherwise Wack Harris County Finance Reporting System, incumbent Don Sumners reported no cash raised and $3,911 on hand, while current Council Member Mike Sullivan made good use of his remaining Council campaign fund, which allowed him to report $53K on hand. He actually raised $8200 for this cycle, and had $15K in loans outstanding. Democratic challenger Ann Harris Bennett, who was listed under the Bs, raised no money and had $1,856 on hand, presumably left over from her 2010 race for County Clerk. Remind me to ask Clerk candidates in 2014 about how they propose to overhaul the finance reporting system.

Constable

I didn’t bother looking at a lot of these reports, as there are just so many Constable candidates. Among those I did look at were ones for the open Precinct 1 seat. Alan Rosen did the most, raising $43K with $37K on hand. Cindy Vara-Leija raised $22K and had $15K on hand; Grady Castleberry, who also had a July report, raised $2K but had $19K in loans and $23K on hand. Quincy Whitaker’s January report was not visible as of this publication; his July report claimed $5K raised and $18K spent but did not list any loans or cash on hand.

That’s your Harris County finance report. I’ll have state and federal candidates next week. The one other county race I’m watching is the Democratic primary for Travis County DA, featuring incumbent Rosemary Lehmberg and former judge Charlie Baird. The Statesman noted their totals, and I have their reports linked on the non-Harris page – here’s Lehmberg, and here’s Baird. Check that page and the Harris page for more reports as they come in. Greg has more.

UPDATE: It has been pointed out to me that there is a “Friends of Mike Anderson” finance report, which I would have found if I could have searched by name and not by letter, and that this report shows contributions of $152K and cash on hand of $135K. That report lists his office sought as the 127th District Civil Court bench, but that’s neither here nor there.

Sullivan says he’ll step down if he wins primary

He’s hoping to defuse a campaign issue.

CM Mike Sullivan

Houston City Councilman Mike Sullivan will submit his resignation in July if he wins the Republican nomination for Harris County tax assessor-collector in April’s primary, he said.

The resignation would not be effective until January, when he would be sworn in as tax assessor if he wins the Republican primary and the November general election. He will face incumbent Don Sumners in the primary.

[…]

Submitting the resignation letter in July would allow the city to hold a special election on the November ballot to finish the remaining year on his term.

In planning for his departure, Sullivan said, he looked for “the most democratic process we can engage in at no cost to taxpayers for there to be an elected representative for District E.”

This issue has come up before, in 2006 when Shelley Sekula-Gibbs was running for Congress, and in 2008 when Adrian Garcia was running for Sheriff. Both remained in office during their races, both faced that as a campaign issue to varying degrees, and both were replaced in a special election the following May after they won their elections and subsequently resigned, leaving their seats empty for the interim. Sullivan seems to have found a loophole, which I must admit is clever. It’s clever enough that I’m sure he’ll still be criticized for it, but I give him credit for coming up with a creative way to avoid the mid-year special election, which would save the city a few bucks.

“I understand his logic,” Sumners said of Sullivan’s plans. “Somebody is just going to have to explain to me an election for a position that still has an occupant.”

Um, we just had one of those last year. Jarvis Johnson, Ann Clutterbuck, Sue Lovell – they were all still Council members in November and December, even though everyone knew they were not going to be Council members as of January. They even voted on stuff, along with defeated CMs Jolanda Jones and Brenda Stardig. It’s called being a lame duck, a position with which I hope Sumners becomes familiar later this year. If that’s the best you can do, maybe Sullivan won’t face any flak for this. Campos, who notes that this is also an issue for CM Wanda Adams, has more.

Adjusting to the new Council

This is kind of a fluff story about the new Council – apparently, having two more seats at the table could cause some problems – but I couldn’t pass this up:

“This infusion, effectively of new blood – of a whole bunch of people at one time – is going to change the dynamics,” said Paul Bettencourt, the former county tax assessor who, along with other conservatives, had endorsed newly elected council members Helena Brown, Andrew Burks Jr, and Jack Christie. “Because it won’t just be Jolanda Jones saying ‘no’ anymore by herself.”

Before SCOTUS threw the 2012 election calendar in the air, there had been some talk that Bettencourt might run for the new CD34, which snakes up into northwest Harris County and thus ought to be amenable to someone like him. I wasn’t so sure about that, however. How could he possibly fit a Congressional campaign into his busy schedule of pontificating on city politics and not running for Mayor? There’s only so many hours in the day, people.

As for the “not just Jolanda Jones saying no” comment, I have this mental image of Mike Sullivan off in a corner by himself, pouting and muttering “What am I, chopped liver?” under his breath. Snark aside, it remains to be seen how much “no” saying there will be. Let’s not forget that the November election added a couple of people who are likely to be reasonably close to the Mayor. I don’t think she’s going to need to whip votes as a matter of routine just yet. Let’s figure out where everyone’s going to sit first, and we’ll go from there.

Sullivan files against Sumners

I was writing a long candidate update for the weekend on Friday that’s pretty much junk now, but not every election is affected by the SCOTUS stay ruling. One such election is for Harris County Tax Assessor, where on Friday Houston City Council Member Mike Sullivan officially filed to take on Don Sumners in the GOP primary. This is going to be a fun one to watch, from my perspective at least.

Sumners questioned Sullivan’s integrity for filing for another office within a month of winning reelection to his current seat.

“He’s known since maybe last summer he was going to run for this and went on and ran for city council anyway,” Sumners said. “So now they’re going to have to have a special election and it’ll probably cost a half-million dollars or something — if he wins. Of course I’m going to do my best to make sure he doesn’t. It just doesn’t sit right with me, and a know a lot of other Republican voters that it doesn’t sit right with either.”

Sullivan said that view shows how “uninformed” Sumners is about the process. Having consulted with the city attorney about the matter, Sullivan said if he wins the primary he would announce his intention to resign in late July, allowing an election for his successor to be held in November, when everyone is going to the polls anyway. He would then step down in January 2013.

“We’re not going to run a campaign comparing the two of us. It’s going to be a very positive, issues-based campaign — we think there are issues to talk about,” Sullivan said. “I have a history both in the private sector and at city council of strong customer service. The tax office is in a customer-service business, selling license plates, renewing auto titles, registering voters. Those are things we can do very well and we think we can make a great impact on those particular departments within the tax office.”

Sumners said he, well, does plan to compare himself to his opponent.

“My phrase that I’m going to be using is, ‘Don Sumners is everything his opponent isn’t.’ Education, experience, competency, all those things. It’ll be hard hitting from the get-go,” Sumners said.

Bring on the Battle of the Grumpy Old Men! You can see Sullivan’s announcement here. His interest in the job has been known for some time, and he starts out with a decent amount of cash on hand. Given how this race has begun, I’m looking forward to the candidate forum. Ann Harris Bennett, who ran for County Clerk in 2010, has filed as a Democrat and is so far the only candidate on that side.

Eight day reports, part 1

The eight day finance reports started getting posted on the city’s campaign finance page yesterday. I’m still working through putting them on my 2011 Election page, but here are a few highlights so far:

– Next to Mayor Parker, the big spender in October was CM Stephen Costello, who made full use of his deep campaign coffers by spending $127K for the period. Nearly all of that was on media – he reported two separate expenditures to Rindy Miller, one for $20K and one for $100K. I don’t know if one is for radio and the other for TV or if there’s some combination of each in each, but I do know that he has both TV and radio ads running. Clearly, he’s not taking any chances. He also raised $48K for the month, but has only $14K remaining after the big buy.

Ellen Cohen was another big spender, dropping $91K for October. Her big ticket items were direct mail (one expenditure for $29K and two others for $8175 each) and robocalls ($5450). She also raised another $53K and has $60K still on hand, which will come in mighty handy if she winds up in a runoff.

– Another big raiser was CM Al Hoang, who reported a $53K haul after taking in less than 11K in the previous cycle. Of that $53K, $25K was in kind, with the vast majority of those donations being reported as advertising of some kind – TV, radio, magazine, and newspaper. He’s got his game face on, too.

Mike Sullivan has no opponent and thus no need to spend money now, but as he has his eye on 2012, he has spent a few bucks to get a head start. He bought a $4K ad at the Texas Conservative Review, and dropped another $10K on something called the What’s Up Program, which my mind keeps wanting to call the What’s Happening!! Program. I figure that buys him a sponsorship mention of some kind, much like what happens incessantly during KILT’s broadcasts of Texans games – “Our commercial outros are brought to you by the Mike Sullivan campaign, because it’s time for a different cranky old white guy to be our Tax Assessor”. Anyway, he’s spending for next year, and he has $55K on hand for it.

Wanda Adams does have an opponent and has not made any public comments about what if any office she may have an eye on next, but if there is one in her mind she has $77K on hand for it after raising $23K and spending $27K. She spent a few grand on radio ads, and $8500 on a mail piece.

– Finally, the Houston Politics blog reports that Mayoral candidate Jack O’Connor spent $2500 to hire a plane to fly around with a “Jack O’Connor for Mayor” banner behind it. One wonders what the eyeball rate might be for something like that compared to, say, a Facebook ad. I suspect the literature is a bit lacking on that.

I’ll have more tomorrow as I slog on through these things. Greg has more, and the ever-resourceful Erik Vidor has a summary speadsheet.

More 30 day finance reports for City of Houston races

Following up on yesterday’s report, here are the interesting, odd, and questionable things I’ve seen in the rest of the 30 day campaign finance reports.

  • Mayor Parker raised $469K, spent $526K, and maintained $2.3 million on hand. She appears to be gearing up to start airing ads – I saw two expenditures totaling nearly $49K to Storefront Political Media, plus a few more totaling about $52K to Rindy Miller, all for “advertising”. She also spent $41K on two separate transactions to Lake Research for polling.
  • Fernando Herrera initially had a report that did not list totals. That report has since disappeared from the city of Houston site and has been replaced by this report, which shows he raised $31K and spent $23K. By my count in that first report, he raised $6107 for the period and spent an amount that I didn’t take the time to add up but which definitely exceeded that – he paid $3000 to Phil Owens for consulting, and a shade over $4000 to Print-O-Rama for signs, just for starters. I presume that first report was uploaded prematurely, and that I just happened to check the city’s site during the time it was there.
  • Hatemonger/vanity Mayoral candidate Dave Wilson loaned himself $35,000, contributed another $5,000 to his campaign, and credited himself with a $400 in kind donation for an advertising expense. What he hopes to accomplish with any of that, I have no idea.
  • CM Jolanda Jones raised less than either of her opponents, taking in $21K. However, thanks to her strong July report, she still has $83K on hand.
  • CM Mike Sullivan, who is apparently going to run for Tax Assessor in the 2012 GOP primary, has $71K on hand and no opponent in this race. He’s free to bank up what he can for next March.
  • Also with a healthy balance is CM Wanda Adams, with $80K in the bank. I have no idea what if any future political plans she may have, but for what it’s worth, this would be her last term.
  • Jenifer Pool listed her total contributions ($31,350) and expenditures ($29,246), but did not list her contribution balance.
  • Pat Frazier was a late filer in District K, but did not indicate what office she sought on her report. She also did not list contribution or expenditure totals, though the amount she indicated for her contribution balance ($5,416.66) matched the sum of her contributions by my calculation. She had $15K in loans and by my calculation she spent $10,082.73, so adding her loan to $4,350 (her contribution total minus in kind donations) and subtracting the expenditures, she should have listed $9,267.27 on hand.
  • The following candidates do not have 30 Day finance reports posted on the city’s website as of this publication:

    Amanda Ullman, Mayor

    Ronald Green, City Controller

    Scott Boates, At Large #1

    James Partsch-Galvan, At Large #1

    Gordon Goss, At Large #2

    Robert Ryan, At Large #5

    Bob Schoellkopf, District A

    Phillip Bryant, District B

    Kenneth Perkins, District B

    Bryan Smart, District B

    James Joseph, District B

    Randy Locke, District C

    Larry McKinzie, District D

    Nguyen Thai Hoc, District F

    Alexander Gonik, District K

Greg has more on the city races, and School Zone has HISD finance reports. Before you ask, the answer is no, I am not going to put in another open records request for HCC finance reports. Hell, by the time I got them the 8 day reports would be out. You can also visit Erik Vidor’s spreadsheet for running totals on city races. I will continue to watch for late filings and will report on them when I see them.

Sumners v Sullivan?

Well, this would be entertaining.

County tax assessor-collector Don Sumners thinks Houston City Councilman Mike Sullivan may be preparing to take a run at him in next year’s GOP primary, and Sullivan isn’t denying it.

Sumners took a swipe or two at Sullivan without referring to him by name at a recent Greater Houston Pachyderm Club luncheon at which Sullivan was in the audience. When asked about the luncheon, Sumners said he made the digs because, “I needed to know so I could take action right away.”

When asked what action that might be, Sumners said, “Basically, I’d start beating up on him right away.”

Sullivan said he plans to be in the city secretary’s office the moment filing begins on Aug. 8 for City Council races. Sullivan said he will run for a third two-year term as the District E councilman, after which he would be termed out of office.

“I’m not ruling it out,” Sullivan said when asked if he was considering a run for tax assessor. “I have been approached by a number of people in the community to run for tax assessor- collector, but at this time, I’m focused solely on running for re-election to the City Council.”

Sumners is the Abe Simpson of local politics. Sullivan is less cranky but still perfectly willing to say whatever is on his mind. Put them together in a primary and the entertainment potential is very high. In the end, of course, it will be best if a good Democratic candidate beats whoever wins that primary – I have some thoughts about who I would like to see enter that race, as you know – but we can certainly enjoy this prospect in the meantime.

A closer look at finance reports: PACs

Having taken the time to download all of those campaign finance reports for the city of Houston elections, which you can view on my 2011 Election page, I wanted to see what I could learn from all this data. So I spent a little time going through all the reports to sort contributions and expenditures into a few categories. I’ve got a few posts in the works to discuss what I found, and I’ll start with one of the biggest yet least talked-about factors in city elections: Contributions to candidates from PACs, businesses, and law firms. This Google spreadsheet has all of the data, sorted both by candidate and by contributor, with a third tab for totals. A few things to point out before you dive in:

– All of these reports I’ve put together are the result of me going through each report manually. As such, expect there to be some inconsistencies and things I’ve missed. Nobody’s perfect.

– In particular, not everybody categorizes donors the same way. I think I was able to tell when an acronym matched a spelled-out name, and Open Office Calc helped fill in common names, but there were still questions, and when in doubt I just copied in what they reported. An example is with the Longshoremen, for which there’s an “International Longshoremen Association Local #24 PAC”, an “International Longshoremen Association Local #28 PAC”, and an “International Longshoremen’s Association Committee on Political Education”. All the same, or different groups? I don’t know, so I listed them all.

– Along similar lines, many reports featured multiple donations by a given group to a candidate. Where I noticed this, I added the contributions together rather than listed them separately. I can see from the spreadsheet that I wasn’t always successful at this, so bear it in mind. In general, however, multiple donations will be represented as a single entry in this spreadsheet.

– The one report I did not go through is Mayor Parker’s, for the simple reason that it’s almost 900 pages long, and I enjoy seeing my family on occasion. I may try to get to it later, but don’t quote me on that.

– Any contribution that was not clearly from an individual was listed. If it was a business name, I included it. Most of what’s here is a PAC of some kind, mostly but not entirely business and law firm PACs, but not all are.

– Things That Should Not Surprise You And Probably Won’t: By far, the biggest beneficiaries were incumbents. By my calculation, less than five percent of the total went to those who are not already in office. Obviously, the people who write big checks like to back winners, and there’s no surer bet in Houston politics than incumbents running for re-election. However, as the fields settle and frontrunners for open seats emerge, you’ll see more money flow to non-incumbents – some of them, anyway. This will be even more so for the runoffs.

– Things That Should Not Surprise You But Might: Quite a few of these PACs are, shall we say, not terribly discriminatory in their giving. Let me put it to you this way: The following PACs donated to both Jolanda Jones and Mike Sullivan:

  • Andrews & Kurth Texas PAC, $1000 each
  • Bracewell & Giuliani PAC, $1000 to Jones, $500 to Sullivan
  • Continental Airlines Employee Fund, $1000 each
  • Houston Apartment Association (HAA) Better Government Fund, $250 to Jones, $500 to Sullivan
  • Linebarger Goggan Blair & Sampson, $1000 each
  • Perdue Brandon Fielder Collins & Mott, $500 to Jones, $1000 to Sullivan
  • Texas Taxi PAC, $1000 to Jones, $2000 to Sullivan
  • Union Pacific Corporation Fund for Effective Government PAC, $1000 each

I can think of a theory of government that explains this, but not a theory of ideology. Feel free to speculate.

Anyway. Here’s the spreadsheet. I’ll have more soon. Let me know what you think.

More on the red light camera ruling

I said before that what happens next with the red light camera ruling is a political decision. Here’s how that’s shaping up.

City Attorney Dave Feldman said Friday’s ruling will force the city to choose from canceling the contract with American Traffic Solutions — which might cost the city $16 million — or keeping the contract in force and turning the cameras back on. A third choice would be to hold another referendum and ask voters which of the two options to choose, he said.

“We lost on the issue of the validity of the charter amendment, so what the court is saying (is), ‘OK city, now decide what you’re going to do with the contract,’ ” Feldman said. “We need to decide how we’re going to move forward and what position we’re going to take with the contract in light of the fact he’s declared the charter amendment invalid.”

Mayor Annise Parker said Friday afternoon that although she supports the use of red-light cameras and has the authority to turn them back on, she will not do so before conferring with the City Council and possibly the voters.

“The cameras are going to stay off until council is fully briefed, and we have an opportunity to discuss all of our legal options and choose one of those legal options,” the mayor said.

Complicating matters for Parker is that the city is still in a contract dispute with ATS over damages the company suffered when the city turned off the cameras.

The mayor said she and the City Council received sound legal advice last year from the city attorney, who advised that they were mandated to put the question on the November ballot.

Which is the exact opposite of what the judge said, as observed by JJ in the comments. Be that as it may, it will be very interesting to see how Council members react to this. As we know from the precinct data, the strongest opposition to red light cameras by far came from African-American neighborhoods. Republican and Anglo Democratic neighborhoods were the strongest proponents, with Latino and multicultural neighborhoods being modestly opposed. I think it’s reasonable though not certain to assume that the four African-American Council members would oppose turning the cameras back on, though the prospect of paying $16 million to ATS might mitigate against that. CM Sullivan is a known opponent of the cameras. On the flipside, CMs Lovell and Clutterbuck are known to favor the cameras, and I’d expect Pennington and Stardig to go along with their voters. That’s five probably against, four probably in favor, and four that are up for grabs. Should make for a lively debate, that’s for sure.

Putting the question of reinstating the cameras or paying off ATS up for another vote strikes me as the least messy way forward at this point. The questions then become how big a factor is the potential hit to the budget in affecting voter behavior, and how does the change in participation levels from an even-numbered year to an odd-numbered year move the numbers? The two groups with the loudest opinions are also the ones that tend to vote the most in city election years, but there’s still dropoff for each. As for the first question, the irony is that the city might argue that the voters didn’t really know what they were voting for when they supported removing the cameras, which would no doubt make Paul Bettencourt’s head explode. Nobody ever said consistency was a virtue in politics. This is going to be fun to watch, I’ll say that much.

CM Hoang accused of forging names on petition signatures

This is just bizarre.

In the heart of Asia Town in southwest Houston, some homeowners in the Turtlewood Square subdivision say they’ve been robbed. They were not robbed of their belongings, but rather their good names.

“Definitely homeowners [are] scared, shocked, angry,” said Jenny Lu.

Sue Tsai, another neighbor, agreed.

“This is really underhanded,” she said.

“When I looked at my name, somebody forged it,” said Jody Pay.

The forgery feud involves an effort to change their street name from Turtlewood Drive, to Little Saigon Drive. One of the homeowners pushing for the name change is City of Houston Council Member Al Hoang.

The I-Team learned Hoang and five other homeowners are being sued by neighbors for allegedly forging signatures on a petition to change the street name. One way to officially file the petition according to city policy is for 75 percent of adjoining homeowners to sign their approval. The lawsuit claims such a petition, without enough signatures, was given to Council member Hoang. But when the politician later turned it into the City Planning and Development Department, it now had an extra 16 names on it, giving the document that needed 75 percent.

But plaintiffs claim those signatures were bogus.

“It kind of looks like my name, but it’s not, and I was very angered,” said Pay.

Go read the whole thing – the exchange between CM Hoang and the I-Team is a classic – and see what you think. The Chron story adds some extra details.

According to the plaintiffs, 13 petition signatures were forged. One neighbor, whose name initially was reported as forged, since has recanted her allegation, defense attorney Vy Nguyen said.

Nguyen said Hoang approached her clients about changing the street name in a bid to win votes for the upcoming city council election. She said they circulated the document around the street before one of her clients, Tam Pham, gave it to Hoang’s nanny to give to the councilman. She said the group did not authorize Hoang to submit it to the City’s Planning and Development Department.

“They stopped (getting signatures) at 24 when they got the first disapproval. They figured that they had gotten most of their people and that was all they could gather,” Nguyen said. “After that, they gave it to the nanny who would’ve gathered more signatures … I heard that it would be left at people’s homes. A lot of things could’ve happened to that petition.”

The defendants stand by Hoang’s nanny story, Nguyen said.

“My clients have not come to the conclusion that Al Hoang did it or that there was any foul play,” she said. “They want to give him the benefit of the doubt.”

Plaintiffs attorney David Tang disputed the nanny theory.

“There are forged signatures there, and this petition passed through these five individuals’ hands with the most grievous one going to the city councilman’s office,” he said. “What’s really grievous about it is that the councilman had custody and control of that document before it went to the city planning department. … He has just interjected the nanny in there as a distraction. It’s a very convenient excuse. It’s worse than saying the dog ate my homework.”

I presume Ms. Nguyen is the attorney for some or all of CM Hoang’s codefendants in this suit. I’ll leave it to you to decide how likely it is that some cannot remember the name of their children’s nanny, and how likely it is that said unnamed nanny could come to have unsupervised possession of these petitions. A followup story from KHOU has a response from the city:

Mayor Parker pledged a thorough review of all petitions before any vote is taken to change Turtlewood to Little Saigon Drive.

“If there are any irregularities during that, we’ll investigate those, but we’ll have to get this sorted out,” Parker said.

The mayor also said, if she gets a formal complaint or formal request for investigation, she’ll have the City’s Office of Inspector General do just that.

The chair of the City Council’s Ethics and Council Governance Committee, Mike Sullivan, said he will not be launching an investigation at this point, and instead will take a wait-and-see approach.

Then I guess we’ll have to wait and see, too.

UPDATE: A correction from the Chron.

A story about a lawsuit accusing City Councilman Al Hoang of forging signatures on a petition that appeared on page B1 of the June 16 Houston Chronicle incorrectly attributed a statement to Hoang. It was the plaintiff’s lawsuit that claimed Hoang had said he did not know the name of his former nanny.

So noted.

Jones and Sullivan name their delegates

As we know, CM Jolanda Jones gets to pick a fellow Council member to represent her in the meeting on Monday to determine if any formal action will be taken against her. Yesterday, she picked CM Brad Bradford to be her advocate in the process. Originally, the city said that the other two people on the panel would be Mayor Parker and CM Mike Sullivan as the person who filed the complaint, but later revised that to say that Sullivan needed to designate someone else, too. Though Sullivan was given an extended deadline till today to make a choice (a step-out to the process that generated some grumbling from Team Jones), he made his choice yesterday as well, naming CM Sue Lovell to represent him. The subtext to that is so deep you’ll need scuba equipment to begin to comprehend it. Anyway, Monday is the big day. I for one am looking forward to whatever emerges from this.

CM Jones speaks about the OIG report

She didn’t say much, however.

Councilwoman Jolanda Jones said Monday she believes she “will have acted within the acceptable standards of conduct” once all the facts are out concerning an Office of Inspector General investigation that found she used city resources to benefit her private law practice and then lied to investigators about it.

She did not clarify the phrasing or answer any questions after reading a statement for less than a minute in the lobby of the City Hall Annex. Immediately following the statement, she retreated to her office.

[…]

Her aides would not answer questions about whether Jones has an attorney. They also would not say whether she has selected a designee to participate in the three-member panel that must meet by next Monday. That panel will include the mayor and District E Councilman Mike Sullivan, who filed the complaint against Jones that triggered the process that could lead to her impeachment.

You can see a copy of her statement here. At this point, I don’t know what else there is to say. I remain interested in learning who CM Jones will ask to represent her and in seeing how she formally responds to the allegations. I should note, I’ve been curious since I first read about this if the Council member that Jones taps as her advocate is required to stand in for her, or if that person has the option to decline. After making an inquiry, I was informed by the Mayor’s office that the latter is the case. Good to know.

On a tangential note, the number of potential and declared candidates against Jones is now up to four. I won’t be surprised if there are more before all is said and done.

Sullivan files complaint against Jones

And the process gets started.

A day after declaring he would not do so, Houston City Councilman Mike Sullivan filed a complaint against Councilwoman Jolanda Jones, seeking possible discipline following the release of an Office of Inspector General report that concluded Jones had used city employees and resources to benefit her private law practice and then lied to investigators about it.

Sullivan’s complaint, filed late Friday, starts in motion a process that ultimately could result in Jones’ removal from the council. Sullivan led the work on a new ethics policy this year that enables the Council to impose a range of punishments from reprimand to impeachment for unbecoming conduct.

“As chair of the Ethics and Council Governance Committee and someone who championed creating this council member code of conduct, it just makes sense that I’m the one that files the complaint so that the process can begin,” Sullivan said.

[…]

That process likely will begin on Monday with a copy of the complaint being delivered to Jones, said City Attorney David Feldman, who oversees the Office of Inspector General. Once she receives the report, Jones will have two or three days to designate a fellow council member to represent her on a three-person review committee convened by the mayor to consider the complaint.

Mayor Annise Parker, Sullivan as the complainant, and Jones’ designee likely will meet the week after next, Feldman said. They will have four options: Forward the complaint to the full council for possible disciplinary action; resolve it through an agreement with Jones; request further investigation; or do nothing and let the matter die in the committee without full council consideration.

See here for some background. I will be very interested to see whom CM Jones selects as her advocate. This case ought to provide an interesting test for this new system.

UPDATE: CM Jones has sent out the following statement:

“After having been out of the city for an annual conference, I have had an opportunity to review the OIG report. I will fully cooperate and am committed to working within the city’s new process. I am confident that when the facts come to light I will have acted within the acceptable standards of conduct.”

Stay tuned.

Inspector General cites CM Jones

Ouch.

Houston City Councilwoman Jolanda Jones used city employees to help run her personal law practice and instructed her staff not to meet with investigators looking into her alleged misconduct, the city’s inspector general has determined.

For three of the six findings, Jones could face misdemeanor criminal charges.

In a June 2 memorandum to Mayor Annise Parker, Inspector General Robert A. Doguim reported that Jones — who is seeking a third term for her at-large seat – violated a city ethics ordinance and the mayor’s executive order on internal investigations three times each. The activities involve the improper use of city resources and personnel as well as Jones’ lack of cooperation and truthfulness with the Office of Inspector General, the probe revealed.

[…]

The investigation stemmed from a complaint about Jones, a criminal defense lawyer, distributing “Know Your Rights With The Police” cards that advise residents never to speak with law enforcement. The handouts included phone numbers to her council office and law office. She has explained that she has distributed a version of the card since before her election in 2007.

But in interviews with Jones’ staff, the inspector general’s investigators found violations beyond the handout and determined that the councilwoman has used employees on city time to notarize documents for her law practice, fax legal papers and drive her to court hearings.

You can see a copy of the report here. While Mayor Parker thinks that the charges don’t rise to a “criminal level”, she does think that Council should consider taking action against her.

“I think it’s going to fall somewhere in the range of — depending on how the council member responds – some form of censure,” Parker said.

When asked if censure in the case of Jones was sufficient to deter other public officials from committing misdeeds, Parker said:

Just the fact that we’re having this public discussion is enough to impact any public official. It always causes us to pause and think about what we’re doing and examine our own behavior.

Whether or not Jones faces censure is up to her fellow Council members.

Several steps must be taken before the council can discipline a member.

First, a member must file a letter of complaint outlining alleged misconduct by another member. The mayor then would convene a three-person committee consisting of herself, the complaining member and a member appointed by the target of the complaint. That committee must vote to forward the complaint to the full city council.

So far, no one on the council has publicly indicated an intention to file a complaint that would start the process.

Councilman Mike Sullivan, chairman of the council’s Ethics and Governance Committee, said, “As disappointed as I am in how this has gone — and I think it’s a poor reflection on council – I am much more focused on issues at hand, such as the drainage fee problem that we’re dealing with, and will leave it up to another council member if they choose to move forward with a request.”

When asked if she thought Jones deserved to be disciplined, Councilwoman Wanda Adams said, “I don’t know because I’m not in that situation, so I’m really not commenting on the case right now.”

Councilman C.O. Bradford, a former Houston police chief, said he intends to review the Jones probe before commenting on possible action.

“I want to know the facts supporting the conclusions that were drawn in the summary,” Bradford said.

Jack Christie, who narrowly lost to Jones two years ago in an election in which he had the endorsement of four sitting council members, called on Jones to resign Thursday, and said he will run against her again if she does not.

Christie’s campaign manager told me he was indeed running and that a formal announcement was coming soon. You can read his press release here. I think it’s premature to talk about resignation – she is entitled to defend herself – but if Council censures her, she ought to give it serious consideration. Even if she survives that, she needs to think long and hard about whether she should run for that third term or not.

For her part, CM Jones released this statement, which you can see on her Facebook page:

“I have just received this report and will comment further once I have reviewed it. I hold myself and my staff to the highest ethical standards. I look forward to clearing up any misunderstandings with respect to this report as expeditiously as the process permits.”

None of this is good. I like CM Jones, but I don’t see how she can be an effective advocate for any of the things she’s passionate about now. I really hate to see it come to this, because I think CM Jones has a lot of talent and pays attention to things that too often get overlooked. If these charges are proven to be true, she will have no one to blame but herself. It’s just a shame.

The Empty Lot Primary

This is an awesome idea.

A political consultant is launching a Web site aimed shaming political candidates into limiting the posting of signs to addresses where the residents actually endorse their candidacies.

Greg Wythe’s emptylotprimary.tumblr.com invites people to submit photos of campaign signs at empty lots, empty buildings or other locations where there is no owner or resident expressing support for the candidate.

This is not a campaign against yard signs. Wythe is just after the clutter brought about by signs in places where there’s no one with a vote.

I contributed a couple of the pics that you’ll see on the Empty Lot Primary site, and I plan to contribute more – Lord knows, there will be more of them to document, despite this little effort to call out these visual polluters. This isn’t hard, y’all. Put your signs on the lawns and walls of people who want them there. If you can’t find anyone who wants one of your signs on their private property, that’s a sign, too. The fact that this has already hit a nerve is good to see.

In a bit of coincidentally fortuitous timing, this issue came up in Council last week:

Kudos to CM Sullivan for bringing it up, and to Mayor Parker for taking it a step further. There’s also a Twitter feed available for those of you who are into that sort of thing. Check it out, and contribute a photo when you can – Greg has more options as well.

Drainage fee passes with exemptions

Council has passed the drainage fee ordinance required by Renew Rebuild Houston, with exemptions for existing church and school properties.

The fee will apply to all future “impervious cover” at church and school buildings, such as roofs and parking lots.

Council members C.O. Bradford, Mike Sullivan and Jarvis Johnson voted against the measure.

“As we launch these projects and complete them, not only will we be able to keep water out of people’s homes and business and improve transiting our streets, but we’ll be able to keep ahead of future growth in Houston,” Mayor Annise Parker said after the vote.

[…]

Though [Mayor Annise] Parker campaigned last fall for a fee without exemptions, she came forward with the limited-exemption proposal in recent weeks in the face of a divided council and community opposition to charging churches and schools at a time when the Legislature is contemplating severe cuts to education spending.

After the vote, Parker said she would have preferred to see the ordinance passed without exemptions, but said she and others were “touched by the plight of schools,” and heard the call for churches to be exempt at numerous town hall meetings.

It was, Parker said, “a compromise that gave exemptions, but also put them all on notice that we expect them to do better in the future as they build. We are going to build to the future in a greener fashion and we’re going to do whatever we can to prevent flooding in Houston. They’re all a part of that effort.”

It’s not what I would have preferred as you know, but I can live with it. I like the way the Mayor framed the point about future construction being subject to the fee. I still marvel at the arrogance of some of the churches, acting as if what they do makes no contribution to the problem. I suppose they’ll just redouble their efforts to get Dan Patrick’s blackmail bill passed. I just hope the city is right that this bill will fail Constitutional muster and that the litigation won’t be too expensive. How much better it would be if they’d put this behind them and move on, but that doesn’t appear to be in the cards.

Council redistricting will be messier than it needs to be

Houston City Council is set to start their discussion about redistricting, but some people want them to stop.

Councilman Mike Sullivan views expansion as a function of mayor-council politics, and he opposes it.

Houston’s residents, Sullivan said in an impromptu news conference after last week’s council meeting, “don’t want to see us trying to disenfranchise council members. The mayor has a leg up on us, if you will, in the strong mayor form of government. A super-majority with new council members would be 12, and that throws entirely too much power to the mayor’s seat.”

Mayor Annise Parker followed with a news conference of her own. “It’s going to be messy. It’s going to be contentious. We don’t have a choice (but to expand),” she said.

To Sullivan’s thinking, expansion dilutes the power of existing council members who shed turf, constituents and the weight of their individual votes as the council adds members.

Any increase in the super-majority, which is needed for such parliamentary maneuvers as extending speakers’ time, Sullivan explained, gives the mayor a tighter grip on the reins of a meeting.

I do not understand this position. Campos is right – we had a deal. The city agreed to expand Council to 11 districts when the population hit 2.1 million, and it was moving towards that when the official Census number came in an inch shy of that figure. The city was acting in good faith based on pre-Census estimates which had Houston’s population over the line as far back as 2006. I don’t see what the justification is for stopping now.

I suppose I have a pinch of sympathy for the “letter of the law” argument that if the Census says we’re short, the agreement is not in force. The problem with that is when do you then agree that the 2.1 million milestone has been officially reached? If you want to go by the next Census estimate, I’ll remind you that we already had Census estimates that indicated we should get a move on. If you say we should wait till the 2020 Census, I’ll cordially invite you to file a lawsuit and convince a judge of that position. If you have something else in mind, I’d like to hear it, as neither CM Sullivan nor any other advocate for applying the brakes articulated an endgame position in the story.

Finally, the argument that adding Council members somehow dilutes Council’s power is irrelevant. As Greg notes, there is nothing to stop anyone from pursuing a charter amendment that would alter our current strong Mayor system in whatever fashion suits you. Personally, I think Council members should have the ability to put items on the agenda if they can get a majority of members to sign on to it. Regardless, one has nothing to do with the other.

County GOP Chairman Jared Woodfill said he suspects partisan motives in the expansion.

“Our concern is that the mayor is looking to add two new seats when the numbers don’t justify it in an effort to give Democrats or Democrat-leaning council members more control and more power,” Woodfill said.

One could argue that Republicans are currently over-represented on Council, so if redistricting leads to more Democrats that would simply balance things out. But so what? Nobody has an R or a D next to his or her name when they run for Council. Woodfill is just whining, and he too is ignoring the settlement agreement. And there’s more where that came from.

At least half a dozen Council members are saying that without the Census to prove the threshold has been crossed, it’s not time to expand.

“We don’t have the money to add two new seats,” Council Member Wanda Adams said.

“I’m not going to change the rules to accommodate anyone’s agenda,” Council Member Brenda Stardig said.

Council Member Jarvis Johnson questioned whether city should even try to prove a 2.1 million population. “Let’s fight to go down,” not up in number, he said.

To CM Adams, I say will it be any less expensive to defend against the lawsuit that will surely be filed to force the city to live up to the settlement agreement in the event that Council tries to weasel out of this? The city was sued before, and I guarantee it will be sued again. This time, I would expect it to lose. Which do you expect will cost more?

To CM Stardig, I say what agenda? The city’s position, which it still has every reason to believe, is that its population is at least 2.1 million, which subjects it to the 1979 settlement agreement. What agenda do you think is in play here?

To CM Johnson, I say what the hell are you talking about? Seriously, I have no idea what you mean.

Here’s the full Chron writeup. The last paragraphs sum it up:

Meanwhile, though the charter calls for using “the best available data, including, but not limited to, the most recent federal census,” council members have seized on the census number to make their case that the population has not crossed the threshold for council expansion.

Should council find next week that the city’s population has not reached 2.1 million, it will put the city’s governing body on record that it has accepted the 2010 census count while city staffers ask the Census Bureau to correct it. City Attorney David Feldman said he believes the Census Bureau would decide whether to change the count based on technical data and will not consider council votes.

I’m trying, but I just don’t see the justification for backing out now. The item was tagged till next week, so we’ll see how it goes. More from Greg is here.

Council’s code of conduct

I’m not sure what to make of this.

City Council is considering imposing a code of conduct on itself that would give it the power to reprimand or censure members.

It already has the ultimate enforcement tool – impeachment – to punish misconduct.

However, there are no intermediate sanctions in between outright removal of a council member and looking the other way.

So, Councilman Mike Sullivan has been working with the city attorney and others to craft a code to rein in unbecoming conduct.

“Not every infraction would rise to the level of impeachment, but that does not mean you would not want to put a council member on notice that their behavior is not going to be tolerated,” Sullivan said. “Right now, we have no ability to police ourselves.”

[…]

Council conduct already is governed by an ordinance that prohibits using office for personal gain, disclosing confidential information, seeking future employment with organizations with business before the council, and more.

The draft’s disciplinary provisions would give council four progressively more severe sanctions to impose on violators: verbal reprimand, written reprimand, censure and impeachment.

In theory, I have no particular objections to this idea, but I would like to know what exactly we’re talking about before I sign on. What kind of conduct do we think has been going unpunished that we need to deal with? Let’s see what the specifics are, and then we can decide if it’s worth doing.

The Dynamo Stadium rebate plan

Well, this is interesting.

The city is poised to strike a 30-year deal giving back $3 million in projected sales tax to the Houston Dynamo as they prepare to construct their $60 million stadium.

City officials say the tax rebate always has been a part of the deal that kept the team from leaving Houston, one that will make the city and county owners of a new sports stadium for which they did not have to pay.

The rebate will amount to $3 million over 30 years, said Houston Chief Development Officer Andy Icken, a primary negotiator for the city on the deal.

“This was viewed as a trade-off to get this much public infusion for a stadium that, in the end, is getting donated to us,” Icken said. “We were never going to go into this unless there was a substantial private investment in the project.”

Icken said the deal mirrors sales tax rebates the city gave the Houston Texans when it negotiated over the future Reliant Stadium.

[…]

Icken denied that the rebate is a new element of the deal, pointing to a December memo he sent City Council members in which he said council would be asked to vote “to reimburse the team for a portion of sales and liquor taxes collected by the operations of the stadium.”

Councilman Mike Sullivan, who voted for the main elements of the deal struck last year between the city and Harris County, said he did not recall any discussion of such a rebate. “I think this evolved as negotiations have taken place with the city and the county, and we’re really just now seeing the changes,” he said.

First I’ve heard of it, too. It’s not really clear to me what this is about. It’s still the case that the Dynamo are spending the vast majority of the money to build the stadium, and it’s still the case that the deal is a good one overall, but the timing on this is lousy. The only thing I can say in its favor is that at least it came out before tomorrow’s Council vote.

Dynamo Stadium groundbreaking delayed

Groundbreaking for Dynamo Stadium was originally scheduled for this Saturday the 29th, but due to a delay with City Council it has been put off till next week.

Because the city council has not yet voted on the Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone (TIRZ) that is part of the inter-local agreement between the county and city, the Dynamo’s owners weren’t comfortable proceeding with the ceremony even though councilman Mike Sullivan and other city officials were confident that everything will be approved.

“This date was a moving target from the day we penciled it into the calendar,” Dynamo president Chris Canetti said. “We anticipated the possibility that it would change. We were pushing the envelope a little bit with this timeline, but we are not far off.

“We’ll set another date in the next few days. This does not have any impact on our construction timeline and planned opening of April 2012.”

Commissioner’s Court unanimously approved the TIRZ during Tuesday’s meeting, but the Dynamo were hesitant to proceed because the TIRZ issue wasn’t added to the City Council’s agenda for Wednesday’s meeting. The issue had to be placed on the agenda by last Saturday for this week’s meeting, but it will be placed on next week’s agenda.

Look for it to happen next Saturday, the 5th. Assuming the item makes it onto Council’s agenda and doesn’t get tagged, of course.

Revising the city ethics code

I don’t know enough about the specifics of this to draw any firm conclusions, but it sounds reasonable enough from the description.

The city is poised to significantly tighten its ethics rules, closing loopholes that allow lobbyists to avoid registration and criminalizing some violations of a stricter code of conduct for city officials.

“It’s a very, very thorough review,” said City Councilman Mike Sullivan, whom Mayor Annise Parker credited for spearheading the changes.

Sullivan said he has felt the need to strengthen the city’s ethics rules ever since he has been on City Council.

On numerous occasions, lawyers representing companies or individuals have come to him to discuss city policy, he said. Rarely were they registered as lobbyists for the entities they represented, often saying they were at City Hall on behalf of a legal client, Sullivan said.

“That’s disingenuous to me, and that really disturbed me,” he said. “I’m about openness and transparency, and that really didn’t sit well with me, or the public.”

Under a proposal City Council is expected to vote on next week, that loophole, along with a host of others, would be closed. Now, unless a lawyer is performing services that cannot be done by anyone else, such as representing a client in a legal proceeding, the individual must register as a lobbyist.

Nice to see at least a temporary thaw in the Parker/Sullivan relationship. The real question with these things is the consequences for violating them. How likely are you to get caught, and what happens when you do? City Attorney David Feldman says violators will be prosecuted for misdemeanors under this ordinance. If so, then it ought to have a positive effect. We’ll see.

The mandatory furlough plan

Happy New Year, city employees.

Thousands of city of Houston employees will have to take six unpaid days off in the coming six months, one of a series of actions Mayor Annise Parker is taking to close a $29 million budget gap.

“This is a step that I didn’t want to take,” Parker said on Thursday. Furloughs send “the wrong message to hard-working city employees who get up and pick up our trash, fix our roads, keep our libraries open, mow our parks.”

The furloughs will save the city $5 million and will apply only to civilian employees, with a few exceptions in such areas as trash pickup and other positions that generate revenue, Parker said. Employees who make less than $24,000 a year also will be exempt, she said.

I guess it’s still better than layoffs, but that’s likely small comfort for the people that will be taking what amounts to about a 2.3% pay cut. The main issue I have with this is where do you go from here? It’s a one-time fix, and the problems exist beyond this year. Obviously, you can hope that the economy improves and that property values begin to rebound – there’s at least some reason to be optimistic, or at least not pessimistic, about that nationally – but what’s the plan beyond that?

I’m sure you know where I’m going with this, so let’s get to it.

City Controller Ronald Green painted a more dire picture of the city’s budget situation through fiscal 2011.

The Parker administration has estimated the city will garner $36 million by selling city-owned property, but Green projects that figure will only reach $20 million at best. The added gap could make more layoffs necessary, he said.

“Most of our budget is in salaries, so where you make the cuts is with personnel,” he said. “Furlough days obviously will help with the bottom line, but it’s still not the ultimate solution.”

[…]

City Councilman Mike Sullivan, who has emerged in recent weeks as a sharp critic of the mayor, said the furloughs won’t go nearly far enough. Freezing spending at its 2009 level and deferring contractual 3 percent pay increases for city employees would save far more, he said.

“These are just one-time savings,” he said. “We’ve got to trim millions and tens of millions of dollars from the budget.”

I’m going to ask again, when will rolling back the property tax rate cuts that were adopted in recent years going to be on the table? It’s easy to beat your chest about making cuts when it’s primarily other people – city employees – who will feel the brunt of it. What’s your own skin in the game?

At a more fundamental level, to focus exclusively on cuts is dishonest and I believe ultimately destructive. Saying “we can’t raise taxes when times are bad” is little more than a shibboleth. If that’s really the case, then we shouldn’t have cut them when times were better, because the revenue we willingly forsook in years past would be mighty handy right about now. The same is true for Harris County, the state of Texas, and the federal government, which is filled with people (mostly but not exclusively Republicans) that scream about the deficit at every opportunity while also never missing a chance to increase it for the benefit of the wealthy. For some people, times haven’t been bad at all. When are these folks going to be called on to sacrifice for the greater good?

Council shakeup

Things are getting mighty interesting down at City Hall.

Mayor Annise Parker has parted ways with two major conservatives on the Houston City Council, removing Councilman Mike Sullivan from his role overseeing redistricting and accepting the resignation of Councilwoman Anne Clutterbuck as mayor pro tem.

The development, which stems, in part, from a recent spat over who would be appointed to serve as a Port of Houston Authority commission member, comes at a critical time for Parker, who is about to confront three issues that are expected to greatly test her ability to rally the council’s support.

Passing an extremely tight 2012 budget, a drainage fee mandated by popular vote and redrawing the lines of City Council boundaries could become far more difficult as her allies dwindle at City Hall.

The issue also apparently is tied to concern among Parker’s senior staff that Clutterbuck is gearing up to oppose her in 2011, the councilwoman said. She denied any interest in challenging the mayor.

[…]

Clutterbuck denied interest in Parker’s job.

“I find it unfortunate that questions like that are asked in her own office because they are a distraction from the real work that needs to get done,” she said.

Not the strongest denial I’ve ever heard, but never mind. A few people have told me in recent days that they’ve heard CM Clutterbuck is planning a challenge to Mayor Parker. What I know is that there are always more potential candidates for Mayor than there are actual candidates, and until someone designates a treasurer or takes some other formal step it’s all just rumor. Doesn’t mean there’s nothing to it, but it doesn’t mean much more until there’s something other than just talk to point to.

I should also note, by the way, that Clutterbuck isn’t the only current member of Council who is rumored to be running for Mayor next year. I know many people who believe that CM Bradford also has his eyes on the office. Again, it’s all just talk now, but in this case that talk has been around for awhile.

The port commission vote, in which the mayor’s preferred candidate was rejected by a majority of council, was “indicative of her inability to strongarm this council into doing what she wants done,” Sullivan said.

“It’s a precursor of more to come. We have very strong council members who have worked with another administration that was much more diplomatic and much more concerned about council issues than this mayor is. I think that is showing in the vote.”

Sullivan said the mayor told him Friday about her plans to run the redistricting process and was removing the issue from his committee out of retaliation for his vote to reappoint Janiece Longoria as port commissioner.

The councilman had given her repeated assurances he would vote for Parker candidate Dean Corgey last month but changed his mind after hearing from several influential Houston conservatives, he said.

Sullivan has been pretty openly critical of the Mayor recently, so the Longoria thing may just be the tipping point. His implicit comparison to Mayor Bill White is at least somewhat unfair, since Mayor White had the good fortune to take over during much better economic times; it’s a lot easier for everyone to get along when you’re not having to talk about furloughs and tax increases and so forth. One hopes Mayor Parker will get to experience some of that in her subsequent terms. Greg has more.

On a side note, I have an observation to make about the Port of Houston Commission, since that was apparently the catalyst for the falling out between Parker and Sullivan. The Port of Houston has seven appointed Commissioners:

The city of Houston and the Harris County Commissioners Court each appoint two commissioners. These two governmental entities jointly appoint the chairman of the Port Commission. The Harris County Mayors & Councils Association and the city of Pasadena each appoint one commissioner.

Ms. Longoria, who was re-appointed by Council against the Mayor’s preferences, is the sole Hispanic on the Commission. The other City of Houston appointee, Kase Lawal, is the sole African-American, and is the other City of Houston appointee. The other four, plus the Chair – four white guys and Elyse Lanier – were appointed by Commissioners Court, the Harris County Mayors & Councils Association, and the city of Pasadena. In other words, the City of Houston is 100% responsible for the diversity on this governing body. Call me crazy, but I don’t see why this should be the case. Perhaps the next time that Commissioners Court, the Harris County Mayors & Councils Association, or the city of Pasadena has to appoint or reappoint someone they might be persuaded to pick someone other than another white guy. Perhaps some of the people who expressed such a strong preference for Ms. Longoria could express that wish to Commissioners Court, the Harris County Mayors & Councils Association, and the city of Pasadena as well. Just a thought.

HPD braces for cuts

More than $15 million is going to be cut from HPD’s budget, in part to lost red light camera revenue and in part to the overall budget picture.

The equivalent of more than 100 civilian jobs, including temporary workers, will be eliminated over two years through layoffs and attrition. Chief Charles McClelland has moved to cut overtime, delay two cadet classes, institute a hiring freeze for civilians and deploy officers to administrative duties previously completed by civilians.

Several signature programs of former Mayor Bill White, including SafeClear, a towing program used to clear roadways, and mobility response teams, which were deployed to ease traffic congestion, may be canceled or significantly revised, police and city officials said.

[…]

Mayor Annise Parker insisted the cuts would not damage crime-fighting efforts.

“None of the cuts are going to impact public safety,” she said. “We are consolidating in every city department. … We are not laying off police officers, we are not laying off firefighters.”

City Councilman Mike Sullivan, who said he opposed more than $2 million in cuts to police overtime funding, disputed that claim.

“When you make cuts in the police budget, in staffing, overtime, investigative resources, it’s going to impact the crime rate,” he said. “It will go up. It’s just statistically a proven fact that when we reduce our resources to the police department, crime goes up.”

I don’t accept claims like that without actually seeing the statistics that are being cited to prove it. There’s no clear correlation between the number of police officers in a city and that city’s murder rate, for instance. Surely the Councilman knows someone who has access to, say, the last ten years’ worth of Houston crime data and HPD budget and personnel data. Throw it into an Excel spreadsheet, produce some charts, and then we can talk. It may well be that he’s correct, or it may be that in times of tight budgets HPD shifts its resources away from things that don’t actually have much effect on the crime rate. Who knows? What I’m saying is that this is all objective and testable, so let’s see some numbers.

And if it turns out that CM Sullivan is absolutely correct and that further cuts to HPD’s budget puts us at risk of a spike in the crime rate, we do always have the option of raising revenue so that we don’t have to force HPD to slash its budget. If maintaining some minimum level of staffing at HPD is such a priority, then shouldn’t we find a way to pay for it? And if we’re not willing to find a way to pay for it, then is it really a priority? I know, I know, everybody’s talking about cuts, and maybe there’s some other expenses that could be cut to make room in the budget for more HPD funding. I’m asking again, what is the minimum level of services we’re willing to accept, and how do we intend to pay for it? For that matter, what level of services do we actually want to have, and how do we intend to pay for that? We need to have that conversation before we can sensibly tackle these problems.

The residency referendum

As we know, Houston will get two more City Council districts after the 2010 Census is completed. To allow potential candidates sufficient time to adjust to the new map, Council will put a charter amendment on the ballot that reduces the residency requirement from one year to six months; that is, you would have to live in a given district for six months before an election to be eligible to run for that Council district.

Because the new boundaries are not likely to be known until April 2011, changing the residency requirement to six months potentially will allow more candidates to qualify for the November election.

The charter change would be in effect only for the 2011 general election.

“I was the one to suggest it,” Mayor Annise Parker said in a written statement. “This change helps make it as flexible as possible in terms of allowing people access to the ballot.”

I’m okay with this. I’m sure there will be a flurry of activity by potential candidates next year as a result, but given the unique circumstances, it’s acceptable. Maybe we should consider changing it back after 2011, though I doubt that will happen. (Note: The referendum is only for the 2011 election. See the update at the end of this post.)

The redistricting process could create a situation in which a sitting council incumbent is drawn out of his district, said Councilman Mike Sullivan, who chairs the Ethics and Council Governance Committee, which is handling redistricting.

The April-to-November timeline would make it impossible for a council member to relocate to his or her old district before the November election, Sullivan said.

Of course, in a partisan redistricting context, that happens all the time. Scott Hochberg used to represent HD132, before being drawn out of that district in 2001. I wouldn’t have expected any Council members to be targeted in this fashion, but the reality is that it could be necessary to make a map work, and giving that member the chance to relocate is only fair. Note that for offices that hold their elections in even-numbered years, you have plenty of time to make your move for a 12-month residency requirement. When you redistrict the same year as the election, your time frame is considerably shorter.

Anyway. I don’t think this is a big deal, but you never know until someone starts speaking up in opposition. See Prof. Murray’s preview of how redistricting may play out next year for more.

UPDATE: I have not seen a published report about this, but after making an inquiry with CM Noriega’s office, I am told that the residency item was passed by Council.

UPDATE: Please see the comment from CM Mike Sullivan, who informs us that the change to a six month residency requirement is for the 2011 election only. My thanks to CM Sullivan for the correction, which has been noted above.

HPD sends “Pay your red light camera ticket or else” letter

With predictable results.

Houston police have notified 79,000 motorists that they cannot renew their vehicle registrations until they pay red light camera fines and penalties, even though Harris County officials repeatedly have said they will not prevent people from registering their vehicles because of the outstanding citations.

Police Chief Charles McClelland denied critics’ charges the Houston Police Department’s collection campaign relies on scare tactics, but he acknowledged HPD has no legal agreement to block registration of Harris County residents who owe red-light camera fines. He said that some of the red light violations were committed by residents in adjacent counties that are enforcing the registration holds.

[…]

At a news conference at HPD headquarters Thursday a sample warning letter distributed to reporters featured a warning across the top in large lettering.

“The Texas Department of Motor Vehicles has placed a Hold on the registration renewal of this vehicle,“ the notice states. “Registration of this vehicle cannot be renewed until this past due fine is paid.’

That warning is true in counties where the Commissioners Court has agreed to block registrations or for those who attempt to renew their registration online through the state, but McClelland said it was not incumbent on HPD to inform motorists they still could register their vehicles in Harris County. He noted that tickets have been issued to vehicle owners in Fort Bend, Brazoria, and Montgomery counties.

Apparently, there’s some fine print on the back that says your local county tax assessor “may” refuse to register the vehicle. So it’s misleading and likely to fool people who don’t know that Harris County isn’t cooperating with Houston on this, but not a flat out lie. Not their finest moment, but at least there’s that. As you might imagine, camera opponents don’t much care for this.

City Councilman Mike Sullivan, an outspoken opponent of the cameras, said he found it “troubling” HPD sent out letters “stating a fact that is untrue.” He also questioned the document for having the appearance of being from HPD when it originated in Scotsdale, the home of ATS, the city contractor that installed the cameras at 70 intersections and administers the program.

“There is such a strong effort to collect a fine, that seems to be the primary message and focus of this notice,” Sullivan said. “It’s saying, ‘We’re going to tell you whatever we have to tell you to intimidate you to mail your fine in.’ They’re making their own rules and the public doesn’t know any better.”

With all due respect to CM Sullivan, the police lie to people all the time. It’s a widely accepted tactic for interrogations, with broad latitude being granted to detectives by the Supreme Court. I appreciate the concern – I certainly find a lot of this to be troubling – but if this bothers you, there’s a lot more where that came from.

And again, if the complaint is about the money, I reiterate my issues with that argument. I sympathize with the concerns about deception, but beyond that I find it difficult to feel sorry for the people who got these letters, especially since I know that if they ignore them, nothing will happen to them.

Council redistricting news

Campos had an interesting tidbit from the other day.

The H-Town City Council [Wednesday] morning started discussing next year’s redistricting process. Instead of creating a city council committee on redistricting, the H-Town Mayor mentioned that she will probably let the process run through the Ethics and Council Governance Committee – currently chaired by CM Mike Sullivan, a GOPer – interesting. At this morning’s meeting, CM Sullivan embraced the process and let his colleagues know that he would be fair. I guess it’s a done deal. Commentary doesn’t have a problem with CM Sullivan on this. We can work with the fella on redistricting if you ask me. Stay tuned!

The Ethics and Council Governance Committee normally considers “Regulations adopted in the Code of Ordinances Chapter 18, including regulations for the registration of lobbyists, and matters related to the Council Rules as adopted in Chapter 2 of the Code of Ordinances.” Its members are CMs Clutterbuck, Lovell, Rodriguez, Noriega, Pennington, and Costello. None of the other committees conduct business that could be considered related to redistricting, so if you’re going to use an existing committee for that purpose, this would be the one. I have no reason to believe this committee would do anything but a competent job. For sure, I expect all of the interested parties in this process to get the chance to be heard. We’ll see how it goes.