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Mayor will take revenue cap referendum off the 2017 ballot

Not gonna lie, I’m disappointed by this.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner abruptly reversed course Wednesday on his plan to ask voters to repeal Houston’s revenue cap this fall, saying it now is “unlikely” he will ask for its removal.

The politically cautious move would leave the city fiscally shackled in the hope that a lighter November ballot improves the chances voters sign off on hundreds of millions in general improvement bonds and $1 billion in pension obligation bonds, a crucial piece of the mayor’s landmark pension reform package.

“Do I believe that the needs are as much there to remove it as they were when I came into office? Absolutely,” Turner said. “Do I want to run the risk of losing the reforms that we’ve made to our pension system…? No.”

Lifting Houston’s voter-imposed cap on property tax collections had been a pillar of the mayor’s agenda, and he regularly discusses how the restriction constrains Houston’s budget, preventing the city from hiring more police officers, replacing its aging fleet and maintaining other city services, such as street repair.

Turner’s about-face came during a City Council discussion of how the cap, which has cost the city an estimated $220 million in revenue since 2014, likely will force the city to scale back the street and drainage projects budgeted in its five-year Capital Improvement Plan, or CIP.

The CIP slated for council approval later this month accounts for the revenue cap this fiscal year but was written assuming voters would remove the restriction by the start of fiscal 2019.

The finance department estimated the cap will reduce revenue for ReBuild Houston, the city’s street and drainage repair fund, by roughly $201 million in fiscal years 2019-2022, delaying roughly 16 of 90 ReBuild projects planned for the next five years.


The mayor’s new plan was met with understanding around the council table.

“It’s a strategic decision,” Councilman Larry Green said. “It probably doesn’t make sense to put (the revenue cap) on the ballot, especially when we’re trying to get pension bonds passed and we’re also putting out general revenue bonds.”

I’m not disappointed because I think Mayor Turner did anything wrong, I’m disappointed because I was chomping at the bit to get rid of the stupid and harmful revenue cap, and now I have to wait again. I understand the logic, even if the unmentioned implication of all this is that pro-revenue cap forces would be willing to sabotage both the pension reform plan and the city’s capitol improvement plan in order to keep their travesty in place, I just don’t like it. But it is what it is, and if the revenue cap has to take a back seat to these other needs, that’s politics. Nobody said I had to like it.

So, again modulo any Supreme Court interference, adjust your turnout expectations for this November downward. There will be people who will vote against the various bonds, but I doubt there will be much if any of a campaign to turn out anyone who wasn’t already going to vote. There will be a pro-bond campaign, but again I doubt it will push the numbers up by much. I’m putting the over/under for November in Houston right now at about 75,000, and I could be persuaded to go lower. What I hope is that Mayor Turner has November of 2018 in mind for the revenue cap referendum, as there will be no worries at all about turnout in that environment. Remember, over 330,000 votes were cast in the Renew Houston referendum of 2010, with over 340,000 votes for the red light camera question. He’ll need to sell the idea, which is far from a given, but at least the voters he’d like to see will be there for him in that scenario.

Turner names interim HPD chief

Congratulations, Chief Montalvo.

Mayor Sylvester Turner has tapped 36-year Houston Police Department veteran Martha Montalvo to lead the department while his team conducts a nationwide search for a new permanent chief.

Montalvo, 56, has served as chief of staff to outgoing Chief Charles McClelland and has held the rank of executive assistant chief since 2004, the first Hispanic woman to serve in that capacity in HPD history. On Thursday, she became the department’s first Hispanic chief.

“Chief Montalvo has a wealth of experience that will serve the department and the citizens of Houston well,” Turner said.

“She also understands that all city departments will need to share the sacrifice in balancing the budget for the coming fiscal year. I look forward to working with her on solutions that will generate the cost savings we need without impacting the police protections our citizens deserve,” Turner added.


Montalvo said the announcement was an emotional moment for her, recognizing that she has become the first Hispanic chief in the department’s history.

“The message I want to get across is that the opportunities exist if you work hard, and just don’t give up,” she said. “It’s possible. The department in 35 years has changed quite a lot, and I’m an example of that.”


A native of Ecuador who immigrated to Houston with her parents at age 5, Montalvo was raised on the city’s east side, became a United States citizen at 18 and entered the police academy in 1980.

She has worked in the patrol, communications, training, jail and homicide divisions, and was promoted to assistant chief in 1998 and executive assistant chief in 2004.

Montalvo oversaw the implementation and operation of red-light cameras, which voters banned by referendum in 2010. She developed the Crime Analysis System Enhancement, an information system containing mapping software with crime and prevention applications.

Montalvo also was responsible for overseeing the department’s troubled fingerprint analysis lab from 2004 to 2008.

Audits showed HPD failed to update equipment, provide adequate training or communicate effectively with lab staff, leading to a 2009 scandal over workers making technical errors in analyzing prints; three employees were put on leave and one resigned, and consultants were hired to take the lab over.

That last bit is a tad disquieting. I can’t say I followed that story, so I don’t know how the blame for that was apportioned. In any event, the story indicates that while Mayor Turner has a national search going on for a new chief (with no specific deadline for naming one), he is supposedly leaning towards choosing from within, so Chief Montalvo would seem to have the inside track. We’ll see when the search team presents its recommendations. Best of luck in your new gig, Chief Montalvo. The Mayor’s press release is here, and the Press has more.

And the red light camera ban dies again

This time it should be permanent.



A resurrected effort to ban red-light cameras in Texas died Friday after a House lawmaker called a point of order—a procedural tactic used to kill bills—on his own transportation legislation.

Rep. Joe Pickett, D-El Paso, the bill’s author, said he was opposed to the red-light camera ban as it was written in the amendment. Texans should have the ability to determine at the local level whether or not their city keeps a red-light camera program, he said.

“If there had been an amendment that was a better red-light camera bill we might have considered it,” Pickett told reporters. “The public should decide…each municipality should have a referendum on whether or not their community has red-light cameras.”

Late Wednesday, the Senate tacked to Pickett’s transportation bill a proposal that would prohibit new red-light cameras at intersections and halt the use of existing camera programs as contracts between the city and camera operators expire.

“This just wasn’t the way to do it. It was very unprofessional and not what we do around here,” Pickett said.

See here for the background. I may need a neck brace for the whiplash. That’s the end of a legislative session for you.

Bill to kill red light cameras lives again

It ain’t over till it’s over.



Legislation that would gradually shut down red-light cameras in Dallas and other Texas cities – a measure that appeared to be dead earlier this week – was resurrected in the Senate on Wednesday night.

The proposal by Sen. Bob Hall, R-Edgewood, would initially prohibit the future use of the cameras at intersections and then halt the use of existing camera programs as contracts between cities and camera operators expire.

Senators approved the ban as an amendment to a transportation funding bill that was passed and sent to the House. Hall had earlier passed an identical measure in the Senate, but it failed to come up for debate in the House before a legislative deadline on Tuesday.

See here and here for the background. You’d think by now I’d have considered that possibility before declaring a bill dead. According to the Chronicle, this was House Bill 13, authored by House Transportation Chair Joe Pickett. I don’t know if he’ll accept the bill as amended or not. If he does, all it takes is a vote to concur in the House. If not, it’s off to our old friend, the conference committee. Stay tuned.

Red light camera bill dies in House committee

Better luck next time.



A drive to outlaw red-light cameras in Dallas and other Texas cities has reached a red light of its own.

The House Transportation Committee on Friday voted to reject a Senate bill that would’ve gradually phased out the divisive cameras. That means the effort, opposed by police departments, is effectively dead even after passing the Senate last month with ease.

A factor that apparently weighed down the proposal was that it would’ve also prohibited the cameras that capture drivers who ignore stop signs on school buses. And some lawmakers said that time simply ran out this session to sort through those kinds of issues.

“It’s just something that needs a little bit better vetting,” said Rep. Ron Simmons, a Carrollton Republican who voted against the bill in committee. “At least on the House side, we didn’t really have enough time.”


In years past, the House had passed red-light camera bans only to see them stopped up in the Senate. So Rep. Gary Elkins, long a critic of the cameras, decided to wait this year on the Senate, rather than needlessly put the House through another heated debate.

But when the Senate finally acted this year, he found himself unable to get the measure out of a House committee.

“It’s extremely frustrating,” said Elkins, R-Houston.

See here for the background. Remember the motto o the Legislature: It is designed not to pass bills, but stop them from passing. Those of you that oppose cameras will have to continue to vote them out of cities that have adopted them; as the story notes, that happened in Arlington this month. Beyond that, try again in 2017.

Stickland responds

He says he did nothing wrong.

Rep. Jonathan Stickland

esponding to claims that he improperly registered witnesses at a committee hearing, state Rep. Jonathan Stickland released a statement Monday standing by his actions.

During a Thursday night hearing of the House Transportation Committee, Stickland, R-Bedford, and state Rep. Joe Pickett, D-El Paso, the committee’s chairman, got into an argument as Stickland presented House Bill 142, which would ban red light cameras. Pickett ordered Stickland to leave the hearing and accused Stickland of listing witnesses who were not in Austin as supporters of his legislation.

“Unfortunately, when I went to lay out my bill, I was prevented from doing so in a very deliberate and dramatic way,” Stickland said in Monday’s statement. “It was what I can only characterize as an ambush by a political opponent. ”

Stickland said that his attorneys had reviewed applicable laws, rules, and legislative manuals and “have been unable to locate anything that commands that a person must be present in the Capitol to register their support or opposition to a bill.”


State Rep. John Kuempel, R-Seguin, the chairman of the House Committee on General Investigating and Ethics said Friday he plans to investigate allegations that witnesses were signed up improperly to speak at the transportation committee meeting. He said the investigation would not target a specific member or bill.

See here for the background and here for the full statement. It can’t be the case that both Stickland and Pickett are right. Either Pickett overreacted or Stickland really did break a rule (and possibly violate a law), despite what his attorneys say. For what it’s worth, I haven’t seen anyone side with Stickland in the coverage I’ve seen so far. RG Ratcliffe certainly seemed to buy into the idea that Stickland might be in trouble, and this Star-Telegram story strikes a similar tone:

Capitol insiders say this fight over rules and procedure may well go deeper.

“At best, it is the appearance of impropriety,” said Harvey Kronberg, publisher of the Quorum Report, an Austin-based online political newsletter. “At worst, there’s potential for criminal violations.”

Doesn’t sound too good for Stickland to me, but what do I know? I look forward to seeing how the House investigation goes. The Statesman and Trail Blazers have more, while the Observer has what may be the definitive Jonathan Stickland article of our time. Check it out.

Senate passes anti-red light camera bill

Is this finally the end?



Red-light cameras in Dallas and other Texas cities would be gradually turned off under legislation approved Wednesday by the Senate.

The measure by Sen. Bob Hall, a Republican whose district includes part of Dallas County, along with Rockwall and Kaufman counties, would initially prohibit the future use of the cameras at intersections. Existing camera programs would have to be shut down as contracts between cities and camera vendors expire.

Senators passed the bill on a 23-7 vote and sent it to the House, where it has a good chance of passing.

“This is a concept that sounded good on paper but failed miserably in real world application,” Hall said, citing strong opposition from the public to cities’ use of red-light cameras.


Hall argued that red-light cameras originally were “sold to the public as a tool to improve public safety with a carefully worded and cleverly designed sales pitch by corporations who expected to make great profits.”

But the red-light camera programs “trample on constitutional rights” while doing little to make roads safer, he said.

The bill in question is SB714. I don’t have any desire to re-litigate any of this, but for what it’s worth I don’t think the constitution has anything to say on this subject. I also see this as yet another attack on local control, which I’m not crazy about. All that said, if it passes the House, it passes the House. I think if it gets to a vote in the House it will pass, but given how crazy things have been so far, there’s no guarantee of that. I do find it interesting that this bill was passed with all but one Republican Senator voting for it, given that in the 2010 referendum in Houston, Republicans strongly supported red light cameras. Just a reminder that partisan preferences can and do change sometimes.

Red light cameras: The final insult




In settling the lawsuit with camera vendor American Traffic Solutions, whose contract was supposed to run through 2014, the city agreed to pay the Arizona-based company $4.8 million.

The city had $2.3 million in red-light ticket revenue on hand at the time of the settlement, and officials said they expected to be able to pay the balance from fines collected from some of the tens of thousands of delinquent light-runners who had not yet paid up.

No such luck.

Depending on how much new red light ticket revenue is collected between now and Dec. 31, when the final settlement payment is due, city finance officials say more than $1.1 million of the settlement could wind up being pulled from the general fund, meaning taxpayers and not red light violators will be on the hook.

“My thoughts are the same now as they were then,” said Councilman Jack Christie, one of two current council members who opposed the settlement, concerned it would impact the general fund. “As a fiscal conservative, you never want to commit money that you don’t have. It’s not complicated.”

Councilman C.O. Bradford, who also opposed the settlement, agreed.

“(City Attorney) David Feldman and Mayor Parker assured council that general fund money would not be used,” he said. “Some of us said, ‘Let’s not put in that backup proviso then, let’s make sure the (processes) are there to collect those dollars.’ That didn’t happen.”

See here, here, and here for the background. I get what the city had in mind, but I have no desire to defend it at this point. Instead, here’s the trailer to “The Naked Gun 33 1/3: The Final Insult”, since that was what came to my mind as I wrote the title to this post:

May we never hear of these accursed things again.

Re-revisiting red light cameras

This horse is dead. Please stop beating it.



Four years after Houston voters rejected red-light cameras, the divisive issue unexpectedly resurfaced Tuesday when police officials presented figures indicating that removing the cameras made 51 busy intersections more dangerous.

Auto crashes have more than doubled at those intersections since voters banned use of the cameras in a 2010 referendum, according to figures presented to a City Council committee by the Houston Police Department.

Executive Assistant Chief Tim Oettmeier acknowledged the analysis was imprecise, however, noting that the data did not split neatly into four years of collisions when the cameras were in place and four years when they were not. In addition, Oettmeier said police did not examine the traffic counts at those intersections to see if the increase in collisions might be related to the streets being busier.

Oettmeier did discuss citywide crash figures, which show steady increases over the last four years.

The red light camera statistics were only a slice of Oettmeier’s presentation, which focused on HPD’s proposal to increase the force by 590 officers over the next five years. The discussion follows a staffing study that showed the department is short-staffed in some areas and did not investigate 20,000 cases with workable leads last year.

Some council members questioned the methodology behind the red light crash data and the purpose of including it in the presentation. Among them was Councilman Michael Kubosh, a bail bondsman who, with his brothers, led the 2010 referendum effort that got the cameras banned.

“I don’t know why it’s in this report,” he said. “There’s a charter amendment that says we’re not going to do this. There was a vote of the people; the people said no, and why you even waste your time to put this in the report to us today, I do not know. Maybe it’s that I’m sitting on council – that’s the only reason I can see.”

Oettmeier did not respond to Kubosh’s comments, but said later that he included the camera information to anticipate questions about whether HPD still needs as many police officers with its large recent investments in technology.

Red-light cameras are “a thing of the past,” Oettmeier said, adding he had no “hidden agenda” in mentioning them Tuesday. City Attorney David Feldman confirmed the city would not be able to deploy red light cameras without another public vote.

“The red light camera portion of the presentation was just an attempt to validate that that type of technology does, in fact, cause an effect, and it does help police officers out,” Oettmeier said.

That’s all very nice, and I get that Oettmeier was speaking in the context of HPD staffing levels and personnel needs. But seriously, just stop. We are not going anywhere near red light cameras any time soon, for good reason. Plus, no one who doesn’t already believe in red light cameras buys the crash data. Hell, I spent way too much of my life trying to make sense of the various crash studies done here in Houston, and I have a hard time accepting any of it. Just make your case for more traffic officers and leave it at that, OK? Thanks.

HERO repeal petitions announcement today

Today’s the day we find out what happens.

The city’s controversial HERO ordinance prohibits discrimination based on federally recognized groups such as race and age, but also extends those rights to sexual orientation and gender identity. Opponents of the ordinance led a petition drive to bring the issue to a public vote. It now appears the city attorney will announce whether that petition drive is valid this Friday.

Rice University Political Science Professor Bob Stein is a longtime city hall observer. He says there are a few possibilities at Friday’s announcement.

“One, of course, is they have enough signatures that have been validated, I think about 17,000. Second option is they don’t have enough and if that’s in contention you might see those who petitioned the city go to court and have them checked,” Stein said.

A third option, Stein says, is that the city attorney could rule the petition inappropriate or ill-timed under ballot initiative law. The city previously used that rationale on the petition to overturn red light cameras but lost that battle in court. Stein says the most likely outcome is that the opponents do have enough signatures to put the ordinance on the November ballot.

Actually, that was the opposite of what happened in the red light camera lawsuit. That referendum was presented as a charter amendment, with the petitions presented well after the 30 day window for repeal. Council voted to put it on the ballot at the urging of Mayor Parker and over the objections of CM Anne Clutterbuck, who argued that it really was a repeal effort and thus invalid. That’s exactly what Judge Lynn Hughes ruled. Here there’s no question this is a repeal effort, and the petitions were submitted within the required time frame. This is not to say that there couldn’t be an issue with timing, or other issues we don’t yet know about. I have no idea what Feldman might pull out of his hat. But we’ll find out soon enough.

Having said that, I do agree that the single most likely outcome is that the number of valid signatures is found to be sufficient, at which point it goes to the ballot. (I’m assuming there’s no Council vote for that.) From there it’s a matter of campaigning and turning out voters. You can see the petitions and their signatures for yourself here, by the way. Note that there are claims about how the signatures were collected that may lead to legal action of some kind, so whatever Feldman has to say, it likely won’t be the final word.

One point of perspective on the repeal petitions

Here’s the Chron story about the HERO-haters turning in their repeal petitions.

Opponents of Houston’s new non-discrimination ordinance Thursday turned in well more than the minimum number of signatures needed to trigger a November vote on whether to repeal the measure.

Staff in the City Secretary’s office will have 30 days to verify that the names – 50,000 of them, opponents said – cross the minimum threshold of 17,269 signatures from registered Houston voters that foes needed to gather in the month following the measure’s passage in an 11-6 vote of the City Council.

Most of the divisiveness around the ordinance stems from the protections it extends to gay and transgender residents, groups not already protected under federal laws barring discrimination on the basis of sex, race, color, ethnicity, national origin, age, religion, disability, pregnancy and genetic information, as well as family, marital or military status.

Mayor Annise Parker pledged to fight the effort to overturn the ordinance should it make the November ballot, a task she acknowledged city rules make fairly easy.

“This was not a narrowly-focused, special-interest ordinance,” said Parker, the first openly lesbian mayor of a major American city. “This is something that the business and civic community of Houston was firmly behind, and we fully expect if there is a campaign that it will be a spirited campaign, but we’ll have the same outcome in November as we had around the council table.

“Houston does not discriminate, Houston will not discriminate and Houston will not be fooled by misinformation, hyperbole – I would use the word ‘lies’ but I’m going to back off from that – and people who are just simply unwilling to read the ordinance for themselves.”

See my post from Thursday evening for the background. As we know, the haters were busy collecting petitions last weekend, and my presumption was that if they weren’t scrambling to clear the bar, they were aiming for a show of force. It would actually have been enough to force a recall election against Mayor Parker, if they largely prove to be valid. The haters claim to have verified 30,000 of the sigs themselves, but we’ll see about that. As I said on Thursday, the petitions will be very closely scrutinized, and I expect the final number to be a lot lower.

One thing to keep in mind when we talk about that number. Via Facebook, I understand that the haters are referring to it as “two-thirds of the total vote against Mayor Parker in 2013”. That’s true enough as it goes – remember, that 50,000 is likely to be an illusion – but we’re not in a low-turnout odd-numbered election year. We’re in an even-numbered partisan election year. We had a situation much like this in 2010, with the red light camera and Renew Houston items on the ballot. That year, there were 389,428 votes cast in the Houston part of Harris County – a smidge less than half the total county turnout – plus another 8,492 votes in Fort Bend County, with between 320,000 and 350,000 votes cast in each of the three propositions. Even if all 50,000 signatures represents a valid Houston voter that will show up in November, that’s still less than 1/3 of the total that will likely be needed for the haters to win.

Let me provide one more number, as long as I’m on the subject. Last year, the Early to Rise group submitted 150,000 signatures to put an item for raising HCDE’s tax assessment to fund pre-K in Harris County. Of those signatures, 80,505 were verified. If the haters have the same level of accuracy, their total number of valid sigs will be around 27,000. Still plenty to qualify for the ballot, but a lot less than 50,000. They may well be more accurate than that, but I do know they were using paid canvassers as the Early to Rise proponents were, so I expect they’ll have a fair amount of slop in their work. Again, we’ll see how much.

I don’t post any of this to encourage complacence in HERO supporters. We’ve definitely got our work cut out for us. But if we put our heads down and do the work, I feel confident we will win. As Greg highlights, the city of Houston is Democratic, and we’ve got more voters to reach out to than they do. Register voters, talk to voters, and make sure everyone who should be voting does so. That’s the winning formula. PDiddie, John Coby, Texas Leftist, Lone Star Q, and Hair Balls have more.

EV Day 10: Two normally big days to go


We have completed ten days of early voting. Traditionally, the last two days are the big ones. Will we see the same this year? First, here are the comps:


Here’s a look at how turnout has gone over the first ten days of early voting for the past three municipal elections, and for the last two days:

Year 10 Day Last 2 Final Last2 % ====================================== 2013 80,959 2011 40,389 18,156 58,545 31.0% 2009 51,997 28,519 80,516 35.4% 2007 33,247 17,017 50,264 33.9%

Based on that, we can estimate final EV turnout at between 115,000 and 125,000, based on the 10 day total being between 65% and 70% of the final total. Obviously, we are in uncharted territory here, so it’s certainly possible that the last two days will be a smaller portion of the whole. We’ll just have to see.

I’m going to hold off on estimating final turnout until after early voting concludes. Some other folks have posted thoughts on turnout, runoffs, and so forth. Here’s a sample of them, with my comments, starting with turnout thoughts.


In 2009, 178,777 votes were cast in the H-Town city elections. In 2009, 10,152 voted by mail and 52,276 voted early in person.

According to Kyle, through Monday 12,886 had voted by mail and 29,532 in person.

Kyle also says that 72% of the vote are hard core voters – they voted in the last three city elections.

It looks to me that we are not going to reach the 2009 total. It will be interesting to see if mail ballots and early voting in person exceed next Tuesday’s turnout. Stay tuned!

I’ve never thought we’d approach the November of 2009 turnout level, but the December of 2009 runoff level, which is a bit more than 150,000 votes in the city, is possible. I do think that at least half of all votes will have been cast by the end of early voting. In other words, I do think 2013 will be like 2008 for city elections.

Robert Miller:

With 52,170 votes already cast, you can see that, as expected, Harris County will disproportionately affect the outcome of the statewide constitutional amendment propositions. In 2011, 695,052 Texans voted in the constitutional amendment election, with 152,597 votes being cast in Harris County or 22%. In 2013, it appears the Harris County may approach 30% of the statewide total.

An analysis of the City of Houston vote by Kyle Johnston of Johnston Campaign estimates that through the first five days, the ethnic breakdown of those casting Houston ballots is African American 32%, Hispanic 12%, Asian 1%, and Other (Anglo) 55%. Mr. Johnston also finds that of the City of Houston voters, 61% have a Democratic primary history, 34% have a Republican primary history, and 5% have no primary history. This partisan breakdown provides further evidence that the time has passed when a candidate running as a Republican can be elected Mayor of Houston.

Houston Politics has the latest version of Johnston’s analysis, through eight days of early voting. I do believe a Republican can be elected Mayor – surely CM Stephen Costello will be a strong contender in 2015 – but I agree that it is highly unlikely someone running as a Republican, with all that means today, could win.

Here’s Robert on the runoff question:

In the current mayoral election, Mayor Parker’s polling is showing her pulling away from Dr. Hall. According to her internal polls, the undecideds are breaking her way and Dr. Hall’s pro forma television buy is not sufficient to keep him in the game. Either the Mayor’s polls are wrong or she is going to win without a runoff.

Lots of people have been asking me this question. I think Mayor Parker can win without a runoff, but I’m not yet ready to bet my own money on that. That’s my answer until I see the first round of results on Tuesday night.

New Media Texas:

I’m no expert, but I’m predicting a runoff for the mayor’s race between Parker and Hall. Mayor Parker barely slipped by with %50.83 of the total vote on Election Day in 2011 with 5 opponents–none of whom I could name without Google. With an open seat in the African-American dense District D and a pool of 12 driving up the AA vote and Hall’s hefty war chest, he’s worth about 30% on November 5th. He’s got a pretty impressive team, although it’s apparent he’s not allowing them to perform at their full potential.

This time around Mayor Parker’s not facing 5 opponents, she’s facing 8. She’ll come out on top on November 5th, but without the 50.1% it takes to avoid a runoff–just my opinion. If I had to guess it, I’d put her numbers somewhere around 47% or so looking at the spread–Hall and Eric Dick, who brought in about 8% in his race for at large in 2011, finishing off the top 3. I’m pretty sure Dick will bring similar numbers this time around.

If Parker gets 47% and Hall gets 30%, then Dick and the other candidates have combined for 23% of the vote. Based on past history and my own observation of those campaigns’ capabilities, I think that’s unlikely. I think the most likely route to a runoff is Hall topping 40%. Second most likely is Dick et al combining for about 15%. When I think about it this way, it seems to make a runoff less likely. But we’ll see.

Nancy Sims:

The Mayor’s race was expected to be much more intense but seemed to fizzle out towards the end. Initially, most of the pundits regarded Ben Hall as a serious contender to face Mayor Parker due to his ability to self-fund his campaign. Pundits also like good political theater.

However, Mr. Hall has let down most everyone in that regard. While he has spent lots of money, he consistently hit the wrong note with voters. He went dark on TV while Parker steadily blasted him with attack ads.

Council races also seem to be flying slightly below the radar. When I ask any average voter (non-immersed politico) about At-Large Position 3, they look at me blankly. When I name a few of the candidates running they sometime have a glimmer of recognition. A number of people have seen the billboard Roy Morales has on 1-10 at Silber. Many have heard of or seen signs for Michael Kubosh. If they are party connected, they probably know Rogene Calvert, Kubosh or Morales. Some know Roland Chavez has been a fire fighter and inner loopers seem to know Jennifer Rene Pool. This race is anybody’s best guess. Pundits think Kubosh wins but most won’t predict who is in a run-off with him.

Agree that At Large #3 is anybody’s guess. Still not convinced Kubosh is a sure thing for the runoff, but I have nothing to back that up. I’ll be very interested to see how the precinct breakdown goes in this one.

Texpatriate thinks that if Mayor Parker wins without a runoff, she may not get as amenable a Council for herself as she could have gotten.

Democrat voters are lazy. The preceding statement, while often controversial, is extremely true nonetheless. Presidential elections, those with higher turnout, see outcomes significantly more amicable to the Democratic Party in this State. As voter turnout drops into the low single-digits, Republicans become more and more successful in the heavily Democratic city of Houston.

For example, in the 2011 At-large position #5 election, the incumbent Jolanda Jones garnered a full 39% of the vote. Laurie Robinson, a likewise Democrat, earned a further 20% of the vote. According to reasonable inferences, Jones should have crushed her opposition in a runoff with close to 60% of the vote. However, when runoff election day came, Jack Christie defeated Jones with over 54% of the vote, rising over 21-points in the polls in the interim. The rise of 21 percentage points, however, was offset by actually about receiving 5000 fewer votes. This was possible because of a devastating drop in voter turnout. Without the Mayor’s race at the top of the ticket, over 1/3 of the electorate stayed home, allowing candidates severely out-of-touch from the interests of Houstonians to get elected.

The same thing will happen this year is Mayor Parker is re-elected in November without a runoff. Let us assume arguendo that this happens. The At-large position #3 will descend into a runoff between Michael Kubosh and one of the three major Democratic candidates (Rogene Calvert, Roland Chavez or Jenifer Pool), which Kubosh will decisively win without Annise Parker at the top of the ticket.

Similarly, I think there is a good chance Andrew Burks and David Robinson go into a runoff in At-large position #2. In that race, the comparably more conservative Burks will defeat Robinson in a runoff election that does not feature a Mayoral component.

If Kubosh replaces Noriega on the City Council, the horseshoe will be split 8-8 between the Mayor’s friends and her ideological opponents. (Costello, Davis, Cohen, Boykins/Richards, Gonzalez, Gallegos/Garces, Laster and Green vs. Burks, Kubosh, Bradford, Christie, Brown, Martin, Hoang and Pennington). Parker’s third term would be irreversibly marred by a recalcitrant and unreasonable City Council (similar to how President Obama’s last six years in office have been ruined by the House).

I don’t buy this analysis. For one thing, Andrew Burks, who has very little in his campaign coffers, doesn’t drive turnout. In 2009 and 2011, he greatly underperformed other African-American candidates on the ballot in runoffs – Gene Locke, Ronald Green, and Jolanda Jones twice. I think Burks will do better if Ben Hall is spending vast sums of money pushing African-American voters to the polls in December than if he is left to do that job for himself. I agree that the Republican Kubosh is likely to do better in a lower-turnout environment, but it’s not clearcut. Remember, Republicans were the biggest supporters of red light cameras in the 2010 referendum, so if Kubosh is running on that achievement, it may cut against him in a two-person race. I just don’t think we can make blanket statements about who does or does not benefit in a runoff if there’s a Mayoral race there or not.

Interview with Michael Kubosh

Michael Kubosh

Michael Kubosh

We circle back one last time to At Large #3, with Michael Kubosh. Kubosh is a bail bondsman and political activist. He ran for the State Senate as a Democrat against Dan Patrick in 2006, but is best known for his campaign to get the red light cameras taken down, funding and leading the petition drive to get an anti-camera referendum on the 2010 ballot. Kubosh also fought against the homeless feeding ordinance and mounted another petition drive in that effort, but did not get the needed signatures in time for the 2012 ballot. This interview was also conducted in a restaurant, but it was basically empty and there wasn’t much background noise, so I don’t think you’ll have any problems hearing it. Here’s the interview:

Michael Kubosh interview

You can see all of my interviews as well as finance reports and other information on candidates on my 2013 Election page.

Mayor Parker kicks off her campaign

It’s the time of the season for Mayor Parker, who has a serious challenger this time, but also a stronger hand to play.

Mayor Annise Parker

Mayor Annise Parker

In her tenure, Parker has given teeth to the city’s historic preservation rules, broken a deadlock with Harris County to help build the Dynamo stadium, gave scandal-ridden Metro new leaders and revised key city codes governing parking and development, the latter of which had languished for six years.

She gave priority in city contracting to local firms, moved to make the troubled city crime lab independent from Houston Police Department, opened a facility to divert drunks from city jails and saw passage of a plan to erase a decades-long backlog of untested rape kits.

Parker oversaw a successful $410 million bond election last fall, and in 2010 welcomed voters’ approval of Rebuild Houston, an ambitious infrastructure renewal program.

Rice University political scientist Mark Jones said all signs favor Parker, whose only fear should be a low turnout that could see a small group swing the results. Jones said Parker lately has been able to focus on her own plans instead of inherited ills, such as replacing the Metro regime, scrambling to defer pension costs and dealing with legal wrangling over an inflexible red-light camera contract after voters banned the cameras in 2010.

“Bill White left her with a lot of messes to clean up. That, combined with a very tight budget as a result of the recession, led to a difficult first two years,” Jones said. “The second term has been much smoother sailing. The voter mood is going to be much more positive as people go to the polls this fall, and there’s going to be less of a tendency to want to cast a protest vote against the mayor than there was in 2011.”

Perhaps easing the incumbent’s road is the mood of the 16-member City Council, which lately has been more amenable than in recent years. A new convention center hotel, in which the city will invest $138 million, a rewrite of the city’s affirmative action policy and a law allowing motorists to be cited for failing to give cyclists and joggers a wide enough berth all passed without even a “tag,” the one-week delay typical on complex, controversial or high-profile topics.

The difference between the Mayor’s first term and the second is night and day. The first term was all about defense, which is to say all about things she had to deal with rather than things she wanted to deal with. That’s what her second term has been all about, and while she got a lot done in each term it’s much easier to build a campaign around offense. I’ve thought all along that she’d be in better shape this time around, and I still think that. A stronger opponent in 2011 and she’d have been in a runoff. She could still have a tough race this year, but at least the wind isn’t in her face.

The bit about Council is worth noting as well. Part of this is good luck on her part. Two of her biggest antagonists, Jolanda Jones and Mike Sullivan, are no longer on Council. The third, CO Bradford, was appointed Vice Mayor Pro Tem and has largely been a team player ever since. Her main thorn in the side is Helena Brown, and it’s hard to say that’s been a bad development for her since it’s a lot easier to look reasonable and accomplished opposite the likes of CM Brown. Basically, not only has the Mayor had the money to restore or enhance city services, the ability to move her own agenda forward, and a Council that has worked with her a lot more than it has worked against her. If she doesn’t feel better about this campaign than the last one, she ought to.

She entered the 2011 election with an approval rating of 47 percent, the lowest of any mayor in decades, narrowly avoiding a runoff despite spending $2.3 million and facing five poorly-funded unknowns. Political observers had said Parker needed a decisive win to prevent a challenge this year, and 50.8 percent of the vote was not it.

Enter Ben Hall, a wealthy lawyer capable of financing his own campaign who served as City Attorney from 1992 to 1994. Hall says city taxes and fees are driving residents to the suburbs. He says Parker lacks vision and wastes time tinkering with smartphone apps and food trucks while Houston misses opportunities for international business growth.

“A mayor must do more than simply balance a budget,” Hall has said. “We need more than just a manager, we need a leader.”

University of Houston political scientist Brandon Rottinghaus said there may be some truth in Hall’s statements, but he said these are not significant enough to ignite anti-incumbent passions, adding that Hall’s message has lacked the specificity voters need to choose him over Parker.

“Motivations for mayoral elections are more about tremendous things that have gone wrong as opposed to more or less a tweak to what’s going right,” Rottinghaus said. “He’s got to make a really compelling case as to why things need to be changed, and as of yet, I’m not sure we’ve seen that.”

Hall has made criticism of Parker’s vision, or lack of it, a main point of his campaign. That’s certainly a valid line of attack, but as I’ve said before, Hall’s own vision isn’t apparent. Rottinghaus makes a good point as well, in that generally speaking when trying to knock off an incumbent, you have to give people a reason to fire that incumbent before you can convince them that you’re a viable alternative. The case to fire the Mayor is harder to make when times are good and things are getting done. Plus, I think people generally like the Mayor. She has her share of opponents to be sure, but it’s not like we’re inundated with anti-Parker chatter. Her biggest challenge is going to be making sure that the people who do like her get out to vote. If I were her, I’d want turnout to exceed 2011’s anemic levels. Complacency is her enemy. Work that ground game and don’t settle for a small voter universe. In the meantime, I’ll be very interested to see what the June campaign finance reports look like, not just for how much each candidate raises but also for who is giving to whom. Parker has always had a broad fundraising base, and she starts out with a fair amount of cash. Hall can write his own check, but having his own broad base and getting support from sources that have given to Parker before would be a strong statement on his part. We’ll see how that goes.

The red light camera debate keeps raging on

Elsewhere, thankfully. Not here.

They still have these in some cities

League City is the latest to put the plug on red light cameras at intersections. Cameras at three League City intersections were to be turned off by midnight Wednesday, after the City Council voted to cut short its five-year agreement with Arizona-based contractor Redflex Traffic Systems Inc. The contract was set to expire in October 2014.

In Texas, roughly 60 cities have the camera programs, with fewer than 10 in the Houston area, according to data from the Insurance Institute of Highway Safety.

The League City decision follows action by Montgomery County commissioners last week to end its contract with Redflex, the company that runs 10 red light cameras in The Woodlands.

Redflex spokeswoman Jody Ryan said the contract with Montgomery County is still operational, and it is under discussion with the county.

Use of the cameras spiked to nearly 700 cities by some estimates, but has declined to 530, based on the latest count by the insurance institute.

“They are dropping and adding so much we don’t count their use,” said Nancy White, a spokeswoman for AAA in Washington.

Can I just say how glad I am that we’re no longer debating this in Houston? I had no problems with the cameras, and I still don’t quite understand the fuss they generated, but this is one of those debates that has no resolution. Either you think they’re a good idea or you don’t, and there’s really no middle ground – you either have them in your city or you don’t, and if you don’t like them the only acceptable number to have is zero. It’s useless to cite accident data in the debate – small sample sizes and imprecise definitions render the statistics largely meaningless, with as many studies showing a benefit to having the cameras as there are studies showing the opposite. There’s no compromise – ultimately, one side wins and one side loses. I suppose one advantage to the anti-camera forces winning is that at that point the argument generally ends, since the pro-camera folks no longer have anything to fight about. I have no doubt that had the 2010 camera referendum gone the other way in Houston the anti-camera folks would still be looking for a way to prevail. I’m wearing myself out just thinking about it. Anyway, like I said I’m just glad we’re done with this here. There are plenty of other things to be arguing about, and some of those things do have outcomes that are generally satisfactory to most people. I’m happy we’ve moved on.

Lawsuit against anti-feeding ordinance dropped

From last week:

The plaintiffs suing the city of Houston over its charitable feeding ordinance have abruptly dropped a suit they filed over the issue, just hours after the judge in the case recused himself.

The ordinance, which requires property owners’ advance written permission for the charitable feeding of more than five people, was one of the most passionate issues debated at City Hall last year. City officials said the measure would help control litter associated with feedings of the homeless and allow for better coordination of such efforts. Opponents decried the ordinance as criminalizing charity.

Paul Kubosh, of the bailbondsmen Kubosh brothers who are reliable opponents of Mayor Annise Parker, was the plaintiff in the suit, filed in December, which alleged the ordinance is unconstitutional because it violates the Kuboshes’ Constitutional rights. The Kuboshes religious beliefs, the suit states, encourage them to share food with the homeless in ways that violate the ordinance.

The Kuboshes collected 34,000 signatures on a petition that sought to overturn the requirement only on city-owned land, not on private property. The city said they had turned in the petition too late for it to be voted on last fall, a move the Kuboshes said was against the law.

Several preliminary motions had been filed in the case by both sides, but last Tuesday the issue took an odd turn when U.S. District Judge Ken Hoyt recused himself from the case without offering a reason and, hours later, Kubosh’s attorney dismissed the suit.

Kubosh said he had to dismiss the case because the judge assigned to pick it up was U.S. District Judge Lynn Hughes, with whom the Kuboshes dealt in a similar episode in 2010 and 2011 in which they sought to intervene in a lawsuit related to the city’s red light cameras. The Kuboshes had led the ultimately successful charge to place the cameras on the ballot and have them rescinded.

“After litigating with the city in Judge Hughes’ court on things that deal with charter amendments and the people’s right to vote, I didn’t think it was in the citizens’ best interest, the people we’re trying to help, for us to continue in Judge Hughes’ court,” he said. “We couldn’t go back into that bear trap again. We’re not abandoning this, but we have to regroup.”

You may be saying to yourself “Wait, what lawsuit? I don’t remember a lawsuit being filed”. I didn’t remember one being filed, either, but it was filed just before Christmas.

The plaintiffs are members of Champions Forest Baptist Church and have given and shared food for free “with more than five people at a time on Houston public property” since about 2008.

According to the suit, the city passed the ordinance about six months ago and was not open to efforts to get it placed on the previous election’s ballot.

More than 34,000 people signed a petition in opposition of the ordinance, however, the city was not swayed, the original petition says.

The ordinance carries a jail sentence and a $200 fine for any violations.

The suit claims the ordinance is “unconstitutionally vague”, stating the term “those in need” has no clear definition and “in its broadest sense can refer to anyone.”

It additionally asserts that the complainants’ First, Fourth, Fifth and Fourteenth Amendment rights were infringed upon through the passing and implementation of the ordinance.

A jury trial is requested.

Attorney Randall L. Kallinen with the Law Office of Randall L. Kallinen PLLC in Houston is representing the plaintiffs.

The case number is 4:12-CV-3700, if you want to look it up. The only mainstream news coverage I found of this when I googled “Kubosh homeless lawsuit” was on KTRH. That and the timing of the suit is probably why you and I might not have heard of it before now. The last update I had in my blog was from August from when petition signatures were turned in to force a referendum on the ordinance. The problem was the timing – the ordinance had gone into effect on July 1, meaning the 30-day window for a repeal petition had passed, and on top of that the deadline for any item to be placed on the ballot was only a few days afterward, which gave the City Secretary very limited time to verify the signatures. This was the first I’d heard of anything relating to the ordinance since then.

Now as you know, in Judge Hughes’ ruling on the red light camera lawsuit, he wrote that that referendum should not have been on the ballot since it was an attempt to repeal an ordinance, which requires petitions to be submitted within 30 days of the ordinance going into effect. However, the city settled with the camera company before a final ruling went into effect, so that question was not actually settled. I sent an email to Paul Kubosh to ask if this lawsuit intended to bring that matter up again, but he said “No, we filed the lawsuit to try and get the ordinance declared unconstitutional. I did not attempt to re-litigate the charter amendment issue in Federal Court.” I asked for a comment about the status of this lawsuit, and this is what he said:

“We chose to dismiss the case. However, the issue is not over. Currently, we have not gotten any word from the administration as to the status of the petition count. They are ignoring the petition. I still think I have the remedy of Mandamus to force the City Secretary to count the signatures. This ordinance will die. Its just a matter of time.”

So there you have it.

Hall makes his announcement

Game on.

Ben Hall

Former Houston City Attorney Ben Hall formally launched his mayoral campaign against incumbent Annise Parker Wednesday night, decrying the burden of taxes and fees he said are driving city residents to the suburbs, and saying Houston’s mayor must have a grander vision.

Parker, also on Wednesday, accepted the endorsement of the Houston Police Officers Union and a $10,000 check from its political action committee, as Hall welcomed the endorsement of the African American Police Officers League.

Hall, who served as city attorney from 1992 to 1994, emphasized the need to incentivize business growth, particularly from international markets. He derided Parker’s focus on issues such as red light cameras and a proposal to allow food trucks downtown, saying, “This city is grander and bigger than those kind of trivial items.”

“A mayor must do more than simply balance a budget,” he said. “A mayor must do more than simply dream of ways to tax and penalize residents. We need more than just a manager, we need a leader. And we need more than just a leader, we need a leader with vision, someone who sees a way out of this morass. You can continue the strangulation hold on the taxpayers and residents, or we can choose a different way forward … by opening up the city to the international marketplace.”

My reaction to this is pretty much what it’s been all along, which is to say that so far there’s no real suggestion of what a Mayor Ben Hall would be like, and in what way he would be different than Mayor Annise Parker other than simply not being her. There’s precious little in this story to say what Hall’s vision is or how he would lead. That may of course be a function of limited story space in the Chronicle, but neither Hall’s campaign webpage nor his campaign Facebook page sheds any light on this; in particular, neither contains a copy of his prepared remarks or a video of what he said. The campaign agenda page is almost pitifully skimpy. It’s early days and I don’t expect detailed position papers just yet, but some basic statement of what Hall would do would be nice. Here’s what he says about transportation, for example:

Houston’s transportation issues can only be fully addressed through a combination of transit options. Automotive travel is here to stay, but we must promote shared transit ridership in as many ways as possible. High-occupancy vehicle lanes, bus travel and rail are but a few of the options. Shared transit ridership will not only cut down on traffic congestion, but also assist with improving air quality.

Did he favor or oppose the Metro referendum? Does he think Metro has been doing a good job? Will he pursue more funding sources to help boost shared transit ridership? You get the idea. What is his vision for transit? I don’t think I’m asking for too much here.

As for what Hall did say, I’m curious why he singled out “a proposal to allow food trucks downtown” as a trivial item. Does that mean he would oppose allowing food trucks downtown? There is a grassroots effort to make this happen, being led by small business owners who want the city to loosen or undo regulations that prevent them from expanding their businesses into downtown. It’s not something Mayor Parker picked out of the blue. There is a somewhat disingenuous case against allowing food trucks downtown, though of course we don’t know yet if Hall buys into that or if he has some other rationale. One hopes at least that terrorists and drugs don’t figure into his reasoning. Of all the things Hall could have chosen to criticize Parker about, this one just puzzles me. Among other things, it’s far from clear that being anti-downtown-food-truck is a winner. I mean, the MFU Houston Facebook page currently has more likes than Hall’s campaign webpage.

As for red light cameras, obviously this is fair game for criticism of the Mayor. It’s just that it feels dated. The red light camera referendum was in 2010. The cameras are all gone. The only question at this point is whether the city will be able to pay off the settlement with money collected from fines or if it will have to dip into general revenue. Again, there’s certainly fodder for criticism here, but isn’t having a vision about looking forward?

Finally, and maybe this is just my own personal axe to grind, Ben Hall himself is not a resident and taxpayer in the city of Houston. Yes, he is now registered to vote here, but everyone knows the “residence” one lists for voter registration purposes is just a polite fiction. The house Ben Hall has lived in for the past 20 or so years is in Piney Point. He doesn’t pay city of Houston property taxes. Maybe no one else cares about this, but it bugs me. You want to have a say in the governance of our city, you need to be an actual resident of our city. Sorry, but I’m not going to let this go any time soon.

Anyway. Other than the food truck thing, Hall hasn’t added much to his own Mayoral vision since his first announcement in January, which I discussed here. When he has more to say, I’ll have more to say about what he says. Campos, Greg, and Texpatriate have more.

UPDATE: PDiddie adds on.

Kubosh is in for Council

This happened on Friday.

Michael Kubosh

Michael Kubosh, part of the fighting brothers who finally rid Houston of red-light cameras, is announcing today he’s running for an at-large city council seat.

Kubosh will announce he’s running for Melissa Noriega’s at-large seat (she is term-limited out), and an eclectic cast of Houston politicos will be there, according to the campaign — from hardcore rightwing councilmember Helen Brown to community activist Quanell X.

“Above the city council chambers reads the phrase the people are the city,” Kubosh said in a release about the announcement. “It seems to me the current administration has ignored that statement. If elected, I promise I will never forget that quote. I will be the servant to all the people.”

Boy, I’m sorry I missed that announcement. Note that this is Michael Kubosh, who ran as a “Democrat” against Dan Patrick in 2006, and not Paul Kubosh, who has been a frequent commenter here. You may recall that I frequently criticized the two of them during the red light camera saga for not being city residents. Well, you’ll be pleased to hear that both Kuboshes are now duly registered to vote in our fair city. According to their registration cards, they now share an apartment in the Rice Hotel, which means they’re a wacky neighbor and/or a hot housekeeper away from being able to pitch a sitcom to NBC.

Anyway, according to Houston Politics, other candidates in the field for AL3 include Chris Carmona, who ran unsuccessfully against CM Noriega in 2011, and everyone’s favorite frequent flyer, Roy Morales. Jenifer Pool has been in for some time now as well. I put the over/under on the number of candidates at nine when all is said and done. The temporarily re-patriated TexPatriate comments on this race and a few others, though he got the wrong Kubosh brother for AL3. Easy enough mistake to make, I’m sure that won’t be the last time. This is going to be a fun election season.

Speeding tickets and vehicle registration

I confess, I’m puzzled by this.

Municipal Court Presiding Judge Barbara Hartle has a proposal on Wednesday’s City Council agenda to sign an agreement with the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles that would have the state refuse to issue vehicle registrations to people who have outstanding traffic fines.

As proposed by Hartle, by investing about $20,000 a year into compiling lists of scofflaws and coordinating with the state, the city could reap a windfall of $432,000 a year in higher collections.

Two years ago, a similar proposal involving red-light camera runners was rebuffed by the county. City officials had proposed registration holds on red-light runners caught on camera. It required the buy-in of the county tax assessor-collector, who issues license plates and stickers. Leo Vasquez, then the tax collector, agreed to the deal and made the pitch to Commissioners Court. Because the county gets a cut of the fee when it issues a registration and would, essentially, be forfeiting revenue for cracking down on city scofflaws, Commissioners Court rejected the deal.

This time, the tax collector who would be in charge of placing the holds sits on the council, and he does not like Hartle’s plan. District E Councilman Mike Sullivan was elected tax assessor-collector this month and will leave the council in January when he is sworn in at the county.

“In my mind, it’s nothing more than an attempt to have the county collect fees and fines that the city should collect on their own,” Sullivan said. “It looks like the mayor wants to push this over to the county as another layer of enforcement to collect money for the city.”

Sullivan said he opposes the arrangement as he intends to fulfill campaign promises to shorten the lines at the tax office windows. In addition, he said he is worried that holds could mistakenly be placed on people who do not owe fines.

I understood the county not wanting to help with enforcing the collection of red light camera fines. This I have a harder time with. There’s no policy dispute about the legitimacy of the fines being imposed as there was with red light cameras. I appreciate Sullivan’s concerns about possibly ensnaring someone who doesn’t owe a fine, but surely this is a less intrusive approach than involving a collection agency or filing a lawsuit, which would be the options left to the city. This would also be by far the least expensive way to collect outstanding fines, which makes it the most efficient use of taxpayer money. I don’t get the reluctance to get involved. I note that the last time this issue came up, the ultimate decision rested with Commissioners Court, who overruled then-Tax Assessor Leo Vasquez on red light camera fine enforcement. Tax Assessor-Elect Sullivan’s disapproval may therefore not be the final word on this.

UPDATE: Today’s story, from after Council approved the plan on a 14-1 vote, adds some more detail and shows a possible path forward.

Council’s action essentially means scofflaws will not be able to renew their registrations on the DMV website. Instead, they will have to go to the window at the tax office, where tax assessor Don Sumners said he will continue to issue registrations even if the state prints the word “scofflaw” on their renewal forms.

“I don’t think they (the city) could pay us enough for the services it would cause.We don’t have enough people as it is,” Sumners said.


Sullivan said he also believes the city should not offload its collections operations onto county government. He left the door open to a deal after he is sworn in as tax assessor in January, though, if City Attorney David Feldman is the city’s broker.

“He’s apolitical,” Sullivan said. “This administration is nothing but political and has not been honest and direct and transparent with me as a council member. However, Mr. Feldman has always been fair with me in all of my dealings.”

So there you have it.

First pass at analyzing the 2012 results

This is kind of a brain dump, based on the information available now. I’ll have plenty more to say once precinct data has been released.

– The current tally in the Presidential race on the Secretary of State webpage, with comparison to 2008, is as follows:

2008 Votes Pct =========================== McCain 4,479,328 55.45% Obama 3,528,633 43.68% 2012 Votes Pct =========================== Romney 4,542,012 57.19% Obama 3,285,200 41.36%

Slight uptick for Romney over McCain, slightly larger downtick for Obama. My sense is that this is mostly a turnout issue, that Obama’s coalition was mostly intact but not quite as fired up as in 2008, much like what we saw nationally. I think that’s fixable, but it’s going to take the same thing to fix it (money money money) as it has always been. I mean, Team Obama invested millions in a turnout operation in various parts of the country, and by all accounts it was successful. What effect might that have had here? I hope someday to find out.

– For all my skepticism of the polling in Texas, the pollsters were fairly in the ballpark on Romney’s margin of victory. I have to say, had you told me on Monday that Romney was going to win here by 16 points, I would never have believed that Wendy Davis and Pete Gallego would have won, and I would have doubted Dems’ ability to win the four contested seats in the Lege that they did. But they did, which is both a tip to the skill of the redistricters and a reminder that things could have been better. Overall, I’d grade it as a B- for Texas Dems – the Davis, Gallego, and Craig Eiland wins were huge, but there were missed opportunities, especially in Harris and Dallas Counties, where too many judges lost in the former and two Democratic legislative challengers fell just short in the latter.

– I don’t want to dwell too much on the legislative races, since we’re going to get a new map once the San Antonio court incorporates the DC Court’s ruling into their lawsuit, but there will clearly be more opportunities in 2014. Still, it should be apparent by now just how steep the hill is. Dems came close to parity in the Lege last decade in large part to a sizable rural contingent and an ability to win seats in otherwise-Republican districts. Well, the rural Dems are virtually extinct, and outside of Davis and maybe Eiland I doubt there were any crossover stars this time around; I’ll know for sure when I see precinct data. I still think there will be opportunities for both based on the forthcoming school finance ruling and 2013 legislative session, but we’re a long way from each and candidates still need to be found.

– One question I had going into this race was how well Obama would do in predominantly Latino areas. In 2008, Obama lagged behind the rest of the Democratic ticket in these areas, possibly due to lingering resentment over Hillary Clinton’s loss to him in the primary, but as we know Democrats nationally and Obama specifically have seen Latino support go up since then. Here’s a quick and dirty comparison to 2008 in some heavily Latino counties that will have to do until I get precinct data:

County 08 Obama 12 Obama 08 turnout 12 turnout ======================================================== Cameron 64.08% 65.72% 43.37% 41.46% El Paso 65.87% 65.63% 47.67% 44.58% Hidalgo 69.01% 70.42% 42.83% 45.59% Maverick 78.20% 78.60% 40.43% 37.84% Webb 71.44% 76.56% 44.40% 44.28%

Nice gain in Webb, modest gains in Cameron and Hidalgo. It’s a start.

– Congressional loser Quico Canseco is whining about fraud.

Gallego finished 13,534 votes ahead of Canseco early Wednesday morning.

“The race is not over, and it won’t be until all votes are properly and legally counted,” Canseco said in a statement the morning after the election.

Gallego campaign spokeswoman Rebecca Acuna said there is “no way” voter fraud occurred. “This just shows a lot about [Canseco’s] character, because he chose to go this route” rather than concede and congratulate Gallego, she said.

Canseco’s campaign alleges that officials in Maverick County double- or triple-counted some of the early vote sheets. A complaint to the Secretary of State indicates that Canseco’s campaign found a minimum of 57 duplicate votes when reviewing a list provided by the Maverick County Elections Office. The campaign also alleges that another county used photocopied ballots, a criminal offense, and that an extended delay in counting votes from other counties left “other questions unanswered.”

“There are too many disturbing incidents to declare this race over,” Scott Yeldell, Canseco’s campaign manager, said in a statement. “During the next several days we will be looking into these reports to assure only legal votes have been counted in this election.”

But Acuna said even if all the votes from Maverick County — where Gallego received 6,291 more votes than Canseco — were excluded, Gallego still would have come out ahead. “His argument — it’s not at all valid,” she said. “We won this race; it’s simple math.”

I don’t expect this to go anywhere.

– In Harris County, those last nine precincts were finally counted. Obama’s margin of victory in the county inched up to 585 votes, but as far as I can tell none of the downballot races were affected. Obama’s total was down about 6000 votes from 2008, while Romney improved on McCain by about 13,000 votes. Still, as noted in the comments yesterday, provisional ballots have not yet been counted, and overseas ballots are still arriving, Judges Kyle Carter (1,499) and Tad Halbach (2,786) had the smallest margins in those races, while Mike Sullivan also had a close shave, winning by 2,498 votes and a 48.94% plurality thanks to the presence of a Libertarian candidate that received 2.34%. I still don’t think any races are likely to change, but I daresay all three of these gentlemen will not rest easy until the counting has truly ceased.

– I have to mention a couple of national stories. First, Tuesday was a great day for marriage equality.

Voters in Maryland and Maine legalized same-sex marriage by popular vote Tuesday, the first time in U.S. history that gay marriage has been approved at the ballot box.

In Maryland, voters approved marriage equality 52 percent to 48 percent with 93 percent of precincts reporting, according to the Associated Press. The state government passed legislation legalizing same-sex marriage, but opponents succeeded in putting the issue on the ballot in November.

“Over these past few weeks, Marylanders joined together to affirm that for a free and diverse people of many faiths — a people committed to religious freedom — the way forward is always found through greater respect for the equal rights and human dignity of all,” Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley (D), a champion of marriage equality in the state, said in a statement late Tuesday.

The AP also declared Maine voters had approved same-sex marriage Tuesday after defeating a referendum on it just three years ago, a sign of how quickly Americans’ views on the issue are evolving. With 57 percent of precincts reporting, the ballot measure led 54 percent to 46 percent.

In a third victory for gay rights advocates, Minnesota voters defeated a state constitutional amendment that would have banned same-sex marriage, according to CNN and the AP. Thirty other states have gay marriage bans on the books, including North Carolina’s, approved as recently as May 2012.

Proponents of marriage equality were still hoping Wednesday for a fourth victory in Washington, where a measure to approve gay marriage was still too close to call as of Wednesday morning.

Remember when this was an issue used to bludgeon Democrats? Never again, and thank goodness for it.

Poor John Cornyn. At the beginning of this year, you could have gotten lower odds on the Astros winning the World Series than the Democrats not only holding the Senate but making gains. Yet that’s exactly what happened.

“It’s clear that with our losses in the presidential race, and a number of key Senate races, we have a period of reflection and recalibration ahead for the Republican Party,” the Texas Republican said in a statement released by the National Republican Senatorial Committee, which he directs. “While some will want to blame one wing of the party over the other, the reality is candidates from all corners of our GOP lost tonight. Clearly we have work to do in the weeks and months ahead.”

As of early Wednesday morning, Democrats (with an assist by an Independent in Maine) had picked up four Republican seats while losing just one of their own. Not a single Democratic incumbent was defeated.

Cornyn, who hopes to win a party leadership position in the new Congress, is now explaining the reasons for the 2012 failure.

“We know that our conservative vision is the right one to secure a stronger America for future generations,” Cornyn said in his statement. “We know that we are the party of big, bold ideas with the courage to fight for what’s right even if it’s not politically expedient. It was that courage and that vision that led to important gains for our party in 2010. But all of us should continue to learn from both our victories and our defeats, and work together to build an even stronger Republican Party.”

Basically, the Republicans had first and goal at the one yard line. Then, after a false start, two quarterback sacks, and an intentional-grounding penalty, their 50-yard field goal attempt was blocked by Elizabeth Warren, and returned for a touchdown by Joe Donnelly. The Democrats then added insult to injury by going for two and converting successfully. You just cannot overstate the degree and the stunningness of the turnaround in fortune. And if Big John thinks that the Republicans should just keep doing what they’ve been doing, well, I won’t try to persuade him otherwise.

– Other results of interest: The city of Austin will adopt City Council districts, while League City banned red light cameras. At least some things never change.

That’s all for now. PDiddie, Mark Bennett, Murray Newman, Harold Cook, and TM Daily Post have more, while Texas Parent PAC takes a victory lap.

Somebody else’s red light camera problems

Sugar Land:

They still have these in some cities

A Fort Bend County activist wants to pull the plug on Sugar Land’s red-light cameras, but city officials aren’t about to budge on their plans to ticket motorists caught on camera running red lights.

H.F. Van Der Grinten, a semiretired shipmaster, took his message to Sugar Land Municipal Court at 1200 Texas 6 early Monday, where he criticized the city’s red-light camera ordinance.

“Red-light cameras are unfair to the driving public because drivers are forced to guess how long the yellow light will remain illuminated,” said Van Der Grinten, 72, who lives in New Territory in Sugar Land’s extraterritorial jurisdiction. “Red-light cameras do not reduce accidents, and they amount to little more than taxation by method of random selection.”

Van Der Grinten distributed fliers to motorists who appeared before a hearing officer to protest their red-light tickets. The handouts urged motorists to demand their ticket be dismissed because photographic evidence “does not identify me as the driver of the vehicle cited.”

Some other dude is quoted in the story saying that red light cameras are about revenue and not law enforcement. As they say, it’s like deja vu all over again.

And if that weren’t enough, there’s League City.

The company that manages the red-light camera equipment for the city sued League City about the upcoming election that would give voters a chance to get rid of the system.

Redflex Traffic Systems claims the ballot language is too vague, confusing and violates the company’s contract with the city.

Earlier this month, the city council approved the ballot measure that would allow the voters to decide if the red-light cameras should continue once the city’s contract with Redflex expires in 2014.

Redflex claims that the ballot language the council approved — in which a “yes” vote would remove the cameras and a “no” vote would keep the status quo — is confusing.

“Additionally, the proposition as worded is misleading and confusing because a vote ‘for’ the proposition is a vote ‘against’ the ordinance and the city’s current policy with respect to the use of red light cameras,” the company claims in its lawsuit filed in the 122nd District Court in Galveston County on Thursday.

Mayor Tim Paulissen called Redflex’s lawsuit frivolous and hopes a judge will toss it out.

I’m so happy that we’re just voting on boring old bond referendums and that Metro proposition. I don’t miss this debate at all.

Petitions to overturn homeless feeding ordinance submitted

There’s plenty of signatures, but no guarantee that this will make it onto the ballot.

Activists seeking to repeal a new law requiring City Hall’s permission to serve charitable meals on city-owned land turned in 34,000 petition signatures on Monday asking that the issue be put to voters in November.

Despite the passion surrounding the issue from feeding groups, clergy and others who decried the ordinance as the criminalization of charity, City Attorney David Feldman said it was too late to get the issue on the ballot.

He said the deadline was July 1, the day the law went into effect.

Wrong, said Paul Kubosh, one of the petition drive’s organizers.

“This ordinance is dead. It’s just a matter of how hard and how much political capital will City Council spend to fight the people,” Kubosh said at a news conference in the City Hall rotunda.

The standoff sets the stage for a replay of the legal battle set off by the petition that called for the November 2010 election that outlawed the use of red-light cameras in Houston. Kubosh was also a key player in that battle.

In that case, the election went forward but a federal judge later invalidated it because the petition was turned in too late. However, the ruling is no longer in effect, with both sides claiming victory. Feldman says the legal principles embodied in the court ruling still apply, while attorney Randall Kallinen, who sides with Kubosh, says they don’t.

As noted before, if this becomes law it will leave in place the requirement that organizations get permission from private property owners before setting up a place to distribute food to homeless folks. Again, for all of the fuss over this, I don’t think that part of the ordinance was ever truly controversial. The question is whether permission is needed for doing so on city-owned property. I have no intention of re-litigating any of this, I’ll simply repeat my assertion that if this does get on the ballot, I believe it wins easily. The proponents have many times the energy, desire, and strength of opinion on this.

The question is whether or not it belongs on the ballot. The distinction Kubosh and Kallinen make that this is a charter amendment that happens to overturn – in this case, modify – a city ordinance and not a referendum to repeal it is one that Judge Hughes specifically rejected in his red light camera ruling. I’m not a lawyer, I can’t give you an opinion as to why this time it’s different. I’ll wait for a judge’s ruling like everybody else.

Again, assuming it gets that far. There are at least two more obstacles that I can see, one of which is mentioned in the story and one of which is not.

Council faces a deadline under state law of Aug. 20 for placing items on the Nov. 6 ballot.

City Secretary Anna Russell said Monday that it generally takes her office two weeks or more to count and validate so many petition signatures before they can go to council. Because the Texas Open Meetings Act requires a 72-hour advance notice of a government meeting, her office would have to finish the job in four days to provide for proper notice.

“Even under the best of circumstances I don’t see how in the world that could be done,” Feldman said.

There were complaints about how late the petitions were turned in back in 2010, too. The City Secretary managed to get the job done on time then. Based on this, it would seem impossible. Having said that, remember that episode of “Star Trek: The Next Generation” where the Enterprise discovers Scotty suspended in a transporter beam where he’d been for however many decades? Anyway, he and Geordi get into an argument about the proper way to inform the Captain about how much time is really needed to accomplish a task:

Lt. Commander Geordi La Forge: Look, Mr. Scott, I’d love to explain everything to you, but the Captain wants this spectrographic analysis done by 1300 hours.

[La Forge goes back to work; Scotty follows slowly]

Scotty: Do you mind a little advice? Starfleet captains are like children. They want everything right now and they want it their way. But the secret is to give them only what they need, not what they want.

Lt. Commander Geordi La Forge: Yeah, well, I told the Captain I’d have this analysis done in an hour.

Scotty: How long will it really take?

Lt. Commander Geordi La Forge: An hour!

Scotty: Oh, you didn’t tell him how long it would *really* take, did ya?

Lt. Commander Geordi La Forge: Well, of course I did.

Scotty: Oh, laddie. You’ve got a lot to learn if you want people to think of you as a miracle worker.

So the question to ask is whether Anna Russell is more like La Forge or more like Scotty. I’ll leave that for you to debate. As for the other obstacle, given the August 20 statutory deadline for putting a referendum on the ballot, it seems to me that a tag by any Council member would settle the issue regardless of what a judge might say. I have no idea if any member would be inclined to do that, I’m just saying that one of them could. Houston Politics and Campos have more.

Yes, some cities still have red light cameras

I can’t claim to have any strong feelings one way or another about Austin’s attempts to collect red light camera fines, I was just struck by one aspect of this story.

They still have these in some cities

Beginning sometime this summer, the city will work with state and county officials to begin withholding vehicle registration renewals from those who have an outstanding fine.

A state law allows local governments to ask the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles to flag annual renewal notices of those with outstanding fines. Clerks may then refuse to register the car when an owner takes his notice to a county tax assessor-collector’s office. Failure to properly register a vehicle carries an additional $200 fine.

Austin’s stepped-up collection effort comes three months after the American-Statesman and KVUE News jointly reported that the city was losing out on more than $800,000 in potential revenue from the red light camera program because nearly a quarter of violators who got tickets hadn’t paid their fines.


Several other cities statewide, including Arlington and Garland, have also recently begun asking officials to withhold motor vehicle registrations, but officials there said it is too soon to tell if that has prompted more offenders to pay.

Nowhere in this story was there a quote from a dedicated opponent of the city’s cameras. I’m not saying there needed to be, I’m just sort of amazed that after the big win in Houston there hasn’t been a movement in Austin and other camera-enabled cities to outlaw them via referendum. I figured their days were numbered statewide after the Houston referendum, but I’m not aware of any such action elsewhere. Have we all moved on to other things, or are there repeal referenda in the works that I haven’t heard about yet? I’m just curious.

Another homeless feeding update

Depending on how you look at it, time is either running out for the petition signature gatherers who hope to overturn the homeless feeding ordinance, or it isn’t.

Free to Give Houston, a recently formed political action committee, needs about 28,000 registered voters’ signatures to trigger a charter amendment election in November. The group sent out 30,000 letters last week urging voters to sign the petition.

Houston attorney Paul Kubosh, who formed the committee with his brother, Randy Kubosh, said the ordinance is an example of local government overstepping its bounds and ignoring the will of the people.


City Attorney David Feldman said the only approved way to challenge the ordinance is by referendum.

A petition with 12,362 signatures would have to be submitted within 30 days of the ordinance’s passage or any time prior to the effective date. The deadline for the latter is the end of this week.

However, Paul Kubosh said residents can seek a charter amendment under state law, which trumps the city charter. As a result, there is no petition deadline, he said, and the opposition plans to submit a petition by July 30.

See here and here for some background. The requirement to have signatures collected by either the ordinance’s effective date or 30 days after passage was the basis for Judge Hughes’ ruling in the red light camera lawsuit that invalidated the 2010 referendum. It was suggested prior to that, and prior to Council’s vote to put the referendum on the ballot, that a charter amendment, which has a higher signature requirement but no similar deadline, would have been a valid path, and that seems to be the route the Kuboshes are taking. That’s not clear to me, and I don’t think the matter was directly addressed by Hughes or by the dismissal of the city’s lawsuit against ATS. What I’m saying here is that I foresee another date before a judge in the city’s future. I welcome speculation on this from the lawyers in the audience.

On a side note, I found this a bit grating:

Backers of the current petition drive argue that public property is owned by citizens and therefore they shouldn’t have to ask the city for permission to use it.

“We have a huge problem asking the city for permission to feed the poor,” said Manuel Sanchez, a volunteer with Simple Feast, a church ministry.

I agree that public property is owned by the citizens, but that includes the citizens who want to use that property for something other than feeding the homeless, too. How are we to settle a dispute that arises from such a conflict? “We were here first” seems lacking to me. Feeding the homeless is a noble purpose, but that doesn’t mean less-noble purposes have to be subordinate to it. I understood the objections to a lot of the other provisions that are now not in the homeless feeding ordinance, but this one I confess I just don’t get.

Petition drive to overturn the homeless feeding ordinance

It’s underway.

The petitioners have until July 1 to gather their signatures because that’s when the ordinance goes into effect. City Attorney David Feldman just informed me that petitioners have the longer of either 30 days following an ordinance’s passage or until the ordinance’s effective date to gather signatures. In this case, it’s the latter. So if the signatures get turned in by July 1, City Council will not be able to point to the ruling — moot though it is – even as a basis for declining to put it on the ballot.

So a coalition of civil libertarians and charities against the feeding ordinance plan to proceed in hopes of gathering 28,000 signatures to give voters the opportunity on the November ballot to overturn the feeding ordinance passed in April. It requires anyone who wants to feed more than five people free meals to get permission of the property owner before doing so.

Randall Kallinen, a civil rights attorney who is leading the repeal drive, said he believes that since the red-light camera election’s validity remains intact because of the ruling by U.S. District Judge Lynn Hughes has been set aside, people are free to challenge ordinances even more than a month after the fact.


The petition asks for signatures in support of a city charter amendment that states the following:

The City of Houston shall not criminalize or penalize any person or organization for, nor shall any group or individual be required to receive permission from or register with the City of Houston before, feeding or sharing free food with any other persons on any and all public property, rights of way or easements for which the City of Houston maintains jurisdiction.

Such language does not overturn the ordinance’s requirement that feeders receive permission from the owners of private property on which charitable meals are served. By limiting the language to the City of Houston property it also leaves in place the requirement that feeders get pre-clearance from other government agencies before using those agencies’ property for charitable meals. For example, permission from the Texas Department of Transportation would be necessary to hand out meals to more than five people at a freeway underpass.

They started Tuesday, so they have a bit more than five weeks to collect 28,000 valid signatures. Given the need to have a buffer to allow for some duplicates and invalid sigs and whatnot, they’ll need to average about 1,000 signatures a day for that time period. I think if they succeed in getting this on the ballot they will win easily, but I have no idea if they can collect those signatures in time.

I’m no lawyer, but Kallinen’s assertion that the time limit isn’t in effect because the red light camera ruling was set aside seems specious to me. Even if there isn’t a legal precedent now, the basic facts are the same. If it comes down to it – for instance, if Council declines to put it on the ballot because the July 1 deadline was missed and Kallinen et al sue – I don’t see why some other judge wouldn’t reach the same conclusion as Judge Hughes. Am I missing something here?

It’s interesting to me that the scope of the petition is so narrow. In part, that’s because the ordinance itself is pretty limited. But for all the hue and cry at the time of its passage, the activists involved here have conceded the point that permission is needed for private property – I daresay that few people would disagree with that – and have also drawn a distinction between city property and property owned by other government entities. I suspect that’s more a practical matter than a theoretical one, since their beef has mostly been about access to city parks, but it still strikes me as a bit odd. Be that as it may, one reason why I think this will be an easy win if it makes it to the ballot is that I doubt it will be presented in such narrow, specific terms in a campaign. It’ll be about freedom and principle and compassion and so forth. Which is fine – I don’t have any problems with this ordinance, but I’m not going to expend any effort defending it if it comes to that. I mean, given what a lousy job the ordinance’s proponents did presenting and explaining it to the public in the first place, I seriously doubt anyone will expend much effort to defend it. I don’t feel nearly as strongly about this as the ones who are spearheading the petition drive, and as such I believe they will prevail if they can beat the clock. We’ll see if they can.

Collecting unpaid red light camera fines update

You may recall that when the city settled its lawsuit with red light camera vendor ATS, they agreed to pay a certain amount of money that would be generated by collecting still-unpaid red light camera fines. Ted Oberg has an update on how that effort is going.

The cameras are gone but the effects linger still

After Houston voters told Mayor Annise Parker to take the cameras down in 2010, the city settled with the camera company for $4.8 million.

The mayor told Houstonians the money to fill that pot would come from unpaid fines. The city had $3 million in the bank from those who’ve already paid, which was a start. That money brought the settlement down to $1.8 million. But now, the city needs to collect nearly $53,000 every month until the end of 2014 to make up the difference.

The first month the city was just $111 short. The second month, they were short by $18,000 from what they needed to collect.

This month is off to a better start with half the money already in, so they may finally meet the goal for the first time.


The city’s sent thousands of letters to people who haven’t paid bills all across the country and seems confident that after years of ignoring the bills, the citizens will now start paying.

“We’re not ready to say we’re not going to meet that goal because of the steps that we’re taking. We’re going to start with Phase One, which is mailing a reminder that you have this debt that is owed to the city; after that, we’ll take the next step and we’ll turn it over to the credit bureau. And then in the most extreme cases, we’ll consider the possibility of filing a lawsuit,” Parker’s spokeswoman Janice Evans said.

The city can send the debt to credit bureaus and will file some lawsuits for big debtors, but the law won’t allow them to send it to a collection agency or put holds on registrations.

Actually, the law does allow for holds to be put on registrations, but it’s the county that handles those, and they have not agreed to play along. Which has not stopped the city from acting as if they do. I don’t expect it will get any easier from here, so I figure it’s just a matter of time before some lawsuits get filed.

Council agrees to red light camera settlement

At long last.


City Council approved a payout of at least $4.8 million Wednesday to settle a lawsuit and take down Houston’s controversial red-light cameras, finally ending a legal battle that began after voters banned the devices in a referendum 15 months ago.

The cameras were turned off and outlawed by council in August but have remained mounted at 50 intersections while the city’s camera vendor pursued breach of contract claims in federal court.

The settlement calls for the cameras to be taken down within 60 days.


Council members C.O. Bradford, Helena Brown, Jack Christie and Mike Sullivan voted against the settlement.

The city has about $3 million in hand from fines paid by red-light violators. It is counting on future collections to raise the rest of the money within three years.

“The people who are going to pay the money are not the innocent taxpayers. It’s going to be the red-light runners,” said Andy Taylor, an attorney for ATS.

If the city cannot collect enough money from violators, it must cover the shortfall with general fund money that pays police officers and firefighters. Christie said he could not support a deal backed with general fund money.

“I would not give my house as collateral, and that’s what we’re doing,” Christie said.

“I do not believe that we will touch general funds, but it is part of the settlement package,” Mayor Annise Parker said.

See here for previous discussion. Basically, it’s up to the efforts of the fine collectors to ensure that the city doesn’t end up using general fund revenue. Note that the Accounts Receivable report that I blogged about the other day doesn’t discuss red light camera fines, which makes sense since those are aimed for that escrow account.

The other issue in all this was the dismissal of the lawsuit, originally brought by the city to determine its liability, in which the referendum election on the cameras was declared by federal judge Lynn Hughes to have been illegal. Camera opponents did not want the suit to be dismissed.

Hughes last June declared the election invalid because the petition signatures to repeal the camera ordinance were not submitted as required within a month of the ordinance’s passage in 2005. The Kuboshes’ attorney, David Furlow, asked Hughes to keep the case open to litigate the question of the election’s legality or to simply admit he was wrong last June and reverse his ruling as part of the case’s dismissal.

Dismissing the case throws out the ruling that the election was invalid. So Hughes questioned why the Kuboshes want to debate what would be a moot point. Their time and resources are better spent fighting against a live transgression, he hinted.

“Why don’t you wait until the city does something crazy?” Hughes asked. “It won’t be long.”

The problem, Furlow said after the hearing, is that the ruling that the election is invalid, even if thrown out in a dismissal, is there for other cities in the future to build a case if they want to throw out the will of the voters. Getting Hughes to say he was wrong is the closest thing the Kuboshes can get to putting the genie back in the bottle, or as American Traffic Solutions attorney Andy Taylor put it, to “unpop the popcorn.”

Taylor said that if the case is dismissed and the settlement is approved, everybody wins: the cameras get taken down, the lawsuit ends, the settlement is paid by red-light runners and the ruling that the election was invalid is declared moot.

But in that case, ATS really wins, Furlow said, because it gets the money and the unrefuted ruling that the election to oust ATS was illegal.

“They want to set a scalp on a lodgepole so they can scare anyone else who might challenge their red-light camera contracts,” Furlow said after the hearing.

According to the story, the Kuboshes are deciding whether to appeal the dismissal, so in that sense this still isn’t over. As I said before, if we want to fight about the issue of how long you have to repeal an ordinance by referendum, we should do that by amending the charter. I don’t think they’ll get anywhere in court on this, but as always with judges, you never know.

No action on red light camera settlement yet

Going, going...

Houston City Council voted to wait two weeks before deciding whether or not to accept the settlement agreement with camera vendor ATS.

The City Council on Wednesday delayed approval of a $4.8 million settlement with its red-light camera vendor amid questions about the effect of an appeals court ruling that lets two Houston lawyers intervene in the lawsuit.

On Tuesday, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that brothers Michael and Randy Kubosh should be allowed to join in the lawsuit.

Though the city and American Traffic Solutions plan to ask for the case to be dismissed if the settlement is approved by City Council, the Kuboshes said they want to keep the case alive to overturn a judge’s ruling that invalidated the November 2010 charter referendum they organized to ban the use of cameras in Houston. Their attorney also argued in a hearing after Wednesday’s council meeting that the Kuboshes should have standing in the contract dispute. U.S. District Judge Lynn Hughes granted them a hearing on Feb. 6 to make their case.

Should the judge allow the Kuboshes to intervene in the contract dispute, City Attorney David Feldman said, he will not bring the settlement back to the council on Feb. 8 as planned.

“I’m not walking into quicksand,” Feldman said. The Kuboshes’ intervention could undermine any deal the city reaches with ATS, he said.

Feldman says that dismissing the suit would wipe away the ruling that invalidated the election; the Kuboshes disagree. They want it enshrined in the charter that cameras can’t be put up again without a popular vote. The city and ATS say that’s already the case, and besides, changes to state law enacted after the city installed its cameras would make re-installing them more onerous and expensive to do. I’m not a lawyer, I’ll let the courts sort all this out, but I do want to comment on this:

David Furlow, an attorney for the Kuboshes, said in an interview following Tuesday’s Council meeting, “The real issue is vindication of the people’s constitutionally protected right to vote.” In Furlow’s view, Hughes has ruled that a local ordinance trumps state constitutional rights. The people’s right to challenge an ordinance should last more than a month, Furlow said.

I don’t necessarily disagree with that. Seems to me the way to address the issue is with a charter amendment. Surely that’s preferable to taking your chances with a judge. Houston Politics has more.

Anyway. We’ll see what happens with the hearing in Judge Hughes’ court. In the meantime, since I brought up the question of how much money the city currently has in the escrow account that holds previously collected fines, I heard back on my inquiry to the Mayor’s office. According to them there is now about $3 million in that escrow account, meaning that the up front payment and most of the first year’s payment after that are covered. The city – presumably, an agent on their behalf – would take over collection duties from ATS. We’ll see how that goes.

Finally, in red light camera news elsewhere, League City residents will vote on whether or not to extend that city’s contract with a red light camera company. The contract runs through 2014, and a proposition about it will be “in the next special municipal election”, whenever that is. Red light opponents have a pretty good track record in these elections, and I’m sure they will be gunning for this one as well.

City reaches settlement with ATS

I’m still trying to figure out what it means.

Going, going...

It will cost the city of Houston at least $4.8 million to get out of its contract for red-light cameras, according to a lawsuit settlement headed to the City Council on Wednesday.

American Traffic Solutions has agreed to take down the cameras within 60 days in exchange for $2.3 million upfront and a cut of future collections of delinquent fines from red-light runners.

“This settlement is going to be funded by the people who ran the red lights,” said City Attorney David Feldman, who negotiated the deal. “We would not agree to any settlement that would result in the taxpayers generally having to bear the burden. It had to come from the violations themselves.”

The complex deal does not guarantee that Houston taxpayers are off the hook.

If collections don’t cover the obligation, the city will pay $2.4 million in installments over the next three years. Feldman said he considered any dip into the general fund, which pays police officers and firefighters and finances other operations, unlikely.

Under the agreement, the city will also pay ATS $240,000 for technical assistance, such as access to video footage, as the city pursues scofflaws.

Beyond that, a future ATS payday depends on the city’s success in collecting from the 240,000 delinquent red-light runners. If the city were to collect all $25 million in outstanding fines — highly unlikely since some of them are already 5 years old — ATS’s payout could reach $12.3 million.

According to the press release, the funds to pay this will come from “previously collected fines that are in escrow”. I have sent an inquiry to ask how much is currently in that escrow account – sure would be nice if it’s at least $2.3 million – and how much of that $25 million the city has tried to collect before. I will let you know what responses I get. If this actually can be resolved without touching general revenue, that’s great. We’ll see how it goes.

State not appropriating red light camera funds to trauma centers

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.

Not in Houston any more it's not

Sandy Greyson drove away from an Arlington meeting eight years ago, and 2 tons of irony wiped her off the road.

A red-light runner struck her passenger side, pushing the Dallas City Council member’s car into a field. Greyson suffered a broken wrist and a head wound that required 19 stitches.

She was taken to an emergency room similar to the 128 trauma centers in Texas that are supposed to benefit from the state law that allowed red-light cameras.

The law directs a portion of fines generated by the cameras toward trauma centers. But instead of helping hospitals, the money is simply piling up in Austin.

The $46 million pot earmarked for hospitals is helping lawmakers certify a balanced budget even though much of the money in state accounts can’t be used for general expenses. It’s an accounting trick that has been used for years and defended by budget writers who say such maneuvers are necessary in lean times.

Budget writers face a choice: They either have to cut spending or reduce appropriations, said Steven Polunsky, spokesman for Sen. John Carona, R-Dallas, who wrote the bill that set aside red-light camera funds for trauma centers.

“In the past, the state has appropriated trauma funds,” Polunsky said. “However, the state was in a difficult budgetary situation.”

In their last session, lawmakers set a record by refusing to spend $4.1 billion raised from earmarked fees and taxes. The programs that suffer include electricity discounts for the poor and, in the case of red-light ticket revenue, trauma centers.

That would be the System Benefit Fund that gets frozen, along with such exotica as hunting and fishing license fee funds and the sale of specialty license plates. It’s the oldest trick in the budget-writer’s playbook, because dedicated revenues count as general revenues for budget “balancing” purposes. If you don’t have enough general revenue, just stop appropriating dedicated revenues until everything evens out. You can then declare yourself fiscally responsible, and the only people who get screwed are the ones who thought those revenues that were supposed to be dedicated to them. Everyone else just gets hoodwinked. People like Mr. Polunsky, who conveniently overlook the fact that there is in fact a Door #3 from which to choose to deal with this situation, help to ensure that it persists. The only truly remarkable thing about this story is that it gets written so long after the session. This was as true at the time the budget was printed and posted as it is today, but for whatever the reason it doesn’t make the news until later on. While I seriously doubt it would change the outcome, stories like this should be written before the budget gets passed. At least then no one could say they didn’t know what was about to happen.

Don’t draw broad conclusions from muddled evidence

I have a number of issues with the analysis presented in this Chron story about what happened in the runoffs and What It All Means.

The results illustrate a continuation of a national trend of anger and frustration toward government during the worst economic stretch since the Great Depression, political observers said.

In short: Voters want change.

“A lot of people are angry at virtually all institutions and the government is high on their list,” said Richard Murray, a political science professor at the University of Houston. “And these are the people in a low-turnout election that are most likely to show up because they are angry. They’re agitated.”


The results show clear opposition to the status quo, particularly following a general election in which Mayor Annise Parker and several council members narrowly avoided runoff elections, said Bob Stein, a political science professor at Rice University.

“It’s a strong repudiation of this administration – not just the mayor, but the council,” Stein said.

First of all, I believe that voters who are angry and agitated vote. I don’t see how that’s consistent with an election with six percent turnout. I refer you to the 2010 election, and the historically high Republican turnout, for a canonical example. Maybe it’s just me, but the words I use to describe an electorate that fails to show up like this are “disengaged” and “apathetic”. Your mileage may vary.

But maybe turnout was disproportionately high in District A, which is the one election out of the four where I will agree there were angry voters sending a message to someone. To see if that was the case, I checked the ratio of turnout in districts to the Harris County portion of the citywide turnout for runoffs in the past five elections. This is what I found:

Year Dist Turnout Overall Ratio =================================== 2011 A 8.28 6.08 1.36 2011 B 6.76 6.08 1.11 2009 A 18.82 16.48 1.14 2009 F 13.41 16.48 0.81 2007 D 6.29 2.70 2.33 2007 E 5.05 2.70 1.87 2005 B 4.92 4.02 1.22 2005 C 9.38 4.02 2.33 2003 F 18.98 22.71 0.84 2003 G 29.53 22.71 1.30 2003 H 20.57 22.71 0.91

I only went back as far as 2003 because that’s as far back as the County Clerk has runoff data. The ratio of District A turnout to overall is higher than average, but by no means historic. To be fair, the higher level of turnout overall compared to the 2007 and 2005 runoffs may be masking the effect. There’s just not enough data points for me to say, and we’re still talking about eight percent turnout in A. I have a hard time assigning any special meaning to that.

Further, I strongly disagree with taking the result in District A and extrapolating it to the rest of the city. With all due respect to Professor Stein, if the voters intended to repudiate the Mayor a month after re-electing her, Jolanda Jones is the last Council member they should be kicking to the curb. CM Jones was arguably the Mayor’s most vocal and visible critic on Council. I feel pretty confident that they’re not losing any sleep in the Mayor’s office over this result. We may not know exactly what we’ll get with CM-Elect Jack Christie, but we do know that he’s a supporter of Rebuild Houston and that he voted to keep the red light cameras.

Perhaps there was an anti-incumbent message in these results. For sure, CMs Jones and Stardig are the first sitting Council members to be unelected since Jean Kelly in 1999, and only the third and fourth incumbents of any kind to lose since term limits were established. I would argue that there are unique circumstances to each of their losses. To put it mildly, CM Jones had some baggage, and was very nearly ousted in 2009. I’ve been saying all along that a runoff would be a crapshoot for her, and indeed she rolled snake eyes. With the help of Gene Locke’s mayoral campaign she was able to win the turnout fight two years ago, but not this time. I suspect as well that her performance deteriorated in Anglo and Hispanic Democratic areas – I’m sure the Bill White endorsement of Christie had some effect on that – though that’s a question that will have to wait for the precinct data.

As for District A itself, those voters did mostly vote against incumbents last time around, so it’s probably not much of a surprise that they did it to their incumbent District member in the runoff. That said, CM Stardig clearly had her own set of baggage. If anyone can think of another situation offhand in which the three prior incumbents of a given Council district were supporting the opponent of the current incumbent, let me know about it, because I doubt it’s happened any time recently. Far as I can tell, she didn’t have much of a campaign going into the November election – her eight day report showed expenditures on signs, some ads in neighborhood newspapers, and a $6K ad in the Texas Conservative Review that I’m guessing wasn’t well-received; her 30 day report had practically nothing. Maybe it wouldn’t have mattered, but let this be Exhibit A for future incumbents: Unless you’re unopposed, run hard. You never know. Hell, run hard even if you are unopposed. Never hurts to get people into the habit of voting for you – your name ID probably isn’t as good as you think it is.

Putting this another way, Stardig was primaried, and she was not prepared for it. Redistricting did her no favors on that score, either. It will be interesting to see how CM-Elect Helena Brown reconciles her professed political beliefs with the sort of things that constituents tend to expect to get done. Maybe there is such a thing as a Republican pothole.

There’s still two other races to consider. The result in District B could be considered an anti-incumbent vote, but when you consider that the outgoing incumbent is CM Jarvis Johnson, is it really that surprising? As for Prof. Stein’s thesis, here’s what CM-Elect Jerry Davis had to say for himself:

Davis, 38, said he hoped to begin working with the administration as quickly as possible to cut down his learning curve as he gets set to start his first job as a public representative. He said his main goal as a council member would be to represent the priorities of District B constituents.

“My job is to represent the people and do what the people want me to do and that’s going to be the number one step,” Davis said.

I mentioned before that of the five candidates I interviewed, only Davis said he supported Renew Houston prior to the referendum passing. If you listen to the interview I did with him, you will also note that Davis supported the red light cameras, again being the only candidate in the district to do so. Way to repudiate the Parker Administration, District B voters!

As for Burks v Thibaut, good luck making sense out of that one. Again, I’ll wait till I see precinct data, but it seems to me that the vaunted “pincer strategy” of African-Americans plus Republicans finally worked. Why Republican voters fell into line behind an Obama delegate at the 2008 DNC convention who once ran for HCDP Chair is a bit puzzling to me, but I suppose stranger things have happened. It’s not like Burks is well-known for policy positions, so he’s a pretty blank slate onto which one can project whatever one wants, and then there is that Hotze embrace to whet the appetite. I don’t think this result would have happened in an election where the votes were distributed more proportionally. Perhaps someone will test that hypothesis in two years’ time. Like I said, we’ll see what the precinct data tells us. Oh, and for what it’s worth, the one elected official who endorsed CM-Elect Andrew Burks was CM Brad Bradford. If you want a guide for how Burks is likely to vote, I’d say to start there. Greg and Stace have more.

Round Rock to get red light cameras

I’m actually a little surprised that some places are still going forward with these things.

Round Rock city officials presented for the final time [Wednesday] the locations of soon-to-be-installed red light cameras throughout the city to a city council-selected committee of Round Rock residents.

Round Rock is preparing to install cameras at six intersections across the city, with some intersections getting multiple cameras.

The red light camera program was originally passed by the City Council in 2007, but changes to state law delayed the installation of the cameras.


City spokesman Will Hampton said citations for violations caught on camera will not go out until November or December.

In case you’re wondering, the vendor the city has chosen is not ATS. My advice is for Round Rock to check and doublecheck the language in the contract regarding early termination. You never know when you might need to use it.

RIP, red light cameras

There they go.

Houston’s red-light cameras are done issuing violations. This time, permanently.

City Council dealt the controversial cameras a double death blow Wednesday, first ordering their immediate shutdown and then outlawing the use of cameras to catch red-light runners.

More than nine months after a majority of Houston voters rejected red-light cameras in a referendum and a month after Mayor Annise Parker ordered them back on, City Attorney David Feldman and Police Chief Charles McClelland issued an order to American Traffic Solutions to shut their cameras off at 12:01 p.m. Wednesday.

It’s been a long, strange road to this point, and it’s not quite over yet as there’s still that teeny matter of settling/litigating the dissolution of the contract with ATS, who made a last ditch settlement offer prior to this that was rejected. Nonetheless, this is a moment for the people who worked to get rid of them to celebrate. I don’t agree with their position, and I certainly gave them a hard time in this space, but today I tip my cap to the Kuboshes and their crew for their hard-fought victory. I just hope we’ll all still feel festive when we learn how big a check we have to write. Stace, Hair Balls, and Houston Politics have more.

No red light camera action on Friday

Tagged again.

City Council passed on an opportunity to outlaw red-light cameras during a special meeting Friday, delaying consideration of the repeal of Houston’s camera ordinance until Wednesday.

Councilwoman Sue Lovell tagged the item, a parliamentary maneuver that delays a vote. Lovell previously explained that she did not have the information she needed to make an informed decision – namely, how much it will cost the city.

At which point Andy Taylor, the attorney for camera vendor ATS, cackled maniacally, twirled his mustache, and shouted “One Twenty-five million dollars!” Well, okay, maybe he didn’t actually twirl his mustache, but that’s what ATS is claiming we’d owe. Council now has till Wednesday when it will address the Mayor’s turn-them-off resolution and an ordinance that bans red light cameras to decide if he’s bluffing. Hair Balls has more.

UPDATE: The Sunday Chron had this Q&A with Mayor Parker about the cameras and her reasons for doing what she has done.