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Rodney Ellis

Early voting for the flood bond referendum

It’s a little weird, but there’s two full weeks of it and for the most part you can vote at the usual places.

Harris County will have 25 balloting locations during the first weekend of early voting for the $2.5 billion flood control bond election, and almost twice that during the rest of early voting, the Harris County Clerk’s office said Tuesday.

Roughly 700 voting locations will be open on the Aug. 25 election day, a date chosen to coincide with the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Harvey, Chief Deputy County Clerk George Hammerlein told Commissioners Court.

Early voting will begin Aug. 8. The number of early voting locations will be 45, except during the weekend of Aug. 11 and 12, when there will be 25 polling places.

[…]

County Judge Ed Emmett and Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis had raised concerns about the clerk’s initial balloting plans, which they said called for just one early voting location downtown during the first weekend.

“We’re expanding so the goal is one per state representative district that first weekend,” Hammerlein said.

You can see the map and schedule here. Not clear to me if Hammerlein is saying that there will be more EV locations during that first weekend, but as noted there are two full weeks, including a second weekend. So you should have plenty of opportunity to turn out.

County officially puts flood bond referendum on the ballot

Here we go.

Harris County Commissioners Court on Tuesday unanimously agreed to place a $2.5 billion flood infrastructure bond before voters on Aug. 25, the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Harvey. If passed, the bond would be the largest local investment in flood mitigation since the storm flooded 154,000 homes across the county.

“I think the whole nation is going to be watching us,” County Judge Ed Emmett said of the region’s approach to flooding post-Harvey. “Everyone is saying Houston, Harris County, the whole region — we have the chance to do it right.”

[…]

Emmett last month said the number of projects to be included in the bond issue would be in the hundreds. He has said he hoped to publish a complete list of projects to be funded with bond proceeds by the first week of August, when early voting begins.

Three residents spoke in favor of the bond proposal Tuesday. Belinda Taylor of the Texas Organizing Project said the nonprofit would support the bond only if it includes projects that benefit northeast Houston, around Mesa and Tidwell, in the Greens Bayou watershed.

Taylor also said residents who volunteer their homes for buyouts should be able to move to comparable housing in drier areas.

“Any buyouts … must leave people with the same kind of housing, no additional debt and in non-flooding neighborhoods,” Taylor said.

Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis said that a priority for bond funds must be communities that are less likely to benefit from federal assistance. He said that the federal government uses a formula for dispersing disaster recovery money that places a premium on increasing property value rather than assisting the most people, which Ellis says skews unfairly toward wealthy neighborhoods.

See here and here for the background. The 2018 Harris County Flood Control District Bond Program webpage is here, the proposed project list is here, and the schedule and locations for the remaining public engagement meetings is here. Don’t worry, I plan to do some interviews to help you make sense of this. I’ll need to for myself, too. I agree with Judge Emmett that the country will be watching as we vote. I’m sure the first thing they’ll say if this fails to pass will be “What the heck were you thinking, having this in August?” There doesn’t appear to be any organized opposition to this yet, but as we’ve discussed before, that doesn’t matter. Unless there’s a strong pro-referendum campaign, it’s at best a tossup. We’ll see how that goes.

We’ll be voting on flood control bonds in August

Not my first choice, but it is what it is.

Harris County Commissioners Court voted Tuesday to seek a special election on Aug. 25 for what likely will be a multi-billion-dollar bond package that, if approved by voters, would be the largest local investment in the region’s flood control system after Hurricane Harvey.

The move comes a month before the start of the 2018 hurricane season and more than seven months after Hurricane Harvey, with the election timed to coincide with the storm’s one-year anniversary. County officials have spent months wrangling over when best to schedule the election, lest the measure fail and scuttle efforts to overhaul the area’s flood control efforts after one of the biggest rain storms in United States history.

“Why August 25?” Harris County Judge Ed Emmett said. “It’s the one year anniversary of Harvey. I don’t think we want to go a year and not be able to say we’re doing something. People who care about mitigation, resilience, flood control, they’ll be energized and they’ll want to go out. Will there be somebody who wants to stand in the face of what we went through during Harvey and say ‘I want to be against it’? I kind of dare them to do it.”

It is not clear yet what the bond referendum will include. The court on Tuesday floated a $2.5 billion price tag — a number that could change as a priority list of flood control projects emerges. Emmett said the number of projects would be in the “hundreds” and likely would include the buy-out of all of the county’s high-priority areas at highest-risk of flooding, approximately 5,500 properties.

A huge chunk of funds, between $500 and $700 million officials estimate, could go toward local matches for federal grants and projects. A match could be required for the completion of four bayou widening and straightening projects underway with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers along Hunting, White Oak, Brays Bayou and Clear Creek. Bayou engineering projects on Halls and Greens Bayou — some of the areas in the county most vulnerable to flooding — also likely would be targeted.

Emmett said all of the county’s 22 watersheds would see some sort of investment.

The bond funds also could help finance the construction of an oft-discussed third reservoir northwest of the city to contain storm water from Cypress Creek.

See here for the background. I would have preferred to have this on the November ballot, and from the article most of the Commissioners at least started out with that same preference. County Judge Ed Emmett pushed for the August date, and convinced them to go along. Again, I get the reasoning, but the county is really going to have to sell this. Recent history has shown that even non-controversial bond issues with no organized opposition don’t pass by much. This one will have a big price tag, a (minor) property tax increase, and no obvious benefit for anyone who wasn’t directly affected by Harvey, all wrapped up in a weird election date. This should pass – it’s easy to scratch your head and say “how could it not?” – but do not take it for granted. The county still has to get approval from Greg Abbott, which should be straightforward, then formally call the election. I hope they start gearing up the campaign for this in the meantime.

The timing of a Harvey bond referendum

How does August grab you?

Harris County Commissioners Court on Tuesday will consider calling a special election for August 25 — the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Harvey — to ask voters to OK a massive bond referendum for flood control projects.

The amount of the referendum has yet to be determined as the county continues to assess its needs and as other funds, including as federal grants, become available. At least three members of Commissioners Court said Friday they envision a measure that could reach $2.5 billion.

[…]

The referendum could help finance property buyouts, as well as a range of infrastructure projects, such as the widening and deepening of bayous or the construction of a much-discussed third reservoir in northwest Harris County.

Tuesday’s vote follows months of wrangling over the logistics of holding the bond election, including the cost of holding a special election and the ideal date to ensure voters turn out to support the measure.

Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis on Friday said he supports presenting the bond referendum to voters during the November general election, when turnout is expected to be considerable as voters weigh in on mid-term congressional elections.

“Without evidence of a clear path to victory for a summer-time bond election, which is likely to have low turnout, I have serious reservations about the proposed August date,” Ellis said. “The future of Harris County hinges on the success of this flood bond.”

It also is not yet clear what the bond referendum will include. Harris County Flood Control District Director of Operations Matt Zeve said that would be determined after Tuesday’s discussion at Commissioners Court.

County officials have said the necessity for bond money grows as federal grants pour in to prepare the Houston area for future floods or to recover from Harvey, many of which require a sometimes hefty financial match from local governments.

“The risk is that they may allocate the funds elsewhere and, thus, become unavailable for our region,” Emmett states in the proposed letter to Abbott.

See here, here, and here for the background. I get the reason for wanting to do this as quickly as possible, as grant money may get grabbed up by other places before we could approve a November referendum. August is a weird time for an election – looking at the County Clerk election result archives, the only August date I see is in 2014, for a special election runoff in SD04, which is only part of the county.

The last election that wasn’t in March or May or November that included the entire county was the 2003 Constitutional Amendment special election, which included the infamous tort “reform” measure and which was done in September specifically to reduce turnout from the Houston area, since we had an open seat Mayoral race that November. Turnout for that, which was a state election and not a county election, was 238,334, or 13.38% of registered voters. We have more registered voters now, but that percentage would still put us south of 300K. Compare that to the November 2014 general election, which had 688,018 voters, which was still only 33.65% turnout. I’d bet on November this year being closer to 800K voters, and likely a lot more Democratic than either of those other two contexts.

So on the one hand, you’ve got a need to get this done, and the one year anniversary of Harvey as a rallying cry, but a smaller electorate that may be more likely to not support any kind of spending measure. You also need Greg Abbott’s approval to hold this election, which you’ll probably get but is still an unknown factor. On the other hand, you could have a November vote with a bigger and likely friendlier electorate, but you risk losing out on some grant money, and maybe that much farther away from Harvey people will feel less of a sense of urgency to do something, or at least something that may be historically big. All things considered, my preference is still November, but we’ll see what Commissioners Court decides.

Ellis puts up money for city’s bike projects

I like this plan.

Commissioner Rodney Ellis

Harris County Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis on Monday announced a one-year $10 million commitment to bicycling projects in Houston, in the hopes of jump-starting the city’s transformation into a bike-friendly place.

“Working together, we can better leverage scarce resources from governmental entities and the private sector and share our collective expertise to serve the people in this region,” Ellis said.

A year after Houston leaders approved an ambitious plan for hundreds of miles of protected, safe bike trails, little progress has been made, something cycling supporters said Ellis’ pledge will change. Officials estimated the money would build at least 50 miles of protected bike lanes considered crucial to providing usable bike access to neighborhoods and jobs.

“​This really gives us a boost we needed,” Houston Planning Director Patrick Walsh said.

The money, along with city funds from its capital improvement plan, will go toward repainting bike lanes, developing safer intersections and other improvements aimed at making riding a bike in Houston easier and safer.

[…]

Projects will be chosen for their ability to start soon. Ellis stressed officials have one year to spend the money he committed, and any unspent funds will return to other priorities in his precinct.

[Mayor Sylvester] Turner said the funding, along with $1.1 million the city plans to spend in each of the next five years, will act as seed money for upcoming projects, including planned bike lanes along Austin and Caroline and new space for cyclists along Hardy and Elysian on the city’s Near Northside.

See here for some background. This is about putting up some money for projects that are already in the pipeline but have been delayed for a variety of reasons. Commissioner Ellis is an avid cyclist himself, so it’s not a surprise to see him make this a priority. Much of his precinct intersects with the city, and as you know I’m delighted to see some county investment in the not-unincorporated territories. I hope the city takes full advantage of this.

JP Hilary Green resigns

Wise decision.

The Harris County justice of the peace accused of paying prostitutes for sex, abusing drugs while on the bench and sexting a bailiff officially resigned this week – although her attorney says it has nothing to do with the claims against her.

Hilary Green had already been temporarily suspended by the Texas Supreme Court and was headed for trial next month to determine her judicial future. But on Tuesday – even as lawyers worked to prepare for the upcoming Austin court date – the long-time Precinct 7 jurist sent a letter to Harris County Judge Ed Emmett, announcing her decision to leave the bench.

“Effective immediately, please allow this letter to serve as my formal resignation from my position as Justice of the Peace, Precinct 7, Place 1,” Green wrote. “Due to the unexpected death of my father and my mother’s newly diagnosed illness, it is important for me to focus all my attention on my family.”

Green’s attorney, Chip Babcock, emphasized that his client’s departure was motivated solely by personal considerations.

“It is totally unrelated to the charges which she continues to deny and contest,” he told the Chronicle Thursday. The pending proceedings to unseat her – and lack of income, given her suspension without pay – took a toll on her, according to Babcock.

[…]

In light of Green’s resignation, county commissioners are expected to appoint a replacement who will serve until November 2018. Voters in the November election will then decide on her successor. Her term would have expired in 2020.

The political parties will in the coming months determine which candidates will be on the ballot.

Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis will likely select the interim appointment.

“Commissioner Rodney Ellis will consult with community leaders and legal experts to select a qualified candidate,” an Ellis spokesman said. “He plans to have a candidate to submit to Commissioners Court for approval on April 10.”

See here and here for the background. I’m mostly interested in what happens next, as I don’t think we’ve seen a situation exactly like this recently. Robert Eckels, Paul Bettencourt, Charles Bacarisse, Jerry Eversole, and most recently Adrian Garcia all resigned from county offices, but they did so in odd-numbered years, meaning there was plenty of time for people to file and run in the primaries for those offices. Jack Abercia already had a slate of primary opponents when he announced his intent to not run for re-election, prior to his tour of the criminal justice system. El Franco Lee died in January of 2016, a year in which he was on the ballot and was the only person who had filed for his position. Due to the timing of that, he remained on the primary ballot, then we went through that process to replace him as the nominee via the precinct chair process.

Hilary Green was not scheduled to be on the ballot this year; she was elected to a four-year term in 2016. The primaries are over, so that’s not an option. I suppose we could have a special election as we would for a legislator who left office mid-term, but the phrasing of that “political parties will…determine which candidates will be on the ballot” sentence suggests we’re in for another precinct chair selection process. I wanted to be sure about that, so off to the Texas Statutes website I go. First, in the case of the interim appointment, Section 28 of the Texas Constitution says:

Sec. 28. VACANCY IN JUDICIAL OFFICE. (a) A vacancy in the office of Chief Justice, Justice, or Judge of the Supreme Court, the Court of Criminal Appeals, the Court of Appeals, or the District Courts shall be filled by the Governor until the next succeeding General Election for state officers, and at that election the voters shall fill the vacancy for the unexpired term.

(b) A vacancy in the office of County Judge or Justice of the Peace shall be filled by the Commissioners Court until the next succeeding General Election.

Clear enough. But how is that next succeeding General Election to be conducted? I turn to Election Code, Title 12 “Elections to fill vacancy in office”, Chapter 202 “Vacancy in office of state or county government”:

Sec. 202.001. APPLICABILITY OF CHAPTER. This chapter applies to elective offices of the state and county governments except the offices of state senator and state representative.

Sec. 202.002. VACANCY FILLED AT GENERAL ELECTION. (a) If a vacancy occurs on or before the 74th day before the general election for state and county officers held in the next-to-last even-numbered year of a term of office, the remainder of the unexpired term shall be filled at the next general election for state and county officers, as provided by this chapter.

(b) If a vacancy occurs after the 74th day before a general election day, an election for the unexpired term may not be held at that general election. The appointment to fill the vacancy continues until the next succeeding general election and until a successor has been elected and has qualified for the office.

[…]

Sec. 202.004. NOMINATION BY PRIMARY ELECTION. (a) A political party’s nominee for an unexpired term must be nominated by primary election if:

(1) the political party is making nominations by primary election for the general election in which the vacancy is to be filled; and

(2) the vacancy occurs on or before the fifth day before the date of the regular deadline for candidates to file applications for a place on the general primary ballot.

[…]

Sec. 202.006. NOMINATION BY EXECUTIVE COMMITTEE. (a) A political party’s state, district, county, or precinct executive committee, as appropriate for the particular office, may nominate a candidate for the unexpired term if:

(1) in the case of a party holding a primary election, the vacancy occurs after the fifth day before the date of the regular deadline for candidates to file applications for a place on the ballot for the general primary election; or

(2) in the case of a party nominating by convention, the vacancy occurs after the fourth day before the date the convention having the power to make a nomination for the office convenes.

(b) The nominating procedure for an unexpired term under this section is the same as that provided by Subchapter B, Chapter 145, for filling a vacancy in a party’s nomination, to the extent that it can be made applicable.

Chapter 145 was the governing law for the process used to fill El Franco Lee’s spot on the ballot, and then subsequently those of Rodney Ellis and Borris Miles. Here, Section 202.004 cannot apply, as the primary has already taken place, so Section 202.006 is the relevant code. And so we get to experience another precinct chair convention to pick a nominee – unlike 2016, when no Republican had filed for Commissioners Court Precinct 1, the GOP will get to name a candidate as well. Well, someone will get to experience that. I am thankfully in JP Precinct 1, not JP Precinct 7, so I’m spared it this time. I’ll follow it, and time permitting I’ll be there when it happens to observe, but I get to be a bystander this time, and that’s fine by me. Godspeed to those of you who get to make the call.

Still discussing flood bonds

It’s complicated.

Harris County officials Tuesday said the “clock is ticking” on its call for a bond referendum for $1 billion or more in flood control projects, as requirements to provide matching funds for federal grants being disbursed in Hurricane Harvey’s wake threaten to deplete local coffers.

Commissioners Court on Tuesday stopped short of setting a date for the possible election amid questions about what projects could be included in such a bond issue and how much it would cost per year to complete them. The court directed staffers to hammer out specific proposals that would help determine how much debt the county should ask voters to approve.

Calling Harvey a game-changer, Harris County Judge Ed Emmett and other members of Commissioners Court pledged last September to call for a bond election for upward of $1 billion to pay for wide-ranging flood control projects. The bonds likely would come with an increase in property taxes.

At the heart of Tuesday’s discussion was concern over the increasingly high stakes surrounding the fate and necessity of the bond, as well as the county’s ability to take on a host of large-scale projects aimed at preventing a repeat of the flooding and devastation wrought by Harvey.

See here and here for the background. Federal grants, some of which have already been approved, require local matching funds, which constrains what the county can do right now. The county will need to figure out how to balance what it’s doing now with what it wants to do with the bonds.

Officials also wrangled over several other logistical and political issues surrounding the proposed bond referendum, which would be one of the largest ever put before county voters.

“There are a lot of dilemmas facing us here,” Emmett said. “When do you have the election? How much is it? Do you get specific? Do you leave it general?”

The level of a property tax increase accompanying the bond likely will impact the referendum’s fate.

Harris County Budget Officer Bill Jackson said that if, for example, the bond election was for $1 billion and the debt was issued over 10 years, that would result in a $5 increase in property tax bills for the average $200,000 home in the first year. That number likely would rise to about $20 in the 10th year.

Assistant County Attorney Douglas Ray said that if voters reject a bond referendum, the county cannot put the same issue on the ballot again for two years.

Commissioners Court at its next meeting in April could vote to call an election for June 16, but Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis expressed concern over turnout during the summer months.

An election during the summer would require a plan to locate and staff polling places around the county. The governor also would have to sign off on a summer date.

“To my knowledge, no governor has ever denied a local bond election,” Emmett said. “But there haven’t been that many that have been called for a special date.”

Pushing the election to November would mean more turnout but also would raise the possibility that voters cast straight-ticket ballots for political parties and ignore the bond, Emmett said.

Ellis said he also worried about limiting the scope of the bond issue to focus on matches for federal grants, stating that he would like to see more investment in lower-income areas, and a bigger bond package to pay for it.

“After the most horrific and historic storm event we’ve had, I’ve heard members of this body say it’s our opportunity to do something big, and we may not get another bite at that apple,” he said.

I don’t think we’ve had a June election (not counting runoffs from May special elections) anytime recently. As far as the voters ignoring the bond question, Harris County hasn’t had a bond election in an even-numbered year recently. The city of Houston bonds in 2012 had undervote rates in the 20-30% range, but that still meant over 400K people voting on them. Metro’s referendum that year had a 21% dropoff but nearly 800K votes cast, while bonds for HISD (19% undervote, 315K ballots cast) and HCC (23% undervote, 352K ballots) were similar. If all those entities could have bonds in a Presidential year, I think Harris County could make do with a referendum in a non-Presidential year. (Metro is planning on one this year, remember.) Plenty of people will still weigh in on it, and if the county can’t successfully sell flood control projects post-Harvey then something is really wrong. I say put it up in November and start working on the campaign pitch now.

Fifth Circuit largely upholds bail practices ruling

Good.

The 26-page opinion by Judge Edith Brown Clement affirms the majority of Chief U.S. District Judge Lee H. Rosenthal’s landmark ruling, including her finding that the county’s bail policies violated the due process and equal protection clauses of the U.S. Constitution.

However, Clement and fellow judges Edward C. Prado and Catarina Haynes disagreed with Rosenthal’s analysis on three matters and sent the case back for her to reconsider those elements.

They concluded Rosenthal was overly broad in her analysis of the due process violation and in extending no-cash bail to all indigent defendants. They found her demand that qualified defendants be released within 24 hours was “too onerous,” opting instead for a 48-hour window.

They also ordered Rosenthal to fine tune how officials assess a defendant’s ability to pay bond.

County Commissioner Rodney Ellis, a supporter of the lawsuit who traveled to New Orleans to hear the oral arguments in the case, called it “a significant victory for justice.”

“With this decision, the conservative 5th Circuit is telling Harris County that it’s unconstitutional to have two justice systems: one for the rich and one for the poor,” Ellis said. “Yet Harris County has already spent more than $5 million defending a morally and legally indefensible bail system that violates the Constitution and punishes people simply because they are poor.”

[…]

Attorney Neal Manne, whose firm, Susman Godfrey, joined in filing the lawsuit, praised the decision.

“I am absolutely thrilled by the ruling, which is a huge and historic victory for our clients,” he said.

The appeals judges found that the county had acted mechanically in reviewing bond decisions, failing to take the time to consider economic factors. The ruling summarized Rosenthal’s equal protection findings by imagining the outcomes for two hypothetical misdemeanor defendants, identical in every way — facing the same charge, from the same criminal backgrounds, living in the same circumstances — except that one was wealthy and the other indigent.

While the wealthy arrestee was less likely to plead guilty and get a shorter sentence or be acquitted, and less likely to pay the social costs of incarceration, it found, the poor arrestee, “must bear the brunt of all of these, simply because he has less money than his wealthy counterpart,” they wrote.

See here for the previous update, and here for a copy of the ruling. This was basically how I read it based on the coverage of the arguments. I agree with attorney Manne and Commissioner Ellis that this is a great ruling, and that it’s way past time to settle this effing thing.

The Trib adds on:

But the ruling wasn’t a total win for the plaintiffs. The appellate court still said Rosenthal’s ruling was “overbroad” and asked her to narrow some of the orders against the county.

Perhaps of most significance, the appellate court pushed back on Rosenthal’s order for the sheriff to release at no cost all misdemeanor defendants who claim they can’t afford their bond within 24 hours of arrest, regardless of whether they’ve had their bail reviewed or set at a higher cost. The appellate judges appeared suspicious about Rosenthal’s time limit in their hearing and said Wednesday that it was too strict.

In sending the case back to Rosenthal for a modified ruling, the higher court suggested an injunction that demands that poor defendants who claim they can’t afford their bail be entitled to a hearing within 48 hours of arrest where they can argue for a lower or no-cost bond.

If a judicial officer declines to lower the bond at this hearing, he or she would have to put the reason for their decision in writing, and the arrestee would then get a formal bail review hearing before a judge. If, after those 48 hours, there are no records showing an individualized bail review process took place, the sheriff could release the defendant at no cost.

‘The 48-hour requirement is intended to address the endemic problem of misdemeanor arrestees being detained until case disposition and pleading guilty to secure faster release from pretrial detention,” Clement wrote.

I’m fine with that, and I expect the plaintiffs will be as well. Mark Bennett sums it up.

It’s time for the fourteen criminal court at law judges to declare victory and go home. ((Just between you and me, this opinion is a rout for the judges. The changes are small, and the current injunction remains in place until Judge Rosenthal modifies it.))

Indeed. I really hope this time they listen.

Stanart’s workshop

Our County Clerk has been doing some tinkering.

The Harris County Clerk has spent hundreds of hours and millions of dollars to build, from the ground up, an electronic voter check-in system at the polls, Channel 2 Investigates has learned.

“It’s taken more than two-and-a-half years. There’s been investments of more than $2 million, and we don’t really have anything to show for it yet,” said Adrian Shelley, Texas Director of Public Citizen, a citizen advocacy group.

Based on receipts provided by his office, Stan Stanart, an elected official in his second term, has spent $2.75 million of public funds, so far, inventing what he calls an “electronic poll book.”

It is unclear how much more Stanart plans to spend to bring the project to fruition or how much the system will cost in annual maintenance.

Stanart has said his project could ultimately offer substantial savings to Harris County versus an “off-the-shelf system” which by Stanart’s estimates would cost between $3.99 million and $6.12 million. (View document)

Stanart’s project principally consists of an iPad, custom software and a customized stand to hold the iPad. The finished product will alleviate long lines at voting locations by making the check-in process more efficient, Stanart has said.

The clerk procured hundreds of individual parts for the project, including thousands of dollars of washers, magnets and foam.

The purchase of 2,400 iPads was made in July 2015. The vast majority of those iPads stayed in a warehouse, unopened and unused for more than two years.

Stanart has said he is now in the process of mating the iPads to his custom-built stands. He rolled out less than 100 of them in November for a test run. The county clerk has not publicized the results of that initial foray, but has said he plans the full implementation of his system in March’s primaries.

“I think most reasonable would say you probably shouldn’t have spent $1 million on iPads if you weren’t going to use them sometime soon,” Harris County Commissioner Rodney Ellis said.

Both Ellis and Shelley said the idea of automating the voter check-in process is a worthy pursuit, but questioned why the project has not had more transparency.

I’ll cut right to the chase and say that I agree with Ellis and Shelley. It’s entirely possible that this was a worthwhile project for the County Clerk to take on, but:

1) Are we sure there wasn’t a commercial or open source solution out there? Even if it was more expensive, being able to deploy it in earlier elections would have mitigated the extra cost.

2) What oversight did this project have? I’ve been involved in some big projects in the corporate world. We have timelines, signoffs, approvals, all sorts of things to ensure that the people who need to know about it do know about it and know where it stands. How much has Commissioners Court been looped in on this?

3) Are there any design documents, or other technical descriptions of what this is, what it is intended to do, what the requirements are, etc etc etc? In other words, is it written down anywhere what to expect when this thing finally debuts? And if so, where is that?

4) Finally, not to put too fine a point on it, but what was the original budget for this, and how does that compare with what has actually been spent?

Maybe this thing will be great, and maybe it will be a dud. The idea is a good one, but that means nothing if the execution isn’t there. It’s way past time for these questions to be answered.

Emmett calls for changes to county’s flood strategy

Good to see.

Judge Ed Emmett

Calling Tropical Storm Harvey’s devastation a “game-changer,” Harris County Judge Ed Emmett on Monday called for a sweeping reexamination of the region’s flood control strategy, a process that could include billions of dollars to upgrade aging dams, building a new storm water reservoir and ramping up regulations to tamp down booming development in flood-prone areas.

The set of options outlined by Emmett on Monday, if implemented, would be the biggest change in decades to how the Houston region protects against its perennial rains and floods. Emmett said everything would be on the table, including large-scale buyouts, banding with surrounding counties to create a regional flood control district and seeking authority from the state to levy a sales tax to pay for what likely would be a massive initiative.

Emmett, a Republican who has served as county judge since 2007 and largely is seen as a pragmatist, likened the changes to a post-flood push in the 1930s that led to the creation of the Harris County Flood Control District and the construction of the Addicks and Barker dams on the city’s west side, which today protect thousands of homes of homes, downtown Houston and the Texas Medical Center.

“We can’t continue to say these are anomalies,” Emmett said. “You’ve got to say, ‘We’re in a new normal, so how are we going to react to it?'”

Jim Blackburn, an environmental lawyer and frequent critic of Harris County’s flood control strategy, was encouraged after hearing Emmett’s comments Monday.

“This is the single best piece of news I have heard post-Harvey from any elected official,” said Blackburn, who has sued the county on several occasions and co-directs Rice University’s center on Severe Storm Prediction, Education and Evacuation from Disasters. “I would like to hear every one of them say that.”

[…]

Included in the options Emmett outlined Monday were buyouts, not just of individual homes, but whole tracts of land. He said a wish-list of homes that are not already being targeted by projects, such as the upgrades on Brays Bayou, could cost $2.5 billion.

A regional flood control district could be modeled after the Harris-Galveston Subsidence District, created in 1975 to oversee the conversion from well water to surface water after sinking ground alarmed residents and public officials.

Emmett said given the repetitive flooding, the 100-year standard the county uses to design projects and regulate development, would need to be reexamined.

“We basically had three 500-year events in two years,’ he said.

An additional reservoir and a levee in the northwest part of the county to back floodwaters from Cypress Creek – both part of the options Emmett outlined – had been part of an original U.S. Army Corps plan when it built the Addicks and Barker reservoirs. Those projects failed to materialize, however, and land costs became prohibitive as people moved in.

As we now know, this includes a bond issue of up to $1 billion. On top of that, Commissioners Court has filed an application with FEMA to buy out some houses in high risk areas. Emmett has also mentioned federal funds for some projects, which state officials are also seeking, reallocating the county budget to put more of an emphasis on flood mitigation, and maybe asking the Lege to provide another revenue stream such as a sales tax. Some of this may now be mooted by the bond issue, and some of it may be discarded for lack of support. The important thing is to get the conversation started, so kudos to the county for that.

New county risk assessment system coming

We’ve been waiting.

Harris County officials on Tuesday touted their revamped strategy for deciding whether tens-of-thousands of individuals should be jailed before their criminal trials, a process that critics and a federal judge say disproportionately affects the poor who are unable to come up with the money to make bail.

On July 29, the county plans to implement the “public safety assessment,” to grade individuals arrested in Harris County each year on their risk of re-offending, committing a violent crime or failing to show up for court.

The tool is intended to recommend to judges and hearing officers that low-risk individuals – both felony and misdemeanor – be let out of jail on personal bonds. Higher-risk individuals would be required to post bail according to an established bail schedule, as well as face additional supervision such as round-the-clock monitoring or regular check-ins with probation officers.

“This is the biggest change in criminal justice reform that Harris County has ever seen,” said Kelvin Banks, the county’s director of pretrial services.

[…]

[Federal judge Lee] Rosenthal weighed in on the county’s new risk assessment tool earlier this month, writing that the new rules “do not change much.”

The system imposes a fee schedule ranging from $500 to $5,000 for misdemeanors and recommends up-front payment from most people.

“Like the old schedule … secured money bail is the standard recommendation for most categories of misdemeanor arrestees,” the judge wrote. “The approved changes are hardly different.”

Elizabeth Rossi, an attorney with Civil Rights Corps, said the risk assessment does not eliminate the use of a bail schedule, and despite its goal, will continue to ensure that those without means will be routinely jailed.

“It doesn’t solve the constitutional problem,” Rossi said.

See here and here for some background. I hope this helps, but it doesn’t sound like it moves us closer to a resolution. Maybe it will at least keep a few people out of jail who don’t need to be there. In the meantime, we wait for the appeals process to play out.

Harris County will not enter SB4 litigation

Unfortunate.

Harris County Commissioners Court on Tuesday decided not to join a lawsuit against the state’s controversial sanctuary cities law.

A motion made by Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis to move to join the lawsuit died after it failed to receive a second by another court member.

The move comes as pressure had been building for the county to join the lawsuit, which opponents of the state law — Senate Bill 4 — say is discriminatory against immigrant communities.

A number of public speakers Tuesday, including state legislators Sylvia Garcia and Armando Walle, asked the county to join the lawsuit.

“The law in my mind is unconstitutional and it’s in violation of human dignity,” Garcia, D-Houston.

Can’t say I’m surprised by this, but I am disappointed. The Observer adds on.

At the hearing, a group of Democratic lawmakers and activists backed Harris County Commissioner Rodney Ellis in asking the other four members, all Republicans, to vote to join the legal challenge.

“Over the last several weeks, I’ve heard widespread, almost unanimous opposition to SB 4,” said Ellis, a former state senator and the only person of color on the commissioners court, in a statement to the Observer. “Members of the Harris County delegation in the Legislature… and residents across Harris County asked us to join the lawsuit to overturn the new law.”

[…]

But County Judge Ed Emmett, a Republican, said he was not persuaded.

“Don’t interpret, if we decide not to sue, that decision as an endorsement of SB 4,” he said after hearing the testimony, which lasted about 15 minutes.

“It is!” shouted someone in the audience. She called the commissioners “cowards,” and promised that she and others would campaign against those who chose not to sue. Police officers escorted her out of the room.

Emmett said SB 4 goes too far in “interfering” with local government, but said that doesn’t mean the county should sue.

Perhaps it doesn’t, as there are many other plaintiffs, but no second for Ellis’ motion is hardly a profile in courage for the Court. It would be nice to know, on the record, how this adversely affects the county. Can we be more specific about how SB4 “interferes” with our county’s government? Not in general or in theory, but how it is directly affecting us, the taxpayers and residents of Harris County. We say we’re not endorsing SB4 despite our lack of action. Let’s not give the impression of endorsing it by remaining silent. That is the least we can do. Stace has more.

UPDATE: Here’s the longer Chron story. Of interest:

A majority of the Commissioners Court said that despite their reservations about the law, which some described as an overreach by the state, joining the lawsuit could put the county on a slippery slope for lawsuits over an untold number of disagreeable state bills in the future.

“Were we to sue every bill that gets passed, I think that’s a dangerous precedent,” said Precinct 2 Commissioner Jack Morman, who, along with his three Republican colleagues, opposed joining the lawsuit.

[…]

Earlier in the week, Harris County Attorney Vince Ryan, a Democrat, filed a friend-of-the-court brief stating that the law would “irreparably harm” children in the state’s child welfare system.

“By mandating county attorneys cooperate in the enforcement of immigration laws – prioritizing immigration over other duties – SB4 creates an irreconcilable conflict between the priority given by our state to the preservation of the family,” the brief states.

[…]

Precinct 3 Commissioner Steve Radack said he questioned whether the bill actually would increase distrust, and said the Harris County Attorney’s office had not recommended to him to join the lawsuit. He also offered a criticism of the law, which he said “basically circumvents authority in a police agency, like the sheriff, for example.”

In his brief, County Attorney Ryan said his office represents state officials who are bound to advocate for children’s best interest and keep families together. It goes on to say the law would deter immigrants from reporting abuse of children, volunteering to care for children or providing evidence in child abuse cases.

“Given that SB4 compels county attorneys to cooperate in efforts which will lead to the deportation of parents or kinship caregivers, the separation of families, and further trauma to children, the new law presents clear conflicts with federal and state child welfare laws, which require efforts to protect children and to maintain the unity of their families without regard to their immigration status,” the brief states.

Like I said, not exactly a profile in courage. Perhaps someone could sit Commissioner Morman down and explain to him that getting involved in this particular case does not create any obligations going forward. At least the amicus brief does state some of the harm from SB4 on the record. Clearly, that’s the best we’re going to get at this time.

Ellis seeks Harris County entry into SB4 litigation

From the inbox, an email from Commissioner Ellis:

Commissioner Rodney Ellis

Despite strong opposition from law enforcement officials, faith leaders, local governments, civil rights organizations, constituents, and advocacy groups, Senate Bill 4 (SB4), the “show-me-your-papers” legislation, has been signed into law. The new legislation unfairly targets immigrant families, allows state-sanctioned racial profiling, and violates rights to due process. SB4 also undermines local governments by forcing them to choose between enforcing a blatantly unconstitutional law or facing strict punishment and excessive fines from the state.

As the nation’s third-largest county with the fifth-largest foreign-born population, Harris County is at particular risk under SB4. Immigrants are a vital part of our community and strengthen the social fabric of Harris County. This new legislation threatens to tear families apart. Immigrants cannot and should not be driven back into the shadows or live in fear because of this unconstitutional law.

Already, local governments have filed suit against SB4, and a preliminary hearing is scheduled for Monday in San Antonio. Just this past week, the Houston City Council voted to join San Antonio, Austin, Dallas, Bexar County and other local governments in a consolidated lawsuit challenging the law.

As Commissioner, I will continue to stand with immigrant families and defend the right of local government and law enforcement to set their own priorities. In a June 9 letter, I asked Harris County Attorney Vince Ryan to seek authorization from Harris County Commissioners Court to join the lawsuit against SB4. I believe it is vitally important for Harris County to fight this unjust law and look forward to working with County Attorney Ryan on this important issue that we both care about. You can read the letter below:

SB4 is a reflection of the anti-immigrant sentiment permeating our society and stands in the way of comprehensive immigration reform. It upholds a flawed and outmoded form of immigration control that tears families apart, increases racial profiling, and violates due process. We need immigration solutions that attend to the complex issues surrounding reform with compassion, efficiency, and effectiveness in mind. And wherever there is discrimination, we must be prepared to speak out and take action.

I’ve got a copy of the letter, which was embedded as an image in the email that Commissioner Ellis sent, here. Houston-area Democratic legislators supported Ellis’ call with a letter of their own that calls on the Court to get involved. I can’t say I expect that to happen – unlike Houston City Council, Commissioners Court is 4-1 Republican – but given the unfunded costs on the county that SB4 will impose, as well as the decline in cooperation with law enforcement, you’d think there’d be a simple dollars-and-cents argument in favor of getting involved. Anything can happen, but I’m not holding my breath. Stace has more.

Ellis shakes things up

Good. It’s what he should be doing.

Commissioner Rodney Ellis

When former state Sen. Rodney Ellis launched his campaign to succeed the late El Franco Lee as Precinct 1 commissioner last year, he said he would shake up Harris County government.

He’s kept his promise.

Not even three months into his tenure, Ellis filed court papers siding against the county he now helps govern in a costly civil rights case, tearing apart a bail system he said keeps the poor behind bars ahead of their court hearings while the rich can walk free.

A day later, at what typically is an all-but-perfunctory biweekly meeting of Harris County Commissioners Court, Ellis’ colleagues returned fire.

Unprecedented, one remarked. Another questioned whether Ellis, a lawyer, had a financial incentive for the county to be sued. A third, turning to face Ellis, accused him of “joining a lawsuit” instead of bringing ideas to his colleagues.

“I want you to know that I’m calling upon you to put on your commissioner hat,” said Jack Cagle, whose Precinct 4 stretches across north Harris County. “Not your lawyer hat. Not your senator hat, but your commissioner hat.”

Since Ellis took office Jan. 1, the veteran politician’s style – applying public pressure to advance causes he holds dear – has grated against tradition for a commissioners court that has long relied on quiet, behind-the-scenes deal-making to operate a more than $3 billion enterprise and govern the third largest county in the United States.

“I believe that he thrives in seeking publicity,” said Precinct 3 Commissioner Steve Radack, himself no stranger to making headlines with controversial comments over nearly three decades on the court. “That is not the norm that I have seen in Commissioners Court over the years.”

Observers suggest that Ellis’s arrival could signal a shift for the Republican-dominated body, a sign of things to come in a county growing increasingly diverse and Democratic.

“Rodney is as much a catalyst as he is a consequence of what’s happening in county government,” said Robert Stein, Rice University political scientist.

There’s a lot more, so go read the rest. I certainly don’t care that Ellis has annoyed his colleagues, at least on the bail issue. They needed to be annoyed. Part of the problem may be that a Court that’s four-fifths Republican white guy isn’t particularly representative of a county that’s majority non-white and trending strongly Democratic. Perhaps the next couple of elections will help correct that imbalance, but until then Ellis’ colleagues are just going to have to cope.

There is always some risk

I get the concern, but the alternative was unacceptable and now is illegal. Get used to it.

More than 600 people charged with misdemeanors have been released since June 7 when the U.S. Supreme Court rejected an emergency motion by the county to block [federal judge Lee Rosenthal’s] order, according to estimates provided to the county attorney’s office from criminal court officials.

[…]

“That’s my sort of common sense problem with this whole ruling,” said Harris County Judge Ed Emmett. “I’ve stated publicly that someone shouldn’t be in jail because they can’t afford bail…there’s got to be a risk assessment here. I don’t think anyone wants somebody to to keep driving drunk time after time after time until they kill some family somewhere.”

Other court members expressed similar concerns about people being released on personal recognizance.

Precinct 4 Commissioner Jack Cagle and Precinct 3 Commissioner Steve Radack said Rosenthal’s ruling makes it easy for criminals to game the system by swearing they do not have enough money to pay bail – even if they do – just to get out of jail.

“This is a slap at every single Harris County Criminal court judge,” Radack said. “It’s a slap at their integrity, their intelligence, and it’s, basically, it really doesn’t matter how bad you are, as long as you’re charged with a misdemeanor. If you say you can’t afford bail, you’re getting out.”

A 193-page opinion accompanying Rosenthal’s order outlined research that showed personal bonds in other jursidictions were no less effective at getting people to show up for their trials, nor did they significantly lead to additional offenses by those released. In fact, Rosenthal wrote, research shows pretrial detention increases the likelihood that people will commit future crimes.

Her order states that judges still have other tools – such as breathalyzers or GPS monitoring – to address the risk of releasees committing new offenses.

It also notes that the county has “not compiled the data it has to compare failure-to-appear or new-criminal-activity rates by bond type among misdemeanor defendants during pretrial release.”

Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis has been the lone member of Commissioners Court who has agreed that the county’s bail system is unconstitutional. He repeatedly has advocated settling the case. He said Tuesday that under the current bail system, people who can afford to make bail can pay, get out, and re-offend, meaning that using high bail to detain individuals disproportionately affects the poor.

Commissioner Ellis has it exactly right. Maybe if the county would get its act together and compile some data then some other members of Commissioners would feel less need to fearmonger. The point is that all along, we let anyone go who could pay whatever bond was set, without worrying about whether or not they might re-offend. A system that takes into account risk rather than ability to pay will do more to reduce this kind of crime than anything else. Fortunately, that’s what the county will have to do now. That’s all there is to it.

Harris County will continue to fight bail lawsuit

Stupid. Stupid, stupid, stupid.

Harris County has appealed a federal civil rights lawsuit that challenged the county’s bail system, despite rising legal costs that have neared $3 million.

After a heated discussion and a closed-door meeting Tuesday, Harris County Commissioners Court voted 4-1 to appeal the suit and to ask for a delay to a May 15 start date that would require the county to consider an inmate’s ability to pay when setting bail.

The stay was filed after the meeting and Chief U.S. District Judge Lee H. Rosenthal promptly issued an order giving all parties until 5 p.m. Wednesday to respond to the defendants’ request for a stay.

Elizabeth Rossi, an attorney from Civil Rights Corps, who represents indigent defendants held in jail because they cannot afford their bail rates said her clients “are disappointed to learn that the county and the judges are appealing Chief Judge Rosenthal’s thorough and comprehensive decision but we are confident that every judge to review it will agree with her and uphold it.” Rossi said her team would “vigorously” oppose a motion for a stay.

County leaders also urged their legal representatives to continue trying to settle the lawsuit, which had led to an order from Rosenthal declaring the county’s system unconstitutional.

“We believe the system she wants to implement is arguably not legal,” County Attorney Vince Ryan said.

Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis, who has pushed for settlement, cast the the lone vote against the decision to appeal.

“This is really asking the court to give you the funds to appeal,” he said.

Sheriff Ed Gonzalez, who is a named defendant in the lawsuit, also opposes the appeal. He declined to join the other defendants Tuesday in appealing the order, explaining after the Commissioners Court meeting, “We’re just going to move forward to implement it the best way possible and see what all these other proceedings lead to.”

I’m angry about this. It is a huge waste of time and money in pursuit of an unjust resolution. Everyone who supports this needs to be voted out. I don’t know what else to say.

“What are we fighting for?”

That’s the key question for the county in the bail lawsuit.

As legal costs mount, surpassing $200,000 per month, pressure is building for Harris County officials to settle a lawsuit over the county’s cash bail system that a federal judge has ruled unconstitutional.

Newly available documents reveal that teams of defense lawyers are racking up massive ongoing expenses, including one lawyer on retainer since June at $610 per hour and a Washington, D.C. appellate lawyer on board since mid-April at $550 per hour.

Among the two dozen county officials named as defendants in the civil suit, one is fed up.

“It’s time to settle,” said Criminal Court at Law Judge Darrell Jordan. “What are we fighting for?”

A settlement offer remains on the table from lawyers representing poor people stuck in jail for misdemeanor offenses because they could not afford cash bail. But none of the other defendants in the suit has budged, according to attorney Neal Manne, whose firm donated its services in filing the suit with two civil rights organizations.

First Assistant County Attorney Robert Soard said Friday he anticipates his office will have a recommendation for the Commissioners Court meeting Tuesday morning. Discussion of the case is included on the Commissioners Court agenda, with possible action to follow.

As of Friday, however, the county has been billed about $2.85 million by outside counsel – a cost the county attorney’s office says is not out of line given the number of defendants and a local criminal justice system that is one of the largest in the nation.

[…]

On Friday, Criminal Court at Law Judge Jordan hand-delivered a letter to County Judge Ed Emmett asking that he be allowed to settle the case immediately.

Emmett spokesman Joe Stinebaker explained the office’s response to Jordan’s letter.

“Judge Emmett has no authority whatsoever to allow or prevent any of the defendants in this suit from taking any action they deem appropriate,” he said.

The formalities were of little importance to Jordan, who said it seems obvious the county should settle, given Rosenthal’s comments that the indigent defendants are likely to prevail at trial.

It’s true that Judge Emmett doesn’t have the authority to make a settlement happen. So let’s be clear about who can make it happen: The County Court judges who are the defendants in the case and who (other than Judge Darrell Jordan, the lone Democrat among them) have insisted on continuing to fight, and County Commissioners Jack Morman, Steve Radack, and Jack Cagle, who have the authority to tell the judges that they will not pay for any further litigation. They have the opportunity to express that opinion on Tuesday. If they do not – if they vote to continue paying millions of dollars to outside counsel in pursuit of a losing and unjust cause – then we know whose responsibility this is.

Why won’t the county settle the damn bail lawsuit?

Lisa Falkenberg asks the same question I’ve been asking.

Now that Chief U.S. District Judge Lee Rosenthal – it should be noted, a Republican appointee — levelled her devastating assessment of Harris County’s rigid bail system a few days ago, ordering county officials to cease practices that violate misdemeanor defendants’ rights to due process and equal protection, you’d think the elected officials who hold the purse strings would admit the futility of fighting the lawsuit and stop funding this exercise in fiscal irresponsibility.

So, why doesn’t the county just settle the lawsuit, and put the money it is spending on lawyers to better use?

I got a surprising answer when I raised that question with the office of Ed Emmett, the county’s chief executive.

“We have consistently been told by the county attorney’s office that the other side does not want to settle,” Emmett said.

The county attorney is Vince Ryan, whose office represents county officials in legal matters. The “other side” is the plaintiffs: two civil rights groups –Texas Fair Defense Project and Civil Rights Corps – and local law firm Susman Godfrey.

Emmett’s spokesman, Joe Stinebaker, said that while commissioners decide whether to keep funding the county’s defense, they can only decide “based on honest and full advice of the county attorney’s office.”

OK. But why would the civil rights groups and a law firm working pro bono to improve the system refuse to settle? Could that be true?

“That’s totally false,” said Neal Manne of Susman Godfrey. “Anyone who claims it’s impossible to settle or we were not willing to settle either has mistaken information or is intentionally not telling the truth.”

[…]

Thoroughly confused, I reached out to the county attorney’s office. First Assistant County Attorney Robert Soard promptly responded. I asked him if his office had really been recommending to Emmett and other commissioners not to settle because the other side wasn’t interested.

“I guess I can’t comment on that because you’re getting into settlement talks and we’re not allowed to talk about that,” he said.

He did offer an observation: “It takes two parties to settle a case. We can make offers, we can make suggestions but unless they’re accepted, there can’t be a settlement.”

Well, yes. But failure to agree to specific terms of a settlement is very different from refusing to settle at all. I told Soard about Karakatsanis’ offer to settle if the county would just abide by Rosenthal’s ruling. At this point, it could save the county millions in legal fees.

“If they make an honest promise and put it in writing we’ll certainly look at it,” Soard said. He noted that although his office can recommend a settlement, it can’t mandate one; all the county officials named as defendants would have to agree.

You know where I stand on this. Like Falkenberg, I’m not sure who’s blowing smoke here. The one thing I would push back on is the notion that Commissioners Court merely approves or denies the requests to fund the county’s defense. Our commissioners are a lot more invested in this case than that, and as we have clearly seen, at least two of them (Radack and Cagle) don’t appear to be willing to give up the fight. I would want to know more about what the Commissioners – other than Rodney Ellis, who has been quite vocal about not supporting any more expenditures on the lawsuit – ave been saying and doing. They themselves may not be the clients in this lawsuit, but they sure do wield some influence.

And now we have this.

A new settlement offer is on the table in the high-stakes federal lawsuit over Harris County’s bail system in the face of a judge’s ruling that poor people are wrongly kept behind bars because they can’t post cash bail.

The offer comes less than 24 hours after County Judge Ed Emmett told the Chronicle that he’d been informed repeatedly by the county attorney’s office that the lawsuit couldn’t be settled because attorneys for the inmates were unwilling to reach a deal.

The comments brought an immediate offer to the county from a lawyer representing misdemeanor suspects: Agree to the terms outlined by Chief U.S. District Judge Lee H. Rosenthal and the lawsuit can be resolved.

“If they’re willing to settle today, we’re happy to settle, and they could stop spending taxpayer money defending a hopeless cause,” attorney Neal Manne, a managing partner at Susman Godfrey, said Wednesday.

[…]

Manne said the settlement offer is just the latest attempt to reach an agreement out of court. He said he submitted the first settlement offer at the county’s request on June 1, which led to two days of mediation in August. After that, the two sides exchanged multiple drafts of proposals, with the final one early this year before the injunction hearing was initially set to begin in February.

First Assistant County Attorney Robert Soard said Wednesday that settlement discussions had been ongoing prior to the injunction hearing in March and that he was not opposed to further talks since the judge’s ruling.

“I agree with Neal [Manne] that there have been ongoing talks about possible settlements,” he said. “They’ve made offers. We’ve made offers. I don’t know why it’s the county’s fault. Certainly the county is willing to settle on terms that are reasonable. There’s no question about that. And there’s no questions that there have been talks.”

Well OK then. Unless the county believes the judge’s terms are not reasonable, then the framework for a settlement is right there. What’s it going to be, fellas?

County considers its bail options

I can think of one, if they need some help.

With just two weeks until the 193-page order from Chief U.S. District Judge Lee H. Rosenthal kicks in May 15, county officials are working to draft a plan to deal with the hundreds of misdemeanor offenders now behind bars and the new cases filed each day.

County officials and more than a dozen lawyers spent Monday in meetings deciding whether to appeal the order, said Robert Soard, first assistant at the Harris County Attorney’s Office. He said he anticipates the legal team will have a recommendation about whether to appeal before the next Commissioners Court session May 9.

Jason Spencer, spokesman for Sheriff Ed Gonzalez, said the changes will require collaboration among multiple agencies to comply with the ruling so quickly.

“It’s not just a flipping of a switch and now we can do these things,” he said. “It takes time and planning to put new systems in place that weren’t there before.”

Paula Goodhart, administrative judge for the misdemeanor courts, was also among those in the meetings.

“Like everyone else, we’re still trying to process it,” Goodhart said.

Goodhart declined to answer questions specific to the lawsuit, because she is one of the defendants. Instead, she spoke about changes that have been in the works for the past two years to reform the county bail system.

“We do recognize that low- and moderate-risk people should be out pending trial,” she said. “We just want to balance public safety with individual liberty interests.”

On any given day, between 350 and 500 people-about 5.5 percent-of the jail population are awaiting trial on misdemeanors. But about 50,000 people are arrested in Harris County on misdemeanors each year, so the number of people who would not have to pay a bondsman or plead guilty to get out of jail could be in the tens of thousands.

County budget officer Bill Jackson said his office is working to understand how many people may be released by the judge’s order and how much that could reduce the cost of incarceration at the overcrowded jail.

“This is such a moving target,” Jackson said. “There’s just way too many ‘what-ifs’ and variables.”

See here for the background. I can’t help with the what-ifs and the variables, but I can give them one solid piece of advice: Don’t appeal. Save your money on the high-priced lawyers and start implementing what the judge ordered. The county will save a bunch of money by not having so many people in jail, and with that there will be fewer deaths, fewer rapes, fewer allegations of brutality against the guards, and so on. There will also be a higher general level of justice in the county, with fewer people forced out of work and fewer people spending money they don’t have on bail bondsmen and court costs. Less cost, less death, more justice. Someone help me out here, what is it we have to think about here?

Some officials, however, bristled Monday at the judge’s opinion,which was handed down late Friday.

Precinct 4 Commissioner Jack Cagle said the ruling was an example of a federal judge changing Texas law. Precinct 3 Commissioner Steve Radack wondered whether the release of inmates could impact public safety.

“Just because somebody has been charged with a Class B or A misdemeanor doesn’t mean that’s a person that’s a real nice person, that’s real trustworthy and hasn’t been involved in an active assault,” Radack said.

Take your two-bit scare tactics and tell it to Judges Hecht and Keller, guys. And settle the damn lawsuit.

Senate passes “driverless car” bill

This is a first.

Sen. Kelly Hancock

Texas took a step toward self-driving vehicles zipping up and down its highways and streets under a first-of-its-kind measure approved Thursday by the Texas Senate.

Approved by a 31-0 vote, Senate Bill 1622 would implement minimum safety standards for so-called “autonomous vehicles” and “automated driving systems” — the first time the new technology will be regulated in the Lone Star State.

Sen. Kelly Hancock, R-North Richland Hills, said oversight is needed to ensure the rapidly-evolving technology — some of which involve human navigators and others that are fully automated — remains safe on Texas streets and highways.

He said the legislation defines “automated driving system” to mirror current requirements of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which has set nationwide safety standards.

The bill also pre-empts local officials in Texas from imposing their own rules or requiring a franchise for companies to operate autonomous vehicles — the latest such measure approved in this legislative session to curb local regulations on a variety of issues.

Owners of “autonomous” vehicles would have comply with state registration and title laws and follow traffic and motor-vehicle laws; the vehicles must be equipped with a data-recording system, meet federal safety standards and have insurance.

In the event of an accident, the “autonomous” vehicle immediately would have to stop and notify the proper authorities.

The bill number listed in the story is incorrect – SB1622 is a completely different piece of legislation, authored by Sen. Carlos Uresti, though as you can see it too passed the Senate on Thursday. The correct bill appears to be SB2205. As noted before, this is the third session in which a driverless car bill has been introduced. A bill by then-Sen. Rodney Ellis in 2015 failed to pass after being opposed by Google. Either Google has changed its tune, or this bill satisfied its objections from last time, or this time the Senate didn’t care, I can’t tell. A similar House bill has not yet received a hearing, so if this is going anywhere, it will surely be via Hancock’s SB2205.

As for the by now standard pre-emption of local regulations, at least in this case I’d say it’s appropriate. The state has been the regulator of vehicles in the past and has the infrastructure in place to deal with those regulations. My fear is that we’re creating a new norm here, and that bills that don’t contain local pre-emption clauses are going to be seen as the exceptions. Be that as it may, this bill overall seems like a good idea. We’ll see what happens to it in the House.

Harris County bail system ruled unconstitutional

Damn right.

A federal judge in Houston Friday issued a scathing denouncement of Harris County’s cash bail system, saying it is fundamentally unfair to detain indigent people arrested for low-level offenses simply because they can’t afford to pay bail.

In a 193-page ruling released Friday, Chief U.S. District Judge Lee H. Rosenthal ordered the county to begin releasing indigent inmates May 15 while they await trial on misdemeanor offenses.

Rosenthal concluded the county’s bail policy violates the due process and equal protection clauses of the Constitution.

“Liberty is precious to Americans and any deprivation must be scrutinized,” the order states, citing a comment from Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Nathan Hecht.

The judge also granted “class-action” status to the case, meaning that her findings will apply to all misdemeanor defendants taken into custody.

The ruling – a temporary injunction that will remain in place until the lawsuit is resolved pending appeal – will not apply to those charged with felonies, or those who are being detained on other charges or holds.

First Assistant County Attorney Robert Soard said late Friday officials are reviewing the orders.

“No decision has been made at this time concerning an appeal of the preliminary injunction,” he said.

See here for the background, and here for a copy of the ruling. Grits highlights a key aspect of it.

Judge Rosenthal heard testimony from the Hearing Officers setting bail amounts on the front lines and poignantly found them non-credible: “The Hearing Officers’ testimony that they do not ‘know’ whether imposing secured money bail will have the effect of detention in any given case … and their testimony that they do not intend that secured money bail have that effect, is not credible.” In fact, she attributed “little to no credibility in the Hearing Officers’ claims of careful case-by-case consideration.” In the hearings she watched, they “treat the bail schedule, if not binding, then as a nearly irrebuttable presumption in favor of applying secured money bail at the prescheduled amount.”

If Judge Rosenthal were Politfact columnist, she’d be giving the Hearing Officers a “Pants on Fire” rating. To the extent that appellate courts must rely on her credibility assessments, and on many topics, they must, those lines may well preclude quite a few appellate paths for the defendants.

Her critique extended beyond the Hearing Officers, though to elected judges acting as “policymakers” overseeing Harris’ County pretrial-detention mill, whom she found to be willfully and conveniently ignorant about the human impact of they system they’re running:

policymakers are apparently unaware of important facts about the bail-bond system in Harris County, yet they have devised and implemented bail practices and customs, having the force of policy, with no inquiry into whether the bail policy is a reasonable way to achieve the goals of assuring appearance at trial or law-abiding behavior before trial. In addition to the absence of any information about the relative performance of secured and unsecured conditions of release to achieve these goals, the policymakers have testified under oath that their policy would not change despite evidence showing that release on unsecured personal bonds or with no financial conditions is no less effective than release on secured money bail at achieving the goals of appearance at trial or avoidance of new criminal activity during pretrial release.

That’s exactly right – they’re not going to change unless somebody makes them, and Judge Rosenthal clearly has decided she’s that somebody.

I would note that all of those elected judges are Republicans (*), and they are all up for re-election next year, so there is another way to force a change here. In the meantime, I have to ask again, why are we even still fighting this? What principle are we defending? Why are we writing checks to fat cat Washington DC Republican lawyers to “advise” on whether or not to appeal? Stop the madness and stop wasting my tax dollars on this crap, and settle the damn lawsuit already. It’s the right thing to do on every level. District Attorney Kim Ogg wants to settle. Sheriff Ed Gonzalez wants to settle. Commissioner Rodney Ellis wants to settle. Everyone else needs to get in line.

(*) The judges in question preside over the County Courts, where misdemeanors are heard. County Court Judge Darrell Jordan, who was elected in 2016 to fill a newly-created bench, is the lone Democrat. He also is the lone judge to favor settling.

Settle the damn bail lawsuit already

Enough.

Harris County commissioners Tuesday voted to add high-profile, conservative litigator Charles Cooper to a growing team of attorneys defending the county and several public officials against a civil rights lawsuit alleging the county’s bail system unconstitutionally jails the poor.

Cooper, a former clerk for U.S. Supreme Court Justice William Rehnquist and friend of U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, would represent 15 out of 16 county criminal court of law judges in a potential appeal.

No decision has been made yet in the case nor has it gone to trial. Parties are awaiting a ruling from Chief U.S. District Judge Lee Rosenthal to determine if the current bail system should be suspended before trial. When Rosenthal makes that ruling, either the plaintiffs or the county could appeal.

“It’s simply being ready to deal with eventualities,” First Assistant County Attorney Robert Soard said of Cooper’s retention. “Whether the county decides to appeal, the plaintiffs decide to appeal, it’s sometimes good to have these things lined up in advance.”

[…]

The county already has paid approximately $2 million to two outside law firms in the case, money that reform advocates such as Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis said could have been spent on actually implementing reforms being sought in the suit.

Ellis, who has advocated to settle the lawsuit and has criticized the county’s bail system, cast the lone vote Tuesday against retaining Cooper. He questioned Cooper’s role in defending California’s ban against gay marriage before the U.S. Supreme Court.

“He seems like the leading candidate that people go to if you want to fight civil rights,” Ellis said.

See here and here for some background. I realize that we’re still waiting for a decision on whether to put an injunction on the county’s bail policies (which I think will be granted) in advance of the trial itself, but this has already taken a long time and cost a ton of money. Meanwhile, the county’s justification is that they’ve made reforms so there’s nothing for them to be sued about. If that’s truly the case, then it shouldn’t be that difficult to work out whatever differences do remain, and save a lot of time and trouble. Digging our heels in further makes no sense to me, and I question the judgment of everyone involved who insists on it. The Press has more.

Commissioners get testy over bail practices lawsuit

Let’s hash it all out.

Sen. Rodney Ellis

Tensions flared at Harris County Commissioners Court Tuesday after new Commissioner Rodney Ellis filed legal papers supporting civil rights groups in their high-profile federal lawsuit against the county and its bail system.

In a rare public argument before dozens of onlookers at the meeting Tuesday, Ellis’ colleagues — all Republicans — took issue with his action, with some calling the move unprecedented and insinuating that the county attorney should consider whether Ellis could be excluded from private discussions about the lawsuit in the future.

“I’m concerned about how this impacts commissioners court, impacts executive sessions,” said Precinct 3 Commissioner Steve Radack, who represents western and northwestern portions of the county, including Katy and Cypress. “I’ve never been through something like this before.”

The exchange shows how the lawsuit has exposed new fissures in county government. Ellis, a former state senator, says he is making good on a promise to shake up the traditionally quiet, non-combative style of the governing board of the country’s third-largest county, with strategies he says have successfully helped him in a Republican-dominated state Legislature.

After the meeting, Ellis defended his actions, saying he would be prepared to take legal action if he were excluded from executive sessions. Without the lawsuit, he said, the system would not have changed.

“If it were not for politics and pressure, the administrators here in the county would still be administering for decades,” he said.

[…]

Ellis’ brief offers to help Chief U.S. District Judge Lee H. Rosenthal assess the collateral impact that cash bail has for poor, mentally ill and homeless people and African-Americans — who are jailed at disproportionately greater rates and suffer extreme economic harms when they spend time behind bars.

In addition, the brief says, lengthy jail time impacts their legal prospects and their health. It mentions the example of Sandra Bland, a black motorist arrested in Waller County after a traffic stop, who committed suicide after spending a weekend in jail on a bond she could not afford.

The civil rights groups’ remedy for Harris County is “eminently feasible, cost-efficient, and narrowly-tailored,” and is consistent with the county’s ongoing aims to improve bail practices, the brief says.

See here for the most recent update; we are still waiting for a ruling on an injunction. I get the concerns expressed by Commissioners Radack and Cagle and Judge Emmett. It is undoubtedly a weird place for Commissioners Court to be to not be all rowing in the same direction. Of course, the Sheriff and District Attorney are also in favor of settling the lawsuit and implementing the reforms the plaintiffs are seeking. It’s true that Harris County has been moving in the direction of some of these reforms and that some good has already been done, but it’s also true that the problems have been there for decades, and none of these reforms were put in place before the lawsuit was filed. Given the amount of money that has already been spent by the county defending against the lawsuit and the likelihood of losing, seeking to settle and get to the real work sooner rather than later sure seems like a viable strategy to me. What exactly is it the county is fighting for at this point?

County will use public defenders at bail hearings

Good.

Harris County commissioners on Tuesday approved a pilot program to make public defenders available at bail hearings, a step aimed at retooling a criminal justice system that has increasingly drawn criticism for jailing thousands of poor, low-risk offenders.

Within months, county officials anticipate that two public defenders will be present at bail hearings for those accused of misdemeanors and felonies. The vast majority of the roughly 80,000 defendants at these hearings each year does not now have legal representation, and the change means that defendants of limited means charged with a Class B misdemeanor or above will be able to have access to a lawyer when a judge sets bail.

The pilot represents a major change in the way Harris County processes those accused of crimes. The move also makes it the first county in Texas to create such a program, though one official noted that the county lags behind other major metro areas – New York City, Los Angeles and Chicago – in making attorneys available at bail hearings.

“I think it’s a huge step forward that will assure that people’s rights are protected at these hearings,” said Alexander Bunin, Harris County’s chief public defender, whose office developed the pilot program.

The attorneys would provide information on the defendants’ financial situations to hearing officers who set bail, with the goal of releasing those who cannot make bail, pose a low risk to society and have not been convicted of a crime.

[…]

Several top Harris County officials – including County Judge Ed Emmett, Sheriff Ed Gonzalez and District Attorney Kim Ogg – have also said recently that the bail system should be restructured so that it doesn’t differentiate between rich and poor defendants.

“This is a positive step forward on the long road to fixing a broken criminal justice system,” said Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis, a former state senator who has sharply criticized the county’s bail bond system.

Emmett, a Republican, also praised the pilot program’s creation Tuesday.

“It’s going in the right direction,” he said. “This is one of those things we needed to do.”

See here for the background. This makes sense on so many levels. It will be cost-controlled, as he public defender’s office budget is approved by Commissioners Court. The defenders assigned to bail hearings will always be there. There will be no concerns about quality or conflict of interest with public defenders, which as we know from long and painful history is not always the case with court-appointed attorneys. It will help prevent defendants from incriminating themselves out of ignorance and lack of representation. And not to put too fine a point on it but it greatly reduces the problem of people getting thrown in jail for no reason other than not being able to pay bail. It’s not a complete solution, in that there are still issues to be resolved in the bail practices lawsuit, but it’s a big positive step. Kudos all around.

Once again with driverless car legislation

Third time’s the charm, right?

Rep. Charlie Geren

State Rep. Charlie Geren isn’t about to let Texas get left in the dust when driverless vehicles start easing their way into everyday life. Especially since car manufacturers need somewhere to test them and could one day need someplace to mass produce them.

“I don’t want General Motors, or Ford, or Volkswagen, or Uber or anybody going anywhere else because Texas isn’t quite ready for this yet,” Geren told The Texas Tribune late Thursday.

The Fort Worth Republican this week filed House Bill 3475, which seeks to lay the framework for driving autonomous vehicles on Texas roads. Geren’s under no impression that the technology is well tested — or well trusted — enough that Texans are going to be walking into dealerships and buying driverless cars anytime soon. But he wants to get the ball rolling so car companies can expand testing of the technology in the state.

[…]

Among other things, the current version of Geren’s bill would require the owner or operator of an autonomous vehicle obtain a surety bond or insurance worth $10 million. The vehicles would have to be able to operate in compliance with existing traffic laws.

The automobiles would also be equipped with devices that could provide data on the vehicle’s automated driving system, speed, direction and location before at the time it’s involved in an accident.

Geren said his bill could change as those in the vehicle industry weigh in on it.

“I’m trying to get everybody in the business together on one bill,” Geren said.

It was industry opposition that stalled a 2015 bill by Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, authored in hopes of setting some guidelines for autonomous vehicles in Texas. Among other things, it would have directed the Texas Department of Public Safety to create minimum safety requirements for driverless cars.

Google opposed that bill two years ago but declined to publicly explain why at the time. Months later, the company began using a Lexus RX 450h SUV outfitted with self-driving equipment to test driverless cars in Austin. The tech giant’s autonomous vehicle efforts have since spun off into their own company called Waymo, which opposes Geren’s bill.

“Waymo continues to work with legislators who have an interest in the safe development of fully self-driving cars,” a company spokeswoman said late Thursday. “We believe this legislation is unnecessary and may inadvertently delay access to technology that will save lives and make transportation safer and easier.”

The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers also opposed the 2015 legislation out of fear that rules could have unintended consequences that would stymie development of the technology. The group echoed that sentiment on Friday, but did not speak specifically to Geren’s placeholder bill.

“If a state chooses to take legislative or regulatory action with respect to [autonomous vehicles], it is imperative that such action be focused on removing impediments to the safe testing and deployment of this technology,” said Dan Gage, a spokesman for the Alliance.

Some car manufacturers would prefer more guidelines.

“We think the right path is to come up with legislation that deals with where we are today and for the foreseeable future,” said Harry Lightsey, a public policy executive director for General Motors.

He said that autonomous technology has a long way to go before Americans trust it enough to give up control of the wheel but the landscape is changing so fast that some sort of framework would aid testing. That is key to gaining the kind of safety and performance data that would earn the public’s trust in the technology, Lightsey said.

“All of us have a lot to learn about full, self-driving cars and their impact on the urban landscape,” Lightsey said.

See here and here for more on Ellis’ 2015 bill. Believe it or not, there was a driverless car bill filed in 2013 as well. We’ve been talking about this for longer than you might remember. I don’t know that Rep. Geren’s bill will do any better than those two did, but it’s there just in case a consensus can be reached.

County approves defense attorneys for bail hearings

Long overdue.

Harris County commissioners voted unanimously Tuesday to develop a pilot program that would make public defenders present at bail hearings, a move aimed at reducing what officials say is the unnecessary jailing of thousands of defendants because they can’t afford bail or are unfamiliar with the legal process.

The pilot could lead to Harris County becoming the first county in Texas to make legal representation available at all hearings where bail is set. The majority of individuals are not represented by attorneys at the hearings.

Advocates for criminal justice reform heralded the county’s move, noting that research shows those jailed and unable to bail out are more likely to plead guilty to crimes they did not commit.

They also pointed to cases like that of Sandra Bland, who failed to make bail after a controversial arrest and committed suicide three days later in the Waller County jail, as examples of tragedies that could be prevented.

Roughly 80 percent of the Harris County jail’s population – some 7,000 to 8,000 inmates – are pre-trial detainees.

“In a jurisdiction that large, this is really a sea change about the way they are going to do business,” said Jim Bethke, executive director of the Texas Indigent Defense Commission.

[…]

The county public defender’s office is working with the budget office to develop the pilot program. It could make public defenders present at some or all bail hearings. Currently, Bethke said, only Bexar County has a similar program – and that is tailored to offenders with mental-health conditions.

The public defender’s office will present a pilot program to county commissioners on March 14, and it would go into effect, if approved, on July 1. The county is also implementing a new risk assessment tool for hearing officers to better determine whether people can be released prior to trial.

I consider this another positive outcome of the ongoing bail practices lawsuit. The time was finally right for the issue to gain salience and require some kind of solution, even before any intervention from the court. I want to see what the effect of this is on the jail population, because if it doesn’t have a noticeable effect then something is wrong. Think Progress, which offers an overview of the case, has more.

Ogg launches her pot prosecution reform program

We’ve been waiting for this.

Kim Ogg

The Harris County district attorney’s plan to decriminalize small amounts of marijuana drew reactions swift and strong Thursday from both sides of the debate.

District Attorney Kim Ogg made the announced Thursday backed by a bevy of local officials, including Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo, Sheriff Ed Gonzalez and Harris County Commissioner Rodney Ellis.

“The sky will not fall,” Acevedo said as he voiced his support. “There are already critics out there. We’ve been down this path before with my old department. Rather than see an uptick in crime, in the city of Austin we reduced violent crime between 2007 and 2014 by 40 percent.”

Bellaire Police Chief Byron Holloway, however, said the program seems similar to a program former District Attorney Devon Anderson put into place.

“At first blush, I’m not seeing a difference,” he said. “This is basically giving deferred adjudication up front.”

Yes, that’s my impression as well. This earlier story gives the details.

The policy, set to begin March 1, means that misdemeanor offenders with less than four ounces of marijuana will not be arrested, ticketed or required to appear in court if they agree to take a four-hour drug education class, officials said.

Ogg said the county has spent $25 million a year for the past 10 years locking up people for having less than 4 ounces of marijuana. She said those resources would be better spent arresting serious criminals such as burglars, robbers and rapists.

“We have spent in excess of $250 million, over a quarter-billion dollars, prosecuting a crime that has produced no tangible evidence of improved public safety,” she said. “We have disqualified, unnecessarily, thousands of people from greater job, housing and educational opportunities by giving them a criminal record for what is, in effect, a minor law violation.”

Officials have said it could divert an estimated 12,000 people a year out of the criminal justice system and would save officers hours of processing time now spent on low-level cases. More than 107,000 cases of misdemeanor marijuana cases have been handled in the past 10 years, officials said.

Since there is no arrest, there is no arrest record. Since there is no court date, there are no court documents connected to the encounter. The plan calls for officers to seize the marijuana and drop it off at a police station at the end of their shift, along with a record of the encounter in case the suspect does not take the class.

“You do not get charged with anything,” Assistant District Attorney David Mitcham, who heads the DA’s trial bureau, said Wednesday. “You have a pathway where you can avoid going to court.”

[…]

At the sheriff’s office, the new policy will save up to 12 hours of processing time per month for as many as 1,000 suspects, a move that will ease the workload on administrators and jailers who transfer and process inmates, officials said.

“We’re really encouraged by these swift actions by the district attorney,” said sheriff’s spokesman Ryan Sullivan. “And we are looking forward to working with Harris County’s criminal justice leadership identifying common-sense solutions to our broken criminal justice system.”

Sullivan said the move would likely not affect the jail population significantly, since most misdemeanor marijuana offenders move quickly in and out of jail. On Wednesday, just 12 people were jailed on misdemeanor marijuana offenses and unable to make bail, he said.

Elected district attorneys are given wide latitude in their discretion about how to enforce laws in their jurisdictions. Diversion programs, such as drug courts, have been widely used across Texas, and Austin has launched a “cite and release” program in which low-level drug offenders are given tickets and required to appear in court.

Under the new local program, police would identify a suspect to make sure they do not have warrants or other legal issues, then would offer them the option of taking the drug education class. If the suspect takes the class, the drugs are destroyed and the agreement is filed away.

A suspect would be able to take the class over and over again regardless of past criminal history, officials said.

The new program will keep police on the streets longer each day and reduce costs for lab testing of the drugs, Mitcham said.

If the suspect does not take the class, the contraband will be tested, and prosecutors will file charges and issue an arrest warrant. Offenders could then face up to one year in jail if convicted of the Class A misdemeanor.

The model to think about here is traffic tickets – speeding, running a stop sign, that sort of thing. You get a ticket instead of getting arrested (generally speaking, of course), and you have various options for disposing of the ticket without it appearing on your record. As with speeding tickets but unlike the program put in place by former DA Devon Anderson, you can get a do-over if you get cited again. Given all the strains on the jail lately, keeping some number of mostly harmless potheads out of jail, while keeping cops on the street instead of hauling said potheads downtown for booking, sure seems like a win to me.

As for Montgomery County DA Brett Ligon, whose press release is here, last I checked Montgomery County was not part of Harris County. State law allows for police departments to write citations for low-level drug busts instead of making arrests, and prosecutors have a lot of discretion in how they handle criminal charges. He’s as free to do his thing as Kim Ogg is to do hers, as long as the voters approve. Well, as long as the Lege approves as well, which given that Dan Patrick is having the vapors over this, could change. As we are seeing with many things, the Dan Patricks are out of step with the mainstream. It may take awhile, but that will catch up to them eventually. The Press and Grits for Breakfast have more.

More on the Whitmire Astrodome bill

I still don’t care for this.

All this and antiquities landmark status too

Harris County Judge Ed Emmett voiced concern Tuesday that a bill filed by a veteran state senator jeopardizes the county’s plan to revitalize the Astrodome, adding that county representatives would continue to try to persuade legislators to support the $105 million project.

Emmett said state Sen. John Whitmire’s bill, the Harris County Taxpayer Protection Act, was misleading and that Whitmire’s statements that some Astrodome renovation funds could be spent on Minute Maid Park or the Toyota Center were “demonstrably incorrect.”

“This bill is an example of state government making it more difficult for local government to do its job,” Emmett said.

[…]

At a press conference Tuesday in Austin, Whitmire and other state senators from the Houston area gathered to express their support of legislation that would effectively block – or at least delay – Emmett’s plan.

Whitmire noted that voters four years ago defeated a $217 million bond package that would have renovated the Astrodome and transformed it into a street-level convention hall and exhibit space,

“With the dire problems we have with home flooding, too few deputies, roads still in disrepair … I have to represent my constituents and say, ‘Go back and get voter approval,'” Whitmire said. “This puts in a very good safeguard that the public vote be honored.”

Whitmire was joined Tuesday by Democratic Sens. Borris Miles and Sylvia Garcia and Republican Sen. Paul Bettencourt, whose districts include parts of Harris County.

“This is a vote that the public expects to take,” Bettencourt said. “They’ve taken it in the past.”

Garcia took issue with the county’s plans to spend $105 million to create new parking before deciding how the Astrodome would be re-purposed. Voters need to hear the entire plan before any construction starts, Garcia said.

“I’ve always loved the Astrodome. I would assist the county commissioners court and anybody who wants to keep it alive,” Garcia said. “However, I don’t think this is the right way to get there.”

See here for the background. I guess I’m in a minority here, but I still disagree with this. When the time comes to spend money on NRG Stadium improvements, as some people want us to do, will we vote on that? (To be fair, not everyone is hot for Harris County to spend money on NRG Stadium.) If bonds are floated, sure. That’s what we do. (*) If not, we won’t. I don’t see why it’s different for the Astrodome. And however well-intentioned this may be, I’m still feeling twitchy about the Lege nosing in on local matters. I can also already see the lawsuit someone is going to file over the language of the putative referendum, however it may turn out. So I ask again, is this trip really necessary? I’m just not seeing it.

(*) Campos notes that we did not vote on Mayor White’s pension obligation bonds, as apparently there’s a state law that doesn’t require it. I’m sure there’s a story that requires at least two drinks to tell behind that. My assumption that we always vote on borrowing authority may be wrong, but my point that we don’t usually vote on general revenue spending still stands.

Harris County really needs to settle that bail practices lawsuit

Enough already.

Two Houston-based lawmakers called on Harris County Attorney Vince Ryan Friday to dismiss an attorney hired to represent county judges in a federal civil rights lawsuit, after that attorney claimed in a hearing that many people jailed in Harris County were there by choice – not because they could not afford to post bond.

Among other statements, the attorney, James G. Munisteri, told a federal judge Wednesday that as few as “zero” defendants are jailed pretrial who can’t afford to pay and some choose to stay locked up in one of the nation’s largest jails because it’s cold outside.

The ongoing civil rights lawsuit challenges Harris County judges and other officials for granting very few no-cost pretrial bonds to misdemeanor offenders – as few as 8 percent in May when the suit was filed, according to county statistics. The lawsuit claims that judges routinely violate the civil rights of the poor by failing to consider the inability to pay before jailing thousands of people annually before trial for minor crimes like marijuana possession and trespassing.

The county argued in a hearing this week that the lawsuit should be tabled because officials have made improvements and that 23 percent of those accused of misdemeanors were released on no-cost bond as of October 2016.

But Chief U.S. District Court Judge Lee H. Rosenthal declined to put the case on hold Wednesday, saying there was not enough evidence to support the county’s claims.

[…]

State Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, and Harris County Commissioner Rodney Ellis, a former state senator, both of whom support bail bond reform, challenged Munisteri’s remarks as “indefensible.” Both argued that “tax dollars should not be used to fund this reprehensible representation.”

Robert Soard, First Assistant County Attorney, said that officials planned to review the matter.

“The quote should be placed in the context of presentations being made by both attorneys for plaintiffs and defendants during a hearing that lasted over one hour. We are awaiting a copy of the actual transcript to determine the actual context and an appropriate response,” he said via email.

See here for the last update, and here for previous blogging. The Press was the first on this story late last week. I’m not a lawyer, but I know a ludicrous argument when I see one, and when a competent attorney makes a ludicrous argument, I figure it’s because said attorney is saddled with a loser of a case. Which is why, as I have been saying all along, Harris County needs to settle this and be done with it. We should take our medicine and quit paying attorneys like Mr. Munisteri to make dumb arguments on our behalf in service of a policy that neither our Sheriff nor our District Attorney wants defended. More from the Press is here.

Here come the Dems

All the newly-elected county officials have now been sworn in.

The new Harris County officials sworn in New Year’s Day had something in common: They were all Democrats.

The swearing-in ceremony at 2 p.m. Sunday followed the Democratic Party’s sweep of every countywide office in November’s general election, including closely watched contests against incumbent Republicans for DA and sheriff.

The blue wave in a normally purple county where President Barack Obama won by just one-tenth of a percent in 2012 was driven largely by the unpopularity of Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, who polled just 42 percent in Harris County compared to Democrat Hillary Clinton’s 54 percent, according to the county clerk’s official election results. Trump’s unpopularity here helped spur the Democrats’ 11-point advantage in straight-ticket voting.

[…]

County Judge Ed Emmett, Harris County’s top elected official, addressed the officials and their families.

“Don’t let your ego get in your way,” he told them. “The election is over and none of us is really that important. We are part of a governmental machine that’s been going a long, long time. … The ego of the campaign goes away. You’re not the office. You just occupy the office.”

Though Emmett mostly repeated his remarks from the 2015 swearing-in, he added a few comments this time around.

“This has been a heck of a year. … There’s been a lot of talk of divisiveness, ‘us’ versus ‘them,’ ” he said, citing partisan echo chambers and the dangers of fake news. “Everyone should be ‘us,’ ” he said.

Here’s a slightly different version of the story that mentions Fort Bend and Montgomery Counties as well. I appreciate Judge Emmett’s words about unity, but it will be interesting to see how that plays out in practice on Commissioners Court, which is still 3-1 Republican. Steve Radack had no qualms about slapping around Adrian Garcia while he was Sheriff, and he was already mixing it up with his now-colleague Commissioner Rodney Ellis even before Ellis was formally nominated to the office. Neither Ellis nor Kim Ogg will shy away from a fight, and the county is going to have to deal with both the Legislature and likely the Congress working to make things more difficult. It’s going to be an interesting year, let’s just leave it at that.

Commissioner Locke’s last day

He served well, and did a lot in his short time in office.

Gene Locke

Gene Locke, who was appointed Harris County commissioner nearly a year ago after the death of longtime Commissioner El Franco Lee, was praised for his effectiveness during a meeting Tuesday at which he cast his final vote.

The former city attorney and mayoral candidate received a standing ovation from his colleagues at his last commissioners court meeting.

“This is a public service job, and it’s been an honor for me to have the mantle of commissioner and do community service,” Locke said. “It makes me feel that there is a side of government that Americans don’t see and don’t talk about.”

Other members of the commissioners court heralded Locke’s initiatives on repairing streets, installing safe sidewalks for schoolchildren, and removing debris during his almost 11 months in office. His final day in office is Dec. 31.

Locke, a Democrat, also emphasized collaboration with the city of Houston, much of which falls in his precinct.

That, I think, was the key to Locke’s tenure, and a driver (I hope) of Rodney Ellis’. I’ve long felt as a resident of Houston and Precinct 1 that my Harris County tax dollars have gone overwhelmingly to building infrastructure and encouraging development in the outer reaches of the county, at the expense of maintenance and investment everywhere else. I don’t expect the county to supplant the city on things like roads and drainage, but I do expect them to be a part of it. We are still part of Harris County, after all. Commissioner Locke addressed that in a way that I hope will serve as a model going forward. Thank you for your service, and all the best with whatever comes next.

Spending money to defend our terrible bail practices

Ugh.

HarrisCounty

About $170,000 in tax money has been paid to outside attorneys to defend Harris Country officials from a federal civil rights lawsuit alleging that the bail bond system discriminates against poor people, records show.

That’s more than the cost of a six-month pilot project that would have provided attorneys for indigent misdemeanor offenders at bond hearings – a proposed reform critics say could have helped the county avert being sued in the first place, according to interviews and documents obtained by the Chronicle through public information requests.

[…]

The rising legal fees are not unusually high for outside counsel on a complex lawsuit, officials said. And outside lawyers may be necessary since the individual county leaders being sued – including judges and the sheriff – have publicly disagreed about how to reform the system, said Robert Schuwerk, a legal ethicist and author who is a retired University of Houston law professor. But county officials should have discussed those fees in advance and should have known from the first that if they pushed to litigate instead of reach a compromise that costs would escalate, he said.

“We may have a division of interests – it may be that the judges are saying no expense is too high for another branch to pay – the judges are not having to come up with the legal fees, I assume,” Schuwerk said. Even though an outside firm might be needed, Schuwerk said the county attorney’s own staff might also have better insight into the players and knowledge of the court system needed to reach a less costly settlement.

Critics, like state Sen. Rodney Ellis, argue that the county attorney should have handled the case himself and the money could have been better spent fixing the broken bail system.

“It’s the height of hypocrisy to spend taxpayers’ money in such a wasteful way,” Ellis said. “The county attorney is very capable and can adequately represent the position of the county in this matter. There is a certain irony in judges wanting to have their own lawyers to represent them as they refuse to provide legal representation to people who are charged with a crime with our criminal justice system.”

See here, here, and here for the background. I don’t have a problem in general with outside counsel being hired to handle litigation involving government entities. The County Attorney’s office has only so many employees, and they all have other responsibilities that could be adversely affected by spending the time needed to handle a lawsuit like this. And yes, the Sheriff and the DA and the judges may all have differing interests in this case. But you know what would solve this problem once and for all, and at minimal cost? Settling the lawsuit, which by the way would have the ancillary effect of saving the county a bunch of money in jail costs, not to mention keeping a lot of non-criminals out of jail. I don’t care who represents the county as long as we get that done. The Press has more.

Once more on HD146

Christopher Hooks from the Observer was at Saturday’s festivities, and he files his report.

Shawn Thierry

Shawn Thierry

And on Saturday, 24 precinct chairs met in a small room full of folding chairs at the Sunnyside Multi-Service Center in south Houston to pick Miles’ replacement. They adjudicated a fierce contest between [Shawn] Thierry and Erica Lee Carter, member of the Harris County Board of Education and, more importantly, daughter of longtime Houston congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee.

Most years see no races resolved this way in Houston, but this year, there have been five such elections, including two minor judicial races. The campaigns to win them are very unusual. With the public completely out of the picture, candidates focus herculean efforts on pleasing the personal whims of precinct chairs, minor party functionaries who ordinarily have very little say in anything. And because Democratic nominees are essentially guaranteed a win in November in the five races so far resolved, and because incumbents can last a long time, this summer’s votes may be the last contested election Ellis, Miles and Thierry ever face.

[…]

Finally, the vote. In the first round of ballots, Blackmon took one chair, leaving Thierry with 12 and Lee Carter with 11. The lone Blackmon supporter, Craig Holtzclaw, would have to re-vote in the second round and act as a potential tiebreaker.

Bizarrely, committees like this are so rarely formed that party laws don’t really have any guidance about what to do in the event of a tied vote, apart from running the vote over and over again. If Holtzclaw had voted for Lee Carter in the second round, things could have gotten messy.

But he picked Thierry, who will now be heading to Austin soon with a sweeping mandate of two votes. Lee Carter’s dejected supporters left the room, and Thierry’s gathered to pray together, thanking God for the guidance he had shown members of the Harris County Democratic Party.

Afterwards, I talked to Holtzclaw, the tiebreaker, who said he had taken his responsibility seriously, talking to all three candidates for more than an hour apiece. “This is a unique opportunity to practice republican deliberation — as in, a real republic,” he said. During the interrogations, he had asked them to recount their personal stories, their accomplishments, dreams and hopes, “and then I gave them a long sermon on what I believe,” and measured their beliefs to his.

Holtzclaw made a decent case for what seems on the surface like a foolish system. He held, it turned out, the fate of House District 146 in his hands, and might have just selected its representation in Austin for many years. And he had done his homework.

But what is it Holtzclaw believes, exactly? “I am a LaRouche Democrat,” he said, as in yet another acolyte of the infamous semi-cult leader who thinks Obama is Hitler, has argued that the Queen of England controls the global drug trade, and who wants to colonize space. Ah.

Holtzclaw said he had voted for the candidates who communicated to him that they were willing to take elements of the LaRouche platform to Austin, namely, telling all those tea-party Texas Republicans that we need “big government investment in infrastructure.” That’s what LaRouche calls “the science of physical economy.”

Blackmon and Thierry, he said, had seemed to embrace that line more than Lee Carter. And that’s why she lost, in part.

See here for my writeup from Sunday. Let me start by noting that the same provision of electoral law cited by Gerry Birnberg to settle the tie for convention chair would have applied in the event of a tie between Thierry and Carter as well, which is to say that the winner would have been determined by a coin toss. Roll your eyes if you want, but it’s there in the law, and if you can think of a fairer way of resolving an electoral tie than that, I’m all ears.

Hooks’ article got shared around quite a bit yesterday, with no small amount of snarky commentary from people whom I did not see at any of these precinct chair meetings, all with something pithy to say about “turnout” and “process”. Let me point out that 24 out of 26 precinct chairs in attendance represents 92% turnout, which I’m pretty sure would beat any other election in recent memory you’d care to find. It beats the pants off of the usual turnout levels for special elections and their runoffs, which often struggle to break into double digits, and which draw the same kind of disdainful remarks about apathy and disengagement and so on and so forth. We get it already. At least the precinct chairs bothered to show up.

And though I used similar language in my own report, I don’t care for the framing that this one chair picked the next Representative. He put Shawn Thierry over the top, but she’d gotten to the top without him. Everybody else’s vote meant as much to her election, his just happened to be the last one counted.

Finally, as far as who will or won’t face competitive races going forward, I tend to agree that Rodney Ellis won’t see too many as Commissioner. Which is to say, he won’t face any more than El Franco Lee did, or that Ellis himself did as Senator. Borris Miles won’t face the voters again till 2020, and I feel confident saying that people will be watching him, to see if he can harness his considerable talents and keep his demons under control. The answers to those questions will determine whether he can coast next time or not. As for Thierry, I’ll say again that I fully expect her to be challenged in 2018. There’s no shortage of politicos in that district, and the obscure path she took to win the seat this time means that she hasn’t faced a true test there yet. I will be surprised if she gets to skate in two years.

More on the jailed rape victim

The Chron pens a harsh editorial.

DA Devon Anderson

Although a spokesman for the district attorney’s office has admitted this miscarriage of justice should never have happened, Harris County District Attorney Devon Anderson defends the prosecutor involved in the case. She says the prosecutor tried to find a suitable place for the sexual assault survivor to stay after her breakdown and even paid for a night in a hotel out of his own pocket. Calling it “an extraordinarily difficult and unusual situation,” the DA said there were “no apparent alternatives” that would ensure the victim’s safety and that she also would appear to testify. Coming from a district attorney who presents herself as a champion of crime victims, that’s mighty hard to swallow. Throwing a mentally ill rape victim into jail because there’s supposedly no other place for her to go should shock the conscience of every citizen of Harris County.

[…]

Voters will pass final judgment on Anderson’s handling of this matter. With the district attorney up for re-election in November, the incident already has become a political issue.

Meanwhile, we call upon our elected leadership to ask the U.S. Justice Department for a federal investigation of this case. The DA and the sheriff have offered their own explanations, but an independent inquiry is absolutely essential.

We also urge Harris County Judge Ed Emmett and county commissioners Jack Cagle, Gene Locke, Jack Morman and Steve Radack to take the time to read the lawsuit the victim’s lawyer filed. It’s a frightening document outlining an unimaginable perversion of justice. We hope they lose sleep thinking over what they need to do about it.

See here and here for the background. We absolutely should be hearing more from Judge Emmett and Commissioners Court – including Sen. Ellis – on this. Do they support a federal investigation into what happened? We need to know.

and yes, this is a campaign issue.

District attorney candidate Kim Ogg on Tuesday again pushed for reform in the treatment of crime victims, criticizing the controversial jailing of a rape victim by Harris County prosecutors to ensure the woman would testify in court.

Ogg said the district attorney’s office could improve how victims are detained if prosecutors are worried witnesses might fail to show up in court. She also suggested the creation of a new division in the district attorney’s office that would be responsible for prosecuting people who commit sex crimes.

“I will never put a crime victim in jail to secure a conviction,” she said at a Tuesday press conference. “There are so many other things we can do … There is no excuse for putting this woman in jail.”

[…]

Ogg called last week for an independent investigation of the case and has now made crime victim treatment a campaign priority, saying her proposed reforms would be implemented if she is elected in November.

Sheriff candidate Ed Gonzalez has also been speaking out about this. You may say, we shouldn’t politicize this. I say District Attorney and Sheriff are political offices for a reason, and it is ultimately on the voters to decide how and when to hold the people who serve in those offices accountable when stuff like this happens. DA Anderson and Sheriff Hickman have given their responses to what happened. We get to decide how we feel about that. That’s how it’s supposed to work.