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Steve Radack

Harris County may do Harvey bonds

Turns out Harvey recovery will cost money. Who knew?

A majority of the Harris County Commissioners Court on Wednesday said they would support a large bond issue, perhaps upwards of $1 billion, and a tax increase to pay for it. The bond issue would bolster cash-strapped flood control initiatives, which could include a improvements to waterways and buyouts of properties that repeatedly flood.

After Hurricane Harvey’s widespread devastation and severe floods of the last few years, Harris County Judge Ed Emmett and commissioners Steve Radack and Jack Cagle, all Republicans, said in interviews Wednesday afternoon that they would favor a bond issue.

A bond proposal and corresponding tax rate increase would have to be approved by voters countywide, after a majority of the five-member Commissioners Court vote in favor of calling the election and placing the proposal on the ballot.

As to how early such an election could be called, First Assistant County Attorney Robert Soard said his office was reviewing the potential timing of an election.

[…]

Emmett said the bond issue would likely need to be $1 billion at a minimum.

County Budget Officer Bill Jackson said it is not immediately clear how much of a tax rate hike, if any, would be needed to pay for the bonds. If the county issued $1 billion in bonds at once, today, it would need roughly a 2-cent hike in the property tax rate.

I presume it’s too late for this year. so it’s a matter of when this could be done in 2018. The county could easily do this next November, it’s more a question of whether they can get it on the ballot sooner than that if they want to. There will need to be details filled in on what this bond would entail, but it sure seems like a worthwhile thing to do. I mean, if you think repairing the damage and investing in better flood mitigation going forward are worthwhile, that is. Perhaps someone should ask the Harris County Republican Party, which reflexively opposed Mayor Turner’s proposal, saying the city should “follow Harris County’s lead”. One could argue the county is now following the city’s lead. I’d just argue that by taking action, both the city and county are leading. Isn’t that what we want?

Still a few bugs in the system

A continuing story.

While Harris County officials are complaining that a federal judge’s bail order threatens public safety, the county has failed to provide more than 100 low-level defendants with pretrial services aimed at ensuring they make their court dates.

The latest revelations come amid criticism from District Attorney Kim Ogg, who accused county officials of trying to deliberately undermine the success of defendants released on personal bonds to bolster the county’s argument.

“Clearly the hope is that the reformed bail process fails,” Ogg said in a June 30 email obtained by the Chronicle. “This is necessarily a violation of their ethical duty and certainly not in the best interest of ordinary Harris County citizens.”

Ogg’s email did not identify which officials she believed might be responsible, and her office referred a request for additional comment to a court filing in which she supported changes to the county’s cash-bail system for misdemeanor offenses.

[…]

By missing court, the defendants also miss out on the assistance provided by the county’s Pre-Trial Services Division, such as text reminders about upcoming court dates that other defendants get seven days in advance and again on the day of the hearing.

Kelvin Banks, director of pretrial services, said a vendor, Voice4Net, manages the text messages for the county. He said his office is working with the vendor to set up reminders for those who are released by the sheriff, and is moving forward with plans for an additional staff member and training at the jail.

He said Monday he was reviewing resumes.

“We want to make sure we’re doing everything we can do to give defendants the best opportunity to be succesful on pretrial release,” Banks said.

Another vendor, called Uptrust, met with county officials on June 28, two days before Ogg sent her email, proposing a two-way messaging system that allows defendants to respond and provides information on childcare options and transportation.

It’s a little hard to say what is going on here, based on this story. There’s a lot of he-said/she-said in there. My basic premise all along is that the county has very little credibility on this issue, so I generally discount the complaints from Commissioners and judges about how hard this all is and how they’re Doing Their Very Best and Just Need A Little More Time and so on and so forth. Every action by the county – specifically, by those who continue to fight to support the status quo – is one of foot-dragging and reluctance to make changes, even small ones. I’ve yet to see a show of good faith. If we ever get to that point, then maybe I’ll take their complaints seriously. Until then, I say quit whining and do what the judge ordered you to do.

How much will the county get repaid for Super Bowl activities?

Quite possibly not very much, as it turns out.

After the New England Patriots stunned the Atlanta Falcons with a storybook comeback in Super Bowl LI, after the crowds drained away and the national spotlight left Houston, Harris County officials turned to organizers and asked to be repaid for security and around-the-clock support, part of $1.3 million the county spent on America’s biggest sporting event.

The answer, so far: Don’t count on it.

Super Bowl Host Committee officials say they would like to reimburse taxpayers but are not obligated to because the county did not, in its offers of support for the weeklong event, negotiate that it be compensated or repaid by organizers. The city of Houston did and has been repaid $5.5 million by the host committee.

Now, five months after the game, the back-and-forth has some local leaders questioning the costs borne by the county for the game, which was in the county-owned NRG Stadium at no cost to the National Football League, and whether the county will provide similar support in the future.

“It is very shortsighted,” said Harris County Precinct 4 Commissioner Jack Cagle. “There will be future events, future Super Bowls.”

County officials could not say why they did not negotiate a repayment agreement when they decided to support Houston’s bid for the Super Bowl in 2013 – instead offering a resolution of support for the game guaranteeing some assistance at no cost to the NFL. It is unclear if the county asked the host committee for a guarantee of compensation or reimbursement then.

A spokesman for Harris County Judge Ed Emmett said, as far as Emmett was concerned, a resolution like the county passed in 2013 would “never be used again.”

“The judge has now made clear that, before any future Super Bowls or major events like these transpire at a county-owned facility like NRG stadium, that there is going to have to be some type of an agreement where the county receives a share of the revenue from that,” said Joe Stinebaker, Emmett’s spokesman.

The debate over public spending for professional sports has gained steam in recent years as governments find themselves stretched to cover essential services and taxpayers are more aware of their support of multi-million dollar businesses, said Mark Conrad, director of the Sports Business Program at the Gabelli School of Business at Fordham University.

Conrad said the NFL “does not have to be nice” and will continue to push for any public support it can get.

“If I would predict, I would think the county is going to be eating the million dollars-plus,” Conrad said.

Keep this in mind the next time someone tries to tell you that the county is better-organized than the city. One can certainly argue that neither the city nor the county should have to enter into such detailed, technicalities-laden negotiations with a multi-billion-dollar private enterprise for payment of these relatively paltry sums. The NFL could just pay for everything up front, or the city and county could just handle it themselves on the grounds that the investment is worth it. But this is the way it is, and the county is at the end of the reimbursement line because they didn’t dot all their I’s. Let that be a lesson going forward.

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.

SCOTUS will not hear Harris County bail appeal

Let this please be the end of the line.

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas has denied Harris County’s request to stop the release of misdemeanor inmates who can’t afford to post cash bail.

The county had appealed late Tuesday to halt Chief U.S. District Judge Lee H. Rosenthal’s directive that it begin releasing some inmates accused of misdemeanor crimes who cannot afford bail. That order had gone into effect Tuesday, and continued Wednesday, while Thomas considered the county’s application.

Thomas’s denial means some inmates will continue to be released on personal recognizance ahead of their trials if they cannot afford bail. The county still has the option to ask another justice or the full Supreme Court to reconsider Thomas’s denial. Often follow-up requests to other justices are referred to the full court, according to the public information office for the Supreme Court.

Meanwhile, an appeals court is also considering the county’s appeal of Rosenthal’s full order.

See here for the background. The full Chron story has more details.

Chief U.S. District Judge Lee Rosenthal in Houston issued a 193-page ruling in April that the county’s bail system was unconstitutional and ordered the release of indigent misdemeanor defendants using personal bonds.

The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Tuesday morning rejected the county’s efforts to halt Rosenthal’s injunction while they challenged the full ruling in court. The county filed the same day for emergency consideration before the U.S. Supreme Court.

The latest legal blow left county officials weighing their options and refocusing efforts on challenging the larger order from Rosenthal, said First Assistant County Attorney Robert Soard.

The county still has the option to ask another justice or the full Supreme Court to reconsider Thomas’ ruling. Follow-up requests to other justices often are referred to the full court, according to the high court’s public information office.

Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg – whose office has already begun supporting personal bonds for misdemeanors – praised the court’s decision.

“There is no longer any legal reason why the county cannot comply with Judge Lee Rosenthal’s order,” she said, in a written statement. “Holding people in jail solely because they are poor violates due process, and the courts at every level of our federal judiciary have clearly spoken.”

[…]

Precinct 3 County Commissioner Steve Radack said the county wants a chance to complete its reforms without federal intervention.

“I want the end result to be fairness, and that’s what we have been striving for,” Radack said. “I don’t think you can always get court-ordered fairness.”

The bail bond industry has also opposed the order, which will release thousands of potential clients without requiring them to post bond.

Veteran bondsman Carlos Manzano, of Americas Bail Bonds, said he and many of his colleagues believe the overuse of personal bonds will create a dangerous situation for the community.

“It’s kind of like just like giving everybody a slap on the hand,” he said. “It’s going to blow up in the county’s face. It’s just a ticking time bomb.”

[…]

Legal experts said the county has just about used up all its options in challenging Rosenthal’s order.

“There’s no question that Justice Thomas has concluded that there isn’t clear and obvious irreparable harm to the state if the stay isn’t granted,” said Lonny Hoffman, a professor at the University of Houston Law Center who specializes in federal procedure.

Sarah R. Guidry, executive director of the Earl Carl Institute for Legal and Social Policy at the Thurgood Marshall School of Law at Texas Southern University, said Thomas’ rejection of the county’s appeal will force local changes.

“This is going to put a fire under the county to figure out how to implement this,” she said. “It’s also going to have a huge impact on the bail bonds industry. They’re going to have to figure out a different way to make a living. They’re not going the get the bulk of their income off of poor people who are charged with low-level crimes.”

You know where I stand on this, so you know what I think of those BS fearmongering arguments from Steve Radack and the bail bond people. But hey, if I’m wrong then we’ll find out, because the county now has no choice but to comply. And when we find out that they’re the ones that are wrong and that nothing too bad happens, then what exactly will be the point of continuing to appeal? Settle now and save whatever dignity and lawyers’ fees we still can. It’s the only rational option. Lisa Falkenberg has more.

“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.

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?

Sheriff Gonzalez’s staff

Sheriff Ed Gonzalez combines diversity with experience in his braintrust.

Sheriff Ed Gonzalez

New Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez has tapped a diverse wave of law enforcement veterans to fill his top command staff, sharply increasing the number of minority leaders and naming the first female assistant chief ever in the sheriff’s office.

In his first week as sheriff, Gonzalez named three Latinos, three African-Americans and two Asians to leadership positions, and promoted Debra Schmidt to assistant chief. Another woman, who is African-American, is also among the new leadership.

Ten of those selected for the 15 top command posts are longtime members of the sheriff’s office, a sharp break with the actions of the two previous administrations. One major’s position is not yet filled.

“There are a lot of wonderful, highly skilled, quality individuals within the sheriff’s office,” Gonzalez said. “Part of being a leader is doing that – identifying bright people that can really help, that are smart and capable.”

Before Gonzalez took office Jan. 1, four of the top command staff retired and nine were asked to leave, according to Ryan Sullivan, a sheriff’s office spokesman. Two officers have been retained.

The appointments are the first indication of how Gonzalez will approach the county’s top law enforcement job. His decision to pick department insiders with knowledge about the operations drew immediate praise for boosting morale.

“By selecting a diverse staff internally he has shown he recognizes the experience and cultural knowledge of those deputies within his own office while also understanding the expectations of the diverse community the department serves,” said Lawrence Karson, assistant professor of criminal justice at the University of Houston-Downtown.

David Cuevas, president of the Harris County Deputies Organization, likewise praised the decision to promote from within.

“Morale has instantly skyrocketed,” Cuevas said. “The consensus around the department is we finally have upward mobility and institutional knowledge in place to move the sheriff’s office forward and into the future. … The rank-and-file see that if they are on a promotional list and take their time, their hard work and leadership is not going to be stifled because people outside are brought into command positions.”

[…]

Harris County Precinct 3 Commissioner Steve Radack, a Republican, said the moves should help Gonzalez get up to speed quickly on operations at the state’s largest sheriff’s office.

“He is certainly showing he has figured out a way to make up for the fact he hasn’t worked in the sheriff’s office,” he said. “It’s very intelligent of him to take advantage of the vast amount of experience within the department that he doesn’t have yet.”

I presume Steve Radack plays tennis, because that’s quite the backhand he’s got there. Back when Ron Hickman was installing an all white-guy command staff, he responded to criticism about it by saying “Diversity for diversity’s sake is not always effective”, and pointed to his team’s “vast education, experience and devotion to police work”. Turns out, you can have both diversity and experience. Who knew?

Chron favors a jail administrator

I remain unconvinced.

Next month, we’ll have a new sheriff in town. Ed Gonzalez will take command of the largest sheriff’s office in Texas, the third-largest in the nation, with more than 4,600 employees responsible for serving and protecting the estimated 4.5 million people who call Harris County home.

It would be nice if our new sheriff and the law-enforcement professionals under his command could focus all of their attention upon making our homes, streets and neighborhoods safer. Unfortunately, the biggest headache Gonzalez will face is running the perpetually troubled county jail.

On an average day, the jail houses more than 9,400 inmates, about 80 percent of whom are locked up while awaiting trial. More than a quarter suffer from some sort of mental illness, essentially making the Harris County Jail the largest de facto mental health facility in Texas. It’s already so overcrowded, outgoing Sheriff Ron Hickman recently asked the state jail commission for permission to let nearly 200 inmates sleep in plastic cots on the floor. Other prisoners have been shipped to private, for-profit jails at a cost of up to $1 million a month. Meanwhile, the county has spent close to $15 million on overtime pay this year to cover staff shortages, adding to the tab of more than $10 million paying for temporary medical help in the clinic and mental health wards.

[…]

Texas law assigns the task of running county jails to county sheriffs. But Commissioner Steve Radack, who’s spent years beating the drum for a jail boss answering directly to commissioners court instead of the sheriff, plans to lobby for state legislation requiring a licensed administrator to take over the jail. Even if the proposal dies in Austin, Radack plans to press Gonzalez to hire a professional jail executive, advice the new sheriff would be wise to follow.

Our state’s requirement that sheriffs run county jails is a 19th-century concept that doesn’t necessarily fit in the 21st century. Maybe it still makes sense in small Texas counties with comparatively few inmates, but it’s not the best way to administer the complex of jails in Harris County.

This idea has been kicked around before, coming up again last year a bit after Ron Hickman was installed as Sheriff. As noted, the Legislature would have to authorize this, and so the first step would be to identify someone to author and carry the needed bills. I’ve always been skeptical, but I could be persuaded that this is a better idea. I do have to wonder how you can make it through this entire editorial without discussing the bail issue and how so much of the crowding problem is directly related to that. Maybe administering the jail would be less onerous if it weren’t always bursting at the seams. Also, it’s not clear to me why Commissioners Court would provide better oversight than the Sheriff, whether the Sheriff remains in charge of the jail or not. Again, I could be persuaded, but you’re going to have to give me reasons rather than assertions.

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.

The new Sheriff in town

Sheriff-elect Ed Gonzalez has his work cut out for him.

Ed Gonzalez

When newly elected Sheriff Ed Gonzalez takes office on Jan. 1, he will face a tangle of budget, staffing and jail inmate safety issues inherited from more than a decade of struggles at the nation’s third-largest sheriff’s department.

Staff shortages at the troubled jail operation alone have resulted in overtime expenditures of $14.8 million so far this year, adding to a current tab of $10.4 million to pay for temporary medical help in the jail clinic and mental health wards, county budget records show.

The burgeoning jail population – which soared to more than 9,400 inmates in September – has forced officials to put some inmates on temporary cots and ship others to private, for-profit jails for up to an additional $1 million a month.

And on the law enforcement side, critics point to low clearance rates for nearly all crime categories and a need for additional investigators and patrol deputies.

Gonzalez, a longtime Houston homicide detective who served on the City Council before being elected sheriff in November, told the Chronicle he is apprehensive about the fiscal condition of a department responsible for public safety in a large swath of unincorporated Harris County.

“My main priority will be dealing with the budget, the need to improve the situation at the jail, the overtime issues that are killing the budget, and morale that is really low right now,” Gonzalez said recently, as he prepares to take office.

Gonzales said he is committed to hiring an experienced, certified jail administrator to help oversee operations in the county’s sprawling jail complex and will work with the patrol and investigative divisions to improve clearance rates of crime.

He’ll also have to develop a new leadership team. The sheriff-elect said he expects only a few of the 25 high-ranking members of outgoing Sheriff Ron Hickman’s command staff to remain.

[…]

Jail safety expert Michele Deitch urged Gonzalez to create an independent group, or an ombudsman, to closely monitor jail conditions in what is largely a closed system.

“Prisons and jails around the country are the least transparent organizations that exist, yet they are the places where there is more urgency to make sure there is public transparency about what goes on and accountability for insuring the safe treatment of inmates,” said Deitch, a senior lecturer at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin. “What Harris County needs is a local system of external and independent oversight over the jail, in the same way we have created police accountability systems.”

Recent reports ranked Harris County with the highest per-capita rate of jail deaths of any other jail in the nation, as well as continued attempts at suicide by inmates and violent assaults on inmates and guards, Dietch said.

In April, Patrick Joseph Brown, 46, was jailed for allegedly stealing a guitar and then beaten to death in a crowded holding cell by two other inmates. The cell was equipped with surveillance cameras, but due to a lack of staffing, no officers were watching the monitors. At least two other deaths in the jail came after assaults on inmates by other prisoners, according to state in-custody death reports.

“The key to a safe jail is the staff,” Deitch said, “and you need to make sure staff are there in sufficient numbers, well-trained, alert and engaged and their morale is high.”

I’ve covered some of this before. I’ll say again, I believe the single most effective thing our new Sheriff can do to relieve both his budget and personnel issues is work to reduce the number of inmates in the jail. You know the song I’m singing, and it really is that simple. All of the problems discussed in this story are related to the locking up of too many people who have not been and in many cases will never be convicted of a crime. Gonzalez has less power to affect this problem than some others – he will be very dependent on the magistrates and misdemeanor judges who treat jail space as infinitely renewable – but he can at least order his deputies to issue citations to low-level non-violent offenders instead of arresting them, and he should have an ally in DA-elect Kim Ogg. He can also help force a settlement in the bail practices lawsuit against the county. He will still have plenty of other things to deal with, but getting this solved will make the totality of his task a lot less daunting.

Checking in with Ed Gonzalez

Also known as Harris County Sheriff-elect Ed Gonzalez.

Ed Gonzalez

Ed Gonzalez

Ed Gonzalez will have a lot to do when he assumes the position of the county’s top cop in January.

He’ll have to rein in overtime pay, manage the Harris County jail population and win over the thousands of employees who backed his opponent in Tuesday’s election.

First, though, he plans to reactivate his peace officer’s license, which has been inactive since 2012.

“He will have to mail his application and pay a fee of $150 and take 40 hours of training including the basic state and federal law update,” said Gretchen Grigsby, spokeswoman for the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement. “Texas law will give him two years to do that.”

[…]

The county’s third sheriff in the last two years, Gonzalez will now turn his attention to managing the office and a sometimes-scandal-prone jail of nearly 10,000 inmates. The move could bring yet another seismic shift among the highest echelons of the department’s command staff.

“I haven’t finalized in my mind yet any thoughts on who I might keep or might not keep or bring in or anything like that,” Gonzalez said.

He said he hoped to meet with Hickman soon to assess operations at the department and have a transition framework in place within a week or so.

Observers will also be watching to see how Gonzalez fulfills pledges he made during the campaign to bulk up jail diversion programs and fight crime more effectively.

With county budget talks beginning in March, Gonzalez will have just a few months to get up to speed on the internal workings of a department of more than 4,600 employees and budget of approximately $483 million.

Harris County Budget Officer William Jackson said he would be meeting with Gonzalez and other newly elected officials to guide them through the budget process after they take office in January.

“Commissioner’s Court only approves the budget as a single number at the top,” Jackson said, explaining that if Gonzalez had different priorities, he will have flexibility to shift funds within his budget.

Gonzalez will also have address approximately 300 vacancies within the department, which has contributed to a crunch in staffing in both patrol and detentions, and said he would not rule out re-implementing measures former Sheriff Adrian Garcia – Hickman’s predecessor – had used to try to address jail overcrowding or other issues at the sheriff’s office.

“Everything needs to be considered and be on the table,” Gonzalez said, noting that Hickman’s reforms had caused both jail and patrol overtime to spike. “All that needs to be looked at.”

Like Kim Ogg, Ed Gonzalez had a strong electoral showing, but it’s not clear to me that he got crossover votes. Comparing his result to the judicial races, there were fewer undervotes in his race, so I’d say he probably just retained more of the Democratic base vote than the judicial races did. That was more than enough for a strong victory, and is perhaps a more accurate picture of Democratic turnout in Harris County in 2016, but it’s a slightly different dynamic than it was for Ogg.

Also like Ogg, Gonzalez will have a lot of issues to address beginning on Day One. He won’t face the kind of turnover that Ogg will face, which means he’ll retain the institutional knowledge and experience that already exists, but it also means he’ll have to work with a number of people who didn’t support him, and he’ll have to implement changes for an institution that may not want to change. The biggest challenge he faces is with staffing, and the single best thing that could happen to him is for the DA and the courts to send fewer people to the jail for him to have to find space and oversight for. Ogg will help with that, but it will be on Gonzalez to try to persuade the misdemeanor court judges to work with him. He can also implement some policies to facilitate early release for inmates that earn it, as his predecessor Adrian Garcia had done.

He’s going to have to deal with the challenge of mental illness among the inmate population, and especially among the people who cycle in and out of the jail. The old saw about the jail being the biggest mental health facility in Texas remains true, and unfortunately the results of the national election will not only not offer any help on that score, it’s a virtual certainty to make it worse. Also not going to get any better will be issues with undocumented immigrants and a large community of voters who supported Gonzalez in the election but deplore the current processes for checking immigration status and handing over some offenders to ICE.

There are things Ed Gonzalez can do as Sheriff to enable his success, and there are things that are beyond his control that will affect his success, like whether the misdemeanor court judges continue to treat the jail’s capacity as essentially unlimited. One factor that I’m less sure how to evaluate will be Gonzalez’s relationship with Commissioner’s Court. Steve Radack and the now-departed Jerry Eversole were Adrian Garcia’s biggest antagonists. I expect Rodney Ellis will be a strong ally, but he’ll also expect results. It’s not in his control either, but the best thing that could happen to Gonzalez could be another Democratic sweep in Harris County in 2018, ushering in misdemeanor court judges who are willing to give personal recognizance bonds, and maybe a second ally on Commissioners Court. We’ll see what he can do with what he’s got until then. The Press has more.

Chron overview of Commissioners Court Precinct 3 race

Lower profile, and less competitive, but still worth paying attention to.

Commissioner Steve Radack

Commissioner Steve Radack

Steve Radack has built close to five dozen parks and spent millions of dollars expanding road and trail networks in 28 years as Harris County commissioner for Precinct 3.

It is a prolific body of work for the longest-serving, and most outspoken, member of commissioners court, who is asking voters this fall to vote him into his eighth term.

That longevity also is what his November challenger, Democrat Jenifer Rene Pool, is keying on in her bid to unseat the veteran Republican.

“If we want a different outcome, we have to do things differently,” Pool said.

Jenifer Pool

Jenifer Pool

Precinct 3 encompasses more than 450 miles of the county’s west side, stretching from just outside Prairie View and Waller County in the north, through parts of the Katy area, to near Alief in the south. Almost 1.2 million people live in the precinct.

That is up from roughly 850,000 when Radack first took office, and the number is expected to grow, especially in the unincorporated areas of the county.

“We’ve been able to adjust,” Radack said, adding “We’ve got plenty of challenges ahead.”

[…]

Texas Southern University political scientist Michael Adams said Radack is regarded as an “effective commissioner” whose political persona plays to his constituency. Radack has handily won re-election to each of his terms.

“This is an easy win for Radack, in large part because the district is heavily partisan and in favor of the GOP,” Adams said. “It would be a massive upset for Radack to lose.”

I agree with Prof. Adams that Commissioner Radack is a heavy favorite to win, though I’d attribute that first and foremost to the precinct’s Republican lean. Radack won 60-40 in 2008 and 62-38 in 2012, running a few points ahead of the rest of the ticket in each case. I think he’ll be hard pressed to get to 60 this year, but if he falls below 55 I’d say it’s a very good day for Dems not just in Harris County but probably statewide as well. I’m a fan of Jenifer Pool’s and I think she’d do a fine job as Commissioner, but this is a tough nut to crack.

Endorsement watch: The one man term limits debate

Here’s one of the more interesting endorsements so far.

Commissioner Steve Radack

Commissioner Steve Radack

Steve Radack is at once an argument for and against term limits.

The Precinct 3 county commissioner and former Precinct 5 constable, who will turn 67 before Election Day, has been in his seat for 28 years and wants voters to sign him up for 32. Radack’s decades of experience have made him a fount of knowledge about his sprawling west Harris County precinct and all the flooding, traffic and budgetary issues that face the 1 million-plus people who live in the mix of cities and unincorporated county. He’s earned the trust of constituents and is well positioned within the political system, allowing him to break the usual partisan bonds that unfortunately restrain other elected officials.

[…]

However, when it comes to passion or new ideas for his sprawling precinct and the county as a whole, the longtime incumbent lacks the excitement and innovation of a bright-eyed upstart trying to impress the public.

When asked about how the county should handle continuing growth in unincorporated regions, Radack’s only major recommendation was allowing the county to assess a sales tax.

Constable and Justice of the Peace precinct lines haven’t been updated in decades, but Radack opposed equalizing their populations because it would disrupt the sitting politicians.

And Radack didn’t exactly show his connection with homeowners’ immediate needs when he spent time during a public meeting on flooding to lament insurance fraud. In a particularly poor choice of words, he said that some people “enjoy floods.”

His concerns may be technically correct, but that’s not what people need to hear after they’ve lost their homes. It isn’t the sort of mistake that a newly elected commissioner would make while still trying to win over the constituency.

I’m often amused by the lack of interest in term limits for County Commissioners, given how much power they wield compared to every non-Mayoral elected official in Houston. Doing such a thing would require a constitutional amendment, so the procedural reticence is understandable, though you’d still think someone would mention it once in awhile. As it happens, there’s been some turnover on the Court recently, though for non-electoral reasons in two of the three cases. Radack is a strong favorite to win his eighth term, though perhaps his recent comments about flooding will dog him. At least he’ll always have this Chron endorsement.

Who’s willing to pay for more flood mitigation?

I have three things to say about this.

Commissioner Steve Radack

Commissioner Steve Radack

Harris county’s four commissioners said Wednesday they could support either a property tax increase or reallocation of funds in the county budget to better fund flood control projects after a series of storms and floods this spring destroyed property and claimed the lives of more than a dozen people.

[…]

Precinct 3 Commissioner Steve Radack said he would support a tax increase if there was a concrete plan on what to do with the extra revenue, and Gene Locke of Precinct 1 said through a spokeswoman he could likely get behind such a measurebut also would want the federal government to help pay more for flood control projects.

The two other commissioners – Jack Cagle in Precinct 4 and Jack Morman in Precinct 2 – said they would not support increasing the tax rate but could support reallocating funds to tackle flooding problems.

County Judge Ed Emmett declined to comment, but said through a spokesman he would not weigh in before a specific proposal was on the table.

The discussion about a possible property tax rate increase was sparked by recent comments Radack made at a meeting with a civic group in Cypress, which was recently hard-hit by flooding.

“I will tell you right now, I will vote for a tax increase for the Harris County Flood Control District,” Radack said to dozens in the audience last week, noting that he’s the only commissioner on court who has ever voted for a property tax increase. “But I’m one person. I’m not criticizing my colleagues. I’m just telling you this. That’s the way it is.”

On Wednesday, Radack reiterated his support for a tax increase, but qualified his position somewhat saying he would want to see a list of projects vetted by the public and by county government and would want to involve the city of Houston and the federal government in helping fund the projects.

He said he would want to have county voters weigh in on a potential bond issue that outlined that list of projects.

“I would support a tax increase for flood control, I would support it,” he said. “Now bear in mind, you don’t just have a tax increase without a plan.”

[…]

The tax rate for the flood control district is currently about 4 cents per $100 of assessed property value, [county budget officer Bill] Jackson said. That includes the amount designated directly for the flood control district – 2.7 cents per $100 – as well as a chunk that’s being used by the county to pay down debt.

The flood control district’s property tax rate can be raised by commissioners to no more than 30 cents per $100, Jackson said.

Morman was adamant, however, that he would not support an overall tax increase to solve the problem.

“I’m a homeowner, most of my constituents are homeowners, we already pay enough property taxes,” Morman said. “It’s kind of like enough is enough at some point.”

Morman said he could also support reallocation of funds, but did not know exactly where that money would come from.

Locke could in theory support a tax rate increase, though he would need to see the final plans and would want the federal government to help pay for more flood control projects, spokeswoman Mary Benton said.

Cagle said he would not support an overall tax increase, but would support reallocating funds toward flood control from the county’s public hospital district. In the past, they had been reallocated toward the hospital district and away from flood control, he said.

“I believe the taxpayers are interested in a reallocation of the tax base back to making flood control the priority that it once was,” Cagle said.

1. This was what Radack was talking about when he made his infamous “some people enjoy flooding” remarks. The Press had a story that ran after I published that included his thoughts on the tax rate, and I think there’s a lot to what he’s saying here. He definitely put his foot in his mouth on this point – I get what he was trying to say, but you’d think a guy who’s been in office for as long as he has might have a better grasp of how not to say things in the worst possible way – and he deserves the heat he’s getting, but the rest of what he said should not be lost.

2. Morman and Cagle’s insistence that we don’t need to raise any more revenue, we just need to shuffle things around in the budget is a load of bollocks. How much should we be spending on flood mitigation? What specific budget items would you cut to make up the difference between what we now spend and what you think we should spend? Give me details and then maybe I’ll believe that you’re not just dodging the question.

3. All that said, the single best thing we could do going forward to not make our flooding problem worse is to stop paving over the undeveloped land that currently serves as the best flood mitigation we’ll ever have. People have been saying for years that the Grand Parkway would be a disaster from a flooding perspective, but that didn’t stop the County from building a massive road in the middle of what used to be nowhere to serve the needs of people who didn’t live there yet. If we ever got serious about encouraging denser development and transportation solutions that support it, we’d have less mitigation to worry about having to pay for.

Did Steve Radack really say that?

Apparently so.

Commissioner Steve Radack

Commissioner Steve Radack

Precinct 3 Commissioner Steve Radack recently said some people want to get flooded so they can cash in, and he’s not backing down from his comments.

Radack says this was one minute of a 90-minute community meeting in Cypress last Thursday night. However, to the audience of flood victims, it didn’t go over well.

[…]

“Frankly, over the years, and the many years I’ve been doing this… they frankly enjoy floods. They’d like to see a flood about every 7 years, because they want new cars, they want their homes redone,” Radack said at the meeting.

“I know flooding is tragic, I’ve dealt with it for more than two decades,” he told KHOU 11 News when he sat down for an interview.

Radack says he was talking about fraud and telling the truth.

“There are people who take advantage of FEMA money and then there are people who tragically need the FEMA money, but they don’t have the insurance,” Radack said.

“That’s not the way it is for most people,” said Cynthia Neely, who is a board member with Residents Against Flooding.

She recorded the video at the meeting.

“A leader should not talk like that to people who are hurting,” Neely said.

There’s video at the link above and at Click2Houston, where Radack made a similar defense of his remarks. I’ve not watched the video, so I can’t say if the full context changes the way that sounded. I’ve no doubt there are people who defraud their insurance and government agencies like FEMA, but to imply that a significant portion of the population looks forward to the opportunity to commit fraud seems more than a little excessive. Maybe cite a number or two to back up your assertion and not give them impression that you’re just pulling this out from your nether regions. If he doesn’t have some facts and figures at hand – again, I haven’t watched the video, so maybe he does have them – then he deserves the heat he’s getting. To answer the question that was posted along with this story on my Facebook page, yes he is up for election this November. Radack faces Jenifer Pool in what ought to be an easy win for him; he certainly has the overwhelming financial advantage. Perhaps this will make it a bit harder.

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.

July finance reports for county candidates

Most of the interesting race in Harris County this year are the countywide races. Here’s a look at how the candidates in these races have been doing at fundraising.

District Attorney

Friends of Devon Anderson PAC
Kim Ogg


Name        Raised    Spent     Loans    On Hand
================================================
Anderson   253,670   55,392         0    368,907
Ogg        143,311   34,417    69,669    108,872

Devon Anderson received a $60K contribution from Richard Anderson; I have no idea if there’s any family connection there. She’s a strong fundraiser, but she’s also had her share of bad publicity, and I suspect it’ll take more money than what she has in the bank to wipe that away. As for Ogg, her biggest single contribution was $13,500 from Nancy Morrison. I feel like Ogg’s totals don’t quite work, since she reported $30K on hand for her February 20 eight-day report, but it’s not that big a deal. This is also a reminder that the totals listed above for Ogg were from the period February 21 through June 30, while Anderson’s are for the full six months.

Sheriff

Ron Hickman
Ed Gonzalez, May runoff report
Ed Gonzalez, July report


Name        Raised    Spent     Loans    On Hand
================================================
Hickman    127,153  175,247         0    135,868
Gonzalez    38,435   35,587         0     20,117

Hickman had primary opposition, so his report is from February 21 through June 30. He got $21,700 from Suzanne and Keith Moran for his biggest donation. He also spent a bunch of money – $59K to Strategic Media Services for TV ads, $41K too Neumann and Co for mailers, and (my favorite) $10K to Tom’s Pins for “promo items and Golf Promo items”. I bet that’s a lot of pins and little pencils. As for Gonzalez, he had raised $130K from Feb 21 to May 14, during the primary runoff period. His July report is only for May 15 through June 30. In other words, don’t freak out at the disparity in amount raised.

Tax Assessor

Mike Sullivan
Ann Harris Bennett


Name        Raised    Spent     Loans    On Hand
================================================
Sullivan    70,300   39,196         0    101,564
Bennett     26,190   11,536         0      1,837

Both Sullivan and Bennett were in contested primaries, so both reports cover February 21 through June 30. You could call Sullivan an efficient fundraiser – he raised that $70K from 55 total donors, 52 of whom gave $250 or more, and three of whom gave $100 or less. Bennett has never been much of a fundraiser, and this report bears that out. Some $17K of her raised total was in-kind, which contributed to the extra low cash on hand amount.

County Attorney

Vince Ryan
Jim Leitner


Name        Raised    Spent     Loans    On Hand
================================================
Ryan         72,400  33,652         0    171,677
Leitner      12,550  10,225     9,500      8,765

Leitner had to win a primary, while Ryan was the one Dem who had a free ride. Ryan is also the one Democratic incumbent, and he built up a bit of a cushion over the past four years. Leitner wins the award for being the one guy to fill out his form by hand rather than electronically. Not a whole lot to see here otherwise.

Commissioners Court, Precinct 3

Steve Radack
Jenifer Pool


Name        Raised    Spent     Loans    On Hand
================================================
Radack     747,500  177,604         0  1,616,948
Pool        13,750   13,054         0          0

This is the one contested County Commissioner’s Court race. Radack’s Precinct 3 is redder than Jack Morman’s Precinct 2 but less red than Jack Cagle’s Precinct 4. In a normal year, I’d expect Radack to get around 60% of the vote, though downballot candidates have done better than that in recent years; Adrian Garcia topped 47% there in 2008. This is obviously not a normal year, though whether the effect of that is primarily at the top of the ticket or if it goes all the way down remains to be seen. To the extent that there is an effect, Precinct 3 ought to serve as a good microcosm of it.

And for completeness’ sake:

Commissioners Court, Precinct 1

El Franco Lee – Still has $3,774,802 on hand.
Rodney Ellis – $1,959,872 on hand. Same as his state report.
Gene Locke – Raised $258K, spent $182K, still has $115K on hand.

I’m going to step out on a limb and suggest that Gene Locke has run his last campaign. Very little money has been spent from El Franco Lee’s account – one presumes his campaign treasurer hasn’t given the matter any more thought since he was first asked about it in January. Rodney Ellis has promised to give $100K to the HCDP coordinated campaign. I say Gene Locke and J. Kent Friedman (El Franco Lee’s campaign treasurer) should do something like that as well. This year presents a huge opportunity for Harris County Democrats, and it’s not like that money is doing anyone any good sitting in the bank. It’s not my money and I don’t get to say how it gets spent, but I do get to say what I want, and this is it. Put some money into this campaign, guys. There’s absolutely no reason not to.

UPDATE: Just to be clear, Commissioner Locke has nothing to do with the late Commissioner Lee’s finance account. I was under the impression that Lee’s campaign treasurer controls that purse, but it has been suggested to me that (at least by now) that may have passed to his widow. Be that as it may, and again to be clear, Commissioner Locke has no involvement in anything but his own finance account.

Ellis v. Radack

From the inbox:

Sen. Rodney Ellis

Sen. Rodney Ellis

On Tuesday, Commissioner Steve Radack said during a public session of the Harris County Commissioner’s Court that Senator Rodney Ellis should “shut up” about criminal justice reform. Click here and scroll to the 30 second mark of the Executive Session.

Today, Senator Ellis offers the following response:

“In an outburst more in the style of Donald Trump rather than the more staid Commissioner’s Court, Commissioner Radack called me out by name and told me to ‘shut up’ about criminal justice reforms in our community,” said Senator Ellis. “As long as I have the privilege of public service, I’m not going to shut up.”

Ellis continued: “I’m not going to shut up about our broken criminal justice system and people dying in jail. I’m not going to shut up about a bail system that keeps people in a cage just because they’re poor. And I’m not going to shut up about the fact that the attorney you can afford too often determines the quality of justice you receive.”

“This isn’t an argument about statistics – it’s an argument about whether or not Harris County continues to needlessly destroy lives, jeopardize our communities, and waste taxpayer dollars with its broken justice system. I’m going to speak up for all people and especially the most vulnerable in our society, just as I’ve always done. And I will not be bullied by any Commissioner, regardless of where my public service takes me.”

“I challenge Commissioner Radack to sit down for a public debate about the criminal justice reforms needed in our community.”

All righty then. The video link above is to Tuesday’s Commissioners Court meeting. Note that what comes up is the Call To Order – you need to then click on the Executive Session link to see the bit in question. That clip is only 2:28 in length, so you may as well just watch the whole thing. Radack is referring to the lawsuit filed against Harris County by the non-profit Equal Justice Under Law over the county’s bail practices. That lawsuit has since been updated to add another plaintiff. See Grits for more details about that, and for a long-overdue move on the county’s part to actually use Pretrial Services in a meaningful way. Along the way, it would appear that some nerves have been touched and things may get a bit contentious. Bring it on, I say. Oh, and by the way, Commissioner Gene Locke sided with Sen. Ellis on this one. The Court is one of the chummier political institutions we have around here. This little bit of disharmony was welcome and refreshing.

UPDATE: Here’s the Chron story.

Locke calls for jail administrator

Some strong words from Precinct 1 Commissioner Gene Locke.

Gene Locke

Gene Locke

Harris County Commissioner Gene L. Locke on Tuesday demanded that a certified jail administrator be hired after learning that four Harris County inmates have died after being assaulted by other inmates or suffered blunt force trauma while jailed over the last year.

The latest of the deaths during the tenure of Sheriff Ron Hickman, who took office in May 2015, came on April 5 after Patrick Joseph Brown, a Katy man arrested for allegedly stealing a guitar, was beaten to death in a crowded jail cell. Two inmates have been charged with aggravated assault in his death.

“Any in-custody death is unacceptable, and to hear that four people died while in jail awaiting trial in Harris County is embarrassing and disgraceful,” Locke said in a press release. “The inmates’ families deserve answers, and the people of Harris County are entitled to know that their public servants are safely operating a place of confinement, which is meant to be temporary, and not a death chamber for inmates who have not been given a bond hearing or convicted of the crimes for which they have been accused.”

Hickman responded via an emailed statement that he shares Locke’s concerns about inmate care and said he welcomed “any additional assistance that can be provided to ease and/or identify problems with staffing.”

“Our position continues to be that we will never tolerate any abuse or improper treatment of any individual under our care or custody and protection of life is always our first priority,” Hickman said. “Many times, we are the first point of access to medical care when individuals who are brought to our facility are found to be ill, needing medical attention, or mental health services.”

See here for Commissioner Locke’s full statement. The idea of a separate jail administrator has come up before, with the proposal originally being put forward by Commissioner Steve Radack and Sheriff Hickman saying he was open to the possibility. I have expressed some skepticism about this idea, partly because I was afraid it was a stalking horse for some kind of jail privatization scheme, but also because we’re very light on the details for this. How exactly would this work? To whom is the jail administrator accountable? There are many questions to answer before we could consider moving ahead.

Commissioner Locke, who invited me to have lunch with him this week to discuss what he has been doing and planning to do as Commissioner, told me that his reasoning for this was simple: Sheriffs have a strong preference for putting more deputies into patrol and investigations, and they cut costs relating to the jail to pay for that. A jail administrator, who would only have responsibility – and budget – for the jail would instead be incentivized to improve jail operations rather than simply cut costs. I’m still not on board with the idea, at least not until some of the other questions are answered, but I can see the logic in that. Whatever the case, it is clear that what we are doing at the jail now is not working any better than it was before, and we need to make significant changes to bring an end to the violence and death we see all too often in the jail. To that extent, I’ll keep an open mind about having a jail administrator if there’s a proposal for one that makes sense and addresses these questions.

Steve Radack supports Medicaid expansion

I have three things to say about this.

It's constitutional - deal with it

It’s constitutional – deal with it

When Harris County commissioners were asked this week by a member of the public to lower the property tax burden, Steve Radack had a response prepared: tell Austin to let millions of Medicaid dollars flow to the county – then the commissioners might be able to lower taxes.

The comment may come as a surprise from the Precinct 3 commissioner, one of the most outspoken conservatives on the court who has been a vocal critic of Harris Health System, the county’s health care system for the poor.

But his comment adds to the number of local voices that have challenged state Republican leaders to accept the federal money at a time when the county’s population and medical needs continue to grow. Radack said he will keep up the drumbeat.

“So, let’s go after the state,” he said at the meeting Tuesday. “Let them just simply accept the money, send it to us, we’ll cut taxes.”

[…]

Last year, Harris Health System officials estimated there were 70,000 uninsured patients in the county public hospital system who would have benefited from the Medicaid expansion, translating into about $70.3 million.

That money, said CEO George Masi, is instead picked up by the Harris County taxpayer when uninsured patients can’t pay their bills.

“That’s what’s so compelling about this,” Masi said. “This is 70.3 million, that would accrue immediately to Harris County.”

Masi said the number was similar each year since Texas opted against expanding Medicaid.

1. This is very good to hear. I have plenty of disagreements with Commissioner Radack and plenty of reasons why I’d like to see someone else in that office, but he’s 100% dead on right here, and he deserves to be applauded for it.

2. That said, how long has he felt this way? Judge Emmett has been a supporter of Medicaid expansion for a few years now. If Radack has felt this way all along, he’s kept it pretty close to the vest. Be loud and proud, Commissioner!

3. I hate to be the one to bring up uncomfortable topics here, but the only way we’re going to get Medicaid expansion in Texas is to elect more people who support it. There are some Republicans in the Legislature who support Medicaid expansion – off the top of my head, I don’t know of any from Harris County, though that may just be because they’ve also been quiet about it – but the majority of them do not, and our Governor and Lt. Governor are especially antagonistic to it. As long as that is the case, the status quo will remain firmly in place. The words are nice and necessary, but without action to accompany them, that’s all they are.

Turner wants to rethink transportation

I like the way he’s thinking.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, in less than a month on the job, has hit the streets at full speed. First he tackled potholes. Last week he tackled a state transportation department that’s spent the past half-century developing a highway network that is increasingly getting farther from Houston’s core and, according to the mayor, is worsening a congestion crisis.

“If there’s one message that I’d like to convey, it’s that we’re seeing clear evidence that the transportation strategies that the Houston region has looked to in the past are increasingly inadequate to sustain regional growth,” Turner told the Texas Transportation Commission [recently]. “Our agencies must look beyond these strategies if we are to successfully accommodate the growth that Texas’ major urban areas are anticipating.”

[…]

Annise Parker was both cheered and criticized for her support of alternatives to driving such as expanded light rail and many new bicycling projects. The two local leaders Turner took with him to Austin for the meeting, the city’s planning and public works directors, were installed by Parker and praised by local transit advocates for their breaks from previous agency philosophy.

But Turner, at least in tone, said what none of his predecessors ever publicly uttered. To a dais filled with sate highway officials, he declared: You’re doing it wrong.

“The traditional strategy of adding capacity, especially single occupant vehicle capacity on the periphery of our urban areas, exacerbates urban congestion problems,” he said. “These types of projects are not creating the kind of vibrant, economically strong cities that we all desire.”

That story is from last week, right after Turner’s address. This is more recent, with some reactions to what Turner said:

Clark Martinson, general manager of the Energy Corridor District, called Turner’s speech “the boldest, best thing I have heard from a mayor in the 30 years I’ve been in Houston.” Martinson said more mass transit and nicer, safer routes for pedestrians and cyclists are as important for his west Houston area as they are for the blocks around City Hall.

To attract the sort of workers nowliving in Midtown and working downtown, Martinson said, the Energy Corridor must seek better streetscapes and more transportation options. Citywide, he said, that meanssidewalks near schools, better access to the Bayou Greenways trail network, and working with land owners to plant shade trees as city streets are rebuilt.

“I believe you cannot solve our congestion problems by building traditional highway projects,” Martinson said. “Once you build all the highways, you have now acknowledged that we’re always going to fill up those highways with cars. If we want to move more people, the way you move more people is you shift your resources from accommodating the single-occupant vehicle to encouraging high-capacity mass transit.”

It remains an open question, however, whether the paradigm shift Turner seeks is attainable.

Alan Clark, director of transportation planning at the Houston-Galveston Area Council, a regional planning group of local governments, noted that most state highway funds are restricted only for freeways. HGAC’s Transportation Policy Council, which divvies up regional transportation funding, also will play a key role, Martinson said, as council members work to change minds on a board that includes many representatives from far-flung counties with different needs.

“Making a major change in how the money is invested would be a big challenge,” Clark said.

[…]

One of the five state transportation commissioners Turner addressed last week was Jeff Moseley, a former director of the Greater Houston Partnership who said it struck his colleagues that Turner would travel to Austin in the midst of his mayoral transition to address them.

“That just speaks volumes about this mayor’s strong interest in working with all parties to make sure that the demands Houston is facing in its future have a comprehensive response,” Moseley said. “The mayor’s office over the last several administrations has looked at Metro as being the city’s response. What we see is that the mayor’s interested in Metro and all the other opportunities to address mobility.”

Moseley said he and TxDOT’s district engineer met with the leader of Turner’s transition team, David Mincberg, and the two heads of the mayor’s transportation transition committee recently, discussing everything from freight moving through the Port of Houston to pending work on U.S. 290, Texas 288 and Texas 249, and the concept of light rail expansion to Hobby and Bush airports.

It is good timing for Turner to seek a shift in thinking, Moseley said, because TxDOT will confront a legislative review during the 2017 session, having gotten the message in each of its last two so-called sunset examinations that its approach must broaden.

“The Legislature has been very, very clear that we are a Department of Transportation,” Moseley said. “When we were created about 100 years ago, we really were a highway department.”

Good to know. The main naysayer quoted was County Commissioner Steve Radack, who likes doing things the way they have always been and has no interest in the city. People like him are the obstacle that Turner will have to overcome to get anything done differently.

Let’s look a bit more closely at what Turner said. Here’s a trasnscript. The main points:

First, we need a paradigm shift in how we prioritize mobility projects. Instead of enhancing service to the 97% of trips that are made by single occupant vehicles, TxDOT should prioritize projects that reduce that percentage below 97%. TxDOT should support urban areas by prioritizing projects that increase today’s 3% of non-SOV trips to 5%, 10%, 15% of trips and beyond. Experience shows that focusing on serving the 97% will exacerbate and prolong the congestion problems that urban areas experience. We need greater focus on intercity rail, regional rail, High Occupancy Vehicle facilities, Park and Rides, Transit Centers, and robust local transit. As we grow and density, these modes are the future foundation of a successful urban mobility system. It’s all about providing transportation choices.

Second, I believe we need to focus the highway resources for our urban regions in the urban core, where congestion is most severe. Urban cores are the crossroads where freeways, railways, and ports such as the Port of Houston come together, and where the region’s mobility systems often bear the greatest stress. Spending limited resources on the region’s periphery, rather than the core, exacerbates the City’s already severe urban congestion and dilutes TxDOT’s ability to address the most vital challenges to economic development and mobility in the urban core.

Third, our agencies should to continue to collaborate to find comprehensive solutions for the traveling public. TxDOT and local partners like the City of Houston should work together to ensure TxDOT’s projects are coordinated with enhancements to the local street system – the “last mile”. Highway improvements impact our local thoroughfares, and that last mile must have adequate capacity to receive increased volumes resulting from highway improvements. Cities need to be at the table throughout project development to ensure highway improvements do not create new congestion problems along local thoroughfares with inadequate capacity.

The argument that widening the highways causes at least as much “last mile” congestion on the local streets as it relieves on the freeways is one I’ve made before, usually in the context of proposals to add lanes to 288 in town, with some kind of “dedicated lanes’ for the Medical Center. At some point, people still have to get into parking lots, one car at a time. To me, there are two basic principles that need to be understood and observed. One – and this is a point I’ve made in the context of providing bike parking, too – is that it’s in everyone’s best interests if we make it easier for the people who can walk or bike or carpool or take transit to do so. The more people who can find alternate means of transportation that do find it, the fewer single-occupancy vehicles that are competing for highway lanes and parking spaces. That’s a win all around.

What that requires is more robust transit, a more extensive bike infrastructure, better and safer sidewalks and crosswalks, not just for getting to and from work but also for going to lunch and running the basic kinds of errands that people who have cars do during the work day. Tiffany and I carpool into work downtown, and we face this all the time. Metro has been our solution for when one of us needs to go somewhere else after work, and recently for when we both needed to go somewhere at lunchtime. She wound up taking the 82 bus to her appointment, which with its 10-minute off-peak headway made it a viable option. This is what I’m talking about.

The other principle is simply that we are reaching, if we have not already reached, a point at which it no longer makes sense to prioritize minimizing travel times for single occupancy vehicles over other transportation solutions. Yes, the Katy Freeway needed to be expanded, and yes we were going to get a lot of extra traffic out that way whether we built more capacity or not. But that project was sold from the beginning as an answer to traffic congestion. That has not been the case, and any further “solution” of a similar nature will be a lot more expensive and convoluted and destructive to the environment, including and especially the built environment. Hell, just look at what’s being proposed for I-45 downtown to see what I mean. It has to make more sense at this point to find and implement ideas that encourage and allow people to drive by themselves less often. That’s my way of thinking, and I’m glad to know that not only is it also Mayor Turner’s way of thinking, it’s something he’s willing to say to those who need to hear it. CityLab, Streetsblog, and Houston Tomorrow have more.

County finally takes jail overcrowding seriously

We’ll see what this actually becomes.

go_to_jail

Chasing $4 million in grant money, Harris County officials on Thursday announced reforms in the criminal justice system to unclog dockets, lower jail population and address racial and ethnic disparities.

And because the changes are so important, they said, they will do it even if they don’t get the money.

“The pursuit of this grant has broken down the silos that we’ve been working in, independent of each other,” District Attorney Devon Anderson said. “Whether we win this grant or not, we are going to do these things.”

The changes mean two new dockets for violent offenders to get trial faster, more treatment and services for addicts and the mentally ill and diversion programs for mentally ill homeless people and low-level non-violent suspects.

[…]

Late Wednesday night, a little known committee that began meeting monthly under the late County Commissioner El Franco Lee submitted the county’s application for a grant that could mean $2 million a year for two years to put their plans into effect.

In preparing the application, the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council gathered data on arrest and release decisions, case processing and diversion and looked into recidivism and re-entry initiatives.

“What we found is that not one group is responsible for who is in the jail,” Anderson said Thursday. “We all are.”

To achieve the biggest of their stated goals, lowering the jail’s daily population which hovers around 8,500 by 1,800 people, officials are implementing several changes, including one often sought: the use of personal recognizance bonds instead of bail.

I was ruminating over how to respond to this, when Grits summed it up as well as I ever could have:

None of the suggestions being contemplated are much different from what every study panel and consultant who’s examined it has told Harris County since the turn of the century. It’s just that judges refused to stop using bond schedules, preferring to use jail to maximize pressure on defendants to enter plea deals, without which they feared their dockets would swell. So if the judges don’t cooperate, none of this works.

The hope is that judges will be able to use a new risk assessment tool as a fig leaf to justify doing something – getting rid of bail schedules – that everybody knows they should have done years ago.

[…]

If judges and the DA embrace these programs, the plan could work. But it won’t be because of a grant. These or similar changes have been staring the county in the face for at least a decade.

Certainly, Grits hopes they do all this; I’m just tired of hearing them promise they’re going to do it, which often seems to happen right about election time whenever voters start asking questions, one notices. So at this point my attitude is, “Show me, don’t tell me.”

Ditto that. The Press has more.

Bondings

Congratulations, Montgomery County!

After rejecting two bond measures for new and improved roadways in four years, including one last spring, traffic-weary voters on Tuesday overwhelmingly backed a $280 million plan to unplug bottlenecks in rapidly growing Montgomery County.

With all precincts reporting, the road bond received the support of more than three-fifths of county voters – a ballot-box reversal that officials attributed to the increasing difficulty in driving the once mostly rural county’s outdated roads.

“It’s a recognition that we’re growing rapidly, and congestion is getting worse every day,” County Judge Craig Doyal said. “It’s time for us to move forward.”

County leaders intend to use the money on 54 projects, including the widening of Texas 105 east of Conroe, a half-loop bypass for Magnolia and improvements along increasingly congested Rayford Road southeast of The Woodlands.

The previous road bond proposal, for $350 million, was defeated by a 14-point margin in May, primarily because of heavy opposition to a proposed extension of Woodlands Parkway for 6 miles through mostly undeveloped land west of The Woodlands. The project riled Woodlands residents who believed it would worsen the master-planned community’s traffic woes.

Backers rushed to get another bond measure before voters this fall, contending that drivers couldn’t wait for new and improved roadways.

The revised bond package didn’t include the controversial project, but opponents argued that it was still a flawed proposal because county leaders placed another measure on the ballot before the completion of two studies identifying the county’s most urgent road needs.

A special prosecutor is investigating whether county officials put the bond package together outside the public view in violation of the state’s open meetings law. Chris Downey, the prosecutor, said Tuesday he does not know when the inquiry will be complete.

The measure was placed on the ballot after Doyal reached a last-minute agreement with the Texas Patriots PAC on the new proposal. The tea party group, which had opposed the bond in May, campaigned for the trimmed-down improvement plan and focused on winning over voters in The Woodlands, where the previous bond failed by a nearly 9-to-1 margin.

So there you have it. What do you think will come next – the bond money will all get spent, or the next bond issue will get put on the ballot because the traffic up there is still too damn bad? Good luck, MontCo, you’re going to need it.

Harris County also scored some bond money.

The four bond measures – $700 million for roads and bridges, $64 million for flood control improvements, $60 million for parks and $24 million to update the overcrowded animal control facility – scored decisive victories in complete but unofficial returns.

The bonds will not result in tax increases.

“Citizens of Harris County spoke volumes tonight that they understand the growth that has occurred and the challenges that loom,” said Precinct 3 Commissioner Steve Radack. “In a county that hasn’t had a property tax increase in almost 20 years, these bond proceeds will help the county build the infrastructure people need.”

Radack said “the county will spend this money prudently, over numerous years, not quickly.” He said it will be structured wisely.

About 1 million more people now live in the county than in 2000 and 75 percent of those new residents live in the unincorporated portions of the county where government-funded roads and infrastructure projects have had to hustle to catch up with vast commercial and residential development.

Radack said the burden will continue to grow if Houston continues its recent non-annexation policy, citing statistics showing that 51 percent of county residents now live in Houston, down from 77 percent 50 years ago.

I’m sure sometime before Harris County starts spending their bond money, they’ll tell us what they plan to spend it on. Those of us here in Houston don’t need to worry ourselves about it, since none of it will be spent here anyway.

Commissioners Court to get deposed

This ought to be interesting.

Harris County Judge Ed Emmett and all four county commissioners are scheduled to be deposed Monday in a federal lawsuit filed by former Houston Police Department crime lab supervisors who said they experienced retaliation after exposing problems with a mobile DUI testing program.

Amanda Culbertson and Jorge Wong say the Harris County District Attorney’s Office and county commissioners colluded in having them fired after they revealed problems in HPD’s breath-alcohol testing vehicles, known as “BAT vans.”

At the time of the terminations, Culbertson and Wong were working at a Lone Star College laboratory that supervised under-the-influence testing for the Harris County Sheriff’s Office. They say they lost their jobs when commissioners voted to cancel the Lone Star contract.

While working as analysts for HPD, Culbertson and Wong exposed problems with the BAT vans that complicated DUI prosecutions.

In retaliation, their 2012 lawsuit says, former Harris County District Attorney Pat Lykos and Assistant District Attorney Rachel Palmer lobbied commissioners to cancel the county’s long-standing contract with their employer, Lone Star. The county subsequently signed a more costly deal for lab work with the Texas Department of Public Safety.

In September, U.S. District Judge Lynn Hughes authorized the depositions of commissioners El Franco Lee, Jack Morman, Steve Radack and Jack Cagle as well as Emmett and his criminal justice adviser Doug Adkinson. The judge also limited each inquiry to one hour.

[…]

HPD began using the BAT vans in 2008. Into early 2011, Culbertson reported temperature and electrical irregularities with instruments that could influence the integrity of tests, the lawsuit said.

In May 2011, Culbertson testified in a DUI trial that she could not verify a device had been working properly during a test. In July 2011 testimony, she said she could not trust the accuracy of a van analysis. That same month, Palmer, the assistant district attorney, wrote a memo to a supervisor in which she concluded that Culbertson “could not be trusted to testify in a breath test” and that she was “gravely concerned” about Culbertson’s ability to “testify fairly” in the future.

Culbertson and Wong resigned from HPD in 2011 to become technical supervisors at Lone Star.

In the fall of 2011, the college’s contract of nearly three decades with the county – which had been renewed annually – was terminated in favor of a more expensive DPS deal. Culbertson and Wong were fired by Lone Star in October 2011, shortly after the commissioners transferred the testing business.

Hughes dismissed the lawsuit in August 2013, but that decision was reversed by the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in June. All claims against Lykos have been dismissed or settled, and all claims against Palmer have been tossed.

See here and here for some background. As I’ve said before, I haven’t followed this story closely enough to have a firm about about it, but as having all five members of the Court deposed in a lawsuit is an unprecedented situation, I figured it was worth noting. The Press has more.

The parks part of the county bond package

The plans are more specific for the part of the bond package that’s easier to sell.

HarrisCounty

Commissioner Jack Morman thinks of the East Aldine residents waiting outside Crowley Park before dawn for workers to unlock the gates. Commissioner Steve Radack cites Easter weekend crowds of roughly 75,000 at Bear Creek Park. Commissioner El Franco Lee pictures the opening day parade of Little Leaguers at his eponymous park. Commissioner Jack Cagle riffs on the joy of encountering turtles, egrets, herons and bald eagles along his greenways, mere miles from neighborhoods.

Harris County officials said they are in locked in a steady struggle to keep pace providing plentiful green space amenities as the population of unincorporated Harris County continues to grow unabated. They’re asking voters to approve millions in improvements in four upcoming ballot measures that total $848 million.

The $60 million park bond will help fund land acquisition, as well as updates and improvements in the county’s 170 parks. If the voters approve it, the money will be split four ways and each commissioner has discretion to spend his pot on park projects of his choosing, pending approval of Commissioners Court. They don’t need to pin the money to any specific undertaking. Each commissioner takes a unique approach to doling out the funds.

Commissioners said they almost never request all of the money up front. It’s usually spent to supplement projects that are underway as the costs come up. Bill Jackson, the county budget director, said there isn’t a final deadline for cashing in on bond money. In some cases, if the need never materializes, the bond debt is not issued, as was the case of the bond for a family law center that never got built.

Constituent needs vary throughout the county and within each precinct: “What matters to somebody in the northeast might not matter to somebody in the southeast,” Morman said.

In his precinct, he said, “We err on the side of doing something the community would love. My personal tastes don’t come into it.”

You can read the rest for each commissioner’s detailed wish list. The sidebar reminds us of the other items in the bond package, the biggest part of which is $700 million for roads and bridges, though we don’t know what the particulars are for that. What are your thoughts on these bond proposals?

No support for a jail administrator

Not without the consent of the Legislature.

go_to_jail

The idea of shifting leadership of the Harris County Jail to an administrator may be losing steam, several county leaders said Thursday after reviewing a feasibility study by the sheriff’s office.

Precinct 3 Commissioner Steve Radack asked newly appointed Sheriff Ron Hickman in May to look into the possibility of appointing a jail head who would report to court members and run the facility with an independent budget.

While the report Hickman commissioned does not deliver a straightforward recommendation, the disadvantages it outlines – including transportation and accountability headaches – far outweigh the advantages. The largest obstacle is Texas law, which places responsibility for county jails with the sheriff.

Five years ago, Radack began angling for a jail administrator to oversee the 9,400-bed behemoth that houses the largest mental health patient population in the state and falls under the purview of a law enforcement officer, the county sheriff. County Attorney Vince Ryan explained in a legal brief then that splitting off the jail was not an option under the state constitution.

[…]

The 16-page report by Sheriff’s Lt. Eric Batton reviews various models of urban jails around the country – from Cook County, Ill., to Miami-Dade to Las Vegas – but concludes that for the jail “to operate as an autonomous and independent entity … Harris County would need to pursue tailoring legislation to provide a clear authority with a statute to establish such a department.”

In other words, without changes to state law, part of the job of the sheriff remains as overseer of the jail.

See here for the background. Basically, Lt. Batton’s report agrees with what Vince Ryan said back in May. It’s certainly possible that the county could ask the Lege to modify the laws in question, though I’m sure that folks like Sen. Whitmire would have an awful lot of questions if that happened. I’ll say again, if the county does want to pursue this, and Sheriff Hickman thinks it’s a good idea, then let’s hash it out in the Sheriff’s race next year, and let the result of that election stand as a proxy for whether or not this ought to be taken up. I’m far from sold on this idea, but I could be persuaded.

Council approves inmate processing center deal with Harris County

Very good news.

go_to_jail

An end is in sight for the inefficient process of shuttling prisoners in and out of redundant local lockups after the City Council on Wednesday approved an agreement with Harris County to build a long-discussed inmate processing center.

Public officials have discussed the need for a new booking center since the 1990s, because the current facility in the county jail tends to be over capacity even when the jail population is low and booking processes are inefficient. Roughly half the inmates booked into city jails also face state charges; they end up transferred to the county jail, where they are booked again.

City leaders have been enthusiastic backers of the processing center, knowing a larger booking facility will allow them to realize a longtime goal of shuttering the two aging municipal jails. Most big Texas cities closed their jails long ago, as these facilities typically only hold those arrested for low-level misdemeanors, usually for no more than 48 hours.

“The sooner we can get out of the jail business, the better,” said Councilman Ed Gonzalez, a former police officer who chairs the council’s public safety committee. “This will be a cost savings for us. It’s been a long time coming.”

The city and county committed a combined $9 million to design the center a year ago, and they are approving their shares of the $91 million needed to build the 238,000-square-foot, three-story facility. The building will hold 552 beds, along with offices, interview rooms, DUI processing areas, evidence lockers, lineup rooms, a clinic and courtrooms.

[…]

City voters in 2007 approved $32 million in bonds to build what would have been a larger, 2,500-bed processing center, but county voters that year rejected a $195 million bond issue for the same purpose. Presented again with a $70 million bond issue for the current, scaled-back proposal in 2013, county voters said yes.

The city’s ultimate contribution to the facility’s construction, barring any cost overruns, will be $27.3 million. Some of the other 2007 bond dollars were used to open the Houston Recovery Center, which diverts intoxicated prisoners from jail and pairs addicts with social services. That center has reduced the population of city jails and is expected to do the same at the processing center.

The facility, scheduled to break ground next month at the northeast corner of San Jacinto and Baker streets, will connect to the county jail via a tunnel.

Construction of the joint processing center was approved to begin last June, after both Harris County and the city approved finding an architect in 2013. The sobering center was opened earlier in 2013. Once this new facility opens in 2017, the city will spend more than $4 million less per year on handling inmates, and will free up about 100 cops now working at the city jail to do other things. The new facility will also have mental health treatment services, which will hopefully enable more people to get the help they need and keep them out of jail in the future. All in all, a very positive step forward.

Is this the plan that will save the Dome?

Maybe.

Still cheaper to renovate than the real thing

A few months ago Ed Emmett had a breakthrough moment about how to save the Astrodome, a goal he’s been chipping away at for the better part of eight years. The Harris County judge was driving out of the county administration building lot headed straight for the historic 1910 courthouse in downtown, and he thought, “There’s a building we completely re-purposed without bond money.”

Meanwhile, the Harris County Sports and Convention Corporation was mulling over a 38-page report by the Urban Land Institute outlining details for transforming the Astrodome into an indoor park with 1,200 parking spaces underneath it. What remained unclear was how to fund it.

And that’s where Emmett’s idea comes in. His plan has now become the blueprint for a public-private partnership overseen by a conservancy that would unite the city, county, the sports and convention corporation and other governmental entities with private investors to revive the Astrodome without requiring voter approval. Under the conservancy model, Emmett said, the Dome would earn tax credits, which would help significantly with covering expenses for renovation.

The details for the partnership – and who will commit to covering what percentage of the costs – are being discussed in meetings between representatives of various stakeholders, including during a session on Tuesday and another one scheduled for Friday.

The finished funding plan will come before county officials likely before year’s end, and, if the majority of the five-member Commissioners Court backs the proposal, the Astrodome revival will commence.

[…]

The two newest commissioners, Jack Cagle and Jack Morman, said in interviews Tuesday that they might ultimately support a conservancy to oversee a Dome project; however, neither could say for certain without reviewing the actual proposal.

Precinct 3 Commissioner Steve Radack said he would want to hear comments from the public, adding that “a plan that does not involve taxpayers’ money is certainly going in the right direction.”

Commissioner El Franco Lee expressed wholehearted backing for Emmett’s new strategy.

“I support and am pushing for the conservancy approach,” he said. “It gives philanthropic givers an opportunity to participate, and it takes us down the road much faster by doing some creative things.”

Lee said participants in the conservancy discussions are fully aware that the majority on Commissioners Court does not support taxpayer money going toward the Astrodome project, and he said the planning group will certainly keep that in mind as it crafts a proposal.

“At this point, I’m very optimistic,” Emmett said, “that it’s going to happen without a bond issue. That’s the direction we’re moving in. People seem to be coalescing around the idea of re-purposing the Dome as a green space, adding parking underneath, and adding a conservancy to oversee the upper parts.”

That’s the key right there, no bond issue, which would mean no vote need be taken. I mean, there’s not a whole lot of reason to be optimistic about any further Dome-related votes, so avoiding that would be a big deal. As Judge Emmett notes, this is the same concept that the Houston Zoo and Discovery Green use. That would require some kind of board that would be responsible for management and – more importantly – funding, with some operations money coming from the county and likely the city. I expect that would be easy enough to work out. This makes so much sense that you have to wonder why no one thought of it before. Better late than never, I guess. What do you think about this? Texas Leftist has more.

BP settlement cash

Nice.

BagOfMoney

The city of Houston, Harris County and Metro netted $23 million in compensation from BP for revenue they could not collect in the wake of the company’s 2010 Gulf oil spill, officials announced Thursday.

Houston will pocket about $12.2 million from the costliest environmental lawsuit in U.S. history to cover hotel and sales tax shortfalls. The Metropolitan Transit Authority will receive more than $9.2 million for lost sales tax revenue, and Harris County will get $2.1 million for lost hotel occupancy tax revenues, officials announced in a joint statement.

However, expenses for the case and fees for two outside lawyers who represented the city, county and Metro will carve off nearly 40 percent of those totals.

Nearby communities and government entities, including the city of Galveston, Jefferson County, the city of Beaumont, and Orange Port Authority also are among the 511 entities that said the spill caused an economic shortfall.

The payouts are part of the $18.7 billion that BP agreed to pay earlier this month for damages and penalties resulting from the Deepwater Horizon spill – the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history.

[…]

Houston Mayor Annise Parker and Harris County Commissioners Steve Radack and Jack Morman said they were satisfied with the settlement. Commissioners Court has not yet determined how the county will split the money.

“Frankly, I wish we would have gotten more, but certainly it was a worthwhile lawsuit,” Radack said.

Several commissioners received a total of 1,700 identical emails from BP employees, via a server in United Arab Emirates, urging them not to pursue legal action against the company, according to Soard at the County Attorney’s office.

County Judge Ed Emmett, who voted in Commissioners Court against seeking damages, said, “I thought it was a stretch to say that we lost so much revenue because people didn’t rent hotel rooms here because of the BP spill.”

“Am I glad the county won? Sure. Would we have been part of the lawsuit if it had been just up to me? Probably not.”

He said he was disappointed the county would only to realize $1.3 million after the lawyers took their cut. Commissioner R. Jack Cagle had also voted against entering the lawsuit, in his case because he thought the county attorney could handle the case.

As to whether it was appropriate to seek damages, Janice Evans, spokeswoman for the mayor, said, “We raised the same exact issues as more than 500 other governmental entities and all parties have agreed to this, as has the court, so we would not characterize it as opportunist.”

Whether the amount that these three entities will receive is “enough” is not one I can answer, nor can I answer it for the 500 others involved in the litigation, not to mention BP itself. It’s something, and I’m quite sure it will be put to good use.

More on Sheriff Hickman

A profile of appointed Sheriff Ron Hickman that’s long on biography but short on policy.

Ron Hickman

Hickman is 63 and has spent his entire career doing police work. No step on his path has been sudden or unanticipated. Hickman expressed interest in the sheriff’s job when there were hints of a vacancy, before Garcia had announced his run for mayor. He was the candidate the Harris County Deputies’ Organization endorsed, the first person Commissioners Court members considered.

In terms of gravitas, law enforcement experience and proven political skills, the county chiefs felt, he was unmatched.

But the job ahead is significantly bigger and more bureaucratic than anything Hickman has tackled. During his four elected terms as Precinct 4 constable, he supervised 425 employees and managed a $42 million budget. As sheriff, he will oversee a staff of 4,600 and a budget of $437 million.

An astute measurer of expectations, the Republican lawman understands what the majority Republican Commissioners Court wants to see during his first days in office.

Commissioners, most vocally Precinct 3’s Steve Radack, have articulated an interest in a sheriff who would be willing to relinquish supervision of the jail.

Hickman does not see this as a sacrifice, since the detention portion of the job doesn’t appeal to him. It is not aligned with his skill set, he said, “I am cop at heart.”

Hickman was appointed last week, and about all I know about him is that he’s been a cop for a long time, and Steve Radack really likes him. The headline to this story says that he hopes to “shine a light” at the Sheriff’s office, but the story doesn’t say anything about what that might mean. He’s also open to the idea of handing off jail administration duties to an appointed overseer. That may be a good idea and it may be a bad idea, but it seems to me that it’s a substantial enough idea that it ought not to happen without there being some vigorous public debate about it. In particular, maybe it ought not to happen until someone has gotten himself elected Sheriff on a platform that includes this as a plank. Just a thought.

In the meantime, while it’s nice to know that our new Sheriff likes to hunt and fish and stuff like that, it would also be nice to know what he thinks about things like Secure Communities and the the jail’s nondiscrimination policy and so on. You know, Sheriff stuff. Maybe we could ask if his willingness to cede control of the jail to a separate administrator extends to handing the jail over to a private operator, which is something that’s been on Commissioner Radack’s radar for awhile. Sheriff Hickman’s now-former primary opponent Allen Fletcher has connections to the private prison business, so perhaps that subject will come up in the next few months. Sooner would be better than later, if you ask me.