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Sylvester Turner

The local response (so far) to the ICE raids

This is good.

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is also good.

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

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

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

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

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

“Pay to play” petition drive falls short

Womp womp.

The political action committee that launched a petition drive aimed at limiting the influence of contractors and vendors at Houston City Hall failed to gather enough signatures to put the measure on the November ballot, the group’s director said Wednesday.

The drive, which ended earlier this week, was for a petition authored by a group of lawyers, including Houston mayoral candidate Bill King, to amend a city ordinance to bar people who do business with the city from contributing more than $500 to candidates for municipal office.

Mayor Sylvester Turner, who has rejected calls from King and fellow candidate Tony Buzbee to reform Houston’s campaign finance system, suggested the effort’s failure was an indictment on the “anti-pay-to-play” message being pushed by the political action committee backing the petition. The mayor urged reporters to “focus on real issues, real needs.”

“Let me just put it this way: I have not seen any problems,” Turner said. “I think that whole movement was more political than substantive.”

[…]

Ben McPhaul, the director of the PAC, said the committee still was receiving petitions Wednesday but would fall short of the roughly 40,000 signatures it needed to gather in 30 days under city rules.

“We are grateful for the hundreds of grass-roots volunteers who helped the effort with not a single paid petitioner,” McPhaul said in a statement. “The PAC plans to continue collecting signatures to raise awareness of the issue with hopes to get it on the ballot or in front of council in the future.”

See here for the background. Just so we’re clear here, this is not City Secretary Anna Russell counting the signatures and saying they don’t have enough valid ones. This is the PAC itself saying they didn’t get enough to even submit for inspection. They fell short of their goal.

The petition drive’s failure reflects the PAC’s lack of volunteers and funds more than the public’s interest in reforming Houston’s campaign finance reform system, Rice University political scientist Mark Jones said.

“You can’t read anything into this regarding the attitudes of Houstonians toward ‘pay to play,’” Jones said.

Still, the outcome represents a win for Turner, Jones said, because it means the topic of campaign finance reform may gain less media coverage and traction from political pundits near election time.

“I wouldn’t put it as a major failure for King, but certainly it’s a setback,” Jones said. “Once he got behind the petition, he owned the petition.”

King said state law separately allows a longer period for petition drives, so the PAC would continue to collect signatures. Though King’s campaign is not affiliated with the PAC, it has supported the drive, and King made a point of being the first person to sign the petition.

“We’ve been carrying it around on our campaign and we haven’t had a single person refuse to sign it,” he said.

He also noted Houston’s charter bases the number of required petition signatures on a mayoral election held within the last three years. Since the last election happened in 2015 — more than three years ago — King contended a petition drive now technically needs just one signature.

If that were challenged in court, however, the litigation would get resolved well after November, said King, indicating he had no interest in taking action in court.

I can accept that this isn’t a “major failure” for Bill King, but it should be clear to everyone that he didn’t put any real effort into this cynical ploy. He has plenty of his own money, and could have raised more, to fund a sufficient petition drive if he really wanted this to be on the ballot. We’ve seen plenty of successful petition drives in the last decade. Did King really not know what it was going to take, or did someone tell him and he was like “eh, whatever, we’ll just wing it with some volunteers”? If “cleaning up City Hall” is the foundation of your campaign, and you go through the motions to mount this effort in the first place, what does it say about you and your commitment to this idea that you just let it fail without a fight?

The bit about the charter language is interesting. I think as a legal argument it’s mostly sophistry, but I could see a judge buying a plain-text reading and agreeing that even one signature is now sufficient until and unless the city cleans up that part of the charter. Here again, though, if King actually believed what he was saying he would have acted differently. Why not file that lawsuit before now? Theoretically, he could have filed it on November 4, 2018, which is three years and a day after the 2015 Mayoral election. Even if I’m wrong about that, I don’t see anything in the charter section on legislating by referendum that limits when a petition effort is allowed to begin. Maybe there still wasn’t a path to getting the question resolved in time for the 2019 election – though if you win the first round, it’s the city that has to start worrying about deadlines, not you – but boy howdy was this a limp production. It’s easy for me to take potshots at Bill King, but if you like him as a candidate and believed in this proposed charter amendment, you should be upset. At every step of the way, he did the very least he could do.

We have a consent decree

It appears to be a done deal.

Houston would add $2 billion to its planned sewer system improvements over the next 15 years under a proposed deal with state and federal regulators that is expected to produce higher water bills as soon as next year.

The Environmental Protection Agency has long been concerned that Houston’s cracked, clogged or flooded sewer pipes spill waste into yards and streets hundreds of times each year, contaminating local streams in violation of the Clean Water Act. Eighty percent of area waterways fall short of water quality standards for fecal bacteria.

Rather than sue the city over these long-running problems, the EPA initiated negotiations nearly a decade ago, hoping to produce a “consent decree” specifying projects and procedures Houston would use to reduce spills by upgrading pipes, improving maintenance and educating the public on how to avoid clogging the city’s more than 6,000 miles of sewers, 390 lift stations and 39 treatment plants.

Mayor Sylvester Turner announced Tuesday that talks have been completed; his office expects the item to reach a city council vote as early as July 17.

“It’s good for the city of Houston,” Turner said. “I am proud to have resolved this long-standing problem in a way that will fix problems that have challenged our city for decades and will bring enhanced services to future ratepayers for decades to come.”

The deal would prioritize fixes in nine areas that experience voluminous spills during rainstorms. In an effort to reduce the more numerous spills that are a chronic problem when the skies are clear, the agreement would mandate a more aggressive schedule for assessing and repairing the city’s sewer system.

Houston also would commit to clean and inspect its 127,000 manholes and 5,500 miles of gravity-driven pipes every decade, to carry out more preventative cleanings in problem areas, and to emphasize its program to educate residents not to pour grease, oil and other fats down the drain.

[…]

It is unclear how much water bills would rise as a result of the federal decree. The city has begun a rate study that will incorporate the consent decree and other factors and suggest new rates to take effect in July 2020.

Some council members were told in preliminary briefings this spring that rates would rise about 4 percent in each year of the agreement, resulting in an increase of more than 70 percent by the end of the 15-year term, though Turner professed ignorance at that figure Tuesday. Other cities under comparable decrees, including San Antonio, will double their rates during their agreements.

Turner stressed that the projected overall cost of the deal is “substantially less” than the $5 billion to $7 billion the EPA was demanding in the Obama administration’s final year.

Despite the mayor holding a news conference to announce the agreement, the Turner administration considers the decree confidential, distributing it only to the elected council members and topping it with a memo that mentions fines for those who disclose its contents.

See here, here, and here for the background. I don’t understand the reason for keeping the decree secret. I’ll be happy if Council pushes back against that. As for water rates going up as a result, well, we should have been doing this a long time ago, and last I checked fixing broken things isn’t free. I’ll say again, how much is a lower level of fecal bacteria in your water worth to you? It’s worth a gradually increasing water bill to me.

Sue Lovell announces for Mayor

Sure, why not?

Sue Lovell

Former Houston city councilwoman Sue Lovell announced Monday she is running for mayor, becoming the fourth major candidate aiming to deny Mayor Sylvester Turner a second term in November.

Lovell made the announcement in a news release posted on her campaign website. She joins a field that includes District D Councilman Dwight Boykins, trial lawyer Tony Buzbee, businessman Bill King and at least five lesser-known candidates.

In her announcement, Lovell emphasized her tenure as chair of the city council transportation committee and advocacy for LGBTQ rights. She served three terms on council from 2006 to 2012, including a stint as vice mayor pro-tem.

“Now, more than ever, our citizens trust that public safety will be a priority, that the services they pay for will be delivered efficiently and on time, and that there will be an investment in the city’s infrastructure and their quality of life,” Lovell said in a statement. “I will honor that trust and deliver on those commitments.”

Speculation had abounded for months that Lovell would join the race, representing a challenge to Turner from his left. Lovell also has established herself as an ally to the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association, working for a political action committee that supported Proposition B during last year’s midterm election.

That’s what this is about. It makes me wonder if the firefighters, who had previously endorsed Dwight Boykins before he stepped in it over the weekend, might reconsider their options. Or maybe the two of them will split the pool of pro-firefighter/anti-Turner Democrat voters. I don’t know.

Though Lovell’s name last appeared on the city ballot in 2009, she has remained visible in the community for the last decade and likely maintains some recognition among voters, said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston.

“She’s been out office for awhile, but there are still a lot of people that know and respect her,” Rottinghaus said.

Lovell is likely to cut into the mayor’s progressive base, said Mark Jones, a political science professor at Rice University. Before Lovell joined the race, Jones said, “Turner was going to be the preferred choice of most liberal Anglos.” Those voters are more likely to support Lovell than King, Buzbee or Boykins, Jones said.

Yeah, but she was always an underperformer at the ballot box. In 2007, running for her first re-election, she failed to crack 53% against perennial candidate Griff Griffin. In 2009, she was forced into a runoff against perennial candidate Andrew Burks. I happen to think Lovell was a fine Council member and a master of policy details, but she tends to burn bridges and accumulate enemies. I’ll be very interested to see what kind of endorsements she gets, and what her fundraising is; we won’t know that till the 30 day reports, as that is the advantage of announcing one’s candidacy on July 1.

Metro and the Mayor’s race

This went pretty much as one would expect.

Delivering his fourth State of Mobility speech to Transportation Advocacy Group-Houston Chapter, Mayor Sylvester Turner echoed previous years, noting the region needs more options than solo driving if it is to handle the deluge of new residents in the future.

“We need to find ways to move people efficiently and quickly, and that means more than just building more highways,” Turner said.

While touching on the many improvements needed in the region, including deepening the Houston Ship Channel to keep the Port of Houston an attractive call for ships and support of a high-speed rail line from Houston to Dallas, much of the session was spent on the upcoming transit plans.

“We cannot continue to operate a transportation system as if it was 30 years ago,” Turner said.

[…]

“Given the congestion we have now… we must build out our system,” Metro Chairwoman Carrin Patman said.

Patman and others said most of the summer will be spent selling voters on the plan, though officials believe it has strong support.

“Of course, we will have some naysayers,” Patman said.

That includes some of Turner’s opponents in the mayoral race, which also will be on the November ballot. Bill King and Tony Buzbee both have said Houston has invested too much in public transit to the detriment of suburban commuters.

Asked during a June 10 Kingwood forum on transportation solutions, King said “it is not transit or light rail” while congratulating Metro on its commuter bus efforts.

Buzbee focused his remarks at the event on the need to improve neighborhood streets and synchronizing traffic lights for better efficiency. He called the Metro plan too focused on a small portion of the city.

“It is more about career politicians telling us public transit is good,” Buzbee said.

So, Bill King cares more about people driving in from The Woodlands than anything else, while Buzbee demonstrates zero grasp of the topic at hand. As for Dwight Boykins, he wasn’t quoted in the story, probably because he wasn’t at the event. Insert shrug emoji here.

Look, Metro has come a long way since the dark days of Frank Wilson and David Wolff. There are more HOV lanes, a vastly improved bus system, more light rail, good ridership numbers, and forward-thinking planning from the Board and the Chair. All that is at risk, not just with the MetroNext plan on the ballot but also Mayor’s race. All the good work being done goes right out the window if a transit-hostile or transit-ignorant Mayor gets elected. Sylvester Turner is the only choice if you care about transit. It’s not even close.

Appeals court upholds dismissal of term limits lawsuit

Score one more for the city.

A Texas appeals court on Tuesday upheld a lower court ruling that struck down a lawsuit seeking to invalidate a 2015 voter-approved referendum extending term limits for city officials.

At issue in the suit was Proposition 2, a ballot measure that changed Houston’s charter to limit elected officials to two four-year terms instead of the previous cap of three two-year terms.

Community activists Phillip Paul Bryant and James Scarborough alleged in their lawsuit that former mayor Annise Parker and the city of Houston used “deceptive ballot language” to “selfishly expand term limits.”

Parker was term-limited out of office and did not receive a longer term due to the ballot referendum, which easily passed.

Eric Dick, an attorney for Scarborough, said he would appeal the case.

“I said from the beginning it’s going to be decided in the Supreme Court of Texas,” Dick said.

See here for the background, and here for a press release from the city. The court’s ruling is here, and the TL;dr version of it is “the district judge got it right when he ruled that the ballot language was sufficiently fine”. They rejected the plaintiffs’s argument that the ballot language was misleading. Obviously, the Supreme Court is gonna do what the Supreme Court is gonna do, but for now at least it’s all systems normal for this year’s election.

Appeals court rejects firefighters pension reform lawsuit

This is not related to Prop B. I know, it’s hard to keep all of this straight.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Texas’ 14th Court of Appeals on Thursday sided with the city of Houston in a lawsuit over Mayor Sylvester Turner’s pension reform plan, which the Houston Firefighters’ Relief and Retirement Fund alleged violates the state constitution.

The firefighters’ pension fund sued Turner and other city officials in May 2017, shortly after the Legislature passed — and Gov. Greg Abbott signed — Senate Bill 2190, the legislation overhauling Houston’s pension systems. Firefighters opposed the measure, while Turner and other officials said it resolved a fiscal crisis that could threaten the city’s fiscal solvency.

In the lawsuit, the Houston Firefighters’ Relief and Retirement Fund argued the pension reform law strips its right under the Texas Constitution to “select legal counsel and an actuary and adopt sound actuarial assumptions.”

The pension fund contended the reform plan’s 7 percent assumed rate of return on investment, now codified in state law, gives the city and its actuaries a role in determining the fund’s cost projections, which the fund’s board of trustees said it alone should control.

See here and here for the background. The suit was dismissed by a district court judge, and the appeals court was basically ruling on whether that judge was correct to dismiss or not. You can read the opinion here, but it’s pretty dense and technical, and my eyes glazed over almost immediately. In short, the appellate court said the trial court judge’s decision was fine. The firefighters’ pension fund, who filed the suit and the appeal, will appeal again, to the Supreme Court. So we’re not quite finished with this yet.

By the way, City Council passed the budget

In the end, this was pretty boring. Which is a good thing.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Houston city council approved Mayor Sylvester Turner’s $5.1 billion budget for the upcoming fiscal year with little commotion Wednesday, authorizing a spending plan that was scrambled at the last minute by developments at the Legislature and a judge’s ruling that the voter-approved Proposition B is unconstitutional.

The council voted 12-4 in favor of Turner’s budget after approving a series of amendments during a nearly seven-hour session. The budget covers city spending for the 2020 fiscal year, which begins July 1.

About half the spending — $2.53 billion — will come out of the city’s tax- and-fee-supported general fund, which pays for most of the city’s day-to-day core operations, including public safety, trash pickup, parks and libraries. The city is set to spend about 1.9 percent more than it is projected to spend during the current fiscal year.

The remaining spending will come out of “enterprise” funds, which are supported by fees, including the Houston Airport System, and city utilities, which run on residents’ water bills.

[…]

Also complicating the budget was a bill passed by the Legislature that limits the fees telecommunication and cable companies pay cities to use their rights of way. That opened a spending gap of more than $16 million, according to city budget officials.

Wednesday’s budget approval followed consideration of more than 30 amendments proposed by council members.

Among the amendments approved were proposals to create new finance transparency requirements, change how the city sets its next budget and commission studies that could change how the city’s fleet management and solid waste departments operate.

In the end, there were no layoffs thanks to Prop B getting tossed by the courts. That could still get reversed on appeal so it’s not a settled matter, but for now it’s where we are. A respite from that drama, no matter how brief, is welcome.

Buzbee billboard lawsuit dismissed

I did say it was a dumb lawsuit.

“Objection Overruled”, by Charles Bragg

A state district judge has dismissed challenger Tony Buzbee’s lawsuit against Mayor Sylvester Turner and advertising company Clear Channel Outdoor over a series of billboards for the city’s AlertHouston campaign.

In the suit, Buzbee claimed Clear Channel and Turner had conspired to support the mayor’s re-election bid by “promoting him as a civic-minded safety conscious leader” on the ad campaign for a system that sends alerts to Houston residents during emergency situations.

The advertisements, which were taken down earlier this month, featured a photo of Turner next to the words “Be Prepared. Be Safe. Be Alert Houston.”

Buzbee, a trial lawyer, said in a statement Tuesday that he plans to appeal the ruling, which was issued last Friday by 281st District Judge Christine Weems.

[…]

Weems did not explain the dismissal in her ruling, writing only that Turner and Clear Channel had 21 days to set a hearing or file a motion to determine how much they would be reimbursed for attorney fees and other costs.

See here for the background. The billboards were taken down, which is what Buzbee wanted, though the Turner campaign says they were going to be coming down around this time anyway. The motion to dismiss was filed by the defendants, so in that sense Buzbee lost, and unless the suit is reinstated he’ll be on the hook for court costs and attorney fees. This has been your irregularly scheduled Dumb Lawsuits Update.

Back to mediation

Give it another sixty days. Maybe it’ll be different this time.

A Texas appeals court Thursday ordered the Houston firefighters union and Mayor Sylvester Turner’s administration back to mediation in the hope the two sides will agree to a new pay contract and sidestep the contentious fight over Proposition B.

The order by the 14th Court of Appeals, which requires the parties to hold talks within 60 days, comes a month after a state district judge declared Prop B unconstitutional, marking the latest twist in a years-long battle between the city and firefighters over pay.

The latest order cranks up pressure on Turner and the firefighters to work together to resolve the issues, said Josh Blackman, an associate professor at the South Texas College of Law Houston.

“Maybe they were hoping the court would bail them out, but the courts aren’t going to assist in this negotiation,” he said. “Why would the court want to get involved in this? It’s such a disaster.”

[…]

State District Judge Tanya Garrison’s ruling that Prop B was unconstitutional changes the dynamics of the negotiations, said Wanda McKee Fowler, a former appellate judge who spent more than 13 years on the 14th Court of Appeals.

“Sometimes it takes more than one mediation for a case to settle,” she said. “There’s benefit in having parties that are going to have a continuing relationship resolve it themselves, rather than have the law to resolve it.”

See here for the background, and here for the court’s order. What this means is that the appeal of the question about whether Prop B is unconstitutional is on hold for the next sixty days. If everyone involved can come to some kind of agreement – remember, the Houston Police Officers Union filed the lawsuit alleging Prop B was illegal, so they are a party to all this as well – then the appeal will be dropped and everyone will go on with their lives. If mediation fails again, then the court gets to decide whether the original ruling that Prop B is illegal was correct. You have to read the order to figure that out (or at least, I had to read it to figure that out), but that’s what this all means.

For that reason, I disagree with Josh Blackmon. This fight isn’t about being bailed out, it’s about who’s right and who’s wrong. Remember, it was the HPOU who filed the lawsuit, in the belief that Prop B would harm them. In a sense, Judge Garrison’s ruling did bail everyone out, in that the city’s financial position improved, no firefighters got laid off, and nothing prevented them from going back to the collective bargaining process. The question at issue here is “Is Prop B legal?” The court’s order is a fancy way of saying “Are you sure you want to ask me that question, or would you rather go off on your own and solve your own problems and leave me out of it?” Frankly, it’s not the court bailing anyone out. From the court’s perspective, they want the litigants to bail them out from having to get involved. KUHF has more.

Prop B layoffs rescinded

No Prop B, no need for layoffs. Funny how that works.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Houston City Council on Wednesday formally reversed the 220 firefighter layoffs and hundreds of demotions it approved earlier this year, making official Mayor Sylvester Turner’s pledge not to lay off or demote any firefighters in the aftermath of a judge’s ruling that Proposition B is unconstitutional.

Before a state district judge threw out Prop B, the voter-approved charter amendment granted firefighters the same pay as police of corresponding rank and seniority. Turner warned that Prop B would require layoffs to offset the cost of the raises, a point hotly disputed by the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association. City council voted in April to send firefighters 60-day layoff notices, which the panel unanimously rescinded Wednesday.

The council also voted to reverse more than 400 demotions within the Houston Fire Department. The layoff notices had gone to the lowest-ranking firefighters, initially requiring the city to fill in those positions from the top down through demotions.

“This puts everything back the way it existed prior to that vote,” Turner said.

The city also had sent layoff notices to 47 municipal employees, but Turner already had rescinded those unilaterally because those layoffs did not require council approval.

Councilman Dwight Boykins asked Turner if the layoff reversal would impact Fire Chief Sam Peña’s proposed department restructuring, which would move HFD from a four-shift to three-shift model — a move the union opposes. Turner confirmed that Wednesday’s vote has no bearing on the proposed shift change.

Councilwoman Brenda Stardig also asked Turner if the city plans to recoup back pay granted to firefighters before Prop B was ruled unconstitutional. Some department employees received raises the week before the judge’s ruling.

Turner said his administration is “addressing how to deal with that issue,” but in the meantime he sees the raises as a “credit on future negotiations.” The mayor said last month that he did not intend to “claw back” funds from any firefighter.

Obviously, this isn’t the end. We’re about to have an election that will re-litigate this whole thing – though don’t expect anyone to give a plausible answer to how they would have handled this all differently – and that court ruling has been appealed to the 14th Court of Appeals. But in a real sense, this is over. Whatever happens next, it will occur in a context of Prop B not having happened. So maybe now, at least for a little while, we can talk about something else.

Here comes another referendum no one will understand

Be careful what petitions you sign, that’s my advice.

A political action committee is launching a petition drive Sunday aimed at limiting how much city contractors and vendors can contribute to municipal candidates, marking the start of a month-long effort to gather enough signatures to put the so-called anti-pay-to-play measure on Houston’s November ballot.

The drive is for a petition authored by a group of lawyers, including Houston mayoral candidate Bill King, that would amend a city ordinance to bar people who do business with the city from contributing more than $500 to candidates for municipal office.

Houston’s campaign finance laws allow individual donors to give candidates up to $5,000 every two years. Committees can contribute a maximum of $10,000 during the same span.

The amendment would further prohibit city board and commission members, as well as sexually-oriented business owners, from giving candidates any campaign money.

[…]

To put it on the ballot, the PAC — called “End Pay to Play” — must gather about 40,000 signatures from registered Houston voters within a 30-day window ending July 8. The city secretary would then verify the signatures, prompting city council to vote on holding an election to coincide with the Nov. 5 municipal contests.

We’ll see if this thing gets enough signatures in the allotted time. Collecting a sufficient amount of valid signatures takes resources, which is to say volunteers and/or paid canvassers. I don’t know how much grassroots energy exists for something like this, but I’ll be sure to look at the “End Pay to Play” PAC finance reports to see how they’re spending their money.

I have some questions about this. First of all, it sure seems to me like there may be some constitutional issues with the prohibitions this would impose. Last I checked, the First Amendment did not exclude strip club owners from the right to express their political beliefs. In a post-Citizens United world, where money is speech and corporations are people, it’s not clear to me that this would stand up to legal scrutiny. One possible outcome here is that not only is that provision struck down, but other parts of Houston’s campaign finance laws could be endangered. It’s not that long ago that the fundraising blackout rule got tossed by a federal judge. The potential here for unintended consequences is greater than zero.

I would also note that by going through the referendum process, this proposal will not get vetted by the legislative process. There will be no public hearings, no opportunities for Council members to ask questions or put forth amendments. I would argue that this is how you get a firefighter pay parity law passed that had no mechanism to pay for it (never mind the later ruling that it violated state law). There are times when the direct approach works well, and for sure there have been referenda that I have supported, such as Renew Houston, for which this criticism would also apply. Bill King, for one, has been critical of Renew Houston for this reason, among others. Here, though, King is actually running for Mayor, and it would be well within his capability if he wins to hand an ordinance for Council to vote on to do what’s in this referendum. Maybe he’s hedging his bets, maybe he just doesn’t want to get Council involved. Or, you know, maybe he sees a political advantage in taking this approach.

(Note that Bill King has taken it upon himself to crusade against campaign contributions from strip club owners. In case you were wondering why that particular legally questionable provision is in the petition, and why I say this is King working to his own advantage.)

(I know it’s a tedious bit of whataboutism, but Greg Abbott has made a career out of rewarding his campaign supporters. He went so far as to endorse the primary opponent of the Republican legislator who authored a bill that would have restricted this practice of Abbott’s. One can engage in government as one sees fit, but if there were evidence that, say, Bill King had encouraged people to email their State Rep in support of that bill, I might be a tad bit less cynical about his motives here.)

(The story notes that King himself used to be a player in this system that he now decries, as a partner at Linebarger Goggan. For this, I have no criticism of him. People are allowed to change their minds, and no one has to have a specific road to Damascus moment to do so. If he says he now regrets what he once did, I take him at his word. There’s plenty of room for me to snipe at his actions, as you can see.)

(No, I don’t know why I put all these last paragraphs in parentheses. Once I got started, it kind of built on itself. I’ll stop now.)

None of this is to say that we shouldn’t review our campaign finance and ethics ordinances. I just think we should do it in a more deliberative and rigorous process that ensures that the final product is compliant with existing federal law. I would also note that even outside that concern, we should be careful about how we regulate campaign contributions. If we make it harder for regular candidates to raise money for their campaigns, one effect of that will be that it confers an advantage to wealthy candidates who can self-finance their campaigns. I for one don’t think that’s much of an improvement.

Anyway. If you get accosted at the Kroger parking lot to sign a petition, please do be sure to know what it’s about before you affix your autograph. I personally would not sign this, but your mileage may vary.

Looks like Boykins is in for Mayor

This had been rumored for some time.

CM Dwight Boykins

Houston City Councilman Dwight Boykins has filed paperwork indicating he will run for mayor, setting up a clash with incumbent Sylvester Turner and at least two other major candidates.

Boykins filed a report Tuesday afternoon with the city secretary designating a campaign treasurer, a necessary step to raise funds.

He listed former Houston mayor Lee P. Brown as his campaign treasurer.

Boykins, who represents District D, has signaled for months that he was considering a mayoral bid; he had said he would decide by June whether to run for mayor or seek re-election to his council seat.

On Saturday, a website surfaced at the domain name dwightboykinsformayor.com that included a page allowing visitors to register for an announcement event. The site later was taken down.

Though once a political ally of Turner, Boykins has become increasingly combative with the mayor amid the city’s ongoing labor dispute with the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association.

Miya Shay has a photo of the paperwork on Twitter. I have three things to add at this time.

1. Nothing is final until the filing deadline passes. At this point in time in 2003, Michael Berry was a candidate for Mayor. He subsequently went back to running for Council. It seems quite likely Boykins will run at this point, but there’s still plenty of time for him to change his mind.

2. I’m kind of hard pressed to come up with an idea for what the Boykins for Mayor campaign will be about, other than “I promise to be nicer to the firefighters”. Which is fine, people can certainly think they deserve better than what they’ve gotten, but Prop B is now dead (pending appeal), and Boykins’ proposal to pay for it, which would have cost most homeowners something like $200 to $300 per year, maybe wouldn’t be all that popular. Some people like to talk about how Prop B passed with almost sixty percent of the vote. I wonder how it would have done if it had come with that price tag prominently displayed on it.

3. I know there are Democrats out there who are disappointed in Mayor Turner and who think he isn’t progressive enough. I would just like to remind them – and everyone else – that back in May of 2014 when City Council voted on HERO, Dwight Boykins voted “No”. He still refused to support HERO a year later when Council had to put the HERO repeal proposal on the ballot. I for one cannot and will not vote for anyone who didn’t support HERO. You do you, but that’s a deal breaker for me.

Appeals court affirms pension bond lawsuit

Hope this is now over.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

The Texas 1st Court of Appeals has struck down an appeal from a Houston businessman who contested the city’s 2017 pension bond referendum, appearing to end the legal challenge that began almost a year and a half ago.

Mayor Sylvester Turner’s office had denied former housing director James Noteware’s allegation that the mayor misled voters into approving the $1 billion bond sale with a “materially misleading ballot description.”

Noteware claimed that the election authorized the city to pay off the bonds by levying a tax that exceeds its voter-imposed revenue cap.

A state district judge last year dismissed Noteware’s claim without ruling on his motion for summary judgment in the case.

In the ruling, the judge agreed with the city’s argument that the court lacked jurisdiction because Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton had issued an opinion approving and validating the bonds, while Noteware’s claim “depends on contingent or hypothetical facts.”

See here, here, and here for the background, and here for the ruling. Noteware’s claims are summarized in the Chron story, while the city countered that 1) the Attorney General certified the bonds as being in compliance with the revenue cap; 2) the election was held, the bonds were sold, and the taxes to pay for them were levied, so there’s no action for the court to take; and 3) any claim that payment of the bond may violate the revenue cap in the future cannot be litigated now. The court accepted the city’s arguments and the appeals court upheld the ruling. Based on this ruling, it’s theoretically possible there could be future litigation over that last point, but if so it will most likely be someone else’s problem.

The state of the city 2019

There are still things to do that don’t have to do with the endless fight over Prop B.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner used his fourth annual State of the City address Monday to announce a plan aimed at drawing private investment to city parks in underserved areas, while casting the state of the city as “strong, resilient and sustainable,” a depiction his mayoral opponents swiftly rejected.

Turner, who is up for re-election in November, also renewed his call for a multimodal transit system with rail and bus rapid transit, urging residents to give Metro borrowing authority for its long-term plan in November. The agency is expected to put a multi-billion-dollar bond request on the ballot.

“This is not the city of the 1990s,” Turner said. “This city has changed. The region is changing. People are demanding multimodal options, and we have to give it to them.”

[…]

Speaking to a packed crowd of elected officials, city staff and the business community, the mayor pitched Houston as a prime location for technology startups, touting steps the city has taken to expand its tech presence. He acknowledged that “Silicon Bayou” has played catch-up to other cities that were faster to attract talent.

“It makes no sense why the (tech) ecosystem in Houston should not be No. 1 in the world,” Turner said, pointing to the city’s large medical center, multiple universities and reputation as the world’s energy capital.

Several minutes into his address, delivered at the Marriott Marquis hotel downtown, Turner announced a “50-for-50” plan aimed at revitalizing city parks “primarily in communities that have been underserved.” Under the plan, Turner said, 50 companies would each “partner” with a city park, volunteering to “take ownership” of the park and maintain it for about five years.

[H-E-B President Scott] McClelland, who chairs the Greater Houston Partnership, committed onstage to participate in the program.

You can see the text of the Mayor’s address here. There’s some stuff in the story about the other Mayoral candidates, which, whatever. I’m more interested in seeing Mayor Turner give full-throated support to the Metro referendum, which we are very much going to need. We can go from a city and a region that has okay transit to a city and a region that has good transit, if we want to. The only person running for Mayor that I trust with that is Mayor Turner.

No arbitration

And we’re on to the next phase of the firefighter pay battle.

The Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association on Tuesday asked Mayor Sylvester Turner to enter arbitration to settle its ongoing labor dispute with the city, a request the mayor shot down as he called instead for a return to collective bargaining.

The union’s request came less than a week after a state district judge ruled Proposition B unconstitutional and void. The charter amendment approved by voters last November granted firefighters the same pay as police of corresponding rank and seniority.

Turner made clear Tuesday that he does not intend to accept the union’s request.

“The city of Houston is willing to return to the table for collective bargaining which would be the regular course of business,” the mayor said in a written statement.

[…]

Fire union President Marty Lancton said the mayor had yet to contact the union about sitting down to negotiate anew. He repeatedly has questioned Turner’s claim that the city could not afford Prop B, and on Tuesday cast doubt on Turner’s willingness to negotiate a “fair raise” for firefighters.

Arbitration, Lancton contended, would resolve the pay dispute before Houston’s 2020 fiscal year starts July 1.

“This is a sensible solution,” Lancton said. “We continue to wait for the call that the mayor says he is willing to make. Let’s resolve this now, mayor.”

Turner spokeswoman Mary Benton said the union “knows how to reach the mayor,” and repeated Turner’s statement that his “door is open and he is ready and willing to meet with the fire union.”

So if I’m interpreting this correctly, the Mayor is offering to go back to the collective bargaining process, while the firefighters are saying instead let’s take our respective offers and present them to an arbitrator and let that person make the call. I’m not quite sure what to make of that. I suppose this is the HPFFA’s way of saying they trust the city to negotiate in good faith. If so, all I can say is that the city could say the same about the firefighters. Whatever the case, we’re now at a standoff about how to go about resolving the larger standoff. The firefighters can claim that they have the will of the voters on their side, but unless they win their appeal of the summary judgment declaring Prop B unconstitutional, that only means so much. In the meantime, I’m going to find my happy place and practice some deep breathing.

Prop B ruled unconstitutional

Oh, my.

A state district judge on Wednesday ruled Proposition B, the voter-approved measure that grants Houston firefighters the same pay as police of corresponding rank and seniority, unconstitutional and void.

The ruling came in a lawsuit brought in November by the Houston Police Officers’ Union, which contended that the city charter amendment conflicts with the Texas Constitution.

In her ruling, state District Judge Tanya Garrison found that Chapter 174 of the local government code preempts Prop B. The city, which was named in the police union’s suit, has alleged that the parity measure section conflicts with a provision of Chapter 174 tying compensation for firefighters and police officers to that of comparable private sector employees.

Mayor Sylvester Turner briefly stopped the weekly city council meeting to announce the ruling. The fire union quickly announced it would appeal.

After the council meeting, Turner said the 60-day layoff notices he proposed and council approved sending in recent weeks to 220 firefighters and more than 110 fire cadets and municipal workers to help close a budget deficit exacerbated by Prop. B would be rescinded, along with hundreds of proposed demotions within HFD.

Turner cast the ruling as a “tremendous positive” for the city as a whole, saying he hoped it could spur a “reset” to reduce widespread acrimony over the issue. He also stressed that firefighters deserve a pay raise and looked forward to negotiating one with union leaders.

“They’re deserving of a pay raise that the city can afford and I do look forward to sitting down and talking with them about what would be an acceptable pay raise within the confines of the city’s financial capability,” Turner said. “We’ll do everything we can to move it forward.”

A release with the Mayor’s comments following the ruling, which came down while Council was in session, is here. Judge Garrison had sent the parties to mediation originally, saying she didn’t want to get involved if they could work it out among themselves. They did not, and so here we are. You can see a copy of her ruling here, which is an order granting summary judgment to the plaintiffs, the HPOU. The city is listed as the defendant and their motion was also granted, while the HPFFA’s motion was denied; someone who understands the law way better than I do will hopefully step in to explain how all that worked. Be that as it may, the firefighters will appeal, but that almost certainly means the city is off the hook for this fiscal year, possibly for the foreseeable future.

Census outreach

I am puzzled why this is controversial.

A divided city council on Wednesday approved a $650,000 contract aimed at boosting the number of Houston residents who participate in the 2020 census, a measure that generated partisan debate in which some council members worried the outreach would have a liberal bent.

Under the contract, Lopez Negrete Communications — a firm specializing in Hispanic marketing — will conduct outreach intended to improve response rates in the 2020 national survey. Council members passed the deal on an 11-6 vote, with most of the council’s conservative cohort voting against it.

The hour-long debate centered around allegations from a handful of council members who said subcontracting companies or partnering organizations may conduct census outreach in a way that is slanted toward Democrats or liberals.

Mayor Sylvester Turner repeatedly dismissed the idea, telling council members the contract “has no partisan bent at all,” and would bring in more money to Houston, because the federal government distributes funds to cities and other local communities based on census data.

The mayor has said a signficant undercount could impact city services, with each uncounted person costing the city about $1,500 in federal funding. In 2018, the Census Bureau posted a slow population growth estimate for Houston, creating a $17 million hole in the city budget.

At-Large Councilman Mike Knox clashed with Turner over the deal, expressing concern that the main firm would partner with organizations that have unknown “missions and agendas.” For instance, Knox said council could not prevent organizations from conducting voter registration efforts amid census outreach.

[…]

District I Councilman Robert Gallegos, a vocal supporter of the contract, criticized his colleagues for opposing it, saying outreach is needed to counteract the impact of a possible census citizenship question.

“Residents in my district are fearful of filling out that census,” said Gallegos, whose southeast Houston district is overwhelmingly Hispanic.

He also said it was “frightening” that Knox took exception to the deal over concerns that those conducting census outreach may also register people to vote.

“That right there, I just thought it was a joke,” Gallegos said after the meeting. He said Houston would risk losing social programs and political representation if the city’s population is under-counted.

Either Lopez Negrete will do a good job of delivering the service they have been contracted to provide – boosting the response rate on the Census, to ensure that Houston is properly counted and thus gets its fair share of political representation and federal resources – at a fair price, or they won’t. I’m not saying a firm’s politics or values can’t be an issue, but the job has to be the first priority, and I don’t see anyone raising concerns about that. As for Mike Knox’s issues with Lopez Negrete possibly registering voters, I presume this is the usual Republican fear and loathing, and I have no time for that. Let’s make sure all our people get counted. That’s what matters. KUHF has more.

Firefighters get Prop B back pay

Good for them.

The city of Houston on Friday issued lump-sum paychecks to more than 3,900 firefighters, a move Mayor Sylvester Turner said reflects the implementation, retroactive to Jan. 1, of Proposition B, the measure granting firefighters the same pay as police of corresponding rank and experience.

Marty Lancton, president of the Houston fire union, said that contrary to the mayor’s “Orwellian claims,” the paychecks did not fully equalize base and incentive pay between fire and police, as laid out in Proposition B. Lancton said the city “badly botched” implementation of the measure.

The back pay, worth $27.4 million, comes a week after Turner and the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association ended court-ordered mediation without an agreement to phase in the raises over several years.

[…]

For now, the fire department’s biweekly payroll will increase from about $10.2 million to $12.3 million, Turner said. The city has dipped into its reserves to fund raises from Jan. 1 through June 30, which Turner said will cost $31 million. Lancton also has questioned the accuracy of that figure.

Both sides, meanwhile, are awaiting a state district judge’s ruling in a lawsuit brought by the Houston Police Officers’ Union, in which the police union and city have alleged Prop B violates the Texas constitution.

I don’t have anything to add to this, I’m just noting it for the record. I look forward to the day when I will be able to get all of this out of my brain, as I hope to do with Game 6 of Rockets-Warriors.

Cable franchise fees

Hey, remember how the city of Houston had to lay off a bunch of workers to to close a $179 million budget deficit? Well, there’s more where that came from.

The Texas House on Thursday approved legislation that would limit fees telecommunication and cable companies pay cities to use their rights of way, likely opening up a new spending gap of at least $12 million two days after Mayor Sylvester Turner laid out his proposed budget for the upcoming fiscal year.

Senate Bill 1152, authored by state Sen. Kelly Hancock, R-North Richland Hills, passed the House on a 92-50 vote on the third and final reading Thursday. The legislation, which had received Senate approval early last month, heads back to the upper chamber, where lawmakers will decide whether to approve the House version.

The measure would eliminate what cable companies and some lawmakers say is an outdated double tax levied on companies that transmit cable and phone services over the same lines. The bill would eliminate the lesser of the two charges, starting next January.

Opponents say the bill amounts to a gift for large telecom firms, which would not be required to pass the savings on to consumers because the state is barred from regulating cable rates. Turner had urged lawmakers to oppose the measure, saying it would deliver a financial hit to Houston.

Those who back the bill say companies still would pay millions for the remaining charge, arguing that cities would lose only a small portion of their revenue. The House companion bill’s author, state Rep. Dade Phelan, noted Wednesday that only one other state — Oregon — still charges both fees.

Turner blasted lawmakers in a statement Thursday, accusing them of attempting to “unconstitutionally take the value of Houston’s right-of-way” through the bill. He also lauded state Rep. Harold Dutton, D-Houston, for attempting to stop the legislation through a procedural maneuver.

[…]

A Legislative Budget Board analysis determined that Houston would take in $17.1 million to $27.5 million less revenue under the bill. Estimates for other cities include $9.2 million in Dallas, $7.9 million in San Antonio and $6.3 million in Austin.

An updated estimate provided by the city Thursday projected it would receive $12.6 million to $24.4 million less revenue during the 2020 fiscal year, which begins July 1.

It sure has been a great session for cities, hasn’t it? Here’s that earlier story, which I confess I never got around to blogging about. You know who else has had nothing to say about it? Bill King and Tony Buzbee. Way to be looking out for the city’s financial interests, y’all.

As for the fee itself, I can see the argument for getting rid of it, but let’s be clear about two things. One, if you believe this will result in a reduction in your cable or internet bill, I have some oceanfront property in Lubbock you might be interested in. And two, given the financial hit this will impose on cities, would it have killed anyone to phase this in after a year or two, so cities – all of which are required to have balanced budgets – could have had some time to adjust? What exactly was the rush here? Look at the roll call vote, and if you’re in one of those cities – especially Houston – and your Rep supported this, please call their office and ask them that question.

Buzbee files another lawsuit

Tony Buzbee does what Tony Buzbee does.

Houston mayoral candidate and attorney Tony Buzbee has filed a lawsuit on behalf of two companies that allege they were fraudulently listed as subcontractors by two companies that later secured millions of dollars for Hurricane Harvey relief work from the city of Houston.

Filed Tuesday in Harris County, the action alleges that Blessed Enterprises and A-Status Construction LLC were unaware that they were listed as minority-owned subcontractors by Burghli Investments and Tegrity Houston LLC, which each received $66 million from the city to help rebuild or rehabilitate homes affected by the storm.

They allege that the companies committed “fraud, misappropriation and implied breach of contract” in order to meet diversity goals and obtain contracts that were approved by City Council. The owners of the companies represented by Buzbee said they learned they were listed on the bids through a website run by the Office of Business of Opportunity, which monitors the program.

[…]

At a Tuesday press conference, Buzbee said he filed the lawsuit out of concern for minority-owned businesses that “routinely are shut out” of the bid process and “never get a piece of the pie.”

The companies he represents are both certified for business with the city, but say they have never received a contract. They say the city’s bid process is unfair, and that the allegedly fraudulent use of their names could damage their reputations and, thus, their ability to get future contracts.

“I worked hard to get where I am,” A-Status Construction owner Raquel Boujourne said “I find it extremely unfair to see these same companies be awarded contract after contract while I am over here working my butt off… Businesses like ours, the little guys, are taken advantage of and the city does not lift a finger to do anything about it. It is a huge problem.”

Buzbee also claimed that Burghli Investments received business with the city because it gave campaign contributions to Turner, despite having been sued multiple times for tax delinquency.

The city’s bidding process, Buzbee said, is “not about who you are, it’s about who you know.”

Turner called the allegations “ludicrous” and “vague.”

“Mayor Turner has received no donation from the owner of Tegrity,” a spokesperson for his re-election campaign said in a statement. “He received one donation from Deanna Burghli of $2,000 in December 2015 before he was elected mayor. In that same month, Mr. Buzbee and his wife both maxed out donations to Mr. Turner of $5,000 each, along with donations from his law firm staff. This again shows Mr. Buzbee will say, do and spend anything to be elected mayor.”

Like I said, this is what he does. I’m starting to think that filing all the lawsuits and conducting crappy robo-polls are the entirity of Buzbee’s campaign strategy. Though honestly, I shouldn’t underestimate his ability to dream up stupid stunts. It’s his money, but boy I wish he’d have picked a less public midlife crisis to pursue.

The firefighters have a new enemy

It’s a renewable resource.

CM David Robinson

Houston City Councilman David Robinson said he returned $7,500 in campaign contributions from the city’s firefighter union because of ethical concerns.

Robinson was one of two council members who said they received text messages from Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association President Marty Lancton asking them to return campaign contributions from the union’s political action committee. They said they received those texts after city council last month voted to send 60-day layoff notices to 220 firefighters to help offset the costs of implementing Proposition B, the voter-approved charter amendment that requires the city to pay firefighters the same salaries as police of corresponding rank and seniority. Robinson and Councilmember Martha Castex-Tatum, who said she also was asked to return her donation, voted for the layoff notices.

In an April 29 letter to Lancton, Robinson wrote that he believes it is “improper” to keep the donations he has received from the HPFFA’s political action committee since 2016 if they were intended to sway his votes on issues related to Prop B. The letter said a check for $7,500 was enclosed.

“I also did not realize, until I read your text, that you expected a certain vote or outcome in exchange for those donations,” Robinson wrote. “I find it highly inappropriate for your organization to expect that I would take specific actions on your behalf in return for contributions.”

[…]

Though the requests to return political contributions are not illegal, they could backfire on the fire union, Rice University political scientist Mark Jones said.

For the most part, Jones said, the union rarely has acted in ways that could turn public opinion against them. The requests, he said, could make people view the union is “corrupt” and “petty,” while elected officials such as Robinson appear above the influence of outside interests.

“This time they overstepped, and they’re the ones looking bad, not the elected officials,” he said. “If anything, it makes elected officials look good.”

There’s more to the exchange, including Lancton’s response, which I’ll leave to you to discover for yourself. Robinson has one Republican opponent so far, though there’s plenty of time for others to arise. He’s also got $200K in the bank, which I daresay made returning that one check a bit easier. As for the firefighters, it’s all fun and games until the people you pick fights with win re-election. We’ll see how that goes.

Here’s the Mayor’s budget

A lot of people won’t like it, but this is what happens when you heap a big expense on top of an already tight fiscal situation.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner on Tuesday proposed to close Houston’s $179 million budget gap for the upcoming fiscal year by tapping into the city’s reserves, eliminating more than 60 vacant positions and laying off more than 300 city employees.

Turner’s proposal would reduce the overall budget of city departments by about $36 million, a figure that includes layoffs of firefighters, fire cadets and municipal workers, all of whom have received pink slips.

The mayor’s budget also would draw $116 million from the city’s reserves, which Turner said the city can afford because it will end the 2019 fiscal year with a higher-than expected general fund balance. The next fiscal year begins July 1.

Laying out the final budget proposal of his first term, Turner framed the financial plan as conservative and said his administration “scrubbed every department” in search of places to trim costs. The budget also uses a conservative projection for the amount of new property tax revenue Houston may take in, Turner said.

[…]

Turner said a large chunk of the 2.2 percent increase in general fund spending is driven by the cost of Proposition B, the voter-approved charter amendment that grants firefighters the same pay as police of corresponding rank and seniority. The raises will cost $79 million during the next budget year, Turner said.

District E Councilman Dave Martin agreed with Turner’s fiscal assessment of the budget, contending that the city has faced a challenging situation with small revenue growth projections — about 2 percent in property taxes and 1 percent across all sources — amid large added costs such as Prop B.

“We’ve been working on this for nine months, accumulating a healthy fund balance, not filling slots that were available for employment,” said Martin, who chairs the council’s Budget and Fiscal Affairs Committee.

Under Turner’s proposal, public safety — which includes the fire and police departments, the municipal courts and emergency operations — would make up about 58 percent of the general fund budget, at a cost of $1.5 billion. The fire department’s budget would increase to $558 million, a 4.5 percent boost over how much the city estimates it will spend on the department this year.

The fire department was allocated $503 million in the current budget. Total projected spending, however, has grown to about $534 million with the city covering Prop B raises retroactive to Jan. 1. Turner said the adjusted paychecks would go out Friday.

[…]

Controller Chris Brown, the city’s elected budget watchdog, said he does not feel confident that Turner has accurately projected Prop B’s cost because the mayor has yet to supply his office with financial data backing up the $79 million estimate. Brown also wants to generate his own independent figure, which he said he cannot do without certain incentive pay data.

Turner told reporters Tuesday that the city attorney, Ron Lewis, had determined the city’s interpretation of Prop B would withstand legal challenges.

Still, Brown said the city has little breathing room if a judge rules the firefighters are owed more. He noted that the budget would dip the city’s target fund balance within striking distance of the minimum level allowed by city policy. The city’s reserves must make up at least 7.5 percent of the city’s general fund budget, and the 2020 budget target would leave the balance at $171 million — 7.9 percent, $9 million above the threshold.

“What if a judge says, ‘You know what, we think that this is $100 million,’ and we need to pay immediately this additional money?” Brown said. “Where is that money coming from?”

I see on Twitter that some firefighters have highlighted the above quote from Controller Brown, while in this article Marty Lancton again complains that Mayor Turner isn’t implementing Prop B exactly the way he wants it to be implemented. Well, someone has to talk about the cost of Prop B. As for Brown, he’s just doing his job. And the possibility that the cost of Prop B could go up on a judge’s order is a good point and more than a little disturbing.

From here, the budget goes through Council, where they can propose amendments and do whatever they’re going to do with it. I’ll be very interested to see if any of the ones that voted against the layoffs have anything constructive to suggest for how to avoid, or at least reduce them. The budget vote is scheduled for June 5, so mark your calendar.

Metro’s challenge

It’s all about BRT.

Houston transit officials are betting on bus rapid transit as a big part of the region’s long-term plans, at times going as far as calling it the “wave of the future.”

If seeing is believing, however, voters in the region will go into the election booth blind when it comes to bus rapid transit, or BRT. Houston has local buses, MetroLift buses, commuter buses and even articulated buses on major routes, but BRT is MIA.

“(Light) rail seems to be very well maintained and it has a high degree of reliability,” said Lex Frieden, a Metropolitan Transit Authority board member. “BRT, since we have not experienced that, we can only imagine how a bus can be as stable as the sense you have on a train. How can it be as reliable as a train? Part of the issue is familiarity.”

Growing transit, specifically via BRT, is a major component of the $7.5 billion plan Metro developed over the past 18 months. The agency is expected to ask voters for authority to borrow money in November, with the specifics of the projects still under review. Plans include 20 more miles of light rail, two-way HOT lanes along most freeways and about 75 miles of BRT.

Bus rapid transit uses large buses to operate mostly along dedicated lanes, offering service similar to light rail without the cost or construction of train tracks. It has proven successful in communities such as Cleveland and Los Angeles.

The first foray into BRT in the region will be along Post Oak Boulevard in the Uptown area. Drivers already have felt the construction pain, but riders will not hop aboard until next March, months later than initially scheduled when construction began in 2016.

In the interim, Metro will try to convince people to support something most have never seen. Part of that will mean getting people to reconsider their own biases.

“The second people hear bus, they have an image in their mind,” said Metro board member Sanjay Ramabhadran.

[…]

If voters approve, BRT could become a big part of regional transit. Metro plans BRT along five major corridors, at an estimated cost of $3.15 billion. The routes mostly mirror where Metro previously proposed rail, most notably between the University of Houston and Uptown and from downtown to Bush Intercontinental Airport.

The former, once dubbed the University Line, long has been a point of contention. Voters in 2003 narrowly approved the Metro Solutions plan that included light rail from UH, through downtown and on to Uptown, but the project sputtered under intense opposition from residents along Richmond Avenue.

Now resurrected as a bus rapid transit project, the pains of the previous rail fight linger. Transit critics still question Metro’s ability to execute a major project that does not disrupt traffic, noting the Post Oak project has taken longer than expected and derailed driving along the street.

Rail backers, meanwhile, insist trains are superior, with some opposed to any Metro plan that does not include trains to and from downtown and Uptown.

I mean, we don’t have BRT now, but we almost had it for the Green and Purple lines back when Frank Wilson and David Wolff were screwing things up at Metro. There were questions about the funding for those lines, which were eventually resolved in Metro’s favor. (I wrote about this stuff at the time, but I’m too lazy to look up the links right now. Please take my word for it.) The concept isn’t completely new to Houston, is what I’m saying.

Be that as it may, I’m not too worried about BRT being a negative for Metro in the referendum. The question, as is usually the case with referenda, is who will oppose this, and how much money they will put into opposing it. Will John Culberson rise like a white walker and raise a bunch of untraceable PAC money to block the issue? (We still don’t know who funded the anti-Metro effort from 2003, by the way.) How will the Mayor’s race affect this? We know Bill King is anti-rail, but I don’t know what (or if) Tony Buzbee thinks about it. It’s too early to say how this will play out. Metro does have to come up with a good marketing plan for its referendum, once it is finalized – they’ve been busy running a bunch of generic feel-good spots during the NBA playoffs – but get back to me when and if organized opposition arises.

Mediation fails to achieve Prop B agreement

I have three things to say about this.

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner on Friday said a court-appointed mediator has declared negotiations between the city and firefighters union over the implementation of Proposition B at impasse, potentially leaving the future of the measure in the hands of a state district judge.

The announcement ends what had appeared to be some progress toward resolving the months-long dispute over how to phase in raises to firefighters required by the pay parity measure voters approved last November. The charter amendment requires the city to pay firefighters the same as police of corresponding rank and experience.

[…]

State district Judge Tanya Garrison had ordered the city, firefighters and the Houston Police Officers Union into non-binding mediation three weeks ago. Garrison’s order came as part of a legal battle between the three sides over the constitutionality of Prop B; she declined to rule on that issue until the three parties reached a settlement on implementation or an impasse was declared by the third-party mediator.

The three groups had met at least three times since.

At issue is how to implement the raises. The fire union has said it would ask its members to consider a three-and-a-half-year phase-in as long as no firefighters are demoted or laid off. Turner had said the city cannot avoid layoffs unless Prop B raises are phased in over five years.

At a Friday morning press conference, however, Turner said the city had agreed to the fire union’s previous offer to phase in the raises over three and a half years, with no firefighters demoted or laid off.

Turner said the union then refused to accept that agreement, as well as another offer that would have given it hundreds of millions of dollars in a block grant-like arrangement that the union could use at its discretion.

He accused the union of repeatedly “moving the goal posts,” and said that agreeing to its full demands would devastate Houston’s finances and credit rating.

“The city cannot go beyond what we have proposed without bankrupting the city,” he said. “As long as I am mayor, we are not going to bankrupt this city. Everyone in the city would pay the price.”

Mediator David Matthiesen did not respond to a request for comment Friday.

In a statement, the fire union said it had agreed to take a four-year phase-in to its members if pay parity was implemented “effective immediately,” the city agreed to no layoffs and if the city disclosed “what each firefighter will earn in salary and incentive pay.”

HPFFA President Marty Lancton also said the city demanded in negotiations that Prop B be rescinded and declared unconstitutional, a request he adamantly opposed.

“Citizens’ rights to petition the local government must be protected,” he said.

1. You really have to admire Marty Lancton’s ability to keep the focus of this debate on one point, which is the pay raise that the voters agreed to give the firefighters. The fight here is not over whether or not to implement Prop B, it’s over how to do it. That’s what the mediation was about, that’s what the layoffs are about. The firefighters don’t like the way the city is implementing Prop B and have been complaining nonstop – and very successfully, at least from a short term political perspective – about it. Their grievance is that some firefighters will be laid off, and some others demoted, in order for the city to pay for Prop B. If the city had decided instead to lay off police officers, solid waste workers, and more municipal employees instead, there’s nothing in the firefighters’ rhetoric to suggest they’d have had a problem with that. Beyond the fact that it was clear from the beginning that the city could not afford Prop B, this right here is why I don’t have much sympathy for the firefighters.

2. That said, part of the litigation that was brought by the police officers’ union was a claim that Prop B is illegal and should be invalidated by the court. The argument here is that the pay parity law conflicts with state law about collective bargaining. I Am Not A Lawyer, and I have no insight into that question. I had thought originally that the litigation over Prop B would follow the template of previous lawsuits over city referenda and be about ballot language. I was wrong about that, which is why I like to emphasize my not-a-lawyer status in these matters. Be that as it may, it seems like a big stretch to get an election overturned. I will be surprised if Judge Garrison (who, full disclosure, is a friend of mine) rules for the plaintiffs. But again, I Am Not A Lawyer, so place your bets at your own risk.

3. The last couple of paragraphs in this story are about how the people other than Sylvester Turner who are running for Mayor are also critical of his handling of Prop B implementation, without a single word being quoted about what these alternative Mayors think should be done instead. They don’t like what the Mayor is doing, they oppose what the Mayor is doing, but what would they be doing if they were Mayor? You cannot tell from reading this story. Perhaps the reporter chose not to include what they said about that, perhaps the story editor excised it for space, or perhaps none of them had anything useful to say on the topic. You can probably guess which one I think it is.

Layoffs and demotions

I’m so ready for this to be resolved.

Houston firefighters have started to receive layoff notices amid the implementation of Proposition B, Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association President Marty Lancton said in a statement Wednesday.

Houston City Council voted last week to layoff 220 firefighters to help offset firefighter raises mandated by the voter-approved proposition. The union said the firefighters received the notices via email Tuesday in what Lancton called a “slash-and-burn plan” from Mayor Sylvester Turner.

Lancton also expressed disappointment with Houston Fire Chief Samuel Peña over the layoffs.

“We are deeply disappointed that Samuel Peña has become the first fire chief in Houston history to willingly execute mass layoffs and demotions of firefighters,” Lancton said in a statement. “From the city’s founding to the Great Depression, to two world wars and deep downturns of the energy industry, no fire chief had taken this course of action until today. Chief Peña now is alone among all Houston fire chiefs in that dubious distinction.”

Hundreds of HFD personnel also received demotion notices Wednesday, according to a letter provided to Chron.com. The firefighters union estimates upwards of 450 HFD personnel will be demoted.

This all follows a week in which CM Dwight Boykins made some loud claims about Council not being briefed about demotions, only to be smacked down by other Council members and HFD Chief Pena. Meanwhile, mediation is still underway, so the chance remains that all this can be reversed. (Or maybe not.) Pour yourself a drink and sit for awhile.

Also, too: This is the part where I point out that for all of the artillery being aimed at Mayor Turner, I’ve yet to see any suggestion for what alternatives exist to all this. Here are the constraints that must be satisfied:

– Prop B implemented, with the accompanying increase in expenditures by the city.
– No layoffs or demotions.
– The budget must be balanced, as mandated by city charter.
– The city cannot raise any new revenue beyond what is allowed by the revenue cap, which in the past five years has cost the city half a billion dollars via mandated tax cuts.

Feel free to leave your suggestions in the comments. If you say that’s not your job, that’s the Mayor’s job, I’ll say sure, but we have a couple of Mayoral wannabees who are busy lobbing spitballs about this without offering any of their own ways forward. (Though, in fairness, one of them is busy engaging in silly Twitter fights, so at least he has his priorities straight.)

Council approves firefighter layoffs

And here we are.

City Council voted Wednesday to send 60-day layoff notices to 220 Houston firefighters to help pay for Proposition B, the voter-approved measure giving firefighters equal pay to police officers of corresponding rank and experience.

The 10-6 vote followed more than two hours of discussion. Mayor Sylvester Turner and the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association, meanwhile, continue to meet in mediation over how to implement Prop B.

Turner estimates the raises will cost the city roughly $80 million annually. He repeatedly has said that unless the union agrees to phase the raises in over five years, hundreds of firefighters and municipal employees will face layoffs.

The union has agreed to a phase-in over three and a half years, though Turner maintains that time frame would still necessitate some lay-offs.

Turner and the union will meet again Monday, but they face a looming deadline: The city must approve a balanced budget for the next fiscal year by July 1.

See here and here for the background. I’d have preferred a more decisive vote if I were Mayor Turner, but the die has been cast nonetheless. Maybe this will provide some incentive for a mediated agreement to be reached. If that happens soon, there would be time for Council to rescind this vote. Let’s say I’m not optimistic, but I won’t mind being wrong.

UPDATE: A later version of the story says who voted how:

For the layoffs: Jerry Davis, Ellen Cohen, David Martin, Greg Travis, Karla Cisneros, Robert Gallegos, Martha Castex-Tatum, David Robinson, Amanda Edwards and Jack Christie

Against: Dwight Boykins, Mike Laster, Mike Knox, Michael Kubosh, Steve Le and Brenda Stardig

I’m mildly surprised by Mike Laster, but otherwise this is about what I would have expected.

UPDATE: CM Travis’ office has emailed me to say he was not in attendance at Council yesterday due to a death in the family. As such, the vote was 9-6.

Off and running for Council

I confess I haven’t paid very much attention to the Houston city races so far. Part of that is the existential angst I feel at being forced to take seriously anything Bill King or Tony Buzbee says, and part of that is because the Council races haven’t really started taking shape yet. Oh, there are plenty of candidates, as this Chron story details, but right now it’s basically spring training, as everyone works to raise some money and put up a website and start making the rounds to civic groups and political clubs and what have you.

This is going to be a weird election, because it’s been four years since the last city election and it’s the first time we’ve experienced that, because of the contested Mayor’s race, and because our city elections are by definition a little weird. It’s just that like Tolstoy’s unhappy families, every city of Houston election is weird in its own way.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

More than six months remain until Nov. 5, when voters will cast ballots in the races for mayor, controller and 16 city council seats, but challengers already are taking swings at incumbents and candidates are lining up to replace term-limited office-holders.

“The mayoral race got off to an early start, and that’s having a contagion effect on the council races,” said Mark Jones, a political science professor at Rice University. “In some ways, it’s this big collective action problem. I think most people would prefer not to get mixed up in the process so early, but, for instance, if one person starts running hard for At-Large Position 5, everyone else has to, lest they get left behind.”

Activity on the campaign trail has started earlier than ever, prompted by a pace-setting mayoral race that has seen candidates Tony Buzbee and Bill King repeatedly lambast incumbent Mayor Sylvester Turner, saying he has mismanaged the long-running Proposition B firefighter pay parity feud and accusing him of failing to adequately distance City Hall from campaign donors. Turner has denied both charges.

District D Councilman Dwight Boykins also could join the mayoral field and will decide sometime in June whether to mount a run or seek re-election to his council seat, he said Monday. Also mulling a run for higher office is At-Large Councilwoman Amanda Edwards, who said she has yet to decide whether to take a swing at the U.S. Senate seat held by Republican Sen. John Cornyn.

Prospective candidates for those two seats may be waiting on the sidelines, or seeking other council seats for now, as they wait on the incumbents’ decisions, said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston.

“It’s a domino effect,” Rottinghaus said. “There are a couple of offices that are holding up decisions on other races down the ballot, and Edwards is an example of that.”

[…]

So far, five incumbent council members remain without official challengers: Greg Travis (District G), Karla Cisneros (District H), Robert Gallegos (District I), Martha Castex-Tatum (District K) and Edwards.

Travis, Cisneros and Edwards each are coming to the end of their first four-year terms on city council. Castex-Tatum won a special election year to replace former Councilman Larry Green, who died of a drug overdose.

Gallegos, meanwhile, is one of a handful of council incumbents first elected in 2013 who still is eligible for another term.

The shift to four-year terms likely has emboldened potential challengers who ordinarily would wait out an incumbent’s two-year term, but are less keen to sit on the sidelines for four years, Rottinghaus said. More than half the incumbents seeking re-election have drawn opponents.

You can read on for more about the Council candidates, but bear a couple of things in mind. One is that the only “official” candidate list is maintained on paper by the City Secretary. Filing a designation of treasurer is a necessary condition for running, but doesn’t mean you’ll actually file by the deadline, and it doesn’t mean you’ll file for the race you now say you’re running for. People jump in and drop out and change races all the time up till deadline day. Civic heroes like Erik Manning maintain candidate databases, for which we are all grateful, but in the end nothing is official till the filing deadline passes. You will get some idea of who is out there and who is serious about it when the June finance reports get posted, but again, things can and will change between then and the end of August.

Anyway. I really don’t know what I’m going to do about interviews – there are just too many candidates for the amount of time I will have. I’ll figure something out, and should start doing interviews in July. I’ll put up my own Election 2019 page sometime before then. In the meantime, start familiarizing yourself with these names. We’re all going to have a lot of decisions to make in November.

Off to mediation we go

Hope for the best, y’all.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mediation soon will begin in a lawsuit between the Houston police and firefighters unions over Proposition B, the voter-approved measure that gives firefighters equal pay to police officers.

In a Monday morning filing, State District Judge Tanya Garrison ordered the Houston Police Department, Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association and the city to meet Monday or Tuesday.

The parties last week agreed to turn to mediator Dave Matthiesen over Prop B, though representatives from the HPFFA said they would need more time to brief members.

In her filing, Garrison pushed back against HPFFA’s claim, saying it had plenty of time to prepare for mediation. She also ordered the parties to continue meeting until “a settlement is achieved” or “in the sole determination of Mr. Matthieson, they have reached an impasse.”

[…]

At a press conference Monday, some members of City Council joined with municipal employees to reiterate their support for mediation and a five-year phase-in.

Among the first positions cut will be librarians, dental assistants, custodians, a park ranger and an electrician, District I Councilman Robert Gallegos said.

“It’s totally unfair to them,” he said. “I don’t believe this is what Prop B is about and I’m sure that’s not what the voters intended. Firefighters do deserve a pay raise, but not at the expense of innocent municipal employees.”

See here for the background. Matthiesen is an attorney and Democratic supporter who is well known to all parties involved, so at least that was easy enough. I don’t envy him the task, but maybe everyone’s ready for this to be over already. As the story notes, Council will still proceed with voting on layoffs tomorrow, as this is part of the budget work. My guess is that this can be unwound if a suitable agreement is reached, but it’s also a bit of pressure on the firefighters, as this is where it officially gets real. I do wish the story had listed all the Council members at that press conference, if only so we can have a clearer idea of what the whip count looks like right now, but we’ll find out soon enough.

Mediation ordered in Prop B lawsuit

This ought to be interesting.

A state district judge on Thursday ordered the city, the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association and the Houston Police Officers’ Union to enter into mediation as they seek to resolve lingering differences over the implementation of Proposition B, the measure granting firefighters the same pay as police of corresponding rank and seniority.

Judge Tanya Garrison of the 157th Civil District Court ordered the mediation after hearing arguments in a lawsuit seeking to invalidate the pay parity amendment. During the hearing, Garrison said she would not issue a ruling on the case “any time soon,” concluding it would only set back ongoing negotiations to phase in firefighters’ Prop B-mandated raises.

“If I make a decision on this one way or the other … it will be the equivalent of throwing a bomb in the middle of the attempts to negotiate a resolution,” Garrison said.

The judge gave the parties until noon Monday to agree on a mediator. The court would appoint a mediator if they cannot settle on one.

The mediation is mandatory but not binding.

The mediator may suggest ways to resolve the dispute but cannot impose judgment, according to a list of rules attached to Garrison’s court order. If the parties do not voluntarily agree to a settlement, the issue returns to Garrison.

See here, here, and here for the background. As long as the mediator isn’t Tony Buzbee, I’m sure it will be fine. As a reminder, City Council will vote on the layoff plan on Wednesday (the agenda item was tagged last week), so perhaps that will provide some incentive to make things happen. In other news, the city provided financial data that the firefighters’ union had been demanding, though whether that will settle that argument or be the cause of further arguments remains to be seen.

This was a busy week for dumb lawsuits

Exhibit A:

“Objection Overruled”, by Charles Bragg

Houston mayoral challenger Tony Buzbee followed through his pledge to sue Mayor Sylvester Turner Wednesday, claiming that donated billboards for the city’s AlertHouston! campaign violate campaign finance laws because they feature a photo of Turner.

The lawsuit, filed in the 281st state district court, names Turner and Clear Channel Outdoor Inc., the company that donated the 27 billboards, as defendants.

Buzbee’s petition claims Clear Channel is “blatantly supporting” Turner in the November mayoral race “by plastering his smiling face across this city while promoting him as a civic-minded, safety conscious leader.”

The billboards promote AlertHouston!, a system that sends alerts to Houston residents during emergency situations.

I’m not going to waste our time on the details here. Let’s refer to this earlier story for the reasons why this is dumb.

Buck Wood, an Austin-based campaign finance lawyer, equated Buzbee’s allegations to a hypothetical real estate agent who, after announcing a run for public office, would then have to take down any advertisements for their private business.

“I have never seen anything like that,” he said.

Proving the billboards are illegal, Wood said, would require Buzbee to show that the company and Turner struck a deal explicitly aimed at aiding the mayor’s re-election.

“You’d have to have good, strong evidence that they put up these pictures just for the purpose of helping elect him,” Wood said. “…You’d have to prove a conspiracy, and that’s basically impossible to do in this situation.”

Each year around hurricane season, former Harris County Judge Ed Emmett would appear on billboards, in some years directing people to the county’s Homeland Security and Emergency Management website. Emmett said he used campaign funds to pay for the billboards during election years.

I mean, I know Tony Buzbee is supposed to be a super duper lawyer and all, but maybe he might have asked another lawyer about this first? Just a thought.

Exhibit B:

Months after being denied media credentials for the Texas House, the conservative organization Texas Scorecard — a product of Empower Texans, a Tea Party-aligned political advocacy group with one of the state’s best-funded political action committees — has filed a First Amendment lawsuit arguing that its rejection from the lower chamber constitutes “unconstitutional viewpoint discrimination.”

Before the legislative session kicked off in January, two employees of Texas Scorecard, Brandon Waltens and Destin Sensky, applied for media credentials in both chambers of the Legislature. In the Senate, their credentials were granted; in the House, they were denied. The two chambers follow similar rules about who is allowed special journalistic access to the floor, and both prohibit lobbyists. But the chambers’ political atmospheres are different.

House Administration Chair Charlie Geren, a Fort Worth Republican who has sparred with Empower Texans and its PAC in the past, told the group in a January rejection letter that it was ineligible for media credentials because “the organization you are employed by, Texas Scorecard, has a close association with a general-purpose political committee (GPAC) and that the organization’s website prominently displays advocacy on policy matters before the legislature.” As evidence of the group’s affiliation with the PAC, Geren cited the organizations’ shared address — but by the time Geren’s letter was issued, the lawsuit claims, they no longer shared that address.

Empower Texans PAC has backed primary opponents to Geren and has given Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who leads the Texas Senate, more than $850,000 in the last five years.

Now, Empower Texans is very likely to get a friendly hearing from the State Supreme Court, so at least from a strategic perspective, this isn’t a dumb lawsuit. It’s very likely to be a successful lawsuit. But come on. If these Empower Texans flunkies count as “journalists”, then that word has no meaning. All of us are made a little more dumb by the existence of this lawsuit.

What will Council do about Prop B layoffs?

We’re gonna find out.

Mayor Sylvester Turner told the Houston fire union Monday he would provide it with financial data leaders requested, a sign of progress at a critical point in negotiations between the mayor and union to phase in Proposition B raises for firefighters.

Officials from the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association have asked Turner to open the city’s books, allowing firefighters to verify that the mayor’s offer to phase in the pay raises over multiple years honors the terms of the charter amendment, which requires the city to pay firefighters the same as police of corresponding rank and seniority.

Turner’s refusal to do so has been a key sticking point preventing a deal, union President Marty Lancton said.

The development comes two days before Houston city council is scheduled to consider a measure to lay off 220 Houston firefighters, which Turner has said is necessary to offset the cost of pay raises if Prop. B is not phased in over multiple years.

[…]

Fire Chief Sam Peña said he was “encouraged” by Monday’s talks, even if they did not produce immediate results.

“Anytime we’re sitting at the table and having a conversation is progress,” he said.

Peña said he was not sure whether Wednesday’s scheduled council vote would be delayed, but the department is moving ahead with implementation of Prop B anyway.

“The process needs to move forward, because the books do need to be balanced by the end of the fiscal year” in June, he said. Among the biggest changes Peña has sought is a switch from a four-shift work schedule for firefighters to three. Currently, firefighters work 20 24-hour shifts every 72 days, with occasional extra shifts for which Peña has said there is a high absentee rate.

The new, three-shift model would give firefighters regular days off. Peña said he was considering that switch even before Prop B’s passage as a way to save money that could be reinvested in fleet upgrades, among other things. Now, he said, it is about maintaining public safety while confronting HFD’s roughly $25 million share of Prop B’s annual costs.

The proposal headed to council on Wednesday shows that most of the staff reductions would come from firefighters, engineers and captains, though Pena said that absent any phase-in agreement, some employees could be demoted instead of having their positions absorbed through attrition.

See here for the background, and here for Mayor Turner’s letter. According to KUHF, the firefighters’ union tentatively agreed to the 3.5-year phase-in idea, though it sounds like there may still be sticking points as Mayor Turner is not saying that will eliminate layoffs – he’s been clear about needing a five-year plan for that – but merely reducing them. Like I said, we’ll see. In the meantime, 47 city employees who had nothing to do with foisting a large new budget item on us received their layoff notices late last week. I personally find that to be the most upsetting part of this whole saga. Just so we’re all clear, the stupid revenue cap prevents the city from raising taxes to pay for Prop B, and the city charter mandates a balanced budget. That’s why layoffs are inevitable barring a sufficiently slow phase-in. It was true (and communicated) before Prop B was ratified, and it remains true now.

Is there a city/firefighters agreement in the works?

They’re talking, for whatever it’s worth.

Officials from the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association said Friday they would seek union members’ approval of a 3.5-year phase-in of Proposition B if the city meets certain conditions.

After meeting with the union to discuss the terms, however, Mayor Sylvester Turner released a statement saying the provisions were “not consistent” with discussions held at the meeting.

Union president Marty Lancton said he had in fact laid out the union’s terms to the mayor, which include a guarantee that no firefighters will receive layoffs “before, during or after implementation of Proposition B.”

“We said it implicitly and explicitly,” Lancton said.

The mayor acknowledged the union delivered a copy of the letter, but accused Lancton of publicizing it before the meeting. Lancton also said this was untrue.

Aside from the no-layoff guarantee, union officials said any phase-in agreement would have to be ratified through a collective bargaining agreement.

Lancton also said Turner’s administration must provide the firefighters with “complete access to city financial and budget information” and implement “complete parity,” including base and incentive pay, with Houston police officers.

The two sides were scheduled to meet again next week before Houston City Council considers a measure at its Wednesday meeting that would authorize 220 firefighter layoffs.

See here for the latest update. I mean, maybe they’ll hammer something out and maybe they won’t. Deadlines have a way of focusing the mind, especially when layoffs are on the other side. I’ll reserve judgment about what may or may not be involved until there’s a resolution, but I will say this: Very early on in this process, Mayor Turner’s position was that Prop B had to be implemented all at once, there was no legal path to negotiating a phase-in. Everyone seems to have forgotten about that, which in and of itself doesn’t bother me too much since I like the idea of phasing it in regardless. But if this is true, then all it will take is someone filing a lawsuit to screw this all up. Let’s worry about that another day, as it’s not a thing until and unless a phase-in deal is ratified. There’s plenty of trouble here already without borrowing more.

Curbside glass recycling is back

Hooray!

ScruggsImage3_ThreeWasteBins

Houston residents can resume putting glass in their curbside recycling bins, city officials said Thursday at the opening of a recycling facility in northeast Houston.

The new plant, outfitted with advanced technology including a glass cleanup system, is operated by FCC Environmental Services, a Spanish firm that received a 20-year, $37 million deal to handle the city’s curbside recycling. With the plant’s opening, Mayor Sylvester Turner has effectively capped what proved to be a years-long struggle over the city’s recycling program, generated by plunging commodities prices that coincided with multiple tight city budgets.

The funding constraints prompted Turner to strike a two-year deal with the city’s longtime recycling provider, Waste Management, in which the city accepted only paper, cardboard, plastics and metal cans in the green bins used for its curbside recycling program. The move lowered processing costs under the stopgap deal before the city inked a long-term contract with FCC.

To recycle glass, residents for the last three years were required to drop off their containers at the city’s neighborhood depositories. Those facilities remain open, but residents can immediately begin recycling their glass curbside, Solid Waste Management Director Harry Hayes said.

[…]

Under the contract with FCC, the city pays a maximum of $19 per ton to process recyclables in a weak commodities market, limiting its liability when prices decline. The city would recover a larger share of the revenue if prices for recycled material improve.

The city also owns the $23 million, 120,000-square-foot plant under the contract, though FCC will continue to manage operations and maintenance. On Thursday, the firm’s CEO, Pablo Colio, said the facility’s opening marked “the first of many (milestones) to come from our partnership” with Houston.

See here and here for the background, and here for the Mayor’s press release. I’m just glad to have this back, and I’m glad the city has a workable deal in place. Hopefully, the market for recyclable material will improve and make this even better.