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Sylvester Turner

We’ll have to wait a little longer for the inevitable Prop B lawsuit

It’s still coming, just not, like, today.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner on Wednesday said he would delay a City Council vote to hire a law firm to represent the city in possible litigation over Proposition B, the ballot item passed by voters to grant Houston firefighters pay parity with police.

City Council had been set to consider a contract with Norton Rose Fulbright for $1.3 million. The contract would set aside $250,000 for the firm to handle litigation over real estate purchases in connection with infrastructure projects, with the rest set aside for a court fight over the parity measure approved Tuesday.

Meanwhile, Turner said he will look to Fire Chief Samuel Peña to restructure the fire department to absorb the measure’s additional cost, which both Turner and City Controller Chris Brown say will total more than $100 million in its first full year.

Turner said Wednesday he does not know “how we’re going to pay for it,” but he made clear initial layoffs would come from the fire department. For months, Turner has warned that the city would need to make cuts if voters approved Proposition B. It passed with 59 percent of the vote.

The measure would tie firefighters’ pay to that of police of corresponding rank and seniority. City Council, which is not meeting Thanksgiving week, agreed to bring the item up at its Nov. 28 meeting.

“I don’t know the answers,” Turner said. “I don’t know how we’re going to balance the books when we have been given an added bill of $100 million each year.”

He added: “The tough decisions start now. They start right now.”

The mayor said the fire department “restructuring” would include a reduction from four shifts to three, as well as other methods of reducing costs.

See here (at the bottom) for the background. I suppose one possible path to brokering a peace treaty might include an agreement to get everyone possible on board for a push to repeal – not amend, repeal – the stupid revenue cap, which would at least prevent the city from losing revenue for no good reason. There can’t be a vote on that before May of 2021, however, so that may be too long-term for any benefit, but one way or another this needs to be tackled, and it’s in both sides’ best interests for it to go away. I’m just spitballing here. The smart money is still on a lawsuit being filed, and after that who knows.

Today is election day

It’s what we’ve been waiting for, for what seems like forever. From the inbox:

Tuesday, November 6, 2018 is Election Day. Voting locations will be open from 7 am to 7 pm. Voters may visit www.HarrisVotes.com, the County Clerk’s election page, for more information.

“There are four important steps voters should take before heading to the polls,” advised Harris County Clerk Stan Stanart, the chief election officer of the County. “Go to HarrisVotes.com and look yourself up, study your personal ballot, see where your poll is located, and make sure you have one of the seven acceptable forms of Photo ID.”

At www.HarrisVotes.com, voters can find the answers to their voting questions. The website now provides voters an interactive Google map with directions to their Election Day polling location from the “Find Your Poll and Ballot” page.

“Please study your personal ballot,” urged Stanart. Voters may bring their marked up ballot into the voting booth to expedite the voting process and are strongly encouraged to review their selections before pressing the “cast ballot” button. Be sure you see the waving American Flag before exiting your voting booth. “If you have a question while voting, notify the election official in charge at the poll.”

There is still time to vote.” concluded Harris County Clerk Stanart. “Remember, on Election Day, a voter must vote at the polling location where their precinct is assigned to vote.”

The Election Day polling locations, a list of acceptable forms of identification to vote at the poll and information about “curbside voting” can be found at www.HarrisVotes.com. For more information, voters may also call the Harris County Clerk’s election information line at 713.755.6965.

Check the elections page for your own county if you’re not in Harris and you need to know where to go. Remember that if you’re in line by 7PM, you still get to vote. I will be at KTRK doing my thing and probably appearing on camera for thirty seconds at some random time. As for what happens today, well, your guess is as valid as anyone else’s. I’ll leave you with two thoughts. First, from Derek Ryan:


In case you’re wondering, turnout in 2008 was 8,077,795, in 2012 was 7,993,851, and in 2016 was 8,969,226. So, you know.

And also, because I didn’t see this in time to post it earlier:

Mayor Sylvester Turner will ask the city council next week to approve a $1.3 million contract with a law firm to represent the city in anticipation of possible litigation over Proposition B, a measure that would grant firefighters the same pay as police of corresponding rank and seniority.

The contract with Norton Rose Fulbright — which could be approved the day after Tuesday’s general election — would set aside $250,000 for the firm to handle litigation over real estate purchases in connection with infrastructure projects; the rest would be set aside for a court fight over pay “parity.”

[…]

The mayor’s office cast the decision as a simple act of preparing for the election.

“The city is seeking outside counsel to review and assess all options in case Proposition B should pass,” mayoral spokesman Alan Bernstein said. “It is a prudent course of action.”

I have believed all along that there would be litigation regardless of the outcome, so they may well need to assess their options in the seemingly unlikely event that Prop B fails. Something to look forward to after the election.

Buzbee for Mayor?

Oh, good grief.

Tony Buzbee, a high-wattage trial lawyer, big-time political donor and Texas A&M University System regent, says he is running to be the mayor of Houston in 2019.

“The mayor’s race in Houston traditionally has been as boring as watching paint dry,” Buzbee said on Fox26 Houston Tuesday night, when he announced his bid. “I think that we have a city that is above average with below average leadership, and I’m considering very seriously, because there’s a lot of people asking me to do this, running for the mayor of this town.”

When pressed, Buzbee confirmed he is running and would donate his mayoral salary, if elected, to “a random voter that I choose every year.”

[…]

Buzbee, a former Marine, has a roster of high-profile clients to his name, including former Republican Gov. Rick Perry, whom he successfully defended in an abuse-of-power case.

Buzbee was appointed to the A&M System Board of Regents in 2013, by Perry, and has been known to host raucous and politician-studded parties at his River Oaks mansion, including a 2016 fundraiser for then-presidential candidate Donald Trump.

Last year, he was rebuked by a local homeowner’s association after he parked an operational World War II-era tank outside his house.

So basically, one part Ben Hall, one part Bill King, and one part MAGA bro. If that’s not a winning combination, I don’t know what is. The Chron has more.

Endorsement watch: City propositions

The Chron says Yes on Prop A:

Here’s the blunt truth: Voting “against” on Proposition A won’t cut your taxes. It will, however, open the door to more municipal debt.

That is why Houstonians should vote “for” Proposition A, which will reaffirm the decision they correctly made eight years ago to fund needed drainage and street improvement projects in the city by a pay-as-you-go system.

A second vote is being taken to fund the Rebuild Houston program because the Texas Supreme Court ruled a similar ballot question in 2010 was incorrectly worded. The earlier proposition asked, “Shall the City Charter of the City of Houston be amended to provide for the enhancement, improvement and ongoing renewal of Houston’s drainage and streets by creating a Dedicated Pay-As-You-Go Fund for Drainage and Streets?”

A subsequent class-action lawsuit said the ballot question should have specifically explained that city residents would be asked to pay a drainage fee through their water bills to fund those infrastructure improvements.

And No on Prop B:

If Proposition B were a referendum on our love and affection for Houston firefighters, as their union president claims, the choice would be easy. We’d back it. And so would Mayor Sylvester Turner, who was endorsed by firefighters in his mayoral campaign after decades of advocating for them. Instead, the mayor is dipping into his personal campaign funds to fight the measure on which too many influential Houstonians have remained mum.

Voters, don’t let the smoke get in your eyes.

In Prop. B, firefighters are asking for more than just appreciation. They’re asking for pay parity with police of comparable rank and seniority. They’re asking for what the mayor says amounts to a 25 percent raise that could cost the city an estimated $100 million the first year, forcing deep cuts to services and nearly 1,000 layoffs of firefighters and police.

Yes, we value firefighters. We value our kids, too. But most of us can’t go out and buy Junior a Lamborghini just because he asks for it.

And we can’t ignore that firefighters’ jobs are different from those of police. Both entail a great deal of risk, but firefighters have long been able to tailor their schedules to accommodate second jobs and businesses. Several Houston firefighters live out of state. And yes, as police point out, firefighters are allotted sleep time during their longer, 24-hour shifts.

Firefighters are asking voters for something police earned through years of hard-fought negotiations that required give and take from both sides.

I still think the ruling against the Renew Houston referendum was a screw job by the Supreme Court, but here we are. You can listen to my interview with Marty Lancton and my interview with Mayor Turner if you want to hear more about Prop B, and in the case of the Mayor, more about Prop A as well.

Interview with Mayor Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner

We finish up our interviews for the 2018 election season with Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner and a conversation about city propositions A and B. Prop A, which has largely flown under the radar, is the update to Renew Houston intended to ratify the “lockbox” structure for the fee revenue. Prop B is of course the firefighter pay parity proposal. You’ve heard my interview with Marty Lancton, so here’s the Mayor’s perspective. The city has a very high-level summary of the two propositions here, and you can find the City Controller’s analysis of the costs embedded in this KUHF story. The firefighters have a response to the city’s cost estimate, a copy of which is here. If you’re wondering what the wording of the two propositions are, here’s a copy of my sample ballot, which was the only place I could find it. Here’s my conversation with Mayor Turner:

And that’s a wrap for interviews for 2018. To review all the ones I’ve done before, visit my 2018 Congressional, 2018 Legislative, 2018 Harris County, and 2018 Judicial pages.

Apparently, that pay parity debate did happen

I missed the last twist in this saga, but in the end it did happen.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

After months of trading barbs from a distance, Mayor Sylvester Turner and the head of Houston’s firefighters’ union met in a vigorous but civil debate Saturday, displaying their fundamental differences over just about everything related to the November ballot referendum that would grant firefighters pay “parity” with police officers of corresponding rank and seniority.

The dispute revolves around a divisive question: If the measure known as Proposition B passes, can the city afford it? If anything, the debate at St. John’s United Methodist Church between Turner and Houston Professional Fire Firefighters Association President Marty Lancton revealed how irreconcilable the opposing views on that question truly are.

From Turner’s perspective, Houston firefighters deserve to receive better pay, but not to the extent that their raises “bankrupt the city,” as he claimed Proposition B would do by mandating 29 percent raises for firefighters, at a cost of than $100 million a year.

What’s more, Turner said Saturday, the measure does not call for true “parity” because it mandates only equal pay, ignoring retirement benefits, training and education requirements — in practice granting firefighters better pay, Turner argued.

To Lancton, the city has balanced its budget on the backs of firefighters to the point that the department’s rank-and-file members are struggling to make ends meet, with salaries far lower than those of firefighters in other Texas cities.

“What Houston firefighters seek is fair, competitive pay. Because of low pay, many Houston-trained firefighters are leaving for other departments,” Lancton said. “Our pay is so low that starting firefighters, supporting families, can even qualify for government assistance. We’ve asked the city for competitive pay for nearly a decade. The city has repeatedly rejected our efforts to reach an acceptable contract agreement.”

It goes from there, and I don’t think there’s much that you haven’t seen if you’ve been following this. At last report, Lancton had pulled out of the debate because the firefighters didn’t want Lisa Falkenberg moderating (because they didn’t like the Chron’s editorial stance against Prop B) and had wanted to address the Democratic precinct chairs in an effort to get Prop B endorsed by the HCDP. Neither of these conditions changed – Falkenberg still moderated, and the HCDP precinct chairs are not getting together for an endorsement vote – so I don’t know what changed from the firefighters’ perspective. Be that as it may, I’m glad this happened – the voters deserved such an event. I wish I could have been there but I was out of town. If you attended or saw a stream of it, please leave a comment with your impressions.

The pay parity proposal debate that wasn’t

Let’s not get ready to rumble!

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Houston’s firefighters union has withdrawn from a Saturday debate with Mayor Sylvester Turner on their proposal to seek pay “parity” with police officers, saying the event’s host, the Harris County Democratic Party, had given the mayor too much control over the event.

The hour-long event would have marked the first time the mayor and the union addressed the contentious issue on the same stage.

“We looked forward to the debate,” Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association President Marty Lancton said in a Wednesday morning statement, “but we recognize that party insiders failed to stop the manipulation of the ground rules to advantage the mayor. We are disappointed in the HCDP’s acquiescence to the mayor, but are grateful for the support of HCDP precinct chairs and the many Houstonians they represent.”

Among the union’s complaints were that Houston Chronicle opinion editor Lisa Falkenberg was to serve as moderator (the editorial board expressed opposition to the parity proposal in July 2017), and that Democratic Party officials did not agree to let Lancton address precinct chairs or let them vote on whether to endorse the proposition.

Alas. Here’s the earlier story announcing the event that was the original basis of this post. I am not able to be there for this not-a-forum, but perhaps you can be.

County Democratic Party Chair Lillie Schechter said the party engaged in “extensive conversations” with both camps on the format of the discussion but respects the union’s decision to withdraw.

“The event details appeared in a Facebook announcement seen and approved by all parties last week. It is unfortunate the firefighter’s union has determined these details do not meet their needs,” she said. “We regret voters will not hear from the firefighter’s union at this time. Mayor Turner and Lisa are welcome to use the full hour we have allotted for this event.”

The party’s leadership committee, after hearing from the fire union at a recent meeting, Schechter said, voted to schedule the debate to hear from both sides. She said the gathering was never envisioned as ending in a vote, saying such votes only occur at quarterly gatherings of all precinct chairs, the last of which was held Sept. 13.

Yes, speaking as a precinct chair, that’s how our rules work. Precinct chairs vote to endorse or not endorse ballot measures like this at our quarterly meetings. We endorsed the flood bond referendum at the June meeting, for instance. There were members from the firefighters’ union at the September meeting, talking up their proposal, but no motion for an endorsement vote. Which I have to say would have been contentious, and because of that I’m glad it didn’t come up. I don’t know what may or may not have happened behind the scenes, but I do know they could have made a pretty big fuss about this at the meeting if they had wanted to.

Personally, I think an event like this, aimed at the general public, rather than an agenda item for a normally dry meeting of precinct chairs, would be a much better way to allow both sides to air their views (I’m assuming that if Lancton had been given time to address us, then Mayor Turner or a representative from his office would have been given time as well). But hey, whatever. Perhaps the Mayor and Lisa Falkenberg can discuss the cost of this referendum.

The cost of Houston firefighters’ push for pay parity with police of corresponding rank and seniority could be 14 percent cheaper than what Mayor Sylvester Turner’s administration has estimated, city Controller Chris Brown said Tuesday.

Brown’s office estimates that the proposal, which will appear as Proposition B on the Nov. 6 ballot, will cost $85.2 million a year, lower than the $98.6 million figure Turner has used. Neither estimate includes the 7 percent raise police would receive over the next two years if the city council approves a new proposed contract this week. That would increase the cost if voters decide to link fire and police salaries.

Brown acknowledged his analysis required a series of assumptions related to how the parity proposal would be implemented, and said the estimate shows the cost of the proposal would be “unsustainable.”

“The controller’s office believes that a sustainable solution exists but can only be achieved through negotiation in the collective bargaining process,” Brown said while presenting his estimate to the city council’s budget committee. “It’s through that process that the men and women of HFD should be able to negotiate a well-deserved raise, but also a well-deserved raise the city can actually afford over the long term.”

Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association President Marty Lancton viewed Brown’s analysis as vindication of his view that Turner’s estimate is inflated.

“As the city controller proved today, the mayor’s Proposition B claims cannot be trusted. His math, like his judgment, is driven by an obsession with punishing Houston firefighters,” Lancton said.

[…]

Brown and Turner’s estimates are nearly identical on the projected increase to firefighters’ base salaries and the associated increase in retirement benefits: that roughly 20 percent increase would cost about $65 million per year.

The two estimates differ mostly on various incentives and allowances known as “special pays,” some of which firefighters receive now but which parity would increase, and some of which firefighters would receive for the first time if voters approve the measure.

Not sure how a reduction in the cost estimate from $98 million to $85 million is a vindication of the firefighters’ case, especially when $85 million is still a pretty damn big number and Controller Brown calls it “unsustainable”, but maybe that’s just me. I continue to believe this thing is going to pass so I sure hope the cost estimates we are seeing are overblown, but all things being equal I’d rather not have to find out. Be that as it may, if you don’t know what to make of all this, go attend the not-a-forum and see what you think.

Please don’t spy on robot brothel customers

This is ridiculous, and not in the fun and amusing way.

Greg Travis

Greg Travis, the councilman of District G where a so-called “robot brothel” would be located in Houston, said on Tuesday that patrons visiting the adult business would be recorded by cameras directed at the location.

“I already have cameras (around the area) and whenever this starts, we will see all people coming and going and we will post it on social media,” Travis said at a City Council meeting where community members, mostly from religious groups, expressed opposition to the business.

The councilman said the news that a Canadian business called KinkySDollS was going to open in Houston the first “robot brothel” in the United States “stunned everybody… it’s gross.”

[…]

Small revisions proposed to the ordinance are intended to include current and emerging technologies in the adult entertainment business, such as the robot brothel. The modifications would expand the definition of an arcade devise to include “an anthropomorphic devise or object utilized for entertainment” of sexual nature.

A city document indicates that the proposed changes would “prohibit entertainment with one or more persons using an arcade devise on the premises.”

“Robot brothels,” function like a showroom where dolls are exhibited and available to customers for rent and use at the place, or for sale.

The Canadian business hasn’t registered in the city as of Tuesday, according to Roberto Medina, senior analyst at the City of Houston’s Public Works office.

See here and here for the background. I remember reading a story in the Houston Press back in the 90s about a self-appointed opponent of strip clubs who hung out on the sidewalk in front of the Men’s Club on Sage and snapped photos of everyone who entered the parking lot. This was before digital photography and the modern Internet, so the reach of her crusade was limited, but my reaction to that story then is the same as my reaction to this story now: Cut that shit out, it’s none of your business. Whatever you may think of strip clubs or robot brothels, they’re legal businesses and I don’t want you recording images of their customers any more than I want you doing so in front of a Planned Parenthood clinic, a vape shop, or Second Baptist Church.

Be that as it may, Council did pass the proposed modification of its sexually oriented business ordinance, which would basically end the “brothel” part of this business, assuming it stands after the lawsuit I figure will be filed. (Thankfully, there was no further discussion of cameras.) By the way, you may have noticed that I’ve altered my nomenclature here, simplifying it to just “robot brothel”. In the end, I found the argument that “robot sex brothel” was redundant. I do note that Texas Monthly has gone the other direction, with “sex robot brothel”. Let the debate rage on! Grits for Breakfast, which elides the brothel aspect of this for a focus on the “sex robot” function, has more.

Robot sex brothel update

It’s all about the permits.

The City of Houston ordered a Canadian company called KinkySDollS to stop the construction of a so-called robot brothel for not having the appropriate permit.

The city, which told the Chronicle this week that they are reviewing ordinances to restrict this kind of enterprise, sent building inspectors to issue a “red tag” to stop work after they noticed they didn’t have the required permits.

To continue construction, the KinkySDollS company will have to first “apply for a demolition permit and submit plans,” said a spokesperson from the mayor’s office.

[…]

They began to build the business in what was previously a hair salon on Richmond, close to Chimney Rock in the Galleria area. Space is located on the second floor of a building and has around 2,500 square feet, according to the salon owner who used to rent that spot.

The concept of the KinkySDollS adult business is similar to a showroom where human-like dolls are erotically displayed and can be rented to be used in private rooms at the location by the hour or half hour. The dolls are made of synthetic skin materials with highly articulated skeletons.

See here for the background. We now have the details about what an effort to ban these places might look like.

Mayor Sylvester Turner will ask the City Council this week to change Houston’s rules on sexually oriented businesses, a change that could prevent a proposed “robot brothel” from opening near the Galleria.

[…]

Traditional sexually oriented businesses like strip clubs long have been prevented from operating within 1,500 feet of churches, schools, day cares, parks and residential neighborhoods — and city-owned Anderson Park is just a few hundred feet from KinkySdollS’ proposed storefront.

The portion of the ordinance Turner wants to revise addresses “adult arcades,” where customers view adult content using an “arcade device.”

The council would amend the definition of an “arcade device” to include not just machines displaying video but also “anthropomorphic devices or objects,” and would prohibit “entertainment with one or more persons using an arcade device on the premises.”

In short, the business could sell the dolls at its proposed location – such models reportedly sell for about $4,000 — but repeated-use rentals would be banned.

I suspect I’ll get my wish to see some litigation come out of this. Beyond that, I don’t really have anything substantive to say, but boy is it going to be hard to resist the temptation to blog about these stories. A style point question: Does it make more sense to say “robot sex brothel”, or “sex robot brothel”? I can make a case for either one, but I feel like we should strive to define a standard, so future generations won’t be confused. Please indicate your preference in the comments.

We need to talk about the robot sex brothel

I can’t avoid it any longer.

In a surprise reveal last week, a Toronto businessman announced that he would be opening the nation’s first robot sex brothel in Houston.

The business, set to open its doors later this month or in early October, will allow customers to rent or purchase a robotic sex doll that, according to the company’s founder, is “warm and ready to play.”

As you might imagine, people had opinions about this.

KinkySdollS, a Canadian company that opened the first North American robot brothel last year in Toronto, unofficially announced via Facebook last month that its first enterprise outside Canada would be in Houston, confirming on the company website that the business was “coming soon” to the Bayou City.

Mayor Sylvester Turner said the city is currently reviewing existing ordinances — or will consider drafting new ordinances — that could restrict or regulate such enterprises.

“This is not the kind of business I would like to see in Houston, and certainly this is not the kind of business the city is seeking to attract,” Turner said in a written statement to the Houston Chronicle.

[…]

The brothel would apparently not be illegal under current laws, according to experts.

“Unfortunately, there are currently no laws in the U.S. to prevent the sale of the type of dolls intended for this ‘robot brothel,’” said Houston attorney Richard Weaver, who specializes in business law.

“Unless a new ordinance is passed, this business will likely open and operate in Houston,” Weaver said.

Albert Van Huff, a Houston attorney who is familiar with Houston’s sexually oriented business ordinances, said that robot brothels would likely fall under the city’s definition of an adult sexual operation, however, and could likely be regulated for visibility and distances from schools, churches and other religious facilities.

I’ll be honest, I kind of want there to be some litigation over this, just so I can read the briefs and see the arguments. You just know there’s an attorney somewhere who’ll be thinking “three years of law school and months of cramming for the bar exam, for this”. Reading the story, it sounds like there’s a solid public health argument for not allowing the dolls to be rented. Beyond that, I confess I don’t quite get all the fuss. In the year of our Lord 2018, I’ve got bigger things to worry about.

The firefighter pay parity proposal sure seems like it’s going to pass

What are ya gonna do?

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner is holding town halls to try to convince voters that the city can’t afford Proposition B, a ballot measure that would tie firefighters’ pay to that of police. It’s turning into an uphill fight.

Mayor Turner argues that full pay parity would cost Houston nearly $300 million, at a time when the city is wrestling with chronic deficits. But Turner is having a hard time getting voters to see this as anything other than attacking the firefighters.

“The default mode is not only to support equity pay but to support it by very big margins,” says Bob Stein, a political science professor at Rice University.

That’s particularly the case if Democrats turn out in larger-than-usual numbers. “You’ll have a lot of voters coming out who are predisposed as Democrats to support equity pay for public employees,” Stein says. “On top of that, the firemen not only have a good campaign message, but they’re going to get national support from national public employee associations and unions to support this equity pay raise.”

I’ve already seen three pro-Prop B signs in my neighborhood. Mayor Turner has been busy holding town halls and writing op-eds, but beyond that I’ve not seen much of a campaign. So yeah, I expect this to pass, quite possibly by a lot. And I’d say Mayor Turner is making the same judgment.

Mayor Sylvester Turner has instituted a hiring freeze across the city government’s roughly 21,400 positions, ordering department directors seeking exceptions to meet with him or his chief of staff in person.

The directive, he wrote in a memo dated Friday, will be reviewed “at a later date this year.” Executive positions are exempt from the freeze, but those already require mayoral approval.

Mayoral spokeswoman Mary Benton said the order was spurred by Proposition B on the Nov. 6 ballot. That measure would give firefighters the same pay as police officers of corresponding rank and seniority, costing the city an estimated $98 million annually.

“The impact would financially cripple the city and force layoffs and cutbacks to services,” Benton said. “The mayor believes it is not prudent at this time to hire additional city of Houston employees, who would lose their jobs as a result of the election.”

I mean, what did you expect? At this point I’d say the city’s best strategy is to find some plaintiffs for the ballot language lawsuit, and hope to get an injunction preventing it from being implemented while it gets hashed out in court. I wouldn’t bet my own money on that outcome either, but the odds have to be better than beating this thing at the ballot box.

Now how much would you pay to fix Houston’s sewer system?

We may be about to find out.

Federal and state authorities sued the city of Houston over its long-running struggle to limit sewage spills on Friday, marking the beginning of the end of a years-long negotiation that could force the city to invest billions to upgrade its sprawling treatment system.

Houston’s “failure to properly operate and maintain” its 6,700 miles of sewer pipes, nearly 400 lift stations and 40 treatment plants caused thousands of “unpermitted and illegal discharges of pollutants” due to broken or blocked pipes dating back to 2005, the suit states. The city also recorded numerous incidents when its sewer plants released water with higher than allowable concentrations of waste into area waterways, the filing states.

The lawsuit by the Department of Justice on behalf of the Environmental Protection Agency and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality wants a judge to force Houston to comply with the Clean Water Act and Texas Water Code — typical orders include upgrading pipes, ramping up maintenance and educating the public on how to avoid clogging city pipes — and to assess civil penalties that could reach $53,000 per day, depending on when each violation occurred.

[…]

The filing was spurred by the intervention of a local nonprofit, Bayou City Waterkeeper, which announced in July that it planned to sue the city over the same violations and which filed its own lawsuit on Friday mirroring the EPA’s claims. It states that the city has reported more than 9,300 sewer spills in the last five years alone.

“The city’s unauthorized discharges have had a detrimental effect on, and pose an ongoing threat to, water quality and public health in the Houston area and have caused significant damage to the waters that Waterkeeper’s members use and enjoy,” the nonprofit’s filing states.

Waterkeeper’s July announcement was required by the Clean Water Act, which mandates that citizens or citizen groups planning to sue under the law give 60 days’ notice, in part to allow the EPA or its state counterparts to take their own actions.

See here for the background. This has been going on for a long time, and the city has been in negotiation for a resolution to this. How much it will all cost remains the big question. The one thing I can say for certain is that no one is going to like it. As a reminder, consider this:

Upon taking office in 2004, former mayor Bill White locked utility revenues into a dedicated fund, raised water rates 10 percent, tied future rates to inflation, and refinanced the debt. That was not enough to prevent the debt mountain from risking a utility credit downgrade by 2010, when former mayor Annise Parker took office, so she passed a 28 percent rate hike.

Remember how much some people bitched and moaned about that rate hike? Get ready to experience it all again.

Distributing the VW settlement money

Good for some, less good for others.

Texas cities will soon get millions of dollars to help clean up air quality, but Houston officials say the plan for distributing all that money isn’t fair.

The money is coming from a settlement in the Volkswagen (VW) emissions cheating scandal. Local governments will be able to use the money to reduce emissions from their vehicles and other equipment.

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) plans to give the biggest chunk of the money – more than $73 million – to the San Antonio area, mainly because that city is closer than others to getting in line with federal pollution rules it’s currently violating.

Under the state’s plan, the Houston area, which has worse air quality, would get about $27 million.

The City of Houston says about a quarter of the cheating VW cars that were in Texas were driving in the Houston region.

“So we deserve at least a quarter of those funds, because we’re the ones that were harmed,” said Kris Banks, a government relations assistant with Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner’s office.

See here, here, and here for some background. Mayor Turner expressed his disenchantment with the amount allocated to Houston in a press release; you can see all of the city’s documentation on the matter here. The full TCEQ plan for the VW Environmental Mitigation Trust is here, or you can save yourself some time and read the Texas Vox summary of it. The TCEQ is still accepting feedback on the draft plan through October 8, so send them an email at VWsettle@tceq.texas.gov if you have comments. The Rivard Report has more.

Southwest Key sues city over permit for child detention warehouse

Screw them.

The Austin-based nonprofit trying to open a shelter to house migrant children east of downtown sued the city of Houston Friday, alleging a discriminatory, baseless and politically motivated campaign to prevent it from opening the facility.

Southwest Key Programs alleges in the lawsuit, filed in federal court in Houston, that the city is “manipulating” its permitting process, invalidating previously issued permits without due process and refusing to conduct inspections or issue new permits. The suit claims these actions are discriminatory based on some combination of the city’s opposition to federal immigration policies, interest in “political gain” or the race, color, national origin, ancestry, alienage or immigration status of the unaccompanied minors who would be housed there.

The lawsuit asks a court to grant Southwest Key monetary damages and declare that it can proceed with its plans to open the facility.

“The city of Houston has ignored its own regulations, and past practices, and has knowingly misrepresented the facts to the state of Texas to deny Southwest Key a license to open the facility,” Southwest Key said in a statement released Friday. “City officials bent the rules and broke the law for the sole purpose of advancing the mayor’s political agenda.”

[…]

“The city is only interested in the safety, security and well-being of children and will continue to enforce all building codes and regulations designed to accomplish that purpose,” Mayor Sylvester Turner said in a statement. “Southwest Key has repeatedly been asked to provide plans that meet existing building codes for the intended use of the facility at 419 Emancipation Street in Houston. They have failed to do so. Hopefully, they will realize that they are not exempt and must follow the rules like everyone else. We continue to wait for them to respond. In the meantime, we will review the pleading and respond accordingly.”

See here and here for the background, and here for the Mayor’s statement. I have no idea if Southwest Key’s claims have any validity, and to be honest I don’t care. Southwest Key can go fuck themselves.

HFD Chief warns of layoffs

To be fair, this isn’t the first time we have heard this.

Houston Fire Chief Sam Peña on Tuesday warned of dire consequences — including possible layoffs of more than 800 firefighters and deferred maintenance or upgrades on aging equipment, if voters approve the firefighters’ pay parity initiative on the November ballot.

Peña’s warning came during a City Council Committee on Budget & Fiscal Affairs meeting to provide city leaders with their first look at how the Houston Fire Department might handle the costs of the ballot measure, which proposes to raise firefighter pay to that of their police peers.

In its latest estimate, the Turner administration says approval of the referendum would cost the city $98 million in its first year and would lead to cuts at the fire department as well as in other city agencies.

“A reduction of this size in personnel cannot be accomplished without a major restructuring of the current operations,” said Tantri Emo, director of the city’s finance department. Emo said the city’s $98 million estimate million came from comparing salaries of firefighters and police at similar ranks, and said the city did not yet have estimates that might factor in costs to the city’s pension system.

Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association President Marty Lancton questioned the city’s calculation on how much pay parity would actually cost taxpayers. Lancton repeated past assertions that the city refused to negotiate or work with firefighters on issues ranging from pay to operations to equipment, but he did not provide the union’s cost estimates.

Emphasis mine. We all agree that this referendum will cost the city some money if passed, right? I mean, there’d be literally no point for the HPFFA to push for it if it didn’t mean higher pay for their members. As such, the fact that the union has refused to provide their own number whenever the city has cited one is telling. Obviously, the firefighters are going to argue that the city is exaggerating the cost, and they’re very likely correct about that. But it’s one thing to say “oh, it will only cost $10-20 million”, which the city probably could afford with at most minimal cuts, and another entirely to say “oh, it will only cost $50-60 million”, which the city can’t do without real cuts and starts to sound pretty expensive besides. If the firefighters can’t or won’t provide their own estimate of how much this will cost the city – and let’s be real, they most certainly do have their own estimate – then the city’s number is the one we must accept. And that’s a number that will absolutely lead to job cuts, including among HFD’s ranks.

Will this affect the outcome of the election? Maybe, if the city can get that message out. Holding a few town halls is nice and appreciated, but it’s not going to spread the message far and wide. Remember, nearly 400,000 ballots were cast in the city in 2010, with over 330K votes tallied in the Renew Houston and red light camera elections. You’re not going to reach that many people without significant outreach, and so far all I’ve seen is one pro-firefighter web ad. If there’s a campaign in the works, it’s going to need to get going soon.

Town hall meetings for city referenda

From the inbox:

Mayor Sylvester Turner

MAYOR TURNER INVITES CITY RESIDENTS TO TOWN HALL MEETINGS ABOUT THE 2 PROPOSITIONS ON THE NOV. 6 CITY BALLOT

Mayor Turner urges all voters who live in the city to learn about the Rebuild Houston and fire pay referendum elections on the Nov. 6 ballot.

He will host the following meetings from 6:30 7:45 p.m.:

–– Wednesday, Sept. 5 – District C –  Metropolitan Multi-Service Center, 1475 West Gray, 77019
–– Monday, Sept. 10  – District H – Moody Park, 3725 Fulton, 77009
–– Wednesday, Sept. 19 – District J – Sharpstown Community Center, 6600 Harbor Town, 77036
–– Thursday, Sept. 20 – District B – Kashmere MSC, 4802 Lockwood, 77026
–– Monday, Sept. 24 – District A – Trini Mendenhall Community Center, 1414 Wirt Road, 77055
–– Wednesday, Oct. 3 – District D – Sunnyside Metropolitan Multi-Service Center, 9314 Cullen, 77051
–– Thursday, Oct. 4 – District I – EB Cape Center, 4501 Leeland, 77023
–– Monday, Oct. 8 – District F – Alief Community Center, 11903 Bellaire Blvd., 77072
–– Wednesday, Oct. 17 – District K – Fountain Life Center, 14083 S. Main, 77035
–– Thursday, Oct. 18 – District G, Walnut Bend Recreation Center, 10601 Briar Forest, 77042

Mayor Turner will make the same presentation at District E meetings hosted by Council Member Dave Martin from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m.

–– Tuesday, Oct. 9 at the Kingwood Community Center, 4102 Rustic Woods Drive, Kingwood 77345
–– Tuesday, Oct. 16 at Space Center Houston, 1601 E. NASA Parkway, Houston 77058

Sorry about the late notice, but this just hit my inbox yesterday, though there was a press release for it last week. Note that the press release I linked to is incorrect about the start date for early voting. It begins October 22, which was correctly noted in the release I got in my mailbox. I’m very interested in seeing what kind of a campaign there is for and against this, but in the meantime there’s this.

Looking beyond HISD’s one year reprieve

As we know, HISD has been in danger of sanctions from the TEA, which could include a state takeover of the district, because of several schools that had rated as “improvement needed” for multiple years in a row. They managed to avoid that fate for this year as most of its schools were granted waivers due to Harvey, while the schools that weren’t exempted met the mandated standard. Next year, however, the schools that received waivers will have to measure up or the same sanctions will apply. As a result, local officials are planning ahead for that possibility.

Local civic leaders are considering whether to form a nonprofit that could take control of several long-struggling Houston ISD schools in 2019-20, a potential bid to improve academic outcomes at those campuses and stave off a state takeover of the district’s locally elected governing board.

Members of Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner’s administration, education leaders and prominent philanthropic and business organizations have convened periodically over the past few months to research and sketch out frameworks for a nonprofit capable of governing some HISD campuses. The discussions remain preliminary — no plans or proposals have been formulated — but local leaders say they their efforts will become more urgent and public in the coming months.

The nonprofit would partner with HISD through a recently passed state law commonly known as SB 1882. Under the law, school districts temporarily can surrender control over campuses to an outside organization — including a nonprofit — in exchange for a two-year reprieve from state sanctions tied to low academic performance, an extra $1,200 in per-student funding and some regulatory breaks. If HISD does not engage in an outside partnership this academic year at four chronically low-performing schools this year, the district risks state sanctions in 2019 if any of the campuses fail to meet state academic standards.

Juliet Stipeche, the director of education in Turner’s administration, said a nonprofit “seems like the wisest catalyst” for a potential private partnership with HISD. Stipeche, an HISD trustee from 2010 to 2015, is among the lead organizers of early talks about a nonprofit.

“Our office is trying to bring together a very diverse group of people to find a new way of partnering with the school district,” Stipeche said. “There’s a clear, obvious sense of urgency given the situation that we have, but there’s also an understanding that this needs to be a long-term project.”

[…]

Houston-area leaders involved in talks about forming a nonprofit for an HISD partnership said many questions remain answered: Who would serve on the nonprofit’s governing board? How would board members be chosen? How would community members engage in the nonprofit’s formation? Who would manage day-to-day campus operations? Which schools would fall under the nonprofit’s purview?

To gain support for a private partnership, local leaders will have to clear several hurdles. They likely will have three to six months to craft governance plans and an academic framework for campuses, a relatively short time frame. They will have to get buy-in from several constituencies that often clash politically, including HISD trustees, school district administrators, teachers’ union leaders and residents in neighborhoods with schools facing takeover. The TEA also would have to approve any proposals.

“We need to be taking advantage of the next year,” said Bob Harvey, president and CEO of the Greater Houston Partnership, the region’s largest business advocacy nonprofit. “We need to work very aggressively. It will take time to put something like this together.”

See here for some background, and here and here for what happened when HISD looked at this kind of solution earlier this year. I guess the first hurdle I’d like to be cleared is an answer to the question of how any theoretical partnership will help these schools succeed beyond what HISD has been able to do with them. In some sense this doesn’t matter since this is one of the options that the Lege mandates, and it’s the option that retains the most local control, which I agree is the better choice. There’s also the option of persuading the Lege to make some changes to SB 1882, which is something that Rep. Garnet Coleman has been talking about. Let’s focus on the bigger picture of getting the best outcome, and go from there.

Cyber insurance

Seems like a good idea.

Houston City Council on Wednesday unanimously agreed to spend $471,000 on cyber insurance, becoming the latest Texas municipality trying to bolster its response to growing technological risks.

The insurance can cover up to $30 million in expenses related to security breaches in the city’s network, including crisis response, recovery of losses and answers to legal claims stemming from cyberattacks.

While some data breaches are preventable, the prevalence of cybersecurity threats against city governments nationwide prompted Houston to take steps to insure itself, said At-large Councilman David Robinson, chairman of council’s Transportation, Technology and Infrastructure committee.

“There are those things that are just beyond the reach or scope of expected due diligence and preparation,” Robinson said. “You need to be prepared for the unknown.”

In the event of a cyberattack, such as hacking or phishing, in which people pose as trustworthy sources to obtain money or information, the insurance coverage could pay for crisis management resources, computer forensics, credit monitoring and call center services.

After a security threat is detected, the new policy could cover any loss of income or expense from the interruption of computer systems, according to council background materials outlining the insurance. It could be used to pay the cost of restoring or recollecting data affected by a cyberattack, as well the cost of investigating threats. The insurance policy also can be used for liability claims made against the city for failing to protect data or prevent access to confidential information.

This makes sense. Of course, as an organization you want to do everything you can to prevent an incident, but as we say in the business, it’s not a matter of if you’ll get hacked, it’s a matter of when. Like what happened to Harris County earlier this year. All of your vendors and suppliers and business partners are potential avenues for compromise, too. While I hope we’ll never need to use it, this is a smart investment.

Appeals court allows city to post video of pay parity hearing

Probably doesn’t matter much at this point, but there it is.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

A Texas appeals court on Thursday ordered a state district judge to rescind his temporary restraining order requiring the city of Houston to remove video from its website that depicted a public city council committee hearing over a proposal to grant firefighters “pay parity” with police.

District Judge Kyle Carter should not have blocked the city from posting the video of the committee hearing because it is not clear the meeting constituted illegal electioneering, as the Houston firefighters union had alleged, the 14th Court of Appeals justices ruled.

That restraining order had expired last week anyway, said Cris Feldman, an attorney for the firefighters union, adding that the decision does not preclude a court from coming to the same conclusion that Carter did after further hearings in the case.

[…]

The section of state law banning local governments from using public funds to advocate for or against ballot measures was not intended to restrain public discussion of such issues, the justices wrote Thursday.

“It was not unreasonable or unexpected that statements tending to indicate support for, or opposition to, the charter amendment might be voiced at the meeting,” the nine-page opinion states. “Public funds were not being used for political advertising by making the meeting video publicly available, even though an incidental effect of posting the video on the city’s website may be to re-publish statements supporting or opposing the charter amendment.”

See here for the background, here for the Mayor’s statement, and here for a copy of the opinion. As noted, the TRO had expired on August 14, and the Chron posted their own copy of the video shortly after Judge Carter handed down his opinion, so this is all mostly academic. It may mean something after the election when the lawsuits over the wording of the referendum gets filed, but until then it’s mostly a warm-up exercise.

A better match from FEMA

Good news.

Federal officials have agreed to count volunteer work hours and donated materials toward the local match required for disaster recovery grants to repair streets, buildings, utilities, parks and other public facilities — a national policy change, initiated in Houston, that could save local governments tens of millions of dollars.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency agreed to expand its acceptance of volunteer hours and donated supplies after months of discussions with leaders of Houston’s Hurricane Harvey recovery effort. The change is retroactive to Aug. 23, 2017 — two days before the official declaration of Harvey as a major disaster.

Typically, local governments must match 25 percent of the federal government’s contributions during a disaster and its aftermath, and only can count volunteer hours and donated materials toward that match in the removal of storm debris and immediate emergency response efforts, such as sheltering victims. For Harvey, the Trump administration agreed to drop the local match to 10 percent.

Even with the change, Mayor Sylvester Turner said, Houston will still be responsible for a projected local match of $250 million.

“For the first time in FEMA’s history, they are allowing this volunteer program on permanent repairs to be used as a part of that 10 percent local match, and they’re not only allowing it for the city of Houston — for our region — but it’s a national initiative that they would allow in all other disasters now going forward,” Turner said. “That’s a monumental shift, because most local governments are hard-pressed to come up with that 10 percent match.”

There are still a lot of details to work out about what kind of work would count, how to track it and tally it up, and how to ensure that federal procurement rules are obeyed, but the decision to go this way will be a big help to Houston and other communities rebuilding after disasters. Kudos to all for making this happen.

The firefighter pay parity referendum won’t be decided by the voters

it will be decided by the courts. Here’s a story out of Austin to illustrate.

Former Travis County judge Bill Aleshire has sued the city of Austin in the Texas Supreme Court, challenging the ballot language of a proposition up for a local vote in November.

The lawsuit filed Monday challenges ballot language related to Proposition K, which calls for an outside audit of government efficiency at City HallThe Austin City Council approved the ballot wording last week.

At that council meeting, some supporters of the proposition bristled at the language, which includes a cost estimate for the audit of between $1 million and $5 million. Proposition backers complain the inclusion of the cost estimate will bias voters against the measure because the wording does not mention any possible savings that could result from an audit.

You can follow the links and read the writ, which is embedded in that Statesman. I don’t care about any of that. My point here is that while Council has voted to put the measure on the ballot, we don’t have ballot language yet. Does anyone think for even a minute that the language that Mayor Turner will provide and Council will approve will be satisfactory to all of the stakeholders in this fight? Does anyone think it is possible for this referendum to be a) simple enough for everyone to be clear on what they’re voting on, and b) thorough enough for it to adequately cover all the relevant details? These were the points of contention in the lawsuits over the term limits referendum, and the Renew Houston referendum. I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: The losing side in this vote, whichever side it is, will file a lawsuit arguing that the ballot language was inadequate, inaccurate, unintelligible, whatever else. Given the lifespan of the Renew Houston battle – which as you know is still not over – we’ll be handing this fight off to the next Mayor, and that is very much assuming a second term for Mayor Turner. On top of all of the other reasons why this is a bad idea, this is why this is a bad idea.

ReBuild re-vote approved

Add another item to the ballot.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

City Council on Wednesday unanimously agreed to put the controversial street and drainage program known as ReBuild Houston before voters again in November, but not before tweaking the ballot language in hopes of avoiding future court challenges.

The Turner administration should find out quickly if they were successful.

The lawyer who represented the conservative plaintiffs who got the Texas Supreme Court to throw out the original 2010 charter amendment already has asked a judge to force the city to include ballot language specifically stating that drainage fees will be imposed on and paid for by property owners.

[…]

Turner, however, has said approval of the charter amendment would be limited, calling it an an affirmation of “what already is,” and saying it simply would solidify a dedicated source of funding to continue the ReBuild Houston program as it is being run today. The drainage fee, which is a key part of the program, is not at risk in the November referendum because it was created via city ordinance, not by the 2010 charter amendment.

“I think we all support a dedicated source (of funding),” Turner said Wednesday. “I think we all support the emphasis being placed on drainage, flooding and streets … We’re all passionate about it, but I think there is more agreement than disagreement around this table.”

See here for the background. I confess, it’s not clear to me what the stakes are in this vote, just as it’s not clear to me what the neverending litigation is about. As the story notes, Council voted to approve an ordinance that instituted the fee. Even with the obscure stakes, I doubt there’s any ballot language short of language written by Andy Taylor himself that would satisfy Andy Taylor and his flood-loving plaintiffs. I’d put something on like “ReBuild is what we say it is, mofos”, but then that’s probably why I’m a blogger and not a public official. Be that as it may, a-voting we will go this fall. KUHF has more.

July 2018 finance reports: City of Houston

Every level of government requires finance reports in January and June, whether or not there is an active election cycle in that year. That includes the city of Houston, whose january report data we inspected here. Our next election is in 2019, and while this is still traditionally a little early for there to be much activity, there are the finance reports. Here’s what we’ve got:


Candidate       Office    Raised      Spent     Loan    On Hand
===============================================================
S Turner         Mayor   585,267    137,758        0  2,260,407

C Brown     Controller    13,070     17,650        0     59,164

M Knox      At Large 1    28,225     12,691        0     62,856 
D Robinson  At Large 2    61,650     21,468        0    162,079
M Kubosh    At Large 3    72,475     23,841  276,000     82,360
A Edwards   At Large 4    40,345     26,349        0    147,883
J Christie  At Large 5     3,263      6,055        0     25,918

B Stardig       Dist A    56,439     24,738        0    116,794
J Davis         Dist B    22,750     12,487        0    147,300
E Cohen         Dist C    33,990     18,591        0     57,264
D Boykins       Dist D   126,000     55,556        0     96,400
D Martin        Dist E    43,900     17,226        0    123,730
S Le            Dist F     4,000      6,445   30,823     10,570
G Travis        Dist G    69,468     81,775   21,000     56,571
K Cisneros      Dist H    34,399      5,660        0     49,176
R Gallegos      Dist I    32,875     21,319        0     80,288
M Laster        Dist J    20,330      7,524        0    173,358
M Castex-Tatum  Dist K    15,375        339    3,788     43,822

A Parker                       0     10,383        0     82,854
L Green                    5,500     42,118        0     40,492
Lift the Cap PAC               0          0        0      3,987
Citizens to Keep               0      1,803        0     47,564
 Houston Strong

As you may recall, there wasn’t much in the way of fundraising for anyone except Mayor Turner last time. I don’t know if it’s due to the time of year, the approach of the next election, or the overall political climate, but as you can see nearly all of our elected officials have been busy. The report for Martha Castex-Tatum, who was elected in May to succeed the late Larry Green, is in a shorter period than everyone else since she had to post 30-day and 8-day reports for her cycle; the others are all for the full January through June time frame.

Looking at these numbers, only Jack Christie has acted like the term-limited Member that he is. Brenda Stardig, Jerry Davis, Ellen Cohen, and Mike Laster have been more or less business as usual. I’ve speculated before about the possible future ambitions they may have, and I don’t have anything to add to that. I’m sure there’s a reason why the three non-Cohen members have been stockpiling the loot like this, but until they do something tangible it’s hard to say what that might be.

Which doesn’t mean we can’t speculate at all. I look at what Dwight Boykins and David Robinson are doing and I wonder a little. Both are on the ballot next year for their final terms (as always, modulo future rulings in the interminable term limits litigation), and while Robinson had to fend off four challengers and win in a runoff in 2015, Boykins cruised home unopposed. It could be that Robinson is merely gearing up for the next battle while Boykins is doing his best to keep potential opponents at bay. It could also be that they’re looking beyond their next term to a time when both the Mayor’s office and the Controller’s office will be open seats. I have no idea and no evidence – like I said, I’m just speculating. Dave Martin is also in that “one more term and has a lot of cash” group, but we don’t tend to elect Mayors who fit Martin’s political profile, though perhaps Controller might appeal to him.

Be all that as it may, this is the first time since we switched to four-year terms and no blackout period for fundraising that we’ve seen incumbents establish a clear financial advantage for themselves. No one on the outside has yet taken a concrete step (like designating a campaign treasurer and raising their own money) towards running for a Council seat, but do keep in mind there are several now-former candidates for Congress in town who likely have some cash remaining in their coffers (sorry, I’m only checking on still-active candidates). Surely it would not be a surprise if one or more of them decided to act more locally next year. Given that possibility, it’s hard to blame any of the members who are up for re-election next year to take precautions.

The remaining reports I included because they’re there. As we learned after the death of El Franco Lee, the remaining funds in Larry Green’s campaign account are to be distributed by his campaign treasurer, whose name is Kevin Riles. As we see from Lee’s July report, there’s no particular rush to do whatever that turns out to be. I don’t remember what Citizens to Keep Houston Strong was about, but Bill White is their treasurer. I’m sure we’ll see plenty more PACs and PAC activity as we move towards referenda for firefighters’ pay parity and the revenue cap.

The long range plan for municipal waste

Something you probably missed (I know I did) from recent City Council action.

Last week Houston City Council voted to hire a company that will help local officials create and adopt a long-range waste and recycling plan. This wasn’t all over the news, but it is indeed a big deal—and a significant victory for Texas Campaign for the Environment that was years in the making. It could put Houston on a path to become the largest city in Texas working toward a Zero Waste future!

Most of the rest of the article recounts the fight over One Bin For All, followed by the fight over Mayor Turner’s original proposed recycling deal, which was eventually sent out for a rebid. True to what author Roseanne Barone writes, I couldn’t find any news about this, but you can see the Council agenda item in question here. I don’t know how long this will take to turn into a report for review, but given the way these things go it will either be breathtakingly ambitious but likely infeasible, or overly cautious and thus criticized by disappointed supporters. We’ll keep an eye out for it.

Rape kit lawsuit dismissal will be appealed

To be expected.

Two women who on Friday lost a lawsuit against the City of Houston and a variety of officials over a rape kit backlog will file an appeal, an attorney for the women announced in a news release on Tuesday.

[…]

[Attorney Randall] Kallinen has argued in court that the backlog was “a violation of the due process, equal protection and unreasonable search and seizure clauses of the Texas and United States Constitutions.”

In a news release last Friday, the City of Houston pushed back against those claims, saying that “the plaintiffs did not allege any violations of rights guaranteed by the Constitution, nor did they raise any other legal grounds to hold Houston and its current and former officials responsible.”

The city also argued that there was no longer a rape kit backlog, rendering the women’s legal claims “six years too late.” Two private laboratories eliminated that backlog in 2013 and 2014, the Chronicle previously reported.

In an interview, Kallinen pushed back against this argument, arguing that the women were not aware their rape kits had any problems until police contacted them and that “the statute of limitations should be delayed” as a result, citing what he called “the discovery rule.”

See here for the background. I have no expertise on the legal questions being raised here. My primary interest is in ensuring that we never have another rape kit backlog like this again. It’s shameful enough that it has happened before (twice, in fact). There’s no excuse for it ever happening again.

Firefighter pay proposal officially on the ballot

As required.

Houston voters in November will choose whether to grant firefighters pay “parity” with police of corresponding rank and seniority.

After weeks of wrangling over the issue — including angry debates, rare legislative maneuvers and allegations of electioneering — the city council voted unanimously Wednesday to place the proposal before voters Nov. 6.

Mayor Sylvester Turner initially gave council the option of scheduling the vote in November 2019 instead, but ultimately pulled that item from the agenda. Still, Turner repeated his concerns about the idea on Wednesday, saying it will cost the city $98 million a year and force layoffs.

The mayor said he intends to host a town hall meeting in each of the 11 council districts before November to educate voters on the issue.

“I don’t have a money-making machine,” Turner said. “I agree they deserve a pay raise, but the question is, what is our ability to pay?”

[…]

Councilman Dwight Boykins was among those who voiced support for the measure, suggesting that the city’s voter-imposed cap on property tax revenues be adjusted to help cover the cost. Boykins also floated the idea of imposing a monthly garbage fee; Houston is the only big city in Texas without one.

Turner and some other council members were, at best, reluctant to embrace those proposals.

Other council members’ concerns took various forms. Councilman Greg Travis suggested the Turner administration and the firefighters were engaged in a game of chicken in which all Houstonians would lose. Councilwoman Brenda Stardig bristled at Turner’s “threats” to cut services if the proposal passes, saying it was a breakdown in contract talks that led the firefighters to push for parity. Councilman Mike Laster, meanwhile, worried the item’s passage would have “serious unintended consequences for firefighters themselves.”

You know the background, but see here for a recent relevant post anyway. I’m going to vote against this, not that it really matters since the inevitable ballot language lawsuit only lacks a plaintiff at this point. I’ll be interested to see who takes what side in this fight – CM Boykins is the first elected official I’ve seen publicly support the idea – and how nasty it gets. Who’s going to run an anti campaign, and who’s going to contribute money to one or the other?I look forward to the 30 day reports. KUHF has more.

Rape kit backlog lawsuit dismissed

Interesting.

A federal judge has dismissed a 2017 lawsuit two rape victims filed against Houston’s current mayor and police chief and five sets of predecessors, among others, for allowing a backlog of rape kits to accumulate over decades without being tested, arguing that failure ensured the plaintiffs’ attackers were on the street when they otherwise could have been behind bars.

Both women were raped by serial offenders whose DNA had long been in police databases, but who went unidentified until Houston paid two private laboratories to erase its backlog of more than 6,000 untested kits in 2013 and 2014.

The plaintiffs sought damages, saying city officials violated their rights to due process and equal protection, and that officials illegally took her property and violated her personal privacy and dignity under the Fourth Amendment.

U.S. District Judge Vanessa Gilmore dismissed the case, saying the suit had not been filed quickly enough and that the plaintiffs’ claims did not cover rights guaranteed by the Constitution.

See here for the background, and here for the Mayor’s press release. Not clear at this time if the plaintiffs intend to appeal the ruling, but that’s always a possibility. The city is working to eliminate another backlog, and I very much hope that includes a more long-range plan to prevent backlogs from occurring in the future. The city – and the county, and the state, and Congress – should not need to be coerced into doing this properly.

ReBuild re-vote

Sort of. It’s complicated.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Eight years after voters narrowly backed the idea, the controversial street and drainage program known as ReBuild Houston is expected to appear again on the November ballot in the form of an amendment to the city charter.

The immediate outcome of the election, however, may be unusually muted: Mayor Sylvester Turner said he will implement the program as it is being run today even if voters repeal the legal language that would force him to do so. The drainage fee at the heart of the program also is not at risk in the election.

“We are simply saying in November to the voters: Go and reaffirm the dedicated purpose for which this fee is intended, put a lockbox around it,” Turner said. “Voters are not being asked to increase the fee or create another fee, just to reaffirm what already is.”

[…]

Responding to a directive from Turner ahead of the fall referendum, [Houston Public Works Director Carol] Haddock said Public Works leaders are re-evaluating how ReBuild money is allocated, with the intention of placing greater weight on the drainage needs associated with a project.

“What the mayor is saying is, back in 2010, this was sold on flooding and drainage. What he’s told me is that 50 percent of the money needs to go into projects that were identified for the purposes of solving flooding and drainage,” Haddock said. “Within the confines of what’s written on the ballot language, we can shift those percentages and we can go to what was promised to the public and we can reformulate this program, reaffirm it, in what they originally bought into.”

Turner said there is much about the program he does not intend to change, noting he sees benefits to pay-as-you-go financing.

He also said that in the context of Harris County’s $2.5 billion flood bond election on Aug. 25 and incoming federal funds tied to Hurricane Harvey, it is not necessary for the city to take on more debt to try to fix the region’s inadequate infrastructure by itself.

“We don’t necessarily have to take a look at another approach,” Turner said. “We just have to tie in with things that are already taking place or in progress.”

See here for my last update regarding ReBuild Houston and the ongoing litigation over it, for which the last court action was in 2015. There was an effort to force something on the ballot last year, but it didn’t happen. We’ll need to see the language for this referendum to get an idea of what it’s about, to be followed of course by the usual threats of more litigation from the usual sources. All of this is starting to make my head hurt, so stay tuned for the August 8 Council meeting, at which some of this I hope will be made more clear.

Firefighters file suit over handling of pay parity proposal

I figured we’d have to wait till after the eventual vote on the firefighters’ pay parity proposal for there to be litigation over it, but no.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

The union representing Houston firefighters sued Mayor Sylvester Turner and a City Council member on Monday, alleging the officials are improperly using public resources to oppose a “pay parity” ballot initiative.

The Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association accuses Mayor Turner and Council Member Dave Martin, who represents Kingwood, of campaigning against the ballot initiative, which would tie firefighter pay to that of Houston police officers of comparable rank and seniority.

The union argues it is a violation of the Texas Election Code and is asking for an injunction that would prohibit the officials from “continuing to post such political advertising on the City of Houston website.”

The mayor’s declined to comment Monday evening.

See here for the background. On Tuesday, they got a result.

Judge Kyle Carter agreed with the Houston fire union’s argument that the city council’s July 26 budget committee meeting constituted an act of illegal electioneering against the proposal and that public resources, essentially, had been used to present and post a political advertisement. The Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association sued Mayor Sylvester Turner and Councilman Dave Martin, who chairs the budget committee, over the issue on Monday.

“There is a fair way to go about voicing your opposition and creating a campaign against a certain resolution and then there’s an unfair way,” Carter said in delivering his Tuesday morning decision. “Much of the hearing, I thought, was informative and served its purpose. However, there was a good portion of the hearing that … went beyond the pale.”

He did not elaborate on what comments he thought went too far.

Carter ordered attorneys for the city and the fire union to discuss what portions of the tape could be returned to the city website after the offending portions were redacted. The order, as issued, is valid through Aug. 14.

[…]

Buck Wood, an Austin-based public law attorney who helped pass Texas’ first open meetings and open records laws in 1973, said he had never heard of such a ruling in his 50 years of practice.

“Making your position known in a public forum is the essence of what the open meetings law is all about. Not only that, assuming it gets filmed by the city, it’s an open record and you can go get it under the public information act. That’s the whole idea,” Wood said. “The fact that they don’t like what the mayor and the council are saying doesn’t make any difference. That’s content censorship. I never heard of such a thing.”

Joe Larsen, a Houston lawyer with 25 years of experience in open meetings and open records law, agreed. Larsen said he can see such a committee discussion being problematic if its agenda was not posted properly or if the issue being discussed was irrelevant to the committee’s focus, but he said he cannot otherwise envision a way in which such a hearing could constitute electioneering.

“I don’t see how it could be,” he said. “What’s wrong about people taking a public position? How do you restrict your public officials on what they’re going to discuss? That can’t be the right result.”

“That is the equivalent of a 25 percent pay raise for firefighters which the city cannot afford,” Turner said. “The public has a right to listen to the public hearing and we will vigorously challenge the judge’s ruling.”

Not really sure what the practical effect of this ruling is. I mean, how much traffic do those committee hearing videos get? There was an earlier version of this story in which the Mayor referred to the proposal as “the equivalent of a 25 percent pay raise for firefighters which the city cannot afford”, a quote he repeated later on KUHF. The firefighters may have gotten this ruling – which the Mayor says he will appeal – but Turner get the opportunity to keep making his case against the firefighters in the news. Not sure that’s a great tradeoff for the firefighters.

Houston to get 5G service

Nice.

Verizon will soon launch 5G technology in Houston, though its initial focus won’t be on improving the performance of mobile devices.

Rather, the wireless provider is positioning itself to compete with Comcast and AT&T for streaming television, playing video games or telling Alexa to turn on the lights.

Verizon officials said Tuesday that they will introduce residential 5G broadband starting in the second half of this year, using radio signals, rather than copper or fiber cables, to provide internet and phone services to the home. Houston is the third city announced as part of a four-market plan that also includes Sacramento and Los Angeles, Calif.

“It really comes down to not wanting to be left out of the loop, and 5G is what allows them to not get cut off,” Moor Insights & Strategy analyst Anshel Sag said.

People spend much of their days on their smartphones, but once they get home they connect to Wi-Fi rather than use their data plan. The new 5G technology provides a cheaper opportunity for wireless providers to enter that broadband market.

Theoretically, 5G will be able to achieve speeds of tens of gigabits per second, though most companies talk initially about 1 Gbps to 2 Gbps speeds. While variables from weather to terrain to buildings can affect 5G performance, the new technology is still expected to be much faster than current cell service — LTE speeds are typically in the 10-to-150 megabits per second range — and could potentially outstrip even the fastest home broadband currently available.

Dwight Silverman goes into more detail about what this means for end users, the tl;dr version of which is more options for home broadband beyond AT&T and Comcast. Potentially, anyway, and starting sometime in 2019, as this is all still more or less vaporware. But it’s coming, it’s better than what we’ve got now, and it should give you more choices in the marketplace.

Council discusses firefighter pay parity proposal

It will cost some money if it passes.

Houston Fire Chief Sam Peña said Thursday that his firefighters deserve raises, but he would be hard-pressed to maintain his department budget without reducing his ranks if voters approve a measure granting firefighters “pay parity” with police.

“This is not a scare tactic,” Peña told a city council committee. “They’re simple numbers. In order to deliver the expected service this community wants we’re going to have to do restructuring. Even at that, I won’t be able to meet the entire gap.”

Peña’s comments were in response to questions during a city council committee meeting Thursday in regard to a proposed “pay parity” measure the Houston firefighters union wants to appear on the November ballot.

Others, including city officials, business leaders and police union members, told the committee that passage of the parity measure would force the city to cut services and lay off workers and could risk a credit downgrade for City Hall.

[…]

The firefighters union wants the referendum on the November ballot, but Turner said he will let the council choose the election date at its Aug. 8 meeting. The deadline for getting something on the November ballot is Aug. 20.

Turner this week said the committee hearing was intended to be informational.

“When you’re talking to your constituents and they ask you approximately how much this will cost, I’d like to think you’ll want to have an answer,” he told the council Wednesday.

See here for some background, and here for an earlier story about the Council meeting, which was not the very special meeting that failed to reach a quorum. The firefighters are correct that Council has a duty to out the measure on the ballot, and to do it any later than this November would justifiably be seen as another stall for time. Their complaints about Council discussing the price tag rings hollow to me, given 1) the lack of clarity of how a pay parity proposal would be implemented; 2) the experience of other cities that have done this; 3) the potential impact on pension costs; and 4) the city’s overall financial picture. You know how I feel about this, and let me note again the certainty that someone will file suit over the ballot language no matter how the vote goes. I agree with Campos that the fight over this issue will be contentious, with the police department and the Greater Houston Partnership siding with the city against the firefighters. It’s not great to contemplate, but it’s pretty much baked in at this point. We’ll see what Council does on August 8.

No quorum for very special Council meeting

Close, but no cigar.

A handful of city council members who organized a rare special meeting to push for a Houston firefighters petition seeking pay “parity” with police to appear on the November ballot fell short of a quorum Friday and broke up without a vote.

The resolution they had put forward called on Mayor Sylvester Turner to let the council vote at its meeting next week to place the parity petition on the ballot.

Turner told one council member last Friday that he planned to have that discussion at the Aug. 8 council meeting, but word of that plan had not reached the full council Monday when members Greg Travis, Michael Kubosh, Brenda Stardig, Martha Castex-Tatum and Dwight Boykins signed a memo calling the special meeting.

[…]

No more than seven members reached the council chamber Friday morning, two short of the count necessary for a quorum, so Councilwoman Brenda Stardig called off the effort after 15 minutes.

Signatories Travis, Kubosh, Stardig and Boykins were present, though Boykins grew impatient and left. Council members Mike Knox, Steve Le and Dave Martin also were present. Castex-Tatum did not attend.

Martin had said he would skip the gathering, but the New Orleans native acknowledged he showed up in Cajun mode, spoiling for a fight.

See here for the background, and here for Mayor Turner’s statement. CM Martin did indeed mix it up, getting into squabbles with CMs Travis and Kubosh, which I encourage you to read. If more Council meetings had that kind of entertainment, I’m sure more people would tune in to them. There will be a Budget Committee hearing, followed by a Council vote on August 8, and we’ll have this thing on the November ballot.

Darian Ward indicted on charge of violating public information laws

Wow.

Mayor Sylvester Turner’s former press secretary, Darian Ward, was indicted by a grand jury this week for failing to turn over public records in response to a reporter’s request late last year.

The indictment, handed up Tuesday but released by Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg’s office Thursday, says Ward, in “misrepresenting” the number of emails responsive to a reporter’s request for correspondence about her personal business activities, “unlawfully, with criminal negligence … failed and refused to give access to … public information.”

Ward resigned in January, weeks after news broke that she had been suspended for withholding the records, and because the records showed she had routinely conducted personal business on city time.

[…]

“Mayor Turner expects every city of Houston employee to comply with the Texas Public Information Act,” mayoral spokeswoman Mary Benton said, noting the mayor was on a trade mission to South America. “Questions about today’s grand jury decision should be directed to the Harris County District Attorney’s office.”

She is charged with failure or refusal by an officer for public information to provide access to public information, a misdemeanor punishable by a fine of up to $1,000, six months in jail or both.

The indictment first was reported by KPRC Channel 2.

[…]

Kelley Shannon, executive director of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas, said it is common for officials to stall the release of records or impose unreasonable charges for the documents’ release without technically violating the law, and many more — typically unprovable — cases in which requesters suspect the act is being violated.

“It is very important that officials are taking the Texas Public Information Act seriously,” Shannon said. “Whatever comes out of this indictment, it shows that attention is being focused on the Public Information Act and the importance of adhering to the act.”

See here and here for some background on Darian Ward’s end of tenure with the city. I’m irresponsibly speculating well in advance of any evidence, but I would not be surprised if this winds up with a plea deal and a minimal fine. Whether that sets an example for adhering to the Public Information Act or not is up for debate, but I will agree that this law is routinely ignored and should be enforced more often. Those of you with long memories may recall the Rick Perry email saga, which included a complaint filed with the Travis County DA that did not result in any charges. We live in different times now, I guess.

A very special Council meeting

Who knew there was such a thing?

In a rare maneuver that sidesteps Mayor Sylvester Turner’s authority, five city council members have called a special meeting this week, hoping to force the issue of Houston firefighters’ push for a referendum on pay “parity” with police.

The council members aim to secure their colleagues’ support for a resolution calling on Turner to place an item on the council’s July 24 agenda to schedule a November election on the petition, which seeks to grant firefighters the same pay as police officers of corresponding rank.

In Houston’s strong-mayor form of government, the mayor generally has sole authority to decide what appears on the agenda for the weekly council meetings.

The lone exception allows three council members to set the agenda of a special meeting. Such gatherings — including this one — typically are organized without the mayor’s approval, and often struggle to muster a quorum, as many of the 16 council members are loathe to invite the mayor’s wrath.

Council members Greg Travis, Michael Kubosh, Brenda Stardig, Martha Castex-Tatum and Dwight Boykins signed a Monday memo calling a special council meeting for Friday at 10 a.m.

Turner is on a trade mission in South America and will not be back in time to attend the meeting.

Kubosh said he signed the memo to help ensure the issue was discussed, noting that several elections have passed since the petition was submitted.

“They were successful last year at stalling it a whole year, so, yes, I think that’s possible,” Kubosh said, referring to the Turner administration.

[…]

[CM Dave] Martin [who chairs the Council’s budget committee] said he does not intend to attend Friday’s meeting and doubts the organizers will have the quorum necessary for a formal vote.

“If they don’t show up, they don’t show up,” Kubosh said. “But I’ll show up.”

It is unclear what the impact would be if the proposed resolution reaches a vote and passes.

City Attorney Ron Lewis declined to address whether that outcome could force the mayor to act, given that the city charter gives Turner control of the council agenda.

“As a practical matter,” Lewis said, “the item will go on an agenda that’s timely, and the mayor’s committed to that.”

Insert shrug emoji here. The petitions were certified in May, and one would think the vote would be in November. According to Mayor Turner’s chief of staff and confirmed by CM Martin, this was to be discussed at the budget committee hearing on July 26, with the item for placing it on the ballot to be on Council’s August 8 agenda. I don’t know what else there is to say.