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Waller County

Hempstead landfill officially dead

Hooray!

Waller County leaders and residents on Monday cheered a Georgia company’s decision to abandon plans for a 250-acre acre landfill near Hempstead, saying they look forward to moving beyond an environmental fight that has dominated public debate for seven years.

Green Group Holdings LLC said in a news release Monday that it was dropping its remaining court appeals and withdrawing any pending requests for approval, citing public opposition and the prospect of a court battle that could go on and on.

“When I looked at the length of time that it would take to go through the permitting process if we were even successful in court and just the level of opposition and divisiveness this has caused in the local community, I just came to the conclusion that we should dismiss the appeals that are pending in the court system and withdraw any other efforts on our part to continue to permit and operate a landfill on this property,” said David Green, the company’s CEO, in a phone interview.

The move ends a bitter fight over the landfill proposal — one that led to a court verdict that past county commissioners failed to show transparency, the ouster of commissioners who backed the project, a well-funded movement to oppose the plan and numerous court rulings blocking the plan.

[…]

Green said the company would still pursue other potential locations for the landfill. He said he believes a solid waste disposal site is needed in Texas because of its expanding population and natural disasters such as Hurricane Harvey.

“I hope and really do feel like this facility could’ve been designed and operated safely, but this has been such a fatiguing and expensive journey for all of the participants,” Green said. “It’s time to put this behind us, so we at Green Group can focus on our other projects that we have.”

Here’s the Green Group press release. It was the recent ruling by a Travis County District Court judge that upheld the denial of a new application by the TCEQ to build the landfill that led to their retreat. They may pursue other opportunities elsewhere in the state, but at least now local communities have a playbook for how to fight back. The rest of us can commit to generating less waste if we want to give communities like Hempstead a hand going forward. No one should be faced with the prospect of having a landfill in their backyard.

TCEQ rejection of Hempstead landfill application upheld

Sweet.

StopHwy6Landfill

A yearslong battle over the construction of a landfill in Hempstead has come to an end for now after a judge ruled in Austin on Friday that Texas Commission on Environmental Quality’s decision to return the landfill’s application should be affirmed, according to court records.

Texas Commission on Environmental Quality had already rejected Pintail Landfill’s second application to build, but the company wanted that decision overturned. The trial took place on Thursday in Travis County’s 250th Civil District Court, where Judge Karin Crump the next day issued her ruling.

“It’s another court victory. It’s been a very long fight,” said Waller County Judge Trey Duhon. “From the beginning we were very clear, that this was absolutely one of the worst spots that you can possibly locate a landfill.”

The landfill, which would be built north of Hempstead off Texas 6 in Waller County, has been opposed for years by community members because they felt it would negatively affect their water supply and economic future. A local group, Citizens Against the Landfill in Hempstead, has actively worked against the construction of the landfill, raising more than $2 million for the cause through community garage sales and other fundraisers.

See here for the most recent update. You would think this would be over by now, but the judge’s ruling can be appealed, so it ain’t over yet unless Green Group throws in the towel. One hopes this time the message will sink in. Congrats to CALH for the latest victory.

We will never stop widening our highways

Eventually, everything will be used for extra highway capacity.

For people in western Harris and Fort Bend counties, now is the time to sit down with your toddler and ask what kind of Interstate 10 they’d like to have.

Texas Department of Transportation officials, as required by federal policies, are seeking environmental clearance on the project to build two managed lanes along I-10 from Texas 6 to FM 359 in Waller County. The project is expected to begin construction in mid-2030.

That’s not a typo. TxDOT currently plans to open bids on the project in April 2030. Right around the time actor Channing Tatum turns 50.

The project will require about 45 acres of right of way in Fort Bend and Waller counties as the freeway is widened. In some cases, homes and businesses will be affected by the proposed widening.

But don’t worry, no Serious People will find anything to object about that, because it is a Road Project, and That’s Just How These Things Work. Don’t worry, there will be plenty of opportunities to give feedback going forward. If you’re lucky, this will get dragged out in roughly the same way the I-45 widening project has been. But be prepared to gird your loins anyway.

Sandra Bland Act passes

Good.

Sandra Bland

The Texas House initially approved the Sandra Bland Act on Friday with a unanimous vote. The body now has to vote on the mental health bill one more time before it reaches Gov. Greg Abbott’s desk. (Update, May 20: The House voted 137-0 to give the bill final approval)

Senate Bill 1849 would mandate that county jails divert people with mental health and substance abuse issues toward treatment, make it easier for defendants with a mental illness or intellectual disability to receive a personal bond and require that independent law enforcement agencies investigate jail deaths.

[…]

Senate Criminal Justice Committee Chairman John Whitmire struck several provisions from the original bill amid criticism from police groups that it would hamper law enforcement’s work, including adding extra steps to legally secure a consent search. Bland’s family expressed disappointment in the Senate version of the bill, calling it a missed opportunity because it removed language relevant to Bland’s stop.

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Garnet Coleman of Houston, and other lawmakers have said they understand the disappointment, but there will be other opportunities to address in legislation interactions with police.

See here for the background. Sandra Bland’s family was not happy with the Senate changes to the bill, but it’s almost always better to pass something that can be built on later rather than pass nothing and hope to try again from scratch. It may take several sessions before anything else gets done, and nothing will happen without a big push, but this was progress and I’m glad it succeeded. A statement from Rep. Coleman is beneath the fold.

(more…)

The Sandra Bland Act

Good.

Sandra Bland

State Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston, on Thursday filed House Bill 2702, dubbed the Sandra Bland Act.

The exhaustive piece of legislation would expand what qualifies as racial and ethnic profiling; mandate people experiencing a mental health crisis and substance abuse be diverted to treatment over jail; and create more training and reporting requirements for county jails and law enforcement.

The legislation is named in honor of Sandra Bland, a black, 28-year-old Illinois woman who was found dead in an apparent suicide in the Waller County Jail in 2015.

Bland was pulled over in Prairie View on July 10, 2015, by then-Texas Department of Public Safety trooper Brian Encinia after she failed to signal a lane change. When Bland’s conversation with Encinia became heated, he arrested her on a charge of assaulting a public servant. She was found dead in her cell three days later.

Bland shouldn’t have been arrested, Coleman said during a news conference to announce the bill’s filing.

“It led to a death that didn’t have to occur,” said Coleman, who chairs the House County Affairs Committee.

The Sandra Bland Act would make several changes to how Texas law enforcement officials and jailers interact with those they stop or detain.

There’s more on the bill in the story, so go check it out. You know how I feel about this. Rep. Coleman has been working on this, which implements the reforms that were agreed to in the settlement of the lawsuit filed by bland’s family, for some time now. If anyone is going to get the details right, it’s Rep. Coleman. Let’s hope this gets a good reception. Grits has more.

Texas Central withdraws its land access lawsuits

Interesting.

The private developer of a planned bullet train between Dallas and Houston has withdrawn more than a dozen lawsuits against Texas landowners that sought court orders allowing the company access to private property to survey land for the 240-mile project.

Texas Central Partners officials said they are instead going to try and have an “open dialogue” with landowners about letting the company onto their land.

“We’re stepping back and going back to conversations and taking some of the heat out of our process,” said Texas Central President Tim Keith.

Texas Central Partners is developing a 240-mile bullet train line intended to transport passengers between Houston and Dallas in 90 minutes with a stop near Bryan. The company has partnered with Japanese train operator JR Central to bring its bullet train technology to Texas. The project has drawn support from officials in Houston and Dallas but opposition from communities and landowners that are expected to be near the train’s route.

In court filings, the company argued that state law allows it to enter private property to survey land that may be used for a potential route because it is a railroad. A group called Texans Against High-Speed Rail have said the company shouldn’t be considered a railroad because it doesn’t currently operate any rail lines.

In one Harris County lawsuit, attorneys for a landowner echoed that argument. A trial on the merits of those legal arguments was set for July, according to the Harris County District Clerk’s office.

Keith said Tuesday that the company was confident it would have secured a ruling in its favor. Texas Central and landowners had already settled 21 other similar legal filings. The company said the decision to withdraw the remaining suits was largely based on the fact that it’s already reached access and land-purchase options with more than 3,000 landowners.

See here and here for some background. Seems a little weird to me, but I’ll take them at their word for now. The Chron adds some details.

The company planning high-speed rail service between Houston and Dallas announced Tuesday it has reached preliminary agreements to buy property from nearly one-third of the landowners along the planned route, including half of those in two counties where vocal opposition has been strongest.

Texas Central said they have reached option agreements with owners of about 30 percent of the necessary parcels in 10 counties. The option agreements bind property owners to selling the right of way for the train, with the company paying them now for the right to purchase the land once Texas Central has final federal approvals and the funding to build the line, estimated to cost $12 billion.

“This is a significant step in the progress of the high-speed train and it reflects the positive dialogue we have had with landowners along the route,” Texas Central CEO Carlos Aguilar said in a statement. “Texans see the many benefits of a system that will provide a safe, reliable and productive alternative to the state’s transportation demands.”

Texas Central said 50 percent of the parcels needed in Waller and Grimes counties are covered by the option agreements. Landowners in the two counties have been some of the most vocally opposed to the line, which they say will ruin the rural character of the area. Many also have accused the company of heavy handed tactics negotiating with land owners.

Grimes County Judge Ben Leman, chairman of Texans Against High-Speed Rail, said the concerns with how property owners were approached should make people doubt the support Texas Central claims.

“If you are a landowner and you are sitting in your house and someone comes to your door and says they have eminent domain, or you can sign this agreement and we’ll pay 5 percent down… are you going to use eminent domain and cross your fingers,” Leman said.

[…]

[Leman] predicted the legislative session will be the “next big battleground” as the company seeks to have state lawmakers affirm some of its rights to use eminent domain, including a remedy to counties that have voted not to issue any construction permits to any entity that doesn’t have eminent domain authority, if the entity is crossing a public street.

We definitely agree on the Lege being the next battleground. I’ve got my eyes open for relevant bills. Swamplot has more.

Hempstead landfill application denied again

Good.

StopHwy6Landfill

A state commission has denied a new application to build a landfill in Waller County, saying ordinances adopted by the county and the city of Hempstead now prohibit a garbage dump in the area.

A highly charged debate over proposals to build a landfill rising as high as 151 feet above ground has been going on for about five years.

The Georgia-based Green Group Holdings, LLC, has pursued the project, while a local advocacy group, Citizens Against the Landfill in Hempstead, and current local elected officials oppose it.

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality last year rejected an original application filed by Green Group, citing an alleged failure of the company to account for how high the water level might get in the area of the proposed Pintail Landfill. The commission returned an appeal of that rejection in the spring, saying it came too late.

The company, meanwhile, went ahead and bought the 723-acre property in June and filed a new application. It reiterated its commitment to meeting required standards and stated a belief that it should be grandfathered in under old laws — before the local ordinances had been adopted to prohibit a landfill at the site, which is north of the city of Hempstead off Texas 6.

But, in a letter dated Thursday, Earl Lott, waste permits director for TCEQ, wrote that the ordinances prevented the agency from granting the new application. For any questions, Lott directed the company to contact its staff attorney.

“We are evaluating all options in light of the recent decision,” said David Green, president of Green Group, in a written statement.

See here for the most recent update, and here for a somewhat hard to read copy of the TCEQ letter. The next step, if there is one, would be legal action to challenge the ordinance. We’ll see what if anything Green Group does.

Races I’ll be watching today, non-Legislative edition

vote-button

This is my companion to yesterday’s piece.

1. SBOE district 5

I’ve discussed the SBOE races before. This particular race, between incumbent Ken Mercer and repeat challenger Rebecca Bell-Metereau, is the one that has the closest spread based on past performance, and thus is the most likely to flip. If it does flip, it would not only have a significant effect on the SBOE, which would go from 10-5 Republican to 9-6, with one of the more noxious members getting ousted, it would also cause a bit of a tremor in that this was not really on anyone’s radar going into 2016. Redistricting is supposed to be destiny, based on long-established voting patterns. If those patterns don’t hold any more, that’s a big effing deal.

2. Appeals courts

I’ve also talked about this. The five courts of interest are the First, Fourth, Fifth, 13th, and 14th Courts of Appeals, and there are multiple benches available to win. I honestly have no idea if having more Democrats on these benches will have a similar effect as having more Democrats on the various federal appellate benches, especially given that the Supreme Court and CCA will most likely remain more or less as they are – I would love to hear from the lawyers out there about this – but I do know that having more Dems on these benches means having more experienced and credible candidates available to run for the Supreme Court and CCA, and also having more such candidates available for elevation to federal benches. Building up the political bench is a big deal.

3. Edwards County Sheriff’s race

Jon Harris is an experienced Democratic lawman running for Sheriff against a wacko extremist in a very Republican county, though one with a small number of voters. This one is about sanity more than anything else.

4. Waller County Sheriff’s race

I’ll be honest, I didn’t have this one on my radar until I read this Trib story about the race, in which the recent death of Sandra Bland is a factor. Waller County went 53-46 for McCain over Obama in 2008, though the Sheriff’s race that featured a problematic Republican was a lot closer. It was 58-41 for Romney, which is close to what it was statewide. Democratic challenger Cedric Watson will have to outperfom the countywide base to defeat incumbent Glenn Smith, it’s mostly a matter of by how much he’ll have to outperform.

5. Harris County Department of Education, Precinct 2

There aren’t any at large HCDE Trustee positions up for election this year, so I haven’t paid much attention to them. This race is interesting for two reasons. One, the Democratic candidate is Sherrie Matula, who is exceptionally qualified and who ran a couple of honorable races for HD129 in 2008 and 2010. And two, this is Jack Morman’s Commissioner’s Court precinct. A win by Matula might serve as a catalyst for a strong candidate (*cough* *cough* Adrian Garcia *cough* *cough*) to run against Morman in 2018.

6. HISD District VII special election

You know this one. It’s Democrat Anne Sung versus two credible Republicans and one non-entity who hasn’t bothered to do anything other than have a few signs put up around town. One key to this race is that it’s the only one that will go to a runoff if no one reaches 50% plus one. Needless to say, the conditions for a December runoff would be very different than the conditions are today.

7. HISD recapture and Heights dry referenda

I don’t think any explanation is needed for these.

What non-legislative races are on your watch list for today?

Texas Central releases ridership study

From their website:

A comprehensive ridership study conducted by L.E.K Consulting has confirmed that Texas is ready for a privately developed Bullet Train line serving North Texas, the greater Brazos Valley and The Greater Houston Metro areas. According to this landmark study, 90% of the 16 million people living in the Texas Bullet Train service areas would save at least 1 hour on their journey times as compared to air or road travel. In addition, the overwhelming majority of surveyed Texan Travelers (over 83%) said they would use the Bullet Train in the right circumstances, with only 15% of survey respondents stating they would not consider any alternative but their personal vehicle. Looking further into the study, 71% of frequent travelers, and 49% of non-travelers said they either probably or definitely would use the Texas Bullet Train on their next trip to North Texas or Houston if it were an option today!

Bringing together end-to-end journey time analysis, primary market research on perceptions of high-speed trains, and long distance travel market size estimates, it is possible to develop estimates for future levels of demand for the Texas Bullet Train. Ultimately, the L.E.K study concludes that Bullet Train ridership is anticipated to ramp up to 5 million journeys by the mid 2020’s, and 10 million journeys by 2050. That’s 30% of the anticipated number of long-distance trips between North Texas and The Greater Houston Metro Area.

Here’s the study brochure. The main selling point is that travel times via Texas Central will be predictable and generally an hour or so less than either driving or flying, which includes the time it takes to get to the airport, get through security, get on the plane, and get your luggage afterwards. A large percentage of people they surveyed said they would the service, but then we kind of already knew that. I mean, they wouldn’t be investing all this money to build it if they didn’t have good reason to think that enough people would want to use it to make it profitable.

Here’s the Chron story about this. The main question remains whether Texas Central will ever get to build the thing in the first place.

Earlier this week, Waller County’s sub-regional planning commission – which has already stated its opposition to the train line’s passage through its area – filed a lawsuit in Austin against the Texas Department of Transportation, related to the transportation agency’s refusal to coordinate planning activities related to the line.

TxDOT, under the guidance of the Federal Railroad Administration – which ultimately will approve or deny plans for the line – is the state agency overseeing Texas Central’s environmental plans.

Waller County is claiming its objection and concerns to the line are being ignored, as federal and state officials prepare the environmental review.

“Without meaningful coordination, our community will suffer immediate and irreparable harm and that is totally unacceptable,” Waller County Judge Trey Duhon said in a statement.

The main obstacles at this point remain acquiring the land for the right of way, and whether or not Texas Central can use eminent domain. If they can make it through the next legislative session alive, I like their chances, but that remains a big if. Click2Houston has more.

More on the Sandra Bland settlement

State Rep. Garnet Coleman is working to implement the reforms mandated by the Sandra Bland lawsuit settlement.

Sandra Bland

House Democrats sparred with state law enforcement officials over questions of racial profiling Tuesday at a sometimes contentious hearing. It was the latest in a series of House County Affairs Committee hearings on policing in advance of the 2017 legislative session. Committee chair Garnet Coleman, a Houston Democrat and veteran lawmaker, has announced he plans to file the Sandra Bland Act, named for the Prairie View A&M University alum who died in the Waller County Jail after a traffic stop in 2015.

“There are solutions to the criminal justice issues that have come up because of Sandra Bland,” Coleman told the Observer, “and they should be on the front burner of the Legislature this coming session.”

Lawmakers heard testimony from the co-author of a 2015 University of North Carolina study on traffic stops that found that black drivers in Texas are 59 percent more likely than white drivers to be searched during Texas Department of Public Safety traffic stops. When state Representative Jonathan Stickland, R-Bedford, asked if researcher Frank Baumgartner was accusing DPS of racial profiling, Baumgartner responded cautiously.

“There is a robust disparity between the likelihood that a white driver and a black driver will be searched even when you control for variables other than race,” he said.

Lawmakers themselves were also reluctant to use the term “racial profiling” during the hearing, due in part to a Texas statute that offers a narrow legal definition of the term.

“The statute needs to be changed,” said Coleman, “because there are disparities that we can’t currently call ‘racial profiling’ that maybe we should be able to.”

DPS director Steve McCraw denied that his agency engages in profiling of any kind, and attributed the racial disparities in Baumgartner’s report to security concerns at the border. The allocation of so many officers to the border to combat “transnational gangs and cartels,” McCraw said, led the statistics to show excessive stops and searches of “minorities.”

Coleman countered that McCraw’s point was irrelevant to Baumgartner’s report, which had focused on the disparity of outcomes between black and white drivers. “Now come on, man,” he chided McCraw, “I know you went to school. I know you understand statistics.”

[…]

[Last] Thursday, the Bland family’s lawyer announced that the family had settled a civil suit against Waller County for $1.9 million. The settlement also mandates a number of procedural reforms — an agreement Reed-Veal called “a victory for moms across the country.” The settlement, which hasn’t been finalized, would require that the Waller County Jail keep a medical professional on staff at all times and use electronic sensors to monitor jailers’ check-ins.

The Sandra Bland Act, Coleman told the Observer, will expand the settlement’s reforms statewide and mandate additional changes, banning pretextual traffic stops (stops for minor infractions in order to investigate unrelated criminal activity), mandating access to health professionals in all jails, incentivizing the use of de-escalation tactics, and expanding access to personal recognizance bonds.

Coleman explained he also has a personal stake in the bill. “I got stopped 11 times in the first year I had my driver’s license,” he told the Observer. “So I understand the issues the bill addresses from being in the affected community.”

See here for the background. McCraw is a longtime partisan hack who should not be trusted, but does need to be overcome. The good news here is that Waller County has approved the settlement. The bad news is that DPS appears to be playing dumb about the whole thing.

A lawyer for the Bland family and DPS officials on Tuesday appeared to be at odds as to whether the settlement in that lawsuit — brought against Waller County, some county employees and former DPS trooper Brian Encinia — includes an agreement to institute additional statewide de-escalation training for all incoming troopers and those already on the roster.

Testifying before the Texas House Committee in County Affairs, Tom Rhodes, the Bland family’s Texas-based attorney, told lawmakers that the settlement includes a $1.9 million payout, including $100,000 from DPS. While the department was not a party in the lawsuit, it agreed to pay that amount to indemnify Encinia, who arrested Bland in a July 10, 2015 traffic stop that quickly escalated to an arrest. As part of the settlement, DPS also agreed to set up the training, Rhodes said.

But earlier in the day, DPS director Steve McCraw indicated the department already requires 76 hours of de-escalation training that’s embedded in its school for recruits.

“I was told just the opposite which is one of the reasons we required that as part of the settlement,” Rhodes told lawmakers.

Asked for clarification about McCraw’s comment, a DPS spokesman said DPS “has not settled litigation regarding Sandra Bland” and is not party to any agreements between her family and the Waller County defendants.

“The department is looking at a number of options regarding the issues discussed today,” DPS spokesman Tom Vinger said, pointing out that the department earlier this year began requiring troopers to complete an eight-hour de-escalation course.

Citing confidentiality restrictions, Rhodes said he couldn’t provide many details about the settlement discussions but he indicated he had reached a deal on the de-escalation training with DPS’ general counsel.

“All I can say is today was the first time I heard they had that training, and it seems like to me when we insisted on that as part of the settlement if they had it they would’ve said it,” Rhodes said in an interview after the hearing. “If it’s already there I’m glad it’s there. Obviously it’s not that effective — whatever they’re doing — because it certainly didn’t help in Sandy’s case, but that’s not the agreement we reached.”

Like I said, McCraw cannot be trusted. Someone at DPS with more integrity than him needs to get this worked out one and for all with the Bland family.

Family of Sandra Bland settles its lawsuit

I hope this brings them some peace, but more importantly I hope it leads to fewer inmate deaths, in Waller County and elsewhere.

Sandra Bland

The family of Sandra Bland — who died last year in a Waller County Jail cell — has reached a settlement with Texas officials in a wrongful death lawsuit, a lawyer for the family said Thursday.

Waller County and the Texas Department of Public Safety will pay the family a total of $1.9 million and the county has agreed to policy changes, according to attorney Cannon Lambert. The terms were finalized Wednesday, Lambert said.

[…]

Terms of the settlement:

  • Waller County will pay the family $1.8 million. The Texas Department of Public Safety will pay the family $100,000.
  • “To prevent future document falsifications, Waller County jail will use automated electronic sensors to ensure accurate and timely cell checks.”
  • “From here forward, Waller County jail will now provide an on-duty nurse or EMT for all shifts.”
  • “The Waller County Judge pledges to actively seek passage of state legislation providing for more funding for jail intake, booking, screening training and other jail support like telemedicine access for Texas county jails AND HE SUPPORTS HAVING ANY RESULTING LEGISLATION NAMED IN SANDRA BLAND’S HONOR!”
  • “The Waller County Sheriff’s Office shall provide additional jailer training (including ongoing continuing education) on booking and intake screening.”

“The case is settled in its entirety,” Lambert said, but “this is the beginning, not the end.”

Lambert said Bland’s mother is pleased with the settlement “particularly because of the non-economic components.”

See here for all prior bogging on this. I too hope this is a beginning and not an end. “No more inmate deaths” is a goal we should have as a society, and while we’ll never get there, we should do all we can to get as close as we can. Grits for Breakfast, which goes into detail on the terms of the settlement, ThinkProgress, the Current, and the Press have more.

Have we reached a tipping point on flood mitigation?

That’s a question that is alluded to but not directly addressed in this story.

“This is how the land is supposed to act,” said Mary Anne Piacentini, executive director of the Katy Prairie Conservancy, a nonprofit land trust. “It’s supposed to absorb water and filter out pollutants. It’s not supposed to send it roaring into the rivers and bayous and homes.”

In the greater Houston area, though, the staggering increase of impervious surfaces — roads, sidewalks, parking lots, anything covered with asphalt and concrete — has exacerbated the effects of flooding as development in the region has exploded. When land is covered by these surfaces, it loses ability to act like a sponge and soak up water. Things are further complicated in flat-as-a-pancake Houston, where much of the soil is heavily compacted and acts like pavement anyway, sending sheets of storm water to the nearest low-lying area.

A recent analysis of federal satellite data by the Houston Advanced Research Council for the Houston Chronicle shows that 337,000 acres of 1.1 million acres in Harris County were covered by impervious surfaces in 2011, the most recent year of data. That dwarfs surrounding counties, but the analysis shows many are catching up as the onslaught of development continues pushing from the city farther into the suburbs.

Between 2001 and 2011, Fort Bend County, for example, had a 53 percent increase in impervious surfaces, more than twice the percentage increase in Harris County during the same period. Waller County, home to much of the Katy Prairie, saw a 17 percent increase.

That kind of development comes with a price, namely the loss of the region’s natural landscape, including wetlands, prairies, coastal marshlands and forests, and thereby a greater risk of flooding. Even with federal regulations in place to preserve wetlands, the 14-county Houston region lost more than 54,000 acres of wetlands between 1996 and 2010, according to HARC’s analysis.

“Pitiful,” said John Jacob, a Texas A&M University professor and director of the Texas Coastal Watershed Program.

As large tracts of undeveloped land have been transformed by new roads, homes and businesses, city and county planners have relied almost exclusively on detention basins — often referred to as detention ponds — to solve the water runoff problem created by the region’s vast asphalt and concrete surfaces.

Detention basins are man-made structures designed to capture storm-water runoff and temporarily store it. Harris County first began requiring them of developers in the early 1980s, and neighboring counties quickly followed. Today, each county in the region has hundreds of the ponds, both dry and wet.

However, these detention requirements have fallen short in attempting to tackle the source of the flooding problem because they do not require developers to eliminate runoff from their projects.

Many Houston-area homeowners blame inadequate storm-water mitigation rules for their flooding woes. City and county officials disagree, but concede it’s difficult to untangle the effects of new development, flood control projects and climate change when trying to determine the culprit for the region’s worsening flood problem. The issue came to a head recently for a group of west Houston residents who sued the city a couple of months ago claiming it is allowing developers to circumvent storm-water safeguards.

“I can show you on any individual project how runoff has been properly mitigated,” Montgomery County Engineer Mark Mooney said. “Having said that, when you see the increase in impervious surfaces that we have, it’s clear the way water moves through our county has changed. “It’s all part of a massive puzzle everyone is trying to sort out.”

This story is part five of a series, for which earlier and related stories are here. It notes that Fort Bend appears to be doing better than Harris County in terms of mitigation, as they had our example to learn from and mandated more stringent rules for its detention ponds. Fort Bend has also seen an awful lot of its permeable land become impervious in recent years, so who knows how well that will hold up as development continues. The scary thing to me is the shrinking of the Katy Prairie, which does so much of the heavy lifting for the region. It’s not like we can make more of that, and it’s getting harder to find space for the often-inadequate detention ponds that we build here in Harris County. It would help if we had fewer 23-inches-in-14-hours type rainstorms, but the feeling I get is that we’re in a new normal, and we need to figure out how to cope with that.

Sandra Bland, one year later

The timing of this is tragically appropriate.

Sandra Bland

With confident, and sometimes vulnerable, lyrics, a group of poets and singers Sunday afternoon commemorated the life of [Sandra] Bland, who had been found dead in her Waller County Jail cell three days after her arrest. Authorities ruled the 28-year-old’s death a suicide. More than 75 people assembled over two hours to honor the young woman whose name in the year since had become familiar in households across Texas and the nation, repeated by those in the Black Lives Matter movement as another example of an individual they believed needlessly died following an encounter with law enforcement.

Bland’s name was joined last week by two more, Alton Sterling, who was shot to death by police last Tuesday in Baton Rouge, and Philando Castile, who was shot by an officer during a traffic stop in Minnesota on Wednesday.

Then, too, a lone sniper attacked in Dallas, fatally shooting five police officers, and injuring seven others.

Speakers remembering Bland sought to digest all of that.

Hannah Bonner, a United Methodist clergy member who helped lead the event, asked everyone to turn and face the nearby brick gates of Prairie View A&M, representations of safety, education and progress, she said.

They were also the gates Bland – who had recently returned to the city and her alma mater to take a job – had driven through when a state trooper “came up fast behind her,” Bonner said.

“And she got over to get out of his way,” Bonner continued. “And he ended up pulling her over right here in this spot. She asserted her rights and he did not respect them, and this week we are seeing through the death of Alton Sterling, through the death of Philando, through the death of these officers in Dallas, and the citizens … we are seeing that the lack of police accountability in this nation is a danger to black lives, but it’s also becoming a danger to other officers. Because when officers are not held accountable for their actions it puts everybody – including other officers – at risk.”

[…]

The Bland case sparked calls for bail reform and brought issues of jail suicide and indigent defense into the headlines.

Waller County Sheriff Glenn Smith, who is sitting for re-election in November, issued a citizen’s review of his office, as well.

Released in April, the report recommended a new jail, body cameras for officers, medical and mental health screening for all inmates, stress management training for deputies and a ban on demeaning language directed at inmates.

See here for more on the review report, and here for prior blogging on Sandra Bland. To the extent that reforms have been carried out in Waller County, it’s all to the good, but we need more of that everywhere in the state. No one should be in jail simply because they cannot afford to post bond, and no one should be hauled off to jail for being mouthy at a traffic stop. We know what we can do to make things better. We just have to do them. The Lege has a chance to do that in 2017. I can’t say I have much faith, but they’ll be the only game in town. Be prepared to let your legislators know what you want them to do to achieve justice for all.

Hempstead landfill application resubmitted

Here we go again.

StopHwy6Landfill

A Georgia-based company on Wednesday announced it had initiated a new application to build a controversial landfill in Waller County, bringing renewed attention to a project that a citizens group and several county commissioners have actively opposed.

Earlier this year, Commissioner John Amsler had described the landfill as “dead” though at the time the proponent, Green Group Holdings LLC, was exploring ways to still bring the project to reality.

On Tuesday, the firm filed the first two parts of an application for construction of the Pintail Landfill with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, agency spokeswoman Andrea Morrow confirmed.

The portions submitted deal with whether the land can be used for waste disposal. They will be reviewed to decide whether the application can go forward, Morrow wrote in an email.

[…]

Green Group’s new application follows the rejection last fall by TCEQ of a previous proposal, which found the company had not adequately accounted for how high the water might rise in the area. TCEQ this spring also denied an appeal of that rejection, saying the appeal came too late.

In a news release, Green Group said the company was “confident” its new application would meet “all applicable design and location standards.” The new proposed landfill will be on a smaller portion of the of the original site.

News of the filing concerned Citizens Against the Landfill in Hempstead, which has actively opposed the proposal, believing that it would negatively impact the area’s water supply and economic vitality.

After first opposing the plans five years ago, the grass-roots group has kept a close eye on the project. Members of the group last month predicted the fight would continue when the company finalized the purchase of a 723-acre parcel where it plans to build the landfill.

“CALH remains strongly opposed to Pintail Landfill,” treasurer Mike McCall said Wednesday on behalf of the group. “We have got a lot of work to do to fairly evaluate that application. … Until that happens we are not going to have any further comment.”

See here and here for the background. On the one hand, there’s no reason to think that Green Group can’t fix the problems that caused their initial application to be rejected. On the other hand, the county government in Waller is unanimously opposed to this project, which wasn’t the case back when it first came to light some years ago. I never have faith in the TCEQ to be on the side of the people, but I do believe that Green Group has a much higher hill to climb this time around. We’ll see how it goes.

Hempstead landfill fight still not over

As with all things, it ain’t over till it’s over.

StopHwy6Landfill

Green Group Holdings recently purchased the 723-acre parcel where the company had planned to build the landfill before the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality turned down the project.

The move means the Georgia-based Green Group hasn’t given up on the project, known as the Pintail landfill. David Green, vice president of the company, said it would continue to explore how to move forward.

“The Pintail property has been under option to purchase for a number of years,” Green said in a statement last week. “After much consideration, we have decided to exercise the option and purchase the property.”

Citizens Against the Landfill, a grass-roots group in Hempstead, said the company’s purchase of the land indicated that the 5-year-old fight over the project would continue. The group contends that the landfill would harm the area’s water supply and economic future.

“As much as we hate to admit it, at this point we are convinced that the battle is not over,” the group said in a statement that called for a new round of fundraising.

See here and here for the background. Green Group would have to submit a new application for the permit, so any new attempt to make this happen would begin more or less from the beginning, and would face opposition that has already organized and extracted a settlement from county government stemming from the initial attempt. It would be difficult for them, in other words, but not impossible. Those who do not want to see this landfill get built will need to stay on guard.

Early voting ends for HD139 special election

vote-button

Here are the final early voting totals from the HD139 special election. The disparity between absentee ballots and in-person votes is pretty amazing, isn’t it? I’m going to guess that the Saturday in-person total will be less than the 200 early votes, making the overall total in the 1500 to 1600 range.

As I noted before, this election is to finish out now-Mayor Turner’s unexpired term. The real race for HD139 is the Democratic primary runoff, which will take place on May 24. Early voting for that should run from May 16-20. If Jarvis Johnson wins the special election and the May 24 primary runoff, he gets to have a seven-month boost in seniority when he’s sworn in next January. Otherwise, barring an unlikely special session later this year, no one will remember anything about this election afterwards.

KUHF notes that there are a number of local elections on the menu this Saturday, though I think it’s fair to say that the vast majority of Harris County residents have no voting responsibility. Indeed, the HD139 special election is the only one for which the County Clerk is involved. Katy ISD, which includes parts of Fort Bend and Waller Counties as well, and the various MUDs are conducting their own elections, so you need to know if you live in one of those places and then find the appropriate website to know where and when to vote on Saturday. Sugar Land and Richmond in Fort Bend have local races going on, too.

The Rivard Report reminds me that HD139 isn’t the only special legislative election happening right now.

The four candidates for the special May 7 election are Latronda Darnell, Chris Dawkins, Lou Miller and Laura Thompson. Darnell, Dawkins and Miller each filed as a Democrat, and Thompson filed as an independent, to represent a heavily Democratic legislative district.

Darnell is a political newcomer and legislative director who interned for McClendon. Darnell and Lou Miller, an insurance agent, were among six candidates who ran in the March 1 Democratic primary for a full two-year term as the District 120 representative. Darnell and Lou Miller placed fifth and sixth, respectively.

Barbara Gervin-Hawkins, founder and superintendent of the George Gervin Academy (and sister of the Spurs legend), and former City Councilman Mario Salas emerged from the March 1 primary as the two top vote-getters and will be in a May 24 runoff. The winner will be unopposed in November’s general election.

See here for some background, and here for more on the primary in HD120. The fact that neither of the top two finishers in the March primary filed for the special election means that the stakes here are even lower than they are in HD139. Barring anything unexpected (*), the winner of the HD120 special election will be nothing more than a placeholder. I’ll be interested to see how the turnout in that compares to HD139. (The early voting totals from the Bexar County Elections department are for the whole county, not just HD120, and includes a referendum in the city of Castle Hills about continued participation in the VIA transit system, among other things.) The Trib, which covers both legislative specials, has more.

(*) Yes, we are expecting a ruling from the Supreme Court on school finance in the next month or so, and it is possible Greg Abbott could call a special session to deal with that. I’d bet that any school finance special session comes next year, after the regular session. The odds of a special session this year are not zero, but unless you gave me Leicester City odds, I would not bet any money on one happening.

Early voting for May 7 elections begins today

Hey, remember that special election to fill out Mayor Turner’s unexpired term in HD139? Early voting for it – and for the other elections on the May 7 ballot – begins today. Who knew, right? Here’s the press release from the County Clerk’s office:

HD139_early_voting_locations

The Early Voting Period for the May 7, 2016, Special Election in State Representative District (SRD) 139 begins Monday, April 25, and continues through Tuesday, May 3. The election is being held to fill the position vacated January 1 by City of Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner. A detailed Early Voting Schedule can be found at www.HarrisVotes.com.

“This Special Election provides voters in SRD 139 the opportunity to let their voices be heard and familiarize themselves with the new Early Voting locations in the area,” said Harris County Clerk Stan Stanart. “Since the last presidential election, we have added two early voting locations in the SRD 139 area to relieve voting lines at the Acres Homes Early Voting site.”

In total, there will be four early voting locations where registered voters in SRD 139 may cast votes in the Special Election, including:

  • Acres Homes Multi-Service Center, 6719 W. Montgomery Rd., Houston, Texas 77091;
  • Lone Star College, Victory Center, 4141 Victory Dr., Houston, Texas 77088;
  • Fallbrook Church, 12512 Walters Rd., Houston, Texas 77014; and
  • The Harris County Administration Bldg., 1001 Preston, Houston, Texas 77002

“I encourage voters in SRD 139 to vote at any one of the four early voting locations,” emphasized Stanart, the chief election officer of the County. “Voting early is the best option because, by law, voters are limited to voting at their designated polling location on Election Day.” There are approximately 91,000 registered voters in State House District 139.

To obtain more information about the SRD 139 Special Election, including an early voting schedule, a personal sample ballot, or a list of acceptable forms of photo identification required to vote in person, voters can call the Harris County Clerk’s office at 713.755.6965 or visit the Harris County Clerk’s election website, www.HarrisVotes.com.

Harris County voters may also visit www.HarrisVotes.com to find out if they are able to vote in any of the over 85 political entities within Harris County that are conducting elections on May 7, 2016.

The full early voting schedule is here. Now you may ask yourself, who exactly is running in this special election? Turns out, there are two candidates: Jarvis Johnson, who as you know is in the primary runoff for the Democratic nomination (the winner of which will be elected in November), and Rickey “RayKay” Tezino, who also has a Congressional campaign website that doesn’t specify a district, and an unclear idea about how long the term of office he is running for is. I’m going to step out on a limb and suggest that Jarvis Johnson will win this race, which will give him a leg up on seniority if he also wins on May 24. Here’s my interview with Jarvis Johnson from the March primary if you happen to be thinking about voting in the special. At least there won’t be a runoff for this one.

Also on the ballot on May 7 is Katy ISD Board of Trustees, which has one contested race and one uncontested race. Katy ISD, like the city of Katy, exists in Harris, Fort Bend, and Waller Counties, so this election is not being administered by the Harris County Clerk. Katy ISD voting precinct information is here, and early voting information for it is here. I interviewed candidate George Scott for the contested race, in District 1, and you can listen to that here.

Beyond that, there are various races in Fort Bend County – you can see a list of the entities holding elections and sample ballots for them here, and the early voting schedule and locations here. I know nothing about any of these races, so I’m afraid you’re on your own there. And of course there’s the Uber ordinance referendum in Austin, which will likely have implications around the state and maybe the country. Any races of interest in your area? Leave a comment and let us know.

Bland committee makes its recommendations for Waller County jail

Good to see.

Sandra Bland

Waller County needs a new jail, local officers need body cameras to record their activities and the sheriff’s office needs to promote civility, a study committee formed after the death of Sandra Bland said Tuesday.

The county came under national scrutiny in July when Bland was found hanged in her jail cell three days after being arrested by Department of Public Safety trooper Brian Encinia, who says she assaulted him during a contentious traffic stop. Her death was ruled a suicide, but her arrest and subsequent jailing triggered accusations of racism. Bland’s family has filed a civil lawsuit in federal court against the county, several of its employees and the now-fired Encinia.

Encinia is facing a perjury charge in Waller County, after a grand jury indicted him for lying about why Bland exited her car. The former trooper is also fighting to get his job back.

At Waller County Sheriff R. Glenn Smith’s request, local attorney Paul C. Looney formed the study committee at the end of July to review the operations of his office and the county jail. Civil rights attorneys Craig Washington and Randall Kallinen, former Texas Court of Criminal Appeals Judge Morris L. Overstreet, and criminal defense attorneys Juan L. Guerra and JoAnne Musick served on the committee and had unrestricted access, some of the members said Tuesday. Looney served as a nonvoting member.

[…]

Washington said the recommendations are specific and will make a difference.

“We think they will go a long way to providing better relations between all the citizens of Waller County,” said Washington, who presided over the committee. “Not even dividing them down into police and public but just to all of God’s children, to ensure that this community is a shining beacon of light for perhaps other community toward a more just society.”

Smith said building or rebuilding a positive relationship with the community requires law enforcement to be aggressive and to show that officers are there to protect everyone.

“We’ve got to be on offense,” he said. “Step up and convince the public that we’re open minded … we’re gonna make changes … we’re gonna reach out to regain your trust.”

Smith said from what he’s read, he supports most of the recommendations, but some items won’t just happen in a few months. In the case of the new jail, for instance, land has been picked out but funding has not been approved, he said.

Nevertheless, Smith said, the recommendations will be taken seriously.

“It won’t be dust settling over the report,” the sheriff said.

You can see the recommendations at the story link, and a copy of the report at Grits for Breakfast. I think they’re all doable, and I hope they have a positive effect. There are other issues that should be addressed as well, like de-escalation training for officers and saner bail/bond policies, but those things are outside the scope of what this committee was asked to do. Someone should still be thinking about them, and not just in Waller County. Nonetheless, this is a good start, and I wish Sheriff Smith and his staff in implementing the changes.

Former Trooper Encinia pleads not guilty in Sandra Bland perjury case

As expected.

Sandra Bland

A former Texas trooper pleaded not guilty to charges he lied about his actions last July while arresting Sandra Bland, whose death in Waller County’s jail three days later sparked a national outcry from civil rights activists.

Dressed in a gray suit and tie and flanked by his attorneys, former Department of Public Safety Trooper Brian T. Encinia said little Tuesday afternoon during a minutes-long arraignment hearing before State District Judge Albert M. McCaig Jr.

[…]

In an arrest affidavit, Encinia said he had ordered Bland out of the car to safely continue the investigation.

A Waller County grand jury indicted Encinia in January of misdemeanor perjury based on that statement, according to a special prosecutor in the case. If convicted, Encinia could spend up to a year in jail and have to pay a $4,000 fine.

Earlier this month, DPS Director Steve McCraw formally fired Encinia, saying he violated the department’s courtesy policy and procedures. Encinia is appealing the termination to the Texas Public Safety Commission. Separately, the trooper is named in a wide-ranging civil lawsuit filed by Bland’s family that alleges negligence and wrongful death. Attorneys representing Encinia in that case have asked – unsuccessfully – that it be delayed while his criminal trial plays out. The civil trial is set to begin next January.

Bland’s mother, Geneva Reed-Veal, and older sister, Shante Needham, both appeared at the arraignment, along with their lawyer, Cannon Lambert.

“To come all this way, I needed to do it,” said Bland’s mother after the hearing, as she embraced those who’d gathered in support of her and her family.

“I’m hopeful things go in the direction that [Encinia] eventually gets detained and he can remain there for the maximum amount of time that perjury carries,” Needham said. “At the end of the day, my sister, my mother’s daughter, is no longer here anymore. He needs to be held accountable for his actions.”

See here and here for the background. The Trib quotes Encinia’s defense attorney blaming his indictment on a “runaway” grand jury. I dunno, I thought that video of the traffic stop made it quite clear that at the very least, Encinia was unprofessional and antagonistic. We can argue if his behavior qualifies as perjury, but let’s see what happens in the courtroom first. And let’s not overlook the fact, as Grits notes, a law enforcement officer being called to account at all like this is quite unusual. A conviction, if it comes to that, would be even more so. The Press has more.

Waller County landfill plan appears to be dead

Maybe.

StopHwy6Landfill

A Waller County commissioner on Wednesday declared victory in a years-long battle against an outside company’s proposal to develop a landfill there.

“I am proud to say the landfill is dead,” Commissioner John Amsler said as the regular commissioners court meeting got underway.

However, a company representative said Wednesday that Green Group Holdings, LLC, is continuing to explore ways to move forward with the project.

[…]

County and city ordinances regarding landfills now prevent one from being built at that site, meaning a new application would be rejected, County Judge Trey Duhon said by phone Wednesday.

Green Group Holdings, LLC, had been looking to grandfather in an application due to a transfer facility permit they had already gotten for the location, but the county’s attorney learned recently that the state agency did not agree that would be the case, Duhon said.

“That effectively kills the landfill,” Duhon said, though he noted the company already has invested significantly in the project.

Or maybe not.

And yet, in a written statement on Friday, the chief executive officer of Green Group Holdings, LLC, said they were continuing to pursue the project that several commissioners such as Amsler promised during their election campaigns they would fight.

“We are assessing other avenues to move the project forward,” CEO Ernest Kaufmann wrote in a statement.

[…]

In his statement, Kaufmann wrote that Green Group believes TCEQ “has misinterpreted” the rules regarding how a permit application can be grandfathered. And he disagreed with Amsler’s conclusion: the agency’s recent interpretation of the impact that the transfer station registration would have on a resubmitted application “does not mean the project is ‘dead,’ ” he wrote.

A representative of an advocacy group called Citizens Against the Landfill in Hempstead, which has long fought the project, expressed they weren’t celebrating just yet.

The group has spent $1.8 million to fight the project, “a travesty in and of itself,” says Mike McCall, the group’s treasurer.

And while McCall said the group agreed with TCEQ’s decision that a new application should not be grandfathered in under old law, he said he won’t be convinced the group is done until they take away their equipment at the site. Until then, said McCall, who lives north of the proposed landfill site, the group would remain vigilant.

“I’m a CPA by profession, and I like to dot my I’s and cross my T’s,” he said. “I’m not satisfied that Pintail is through yet.”

As the first story notes, Green Group has not appealed the TCEQ rejection of their application for a permit; the application they had submitted was ruled “deficient” because it had not accurately accounted for the landfill’s potential effect on groundwater. That initial application is presumably their best chance to get this landfill done, since local laws have since been changed to ban them. There’s still the possibility of other legal action, and I’m not aware of a deadline for appealing the TCEQ ruling, so it’s still too early to say this is over. We’ll see what card Green Group plays next.

Trooper Encinia turns himself in

As expected.

Sandra Bland

Six months after arresting Sandra Bland during a now-infamous traffic stop, state trooper Brian Encinia on Thursday returned to the Waller County jail where Bland died – this time to surrender to authorities on perjury charges.

Encinia, 30, surrendered to Texas Rangers after a Waller County judge signed his arrest warrant, Sheriff R. Glenn Smith said. The Rangers took the trooper to the jail, where he arrived in a gray pickup at 3:26 p.m.

Encinia was fingerprinted, photographed and released on a $2,500 bond.

[…]

Darrell Jordan, one of five special prosecutors, said the grand jury’s indictment stemmed from Encinia’s statement, in an affidavit he filed in Bland’s arrest, that he pulled her out of her Hyundai Azera to “further conduct a safe traffic investigation.”

“They just didn’t believe it,” Jordan said, referring to the grand jurors.

Bland’s family and activists who have followed the case said the perjury charge was insufficient. Geneva Reed-Veal, Bland’s mother, compared the indictment to a “slap on the wrist.”

Cannon Lambert, who is representing the family in a civil lawsuit, questioned why the grand jury had not agreed on harsher charges, such as battery or false arrest. Encinia’s lawyer, Larkin Eakin, said Thursday the trooper planned to plead not guilty. The grand jury, Eakin said, misinterpreted Encinia’s statement.

“He is obviously upset but feels very much that he’s not guilty, that that particular phrase he used (in his affidavit) was proper,” he said.

See here for the background. He will be pleading not guilty, while also appealing his termination from DPS. I don’t want to make too big a deal about it because the respectful way that Trooper Encinia was treated during his arrest and arraignment should be the default and not the exception, but the contrast between how he was treated and how Sandra Bland was treated couldn’t be more stark. As for the matter of whether the charge against Encinia represents some kind of justice or not, I’ll simply note that such a question is predicate on whether or not he gets convicted. As commenter Steve Houston notes, there is considerable doubt about that. Texas Monthly has more.

Grand jury indicts trooper in Sandra Bland case

Wow.

Sandra Bland

Waller County grand jurors indicted Department of Public Safety trooper Brian Encinia on a single charge of perjury Wednesday because they did not believe he was telling the truth about his actions during the arrest of Sandra Bland, special prosecutor Darrell Jordan confirmed.

The charge against Encinia stems from the trooper’s statement at the time of her arrest on July 10 about why he felt he needed to pull her out of her own vehicle, Jordan told The Texas Tribune.

“The statement in the probable cause statement is that Officer Encinia pulled her out of her car to further the traffic stop investigation,” Jordan said.

As a result of the indictment – the only one issued by the grand jury in the Bland case – a warrant will be issued for Encinia’s arrest. It was not immediately known whether Encinia will turn himself into authorities. If convicted of the charge, Encinia could face up to a year in the Waller County Jail and a $4,000 fine.

“This grand jury is done,” Jordan said. “We just came to do our job to present the evidence and they came back with an indictment and we’ll go forward to seek justice on behalf of Waller County.”

The grand jury had previously declined to indict anyone, including county jail employees, in the death of Sandra Bland, then reconvened on Wednesday to continue considering charges. I have no idea what the evidence looks like right now, but it’s not too hard to imagine the possibility of the trooper fudging his facts. We will have to wait to see what the prosecution’s case looks like, and to see how Officer Encinia responds. The Chron, the Press, which has a copy of Officer Encinia’s sworn statement, Newsdesk, ThinkProgress, and Daily Kos have more.

UPDATE: More from Grits for Breakfast.

Initial day-after-election thoughts

– We now have two cycles’ worth of data to suggest that having more good candidates in a Council race does not necessarily lead to better outcomes. Following in the footsteps of At Large #3 in 2013, a handful of Democratic candidates in At Large #1 split the vote with sufficient closeness to keep them all out of the runoff. The votes were there, they just went too many places. Lane Lewis + Tom McCasland = candidate in the runoff, pretty close to Mike Knox in total. Lane Lewis + Tom McCasland + Jenifer Pool = leading candidate going into the runoff. I have no idea what, if anything, there is to be done about this. There is no secret cabal that meets in a back room to decide who does and doesn’t get to file for a race, and we wouldn’t want there to be one if there were. I’ll just put this out there for candidates who are already looking at 2019, when the terms will be double and the stakes will be concurrently higher: If there’s already a candidate in a race – especially an open seat race – that would would be happy to vote for in a runoff scenario, then maybe supporting them in November rather than throwing your own hat in the ring is the better choice. I realize that framing the choice this way turns this decision-making process into a multi-level Prisoner’s Dilemma, but one can’t help but wonder What Might Have Been.

– On the plus side, the runoffs have given us some clarity:

Mayor – Turner
Controller – Brown

At Large 2 – Robinson
At Large 4 – Edwards

In AL 4, Amanda Edwards faces Roy Morales, who caught and passed Laurie Robinson by less than 900 votes by the end of the evening. As for ALs 1 and 5, I’m still deciding. I said “some” clarity, not complete clarity.

– Speaking of CM Christie, if he loses then there will be no open citywide offices in the next election, which is now 2019. That won’t stop challengers from running in some or all of the other AL races, but it would change the dynamics.

– In District Council runoffs, it’s Cisneros versus Cisneroz in District H, which is going to make that race hard to talk about. Roland Chavez finished 202 votes behind Jason Cisneroz, who got a boost from late-reporting precincts; he had been leading Chavez by less than 40 votes much of the evening. Jim Bigham finished all of 28 votes ahead of Manny Barrera for the right to face CM Mike Laster in December, while CM Richard Nguyen trailed challenger Steve Le but will get another shot in five weeks. I’m concerned about Laster and Nguyen, but at least their opponents pass my minimum standards test for a Council member. That would not have been the case if either third-place finisher (Barrera and Kendall Baker) had made the cut.

– Moving to HISD, if I had a vote it would go to Rhonda Skillern-Jones in II. I would not vote for Manuel Rodriguez in III, but I’d need to get to know Jose Leal better before I could recommend a vote for him.

– Your “Every Vote Matters” reminder for this cycle:


Aldine I.S.D., Trustee, Position 1
=======================================
Tony Diaz                  5,813 49.98%
Patricia "Pat" Bourgeois   5,818 50.02%

Yep, five votes. There were 3,742 undervotes in this race. I have since been forwarded a press release from the Diaz campaign noting that provisional and overseas ballots have not yet been counted, and hinting at a request for a recount down the line. I’d certainly be preparing to ask for one.

– Speaking of undervoting, one prediction I made came true. Here are the undervote rates in At Large Council elections:

AL1 = 28.56%
AL2 = 31.02%
AL3 = 33.09%
AL4 = 28.35%
AL5 = 32.34%

That’s a lot of no-voting. Contrast with the contested district Council races, where the (still high) undervote rates ranged from 15.97% to 22.49%. See here for a comparison to past years.

– Meanwhile, over in San Antonio:

In a stunning outcome, Republican John Lujan and Democrat Tomás Uresti were leading a six-candidate field for Texas House District 118 in nearly complete results late Tuesday.

In his second run for the office, Lujan, 53, showed strength in a district long held by Democrats, narrowly outpolling members of two prominent political families.

“I’m still on pins and needles. It’s not a done deal,” Lujan said with many votes still uncounted.

In his low-key campaign, the retired firefighter, who works in sales for a tech company, emphasized tech training to prepare students for the workforce. His backers included some firefighters and Texans for Lawsuit Reform PAC.

Uresti, 55, a legal assistant, is vice chairman of the Harlandale Independent School District. With 35 years of community involvement as a coach, mentor and tutor, Uresti capitalized on his network of friends and family name — his brothers are state Sen. Carlos Uresti of San Antonio and Tax Assessor-Collector Albert Uresti.

“Democrats are going to pull together again to win this one,” Tomás Uresti said of the impending runoff.

A runoff between Lujan and Uresti would be Jan. 19.

Gabe Farias, son of outgoing Rep. Joe Farias, came in third, less than 300 votes behind Uresti. Three Democratic candidates combined for 53.3% of the vote, so I see no reason to panic. Even if Lujan winds up winning the runoff, he’d only have the seat through the end of next year – the real election, which may produce an entirely different set of candidates, is next year, and Democrats should have a clear advantage. Nonetheless, one should never take anything for granted.

– Waller County goes wet:

Waller County voters overwhelmingly passed a proposition Tuesday to legalize the sale of all alcoholic beverages, including mixed drinks.

Though Waller County is not dry everywhere to all types of alcohol, various parts of it have operated under distinct alcohol policies passed in the decades following Prohibition. The change will apply to unincorporated areas of the county.

“I’m ecstatic with the numbers,” said Waller County Judge Carbett “Trey” Duhon III, who had publicly supported the proposition. “… It’s a good result for the county and for all the citizens here.”

Supporters like Duhon have said the measure was needed to smooth over confusing, overlapping rules and to help attract restaurants to a county poised to benefit from Houston’s sprawling growth.

See here for more details. And drink ’em if you got ’em.

– I’m still processing the HERO referendum, and will be sure to dive into precinct data when I get it. (I have a very early subset of precinct data for just the Mayor’s race and the two propositions. I may do some preliminaries with it, but this data is incomplete so I may wait till the official canvass comes out.) One clear lesson to take from this campaign is that lying is a very effective tactic. It also helps when lies are reported uncritically, as if it was just another he said/she said situation. Blaming the media is the world’s oldest trick, and I’m not going to claim that lazy reporting was a deciding factor, but for a group of people that considers itself to be objective truth-seekers, they sure can be trusting and unprepared for for being lied to. As with item 1 above, I don’t know what if anything can be done about this.

– Bond elections and miscellaneous other things are noted elsewhere. Have I missed anything you wanted to see me discuss?

TCEQ rejects application for Hempstead landfill

Back to the drawing board.

StopHwy6Landfill

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality this week returned a company’s application to construct a landfill in Waller County, calling the application “deficient.” It was the latest blow to plans for the highly controversial project about 50 miles northwest of downtown Houston.

Green Group Holdings, LLC, a Georgia-based company that develops and operates waste management facilities, did not adequately account for how high the water level might get in the proposed area, a discovery that was made after years of vetting the application, according to a letter Monday from TCEQ to the company.

Actively opposed by a local citizens group, the Pintail landfill project was designed for a site north of Hempstead off Texas 6. The landfill’s maximum height would have been about 151 feet above the ground, with a volume of 35.7 million cubic yards available for disposal, according to the TCEQ application overview online.

Agency staff spent more than 1,300 hours over four years working with the company on the permit application, pointing out more than 400 points to be addressed, wrote Earl Lott, the agency’s waste permits division director, in the letter.

“Despite this significant effort, the application is still deficient,” Lott continued. “Elevated seasonal high water levels have been discovered at the proposed landfill site, substantially affecting the basis under which the draft permit was prepared.”

[…]

“For the integrity of the municipal solid waste landfill program, this is not where we want to be at this point in the process,” Lott wrote. “The application has already undergone extensive technical review, a draft permit has been prepared and the matter has been referred to the State Office of Administrative Hearings. It is at this point that momentous site information is discovered which significantly alters the approach to the design of the facility.”

Green Group Holdings can now walk away from the project, draft a new application or appeal the decision. An appeal must be filed within 23 days of the decision. The company has not yet decided what it will do next, according to a written statement.

“We are surprised by the action and are in the process of evaluating our next steps,” the statement said.

Citizens Against the Landfill counts the application’s return as a victory, but doesn’t believe the fight is finished,

“It’s a victory but it’s not over,” Huntsinger said. “When they leave town and say, ‘We’re not coming back to Hempstead with this site, that’s when it’s over.”

See here, here, and here for the background, and here for a copy of the TCEQ’s letter to Green Group. I have a hard time imagining that they will give up the fight, but their choices aren’t very good at this point. Congrats to CALH for all their hard work, whatever comes next.

DPS seeks dismissal of Sandra Bland lawsuit

The expected response by the defendants.

Sandra Bland

The Texas Department of Public Safety and Trooper Brian Encinia filed motions Tuesday to dismiss a wrongful death lawsuit in the death of Sandra Bland, five days after Waller County filed court papers rebutting claims that it was responsible for her death in the county jail.

DPS claimed immunity under the 11th amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which limits the ability of the federal court system to hear lawsuits against states, according to court filings.

Encinia, the DPS trooper who pulled Bland over for not signaling a lane change and then arrested her after an altercation, also claimed immunity under different rules protecting the government from lawsuits. Encinia, who is still on administrative duty, also asserted that the plaintiff, Bland’s mother, needs to point out which specific constitutional rights he violated during Bland’s traffic stop.

[…]

In a Sept. 4 response, the county denied that they had “any actual knowledge of” or were “deliberately indifferent to any alleged serious risk of harm to Sandra Bland.”

The county also states that Bland’s suicide assessments did not indicate she faced a substantial or serious risk of suicide. Instead “Sandra Bland simply stated she had attempted to commit suicide by taking pills on one occasion in 2014, after losing a baby, and she confirmed that she was not suicidal.”

In response to questions about the claim, Larry Simmons, the attorney representing the Waller County defendants, said Wednesday that the “pleadings are going to speak for themselves.”

The county’s response also states Bland was treated with “courtesy and respect” and “was provided benefits and accommodations beyond what the law and County policies required.”

The county’s motion also supports severing the state defendants – DPS and Encinia – from the county defendants and trying both cases separately.

See here for the background. A copy of the DPS motion is at the Chron link above. I don’t know anything about the relevant case law, but a blanket immunity claim strikes me as too broad. I’m not sure why a lawsuit like this would not be allowed to proceed, but we’ll see what the courts have to say.

Who needs wetlands?

Development is all that matters, right?

More than 38,000 acres of wetlands vanished in greater Houston over the past two decades despite a federal policy that “no net loss” can be caused by encroaching development.

That’s an area about the size of The Woodlands and Sugar Land combined turned into neighborhoods, office buildings, strip malls, parking lots and roads.

To remedy the damage, federal permits require developers to create man-made wetlands or preserve them elsewhere, often by a ratio of at least 2 acres for every one destroyed. But the Army Corps of Engineers, by statute the nation’s primary steward of wetlands, doesn’t track whether most developers satisfy the requirements of their permits, a recent study found.

More than half of the permit records reviewed by researchers revealed little or no evidence of compliance in an eight-county region. The lack of documentation suggests wetlands probably are not being protected as the federal Clean Water Act requires, said John Jacob, director of Texas A&M University’s coastal watershed program, which worked on the study with the Houston Advanced Research Center.

“The disappearance of wetlands is widespread and pervasive,” Jacob said. “These are the wetlands that improve water quality and reduce flooding, but there is no mitigation.”

Upstream development worsens downstream flooding, said Jim Lester, president of HARC, based in The Woodlands. “It’s crazy to me that we cover up wetlands, and then we spend a lot of money to build retention ponds.”

[…]

The study comes amid political anger over new Obama administration rules that aim to clarify which wetlands, streams and tributaries should be protected from pollution and development under the Clean Water Act. Texas and 15 other states have filed suit to block the rules, which were proposed last year by the Environmental Protection Agency and the Corps of Engineers.

Farmers, developers and landowners say the rules are an overreach by the government.

But the researchers say the new rules could help protect wetlands that are hydrologically isolated from bays, rivers, streams or other “waters of the United States.” Since 2001, the Corps’ office for the Houston region has claimed jurisdiction only over wetlands within the 100-year floodplain or with distinct channels.

“We’re not arguing for no development, but we can be smarter about it,” [Lisa Gonzalez, one of the study’s authors and vice president of HARC] said. HARC was started by the late oilman and developer George Mitchell, who used the natural drainage of The Woodlands to structure its development.

The isolated wetlands found in the Katy Prairie and wooded Montgomery County, for example, are prime targets for builders as the region continues to grow. With a projected wave of some 4 million new residents over the next four decades, it’s possible to lose another 100,000 acres of wetlands to development.

“This is the time in the next 20 to 30 years that we really need to save stuff,” she said. “It’s going ever so quick, and we need that mitigation hammer.”

I can’t find a copy of the study on the HARC website; this link is the best I can do. None of this should be a surprise – there’s vastly more incentive to not comply than to comply, and there’s basically no enforcement mechanism. Just keep in mind that when you read or hear about all that booming growth out in the far-flung suburbs, a lot of it is making the flooding problems we see here in the older parts of Houston worse. There’s only so much that ReBuild Houston and all the Mayoral promises you’re going to hear over the next few months can do about that.

More good news for Hempstead landfill opponents

This could be the end of the line for the proposed landfill.

StopHwy6Landfill

Opponents of a proposed landfill in Waller County won another victory in a years-long legal fight to prevent the project. The executive director of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality issued a decision supporting the Citizens Against the Landfill in Hempstead’s request for summary judgment on the permit application.

“This is the best news we have received thus far in this case, which has been going on three to four years now,” county judge Trey Duhon wrote in an e-mail. “It is clear that the current application does not meet state requirements for a landfill, as the landfill opponents have been saying all along.”

[…]

“We’re pleased to see that decision by the executive director which acknowledges the position we’ve taken all along,” said Bill Huntsinger, president of the Citizens Against the Landfill in Hempstead, representing opposition in the small town roughly an hour northwest of Houston.

Following the decision from the executive director, it falls to the administrative law judges of the State Office of Administrative Hearings to make a determination about the permit. The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality would then rule on the findings.

“We are hopeful that the judge will do the right thing and dismiss the application,” said Duhon.

[…]

In his decision, the executive director of the state’s environmental commission, Richard Hyde, wrote, “the current application does not meet TCEQ rule requirements by the Applicant’s own admission.”

See here, here, and here for the background. The final step in the process is the actual Contested Case Hearing, which is set for November 2. At that hearing, the case – which may take two weeks – will be heard by two Administrative Law Judges with the State Office of Administrative Hearings (SOAH). At the end of the hearing, these SOAH Judges will issue a “Recommendation for Decision” to the Commissioners of the TCEQ, and then finally the TCEQ will make its decision. (There’s currently a vacancy on the TCEQ, awaiting an appointment from the Governor, so I suppose this could affect the timeline.) One presumes the decision by the Executive Director of the TCEQ bodes well for the landfill opponents, but there’s still that hearing to go through. Stay tuned.

Will Sandra Bland’s death help lead to bail reform?

That would be a fitting and just outcome if it does.

Sandra Bland

Harris County and the state should reform an unfair bond system that punishes the poor more harshly, according to civil rights leaders, legislative officials and criminal experts who gathered Wednesday in front of the county’s criminal justice center. Reform, they argued, could prevent another tragedy like that involving Sandra Bland, who was found dead in her Waller County jail cell in July after failing to make bail.

“The death of Sandra Bland was a travesty of justice,” said Johnny Mata of the Greater Houston Coalition for Justice. “Sandra Bland would probably be alive today if Texas would’ve had a system that is fair.”

[…]

Advocates familiar with the bail process and statutes like the Fair Defense Act said it never should have come to that.

“There’s still an investigation being done,” Mata said of Bland’s death, which an autopsy shows was a suicide by hanging. “We respect that. However, we feel that an injustice has been committed.”

His coalition reflects more than 25 organizations across the area. He was joined Wednesday by experts like law professor Sandra Guerra Thomspon, director of the University of Houston Law Center’s Criminal Justice Institute, who said the need for bail reform is a national concern but is especially needed in Houston.

By following pre-determined bail schedules, magistrates ignore their responsibility to take individual factors into consideration to ensure that the bond does not merely become a punishment for being poor, she and others argued. Instead it’s meant to reflect an individual’s flight risk and potential public safety concerns. Had a more nuanced risk assessment instrument been used in Bland’s case, she argued, “the question would not be, ‘Does she have $500?’ but, ‘Is she a risk to come to court?'”

[…]

In Texas, defendants are supposed to have the added protection of the Fair Defense Act passed in 2001. The act, authored by [Sen. Rodney] Ellis, addresses issues like indigent defense and the timely appointment of counsel. But it also contains language about when a defendant should be granted representation. According to some, that right extends to the bond hearing itself, though this is rarely ever the case. Hargrave said in her more than 20 years of working in Waller County, an individual never had a defense lawyer present during the bond hearing.

Advocates also question what they see as the low rate of personal bonds granted to individuals. If an individual is granted a personal bond, he or she is released on the promise to appear in court. Only 7 percent of bonds issued in Harris County are personal bonds, according to Randall Kallinen, a lawyer and the former head of the Houston chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.

With so few personal bonds issued, said Kallinen, “the person who has the money gets out.” In other words, “the Harris County jail is housing poor people,” he said.

I’ve written about this topic a number of times, usually in the context of jail overcrowding, but Sandra Bland’s death is a tragic reminder of another aspect of people not being able to post bail: A significant number of people die in jail every year. Grits puts a number to it: “183 have died in Sheriffs’ custody since January 2014, including 80 so far in 2015, a statistic which includes Sandra Bland and appears on pace to exceed last year’s number.” There are many different reasons why these deaths happen, and unfortunately the data we have doesn’t go into much detail about them, but the point is that some number of those people shouldn’t have been in jail at all, and wouldn’t have been there if they could have posted bail. This is not acceptable.

On a related note, the Texas Senate has convened a committee to study jail safety standards, which was another issue in Sandra Bland’s death. This is commendable, and I hope it produces some action items for the next Legislature, but 1) any such legislation is two years away from being enacted; 2) there’s no guarantee anything ever gets passed, and; 3) fixing how bail is set is something that can be done right now. Kudos to the Senate for addressing this, but let’s not lose sight of what’s right in front of us. More from Grits here.

Hempstead landfill clarification

I recently blogged about an update to the Hempstead landfill story, in which Green Group Holdings asked to amend its original filings regarding groundwater levels. I received an email on Monday from a Green Group representative, who sent me the following additional information:

  • On August 12, 2015, the Administrative Law Judges presiding over the hearing on the landfill permit application for the Pintail Landfill in Waller County granted a continuance of the hearing process to allow Pintail to evaluate new information regarding groundwater levels at the proposed site following recent extreme rainfall amounts.
  • TCEQ rules contemplate the incorporation of new groundwater data into the engineering design for a landfill.
  • Because of our commitment to environmental stewardship and engineering excellence, we believe that further evaluation of this new information is the responsible course of action and we requested a delay in the hearing process to allow for it.
  • This is consistent with Pintail’s approach to meet or exceed applicable requirements. For instance, the surface water detention ponds at the Pintail Landfill will have significantly more capacity than required. The surface water management system at a municipal solid waste landfill is required by rule to be designed and constructed to manage the rainfall from one 25-year storm event. However, the Pintail facility’s ponds are designed to manage stormwater from two back-to-back 100-year rainfall events.
  • For the Pintail site, groundwater levels in the 15 piezometers were measured over an 18-month period, from July 2011 until December 2012, including two 3-month periods during which rainfall in the area of the Pintail site was more than 150% of normal (see attachment for additional information).
  • The higher groundwater levels recently measured at the site followed a 3-month period in which rainfall amounts were well over 200% of normal.

Emphasis in the original. The attachment in question can be seen here. In the original Chron story that I blogged about, the folks fighting the landfill asked for a summary judgment denying the permit and dismissing the case after this happened; I haven’t seen any new stories relating to this, so I don’t know what the status of that is. In any event, I wanted to be as accurate as I can about this, so here you go. Thanks to Green Group for the feedback.

Hempstead landfill would indeed hurt the environment

Raise your hand if this surprises you.

StopHwy6Landfill

Pintail Landfill developers backpedaled from arguments that their proposed dump site outside Hempstead would not harm the environment, agreeing for the first time this summer that their review of groundwater under the property was flawed.

Environmental testing by opponents in preparation for a November hearing found that groundwater is several feet closer to the surface than Pintail reported in its 2011 permit application. If constructed as proposed, landfill officials admitted in related state filings that the dump site would be underwater, violating regulations designed to protect against groundwater contamination that could affect drinking supplies.

Opponents celebrated the admission as vindication of their years-long battle to block the 250-acre landfill that would be visible from U.S. 290 and primarily receive trash from Houston 50 miles away.

Green Group Holdings, the Georgia-based developer behind the landfill, asked TCEQ for permission to amend its application just days after opponents submitted the revelatory geological report to the state administrative court scheduled to review the permit in a contested case hearing. An attorney for Green Group and Pintail did not return emails or phone calls requesting comment.

Instead of allowing Pintail to amend its application – and take that revised plan into the hearing – landfill opponents have asked state administrative law judges to issue a summary judgment denying the permit and dismissing the case.

“My client, along with the City of Hempstead, have collectively spent over $1 million fighting this landfill,” said Blayre Pena, attorney for the nonprofit advocacy group Citizens Against a Landfill in Hempstead. “It would be a true miscarriage of justice if Pintail is allowed to admit their application does not meet statutory and regulatory requirements and then be given the opportunity to send it back to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality to fix it.”

The contested case hearing originally had been scheduled to start Nov. 2, but Pintail’s request has delayed that at least several weeks, assuming the judges don’t deny the permit outright.

“We are playing the waiting game,” Hempstead Mayor Michael Wolfe said. “While the TCEQ did not take a position on the city’s motion to dismiss, we are hopeful they will see the light and realize there is only one acceptable answer to this situation: Deny Pintail’s application.”

See here, here, and here for some background. I wonder what motivated this admission – the story doesn’t give any indication, and it’s not something they’d do if they didn’t have to. Whatever the case, I agree with Mayor Wolfe. Groundwater is precious enough in this state. The last thing we need is to put any of it at risk of contamination by a landfill. Let’s hope the TCEQ sees it that way as well.

Sandra Bland’s mother sues DPS and Waller County

Can’t say this is a surprise.

Sandra Bland

The mother of Sandra Bland filed a federal lawsuit Tuesday against the Texas Department of Public Safety trooper and several others she deems responsible for the death of her 28-year-old daughter at the Waller County Jail in mid-July.

Geneva Reed-Veal is seeking a jury trial and unspecified monetary damages in her wrongful death suit against DPS trooper Brian Encinia; Waller County jail screening officers Elsa Magnus and Oscar Prudente; Waller County; and the DPS.

“What happened to Sandy Bland?” Reed-Veal told members of the press, asking the question she hopes the lawsuit can answer and echoing a hashtag that has gained traction on social media: #WhatHappenedtoSandraBland.

Reed-Veal rubbed the back of her daughter Sharon Cooper as she explained that although the family still hasn’t seen enough evidence to convince them that Bland’s death was a suicide, they are prepared to accept whatever the truth turns out to be. Cooper emphasized that whatever the cause, Bland should not have died in jail.

“What remains constant is that she should not have been there in the first place,” Cooper said.

[…]

According to the 46-page lawsuit, Encinia “demonstrated a deliberate indifference to and conscious disregard for the constitutional rights and safety of Sandra Bland.” It noted that Encinia previously was reprimanded for “unprofessional conduct” and faulted Texas DPS for improper training, saying the agency should have known he “exhibited a pattern of escalating encounters with the public.”

In addition, the lawsuit accuses Magnus and Prudente, screening officers at the Waller County Jail, for inadequately monitoring Bland and failing to provide proper medical care when she was found injured in her cell.

Waller County deserves blame, according to the lawsuit, for not providing sufficient training to jail staff for handling inmates “who are mentally disabled and/or potentially suicidal.” The suit also said the jail failed to have a procedure for jailers to make face-to-face observations of all inmates at least once every hour.

You can see a copy of the lawsuit at the link above. As you know, I agree completely with Ms. Cooper about Sandra Bland not belonging in jail. We can’t undo what happened to Sandra Bland, but we can sure do everything we can to find out how and why it happened, and to make sure it never happens again. The Trib and the Current have more.

Three panels investigating Sandra Bland’s death

One was appointed by the Sheriff:

Sandra Bland

In the wake of the controversial arrest of Sandra Bland and her jailhouse suicide, Waller County Sheriff R. Glenn Smith has asked for an independent panel of civilians to evaluate all aspects of the way he runs his department, from the cell blocks to the streets, and make public recommendations for change.

“He wants to use this tragedy as a growth opportunity,” said long-time defense attorney Paul Looney, who has been asked by the sheriff to form the five-member committee.

[…]

“We have been given carte blanche. We have been told we’ll have access to any piece of paper we want. We can visit with any prisoner or person without notice,” Looney said. “We can go on ride-alongs,” he said of riding in patrol cars with deputies to observe them first-hand.

Looney said the committee will be a diverse group of leaders and that none will be in law enforcement. He also said they won’t pull any punches in making recommendations, which will be shared with the public.

“In a time period of great tragedy, there is also a great opportunity for growth, and he doesn’t want to miss that opportunity,” Looney said of the sheriff. “I don’t intend to be kind, the people I include on the committee will not be kind. We intend to be constructive.”

One was appointed by the District Attorney:

Waller County District Attorney Elton Mathis formed a second independent committee Monday to review the arrest and death of Sandra Bland and also released a toxicology report that one expert said suggests the 28-year-old woman used marijuana shortly before jailers found her hanging in her Waller County Jail cell.

Mathis said he was bringing in defense attorneys Lewis M. White and Darrell W. Jordan, both of whom are African-American, to lead a panel that will oversee the work of his office and make recommendations about charges for possible criminal conduct during the arrest and confinement.

“There are many lingering questions regarding the death of Sandra Bland,” Mathis said, explaining why he has asked for help just days after Waller County Sheriff R. Glenn Smith formed a similar committee to review jail procedures.

[…]

The announcement that officials were forming another independent review committee did not build much trust with critics.

Former Waller County Justice of the Peace Dewayne Charleston said he didn’t know White or Jordan, so he couldn’t speak to their abilities or loyalties, but questioned any committee whose leaders are “appointed by the same person they are providing oversight for.”

“He’s not bound to take their advice, suggestions or recommendations, so it’s just window dressing,” said Charleston, who has called for Mathis to recuse himself from the case. “They could give him the best, most accurate recommendation but if he’s not obligated to accept it or just takes parts of it, it doesn’t really matter.”

Both White and Jordan have limited prosecution experience, graduated from Texas Southern University’s law school and work in small firms with five or fewer attorneys, according to the Texas State Bar’s website.

White, who passed the State Bar in 2002, worked under Mathis as a prosecutor for a year. Jordan, who passed the bar in 2006, has served as a prosecutor in the Army National Guard, where he still is a defense attorney. Jordan also has worked as a talk radio host for KCOH, part of the broadcasting company owned by Houston mayoral candidate Ben Hall.

Vivian King, a prominent Houston defense attorney and former prosecutor, said she did not know White, but had confidence in Jordan, who she had as a student at TSU.

“I think he’s confident and smart and will ask for guidance where he needs it,” she said. “He does care about getting it right.”

JoAnne Musick, the president of the Harris County Criminal Lawyers, said the decision to bring in someone familiar with the county, like White, might give the duo a useful perspective. But she said that insider status also could undermine the public’s trust in the process.

“Houston is a very close and large area with tons of experienced former prosecutors and defense attorneys that could undertake that review,” she said, noting she knows neither White nor Jordan. “Their selection seems a little odd.”

Musick is one of five people selected by Hempstead and Houston attorney Paul Looney to serve on the sheriff’s review committee, which has not yet met. On Monday, Looney identified the others: Juan L. Guerra Jr., criminal defense lawyer; Randall Kallinen, civil rights attorney; Morris L. Overstreet, a former judge on the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals; and former U.S. Rep. Craig Washington.

Jordan ran in the 2010 Democratic primary for judge of the 180th Criminal District Court. Here’s the judicial Q&A he did if you want to know a little more about him. The Sheriff’s panel has several well-known people on it, and I think they will live up to Looney’s promise that they will not hold back.

There will also be a legislative hearing:

The same day Waller County officials released results of Sandra Bland’s autopsy report, state lawmakers announced they will meet next week to discuss jail standards and police relations.

Members of the House County Affairs Committee, chaired by Houston Democrat Garnet Coleman, on Thursday will discuss “jail standards, procedures with regards to potentially mentally ill persons in county jails, as well as issues stemming from interactions between the general public and peace officers.”

That hearing will be tomorrow, July 30. Here’s the press advisory from Rep. Coleman, who can always be counted on to do a thorough job, and more on the hearing in the Trib. We need to learn all we can from this tragedy, and then to actually follow through on it, or we’re just going to keep having more like it. Still more here from the Trib.

Sandra Bland’s death ruled a suicide

That’s only part of this tragic story.

Sandra Bland

Waller County prosecutors said Thursday that a preliminary autopsy found that Sandra Bland committed suicide, but they pledged to continue investigating the circumstances surrounding her controversial arrest by a state trooper as well as her death in a county jail cell.

“The pathological findings … conclude that the cause of death was hanging and the manner of death was a suicide,” Assistant District Attorney Warren Diepraam said at a news conference focused on the forensic findings so far. “The evidence that we’ve reviewed up to this point supports those findings … However this is an ongoing investigation.”

Prosecutors also confirmed that a screening test had revealed marijuana in the system of the 28-year-old Bland at the time of her death on July 13, and a catalogue of injuries that included some 30 healing cuts on her forearm that may have been self-inflicted two to four weeks before she died.

But Diepraam repeatedly stressed that none of the injuries found on Bland’s body was consistent with a struggle. Some relatives have disputed the notion that Bland committed suicide, a death that occurred against the backdrop of a growing national movement to end police violence against African-Americans.

“At this particular time, I have not seen any evidence that indicates this was a homicide,” Diepraam said.

After the district attorney’s office released details from the autopsy report, the sheriff’s office in the rural county west of Houston released its own statement, which said that Bland had never been placed on suicide watch. The sheriff’s office on Wednesday released intake forms showing that Bland had told police after her arrest that she had attempted suicide in 2014 with pills following a miscarriage and that she had previously struggled with depression.

At Thursday’s news conference, District Attorney Elton Mathis generally steered clear of discussing the jail’s handling of Bland. But asked by CNN a day earlier if the sheriff’s office should have taken more precautions, he said, “It does appear she indicated to the sheriff’s office she’d tried to kill herself at least once. From a commonsense standpoint, I would think that would be something that would of course be important by jail commission standards when assessing inmates for potential care once they come under the control of the jail.”

You can find a copy of the autopsy report here. Sandra Bland’s family is pursuing its own postmortem, and we’ll see what comes of that. Whatever the case, let’s be clear about a few things.

Sandra Bland should never have been in jail in the first place.

As the video of Sandra Bland’s arrest makes its way into homes and offices around the country, people are aghast that the failure to use a turn signal led to a woman’s arrest and, ultimately, her death by what officials have identified as suicide. People want to know if the officer’s actions—asking that Bland put out her cigarette and demanding that she step out of her car—were legal. But that’s the wrong question. Instead, we should be asking whether it was good policing.

As a former police officer, and now as a legal scholar who studies policing, I know the law is not a moral compass. An officer’s actions can be entirely lawful, and yet fail to meet the high standards that we should expect from our law enforcement professionals, our community guardians. When we focus on whether the police acted lawfully, we are missing the chance to ask whether they acted appropriately. As I watch the dash camera video of the traffic stop, I can’t help but think of the distinction between lawful policing and rightful policing.

[…]

It is right here that Encinia has an opportunity to alleviate some of the tension of the encounter. He could, for example, thank her for moving out of the way, but explain how important signaling is, especially near an intersection. He could let her know that he has written her a warning, not a ticket (a fact that does not become clear until much later in the encounter). He could try to connect with her on a personal level, perhaps by telling her that he’d hate to welcome her to Texas with a traffic ticket.

In short, he has a chance to engage with Bland in a way that reduces antagonism and builds goodwill. It isn’t hard, and can be summed up in three words: Receive, respect, respond. Receive what someone is telling you, respect their position, and respond appropriately.

But he doesn’t. Instead, Encinia is silent. A couple of seconds pass. Then he says, “Are you done?” Those three short words send a powerful signal: “What you said does not matter.” This is the first failure in this encounter. It is not a legal failure—there is no law that requires officers to meaningfully engage with people—but it is a failure nonetheless. It is a missed opportunity for good policing.

As you know, I agree with that assessment.

But let’s say you think the officer’s conduct was acceptable and the arrest was justified. In that case, Sandra Bland should not have been in jail for as long as she was.

The reason Sandra Bland was still in jail three days after being arrested was that she hadn’t posted the $5,000 bond that had been set for her by a Waller County, Texas judge. Posting that bond would have required Bland to come up with $500—10 percent of the full sum—in exchange for her freedom. According to a lawyer for the Bland family, they were working on securing the necessary funds when Bland was found dead in her cell on the morning of July 13.

If Bland had been able to pay her bail on the spot, she would have been released immediately following her arraignment, which took place on Saturday, July 11, the day after she was pulled over on a traffic violation and detained for allegedly assaulting a police officer. A representative for the Waller County Sheriff’s Office told me they could have processed Bland’s bail at any time Saturday or Sunday.

The point of bail is to make sure that someone who has been accused of a crime appears in court when the time comes for a judge to hear her case. The money acts as an insurance policy for the judicial system: If you show up for your court date, the money is returned to you. If you don’t appear, you have to pay the court the full amount of your bond. How much you’re required to pay in bail up front is supposed to be based on whether a judge or a magistrate considers a defendant a flight risk, and whether he believes the defendant to be dangerous.

In practice, the bail system is particularly hard on poor people, who frequently get stuck behind bars because they can’t afford to post bond, while those with greater means pay their bail and go home. According to one study, five out of six people in jail are there because they could not afford to pay their bail.

That’s a problem in a lot of jails, including and especially Harris County, where we continue to tolerate judges who lock up scads of people who haven’t been convicted of anything and aren’t a danger to anyone. It’s a nationwide problem, which we’re just beginning to talk about.

But suppose you think that $5K was a reasonable bail for the charge in question. In that case, we come back to the failure of oversight at the jail, which is a problem not just for Waller County.

When Sandra Bland was booked at the Waller County Jail, she told the staff she had attempted suicide before — a staff, it turns out, who had not been sufficiently trained on how to safeguard the well-being of inmates who are mentally ill, suicidal or pose a risk to themselves.

Three days later, the 28-year-old was found dead in her cell — an apparent suicide, according to a Harris County autopsy. Now, mental health watchdogs and advocates for criminal justice reform are sounding the alarm, saying Bland’s case spotlights deficiencies in jail monitoring and oversight that can sometimes have deadly consequences.

Had Bland’s jailers followed through on mental health training and complied with minimum state standards for inmate monitoring — including checking on her at least once an hour — they might have been better prepared to prevent her apparent suicide, mental heath advocates and criminal justice experts said. But they said the lack of sufficient mental health training for jail staff is widespread in Texas.

With an annual budget of about $1 million, the watchdog agency that sets standards for the state’s disparate network of 244 county and private jails employs four people to inspect those local lockups each year, and one inspector to respond to inmate complaints. The agency is chronically underfunded and understaffed, experts say, meaning citations for jails found out of compliance often come only after a tragedy.

The commission’s annual budget is, in many cases, one-third those of comparable agencies in other large states, The Texas Tribune has found. Its much smaller staff of inspectors, until recently, had to share motel rooms because of a limited travel budget.

“I think any advocate would tell you that the jail commission is not adequately resourced to do the kind of preventative inspections that we would like for them to do,” said Matt Simpson, a senior policy strategist at the ACLU of Texas.

The great irony here is that Texas is actually exceptional for having such a commission in the first place – most states don’t. It just doesn’t have the resources it needs to do the job, and as we’ve already discussed, that job is made harder by the presence of so many people who shouldn’t be in jail in the first place.

The system failed Sandra Bland in a lot of ways, and I haven’t even touched on any of the racial aspects of her case. I’ll leave you to find writers who are smarter and better informed than I am to tackle that subject, which deserves all the attention it’s getting. There are many things we must do to prevent future tragedies like Sandra Bland’s and ensure that we live up to our own ideals about everyone being equal. I’m just highlighting a few of the obvious ones.

Dashcam video from Sandra Bland arrest released

The Press has a good writeup. I’m just going to quote the two bits of transcript they provided:

Sandra Bland

“What’s wrong?” the trooper asked as he delivered Bland her ticket. “You seem very irritated.”

“I really am, because I feel like it’s crap for what I’m getting a ticket for,” Bland said. “I was getting out of your way. You were speeding and tailing me, so I move over and you stop me. So yeah, I am a little irritated.”

“Are you done?” the trooper said.

“You asked me what was wrong and I told you,” Bland said.

“OK,” the officer said. “You mind putting out your cigarette please?”

“I’m in my car, why do I have to put out my cigarette?”

“Well,” the officer said, “you can step out now.”

“I don’t have to,” Bland said.

“Step out.”

Emphasis mine. Right there, the cop should have said “Have a nice day” and walked away. I’m sorry, but any cop who can’t handle a little mouthy frustration from someone who just got a ticket they don’t think they deserved shouldn’t have a badge and a gun. He escalated the situation. There was no need to tell her to put out her cigarette, and no justification at all for telling her to get out of the car when she justifiably told him No. And it gets worse from there:

“You do not have the right to do that,” Bland says.

“I do have the right, now step out or I will remove you,” the officer says.

“I am getting removed for a failure to signal?”

“I am giving you a lawful order. Get outta the car now.”

“I’m calling my lawyer.”

“I’m gonna yank you out of here,” the officer said, while leaning over and reaching into the car.

“Don’t touch me! I’m not under arrest,” Bland says.

“You are under arrest,” the officer says.

“For what? For what?”

There’s a pause. The officer does not answer.

“Get out of the car, now!”

Bland walks out of the car and around the back, as directed by the officer. The rest takes place off camera, though you can hear what’s going on.

“You feeling good about yourself?” she says. “You feel good about yourself? Why will you not tell me what’s going on? Ya’ll bitch asses scared. That’s it.”

Then there is a shuffling sound, and Bland screams, “You’re about to fucking break my wrist!”

Then Bland screams.

“Stop… moving… now!” the officer shouts. “Stop it!”

Bland begins to cry. Through sobs, she says, “For a traffic signal… for a fucking traffic signal. I can’t feel my arm.”

“You’re going to jail,” the officer says. “For resisting arrest.”

Unbelievable. And completely unacceptable. Even more, as the Trib reports, what can be seen contradicts the officer’s account of what happened. I don’t know what happened to Sandra Bland – we may never know for sure – but the one thing I do know is that Sandra Bland should never have been in jail in the first place. That is the root cause of what happened. And it’s as clear an illustration of what the #BlackLivesMatter protesters have been talking about all along as one could see. This is what needs to be fixed. Daily Kos has more.

UPDATE: Lisa Falkenberg has more.