Tuesday, 8/11/2020, Harris County Commissioners Court approved creation of a new Community Flood Resilience Task Force by a 3-2 vote along party lines.
Three Vote FOR Despite Protests from Supporters
Judge Lina Hidalgo, Commissioner Adrian Garcia and Commissioner Rodney Ellis voted FOR the measure despite every speaker complaining about some aspect of it. Even those who had lobbied for a year to create the task force spoke against the final bylaws.
Two Vote AGAINST; Cite Timing, Procedural Issues
Commissioner Radack voted against it, citing a soon-to-be-released Army Corps study that could make the task force obsolete.
Commissioner Cagle also voted against it. He cited some troubling procedural issues having to do with public notice. The motion was placed on an emergency agenda late in the day on Friday – without backup. That meant the public could not see what it was about.
Then the task force bylaws changed several times over the weekend. And even during the meeting. This gave commissioners no time to review the measure they were voting on or to consult affected constituents.
Ambush Agendas Undermine Transparency
Cagle’s concern highlights a growing trend in Commissioner’s Court these days: ambush agendas.
The emergency agenda is posted late in the day on Friday. This increases the chances that people will miss it and reduces their time to respond or request explanation before the court takes action. Some might say that it’s being used as a tactic to minimize opposition.
Likewise, this administration uses supplemental meetings the same way. Hidalgo called a meeting on August 3rd at 4 pm to consider changing the election process. Without posting any explanation.
Such meetings also catch opponents off-guard. Between special meetings and emergency agendas, the public had only ten days for comment on the task force proposal that will guide $2.5 billion in spending. That is not enough to study an idea, understand it, and mobilize protests (if called for).
During testimony on the measure, it became apparent that those who favored the motion received revised bylaws over the weekend. However, those speaking against did not.
Such steamroller tactics make a mockery of transparency. Especially when there is no need to rush the measure through after so long.
A New Form of “Co-Government”
During the discussion, Judge Hidalgo’s comments made it clear that she sees the task force as a:
- New form of “co-government”
- Tool to oversee and overrule professionals in her own Flood Control District
- Way to identify “the next big thing” in flood control.
- Pattern for similar task forces in other departments, such as Transportation and Elections.
Avoiding Geographic Representation When Solving Geographic Problem
I previously posted about this subject more than a year ago. I spoke against the measure based on the fact that it represents only some people, not all. It excludes representatives from each watershed in Harris County, in favor of poor communities and communities of color – regardless of how much floods have damaged other communities.
Also, instead of having flood experts, the task force has equity and resilience experts.
Only three of the 17 people on the task force would have scientific or technical expertise, but they would be overseeing scientists, engineers and technical experts.
Both equity and resilience have been redefined to favor the “socially vulnerable.”
Index to Meeting Video
Video of the meeting shows how this went down. I urge you to look at it instead of simply accepting my summary. However, for easy reference, here is a recap of key thoughts with approximate time codes.
In the left hand window, click on: on II. Emergency/Supplemental items (Part 3 of 3). Then scroll to 5:16:35 where you should hear Judge Hidalgo announce “Item 8: Task Force Bylaws.”
5:16: 53. Hidalgo summarizes the process, which started a year ago. She mentions other cities with similar task forces, and describes this one as a “best practice.”
15:17:31 Hidalgo describes the function of the group as oversight – to ensure that projects go according to the prioritization schedule approved by the three Democrats.
15:17:40 “Most importantly,” she says, “It will help the county look forward and tell us what the next big thing is going to be.” She claims they had multiple comments from hundreds of people and distilled their input.
5:18:07. She tells commissioners they got an edited version of the task force bylaws because she still doesn’t know which department the group will go in.
5:18:28. She says, “But I don’t want to hold this any longer just because we haven’t settled on the place.” (That’s the closest explanation we have as to why this appeared on the emergency agenda.)
5:18:40 Garcia congratulates Hidalgo for “engineering” the proposal.
“Which Version Are We Voting On?”
5:19:43 Cagle interrupts to ensure “we’re voting on the right version.” He complains about getting material over the weekend, which was then revised during the meeting they are now in.
CEER Calls Proposal “A Step Backward”
5:20:30. First speaker, Iris Gonzalez of CEER (Coalition for Environment Equity and Resilience) says the proposal addresses “communities that have been left behind.” But then she says, “We’re really disappointed in the language.” She also asserts that other groups in her coalition are also disappointed. She concludes by stating the bylaws fail to implement the full intent of the resolution passed a year ago. “This seems like a step backward,” she says.
Katie Prairie Conservancy Voices Multiple Complaints
5:23:18: The President of Katie Prairie Conservancy complains about one issue after another. She wants:
- “Direct access to commissioners court on a regular basis”
- “Supervision of flood management activities.”
- “Membership of task force to represent the diverse communities that make up Harris County.”
- Nature-based solutions for generations to come.
She says, the task force could be effective, but only if it has authority.
5:26:25 Radack thanks the Conservancy for its work.
5:29. Garcia does, too.
Residents Against Flooding Says Task Force Needs More Specialists
5:32:30 Cynthia Neely, from Residents Against Flooding, said she got copy of the revised bylaws Sunday afternoon. (Even though people speaking against the proposal, like me, did not). The task force, she says, needs more members of groups like Residents Against Flooding. She also demands specialists representing green infrastructure, natural sciences, soil, wildlife, etc.
Sierra Club Voices “Deep Concerns”
5:56 The Houston Sierra Club said it “…has very deep concerns about the Infrastructure Resilience Team and Task Force.” Specifically, it has no one with a background in green infrastructure, green space, natural sciences, or wildlife. The speaker proposes amendments to the language.
5:38:55 Bob Rehak (me) speaks for ReduceFlooding.com. I complain that the task force bylaws:
- Represent some, but not all people
- Allow diversions of bond money to non-flood issues
- Define the words resilience and equity in a self-serving way that’s contrary to common understanding.
I also request that the measure be killed or put on the ballot in to November to give voters a chance to confirm that they agree with the new, unconventional definitions of resilience and equity that skew distribution of flood bond dollars unequally.
Cypress Creek Complains About Representation, Balance
5:42:31 Jim Robertson, Cypress Creek Flood Coalition, wanted representatives for each watershed and better balance between community and technical representation. He also wanted more than ten days of public comment and input.
Radack Complains about Timing
5:45:31. Commissioner Radack expresses concern about what a new Army Corps report coming out soon will say. He worries that it could “devastate” some members of the task, so he advocated not doing anything at this time.
Historical Discrimination Against Lake Houston Area
5:49:48 Rehak (who was cut off before commissioners could ask questions) comes back to answer one from Cagle. Cagle asks why I felt the Lake Houston area has historically been discriminated against in the allocation of flood dollars.
5:50:15 Rehak replies that in the entire history of the flood control district, the Humble/Kingwood area has never received one federally funded HCFCD project. Also, “The Greater Houston Flood Mitigation Consortium reported that the San Jacinto River Watershed has 3% of the region’s population, historically has received 0% of the region’s flood mitigation funding, and yet sustained 14% of the region’s damages during Harvey. We received 4 to 5 times more damage per person than other parts of Harris County, in large part, because of this historical neglect. That’s why the Humble/Kingwood area voted overwhelmingly for the flood bond when we saw the equity language in it. In fact, we had five of the top eight precincts in the county in terms of turnout. Now we’re being neglected again with these bylaws because of very unusual definitions of equity and resilience that help only a few, not everybody.”
Hidalgo Wants Model for “Co-Governing”
5:51:45 Hidalgo thanks everyone and says, “We’re trying to create a model for co-governing which everyone can see is like being passed around like a hot potato a little bit. I don’t want to keep holding this up.”
5:52:24 Hidalgo runs through comments received during the process because there “are so many different perspectives.”
“We wanted this to be a community task force.” But then, “We decided against including someone from each of the 22 watersheds because it would have become too large.”
“We have this huge charge to reimagine our flood future.”
“We need to move away from piecemeal approaches and be able to answer the question “What is success?” (Editorial Comment: To me, success is NOT flooding.)
Hidalgo Planning for Next Bond Election, Transforming Government
“We need people to help us PLAN for the NEXT bond election and the next big thing, she says.
“We could keep debating this forever, so I propose we vote on this today. It’s impossible to make everybody happy.”
“We also need to create community groups like this for Elections and Transportation.”
“This is the best shot we’ve got,” she says.
5:58:23. Ellis asks which department will house the task force?
5:58:30 Hidalgo talks about the options, but concludes it “doesn’t need to be decided today.”
Ellis Takes Credit for Equity Bias
6:00:16 Ellis says he favors the proposal. He claims he put the equity language on the bond ballet because of FEMA’s cost/benefit language. It supposedly favors rich neighborhoods (though statistics don’t back that up). “We know which neighborhoods have been neglected historically,” he says. Meaning HIS.
6:01 Ellis says, “There are some who would advocate just dividing 2.5 billion equally among the four precincts. Well, that’s not equity.”
“So I was glad to put that language on the ballot.”
“This was a worst/first strategy. I’m proud to implement it.”
6:02 Ellis seconds Garcia’s motion to adopt the Task Force Bylaws.
6:02:15 Hidalgo restates the motion on the agenda.
6:03:20 Hidalgo calls for a vote.
Garcia, Hidalgo and Ellis vote YES.
Cagle and Radack vote NO.
Cagle again complains about not getting enough notice.
Hidalgo says “We sent an email Sunday with the backup. So it’s just not accurate to say it was a surprise.”
6:04: Motion to create task force is approved.
Re-Purposing Government On the Fly
If you care to watch the entire meeting you will witness county government being re-purposed before your eyes. And it’s a real eye opener.
Remember this when they try to push the tax increase through. It will come up again in September. Will it be on an emergency agenda over the weekend with little public notice and no backup? Will we have more non-elected representatives determining how public funds are spent?
Forget Shakespeare. THIS is high drama.
Posted by Bob Rehak on 8/13/2020
1080 Days after Hurricane Harvey