Harris County Could Shift Billions of Flood-Bond Dollars Tuesday without Public Vote
Tuesday, Harris County Commissioners Court could vote on a proposal to create a Community Flood Resilience Task Force (CFRTF). The Task Force has the potential to shift billions of flood-bond dollars from Republican-controlled Precincts 3 and 4 to Democratic-controlled Precincts 1 and 2. It should be noted that resilience appears nowhere in the flood bond language that voters approved, so this may not even be legal.
County Judge Lina Hidalgo, Commissioner Rodney Ellis and Commissioner Adrian Garcia are using the committee and unusual definitions of “equity,” “equitably,” and “resilience” to justify the shift. Their efforts could kill much-needed flood-mitigation projects in areas such as Elm Grove and the wider Lake Houston Area. Mr. Ellis especially has been openly hostile toward helping Elm Grove.
Secrecy Surrounds Creation of Task Force
The CFRTF proposal has been placed on the Emergency/Supplemental portion of the agenda with no public explanation of what commissioners would actually vote on. See Item #8. It reads only: “Request by the County Judge for discussion and possible action on reconstituting the Harris County Flood Control Task Force as the Harris County Community Flood Resilience Task Force and amending the bylaws accordingly.”
The current version of the Task Force by-laws is not posted online, but I have obtained a copy via a FOIA request. The wording of the bylaws has changed from the version posted on July 24. A distinctive bias runs through the wording that’s contrary to the wording approved by Harris County voters in 2018.
2018 Flood-Bond Election Called for Equity
Harris County voters approved the flood bond in 2018 with the understanding that flood-bond dollars would be distributed “equitably.” The approved language specifically required that. Since then, however, Commissioner Rodney Ellis has led a concerted effort to redefine the word equitably so that flood-bond dollars can be shifted disproportionately to low-income “communities of color.”
Recognized Definitions of Equitable and Equitably
Most people likely define equitably as fairly or impartially.
- Webster’s Third International Dictionary defines it as equality – “without prejudice or favoritism.”
- The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as “unbiased, impartial.”
- Roget’s Thesaurus lists two pages of synonyms, most centered around the idea of “a level playing field.”
- Black’s Law Dictionary has pages of definitions, most centered around the idea of “fairness.”
Ellis’ Definition of Equity
Mr. Ellis defines equity as righting the wrongs of the past, especially in regard to racial injustice. His definition relates to fairness only if you define equity, not in terms of the present, but of the past. He talks a lot about reparations for slavery. However, he ignores:
- A history of flood control district spending that has long favored his diverse Precinct One.
- The facts that 80% of buyouts and 79% of flood bond projects are already going to neighborhoods that rank high on the CDC’s social vulnerability index.
I doubt this is what voters had in mind two years ago when 88% voted for the flood bond.
They more likely felt they would see their fair share of flood-bond projects going to their neighborhoods, not making up for social injustices.
Making up for for social injustices is NOT how the bond was sold. HCFCD identified projects in every watershed based on 22 community input meetings.
Task Force To Ensure “Equitable Resilience”
Judge Hidalgo, Commissioner Ellis and Commissioner Garcia intend to use this supposedly impartial task force to advise them on flood-control decisions. However, the flood-control experts and engineers don’t get to vote. They will only advise 17 political appointees. The appointees must have, according to the proposed bylaws, “a demonstrated knowledge of or interest in equitable approaches to flood resilience and the socioeconomic, demographic, and environmental factors that affect the relative resilience of communities in response to flooding.”
Of the 17 members:
- At least two must represent low-income communities.
- At least two must represent communities of color.
- At least three must have expertise in flood resilience.
- At least one will be a City of Houston representative with responsibilities related to resilience.
The task force will also include at least one person from each of eight competency areas, six of which are based on the idea of equity (See appendix A, page 12):
- Housing equity
- Health equity
- Equitable infrastructure
- Equitable urban planning and transportation
- Environmental equity
- Equity and social justice
The other two competencies are:
- Flood risk mitigation
- Authentic connections to local communities with “lived experience” (whatever that means).
A minimum 14 out of the 17 positions on the task force will ensure Hidalgo’s, Garcia’s and Ellis’ definitions of equity and resilience based on “social justice” are implemented.
Note that resilience, like equity, has become political code for programs that benefit primarily the socially vulnerable. (See the resilience study produced by the City of Houston.)
Double-Speak Definitions Enshrined in Bylaws
Article II (Definitions) Paragraph 3 even spells out what’s meant by the term “equitable resilience.” It “takes into account issues of social vulnerability,” say the bylaws.
The bylaws then go on to say equitable resilience “…starts from people’s own perception of their position within their human-environmental system and accounts for their realities and their need for a change of circumstance to avoid imbalances of power into the future.”
Talk about political double speak! What does that even mean?
I think they’re saying that decisions will be made on subjective, not objective, criteria.
Also note Definition #6 – Flood Resilience Projects. The word mitigation (as in flood mitigation) appears nowhere in the definition.
In fact, the phrase “flood mitigation” appears nowhere in the entire 12-page document. Neither does the word “equal.” However, resilience appears 63 times. But “resilience” never appears once in the bond language that voters approved.
Resilience, like equity, does not apply to the entire county. Most people probably see resilience as a positive word that helps everyone. It doesn’t. The Ellis/Hidalgo/Garcia definition helps only a subset of people.
More Double Speak
A footnote on page 3 says “It is not within the scope of the CFRTF to alter or re-prioritize 2018 flood bond projects, except that the CFRTF should evaluate and provide feedback on whether those projects are being implemented in accordance with the [Harris County Commissioners] court-approved equitable prioritization framework and schedule.”
In other words, the task force can only make sure the equity priorities that Ellis, Hidalgo and Garcia approved are being implemented. These aren’t advisors; they’re enforcers.
- Why are technical experts on flood mitigation being replaced by “equity” experts?
- Why is the judgment of experts on flood mitigation being replaced by political appointees who don’t represent the spectrum of views in Harris County?
- Why are changes that could fundamentally alter the nature of government and the allocation of tax dollars being considered on an “emergency” agenda?
- Why has the voter-approved definition of “equitable” been replaced by one that’s inequitable?
- Why are hundreds of millions of tax dollars moving to Precincts One and Two, denying other precincts their fair share?
- If the Community Flood Resilience Task Force is so important, why is it not being put on the ballot for November?
Of all these questions, perhaps the last is the most critical. Voters deserve a say in how their $2.5 billion is spent. Not just a subset of voters. All voters.
Please email the county judge (CRTF@cjo.hctx.net) before Tuesday’s meeting and demand that creation of the resilience task force be put on the ballot for November. We need to clear up any confusion about what we approved in the flood-bond referendum of 2018 and how voters want bond dollars allocated.
Posted by Bob Rehak on 8/9/2020
1076 Days after Hurricane Harvey