Tag Archive for: Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Turner Points Finger at GLO in Latest Harvey Relief Dispute

Two months after Tom McCasland publicly exposed problems in his Housing and Community Development Department (HCDD), the Texas General Land Office (GLO) released the results of its investigation of McCasland’s explosive allegations. GLO criticized HCDD on five counts. It didn’t take long for Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner to return fire.

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner at Kingwood town Hall Meeting

Turner Fires Back

Turner’s office issued a press release that said in part:

“It is important to note that the GLO previously reviewed the City’s Notice of Funds Availability (NOFA) 1, 2, and 3 and took no exceptions. The GLO also reviewed and approved all program guidelines before they were sent to the city council and subsequently approved. The City has operated under the GLO-approved guidelines for all issued NOFAs and will determine if changes are needed.

“Indeed, the report does not identify any violations of law, regulations or contractual provisions, as asserted by the City during the review process. The report found no conflict of interest violations of law or regulation.”

City of Houston Mayor’s Office

In essence, Turner was saying, “We were being constantly reviewed and GLO approved everything we did.”

Difference Between Guidelines and Following Them

If you took that away from the Mayor’s statement, though, you may have drawn the wrong conclusion. It’s one thing to have GLO-approved guidelines – and another to follow them. There’s often a huge difference between the way things should operate and the way they do.

A former high-level employee of HCDD who wishes to remain anonymous, told me, “You need to understand that GLO and HUD provide the only supervision of HCDD. It’s not coming from the City or City Council.”

The relationship between HCDD, the GLO and HUD has been stormy for a long time. HCDD’s Harvey recovery programs got off to such a slow start, that HUD audited them. The audit was so critical that GLO feared the state might lose future funds from HUD; HUD explicitly stated that as a possibility. That caused the GLO to offer help and increase its supervision of HCDD. And that set the tone through 2020 when GLO tried to take back Harvey relief funds – so that GLO could distribute them itself – and the City sued to keep them.

Wednesday’s blowup was simply the latest in a long line. Let’s not ignore that. This relationship has been stormy from the start.

2019 Audit Lays Out Many of Latest Concerns

Here is the entire 34-page audit from 2019. Among the concerns at the time of that first review:

  • Houston had not drawn any funds from the Hurricane Harvey grants. The city had only submitted two requests for payment to the GLO – totaling approximately $1 million out of more than $1.2 billion. GLO rejected both requests as incomplete.
  • HUD had concerns regarding “the city’s expenditure progress and overall financial management processes.”
  • The City’s compliance website did not meet HUD’s requirements.
  • Houston was operating at half staff (59 full-time employees; 61 more needed) and had turnover in two key positions.
  • “The city of Houston’s CDBG-DR program is plagued with many staff vacancies (including several key management positions), high staff turnover, slow hiring processes, and lack of effective hiring and onboarding plans for new staff.”
  • “The city’s procedures do not provide a clear workflow for program implementation and overall management of its CDBG-DR grant allocations.”
  • The City did not post details on its website of all contracts funded by HUD money as required by law.
  • HCDD provided inconsistent explanations of the process used to secure a major contract, and verbally confirmed that the selection was not based on a competitive process.
  • The City tried to seek reimbursement from FEMA for costs of a HUD program, something prohibited by statute.
  • HCDD did not follow record-keeping procedures for its Hurricane Harvey Homeowner Assistance Program.
  • Staff members worked independently and did not communicate with each other re: applications. No one individual reviewed an application for completeness.

Missing documentation explains why so many got kicked back by GLO and FEMA.

Draw Your Own Conclusion

With history like that, you can see why GLO (which HUD holds accountable for Houston’s funds) became concerned. As time passed, and Houston missed one interim deadline after another for dispersal of funds, the relationship with HCDD degenerated into a lawsuit. A year after the settlement, many of the same problems still exist. The interim director has openly testified in front of City Council that the City could be on the hook for tens of millions of dollars in budget overruns.

The Mayor’s Office concluded his press release with the following:

“The City is committed, as it always has been, to transparency and improving its Housing processes.” Really?

Posted by Bob Rehak on 11/26/2021

1550 Days since Hurricane Harvey

The thoughts expressed in this post represent opinions on matters of public concern and safety. They are protected by the First Amendment of the US Constitution and the Anti-SLAPP Statute of the Great State of Texas.

Flood Digest: Updates on TWDB Grants, Affordable Housing Investigations, Subsidence

Below are updates on three items recently in the news: Texas Water Development Board (TWDB) Grants, Affordable Housing Investigations, and Subsidence.

Texas Water Development Board Grants Affecting Houston Region

Last week, I posted a story about flood mitigation assistance grants being considered by the TWDB. The Houston region qualified for eight and the TWDB approved them all…unanimously. However, the checks aren’t in the mail yet.

TWDB approved the following subject to FEMA final approval:

  • 32 structures in Houston, Jersey Village, Pearland and Taylor Lake Village will receive financial assistance for elevating structures.
  • 1421 structures in Bear Creek Village (near Addicks Reservoir and Highway 6) will see their drainage improved by Harris County Flood Control District HCFCD).
  • 61 repetitive loss structures will be bought out by HCFCD.
  • 1 hotel with a severe repetitive loss history dating back to 1979 will also be bought out by HCFCD.
  • 40 repetitive-loss structures in Montgomery County will also be bought out.

FEMA requested more information for further review on each project. So when/if FEMA gives final approval to each of the above, they should be good to go. That usually happens by January.

Texas projects considered for further review by FEMA

Clear Lake Apartment Complex Recommended by Mayor

On September 21, the former director of Houston’s Housing and Community Development Department (HCDD) turned whistleblower and accused the mayor of recommending a multi-family housing deal in Clear Lake that was not in taxpayers’ best interests. It turns out the Mayor’s former law partner would have benefited by $15 million from the deal, but the department’s recommendations would have provided four times more affordable housing for essentially the same amount of money.

That ignited a firestorm in the media and on City Council. HUD, GLO, the County Attorney, and the City Attorney (with the help of two US Attorneys) and City Council are all investigating.

In the face of this withering onslaught, the Houston Chronicle today reported that the Mayor has dropped his recommendation to back his former law partner’s project in Clear Lake. The Mayor said he didn’t want it to become a “distraction.”

However, getting the genie back in the bottle may not be that simple. Since the Clear Lake deal imploded on September 22, 2021, more allegations of financial mismanagement arose in City Council last week.

Also this afternoon, investigative journalist Wayne Dolcefino issued a press release about a Federal lawsuit he filed. It alleges a cover-up at the Houston Housing Authority on other housing deals that appear to be linked to the same players Tom McCasland and the Mayor.

This has the stink of Watergate about it.

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner at Kingwood’s last town hall meeting in October of 2018.

GMA-14 Makes Subsidence DFC Optional

For several years now, the state’s Groundwater Management Area 14 (GMA-14) in southeast Texas has struggled to define Desired Future Conditions (DFCs). These are long-term goals that address groundwater conservation and the maximum amount of subsidence allowable.

The Lonestar Groundwater Conservation District has denied subsidence exists in Montgomery County and stonewalled efforts to include a subsidence metric in DFCs.

Going into a board meeting last week, GMA 14 had proposed DFCs that read:

In each county in GMA 14, no less than 70 percent median available drawdown remaining in 2080 and no more than an average of 1.0 additional foot of subsidence between 2009 and 2080.

Initial DFCs

However, days before the final vote on this statement, State Senator Robert Nichols, intervened. He wrote a letter to each of GMA-14’s groundwater conservation district leaders “urging” them to make the subsidence metric optional. At that point, the debate ended. The final DFCs adopted by GMA-14 read:

In each county in Groundwater Management Area 14, no less than 70 percent median available drawdown remaining in 2080 or no more than an average of 1.0 additional foot of subsidence between 2009 and 2080. 

Final DFCs

This “opt-out option” defeats the purpose of even having a GMA and a subsidence metric.

This revised statement was quietly approved on October 5, 2021. At its January 5, 2022, meeting, GMA-14 will approve the report that accompanies the DFCs when they are submitted to the TDWB.

Of the five groundwater conservation districts in GMA-14, four voted for the new DFCs and one abstained. The new DFCs will likely be challenged in court by areas threatened by subsidence.

Makeup of Groundwater Management Area 14

Posted by Bob Rehak on 10/11/2021

1504 Days since Hurricane Harvey

The thoughts expressed in this post represent opinions on matters of public concern and safety. They are protected by the First Amendment of the US Constitution and the Anti-SLAPP Statute of the Great State of Texas.

Chronicle, ABC13 Report Harris County District Attorney Opens Investigation into Mayor

The Houston Chronicle and Ted Oberg, ABC13’s investigative reporter, both filed new stories Tuesday about the controversy surrounding Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner and the City’s troubled Housing and Community Development Department. The story blew up on September 22 and immediately triggered a fraud investigation by the Texas General Land Office and the US Department of Housing and Urban Development. According to today’s stories, Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg has also opened an investigation into the multi-family housing deal at the heart of the controversy.

Mayor Recommends Deal with 4X Less Bang for Bucknbg

Tom McCasland, the former department head, accused the Mayor in an open City Council Meeting of unduly trying to influence the outcome of a grant. The Mayor promptly fired McCasland. The deal favored by the Mayor would have sent millions of dollars in business to the Mayor’s former law partners although McCasland explicitly said he was not accusing the Mayor of fraud.

In the “what was he thinking department,” the Mayor also asserted that it was his right to award the project to the firm of his choice and overrule McCasland’s recommendation even though four times more affordable housing units could have been built for the same amount of money had Turner followed the recommendations of McCasland’s department.

Turner Unleashes Firestorm

The Chronicle reported today that an investigator from Ogg’s office was seen knocking at the door of McCasland’s home. When there was no answer, he left a business card with a neighbor. The headline read: “Harris County DA Investigating deal at center of allegations that Turner steered money to developer.”

Oberg’s segment on the evening news led off with, “Harris Co. DA asks for documents on City Hall spending, payments to Mayor’s former law partner.” Oberg said he had obtained a copy of Ogg’s request, though he did not post the document.

Ogg Investigation Reportedly Looks Back into Old Deals Too

Allegedly, the investigation is widening. Oberg’s story said, “13 Investigates has also learned the District Attorney is asking for more – and this time far more detailed information – about contracts, agreements, invoices and all available payment information related to payments to Barry Barnes and Associates in 2018 and 2019.”

Mayor Turner’s office said in a statement, “The City has received no notice of an investigation. The DA asked through an informal request for all city policies and procedures related to procurement and the letting on contracts.” The mayor denies having done anything wrong.

McCasland declined to comment, as did Ogg. “Out of fairness to all involved, we neither confirm nor deny potential investigations into any matter until and if a charge is filed,” said Dane Schiller, Ogg’s spokesperson.

In separate news, the City’s Housing Committee will reportedly hold a hearing Thursday, October 7, at 2 pm on this matter and broadcast the meeting on its internet site. The Mayor is expected to tell his side of the story at that time.

More news to follow.

Posted by Bob Rehak on 10/5/2021

1498 Days since Hurricane Harvey

The thoughts expressed in this post represent opinions on matters of public concern and safety. They are protected by the First Amendment of the US Constitution and the Anti-SLAPP Statute of the Great State of Texas.

Buzbee Has a Chance to Succeed with Flood Mitigation; Turner Blew His

I’m voting for Tony Buzbee on Saturday. It’s not just that Buzbee has a chance to succeed with flood mitigation; it’s that Sylvester Turner blew his.

833 Days after Hurricane Harvey, it’s hard to tell what the City of Houston has accomplished in terms of flood mitigation or even what the City hopes to accomplish. That’s not to say no work has been done. Or that I don’t appreciate that work.

I just can’t find a comprehensive list of projects and where they stand that matches what Mayor Sylvester Turner has promised the Lake Houston Area.

Turner Not Getting Job Done, Not Committed to Transparency

I did find two City web sites that catalog flood mitigation projects.

  • “City of Houston Harvey Relief” lists four flood mitigation projects, none of which involve the Lake Houston area. Worse, that page has not been updated in two years, even though other parts of the site have frequent updates. There’s not even a way to link to that page from the site’s navigation! You can only find it through search engines.
  • City of Houston Public Works also operates a site called “BuildHoustonForward.Org”. It shows no projects in the Lake Houston Area or the San Jacinto Watershed. (See below.) In fairness, the site does say they are still uploading projects. But really! After 833 days! The map below shows where the City’s priorities are. Just look at the concentration. There’s nothing in Kingwood, around Lake Houston or ANYWHERE in the entire San Jacinto watershed!
Screen Capture from Build Houston Forward on 12/10/2019 at 6pm.

Net: I believe the Lake Houston Area is a low priority for Mayor Turner.

Worse, he has accepted $5,000 from Kathy Perry Britton, whose company, Perry Homes, contributed to the flooding of hundreds of Kingwood homes. The timing of the contribution, after the City’s cease-and-desist letter to Perry, looks like a brazen attempt to buy influence. Turner’s acceptance of the contribution speaks volumes about his priorities yet again. Meanwhile, Perry missed it’s own first deadline, exposing residents to more flood risk. And there was nary a word from Turner.

What Happened to All the Projects Turner Promised?

I have lost faith in Mayor Sylvester Turner to get the job done. Flood mitigation is complex. It requires partnerships and funding from multiple sources. Those partners must trust each other. And it’s not clear we can take Mayor Turner at his word. What happened to Lake Houston Dam Gates, maintenance dredging on the San Jacinto, storm drain repairs, and clearing the mouths of drainage ditches around the lake? What happened to the drainage repairs that Turner promised us Perry would make in Woodridge Village?

Buzbee: A Fresh Start and Fresh Approach

The final day to vote for mayor of Houston is this Saturday. It’s time for a fresh start. I have been meeting with Tony Buzbee re: his priorities for flood mitigation as have many other Lake Houston area flood mitigation leaders. I am refreshed by his openness, willingness to talk, and commitment to transparency and accountability. No doubt, the man has fire in his belly. He’s not a career politician; he’s down to earth and plain spoken.

Buzbee has made many visits to the Kingwood area. He waded onto the mouth bar like a Marine at Normandy (he is a Marine BTW). He witnessed the May mine breach at the Triple PG sand mine on the West Fork and made it a central part of his campaign for Mayor.

Tony Buzbee, on banks of Caney Creek at Triple PG Sand Mine Breach in May.

Buzbee has specified – in detail – his commitments to flood mitigation projects in the Lake Houston Area, as well as Houston in general.

Buzbee’s open letter to the Lake Houston Area includes provisions that address best practices for sand mining and developers; removing sediment from the river and lake; working across political boundaries; openness; transparency; drainage improvements; professional project management and much more. See below.

He has put those commitments in writing. And he has signed the document. I urge you to read it before going to the polls on Saturday. I have reprinted the text below for ease of viewing on portable devices.

Signed Buzbee Commitments

Commitments by Tony Buzbee to the Lake Houston Area Community that he will put in place, if he becomes Mayor of Houston from the runoff election in December, 2019.

If some of these measures are already in place, Tony will improve them as stated below.  If these measures are not already in place, Tony will put them in place by the time frame stated.  Tony agrees to work with local community groups, such as the Lake Houston Area Long Term Recovery Task Force, to identify and flesh out details of these plans.

First 100 days:
  • Have fully operational a Website that will have fundamental info on the additional gates on Lake Houston project, C.I.P.# S-000890, (project manager, engineering & environmental studies contractors, identified project milestones, etc.). This Website shall also have project reporting, updated every month on the status of reaching those milestones or not, plus explanations of why not, if that is the case, and subsequent plans to correct any delays to get the project back on schedule.  This includes a commitment from Tony that this project will stay on schedule to be completed by fall of 2022.
  • Announce what City of Houston (COH) department and individual will lead the responsibility for the City of Houston in taking the significantly expanded leadership role with other government agencies (HCFCD, SJRA, CWA, FEMA, USACE, Montgomery, Liberty & other surrounding counties, State of Texas and Texas Agencies, and other government and non-government entities (NGOs) as necessary) in achieving world-class flood protection projects & policies for the San Jacinto Watershed. This COH department shall be given significant and proper resources to function as a world-class agency to provide the expected world-class results.
    • Some potential milestone difficulties that have been questioned specifically for the Lake Houston Gates project, that may need particular scrutiny are the necessary buyouts of property downstream of the Lake Houston Dam and associated mitigations problems identified in any environmental study, including Superfund sites.
  • Continue to fund and execute the complete removal of the blockage area in the West Fork of the San Jacinto River commonly referenced as “the Mouthbar” and stay committed to the removal of sediment in both the East and West Fork Rivers to restore the conveyance of these rivers to the levels of when the Lake Houston dam was built.  It is not expected that the removal of the Mouthbar and other sedimentation areas will be completely removed in 100 days, however there will be a show of progress, commitment to remove these areas and identify a maintenance plan with a funding source that will ensure conveyance is maintained in the future.
  • Release plans on how the COH, in it’s new expanded leadership role, will work with the appropriate government agencies (HCFCD, SJRA, State of Texas, Federal Government, etc.) and appropriate non governmental entities to remove sediment & debris from all the inlets & canals that feed storm water runoff into Lake Houston.  This removal process shall be done within nine months of sediment removal of the Mouthbar at a rate consistent to the levels of reduction of the Mouthbar, subject to appropriate right-of-way agreements being in place.
Projects that Will Take Longer than 100 days

For these projects Tony will release his plans of how he will achieve these goals, dedication of staff and resources and a time line for each activity.  These plans will be listed on a Website with milestones and reporting progress every month in the same fashion as the website described above.  

  • Within six months, identify and prioritize removal of major and minor system restrictions including debris and sediment on the East and West Fork of the San Jacinto River and Lake Houston in partnership with the SJRA, CWA, The State of Texas, the US Federal Government and other governmental and NGOs as necessary for a plan of a long-term maintenance plan to manage the constrictions and storage reductions that sediment and debris is causing for the Lake Houston region, that may include long term maintenance dredging if that is determined to be the best solution.  These plans shall contain projected dates of the start of execution.
  • Provide guidance and support to Harris County Commissioner Court and HCFCD to prioritize and fund projects that increase the capacity of the Bayous through partnerships with HCFCD to allow for water to efficiently move into the Gulf of Mexico.
  • Identify a plan for routine maintenance for overgrown and sediment filled ditches within COH ROW. Prioritize by complaints filed via 311, and/or potential 311 Website, as well as investigate flooded areas identified by the above referenced community groups.
  • Ensure completion of the projects that Public Works SWAT team has identified and forecast out future projects.
  • Identify a work group to outline a plan for the creation of dynamic storm water models that are integrated with HCFCD Bayou/creek models to ensure we understand how the system is draining. This will identify areas that an integrated sewer/ditch and bayou improvement plan is needed.
  • Re-evaluate the storm drainage/curb and gutter criteria to align with current Best Management Practices (BMPs). Identify a plan with projected costs to design and improve existing open ditch systems to the concrete top elevations criteria.
  • Strongly encourage developers in the San Jacinto Watershed to leverage the Houston Incentives for Green Infrastructure Plan http://www.houstontx.gov/igd/ which launched in Aug 2019. Evaluate the success of the program and identify opportunities for improvement. Support Public Works incorporating Green Infrastructure design as a storm water management approach with projects.  
  • The COH shall exercise its expanded leadership role by:
    • Lobbying and advocating to the State of Texas (SoT) that the Aggregate Production Operators (APOs), commonly known as the Sand Miners, that operate in the San Jacinto Watershed, shall use SoT approved Best Management Practices (BMPs).
    • Lobbying and advocating to the State of Texas (SoT) and all the counties that have the San Jacinto Watershed in their boundaries for developers to use SoT recognized BMPs in storm water control.
Publishing Own Report Card

Tony commits to publish on a Website available to the public all of his stated plans published on https://www.tonybuzbeeformayor.com/issues/ as of 12/9/2019.  Also published on this Website will be a Report Card reporting on the progress of all of his promised plans updated every month.  There will be a phone number for you to call and a Website to ask questions about any of Tony’s plans and you will get answers.

Signed: (Tony Buzbee – see original above)

Dated: December 10, 2019

Posted by Bob Rehak on 12/10/2019

833 Days since Hurricane Harvey

Why You Need to Vote for Mayor Tuesday if You Haven’t Already

This will be the most important mayoral election in Kingwood’s history, but the turnout in early voting was dismal. You would think people don’t care about flooding or that it’s been fixed already. Well, they should care. It hasn’t been fixed.

Below are some photos that show the difference pre- and post-dredging in the mouth bar area of the West Fork.

Match photos of the mouth bar taken after Harvey and Monday 11.4.2019.

Before Dredging: August 2019

This is an Atascocita Point resident walking out to the dredging operation in August.

After Dredging: November 2019

The 500,000 cubic yards that the Corps removed from the West Fork mouth bar barely scratched the surface. Think that’s an exaggeration? RD Kissling took this photo Sunday, 11.3.19, 700 yards south of the mouth bar as he stood in water just a little more than one foot deep. The channel at this point should be at least 400 feet wide and 30 feet deep to match the depth near Kings Harbor.

Photo taken Sunday November 3, 2019 approximately 700 yards south of the mouth bar by RD Kissling. That’s almost half a mile. Like icebergs, the majority of sandbars exists belong the surface.
Where Kissling took the shot in knee-deep water.

The Two-Year Old Controversy that Started Twenty Years Ago

So what does all this have to do with the contest for Mayor? The current mayor has been arguing with FEMA and the Corps for 798 days over how much Harvey deposited in the mouth bar. We’ve had dueling studies. Endless meetings. Countless stories. And still nothing has changed significantly in this most important region of the river.

The City has neglected its obligation to maintain this area for more than 20 years. Engineers warned for decades of the danger and not a penny of the City’s money was spent on dredging.

The City wants FEMA to remove 1.4 million cubic yards, but FEMA claims it would be funding “deferred maintenance” by the City.

Lest we forget, the mouth bar forms a sediment dam behind the dam that contributed to the flooding of more than 4,000 homes behind it and approximately half the businesses in the Lake Houston Chamber.

Bill King’s Plan to Get it Done

Today, Bill King held a press conference in Kings Point to lay out his plan for dealing with the mouth bar. It includes a $10 million contribution from the City to increase the funds already allocated by the State and County. The money would be used to establish a permanent maintenance dredging program.

According to a television reporter and the press conference, Mayor Sylvester Turner accused King of campaign rhetoric on the mouth bar issue.

This isn’t about rhetoric. It’s about survival.

If you care about Kingwood, if you care about your home, if you’re tired of waiting…please go to the polls tomorrow and vote. I voted for King. He’s the only candidate with a workable plan to address flooding in my opinion. But please just vote for the candidate of your choice. Not voting sends a message to the Mayor that we’re happy.

After 798 days of argument, letter writing, and meetings, it’s time for results. If re-elected, Sylvester Turner will be term-limited. Without another election hanging over his head, I just don’t see much improvement in the current situation.

For More Information

To learn more about the flood plans of the three leading candidates, read this post.

To learn more about Kings plan to address the mouth bar, see this newsletter.

If you would like more background about the mouth bar itself, please review this presentation about the Mouth Bar by Tim Garfield, RD Kissling, and me. Garfield and Kissling were both senior level geologists for one of the world’s largest oil companies before retiring. They provided the content. I just helped them shape their thoughts.

Kissling also wrote this open letter to the City of Houston that spells out problems with the Tetra Tech study that the City commissioned at the Corps’ request.

Please Also Vote FOR Prop 8

Among other items on the ballot, one of the most important from a flood mitigation perspective is Prop 8. Prop 8 would make money available from the Texas Rainy Day Fund to help provide low interest loans and grants to cities and counties. The money could be used to qualify for matching funds from the federal government. The lack of local matching funds has delayed many worthy flood mitigation projects identified after Harvey. Prop 8 should help fund many mitigation projects, bring more of our federal tax dollars back to Texas, and reduce flood risk by accelerating both grant applications and construction. Vote FOR.

Posted by Bob Rehak on November 5, 2019, election day

798 Days after Hurricane Harvey