by Daryl Slusher

Since my last column Texas Governor Greg Abbott actually took some moves to slow, and even rollback, “reopening” in Texas. He closed bars again, delayed further phases of reopening, and even acknowledged in at least one television interview that he regrets reopening bars in the first place. The Governor deserves credit for taking action and for acknowledging at least some error. That’s probably about all we are going to get though in the way of contrition. It’s too much to expect him to say: “I regret that I did not stay strong, but instead gave in to the deranged Fox News musings of Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick and to pressure from the mean-spirited, imbecilic, incompetent leader of the Republican Party — who also happens to be President of the United States. And, I am very, very sorry that Texans are going to die because of my weakness.”

Abbott does though have another really huge Covid issue coming, in addition to the tragic daily infection and death counts. That is the Republican Party of Texas Convention, scheduled for the George R. Brown Houston Convention Center July 16-18. While those mask-wearing, science-citing Democrats held their state convention virtually, Republicans have no such plans. They plan to gather indoors in one of the nation’s worst, if not the worst, Covid hotspots. (Local authorities in Austin warned Monday that Austin and Travis County are in danger of falling into Covid Stage 5, the most serious stage.) In additions to three days of meeting and mingling, the convention includies what Texas Republicans call the “RPT (Republican Party of Texas) Gala Banquet” on Saturday night July 18.  According to the RPT website the Gala is: “the largest Republican Gala in the United States!” The website also proclaims: “Consistently attracting some of the country’s foremost conservative thought leaders, legislators, and entertainers, the Republican Party of Texas Gala never disappoints as the marquee event of the State Convention.”  

It’s too much to expect Abbott to say: “I regret that I did not stay strong, but instead gave in to the deranged Fox News musings of Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick and to pressure from the mean-spirited, imbecilic, incompetent leader of the Republican Party — who also happens to be President of the United States.”

Abbott may have already quietly helped the gathering to proceed. In a Covid order issued last week he granted local authoriities the power to ban outdoor gatherings, but said nothing about indoor gatherings. And, Texas Republican Party Chairman James Dickey recently told the Houston Chronicle that he doesn’t believe Harris County’s mask order applies to the convention. Additionally, David Mincberg, the leader of Houston First, the entity that manages the George R. Brown/Houston Convention Center for the City of Houston, told the Chronicle: “(Houston First) does not have the authority to require safety measures, unless included in the original license agreement. Since this agreement was issued prior to the pandemic, no such provision was included.” Mincberg was responding to safety concerns raised by officials of Unite Here Local 23, a union representing Houston hospitality workers. 

This really sets up a showdown as the convention draws nearer. Harris County Judge (the County’s top elected executive) Lina Hidalgo recently issued, with approval of the Harris County Commissioners Court. an order requiring businesses to require masks. This indirect method was set up by Abbott in his order. Hidalgo has been extremely vigilant in fighting the pandemic and not shy about pointing out that Abbott dangerously removed powers from local officials like her. She is almost certain to weigh in as the convention draws nearer. Tragically making that even more likely, the situation in Houston will almost certainly worsen in the weeks before the scheduled convention.

Official Portrail of Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo, elected in 2018. The picture at the top of the story is from Hidalgo’s Facebook page and features her in a mask made for her by a young constituent.

Hidalgo on Sunday announced she was going into self quarantine after a member of her staff tested positive for coronavirus. In a Zoom interview Monday with Houston’s “13 Eyewitness News,” Hidalgo assured reporters,  “I am feeling great. . . I don’t feel anything different. I feel strong and have plenty of work to do. I’ve had a lot of people send me messages saying, ‘I’m so glad you’re resting,’ but resting is the last thing I’m doing.”

Hidalgo also said that today, Tuesday, she will ask the Harris County Commissioners Court today to extend the mask requirement. Given all that it’s hard to imagine Hidalgo not weighing in on Texas Republicans arriving in Houston for a massive, indoor, maskless convention.

Doubtlessly other calls will emerge for the Republicans to cancel the convention or at the very least wear masks. As an epicenter of the pandemic, Houston is now the focus of national media attention. So as the convention approaches, Abbott and other top Texas Republicans will doubtlessly be asked about whether the in person gathering will actually occur and, if it does, whether they will require masks. Since any such dispute will likely be covered by national news, that means the President, who led the way in making mask wearing a political and cultural controversy, will very likely become antagonized and weigh in.

Given all this, Greg Abbott must realize he is facing both an unprecedented health crisis in the state he governs as well as a very unwanted wave of national publicity — in which he will be asked to explain his position on the approaching gathering. Polls show Republicans themselves are divided on reopening and mask wearing but the party is teeming with ideologues who view mask wearing as politically correct weakness and a cave in to liberals. Also, backing down would be a not so tacit admission by Republicans that their policies up to now have been wrong and dangerous. 

Abbott has a number of choices, none of them particularly enjoyable for him. He can maintain that decisions regarding the convention are not his call. Such a stance though would be unlikely to silence the media since he is the highest ranking member of the Texas Republican Party. Also, Abbott will almost certainly go to the convention or address it virtually. This also presents challenges. Does a not-in-person address signal a fear of gathering with his fellow Republicans? If he does attend, will he wear a mask? Will he call on convention attendees to wear masks — an act many of them will consider an infringement on their liberty? These are many of the same folks Abbott evidently was so worried about antagonizing that he rushed into reopening Texas. They also include InfoWars host/conspiracy theorist Alex Jones who led an anti-mask wearing protest at the Capital and Governor’s Mansion Saturday. 

One potential scenario is that Abbott is working frantically behind the scenes to get party officials to cancel the event or to offer some sort of accommodation on masks. All that, however, also risks angering party members.

So the next few weeks look like very tough going for Governor Greg Abbott.

Meanwhile at Austin City Hall, or the Zoom Version

Now, let’s turn to one of Governor Abbott’s least favorite institutions, that is the Austin City Council. In a recent column I discussed how several members of the City Council want to cut $100 million out of the Austin Police Department budget and reallocate it to social and mental health services. This is an action being urged upon them by the Austin Justice Coalition, Indivisible Austin and other activist groups. It is also consistent, at least to some extent, with national calls to “Defund the Police.” The meaning of that phrase varies, but in many cases the term does not mean “Defund the Police” entirely, but instead means to reallocate many of the funds going to police budgets and reimagine the organization of police forces. 

Here is the particular situation regarding the upcoming Austin Police Department (APD) budget. As previously reported, City Manager Spencer Cronk — following Council direction — announced that he would drop proposed sworn police officer positions that were originally planned for the upcoming budget and that he would also “eliminate existing vacancies that cannot be reasonably filled within the next year.” According to Cronk this means there will be 100 less sworn officer positions in the proposed budget than were originally planned. Cronk added, however, that it is too late in the budget process to undertake anything as sweeping as the $100 million cut, or reallocation of funds.

The budget proposal is scheduled to be unveiled in July. That budget will cover the period from October 1, 2020 through September 30, 2021. 

Council Member Greg Casar says that he interprets the Manager’s message regarding the lateness in the budget calendar as meaning that it is too late for management to make major changes, but it leaves the path open for Council to make such major changes once they begin to deliberate on the budget. Also, Mayor Pro Tem Delia Garza has said she might vote against the budget if it doesn’t go far enough on police reform. And, Council Member Jimmy Flanagan has been enthusiastic about cutting the $100 million.

These positions seem reasonable enough in the current situation as accounts of deadly police brutality continue to spill out across the nation. One of the latest concerns the police killing of 23-year-old African American Elijah McClain by police in Aurora, Colorado last August. McClain was violently detained by Aurora Police because someone reported him as a suspicous person as he walked home from a convenience store listening to music on his headphones. As Jackie Spinner poignantly summarizes in an oped in the Washington Post, “police tackled McClain, who was listening to music and may not have initially heard the officers. They put him in a carotid hold — which cuts off blood flow to the brain — and paramedics called to the scene administered ketamine, a strong sedative, although the unarmed, 140-pound McClain was already handcuffed and on the ground. McClain went into cardiac arrest on the way to the hospital.” Spinner adds that McClain “could be heard pleading and sobbing in police custody: ‘Oh, I’m sorry. I wasn’t trying to do that. I just can’t breathe correctly.’ He also told officers that he loved them.” 

While not in Austin, this case illustrates the continuing avalanche of accounts of deadly police misconduct leading to millions of Americans beginning to grasp the enormity and horror of the problem for the first time — and demanding action to stop it. Meanwhile APD management revealed the names of officers it is investigating regarding serious injuries of protestors from “less lethal” rounds fired at protestors in the initial George Floyd protests. This does not explain, however, why police management felt authorizing the firing of the “less lethal” ammunition at protestors was a good approach in the first place.

So a desire to move quickly on police reform and restructuring is far from being an outlier or radical position. Nonetheless, each individual situation needs to be considered on its own merits. As already noted, City Manager Cronk has cut 100 sworn police officer positions that otherwise would have been proposed in the upcoming budget, but believes the $100 million cut is unrealistic for this year’s budget time frame.

Additionally, the City’s widely respected Deputy Chief Financial Office, Ed Van Eenoo told the Austin Monitor, “If you want to get to a $100 million reduction in the police department budget, you really are looking at how we just need to substantially scale back. The number of officers that we have, we currently have 1,959 sworn personnel that provide patrol services, investigation services, command staff, internal affairs, airfare, helicopter – all those people are sworn personnel and that number would just have to be much, much smaller to get to $100 million.”

“If you want to get to a $100 million reduction in the police department budget, you really are looking at how we just need to substantially scale back.” Ed Van Eenoo, Austin Deputy Chief Financial Officer

  This gets at issues raised by the Austin Crime Commission who worry that Council will take actions that hurt the ability of police to respond to calls and thus risk public safety. link

Has the Council Made Rushed Decisions Before?

So in this context, it seems fair and prudent to ask the question, has this Council ever messed up by taking action in a rush? 

The answer is, yes. 

Let’s see, in early 2016 there was the Pilot Knob/Easton Park development outside the City limits in southeastern Travis County. In that case, Mayor Pro Tem Garza and Mayor Steve Adler led the way in granting approval to the development along with $50 to $80 million in water utility fee waivers over some 20 years, with the intent of putting that money toward affordable housing. Fees of that sort are intended to shift, as much as possible under state law, the cost of growth from current residents to developers and future residents. It turned out though that at least six members of the Council were unawareof the fee waivers when the vote was taken. Also, left in the dark about the fee waivers were officials at Austin Water. (Daryl Slusher was an Assistant Director at Austin Water at the time of the Pilot Knob vote.)

It seems fair and prudent to ask the question, has this Council ever messed up by taking action in a rush? 

The answer is, yes.

Soon after the Pilot Knob vote, civic activist Brian Rodgers sued the City claiming that the Council violated the Open Meetings Act by not adequately posting the fee waivers. A second part of Rodgers suit maintained that state law does not allow the Council to use the fees in the way they intended. A judge ruled in Rodger’s favor on the Open Meetings Act and voided the Council’s vote. He did not rule on the fees issue. Rodgers vowed to carry forward on that aspect of the suit and the Council ultimately approved the development without the fee waivers. Rodgers was represented by former County Judge Bill Aleshire.  

The Council also lost another Open Meetings Acts suit to Aleshire over a 2016 vote on the Champions tract near FM 2222 and Loop 360. Aleshire and his client, the Lake Austin Collective, successfully alleged that the Council failed to adequately note the granting of environmental waivers in the posting language. As with Pilot Knob, a judge voided the Council vote.

Then there was the repeal of the homeless camping ban which the Council approved right before going on a month’s vacation in June 2019 — setting off turmoil among wide swaths of the citizenry and leading later to a partial Council reversal under pressure from Governor Abbott.

Most recent was the Council’s courton the Land Development Code (LDC) rewrite. Just this March, the Council majority — Garza, Casar, Flanagan, the Mayor and Council Members Sabino “Pio” Renteria, Natasha Harper Madison and Paige Ellis — was on the verge of passing a LDC overhaul that, among other measures, would rezone virtually every property in the City, including single family homes that people purchased to grow old in, and against the will of huge swaths of Austin’s minority communities on whose behalf Council Members and the Mayor often claimed they were acting. A judge though ruled that the Council, the City: violated state posting laws concerning notifying property owners, and neighbors, of pending zoning changes and; illegally denied petition and protest rights to property owners.

As a result the Judge threw out, invalidated, two Council votes on the matter, and the LDC is now on hold.

Back to the Topic at Hand

OK, that was a bit of a diversion, but the point is that, yes, the Council has suffered setbacks, caused problems, and cost taxpayers money by rushing into decisions. There are a couple more potential angles to consider regarding Casar’s proposal for Council to work through the $100 million police budget cut/reallocation during Council budget deliberations. One possibility is that what is actually intended is a series of votes on which Casar, Garza et al play to the crowd and give any fellow Council Members with reservations about moving too rapidly the option of either voting for the cuts without deeper scrutiny or being framed as not totally on board with police reform.

Such an approach could also be a campaign strategy for Garza who is on the July 14 primary ballot in a runoff with Laurie Eiserloh for County Attorney. Garza recently sent a mailer calling herself a “Provern Reformer,” and a “Criminal Justice Reform Leader.” Of the five examples of reforms she listed, however, four occurred, or were proposed, since the George Floyd protests. Garza has been on the Council more than five years,  

Can It Get Still More Complicated?

The scenarios discussed above concern potential political maneuverings, but the overall idea of transferring some tasks away from police is one that even some police officials and some police unions, support. For instance, as also noted in an earlier column, Austin Police Association Ken Casaday has expressed interest in some reallocation of duties. Former Dallas Police Chief David Brown advanced similar ideas while serving in Dallas. Brown said, “We’re asking cops to do too much in this country. Every societal failure, we put it off on the cops to solve. Not enough mental health funding, let the cops handle it. … Here in Dallas we got a loose dog problem; let’s have the cops chase loose dogs. Schools fail, let’s give it to the cops. … That’s too much to ask. Policing was never meant to solve all those problems.”

“We’re asking cops to do too much in this country. Every societal failure, we put it off on the cops to solve. . .” David Brown, Chicago Police Superintendent

Brown is now the Police Superintendent in Chicago, their equivalent of Police Chief. He took on a huge job there, trying to reform a police force in a City with a long history of corruption, and with a particularly vicious and bloody history toward African Americans — even by American standards. Brown also has to deal with a huge amount of gun violence in Chicago, concentrated in many predominately African American neighborhoods. 

Chicago Police Superintendent David Brown and Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot

Brown’s recent comments in regard to gun violence will be a lot more jarring to the ears of many criminal justice reform advocates than his statements that are at least partially consistent with Defund the Police initiatives. Those comments came immediately after Father’s Day weekend when 102 people were shot in Chicago, with 14 killed. The dead included a 3 year old boy getting shot while riding in the car with his Dad and a 13 year old girl who aspired to be a lawyer and was shot dead in her home by a stray bullet while demonstrating dance moves for her Mom. Both were African American.

When asked the causes for the violence, Brown replied, “Gangs, guns and drugs and not enough time spent in jail for violent felons.” Brown also said, ““At the end of the day, our endgame strategy is to arrest violent felons, but if violent felons are getting right out of jail, we need cooperation and collaboration with other partners within the criminal justice system.” 

Austin does not have the level of violence that Chicago does and no one is calling for the release of violent felons. Still, the fact that David Brown wants violent felons to stay in jail longer while at the same time supporting a form of Defund the Police (before it became a national term)  can have resonance for us here in Austin. It emphasizes the importance of being able to keep two thoughts in our heads at the same time, even if there are some inherent contradictions between those two thoughts. This ability is something that has become increasingly rare for Americans on the far right and the far left.

As already noted, Austin does not have the violence of Chicago, but Austin is a rapidly growing city with a growing level of violent crime. And, it is just a reality that there are some very dangerous criminals of all races out there.  Ignoring or losing sight of that could have serious consequences. That’s a core reason that some people who support stringent reforms of police forces still worry about cutting police positions.

Could it be possible to come up with an approach that:

  • begins some serious moves on police reform, or even police department restructuring;
  • begins redirecting some tasks that should not be the responsibility, or solely the responsibility, of police;
  • while still maintaining an adequate police force to protect public safety; 
  • while at the same time moving the department significantly in the direction of becoming a police force which all citizens can interact with, and safely call to protect them, without fear of becoming a victim of police violence.

I’m not expecting the Austin City Council to adopt that framework or approach, but thought I would toss it out there in the universe anyway. Perhaps others can build on it. This could also be an opportunity for mayoral leadership.

In a previous column I said I would write about historical analogies to 1968 and how well they might or might not fit our current situation. That one is not done yet, partly because I am exploring other historical analogies as well. Please stay tuned.


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