September 24, 2021

The Cost of Nationalizing Local Elections

The Cost of Nationalizing Local Elections

Another day, another bid rigging scandal in Houston.  This one was so bad that even the City of Houston Housing Director, Tom McCasland, who has largely turned a blind eye to Turner’s blatant patronage regime, could not stomach it.

At Tuesday’s meeting of the City Council’s Housing and Community Affairs Committee, McCasland dropped the political equivalent of an atomic bomb by directly accusing Turner of rigging a competition for Harvey relief funds earmarked to support affordable housing.  You can listen to his presentation at the meeting here, beginning at about 36:00.

According to the excellent reporting by Mike Morris and Dylan McGuinness at the Houston Chronicle, Turner overruled the recommendation of McCasland’s department and ordered him to direct $15 million to a subsidized housing project in Clear Lake.  They reported that the project ranked eighth of the twelve projects McCasland’s staff evaluated.  The $15 million dollars will result in 88 affordable units at an average cost of $170,500 per unit.  The Housing Department had recommended four other projects that would have provided 362 affordable units at cost of $44,800 per unit.

At a press conference, Turner claimed that McCasland had not expressed concerns about the bid process to him before Tuesday’s meeting.  But McCasland delivered a stack of emails and memos to the committee that showed Turner was blatantly lying and , in fact, McCasland had detailed the problems with the proposed project to Turner for months.1

What McCasland did not tell Council was that the project Turner ordered him to fund was partially owned by Turner’s long-time, former law partner, Barry Barnes.  He later told the Houston Chronicle editorial board that he did not know Barnes was a partial owner until that was reported by the Chronicle.  That is a little hard to swallow because Barnes’ name appears multiple times on the project’s State application.

Barry Barnes & Sylvester Turner in 2018.

That application also clearly discloses that Barnes’ company will be paid a $400,000 up-front development fee, even though on the application Barnes admits that he nor his company have any previous development experience (p. 270).  Secretary of State records obtained by Morris and McGuinness show Barnes’ company was only formed a couple of weeks before the application for funding was submitted.

Many of you will recall that in 2018 Turner attempted to direct $6.7 million of Harvey relief money to Barnes for title work on homes to be repaired.  However, that scheme largely fell apart because the City was so incompetent at distributing the funds, only a handful of deals were closed before the State took that program over.

Turner’s scheme bares an eerie resemblance to County Judge Lina Hidalgo’s recent vaccine bid rigging scheme where her political staff overruled the recommendations of the medical experts to direct an $11 million contract to Democratic political operatives.

In both cases, these “progressives” had no qualms about taking funds earmarked to help ordinary citizens – in one case to get vaccines to underserved communities and in the other to provide affordable housing – and callously redirect it for political and patronage purposes.  The losers are ordinary Houstonians, many of whom put their trust in these two elected officials by voting for them.

For years Republicans and Democrats have voted for local candidates, claiming to share their “conservative” or “progressive values.”  Frequently, their support is based on the candidates’ positions on issues like abortion, climate change, gun laws or some other issues over which local elected officials have little power.

But as the old adage goes, “there are no Democratic or Republican potholes.”  By voting for candidates that share their “values” or because of their party affiliation, partisans have enabled the corrupt and incompetent administration which has increasingly come to dominate and is undermining Houston’s quality of life.

Perhaps the Houston Chronicle editorial board’s scathing condemnation of Turner for this smelly deal marks a turning point.  It certainly stands in stark contrast to their glowing endorsement of Turner in 2019, which compared charges of corruption in his administration to urban myths and lauded him for his “progressive heart.”  Perhaps in the future we can stop nationalizing local elections and instead judge local candidates on the basis of whether they are prepared to take on the mundane work of fixing roads, protecting us from dangerous criminals, keeping people’s homes from flooding, and responsibly managing local tax dollars.

Note 1 – Hat tip to my good friend and Kingwood flood watchdog, Bob Rehak, for obtaining the copy of McCasland’s document from the State.  Bob also wrote about the controversy on this blog.

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