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A 10-month federal civil rights investigation into allegations that Houston discriminated against Black and Latino neighborhoods burdened by illegal dumping ended Tuesday with a voluntary agreement between Mayor Sylvester Turner and the U.S. Department of Justice.

The agreement will require the city’s next mayor to follow through on Turner’s “One Clean Houston” plan to clean up neighborhoods and crack down on violators, and it will subject the city to a three-year monitoring period.

In reaching the agreement, Houston averted the possibility of losing federal funding. The Justice Department also stopped short of declaring whether racial bias played a role in the city’s response to illegal dumping in neighborhoods like Trinity Gardens and Houston Gardens on the northeast side.

Turner, who has said he took offense to the idea that the city was discriminating against residents of predominantly Black neighborhoods like Acres Homes, where he grew up, was all smiles as he announced the end of the probe.

“Sometimes things don’t have to be contentious,” Turner said. “Sometimes, by working together, we can end up with a better product.”

The pact

Assistant U.S. Attorney General Kristen Clarke, a top-ranking official in the Justice Department who oversees its civil rights division, joined Turner to announce the resolution. Clarke’s division launched an investigation last year into how Houston responds to complaints about widespread illegal dumping of trash, such as used tires.

Residents in Trinity Gardens and Houston Gardens, backed by the nonprofit law firm Lone Star Legal Aid, alleged that the city dragged its feet when it came to responding to their complaints compared to wealthier and whiter neighborhoods.

Turner pushed back hard against the charge of bias. “Don’t dare say that this administration is discriminating against communities of color,” he told CNN last year.

In March, his administration announced that it was ramping up funding dedicated to picking up trash and cracking down on people who dump it. The city has so far trimmed its response time for 311 complaints about dumping from 49 to 11 days, Turner said Tuesday.

The out-of-court agreement reached this week fully endorses the One Clean Houston initiative, calling the two-year, $18 million plan “foundational to aiding the city in addressing the issue of illegal dumping.” Clarke also lauded the program at a news conference.

With the agreement in hand, the Justice Department has suspended its probe. However, federal officials can reopen the case if the city fails to live up to its obligations.

Ken Williams, vice president of the Trinity/Houston Gardens Super Neighborhood Council, said he was less concerned with a formal finding of discrimination than with a speedier city response to dumping. Residents have already noticed quicker action since the launch of One Clean Houston, he said.

“We in this neighborhood are pretty satisfied with the agreement, and we’re looking forward to continuing to work with the city on solving these issues,” Williams said. “Whatever it takes, whatever kind of engagement is required, we’re willing to do our part on making that work.”

Justice test case

The investigation of Houston’s response to illegal dumping was something of a test case for the Justice Department’s role in fighting environmental discrimination. Clarke’s division last month reached its first-ever environmental justice settlement using civil rights laws, in a case involving sewage system failures in Lowndes County, Alabama, near the state capital of Montgomery.

That settlement was accompanied by a series of findings that Alabama authorities failed to help Black residents. No such findings accompanied the agreement that the Justice Department reached with Houston. Clarke sidestepped a question about whether federal investigators turned up evidence of discrimination.

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“We are now focused on remedying the problem, remedying the issue of illegal dumping,” Clarke said. “So no findings have (been) issued. We are now focused on putting the city on (a) path to reform.”

Turner said the agreement would come with a price tag that included an “exponential increase” in payments to contractors who help the city pick up refuse like tires, old furniture and construction debris.

The Mayor’s Office didn’t immediately respond to a request for more details on the cost of the agreement, or whether it will factor into Wednesday’s City Council vote on the fiscal 2024 budget.

The previously announced cost of One Clean Houston includes expenses of $11.5 million for contract heavy trash dumping and litter removal, $3 million for grappler trucks and $620,000 for a team of inspectors to catch heavy trash violators.

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Matt Sledge is the City Hall reporter for the Abdelraoufsinno. Before that, he worked in the same role for the Times-Picayune | New Orleans Advocate and as a national reporter for HuffPost. He’s excited...