A summer of HERO

Note: For whatever reason, I felt like writing what I saw fit as a timeline. I promise there is some original commentary in here, so if you are not inclined to read my overview, just skip about five paragraphs down.

This is the blog post I have been waiting all summer to write. Once again, I apologize for not attentively following this issue in print since May. As I explained back then, I have been employed this summer in public relations projects involving ongoing issues at City Hall (the word “lobbying” has been brought up by detractors of mine on a number of occasions, though it remains to be said that I am not a registered lobbyist nor have I done anything that would necessitate such a designation). Thus, I voluntarily decided to withdraw myself from commentating on other ongoing issues. However, considering the issue I was working on has had a final council vote (check my Facebook page for my personal thoughts on that matter–largely positive!!), and my employment has shifted to PR/marketing aimed toward the general public, my conflicts have been removed.

The obvious updates since I stopped writing on this issue in May is that the non-discrimination ordinance passed (duh!). While the initial draft of the bill only required those private employers with more than 50 employees to adhere to the law, an amendment by Councilmember Robert Gallegos (D-District I) was offered that lowered the threshold to 15 employees. In review, the law prohibits discrimination against a person in private or public employment, as well as public accommodations, on the basis of the plethora of demographic groups protected on Federal law (race, sex, religion, etc),  in addition to sexual orientation and gender identity. City Hall can’t fire you for being black, Doe & Doe (Attorneys at Law) can’t fire you for being transgendered and Acme Anvils can’t put a sign on their front door that says “Gays not welcome.” In addition to the Gallegos amendment, Councilmember Jerry Davis (D-District B), under blessing of the Mayor, nixed a specific provision detailing the rights of transgendered persons to use the bathroom of their gender identity, not necessarily their biological sex. It is worth noting, however, that under the broad language of the ordinance, that same bathroom language is in effect still valid.

When all was said and done, the ordinance passed 11-6. Councilmembers Davis, Ellen Cohen (D-District C), Richard Nguyen (R-District F), Ed Gonzalez (D-District H), Gallegos, Mike Laster (D-District J), Larry Green (D-District K), Stephen Costello (R-At Large 1), David Robinson (D-At Large 2) and C.O. Bradford (D-At Large 4) voted in favor. Councilmembers Brenda Stardig (R-District A), Dwight Boykins (D-District D), Dave Martin (R-District E), Oliver Pennington (R-District G), Michael Kubosh (R-At Large 3) and Jack Christie (R-At Large 5) voted against.

Opponents of the ordinance congregated around claims of “religious liberty,” claiming that if being gay went against one’s religious views, being forced to accommodate someone would be immoral to them. They came back with a vengeance, circulating petitions to force a referendum on this bill. A few weeks ago, they submitted 50,000 signatures, far more than the required 17,000 to require a referendum. However, proponents of the ordinance independently verified all the signatories, and found the petitions riddled with violations of the rules. While there were surely many signatories who were not City of Houston voters, thousands more were discounted because the distributors of the petition for that page was not properly credentialed, which invalidated all the signatures on said page. Under such strict scrutiny, Mayor Annise Parker and City Attorney Dave Feldman held that the non-discrimination ordinance (now colloquially known as HERO, or the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance, by the way) would not be challenged on the ballot. Opponents expeditiously marched to the courthouse.

After a little bit of jockeying back and forward between State and Federal court, the dispute landed in (State Civil) 55th District Judge Jeff Shadwick’s court. A Republican, he placed a temporary restraining order on the enforcement of the law (redundant, for what it’s worth, because Parker had already enjoined enforcement) and scheduled a hearing on the validity of the petitions for August 15th. August 18th is the deadline, as I understand it, for something to be placed on the ballot this November.

My first and most obvious stipulation is that I am absolutely overjoyed that this measure passed, and I think that Houston is all the better for it. In an ideal world, there shouldn’t even be the 15 employee threshold (though certainly an exception for religious institutions and non-profits). That being said, there are some legitimate arguments against this proposal. Persuasive to me? Absolutely not. But legitimate nonetheless.

I think the best argument there was centered on the ordinance’s sheer unpopularity in the general public. In my opinion, this runs hand and hand with some major fumbles on the part of the Mayor. First and foremost, she made the ordinance nearly 100% about the LGBT community, when the ordinance was about everyone. Indubitably, rights for LGBT people are unbelievably important and even as a standalone issue should be fought for relentlessly, but so should Civil Rights for African-Americans and Hispanics, as well as protections by age, veterans status, disability and religion, to name a few. Perhaps the worst moment was when she addressed a commentator at public session by noting that the ordinance was “personal” for her. Simply put, it’s not about her. It’s about everyone. And by claiming it is about her and the LGBT community, she provides unneeded fodder for detractors to overturn the ordinance in a referendum.

Additionally, criticism was misplaced, and that is a huge understatement. The amount of nastiness directed toward Councilmember Brenda Stardig in particular was simply appalling. I will be the first to admit that I disagreed with Stardig’s vote, but that does not justify personal rhetorical attacks. Her office’s Facebook page was overrun with mean-spirited comments and she was singled out by a couple of commentators. Stardig never said she would support a non-discrimination ordinance and her constituency was overwhelmingly opposed. I fail to see the controversy here.

Like Stardig, all but two of the Councilmembers who voted no made no such earlier promise, and by-and-large came from constituencies opposing this ordinance. The two big exceptions were Dwight Boykins and Jack Christie.

With Christie, I can’t say I’m surprised. He had been utterly non-committal throughout last year’s campaign about supporting such an ordinance, even in response to incessant queries by his two opponents (Disclosure: one of them, James Horwitz, is my father), who were both big supporters of a non-discrimination ordinance and same-sex marriage. For some reason, last election cycle the GLBT Caucus was figuratively in love with Christie, not only endorsing him but campaigning for him vigorously against two liberal Democratic opponents. I don’t want to say, “I told you so,” but…you know the rest. It’s definitely not Christie’s fault, though. He would only say that he supported a non-discrimination ordinance in very broad terms, and one could tell the bulk of his issues revolved around lowering the employee threshold to 15. It’s the fault of those who voted for him, expecting him to do something different. Don’t blame a politician for voting one’s district, but definitely don’t do so for voting one’s conscious–when the evidence previously pointed to the conclusion. It comes off as naive.

Now, Dwight Boykins is a whole other story. Throughout the campaign, he triumphantly touted his support for LGBT rights and has n0t at all been hesitant about any of it. Simply put, he lied. I understand that he thought his district was against it, but if you think like that, don’t talk to interest groups day in and day out about how you think LGBT rights should be a civil rights issue. Both are good enough selections, but you can only choose one. Boykins attempted to choose both, and as such, now appears for what he is: a giant hypocrite.

But perhaps one of the biggest disappointments in all this has been the Mayor. Simply put, she was a “sore-winner.” Instead of being gracious in victory and moving on to the referendum (which will be the real battle), she kept harping on bumping the margins up on the final vote. Even after the final vote, she showed favorites to the ordinances proponents and snubbed the opponents in discourteous and unprofessional ways.

In a City Council meeting in late June, Kubosh even made a comment at Council about how he should agree with the Mayor more often, so that “he too might get his bottle of wine.” At this point, coos and shrieks from council staff could be heard throughout the room. Obviously, I was curious as to what he was referencing, so I asked around. It turns out that the Mayor bought cheap bottles of red wine for all the Councilmembers who voted with her on the NDO, conspicuously snubbing those who did not. That type of antic –giving little treats in a very obvious fashion to your allies after they vote with you– is reminiscent of the petty, sophomoric tactics used by second-rate lobbyists, not the decorum expected of the Mayor.

But all this is just semantics, which in the grand scheme of things is rather unimportant. Probably the most egregious error in this whole process was the Mayor not focusing on the almost mandatory referendum. At the end of the day, the fact is that the City Secretary has noted that the number of valid signatures are above the minimum. Furthermore, when it comes to the jurisprudence of the matter, strict requirements for those circulating petitions to be registered voters are likely too onerous to stand up in court. A referendum is coming, and the best scenario is for it to be in November 2014. If it happens in May 2015, it will almost certainly fail. It is happens in November 2015, it will also likely fail, and could negatively affect City elections vis-a-vis progressive candidates.

But enough about just negative sentiment. At the end of the day, the courageous men and women at the GLBT Caucus and other interests did yeoman’s work in advancing this positive piece of legislation. I’m a bit of pessimist and a cynic, so I will also find things to gripe about, but that does not change the reality that a very good ordinance passed, an even stronger one than San Antonio’s! The process may have been muddied, and the long road is not even over yet, but if this holds up in a referendum, it will be Mayor Annise Parker’s lasting legacy as Mayor. It will be a darn good one.

As always, my fellow bloggers have provided awesome commentary on this issue. Brains & Eggs, Dos Centavos, Off the Kuff and Texas Leftist all give great perspectives on the left, while Big Jolly Politics and Rhymes with Right do the same on the right.

I’m back!!

After seven tests and two essays, my summer has officially begun. I’m going to be undertaking two main projects this summer, one starting on Monday and one in June, after which the two will run concurrently until late August. I’ll have more on this on Sunday and next month, respectively. Obviously, studying for tests is hard, but these past eight days have been some of the most stressful in recent memory because I have been unable to contribute to Texpatriate. Fear not, regular posting will continue perpetually at this time. At this point, my intent is to publish early the morning before I head out for the day. Anyways, I’d like to briefly touch upon a few of the major actions that have occurred since I signed off.

First and foremost, a public hearing was held over the proposed non-discrimination ordinance at City Hall. The results were predictable, to say the least, with the usual suspects showing up and pontificating the same-old trite arguments about religious liberty and such. The number of Councilmembers on the fence appeared to have broadened, and includes such officeholders I have named before such as Michael Kubosh, C.O. Bradford and Jack Christie. Additionally, it includes a few new names, especially Richard Nguyen. I’ll probably have a little more about this soon, but the general point is obviously to prohibit discrimination against LGBT people from both governmental agencies and private employers. Much of the argument that this provision is somehow anti-business has been put to bed after the Greater Houston Partnership backed the ordinance. Off the Kuff and Texas Leftist have more.

Please click here to see more!

Council update, 4/16

The Houston City Council had a rather busy meeting today, unanimously passing two major ordinances. Additionally, conversations were sparked on two other major issues. Specifically, the previously-noted hoarding ordinance passed, as well as a provision to expand subsidies for downtown living. Meanwhile, the discussion over both One Bin for All (recycling programs) and the Wage Theft ordinance’s implications continued.

First up, the Council unanimously passed the hoarding ordinance. Jayme Fraser at the Houston Chronicle has a somewhat fuller story on the topic. Among the provisions in the ordinance are fines (up to $550/day) for rampant hoarders who disturb the peace of their neighbors and clarifications on when the police could step in without a warrant. Councilmembers such as Richard Nguyen have previously voiced concern on the prospect of criminalizing a mental illness. However, following a reassurance from the Mental Health and Mental Retardation Authority of Harris County, these fears were largely placated.

Next, the Council unanimously approved additional subsidies for living downtown. Mike Morris, also at the Houston Chronicle, first reported this on Twitter. Morris wrote a lengthier analysis in the paper on this issue last month; the issue at play, essentially, is that the City will continue offering subsidies of up to $15,000 per unit to the downtown developers.

Click here to read about the Recycling and Wage Theft developments!

Council action on hoarders

We’ve all watched those TLC reality shows before, right? Hoarding, which is typically defined as a mental disorder, involves the gross obsession over seemingly valueless or trash, so that the situation in one’s domicile becomes functionally unlivable. Generally, this is seen as only a personal issue, as it would appear logical that only the persons suffering from hoarding is the hoarder himself. While this may often be true of single family houses, the same cannot be said for condominiums, apartments, duplexes and townhomes, among other living arrangements. When people live in such close conditions, the carelessness of one resident easily becomes gross negligence that could harm neighbors and other innocents.  Whether this be unsuitable odors, fire risk or pest infestations, neighbors are easily affected by hoarding on the part of others.

Accordingly, the Houston Chronicle reports that on Wednesday the City Council considered a proposal to limit the damage done by the hoarders. Among those provisions in the proposed ordinance would make it easier for police to enter residences without a warrant, impose more stringent fines on hoarders and increase opportunities for treatment for the offenders. Councilmember Richard Nguyen (R-District F), concerned about the possible criminalization of a mental disorder, tagged the measure (Editorial note: A “tag” is a dilatory tactic on the Houston City Council in which a Councilmember may unilaterally delay any piece of legislation for one week).

Click here to read more!

Parker pulls an Obama

This is a few days late, I have had a whirlwind of a weekend in Houston, but I felt that this story was specifically too important to ignore. In a recent speech and press release, Mayor Annise Parker outlined her proposals for a comprehensive non-discrimination ordinance protecting LGBT rights. The only problem with this, of course, it is not all that comprehensive. Texas Leftist sums up the position somewhat well, as does Lone Star Q. In short, it covers both public employment and private corporations providing public accommodations. However, it does not cover private employment. This means, simply put, that most people could continue to be fired in Houston just for being gay.

Ostensibly, Parker sold out on this important detail because she did not have the votes on the council. It is important to note, however, that the comprehensive NDOs are not as ubiquitous as many may think. Only Austin, Dallas and Fort Worth fully ban the private employer discrimination, whereas El Paso and San Antonio have ordinances similar to the one Mayor Parker has proposed. For all of Julian Castro’s accolades in his past last year for a comprehensive NDO, it did not actually go all that far in comparison.

Click here to read an analysis of how things stand at City Hall!

Fire Department brownouts

A couple of weeks ago, I noted that ballooning overtime pay had occurred at the Houston Fire Department. This excessive overtime arrangement, wherein (because of an overly generous union contract) there was no cap on many firefighters could take off on a given day, saw a great deal of expenditures allocated to overtime on a small number of weekends. This, along with other factors, caused the Fire Department’s budget to be way over the mark. Accordingly, the Houston City Council’s Budget Committee met today to discuss ways to cut costs in HFD for the remainder of the City’s fiscal year (roughly four months). Since most of the department’s expenses are personnel costs protected by the union contract, the Committee had to come up with somewhat drastic solutions to this problem.

First, the committee discussed the idea of paying the department’s deficit –estimated at around $10.5 Million– out of pocket, given that the municipality has seen extra tax money in its coffers. But the Chairman of the committee, Councilmember Stephen Costello, was quite tepid on the subject, saying “I’m not real sure that there are enough votes on council to just arbitrarily give them $8 million.” Mayor Annise Parker, meanwhile, was far tougher. “They managed their way into the problem; they can manage their way out,” she said.

Click here to read about what the Committee did!

Parker inaugurated again

This morning, I attended the official Houston inauguration at the Wortham Center. Mayor Annise Parker and City Controller Ronald Green were both inaugurated for their third and final two-year term in office. Additionally, the new City Council were initiated and took office themselves. Among the new additions to the Council were David Robinson and Michael Kubosh in At-large seats and Dwight Boykins, Richard Nguyen and Robert Gallegos in district seats. Brenda Stardig, who has previously served, also took office once more after a two year hiatus.

Parker and Green both had the oath of office administered by Vanessa Gilmore, a local Federal Judge. Parker then delivered a rather brief inaugural speech that was somewhat light on specifics. She did mention, quite specifically, the passage of a non-discrimination ordinance protecting LGBT people. This move was met with only tepid applause from a fraction of the City Council, including the inconspicuous absence of applause from Councilmember Bradford. Actions meant to assuage the damage caused by hurricanes (read: Ike Dike) were also explicitly referenced, as was further improvement to roads and drainage. Perhaps the biggest shock of the day occurred when Parker announced her intention to “completely eliminate chronic homelessness.” This line drew big applause from individuals who have disagreed profoundly with the Mayor in the past, including, most notably, Michael Kubosh.

Click here to read more!