The Houston City Council finalized two major contracts this meeting, both in rather uncontroversial votes despite rather tumultuous and often uncertain paths to day. First, the Council passed a new contract with a more local advertising to provide advertising at the airport. Two weeks ago, the Mayoral administration removed this issue off of the agenda after incessant complaints from Clear Channel communications, who had originally bargained for the contract themselves but had later been cut out of the dealings. Unless the details of the calculation has changed in the last few days, the contract will generate upwards of $10,000,000.00 from advertisements at both Bush and Hobby airports.
Second, the Council unanimously approved a contract to select a health and pharmacy benefits administrator. Specifically, the City chose CIGNA to accomplish this goal. The otherwise mundane, miniscule agenda item recently flared tensions between the City Council and Mayor Parker, as Mike Morris at the Houston Chronicle had described in great detail. Ultimately the critics, be it C.O. Bradford or Oliver Pennington, showed their qualms may have just been political posturing, as Jayme Fraser at the Chronicle noted that there was not a single ‘no’ vote at the final tally.
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As was noted last week, the City Council delayed a proposal to approve an advertising contract at the airports for one week, until today’s meeting. Today, after brief discussion, the Council decided to refer the decision back to the Mayoral administration. Not much else about this item came up for public consideration this week, as the original controversy revolved around both Clear Channel and another firm fighting over the contract.
Next, the City Council discussed hiring “advisory counsel” for a planned new Courthouse and Justice Complex. Specifically, the firm of Hawkins, Delafield & Wood was retained, out of New York City. Only Councilmember Oliver Pennington voted against this arrangement, noting that the City should have hired more local counsel. Of course, Pennington was a high-profile attorney at Fulbright & Jaworski, but his criticism is nonetheless valid. I would have probably joined him in raising my eyebrows, though that is neither here nor there.
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As was first reported by Texpatriate last month, there was a pending proposal before the City Council to combat food deserts (areas, predominantly within poor neighborhoods, that lack a meaningful number of healthy grocery stores) by loosening restrictions of who could sell alcohol where in the neighborhoods. While these two issues may appear unrelated, the logic behind the push is actually quite sound. Simply put, current alcohol ordinances in the City prohibit stores from selling alcohol within 1000 feet of a school or church. In many lower income neighborhoods, churches often have a ubiquitous presence in strip centers alongside other stores. Accordingly, Mayor Parker and others on the City Council argued that these restrictions should be loosened to 300 feet in order to attract new grocery stores to the area.
This morning, the City Council approved the relaxed regulations. They only apply to stores with at least 10,000 square feet of retail space, forbids establishments that allow onsite consumption (sorry, Whole Foods!) and excludes any stores that obtain over a quarter of their profits from the alcoholic sales. The move was largely the brainchild of Councilmember Stephen Costello, who has dedicated a fair amount of time recently to combating the negative effects of food deserts. The regulations were put in place to make sure only actual large Grocery Stores could take advantage of the new rules, and not stop-and-go convenience stores or otherwise any sort of bar.
Click here to read Costello’s statement as well as other action taken by the Council!
As I foreshadowed yesterday, the City Council today discussed creating “passport kiosks” at customs lines in the airport. These machines would allow for US Citizen to complete several tedious, mundane tasks (such as scanning their passport) at a machine, minimizing the amount of time spent with an actual agent. The process cuts down the time spent in customs lines significantly, as evident by identical programs recently enacted in New York and Chicago.
Anyways, this measure passed the City Council today, though I am not familiar with when the machines will be installed. I am not an international traveler, so once again, this will not affect me in the slightest, but I suppose it will help many others.
In other news, the controversial “wage theft ordinance” came before the Council today. As the astute may recall, Parker raised eyebrows when –somewhat abruptly– after her re-election last week, she told Mike Morris at the Houston Chronicle that the wage theft ordinance would be on this week’s agenda. Wage theft, of course, is when a company or individual knowingly promises wages in bad faith to employers. This includes not paying promised overtime pay as well.
Click here to find out what happened with the Wage Theft ordinance!
The Houston Chronicle (paywall) reports that the Houston City Council will discuss a measure tomorrow aimed at decreasing the amount of time spent in customs at Bush airport. Specifically, the airport (which is indirectly run by the City) is asking to install “automated passport-control kiosks” in the custom lines.
As the Chronicle article notes, the machines “allows travelers to scan their own passports, complete paperwork and confirm their travel information.” Thereafter, the traveler would still be forced to communicate/converse with a customs agent, mostly to double check and confirm everything. According to both the Chronicle article and similar studies, these use of these machines significantly reduces waiting times. This is because simple-though-time-consuming tasks take up the time of many of the limited number of customs officers. One caveat of the program is that it is limited to US Citizens.
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