The AL4 cast shows up

The Houston Chronicle reports that a few new names have been added to the candidate roster for one of the Houston City Council’s open At-Large seats, specifically position #4, which is held by term-limited Councilmember C.O. Bradford (D-At Large 4). The seat has recently been held by a series of African-American representatives; even lead the standard-bearing Chronicle has noted this. Back in December, I noted that Laurie Robinson — a previous candidate for the city council — will be running for this position. Now, two more names have entered the fold: Amanda Edwards and Larry Blackmon.

Edwards is an attorney at a downtown blue-chip firm, whereas Blackmon is a retired teacher. Both have a number of connections in the local political scene, but they are not especially significant compared to Robinson’s. All three are fairly dependable Democrats, but each have ways of distinguishing themselves. Robinson, for example, ran against a fellow Democratic Councilmember, Jolanda Jones (AL5), when she ran in 2011 (Councilmember Jack Christie (R-At Large 5) also ran, and was the eventual winner). I was not old enough to vote in that election, but I covered the races with some familiarity, and would have voted for Robinson if I had been eligible. She garnered the endorsement of The Young Independents Club of Emery High School, for what it’s worth.

As the Chronicle article notes, this activity is relatively recent compared to the other open At-Large seat, position #1, which is being vacated by term-limited Councilmember Stephen Costello (R-At Large 1), who is also running for mayor. In that race, Harris County Democratic Party Chairman Lane Lewis, HCC Trustee Chris Oliver, Trebor Gordon, Michael “Griff” Griffin, Philippe Nassif and Jenifer Pool will face off.

For the other At-Large races, there aren’t many surprises. Former Councilmember Andrew Burks (D-At Large 2) will seek a rematch against Councilmember David Robinson (D-At Large 2), who defeated him in 2013. Councilmember Michael Kubosh (R-At Large 3) will cruise to re-election with minimal or nonexistent opposition. Perhaps the most intriguing contest is the last at-large position. Christie is reportedly running for mayor, or at least seriously thinking about it, even though he is still eligible for one more term. If he does run, it will create a third open seat. I know of one individual who is all-but-officially running for AL5, Christie or not, but I am not sure if she is willing to go on record yet. For those of you asking, my father will not be running again for the post.

As for AL4 in particular, I have two main thoughts. The first is to not be surprised if yet another candidate jumps in. I have heard about one individual in particular who has intently been looking over the race, and could really make a splash. Second, we officially have a citywide contest with more than one female candidate! In a city where the majority of the council was once comprised of women, female participation in elected municipal office has precipitously dropped. Zero women are, at press time, running for either Mayor or City Controller; a frightfully sad statistic.

In the next few days, when I have time, I will create one of my perennial side pages in preparation for the 2015 Election. Stay tuned!

Brains & Eggs, Dos Centavos and Off the Kuff have more.

Texpatriate’s Best Councilmembers

Last year, this board examined the best and the worst members of the Houston City Council. After much debate and discussion, we decided to do it again. That being said, our criteria for inclusion — one way or another — has shifted considerably. Last year, we examined which councilmembers agreed with us on our policy goals and priorities the most. As such, the rankings delved into far more of a scorecard than an actual ranking. Looking back, such an assessment of a small and intimate deliberative body was deeply unwise. Being a councilmember, particularly in Houston, is about how one conducts themselves around the horseshoe and around the community. Constituent services are important, no doubt, but what makes or brakes inclusion, in our opinion, are leadership skills and consensus-building abilities.

Additionally, we placed considerable attention on the ability of the individual councilmembers to be unique and independent representatives. Given the strong-mayor system of Houston, this means how much the individuals were able to distinguish themselves from the agenda-setting priorities of Mayor Annise Parker.

Last year, we had nothing but adulation for Parker and her policy goals, whereas this year our opinion has been more mixed. Our reasoning is twofold. First, the composition of this editorial board has been truncated, with an effect of making our overall opinion nominally more conversation. However, we believe the main reason for the departure is that Parker opted to, instead of focus on a plethora of piecemeal accomplishments, pass two major pieces of legislation: a non-discrimination ordinance and an overhaul of vehicle-for-hire laws. We agreed with her on the former and disagreed on the latter, though we had serious reservations with the roll-out on both.

But some of Parker’s other accomplishments were marked with what we deemed to be executive overreach. Perhaps the best example of this was the unilateral decision to allow food trucks downtown, rescinding a dully-passed ordinance in the process. We agree with her on the underlying issue, but found the methods troublesome.

Some of the mayoral candidates for this year’s election, namely former Congressman Chris Bell, has suggested allowing councilmembers to introduce agenda items. We think this is a good idea, and thus have valued councilmembers who we believe would effectively participate in the legislative process.

Finally, we determined that the practice of deriding the “Worst” members of the council was unproductive. Given the small and non-partisan nature of the council, there is little parallel to State Legislature in that way.

Without further ado, we present our list:

THE BEST

MIKE LASTER: IT’S HIS WORLD, WE JUST ALL LIVE IN IT

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City Hall runs on a two-party system. No, not Democrats and Republicans. As any even cursory observer of municipal politics could explain, the system is official non-partisan. Most informed voters could tell you how the candidates fall one way or another, and super-partisans probably care about that type of stuff, but it just is not that important on Bagby street and around the horseshoe. The two parties at City Hall, much like a high school cafeteria, are the in-crowd and the outcasts. You can be on the mayor’s good side or not, and rarely is there a middle ground. The closest thing to one is Councilmember Mike Laster, the Democrat from District J (Sharpstown).

Early this past summer, Laster stood close with Parker as one of the council’s key proponents of the contentious non-discrimination ordinance, sometimes known as the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO). Be it the press conferences, the never-ending public sessions or the at-times heated debates, Laster was a dependable and steadfast supporter of LGBT rights as well as the plethora of other demographics protected by this good-senses ordinance.

However, unlike some others, Laster was always a pragmatic and respectful voice on this issue. This board believes that the principle of equality for all is indisputable, but that does not mean that legislation ensuring that right must be beyond the horse-trading and moderation of municipal politics. Laster understood this principle well. If and when the NDO fight transforms into a municipal referendum, its survival depends on voices like his to not lose track of the big picture.

But Laster is not just a pragmatic voice in the majority, he can sometimes be an effective member of the loyal opposition. This was seen best during the summer-long fight on vehicle-for-hire ordinance, specifically seeking changes to accommodate Uber and Lyft into the market. Laster, representing an outer-loop middle class neighborhood, did not get caught up in the gleefest over the new yuppie infatuation. Instead, he calmly looked at how changes would affect his constituents, his city and his values. When he determined — rightly so — that the inequities in the system proposed were unfair, he audaciously fought against its implementation.

One may think that, allied with so many of his opponents from the NDO fight, this would have made for strange bedfellows. But Laster is not a tribal politician who holds grudges, especially not at city hall. Always one for integrity, he transcended the “parties” at city hall and assumed his new role capably.

C.O. BRADFORD: THE SMARTEST GUY IN THE ROOM

Politics all too often is about obfuscation, confusion and misdirection. Officeholders love using doublespeak, code words and other silly tricks to avoid telling the truth or to conceal their agendas. Unfortunately, that mindset — typically associated with the dysfunction of Washington — is present within local political structures as well. Thankfully, Councilmember C.O. Bradford, a Democrat from the fourth At-Large position, is one of the dependable voices of reason in the room, to not only cut through the fluff but possessing arguably the best command of the rules of procedure around the horseshoe.

This was perhaps best noticed during the aforementioned vehicle-for-hire debates. Every time Bradford was recognized to speak, he essentially took control of the situation, using his persuasive rhetoric and his encyclopedic knowledge of pertinent rules and procedures.

But, possibly most importantly, we have been in awe of Bradford’s conduct in regard to the aforementioned NDO. Firmly a member of the anti-Parker team, he played devil’s advocate at every turn, examining a roll-out that was at times sloppy and without focus. In the past few months, as opponents have attempted to place a referendum on the ordinance on the ballot, Bradford has been reasonable in his comments. However, on the most important underlying point, Bradford has never, ever wavered from a bedrock belief supportive of LGBT rights.

For one member of this board, the decision to include Bradford was particularly easy. Early last year, the council approved an overhaul of ordinances on stray dogs, and Bradford voted incorrectly in our opinion. Reaching Bradford for comment, he passionately, articulately and demonstrably defended his position in a way that not only made his views understandable but reinforced our positive impressions of municipal politics.

DAVE MARTIN: SPEAKING TRUTH TO POWER

The Houston City Council, like any governmental body, does its fair share of silly stuff, so every one in a while someone has to come along and scream that the Emperor has no clothes, so to speak. That person, on Bagby Street, is usually Councilmember Dave Martin, the Republican from District E (Kingwood).

Undoubtedly the best example of this asinine mindset was on the final day of deliberations on the vehicle-for-hire overhaul. The lobbyists for Uber and Lyft had convinced the council to allow their taxi companies slide by the regulators under a different category than Yellow Cab, Lone Star Cab and others, thus prompting vastly different regulations for each category despite the fact that the services provided the exact same service. This board split on the underlying principle of reforming taxi laws, but we unanimously agreed that two different systems for the same service was exceedingly dumb. Most egregiously, the proposals allowed for the so-called “TNCs” like Uber and Lyft to charge whatever they wanted while the other taxis would have their fares completely locked in by city hall.

We asked a lot of people to explain this at the time, and no one could. All we got were ad hominems and sanctimonious dribble. Evidently, Martin had some trouble understanding the proposal’s value too. After it became apparent that the proposal would pass, Martin worked quickly to submit a handwritten amendment — later approved — that allowed all taxis to charge variable rates. Whatever your opinion on taxi laws, you should at least agree that equity should be present within the regulatory scheme. Martin eventually abstained on the underlying ordinance — poignantly reminiscent of our own indecision —  but his noble dedication to even-handedness was not unnoticed.

That is the best anecdote to illustrate the quintessence of Martin’s time around the horseshoe. Always prepared, always willing to speak truth to power and always a bunch of fun to watch in action. And lest you think Martin is a show-horse, to borrow the colloquialisms used in councilmembers’ mailers, his commitment to constituent services is one of the strongest at city hall.

Martin’s district, with Kingwood on one end and Clear Lake on the other, faces unparalleled challenges in many ways. The geographic diversity, for one, is daunting. But Martin — as well as his ever-talented staff — have worked well to respond to the district’s unique needs.

HONORABLE MENTIONS

ROBERT GALLEGOS: ROOKIE OF THE YEAR

Freshman on the city council often have quite an uphill climb to prove themselves in their first year in office. Proving as the exception to the rule, Councilmember Robert Gallegos, a Democrat from District I (East End), has done exactly. From his staff picks, which included young rising stars and former rivals, to his attention to detail at council meetings, Gallegos has proven himself as a positive addition to the council.

He has been a dependable ally of the mayor, by and large, but Gallegos has also begun setting himself apart. On the NDO, which originally only applied to employers with at least 50 employees, Gallegos spearheaded the amendment that lowered the threshold to 15, drawing the ire of the Greater Houston Partnership in the process. On vehicles for hire, he broke with the administration to champion 24/7 commercial insurance for all taxis, a priority of ours. All in all, look for Gallegos to be going places in the next few years.

RICHARD NGUYEN: PROFILE IN COURAGE

When Councilmember Richard Nguyen, hailing from District F (Little Saigon), defeated the two-term incumbent in 2013, few expected a very newsworthy representative. Little was known about him, but when he interviewed with us during the campaign (one of his few public comments), he disclosed his affiliation was a registered Republican because he believed “strongly in the United States Constitutions [sic].” Needless to say, he was not considered a very likely vote for an ordinance extending non-discrimination to LGBT people.

But Nguyen surprised us. In a heartfelt moment, Nguyen described his emotional journey in coming to a decision to support the NDO, in part because of his responsibility to be a good father to his young daughter. Later, Nguyen — becoming more and more affiliated with Parker — took a further step and officially became a member of the Democratic Party.

No doubt, he will be challenged this year for that brave stand. And while the other details of Nguyen’s first year in office haven’t been extraordinary, that special moment alone was. A courageous act for a courageous representative that his district should be proud of.

THE BULL OF THE BAGBY

MICHAEL KUBOSH: THE PEOPLE ARE THE CITY

Councilmember Michael Kubosh, the Republican representing the third At-Large position, has two main principles as an officeholder that guide how he votes. First, follow the law. Second, follow the people. A successful bail bondsman by trade, he possesses an erudite legal knowledge that could put many attorneys to shame.

This first principle was exemplified best during the vehicle-for-hire debates. New entrants, such as Uber and Lyft, began operating illegally months before the actual council debate. The rogue operators openly flaunted the law of the land, then absurdly asked for a more agreeable set of laws (that they would then supposedly follow). Kubosh would have none of this. In every public session on this issue, he made a point of reminding all who would listen that the new taxis were operating illegally. It is not a very hard principle to grasp, but it appeared lost on most of his contemporaries. In the council meetings following Uber and Lyft’s respective legalization, Kubosh has not lost sight of this pesky fact. Week after week, he inquires as to the adjudication of citations issued to Uber and Lyft drivers while they were operating illegally.

But the second principle is the more fascinating one. Kubosh could be described as a populist, in that he values direct democracy above most else. He first got well known in municipal politics in 2010 after he organized opposition to Red Light Cameras, and successfully spearheaded a referendum against their use. When the council passed asinine restrictions on feeding the homeless in 2012, Kubosh also became a leader in the push the see a referendum on that issue. And now, with the NDO, Kubosh is hoping for the people to voice their opinions on that issue.

This board is not a big fan of voting on civil rights. We disagreed with his vote against the NDO, but his reasoning is consistent and admirable nonetheless. In a day and age where our politics is dominated by ideologues, Kubosh is quite literally the furthest thing from it.

He listens to the people, whatever they say. In the age old dispute of “Delegate” versus “Trustee” systems of representatives, first formulated by Edmund Burke, Kubosh has firmly taken to the latter option. He’s bold, he’s unpredictable and he’s fearless. And while he certainly hasn’t made a friend of Parker, he’s earned our respect.

Now, the rumor is that Kubosh could challenge Congressman John Culberson, a Republican from the 7th district. We’d love to see him in congress, but city hall would certainly lose out.

The Texpatriate Editorial Board is comprised of George Bailey of Boston, Noah M. Horwitz of Austin and Andrew Scott Romo of New Orleans. Editorials represent a majority opinion of the voting board.

Catching up, Part I

In the last week, no shortage of big news has transpired down at City Hall. Coincidentally, I was down there three or four days of the past week, but mostly heard the big news secondhand. Perhaps most importantly, as the Houston Chronicle reports, Mayor Annise Parker has officially nominated her new City Attorney to replace David Feldman, who announced his resignation last month. The nominee is Donna Edmundson, who — if confirmed — would become the first woman to take the city’s top legal job. She has a lengthy and impressive career on the fourth floor, working there for nearly thirty years (straight out of law school).

Among Edmundson’s accomplishments in the past have been working tirelessly against gangs in high-risk neighborhoods, as well as being instrumental in reaching the 2013 deal between Parker and the strip club cabal. Needless to say, the City Attorney’s office will be in capable hands with Edmundson.

The announcement largely took the political community by surprise, as Edmundson was undoubtedly an under-the-radar pick. Many had expected either Lynette Fons, the First Assistant City Attorney, or Steven Kirkland, a Municipal Judge and former Civil District Judge, to be selected.

Standing besides Parker at the press conference that unveiled Edmundson’s selection were City Councilmembers Dwight Boykins (D-District D) and Jack Christie (R-At Large 5), respectively, who both voiced their support of the nomination. The bipartisan support is expected to continue, and Edmundson could easily be confirmed unanimously. The timing is somewhat important, as Feldman — whose last year in office was rocked over the controversial non-discrimination ordinance — is planning on testifying in the upcoming NDO trial.

For those unfamiliar, the NDO prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, sex, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity and a plethora of other demographics in employment (15+ employees) and places of public accommodation. Most of those categories (the notable exceptions being sexual orientation and gender identity) are already protected by state and federal regulations, but this ordinance makes legal options considerably easier/cheaper. Obviously, the protections for the LGBT community garnered those same trite homophobic reactions and blowback, although the Parker administration did foul up the roll-out of the ordinance. I contend that some of the ordinance’s strongest critics, such as Councilmember Michael Kubosh, could have been amenable to supporting the bill if Parker had not been so confrontational and divisive about the whole matter.

Anyways, opponents gathered enough signatures to force a referendum on this topic, but the City Attorney’s office — going around City Secretary Anna Russell, who had certified the petitions — disqualified most of the signatures. Off the court the whole thing went, which brings us to the present.

The Houston Chronicle reports that the trial over these petition certifications will occur on January 20th in the court of Civil District Judge Robert Schaffer, a Democrat. This past week, arguments took place regarding whether or not the case should be a jury trial or a bench trial (decided by the Judge). At the City Council meeting on Wednesday, some members of the Council weighed in on the matter. Kubosh believed that the will of the people should be respected and, as such, a jury trial should be sought. City Councilmember C.O. Bradford (D-At Large 4), who is both an attorney and a supporter of the NDO, agreed that a jury trial would be ideal.

I tend to agree with their sentiment, but think that at the end of the day this is a legal and not a political issue. Schaffer is a very good judge, who checks his politics at the door. I think whatever decision he comes to will be a well-reasoned one.

Speaking of lawsuits, Friday hosted some other big news in municipal politics. Theodore Schleifer at the Houston Chronicle reports that a Federal Judge, Sim Lake (a Reagan nominee), has placed a preliminary injunction on Houston’s municipal fundraising rules, which disallow candidates from raising money before February 1st. Since nothing is expected to change in the next three weeks, the floodgates have officially opened for mayoral and council candidates to begin raising money.

Schliefer, in a subsequent Chronicle post, described the stampede of fundraising that is already abound and how, if the law is definitively declared unconstitutional later this year, it will change the dynamics of local politics. Meanwhile, a separate lawsuit will be heard tomorrow, initiated by former Congressman Chris Bell, a likely mayoral candidate. Bell, as I noted a few months back, has sued Sylvester Turner (D-Harris County), another mayoral candidate, arguing that he violated the spirit of municipal regulations last year when he raised money for an all-but-obsolete legislative account, then later plans to dump all the money into a mayoral account.

As I said back then and still believe, the local campaign finance regulations tend to do more harm than good. But it will be interesting, to say the least, seeing how it will affect the mayoral candidate on the horizon.

Laurie Robinson to run for AL4

Texpatriate reports that Laurie Robinson, a local businesswoman, will run for the Houston City Council next year. Specifically, as Houston Chronicle reported Theodore Schleifer reported on Twitter, she will seek out At-Large Position #4. The seat is currently held by Councilmember C.O. Bradford (D-At Large 4), who is term limited. The seat, which was previously held by now-Controller Ronald Green, has historically been held by an African-American officeholder, and this recent history has been noted repeatedly in recent weeks as a plethora of Caucasian candidates have stampeded into At-Large Position #1 and only that position, the other open seat.

A number of other names have popped up for this seat in conversations taking place behind closed doors, but none with enough certainty to be written in ink. Thus far, as noted above, most activity has taken place around Position #1, currently held by the term limited Councilmember Stephen Costello (R-At Large 1), a likely mayoral candidate. As I noted in the article I linked above, Harris County Democratic Party Chairman Lane Lewis will run for the post, as will Jenifer Pool, Philippe Nassif, Trebor Gordon and Griff Griffin. All except Nassif have run for office a few times (Griffin in particular about a dozen times).

Robinson, for her part, is no political novice. Most notably, she ran for At-Large Position #5 in 2011 against both the incumbent, Jolanda Jones, and the eventual successor, Jack Christie. I haven’t always been the biggest fan of either, so Robinson was naturally my favorite candidate in that race. Now, I was 17 at the time of that election, but if I were of age, I would undoubtedly have voted for her. More recently, many attempted to recruit her to run for council in 2013, but she declined to do so at that time.

Speaking of Christie, that is the At-Large Position (No. 5) I have been the most curious about. A two-term incumbent, Christie is eligible to run for re-election once more, but he has been telling many throughout the city that he has opted to run for mayor instead. This would make the position open. Much like AL4, quite a few names have been tossed around for this post, from community leaders to newcomers to my own father (to my knowledge, he’s not considering it; though unlike George P. Bush, I would wholeheartedly endorse my dad if he chose to run), but none on the record. I have contended that Christie may end up running for re-election anyways, but the filing deadline (August) is still a long ways off.

What have you, readers? I won’t humor rumors in my post, but I’m not necessarily averse to seeing them in the comments section.

Lewis will run for Council

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The Houston Chronicle reports that Harris County Democratic Party Chairman Lane Lewis will run for the City Council in 2015, namely At-Large Position #1. The position is currently held by Councilmember Stephen Costello (R-At Large 1), who is term-limited as well as a likely mayoral candidate. Lewis, who has served as Chairman since 2011, previously ran for the City Council in 2009, when he sought an open seat in District A (and lost a runoff election to Brenda Stardig).

It is interesting that Lewis would go so early for the AL1 position, given the dynamics of the other council races. Councilmember C.O. Bradford (D-At Large 4) is term limited yet there are no candidates openly vying for his post at press time. Similarly, Councilmember Jack Christie (R-At Large 5) is a likely mayoral candidate, and thus his seat would be open even though he could ostensibly run again. Similarly, no one is making waves there. But with the introduction of Lewis, there are now three open candidates for AL1. In addition to him, Philippe Nassif has been openly running since at least the State Convention in June.  Jenifer Pool, a favorite in the LGBT community and a three-time candidate, will also seek this specific position. Given that the filing deadline is in August, however, much can change in the flash of an eye.

I must admit that I am unaware of if a County Chair would or would not resign his position to run for a post such as this one. And, if Lewis does resign, who would the favorite be to succeed him? I’m sure I’ll get an answer to both of those questions tomorrow and will update accordingly. According to Theodore Schleifer, the Chronicle reporter who broke this story, Lewis will stay on as chair for the time being, but circumstances may change in the heat of the campaign.

Cards on the table, I’m a fan of Lewis. He was selected as the 2012 Texpatriate Person of the Year and I think he did a great job of attracting some good Democratic candidates this past cycle. That being said, I really like Nassif as well as Pool too. I think all three would make good candidates and look forward to some of the points they raise in the campaign.

I’ve heard quite a few other names as rumor and hearsay, but have decided not to repeat them here, given the unreliability of some of my sources. I’ll have more when I can make confirmations.

Proposed charter changes

Texpatriate has learned that the Houston City Council’s ad hoc “charter review committee” has assembled a memorandum of four proposed rule changes to the city’s constitution-like document and plans on holding a public hearing on the matter. On December 4th at 1:00 PM, a week from tomorrow, the council will hold a public hearing on these four proposals, which I will delineate below. Additionally, to call it a “committee” is a misnomer, as the whole council sits on this special group. Mayor Pro Tem Ed Gonzalez (D-District H) will preside.

The four proposals were initially suggested by City Councilmember C.O. Bradford (D-At Large 4). They are eliminating the so-called “revenue cap” for local property taxes, allowing for secret sessions of the council, modifying term limits and allowing a coalition of at least six councilmembers to add agenda items. Personally, I think the first and the last proposals are slam dunks that should be ratified, but the second and the third should prompt fuller and more robust discussion.

Talk of cleaning up the city’s charter has been abound for the last couple of months, but rather than simple housekeeping measures, these proposals tend to focus on more divisive, political disputes. That’s not to say these are not important topics to consider, but it must be done slower and with more scrutiny than, say, neutral cleanup measures.

The first suggestion, the revenue cap, is something that most astute followers of local politics concede is a silly and ill-conceived roadblock to municipal development. Back in 2004, as Charles Kuffner has noted, voters approved an asinine measure that limited increases of property tax revenue to the combined rate of population and inflation. However, this failed to take account of the possibility of rapidly increasing property values down the road, as has occurred in the last few years in Houston. Thus, next year, Houston will face a large shortfall, arguably larger than during the economic downturn. Mayor Annise Parker has supported nixing this cap, as have many member of the council. Furthermore, some mayoral candidates — including, most notably, former Congressman Chris Bell — have also opined against the cap. Kuffner has even gone so far as to claim he would withhold support from any 2015 mayoral candidate unless he or she backed the cap’s removal.

As for the second proposal, I have mixed views on the prospect of closed-door sessions of the council. As I have previously mentioned, such a proposal — in my view — runs counter to the Texas Open Meetings Act, and just rubs me the wrong way. I understand that some meetings involve touchy subject matters, but it sets a dangerous precedent to move the machinery of government behind closed doors.

With the third proposal, I similarly find myself uneasy. Like Kuffner, I am more-or-less an opponent of term limits for legislative offices (though I’m fine with them for executive positions). But this topic is not about the underlying validity of term limits; the main point of contention is the length of individual terms. While those terms for council, City Controller and mayor are currently at two years, the proposal would augment it to four years.

I really don’t like increasing the amount of time in between which politicians are held accountable by their constituents. I fully empathize with the concerns over excessive campaigning and stress, but those concerns are far outweighed by the need for citizens to control representatives in government. Certain one-term councilmembers of yesteryear demonstrate that somewhat well.

Last, but certainly not least, is a proposal to allow a coalition of at least six councilmembers to add agenda items in meetings. Currently, only the mayor has the ability. Upon first glance, I like this idea, as it allows the despotism of the chief executive to be removed in favor of a more inclusive cross-section of the community. That being said, Parker has largely lost my confidence in being a unifying leader, so it is within the realm of possibility that my point of view could change when presented with a new, more unifying, mayor.

What do you think of the proposals?

Council update 10/8

 

A few weeks ago, I noted that Mayor Annise Parker and City Attorney David Feldman were pondering pushing through a ban on types of synthetic marijuana. Today, they introduced the item to the City Council and it passed unanimously. Whereas pertinent State law only disallows the specific chemical makeup typically found in the fake cannabis, the new City law is more all-encompassing. Instead of targeting the compound, it goes after the way it is “marketed and labeled.” That’s good, but I’m concerned it might open up the law to some court challenges.

Synthetic marijuana, unlike it’s honest counterpart, has some serious health risks. Despite the name, there are few similarities in either the high you get or the health risks presented. Unlike the mellowness and avoidance of overdoses hailed as hallmarks of cannabis, the effects of synthetic marijuana are far more similar to that of amphetamines. Lasting brain damage can occur. Forbes Magazine has an article that explains the plethora of individuals who have fatally overdosed on the substance. Perhaps the most compelling reason for the legalization of marijuana is that, since the beginning of time, zero people have fatally OD-ed on it. Obviously, the same is not true with the synthetic substances, prompting a rationale for prohibiting its use even when he are liberalizing drug laws in other ways.

“It is an epidemic, it is the fastest growing drug of choice across the United States and it is many, many, many times more potent than natural marijuana and, in fact, it has no relation to marijuana other than it stimulates some of the same receptors in the body,” Parker told the Chronicle. “It can cause stupor, but it can also cause aggression and agitation, and it’s causing a lot of concern across the community.”

Otherwise, as the Houston Chronicle also notes, most of the buzz surrounding City Hall today involved numerous proposals for amending the City Charter. The four specific changes floated, which could see a ballot — if at all — either next May or next November, are as follows: lifting the revenue cap on property taxes, amending term limit rules, allowing secret meetings of the Council and allowing a gaggle of Councilmembers to propose agenda items.

The revenue cap is an issue that came up over the summer but has predominantly fallen out of the news recently. At issue is a decade-old, voter-approved ceiling on the amount of property taxes raised. Simply put, despite controls of growth and inflation, it simply has not kept up. Because of the cap, rates for homeowners will effectively fall in the coming years –which is indubitably a good thing. But the city will be constrained and will, even in a good economy, be compelled to return to slashing services. It’s a lose-lose proposition, and one that will be bitterly hard to fight. All in all, I think the cap should be lifted, but it’s hard to imagine a majority of the low-turnout municipal electorate agreeing.

Next is the oft-repeated proposal to amend term limit laws. Currently, the Mayor, City Controller and City Council are all limited by three two-year terms. The proposal touted by the Mayor would change this to two four-year terms; I don’t know how it would affect incumbent officeholders, and how many more years they could serve if the proposal is adopted.

Now, most of the arguments in support of term limit reform fall on deaf ears for me. While I’m ambivalent about the whole idea of limiting how many terms a legislator (which a City Councilmember effectively is) can serve, I am a vociferous advocate of frequent elections. The proposal would quite literally make these officeholders accountable to the public half as often, breaking from the tradition set by the lower House of both Congress and the State Legislature. While advocates of it may whine about the stresses put on politicians, I simply do not give a care. Their concerns are subservient to the concerns of their constituents.

Particularly with the increasingly erratic electorate that selects members of the City Council, obstructive Councilmembers are becoming more and more frequent. Former City Councilmembers Helena Brown (R-District A) and Andrew Burks (D-At Large 2) are two sterling examples of this phenomenon. If they were elected under Parker’s proposal, they would still be around doing all that they did at Council meetings. Need I say more?

Third, a proposal has been floated to allow the Houston City Council to meet more in private. Parker and Feldman, I recall, made a similar push a few years ago, but received criticism from the Councilmembers. The two now-former CMs who opposed the strongest, however, Al Hoang (R-District F) and James Rodriguez (D-District I), are no longer on the Council. I have always been bitterly opposed to closed-door sessions such as these, in principle as well as practice. When my father ran for the City Council last year, I even encouraged him to record an advertisement deriding the proposal.

Last, but certainly not least, is a proposal by City Councilmember C.O. Bradford (D-At Large 4) to allow for a coalition of at least six Councilmembers to proposal agenda items. Currently, only the Mayor can make proposals on the agenda. To this, the Mayor appeared absolutely opposed; I can’t say I’m surprised, she has acted almost imperial unilateral with her power recently.

A few months ago, when I spoke to former Congressman Chris Bell, a likely Mayoral contender for 2015, he also expressed support for allowing the Council to influence the agenda. All in all, I tend to think individual Councilmembers should be able to introduce items, but I suppose that just goes against the spirit of the strong-Mayor system.

What do you think about this proposals? How about the synthetic pot ban?

A few more Mayoral names

Theodore Schleifer, the new political reporter at the Houston Chronicle (welcome, fellow millennial, to the addicting world of Houston politics), wrote a front-page article yesterday about the huge fundraising advantage in the upcoming Mayoral election held by former State Representative Sylvester Turner (D-Harris County). It is a good piece of journalism, and I highly recommend reading it all the way through. However, what I found most interesting about the article was the new names put in print on who would be running for Mayor. I had heard most of the names, but never with anyone willing to go on-the-record.

Bill King, the former Mayor of Kemah, was listed as “waiting to assess the field.” This is notable, as King is a biweekly columnist for the Chronicle, and thus works a few doors down from Schleifer. Accordingly, there must be some truth to that allegation. The concept of being the Mayor of different cities has always struck me as rather improper, though. The connection to the city can’t help but look superficial.

Another name mentioned was City Councilmember C.O. Bradford (D-At Large 4). As astute followers of this publication will likely know, I am a big fan of Bradford, and would be very happy to see him run for Mayor. He has a unique ability to cut through the bull in politics, and is without a doubt one of the smartest people sitting at the horseshoe. If there is anyone excited about him running, it would be me. But, as I have understood it, Bradford decided against a Mayoral bid about a year ago. Maybe he changed his mind?

Finally, the name Marty McVey was included. The Chronicle article describes him as a “private equity executive.” He also serves on the Board for International Food & Agricultural Development (BIFAD) for the US Agency for International Development (USAID). Politically connected both locally and in Washington, McVey is the wealthy businessman this race has been waiting for. A Democrat, cursory research will show that he donated about $100,000 to progressive political causes in recent cycles.

Susan Delgado, a political gadfly, also announced via her Facebook that she would run for Mayor. She ran in the Democratic primary against State Representative Carol Alvarado (D-Harris County) earlier this year, as well as in the special election for the State Senate District 6 last year. A one-time mistress of the late State Senator Mario Gallegos (D-Harris County), she first entered the limelight about ten years ago.

The Chronicle article also very heavily assumed that Sheriff Adrian Garcia would run for Mayor. Obviously, the Sheriff, as a county officer, must resign his office in order to run for Mayor. I am still skeptical he will end up running, but you all know I’ve definitely been wrong before. To see my previous overview of the field, please click this link.

What do you make of this all?

Council expands recycling citywide

The Houston Chronicle reported yesterday that Mayor Annise Parker unveiled a new plan to bring curbside recycling to every Houstonian by year’s end. Specifically, a roll-able 96 gallon green bin will be delivered to all the houses within the city limits, for absolute ease in recycling. Today, the Houston City Council voted unanimously (with the Mayor absent) to spend more than $5 Million to accomplish this ambitious task. The Council held a long –and often rambling– debate on the merits of recycling and the quixotic one-bin-for-all program.

Roughly 30% of houses in Houston are either without any form of recycling or merely have the bulky green bins one must carry by hand. As some may recall, I blasted the Mayor’s short-sighted proposals to “expand” the recycling program last year, which unreasonably focused on upgrading those with the handheld bins to the rolling bins, rather than providing every Houstonian at least some baseline of coverage. Unsurprisingly, the priorities on recycling went to richer and Whiter neighborhoods. District C, arguably the most affluent district, already had virtually full coverage. Some of the comparably poorer districts, including District D and District I, had much more spotty coverage.

One of those portions of District D is most of Midtown, which is still without any semblance of recycling service. When I worked in Midtown, as recently as last year, I would have to give any aluminum cans I had accrued throughout the day a 30 minute ride back to Meyerland if they stood any chance of being recycled.

Indeed, Councilmember Dwight Boykins (D-District D), who represents the area, has been particularly vocal about this matter. “The beauty of this thing is that everybody will be able to participate in the recycle process,” Boykins recently told the Chronicle on the subject.

Obviously, I am elated to hear this much needed adjustment to the city’s sustainability program has occurred.  As much as we hate to admit it, people will rarely go out of their way to do things such as recycle when their exists a much-easier alternative. Blame it on laziness or business or something else entirely, that’s just how it works in society. Accordingly, recycling rates only tend to rise when recycling containers are as ubiquitous as garbage cans. It’s simply naive to think differently.

However, the one-bin-for-all decision is still somewhere in the future, and I look forward to how the City Council deliberates that matter. Councilmembers C.O. Bradford (D-At Large 4), Michael Kubosh (R-At Large 3), Mike Laster (D-District J) and Dave Martin (R-District E) were particularly vociferous in their remarks today. I honestly am still undecided on that issue, with even left-wing environmental groups being skeptical. I can’t wait to hear what some of these councilmembers have to say at the pertinent time.

What do you think?

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.