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.

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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.

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!

In re HFD overtime

Mike Morris at the Houston Chronicle presents a longform article on the Houston Fire Department budget, specifically how the budget is being strained at this moment by allegedly excessive overtime payments. The story reeks of at least a mild slant –some may even go as far as calling it a ‘hit piece’– but nonetheless serves an important purpose in exemplifying both the tense relationship between HFD & the City, and the finances of the fire department.

As I understand the current controversy, the issue predominantly revolves around about $8Million in overtime pay charged to the department. Given the fact that, as the Chronicle article notes, 92% of the department budget is salaries, this overtime pay was hard to offset. Terry Garrison, the Fire Chief, has previously stated that the department would attempt to fix the issues caused by the unexpected expenditures by cutting some administrative posts and severely curtailing certain training programs (specifically those for prospective paramedics).

The unexpected overtime costs were directly connected to an uber-powerful union contract the firefighters have against the City, which prohibits common sense regulations such as limiting the number of firefighters who take off on any one day. Most all of the overtime pay occurred as a direct result of just a few weekends when a plethora of firefighters would take time off. Another fact, by the Chronicle’s own admission, is that the department is both understaffed and underpaid for a City of Houston’s size.

Click here to read the full article!

Parker names Committee chairs

Shortly after the inauguration nearly two weeks ago (wow, time flies), City Councilmember Stephen Costello announced he had been selected as the Chair of the Finance & Budget Committee for the second straight term. Today, as the Houston Chronicle reports, the Mayor appointed Chairs and Vice-Chairs to the remaining seven committees.

First up, Parker creates a Subcommittee within Costello’s budget committee that will deal with Pensions and Health Benefits. Councilmember Dave Martin, a conservative with somewhat right-wing views on the guaranteed benefits, will Chair this subcommittee. The decision is strange for Parker, as she has often sought a middle ground on this budgetary matter, with views typically aligning with the far more moderate Republican (Costello). Still, sometimes these chairmanships are nothing more than empty titles, so it is possible I might be reading too much into it. Meanwhile, Councilmember Jerry Davis, who is now the Vice-Mayor Pro Tem, will also serve as the Vice Chair of Costello’s Budget and Fiscal Committee.

Councilmember Ed Gonzalez, who previously Chaired the Public Safety Committee, will continue in that position for his final term. Gonzalez also serves as the Mayor Pro Tem. This committee will consider at least one high-profile issue this term, the issue of whether or not to ban texting while driving. Councilmember Brenda Stardig, another Republican with ties to Parker, was named the Vice-Chair of this committee.

Click here to read more!