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.

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David Feldman resigns

The Houston Chronicle reports that David Feldman, the City Attorney of Houston, has resigned. Feldman took office in May 2010, a few months into Mayor Annise Parker’s first term, and has worked under her for the succeeding nearly five years. Now, with just a little more than a year left on Parker’s final term in office, Feldman is out the door.

Ostensibly, it is because he wishes to go into private practice with his son, who is also an attorney. But Feldman, a former partner at the blue-chip firm Vinson & Elkins, would have surely had that opportunity — as well as a plethora of others — waiting for him at the end of Parker’s time in office. Some individuals, namely former Harris County Republican Party Chairman Jared Woodfill, contend that Feldman is leaving because of the firestorm that erupted regarding the recent asinine decision by Feldman’s office to subpoena pertinent sermons from pastors, namely those involving the non-discrimination ordinance and its succeeding referendum effort. Feldman, for his part, claims he did not personally authorize the subpoenas but conceded that the issuing of them was a blunder on his part.

Interestingly enough, Feldman’s resignation — which will take effect on January 16th of next year — occurs just before a planned trial on the validity of petition efforts to overturn the aforementioned NDO. Feldman himself intimated to the Chronicle that he wished to resign before the trial, so that he could testify and not disqualify the Legal Department staff from serving as counsel. However, the cottage legal expert that the Chronicle sought out even noted that such drastic concerns were patently silly. My legal sources have said the same thing.

The Chronicle article is yeoman’s work by Mike Morris, and it essentially pens Feldman’s political obituary; I highly recommend reading the whole thing. One point of note is that, even among ideological opponents on the NDO, such as Councilmember Oliver Pennington (R-District G), Feldman was well-liked as an honest hard worker. Although his legacy will likely be cemented in that controversial ordinance, he does have a history of working hard to achieve many of the other city goals.

I think I am most curious, however, about the exact decision for Feldman to leave office. As the Houston Press notes (as well as the Chronicle article), the city is also approaching a big battle with the Firefighter’s Union regarding contracts. The interim president of that union, as the Chronicle quotes, did not have any kind words for Feldman on the news of his departure.

I’m in Galveston this morning, but I can still hear quacking all the day from City Hall. As Parker enters the final few months of her term, more and more senior staff will begin jumping ship. Not necessarily a judgment on her administration in particular, just a common component of the six-year itch in municipal politics. One must wonder, though, if the negative press over the NDO played a greater part specifically in Feldman calling it quits.

Local odds and ends

In the days following the general election, a number of major actions have occurred at the local level. I’ve fallen a little bit behind, so instead of devoting separate posts to all of them, I will try to recap them altogether, since they all have a broadly City-related theme.

First, on Thursday, Judge Lisa Millard of the 310th (Family) District Court put yet another temporary restraining order on the City’s plan to offer full spousal benefits to same-sex spouses of city employees. The Houston Chronicle has outlined the full, nearly year-long, story on that front. Simply put, after Mayor Annise Parker announced the policy about a year ago, Millard placed a TRO on the matter. This, despite the fact that Millard is a Family judge and this case, concerning the constitutionality of a municipal regulation, undoubtedly belongs in a Civil District court (where most of the Judges are Democrats).

At the beginning of this year, the TRO was lifted after the case was moved into Federal Court. Although that Judge, Lee Rosenthal, later determined in August that the case need not be in Federal Court, a separate countersuit that resulted in a Federal holding in favor of the policy still stands. Accordingly, I’m confused as to what authority Millard has to contradict a Federal Judge. The constitution, which this case is ostensibly all about, is fairly clear about the supremacy of the Federal Government over the States. That’s Article VI, Clause II, for those of you playing at home.

If I had to make a guess, I would think that the Feds will once again step in and take this issue out of Millard’s hands. Short of that, I would not be surprised if a higher-up state court tosses this case into the Civil District benches. It is just wholly inappropriate for a judge who oversees divorces and the like to be prognosticating issues like the constitutionality of municipal policies. This is a bad decision from a bad judge, one who was unfortunately re-elected on Tuesday (unopposed as well, adding insult to injury).

The state of Texas’ constitution does clearly note that no subdivision of the state (such as a city) may recognize same-sex marriages. Accordingly, on its face, this policy does have some problems. But what Parker and City Attorney David Feldman argued has been that the US Supreme Court, in its 2013 decision United States v. Windsor, compels Houston to recognize such unions.

The second item of news is that the Parker administration has officially denied a petition effort to compel a referendum on the contentious “Homeless feeding” ordinance. Once again, Mike Morris and Katherine Driessen have the full story on that, over at the Houston Chronicle.

Way back in the spring of 2012, before this publication was even in existence, Parker and a bare-bones majority of the City Council passed a frustratingly silly ordinance that banned the sharing of food with homeless people on public land. Rightly so, the public was appalled by this asinine micromanagement, and an effort went underway to collect signature on a petition to force a referendum. In August 2012, the petitions were submitted, and then the waiting game began. More than a year later, one of the main drivers of this petition effort, Michael Kubosh, was elected to the City Council. Since taking office, he has reminded the administration nearly every week that he expected a decision on this petition effort.

Thursday afternoon, he got his answer, as the city officially denied the petitions. Much like the brouhaha over the Non-discrimination ordinance, nearly double the required minimum signatures were submitted, but half of them were denied. More specifically, about 35,000  names were given, but only about 17,500 were validated, short of the 19,000 required to force a referendum.

Kubosh, for his part, remained cordial and optimistic about the future. He told the Chronicle “I don’t want to have to accept it, but I’ll have to accept it and we’ll just have to figure out what to do next.”

First of all, from a political point of view, kudos to the Mayor’s office for waiting until after the election to wade into this controversial issue. Restraint and political acumen heralded the day here, unlike whatever “bonehead” in the legal department issued those unfortunate subpoenas to pastors regarding the NDO.

I always have been, and continue to be, a steadfast opponent of the ordinance. Criminalizing the sharing of food is just never a good strategy when it comes to the public relations battle, as national stories continue to suggest. If this would have come up for a vote, it would have gone down in flames.

Last, and probably least, there is yet another article in the Houston Chronicle that deals with a second lawsuit filed against the city’s fundraising rules regarding municipal candidates. As many will recall, former Congress Chris Bell, a likely Mayoral candidate, filed a state suit over the rules last month. This time, Trebor Gordon, a past and future candidate for the City Council, is challenging the rules in Federal court.

Gordon’s argument is that the fundraising ban before February 1st violates the First Amendment, as well as spirits of fairness given that elected officials in other offices can still raise money for their incumbent position, then transfer the money to their municipal accounts after February 1st. This is the key complaint of Bell, pointed toward State Representative Sylvester Turner (D-Harris County), the current arguable frontrunner.

“These exceptions codify a shocking bias toward incumbents and the political elite,” said Gordon’s attorney, Jerad Nevjar.

The article doesn’t note which position Gordon will run for, but I have to assume it’s at-large again. He ran a rather levelheaded campaign in 2013, but fell off the deep end earlier this year when talk of the NDO arose. He eventually blocked me and other social liberals from his Facebook after we took exception to his constant homophobic actions, including repeatedly linking homosexuality with bestiality and pedophilia. Now, Gordon notes that he was inspired to run again because of the aforementioned subpoena scandal.

I agree with him that the subpoenas were a poor choice, and I certainly agree that the fundraising rules are wrong — if not unconstitutional. But perhaps he is not the best messenger.

Subpoenas droppped

Yesterday, Mayor Annise Parker finally agreed the drop the controversial subpoenas issued against clergy for supposed comments made regarding the recent Non-discrimination ordinance. I talked up this issue somewhat thoroughly a couple weeks ago when the subpoenas were first issued, so I do not think I will get into weeds of all that again.

First, the Parker administration narrowed the scope of the subpoenas to explicitly make the point that they wished to only cover topics directly related to the petition effort against the NDO, not any broad topics on the underlying issues. Still receiving derision from across the country, Parker and City Attorney David Feldman relented and dropped the subpoenas. However, as the Houston Chronicle noted today, religious and conservative leaders are still up in arms about the actions.

Litigators and others with some familiarity between the city and those religious leaders bringing suit against the city (please see previous post for more on that) will know that these subpoenas are fairly routine parts of the discovery process in a lawsuit. However, the ultra-religious, ironically those preaching hellfire and damnation against some others most obstreperously, are remarkably gifted at feigning outrage and phony persecution. If you ever dare to suggest that Churches stop impeding upon the state, they scream persecution and “War on Christmas” and all that hyperbolic silliness. Nick Anderson, the Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist at the Chronicle, illustrated this very point better than I could write on it.

But, separate from what is legally correct, this whole issue was politically wrong. Actually, that’s an understatement, it was a political atrocity. Parker succeeded in awakening the angry conservative masses that had finally subsided following the “Summer of HERO.” She succeeded even in bringing attention to this delicate issue from all across the country. And the annoying way that the issue was fumbled led even left-of-center outlets to react skeptically to this whole production.

Make no mistake, a referendum will still probably be held on this ordinance. When that day comes, because of the Parker administration’s trigger-happy maneuvering, the contest to save the NDO will be even more uphill. National Republican groups will pour in money against the ordinance. And negative campaigns against Democrats have already started  by dredging up this issue.

I am still a steadfast supporter of this ordinance, which is what makes seeing this boondoggle unfold is all the more troubling. The most vociferous opponents against the NDO engage in slimy tactics; the proponents, particularly those in City Hall, should not sink to that level.

Parker subpoenas pastors

On Tuesday, the Houston Chronicle noted that Mayor Annise Parker and City Attorney David Feldman have subpoenaed the sermons of prominent pastors who have been a part of ongoing petition efforts against the local non-discrimination ordinance. The NDO, passed last May, prevents discrimination on the basis of race, sex, religion and other distinguishing features, as well as sexual orientation and gender identity. Those last two qualities garnered a great deal of controversy both before and after the Houston City Council passed the measure, even prompting a petition drive to force a referendum.

In a still controversial decision, city leaders disqualified most of the signatures provided, saying not enough valid voices signed against the ordinance to compel a referendum. Since then, litigation has been pending and a referendum is still quite possible in the future. I suppose that the city is now trying to cover its behind by proving many of the tactics exhibited by these pastors, who are legally required to remain apolitical, have been unlawful.

On Wednesday, however, Parker distanced herself from the subpoenas, calling them “overly broad” and regretting the incident was handled the way it was. As they likely realized right away, this little bout of theatrics did the Mayor and all supporters of the NDO no favors. In fact, it merely stirred the pot even more, riling up the same group that so vociferously opposed the ordinance and fought it throughout the summer.

National news and opinion sites have been quick to castigate Parker, and she has received 20 bits of negative press for every item of support thus far. Fox News didn’t look too kindly, nor did The Washington Times. Forbes Magazine wrote that the city has “a first amendment problem.” Meanwhile, a columnist for The Washington Post even opined that the whole exercise is a trampling of the first amendment. The whole story is so outrageous at first glance that Snopes.com even ran a feature on it.

Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Attorney General Greg Abbott, the Republican candidate for Governor, both made big stinks today as well against this decision.

As a matter of law, I don’t know that Parker did anything too egregious. But beyond the shadow of a doubt, as a matter of policy, it was a foolish move on her office’s part. Fire and brimstone clergy, particularly those who all too often bully others, are remarkably talented at feigning victimization. In a place as religious and conservative as Houston, picking a fight with them will always be a losing proposition.

Parker even noted in a press conference today that these are fairly well-famed pastors, with expansive followings both on television and online. The sermons are easily accessible through less intrusive means than a court order. The whole point of this exercise was for show, and in that department, Parker undoubtedly lost. I’m glad she has backed off from this, hopefully it can cause the press to move past it and focus on some real issues. Typically, on Wednesday nights, I recap the events of the Houston City Council from the preceding morning. But the council did nothing of real note today. Everything revolved around press conferences involving this puny anonymity and the Ebola hysteria, respectively.

Rhymes with Right has more, from the other side of the aisle.

Fundraising 2015

Theodore Scheifler at the Houston Chronicle has a great new story out today on the first big fight over the 2015 Mayoral election. As explained previously, the gaggle of politicians looking into the race are specifically prohibited from raising money for the contest until February of next year (the election will be in November 2015). Like I noted in my overview of the candidates last month, the likely candidates include both incumbent officeholders and non-incumbents. This is important because those who hold other offices may continue raising money for them while those who do not hold offices may not raise any money.

This has lead to a squabble between the the two arguable frontrunners: State Representative Sylvester Turner (D-Harris County) and former Congressman Chris Bell (D-TX25). Turner, a current officeholder, is a Mayoral candidate in all but name; and yet, he continues prolifically raising money that is ostensibly for his State Legislative races (Turner is running unopposed for the State House this November). Scheifler notes that, at a recent fundraiser, he took in more than $4000,000 alone. Bell, meanwhile, cannot do any of this because he does not currently hold any political office.

Bell and his law partner, Geoffrey Berg, have officially complained to City Attorney David Feldman about this policy. For friendly PACs and other campaign organizations, there is a hard limit of $10,000 that may be transferred into a Mayoral account. However, Feldman has interpreted the city’s finance rules to allow for incumbent officeholders to transfer the first $5,000 of a plausibly endless amount of individual donations into a Mayoral account.

Turner’s campaign had no statement, and I’m still waiting on Bell’s campaign to get back to me.

The point Berg makes in his letter, which is attached in the Chronicle article, is honestly somewhat compelling. He diligently cites the sentiment expressed at City Council when these provisions were pushed through in 2005, complete with detailed quotations from former City Attorney Arturo Michel, former City Councilmembers Carol Mims Galloway (D-District B) and Gordon Quan (D-At Large 2), respectively. The precedent they outlined, as well as the one followed by City Councilmember Ellen Cohen (D-District C) when she first ran for the post (Cohen had previously served as a State Representative. She had money in her account leftover and refunded it to contributors), is hard to argue with.

I’m not saying that the most prudent course of action would be limiting Turner to one $10,000 deposit of his State Rep money into his Mayoral account. I tend to think these blackout dates on fundraising are a little silly, and wouldn’t see any problem with Bell raising money now. In fact, I’d probably prefer it. My point is that the unequal treatment of the two candidates is what is unacceptable.

What do you think?

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?