Feldman gets pay hike

The Houston Chronicle reports that David Feldman, the City Attorney of Houston (the municipal equivalent of the Attorney General), has received a hefty pay raise per an order from Mayor Annise Parker. Specifically, his pay was increased by 43%, from $244,000 to $350,000.

The raise drew the ire of many at City Hall, most notably City Controller Ronald Green. The Controller’s office ostensibly acts as some sort of financial watchdog over the City, which is typically most apparent when a Democratic Mayor faces off against a nominally conservative Controller. However, given that both Mayor Parker and Controller Green have similar political persuasions, I cannot recall a single other instance that they had such a high-profile disagreement that has bled over into the paper. Specifically, Green circulated a memo that criticized Parker for making this move unilaterally rather than consulting with Councilmembers first, as he alleged has been the precedent in previous circumstances.

While there is no precedent for an increase of this magnitude, it has been your policy to require salary surveys to justify such an increase. For the sake of transparency and consistency, a salary survey should be readily available for the public and council members,” Green said.

Click here to read what Councilmembers had to say!

Pidgeon case moved to Federal Court

Texpatriate has learned that the case of Pidgeon v. Parker, in which local Republican sued to block a recent City policy that extends full spousal benefits to same-sex spouses of municipal employees, has been removed to a Federal Court. The case, which was initially filed in a local Family District Court, resulted in the granting of a temporary restraining order by a Republican Judge (Lisa Millard), blocking the enforcement of the measure until a hearing next month. This meant couples that had already signed up under the new policy would be out of luck, prompting one such couple to sue the City of Houston in Federal Court themselves.

The Pidgeon case’s initial complaint dealt with Mayor Parker allegedly violating the Texas Constitution, Texas Family Code and the Houston City Charter. Thus, its placement in the Family District Court, as opposed to a Civil District Court that typically deals with constitutional complaints. City Attorney David Feldman has now responded by filing a notice of removal to place the case in Federal Court since it deals with substantial federal questions, including guarantees of equal protection and due process. Parker and Feldman first extended the aforementioned spousal benefits in response to the US Supreme Court’s decision invalidating the Defense of Marriage Act.

Click here to read more about the implications of this lawsuit!

GOP sues over benefits

The Houston Chronicle reports that that Harris County Republican Party has officially sued the City of Houston in response to a recent policy enacted that extends full spousal benefits to same-sex spouses. The policy, which was announced last month, simply allows City employees legally married in another state –irrespective of sexual orientation– to receive full spousal benefits from the City of Houston. Mayor Parker and her city attorney, David Feldman, have previously argued that this ordinance was justified because the Supreme Court, in striking down the Defense of Marriage Act, signaled that same-sex marriages should be recognized nationwide, no matter where they were performed.

This is significant because both Houston and Texas have some rather homophobic laws on the books. First, the Texas Constitution bans same-sex marriage as well both civil unions and domestic partnerships. Second, the City of Houston prohibits domestic partnerships by charter amendment. However, that charter amendment was significant because it specifically referenced those couples who were not married (approved in 2001, it occurred when gay marriage was not legal anywhere in the world). Now that marriages between same-sex couples are somewhat more ubiquitous throughout the country, including neighboring New Mexico, the intent of the amendment –though not the literal wording– has been challenged.

Click here to read more about the HCRP’s lawsuit!

Thou shall not be a Usurer, Part III

Nearly two weeks ago, Mayor Parker announced an ambitious plan to regulate Payday lenders. The proposed ordinance, which was largely crafted by City Attorney David Feldman, was modeled after other municipal ordinances currently in place throughout the State, including in Austin, Dallas, El Paso and San Antonio. The ordinance requires, among other provisions, the loan sharks usurers lenders register with the city and provide easy to understand, concise contracts. Additionally, certain interest rates are capped and predatory tricks are forbidden. The ordinance immediately received somewhat harsh pushback from the business community.

Since the State of Texas does not have uniform regulations on these stores, a legitimate concern exists that the passage of the regulation will simply drive the institutions en masse to just outside the City limits. Accordingly, the usurious and predatory tactics will persist, but the City of Houston would lose the tax base. Such a solution would not work for anyone, and is similar to the rationale I have used in the past to discourage municipalities or even smaller States from unilaterally raising the minimum wage too far off the national base value.

Anyways, as promised, Mayor Parker officially presented this ordinance to the City Council this morning, with a tentative vote planned for next Tuesday. Today, a fair share of City Councilmember expressed strong reservations with the measure while many more were quite supportive.

Click here to read more about who opposes this ordinance!

Full spousal benefits

Today, Mayor Annise Parker announced a new policy aimed at extending equal rights and protections to LGBT Houstonians. While domestic partnerships (i.e., benefits given to unmarried same-sex partners who work for the municipality) are banned by charter amendment within the City of Houston, Parker’s administration poked a hole in this policy.

Citing the recent Supreme Court case Windsor v. US, which overturned the federal Defense of Marriage Act, the City of Houston announced that they will extend full spousal benefits to the same-sex spouses of any municipal worker. While the State of Texas bans gay marriage, a full 17 States, the District of Columbia, multiple American Indian Tribes and at least 18 foreign countries do not. Individuals who work for the City of Houston married in those jurisdictions, even if they did not reside there, qualify for the benefits.

Speaking to reporters on the topic, Mayor Parker argued that not only was this the right thing to do, but the legally prudent option as well. City Attorney David Feldman also provided a great deal of legal cover for the decision, mainly relying upon the Windsor opinion.

Click here to read Parker’s comments as well as the implications for the City!

Hall alleges corruption

The Houston Chronicle reports on the Ben Hall campaign’s recent allegations of corruption at City Hall. Perhaps this is what he was referring to when speaking broadly, in innuendo, of Parker’s “multiple ethics violations.” Hall’s campaign sent me a press release outlining what his plan would be, in regard to solving the evident crisis of corruption. I have to give him some credit for outlining an actual problem –more later on if the problem actually pertains to the Mayor, however– and having some specific, concrete solutions to the problem. As Hall delineates in his press release, his 10-point plan on corruption:

  1. Two-year moratorium on accepting campaign contributions after vendors receive city contracts.

  2. Two-year moratorium on accepting campaign contributions from municipal appointees.

  3. A candidate may not accept any contributions over $250.00 from an officer, director, or employee of a city contractor.

  4. When a contract is awarded or a person appointed, all campaign contributions given by that individual and/or company during the previous municipal election cycle must be disclosed immediately.

  5. Two-year moratorium on any city employees registering as lobbyists or working for a lobbying firm. 

  6. Requiring lobbyists to file reports and creation of a searchable online database showing information (i.e. names of companies they lobby for, amount paid, amount spent, amount spent on contributions, etc.)

  7. No gifts will be accepted by the Mayor within the six months preceding an election.

  8. Create a searchable online database of city contracts awarded by all departments.

  9. Create a searchable online city check register.

  10. Increased accountability through improving search capability for ethics reports.

Some of the points are not as specific as they should be, but it is a start. Point No. 6, which essentially requires lobbyists to file the equivalent of a campaign finance report, seems somewhat arduous and excessive. As does Point No. 7, which is greatly arbitrary. That being said, I really do like a lot of his ideas on moratoriums, specifically Point No. 5, which has been pushed for most prominently at the national level. The phenomenon is typically referred to as the “Revolving Door problem,” and is an issue in any place of government, be that Washington, Austin or Houston.

Hall’s campaign ideas on this subject are chock full of interesting ideas, but that leaves one question conveniently unanswered. How does this pertain to the incumbent? My basic, underlying philosophy on elections featuring an incumbent is that the challengers must convince the electorate that the incumbent has failed. It seems that Hall largely agrees with this premise

A lengthy report was also published by the Hall campaign, noting all of Parker’s major campaign donations featuring city contractors. The report, which is about 13 pages long full of names, features two possible ethics violations. The analysis by Mike Morris at the Chronicle also was somewhat indecisive, bordering on dubious, vis-a-vis these allegations. I tend to agree with him.

Morris then interviewed Dave Feldman, the City Attorney. He noted that many of the contracts that Hall lambasts, those involving $50k or more in expenses, are the City Council’s job to approve, rather than the Executive Branch’s. On the greater issue, Feldman criticized the assertions as “absurd.”

While I certainly do not believe that the Mayor acted in bad faith in regard to campaign finance issues, I was somewhat surprised and perplexed to see how the Parker campaign responded to the issue. Rather than fully deny any wrongdoing on Parker’s part (again, not alleging they are hiding anything), the Mayor’s campaign simply responded by casting an aversion of their own. The Mayor’s spokesperson, Sue Davis, simply deflected the subject to Hall’s past allegations of impropriety, his tax liens and his tax returns. While those are all valid topics of discussion, they were not the issue at hand, but I digress.

Ben Hall would be wise to knock off his ridiculous claims of Parker being some sort of corrupt politician. And Annise Parker would be wise to not stoop to that low level by not responding with mudslinging, simply addressing the issue and moving on. The campaign really needs to be talking about substance, and this is where the points Hall alleges come into play.

I would like to know, without any sensationalism, without any editorializing, what Parker’s campaign thinks of these issues. To be such a proponent of campaign finance reform and strict regulations seems more systemic of the actual Ben Hall, the Democrat, rather than the faux, Republican-friendly one. I am curious to also know what Hall’s Republican supports think of this idea. As a Democrat, I have historically supported ideas such as closing the revolving door. It would be the height of hypocrisy for me to now oppose those beliefs because of which candidate is attached to them. I hope my colleagues may see it that way as well.

 

 

In re Runoff election dates

The Houston Chronicle reports that a City Council committee, the Elections Committee, discussed a proposal to move election day in runoff elections to a Tuesday, and not the current system of Saturday election dates. This would not affect the 2013 election dates.

Early voting includes two days of weekend voting, with some pretty generous hours. In a wonderful irony regarding voter suppression, Texas actually has pretty great laws involving early votes. Massachusetts, by comparison, has no early voting, and absolutely no attempts are made to synchronize elections (e.g., there is a congressional special election in October three weeks before a regularly scheduled municipal election). However, one of the highlights of our runoff election system has been a Saturday election.

This is because, even though it is possible to otherwise vote on a weekend, some people really, really enjoy voting on election day. There is something special to them about being able to walk down the road and interact with everyone in the community. It is significantly easier to do this on a Saturday than on a Tuesday.

The Chronicle article notes that, because most voting locations (such as schools) are closed on Saturdays, the City must reimburse these locations for keeping the building open. David Feldman, the City Attorney, makes the note that shifting the election day could save hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Additionally, last night’s poll also evidently measured support for this possible changes. 56% of respondents favored this change, and the number rose to 71% when the monetary effects were brought into the question.

Bob Stein of Rice, interviewed by both the City Council and the Chronicle, noted that this could depress voter turnout, most likely because of the aforementioned reasons.

The meeting showed rare harmony between the Parker administration and its biggest critic, Vice-Mayor Pro Tem C.O. Bradford. Feldman, assuming he is speaking on behalf of Parker, and Bradford were the proposals biggest backers, while Melissa Noriega and Mike Laster, two of the Council’s more liberal members, were far more opposed.

For what it is worth, I believe that any proposal like this that sacrifices voter turnout for a reduction of expenses is a repugnant action on the part of any Democrat. I agree that these “hundreds of thousands of dollars” spent is a problem, but perhaps it would be better to solve the source of the problem rather than assuaging its demands. It is absurd that HISD would charge for these elections, especially since the Board of Trustees holds concurrent elections. The real solution to this problem would be a negotiation between the City of Houston, HISD and Harris County that drastically lowers the amount paid for use the election facilities.

City Council update

The Houston Chronicle reports that the City Council has unanimously passed an ordinance which regulates “group homes,” facilities somewhere in between boarding home and nursing home, and with little-to-no regulation.  From the Chronicle:

The ordinance before the City Council, delayed a week to Wednesday so stricter fire safety requirements Rodriguez suggested could be discussed, would require that home operators pay a fee, register with the city, share information about owners and employees, submit to criminal background checks and report any criminal activity or deaths.

Rodriguez’s amendments would add an annual inspection. Rodriguez said inspections – as well as requiring group homes to have smoke alarms, carbon monoxide detectors, fire extinguishers and fire evacuation plans – could help regulators spot unsafe conditions or deter operators’ negligence.

This ordinance has long been in the works, and it has been tagged (a one week delay by a Councilmember) a few times. About a week-and-a-half ago, I even heard the Mayor bragging about the effectiveness of this ordinance. It appears somewhat strange to me that these regulations did not already exist, so they are certainly a step in the right direction. As the Chronicle discusses, these places are often “the housing of last resort for many mentally ill, disabled and elderly…”

In other news, the Chronicle also reports that a Wage Theft ordinance is being discussed, though not voted, by the City Council. The ordinance was introduced to the City Council from the Mayor’s office (well, actually David Felman’s (the CIty Attorney) office) and referred to the Public Safety Commission. The article discusses what the ordinance would do:

The proposed ordinance would empower a wage theft coordinator to maintain the database of offending firms and update the watch list of accused companies, investigate complaints involving city contracts, counsel workers who file complaints against Houston companies not working for the city, and monitor City Council agendas to see if a company up for a contract appears in the database or watch list.

A firm found guilty of wage theft in an administrative or legal proceeding would be ineligible to work for the city and would be unable to receive or renew city permits or licenses. A city department director wanting to grant work to a firm on the watch list would need to review the situation before forwarding the request to the council.

Firms would be removed from the watch list if a complaint is ruled unfounded; companies in the database could be removed if a conviction is overturned on appeal.

Wage theft is essentially, the withholding of salaries by an employer, typically for overtime pay.  The Public Safety Committee is chaired by Ed Gonzalez, and also about 11 more Councilmember. The result is 75% of the Council sitting on this Committee.

The Chronicle interviewed, on the committee, both Gonzalez and Christie, who spoke in favor of the measure. Accordingly, it looks like this good piece of legislation could pass with bipartisan margins, similar to the group home measure.

Off the Kuff and Dos Centavos have more.

Brown vs Brown

This was in the news a few days ago, and I thought it was not very noteworthy, but since the news has been so slow, I’m going to cover it.

The Chronicle ran a story about Helena Brown. Yeah, she’s still in the news. She was in the news a few weeks ago for using city money for “magnets” that constituted re-election advertisements (embezzlement?).   Anyways, Brown has re-payed  the City of Houston for these expenditures. $3000.00 to be exact, that is. When asked for comment, City Attorney David Feldman, has a very smart explanation where states he will not be “antagonistic” towards Brown, but insinuated that she is certainly guilty of an infraction. All I can say is that it doesn’t surprise me that the self-proclaimed  “most fiscally conservative” Councilmember wastes money like this.

Also, the other Councilmember Brown, Peter, is in the news again. Now the head of “Better Houston”, he has put out a youtube video about the need for more projects vis-a-vis pedestrian walkways. The video, found here, labels Brown as “Pedestrian Pete.”

Also it is worth noting that the comments on the Chronicle article about P. Brown are mildly supportive, whereas the comments with regard to H. Brown are horribly slamming (including a few comments I would not be comfortable repeating in public). Again, I look forward to taking a bowl of popcorn and watching the 2013 District A election unfold.

Jones to return?

I have a few comments on this, straight from the Houston Chronicle.

Jolanda Jones is reported to be considering a return to 901 Bagby, but by attempting to replace Wanda Adams; not run against Christie for her old seat. There is, of course, a convoluted term limits statute that may or may not prohibit certain people who have served two terms from seeking a non-consecutive third one. David Feldman obviously has an agenda to push, right or wrong, so I would take all of his comments with a grain of salt.

First, I know this comment may be irrelevant, but these segment of the term limit law is truly stupid.  Draw a line in the sand about how many years a City Hall politician can serve, but quit with all the exceptions. If anything we should encourage non-consecutive terms, as it allows for the politicians to not have to campaign while in office.

Second, the ordinance says “No person, who has already served two terms, shall be eligible to file for that same office”. It is worth noting that unlike Peter Brown, Jones did not resign before the end of her term (even by a few days). However, there is something to be said about the distinction between a District Councilmember and an at-large Councilmember. My first year working at City Hall (2009-2010), I worked for Toni Lawrence/Brenda Stardig, while one of my better friends worked for Ronald Green/C.O. Bradford. I can say from experience the two positions are extremely different, similar, in my views, to the relationship between the House and the Senate.

Third, I hold the belief that David Feldman has an axe to grind against Jones, and Brown likewise (he insinuated both would be ineligible at City Hall). Parker did not always get along with Jones, and certainly did not get along with Peter Brown (he ran against her). I do not mean Feldman holds any malice or what not, but he is biased.

District D may be the best opportunity for Jones, but it will not be easy. There will be a dozen candidates and getting into the runoff may not even be guaranteed. I endorsed Jones with a heavy heart in 2009, and endorsed her with an even heavier one in 2011, for a simple premise: a bad Democrat beats a Republican–especially a Texas one. She will have a lot of explaining to do if she wants my approval next year though, because I suspect there will be plenty of other Democrats in the race.

Jack Christie is most likely running again in 2013, but his website, “http://www.christieforhouston.com/”, now suggests otherwise (it is for sale and in Japanese). There have been few challengers proposed for the Councilmember and it is forgone conclusion that, as Jones did not resign early, she may not challenge him. That is probably a good thing.