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?

Advertisements

Hall 2.0

I will preface all my remarks with a full confession that, once upon a time, I greatly respected Ben Hall, the former City Attorney, as a politician of honor and integrity. In fact, about two years ago, when he first announced his candidacy in the 2013 Mayoral election and made his first appearance on this publication, I noted that “in an open election, I probably would have supported Ben Hall.”

Over the next year, Hall ran what could generously be called the worst campaign I have ever bared witness to in municipal politics. He was scattered, dishonest and unnecessarily abrasive. I strongly urge you to read through some of my archives tagged under “Ben Hall,” and you will find someone whose patience grows thinner and thinner as time went on. Hall spent a 12 month campaign without bringing up any concrete issues. He merely spoke in broad platitudes, or with unsubstantiated claims about his opponent, Mayor Annise Parker. The few times that he did open his mouth, Hall sometimes contradicted himself, such as his hypocrisy on a proposed non-discrimination ordinance.

Hall’s campaign was also marred by myriad controversies involving his integrity. The Parker camp honed in on Hall’s nasty little problem with not paying his taxes, while Sophia Arena and I published a lengthy exposé on some other conflicts of interest in the past. Simply put, when Hall announced today that he would run for Mayor again next year in the open election, and would immediately begin running radio ads (as reported by the Houston Chronicle), I was not pleased, to say the least.

Hall joins an already crowded list of prospective mayoral candidates, including but not limited to State Representative Sylvester Turner (D-Harris County), former Congressman Chris Bell, Sheriff Adrian Garcia, METRO Chairman Gilbert Garcia, former Kemah Mayor Bill King and City Councilmembers Stephen Costello (R-At Large 1), Jack Christie (R-At Large 5), Oliver Pennington (R-District G) and Ed Gonzalez (D-District H).

In Hall’s 60-second radio spot, triumphant music plays as he narrates. “Last year I promised to have a conversation with you about the things we needed to do to improve our city,” he says. “Unfortunately, that didn’t happen.”

Hall’s ad appears to glance past the fact that he chose to ignore those important issues, and he spends about the next 50 seconds speaking once again in broad platitudes. The one exception, however, is getting in a cheap shot about “Subpoena-gate,” when the mayor’s office made a bone-headed decision to go after the sermons of pastors who railed against the non-discrimination ordinance. As I referenced above, Hall has — at one time — both supported and opposed that ordinance. Ambiguous banalities aren’t doing much to clear up the confusion.

In other news, HCC Trustee Carroll Robinson officially announced his candidacy for City Controller. Robinson, a former member of the City Council, already has a great deal of community support. His likely competitors will be Dwight Jefferson (current METRO Board member and former District Judge) and Bill Frazer (an unsuccessful 2013 candidate).

Quack Quack!

The Houston Chronicle has the full story on this.

A few days ago, a high-profile fundraiser was hosted by State Representative Sylvester Turner (D-Harris County), to celebrate a quarter-century of honorably serving in the State Legislature. Turner, of course, will be running for Mayor of Houston in 2015, all other things being equal. The Chronicle story insinuated that Turner officially announced his candidacy, though I have heard conflicting reports.

Anyways, this has created quite the buzz at City Hall. Turner, as I have opined in the past, is the undisputed frontrunner in the 2015 Mayoral election. The election will be sure to feature many names, as incumbent Mayor Annise Parker is term-limited. Thus, Parker’s appearance at Turner’s fundraiser raised some questions. Will Parker be supporting Turner? It would obviously be a difficult decision, since some of the other possible candidates include City Councilmember Stephen Costello (R-At Large 1), the Chair of the Budget Committee, and City Councilmember Ed Gonzalez (D-District H), the Mayor Pro Tem, both of which are very close to her.

So when all the reporters at the event couldn’t stop talking about Turner and the “next Mayor of Houston,” whomever that may be, Parker was flustered. Described as annoyed, she confidently stated at “I am still the Mayor of Houston!”

Yes, she is, but not for long. Like it or not, Parker is a lame duck. Quack, quack, quack!

First of all, what else does she have to do? She worked honorably to pass consensus-based overhauls of laws on wage theft and payday lending in the past year. Earlier, she has put her impression on density, transportation and historical preservation, to name a few more. More recently, also ran roughshod over the process to divisively pass a non-discrimination ordinance (which I supported) and an overhaul of vehicle-for-hire regulations (which I didn’t support), respectively. But now, there isn’t much left to do, beside solve some of our big budget problems. Ostensibly, Parker has one more opportunity to convince the Legislature to amend pertinent laws on negotiations with the Firefighter Union, but I am definitely not holding my breath.

Beyond that, Parker’s antics over the long summer didn’t make her any friends. She has probably used up a fair share of her political capital and, with her days in office quickly running out, it is unlikely to be replenished any time soon.

Nobody likes sour grapes, particularly in the form of refusing to recognize one’s own political mortality. Bill White, the Mayor of Houston from 2004 to 2010, was unusually graceful in his exit, but this may have had something to do with the fact that he was in the midst of a race for the Governor’s mansion at the tail end of his term. I know that Parker is interested in running for Comptroller in 2018, but that is a little ways after she must vacate the third floor of City Hall.

Ban on synthetic pot?

The Houston Chronicle reports that Mayor Annise Parker and the City Attorney, Dave Feldman, are aiming to introduce a new ordinance to the City Council’s Quality of Life Committee banning the use of sale of synthetic marijuana. The State of Texas banned many forms of synthetic pot in 2011, but dealers quickly found a way around this law by tweaking –ever so slightly– the chemical balance and names. Accordingly, Houston is stepping in to provide a comprehensive solution to the problem.

According to Parker and Feldman, forms of the creation, be it “K2” or kush, are particularly dangerous. Unlike natural marijuana, which carries no real deleterious health effects, many forms of synthetic pot can cause seizures and palpitations. Accordingly, the city has a real interest in stopping its prevalent use, especially among legal sources. Feldman noted in the Chronicle article that many legal dispensaries still carry the product, something they hope will be ended after a new law is passed.

Councilmembers Ed Gonzalez (D-District H) and Jack Christie (R-At Large 5) were both sought out by the Chronicle to comment on the proposal, and both were broadly supportive. Gonzalez had some qualms but overall remained optimistic, while Christie focused more on the prevention of –what he called– “kids getting zonked out.”

I have to admit, I was rather apprehensive and skeptical when I first heard this headline. As the sagacious will recall, I am a fairly big proponent of the total legalization of marijuana. Accordingly, I originally rolled my eyes when I heard of this proposal, thinking  it was more in the overreaction of the asinine war on drugs. But the dangers of synthetic pot are very real. CNN had a rather terrifying story recently outlining the terrifying side effects that the product often has, sometimes on children.

Obviously, synthetic pot should never be used by minors, and the City should do much to dissuade denizens from using it. However, I don’t know if I am totally sold on whether or not Houston should be spending so many resources combating this comparably minor problem. We still have tons of violent crime, and –like every other major metropolitan police force in the United States– cannot feasibly go after every lawbreaker. Perhaps we should be using our limited resources going after more serious offenses.

Synthetic pot is obviously bad for you, but so is alcohol. I guess this is the civil libertarian in me coming out, but I often think that we should let individuals make their own personal decisions. What do you think? What do you think the City Council will end up doing?

2015 Mayoral election

Since the beginning of the year, I have been intermittently trying to sit down with the prospective candidates for Mayor in 2015. Mayor Annise Parker, of course, is term-limited at that time, meaning that the election will be an open race. At this time, there is only one candidate openly running for Mayor, complete with signs and social media presence, and that is City Councilmember Oliver Pennington (R-District G). However, there are typically about nine other names that keep coming up as likely Mayoral candidates. These individuals range from being completely ready to go, to simply intently looking into the situation. Additionally, there are about two or three other people I have heard mentioned in passing as possible candidates, but never by anyone willing to go on the record. I will only be discussing the former category.

The eight other candidates, in addition to Pennington, are former Congressman Chris Bell (D-TX), City Councilmember Jack Christie (R-At Large 5), Eric Dick (R), City Councilmember Stephen Costello (R-AL1), METRO Chairman Gilbert Garcia (D), City Councilmember Ed Gonzalez (D-District H), former City Attorney Ben Hall (D), City Councilmember Michael Kubosh (R-At Large 3) and State Representative Sylvester Turner (D-Harris County). Among those I have heard passing on the race are Sheriff Adrian Garcia (D), City Controller Ronald Green (D), Laura Murillo and County Treasurer Orlando Sanchez (R).

CLICK HERE TO READ THE FULL FEATURED ARTICLE!

Parker, Councilmembers campaign against HB2

KROI (News 92 FM) reports that Mayor Annise Parker and seven members of the Houston City Council have signed a letter to the State Legislature lambasting HB2, the omnibus anti-abortion bill that State Senator Wendy Davis (D-Tarrant County) famously filibustered last year. Specifically, they made a somewhat quixotic request for the Legislature to repeal the law, which is slated to close the vast majority of the abortion-providing clinics throughout the State. As I have explained countless times in the past, the law accomplishes four things. It requires certain inducing drugs to be taken the day before the procedure, it requires the doctors administering these procedures to have admitting privileges at a nearby hospital and it bans abortion after 20 weeks of pregnancy. However, the most onerous restriction is requiring all clinics to adhere to the standards of ambulatory surgical centers. This regulation will slash the number of clinics in the State from dozens to six or seven, all located within Austin, Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston or San Antonio.

“When the Texas legislature passed HB2, we knew Houston residents could be harmed by it,” says the letter. “We also knew that Houston would become one of the very few places left to get an abortion (and in some cases, any reproductive health care) in Texas, and that women’s health and lives would be put at risk because of that.”

In addition to Parker, seven members of the City Council supported the letter and signed their names to it. City Councilmembers Jerry Davis (D-District B), Ellen Cohen (D-District C), Ed Gonzalez (D-District H), Robert Gallegos (D-District I), Mike Laster (D-District J), Stephen Costello (R-At Large 1) and David Robinson (D-At Large 2) affixed their signatures.

The letter was likely compelled after Wendy Davis, now the Democratic nominee for Governor, visited City Hall on Monday, in order to give a speech on rape kit backlogs and how she has handled this issue in the past. Contrary to what some national publications, namely Salon Magazine, have said on this matter, the City of Houston or the Houston City Council did not officially take any action against HB2. Rather, the Mayor and a minority of Councilmembers individually expressed their personal opinions.

As I have said extensively in the past, Parker has taken a much stronger interest in seemingly non-local issues since the start of her second term, much less her third. By taking actions such as these, to those as innocuous as speaking at the State Democratic Convention, Parker insists that she is a force to be reckoned with in the future. It is an open secret around Bagby Street that the Mayor has statewide ambitions, and giving the left some red meat is a necessity along the way.

The Councilmembers, meanwhile, were a bit more surprising. Since abortion is not an issue that ever comes up on the agenda of a City Council meeting, I pass no judgment on whether a Councilmember supports such a letter or not. But the support of Councilmember Costello in particular was perhaps the most surprising.

Costello is a registered Republican, though he has a left-of-center streak on the City Council that has largely governed his representation. Last year, Texpatriate even rated him the best member of the City Council overall. But progressive positions on food deserts and budgets are a very far cry from a left-of-center perspective on the most polarized political issue. It is yet another open secret that Costello wants to run for Mayor, along with (among Councilmembers) Oliver Pennington and Jack Christie. However, Pennington and Christie, also Republicans, pointedly did not sign this letter.

The scuttlebutt around town is that Costello will be moving a few steps to the right for his Mayoral campaign, in order to distinguish him from partisan Democratic candidates and ostensibly appeal to the middle. But between his signature on this letter and his blockbuster vote for the non-discrimination ordinance, it looks less and less likely that that is the case. Good! It is welcome news to see Costello repudiating his party on both economic and social issues. I wish more Republicans would do the same.

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.