Stuff at City Hall

I’m starting off on what will be five weeks in Houston for Christmas break. As you may imagine, I am totally elated. For a considerable component of that time, I will be within close proximity to City Hall and everything that occurs there. Now, with the holidays and new year rapidly approaching, you might think that activities have slowed down on Bagby street, but the reality is somewhat different. Specifically, between the council discussing prospective changes to the city charter and the evident regurgitation of a fight over food truck regulation, the council looks to truly have its hands full throughout the remainder of the year.

First, the fight over charter changes marches on, as the Houston Chronicle fills us in on. Last month, I delineated the four specific issues that an ad hoc council committee recently discussed; they are 1) lifting the revenue cap, 2) amending term limits, 3) allowing closed-door meetings and 4) allowing Councilmembers to place items on the agenda. Upon first glance, I had a strongly favorable position toward the first and last suggestions, and was rather ambivalent but leaning toward opposition for the second and third. That being said, the ad hoc committee on this topic, according to the Chronicle, made a point of wanting to hold more meeting around the community regarding these topics before reaching final decisions. They have until August to decide whether or not to officially place these suggestions on the November ballot (charter changes must be approved by voters), which I fully expect them to do.

Additionally, Councilmember Michael Kubosh (R-At Large 3) made a suggestion of possibly amending the charter or engaging in some other type of direct democratic action to counteract the so-called “Homeless feeding ordinance,” which stringently regulates how individuals may feed the homeless on public land, drawing the ire of many churches and charities. The editorial board of this publication has repeatedly castigated the administration for this asinine law and has commended Kubosh’s crusade against it; I definitely hope he gets his case to bring this item before voters. Whatever your opinion of Kubosh, one must admire his ideological consistency when it comes to advocating for direct democracy above all else. Many, if not most, of his contemporaries on the horseshoe could surely learn from him on that front and many others.

Additionally, it looks as though the contentious bickering regarding food trucks may return to City Hall any day now, as Mayor Annise Parker may finally attempt to shove through regulations that largely liberalize rules on the trucks. The Houston Chronicle ran an editorial on the topic, which means this will likely be bound to come up this week.

As I noted in the past, there were a few main points that the trucks and the restaurant association clashed over, namely operating downtown, congregating together and setting up individual tables and chairs. In September, Parker unilaterally decided to allow the trucks downtown, in a move that raised eyebrows from even supporters. As I said at the time, I personally have nothing against allowing the trucks in all the business districts (specifically downtown and the medical center), especially considering they were already allowed uptown and in Greenway Plaza. However, the change in law should have been done the right way, through the council.

For the remaining suggestions, I am split. Allowing the food trucks to congregate, namely in food truck parks, is a rather straightforward suggestion that, as long as the trucks are regularly inspected, really has no drawbacks. However, I cannot say the same thing for individual tables and chairs.

The crux of proposal to reform food truck laws rests upon one simple principle: they provide a different service from restaurants. Since they are not the same as cafes and delis, the argument goes, they should be treated differently. I suppose this stands to reason, but the argument falls apart if individual tables and chairs are erected right next door. At that point, the truck turns into a pop up restaurant, and it should be treated as such.

Additionally, I couldn’t help but chuckle at some of the misleading information passed off as fact in the pertinent Chronicle editorial. The article joyously lauds the new downtown food truck park as some type of busy and successful oasis. Coincidentally enough, I had lunch with the proprietor of one of these such trucks today, and he lamented the strangely slow business out of that same food truck park. It appears that the Chronicle editorials tells the story it wants to hear, not the one that actually happens.

That being said, I do not have a dog in this fight and the resolution of this legislation is placed rather low on my list of priorities. But, like anything else at city hall, the new rules should attempt to be fair and treat the playing field evenly.

Food trucks now allowed downtown

The Houston Chronicle reports that Mayor Annise Parker has, by executive fiat, lifted the ban on propane-fueled food trucks operating downtown (and in the Texas Medical Center). Citing a recent opinion by the Fire Marshall, who noted that there are not any real dangers for them operating, Parker unilaterally made the decision. In years past, Parker has pushed for a few changes in food truck policy, but the City Council has always been extraordinarily tepid.

Like I explained last month, this decision comes on the heels of a proposed expansive revamp of food truck ordinances. After receiving some pushback from the Council, Parker delayed it. The Chronicle article notes it should be brought back up with a vengeance at some point in October. Observers of Houston politics will note that this has become the signature political move of the Mayor, re-introducing slightly different proposals over and over again until a beaten down Council assents to her will. I suppose this is a benefit of a Strong-Mayor system of government, and I think most politicians would do the same.

The Council-proposal would namely allow food trucks to congregate close together and eliminate a ban on individual tables and chairs. There are also some concerns about the super stringent safety regulations that the trucks must follow. Councilmembers Brenda Stardig (R-District A) and Robert Gallegos (D-District I), respectively, were noted by the Chronicle as somewhat vociferous critics. Gallegos in particular made some really apt comments.

“I’m not opposed to food trucks,” Gallegos told the Chronicle. “But I’m not talking about food trucks outside of bars on Washington Avenue. I’m talking about little hole-in-the-wall cantinas and whether the trucks there are going to be regulated. That’s a problem to me.”

Parker announced the unilateral change Friday afternoon, and I didn’t have time to do any research on this before end of business. I’m planning on calling a few Council offices tomorrow and will update if I receive some meaningful comments.

Just as I argued last month, my thoughts on food trucks are somewhat complicated. For far too long, the most heated critics of food trucks, such as former Councilmember Andrew Burks (D-At Large 2), employed exceedingly bizarre and lousy talking points. Fears about exploding propane tanks or terrorists using the trucks are largely unfounded. Yes, food trucks have blown up before. But so have restaurants. Especially considering that the trucks were already allowed in the high-density uptown and Greenway Plaza districts, I just don’t see any legitimate reason to oppose the trucks entrance into downtown. That being said, it was wholly inappropriate for Parker to go about it like this. I’ll let the attorneys argue about the legality (my guess is that Parker had a right to do this), but doing something by executive order when your legislature is unwilling always smells wrong to me. I don’t like it when the President does it, and I don’t like it when the Mayor does it.

Similarly, I don’t have an issue with the food trucks congregating. Food truck parks are neat creations that serve Austin well, and would be a welcome addition to more areas in Houston. But the ban on individual tables and chairs for the trucks make sense. If you park a truck and set up your tables and chairs, you turn into a pop-up restaurant. Simply put, given the strict regulations that restaurants must obey, it is unacceptable to allow the less-regulated trucks to provide the same service.

Food trucks claim they provide a different service from restaurants, and therefore should be regulated differently. That’s fine, but in order for this reality to work, the trucks actually have to act differently from restaurants. This means moving around and not providing on-site eating options unless it is part of a larger collective.

That being said, most people do not really care too much about equity in restaurant ordinances. Gallegos’ comments provide the most compelling case for preserving the super strict safety requirements the trucks must follow. For many inside-the-loop liberals, their only interaction with mobile eateries is in the form of glitzy mini-buses zooming around Montrose. But the laws also cover less glamorous vehicles, namely in some of the poorer districts. When the Council finally discusses this, I really hope those concerns are addressed well.

As for me, I’m walking to a food truck park in Austin for lunch.

Off the Kuff has more.

Food Truck fight!

On Wednesday, the Houston City Council’s Quality of Life Committee began deliberating reforms of food truck laws. The Houston Chronicle’s Editorial Board was one of the first entities to truly cover the process, while Miya Shay at KTRK provided a much more extensive and evenhanded account of the issue. As best as I have understood, proposed reforms center around whether or not to allow propane-based food trucks in Downtown and the Texas Medical Center, as well as relaxing restrictions on how close they may congregate and prop up tables and chairs. I have placed calls to officials on both sides of this issue, in an attempt to understand this issue further.

Furthermore, the Houston Chronicle reported that, following Wednesday’s contentious committee hearing, Mayor Annise Parker announced that she would be unilaterally changing the pertinent regulations regarding food trucks downtown, though she would still try to push through Council-approved fixes on the other topics.

As best as I can figure out, this topic will be on the agenda at the next City Council meeting. Coming on the wheels of the super contentious Vehicles-for-Hire fight earlier in this same month (which itself followed the non-discrimination ordinance by only one week), Mayor Annise Parker has continued attempting to pass a large chunk of radical policy reforms. Love her or hate her, everyone should be impressed by just how much she has been able to accomplish, and will undoubtedly continue to accomplish (in the Strong-Mayor system used in Houston, the Mayor almost always gets her way). However, the key difference that I have been able to find is that the Mayor sought more of a consensus on the topics. The once-controversial Wage Theft ordinance passed unanimously, and the Payday Lending reform ordinance passed with only two dissensions. On the other hand, the NDO and the Vehicles-for-Hire fights were bitterly fought over and left many with bad feelings.

I have historically been broadly supportive of food trucks, as most astute followers of this publication might remember. Opponents of the proposed reforms have typically been a little slow in getting their valid objections out there, and the mainstream press has harped on the silliest statements ever made by Council opposition,. The Chronicle editorial not once, but twice, mentioned the outlandish tirades that former Councilmember Andrew Burks went on against food trucks, suggesting (among other things) that the propane tanks downtown could be used for terrorist activity. I stand by my assertions that strange comments are unbecoming of a public servant, but they shouldn’t be used to justify a position one way or another on this issue.

Something to remember on this issue is that food trucks are not a monolith. Food trucks should not be all assumed to be the cute, glitzy vehicles zooming around Montrose that so many simply assume them to be. They can also be unsafe, dirty deathtraps, typically situated in poorer neighborhoods. They need very stringent safety inspections, perhaps even more stringent than brick-and-mortar restaurants. But, as far as I can tell, the proposed changes do not deal with safety violations.

As for the propane tanks in densely populated areas, I am still skeptical of the regulation being sound. The facts are still out on the idea that trucks in densely populated areas are dangerous. There was, for example, a terrible tragedy out of Philadelphia last month involving an exploding food truck that killed two people. But restaurants deal with plenty of dangers too, and they have been prone to burning down every once in a while. However, as the Chronicle article repeatedly mentions, the trucks are allowed Uptown and in Greenway Plaza, other high density areas. Like any other issue, I think there should be some consistency. Ideally, that would be strengthening safety standards for the propane tanks, including regular inspection, then letting the trucks into the neighborhoods.

As for some of the other proposals, I still have not completely made up my mind. I am, however, an opponent of allowing individual tables and chairs for the specific food trucks. I do like and support the so-called “Food Truck parks,” in which community tables and chairs are shared among a plethora of trucks. But if individual furniture is used, the truck transforms into a pop-up restaurant.

Just like the Uber/Lyft debate, I am a big believer in everyone providing the same service abiding by the same regulations (Editorial note: Horwitz formerly contracted with the Clifford Group, a public relations firm that counted Yellow Cab among its clients. I have no dog in this fight, though). Restaurants must follow some pretty onerous restrictions, namely for public safety and health reasons. I can understand the idea that a restaurant and a food truck could plausibly provide different services, but not if the latter allowed “dine-in” service. You can’t have it both ways.

Personally,  I am sick and tired of people comparing this issue to the Vehicle-for-Hire spat. There are some big differences, chief among them is that food trucks are not what I would call a “disruptor” into the restaurant industry in the same way. Food trucks, be it the Eatsie Boys or Bernie’s Burger Bus, have taken the next step and become restaurants on many occasions. I don’t think Uber or Lyft want to one day shift to the same business model as Yellow Cab. Furthermore, food trucks have not been operating downtown or doing other things that so openly and cavalierly violate the City of Houston’s ordinances. Call me old fashioned, but Uber’s incessant and gleeful lawbreaking is what sent me other the edge originally. The integrity of laws is important.

That is why I am bitterly opposed to the Mayor’s irresponsible decision to go around City Council on this issue. The Mayor, for all its power, is not a tyrant.

One question, Mayor…

…just what will you do with another two years?

TheEconomist

The Houston Chronicle poses this question after examining the initial celebratory nature of Mayor Annise Parker’s re-election. Mike Morris at the Chronicle sat down with Parker and discussed the serious issues that Parker plans to bring up for the remainder of her time as Mayor. What is most surprising, however, is just how quickly she wishes for many of these agenda items to be discussed and voted on by the City Council.

Click here to see what issues and when!

The election in AL2

Everyone seems to be talking about AL3, but that is definitely not the only competitive election this year. Andrew Burks, one of our more…entertaining….Councilmembers, has an opponent, who I was able to talk at length with recently.

His name is David W. Robinson, a local architect with a long history on many municipal boards and commissions. He has a shell of a website at “http://www.davidwrobinson.org/” (it seems to have stolen the font from Ellen Cohen’s runs) and a Facebook page here. Robinson ran for AL2 back in 2011, and received a puny 12% of the vote.

I guarantee he will receive more than that this year. His Facebook page lists a plethora of supporters, including Peter Brown, Anne Clutterbuck, Sue Lovell, Kristi Thibaut and Michael Skelly. Robinson has gotten quite the nod from Parker’s prime constituents, as well as the moderate wing of the GOP (it still exists in Houston). If Robinson could really get GOP support, this would be his election for the taking. But things rarely work out so easy.

As a general rule, I support the incumbent until a challenger can convince me otherwise. As of now, Robinson hasn’t done that, but there is a lot of time left and he doesn’t even have a complete website to share his thoughts yet. Burks has been, despite his oddities, more or less a good liberal Councilmember. If Robinson runs on a single issue “reform-food-truck-laws” platform, I will be a zealous supporter, though.

The campaign is already getting heated, with Burks recently “interrogating” Robinson at a City Council meeting. Certainly going to bring out the popcorn for this one.