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?

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Texpatriate’s List of Best and Worst Councilmembers

Back in June, this board came out with a list of the Best and Worst Legislators of the 83rd State Legislature. The list was largely modeled after what Texas Monthly has been doing after sine die for now 40 years. But nobody –at least nowadays– does lists of best and worst members of the City Council; we felt it was time to change all of that.

Theoretically, this list should cover the entire term from the beginning of 2012 to the present, but it is admittedly heavily biased in favor of the actions taken by Councilmembers this year alone, given the recent inception of this board as an institution. That being said, we attempted to use a rather well-rounded method to distinguish the good from the bad. Additionally, given the unmatched power that the Mayor holds at City Hall in unilaterally setting the agenda, dissent is sometimes conflated with obstinate obstructionism. Again, this board has tried its best to separate the emotions and intentions of a Councilmember’s act of disobedience from the breakaway itself.

Much like our June list of Legislators, we have included (ranked) the three best City Councilmembers and the three worst City Councilmembers. Additionally, like Texas Monthly, we have included a further category for the quintessential bellwether. In Monthly, it is referred to as the “Bull of the Brazos,” a politician whom “the line between a scoundrel and a statesman can be hammered too thin to recognize.” We will call it the “Bull of the Bagby,” a whimsical reference to Bagby Street, the location of City Hall. Further, we will also grade the City leadership with a letter grade. Since this board includes a student of Harvard University, considering the recent attention, we have worked very hard to combat any “grade inflation” that Texpatriate may engage in. Not everyone gets “A”s, nor should everyone, so an imperfect mark is not intended to be construed as a sign of failure within this exercise.

This board also entertained the idea of given out some sort of distinction similar to Monthly‘s “furniture” designation, which denotes the lawmakers who participated at similar levels as their desks and chairs. However, we eventually decided such a label would be too harsh for any of the Councilmembers, considering we are now without the likes of a Jolanda Jones, who was notorious for playing hookey.

We know many will disagree with our rationale, some possibly strongly. We invite those to address our hypothetically-alleged shortcomings when they publish their own list of Best and Worst City Councilmembers. This board looks forward to them with great zeal, especially the Houston Chronicle’s.

Accordingly, we present, our list:

Click here to read our list!

Payday Lending ordinance passed

Scroll to the bottom to read about Councilmember Rodriguez’s blowup on Twitter against three Chronicle writers, Texpatriate and Noah M. Horwitz

The Houston Chronicle reports that the Payday Lending ordinance, which has been kicked around at the City Council for a few weeks now, has been passed by the City Council in a lopsided vote of 15-2. The strong majority support placated fears that the ordinance would be delayed into next year’s session, complete with a City Council riddled with new (and sometimes unpredictable) individuals.

The ordinance requires payday lenders to register with the City, provide contracts in easy-to-read and straightforward language, limits the amount of a loan and places strict restrictions on the number of times a loan may be refinanced. While a cap on interest is omitted, the ordinance has some real teeth and is noticeably stronger than that initially proposed by the Mayor. It is worth saying that the Mayor has received some pretty generous contributions from Payday Lending PACs over the years, so the new hefty ordinance is a nice precedent to set that you must not always be a slave to who has given you money.

Among some of the ordinance’s detractors were those who believed it was overkill –though still acknowledged something needed to be done. They were led by Councilmember Jack Christie, who proposed an amendment that would have largely gutted the provisions of the act. The amendment garnered six votes, including Andrew Burks, C.O. Bradford and Dave Martin.  While all of these individuals gave long pontifications against the regulations earlier, they all ultimately voted in favor. Helena Brown –the dependable ‘no’ vote– and James Rodriguez were the only dissenting voices in the final tally.

Click here to read about Rodriguez’s Twitter temper-tantrum!

The Empire Strikes Back

The progressive one, anyhow.

Amid painfully low voter turnout of less than 4%, it became abundantly clear that the progressives* had showed up in force last night *–I use the term progressive, not ‘liberal’ or ‘Democrat,’ in this context because the Council is far more diverse, with Conservative Democrats like Andrew Burks and Progressive Republicans like Stephen Costello. Two incumbent City Councilmembers were defeated for re-election and an open seat saw a repudiation of the longstanding political dynamic there. In many respects, this is the realignment of the City Council from the blunders of 2011.

There were also three elections for the HCC Board, two of which also featured incumbents losing their re-election bids. Particularly of note here was the loss of Yolanda Navarro-Flores, who has an accomplished political career. A longtime HCC Trustee and former member of the Texas House of Representatives, she has also run unsuccessful campaigns for the City Council and the State Senate. According to Off the Kuff, Navarro-Flores allegedly engaged in some pretty unseemly and homophobic tactics throughout the election. Despite having roughly a 23 point lead in November and just being a few votes shy of outright victory, she lost by a whopping 6 points on last night. Despite doing very well in absentee votes, she lost Election Day votes by 24 points. Goes to show what motivating your base will do for you.

Click here to read more!

Texpatriate runoff liveblog

Please follow @NmHorwitz on Twitter for up to the minute coverage from the runoffs!

10:58 BOS/9:58 HOU
Final RESULTS!
A–Stardig 51%/Brown 49%
D–Boykins 70%/Provost 30%
I–Gallegos 53%/Garces 47%
AL2–Robinson 51%/Burks 49%
AL3–Kubosh 53%/Morales 47%
HCC1–Capo 53%/Navarro-Flores 47%
HCC3–Tamez 53%/Garcia 47%
HCC5–Glaser 60%/Kunetka–40%

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Council update, 12/11

The Houston City Council took no major action this week, as Councilmembers high and low tagged proposals to delay them for one week. Instead, the only updates we have are those that seek to prognosticate towards the future involving existing proposals, almost all of which were pushed back by the dilatory tactic.

First, KPRC is reporting on a proposal to relax the City’s alcohol sales ordinance, which bans any store from selling beer or wine within 1000 feet to a school or a church. Mayor Parker has now proposed easing the regulation to 300 feet, applying only to “larger grocery stores.” I have no idea what the cutoff between a small store and a large grocery store is, and I am in no small part concerned about the possibility that this is an olive branch to Wal-Mart and the like. That being said, perhaps I am just misreading all of it.

The proposal is meant to attract more grocery stores to low-income areas, where very small churches are often ubiquitously located in strip-malls alongside shopping centers. These low-income areas are often called Food Deserts for the scarcity of healthy eating and shopping options nearby. The Houston Chronicle recently cataloged these problems, citing efforts by the City to help alleviate the problems.

Click here to read about the Payday Lending ordinance and why it is in jeopardy!

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!