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.

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.

Council update, 1/29

The Houston City Council finalized two major contracts this meeting, both in rather uncontroversial votes despite rather tumultuous and often uncertain paths to day. First, the Council passed a new contract with a more local advertising to provide advertising at the airport. Two weeks ago, the Mayoral administration removed this issue off of the agenda after incessant complaints from Clear Channel communications, who had originally bargained for the contract themselves but had later been cut out of the dealings. Unless the details of the calculation has changed in the last few days, the contract will generate upwards of $10,000,000.00 from advertisements at both Bush and Hobby airports.

Second, the Council unanimously approved a contract to select a health and pharmacy benefits administrator. Specifically, the City chose CIGNA to accomplish this goal. The otherwise mundane, miniscule agenda item recently flared tensions between the City Council and Mayor Parker, as Mike Morris at the Houston Chronicle had described in great detail. Ultimately the critics, be it C.O. Bradford or Oliver Pennington, showed their qualms may have just been political posturing, as Jayme Fraser at the Chronicle noted that there was not a single ‘no’ vote at the final tally.

Click here to read about a new policy enacted!

County panhandling ban?

The Houston Chronicle reports that the Harris County Commissioners’ Court will soon consider a ban on panhandling in the middle of streets and intersections. Specifically, the proposed regulations would prohibit all “solicitation activities” from the middle of roads (including esplanades and medians), as well as impose a blanket prohibition on children panhandling.

These regulations would only apply to unincorporated areas of Harris County. The City of Houston already has a ban on such panhandling activities, though it is arguably more strict. Whereas Houston requiring all “fundraising groups” to obtain permits from the City, the draft County rules do not. Houston also maintains a broad exception for firefighters who seek to raise money for their charity Christmas fund.

Click here to read more!

Civil Affairs: Houston issues

CIVIL AFFAIRS

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This past Thursday, I was lucky enough to be standing in the press box at the Wortham Center to watch Annise Parker’s third and final inauguration. I would be remiss if I did not note that other officeholders –namely City Controller Ronald Green– also took their oaths, but considering how strong the Mayor in Houston is, it truly is a non-issue.

The Mayor, in this case Parker, unilaterally sets the agenda and determines when to vote on things. She also has extremely broad powers to take any number of executive actions on her own. We saw this recently with the issue of full benefits to the same-sex spouses of City employees. We have also seen Parker continue to act more decisively in enacting major ordinances and presiding over the Council with an iron fist.

Click here to read more!

Eric Dick’s robocall

Nearly a week ago, Ben Hall launched a television ad. In response, Annise Parker released her own commercial, a startling attack ad on the Hall record as opposed to Hall’s charming/ominous introductory video. Not to be outdone by both of the better-known candidates, Eric Dick, the token Republican in the race, has released his own tv commercial radio ad robocall that is being dialed in to neighborhoods across the city.

Dick’s campaign contacted me directly to share the good news on their part, redirecting me to the above YouTube video, ostensibly a recording of the robocall received at a supporters’ house. I was told on the phone that this robocall has been sent out to thousands and thousands of homes, but am just slightly dubious to this assertion, as the video is about 3 weeks old already and has exactly 48 views as of press time. I transcribe the text of the robocall below:

“This is Houston attorney Eric Dick and I wanted to tell you that, last year, Annise Parker made it a crime to give food to the poor. She then turned around and tried to put poor people in jail for digging for food out of dumpsters. Doesn’t it seem wrong to you that the City, it can pay for Mayor Parker to drive around in a limousine, yet it is a crime to give food to the homeless. This is Houston attorney Eric Dick. I’m running for Mayor, and I need your help. You can find out more about me at EricDickForMayor.com, that’s EricDickForMayor.com. Once again, EricDickForMayor.com. With your help, we’ll restore decency back to City Hall. Thank you.

Paid for by the Eric Dick, a Republican for Mayor, campaign. Clyde Bryan, Treasurer.”

For some reason, this robocall has been uploaded to one of Dick’s relative’s YouTube accounts, rather than the campaign’s. I find that somewhat peculiar in and of itself. But most of my comments have to do with the content itself of Dick’s message.

It is no secret that I largely agree with Dick’s take on the food sharing ordinance, I agreed with a majority of my fellow Houstonians in believing that an ordinance which criminalized giving food to homeless people on public land was asinine and just plain wrong. Although I would have still dissented from the measure, I do note that the final bill passed, was significantly better than earlier drafts. Most notably, it does not apply to feeding five or fewer people. Accordingly, it is somewhat misleading to insinuate the points that Dick made.

More significantly, however, is an absolute misstatement of the facts to say Mayor Parker is zealously supportive of the “eating-out-of-dumsters” ordinance. That could not be further from the truth. Dos Centavos has a great story back from March when the Mayor announced she would be pushing a repeal of the dumpster diving ordinance. The next month, in April, the vote to repeal the 1950s dumpster diving ordinance passed the City Council in a very close vote. The Mayor herself was out-of-town and thus did not cast a vote, but would have most definitely voted to repeal if present. I talked about this at length at the time.

I found the comparison between the Mayor riding in a limousine and the homeless feeding ordinance to be a little far fetched. Like, Rick Perry far fetched, actually. Dick employs a special type of logical fallacy known as an “ignoratio elenchi,” more commonly referred to as a Red Herring, to make the comparison. Whether or not the Mayor should ride in a limousine is a budgetary issue, whether or not to criminalize feeding the homeless is a ethical/moral issue. The two issues are not related.

For what it is worth, I actually do enjoy Dick’s first video, a 30-second YouTube video, I was told may or may not grace or televisions at some point in the future. This video simply is a montage of people saying what the like about Houston, followed by Dick himself saying he is running for Mayor. Nice and positive, though lacking in substance.