Texpatriate’s Best Councilmembers

Last year, this board examined the best and the worst members of the Houston City Council. After much debate and discussion, we decided to do it again. That being said, our criteria for inclusion — one way or another — has shifted considerably. Last year, we examined which councilmembers agreed with us on our policy goals and priorities the most. As such, the rankings delved into far more of a scorecard than an actual ranking. Looking back, such an assessment of a small and intimate deliberative body was deeply unwise. Being a councilmember, particularly in Houston, is about how one conducts themselves around the horseshoe and around the community. Constituent services are important, no doubt, but what makes or brakes inclusion, in our opinion, are leadership skills and consensus-building abilities.

Additionally, we placed considerable attention on the ability of the individual councilmembers to be unique and independent representatives. Given the strong-mayor system of Houston, this means how much the individuals were able to distinguish themselves from the agenda-setting priorities of Mayor Annise Parker.

Last year, we had nothing but adulation for Parker and her policy goals, whereas this year our opinion has been more mixed. Our reasoning is twofold. First, the composition of this editorial board has been truncated, with an effect of making our overall opinion nominally more conversation. However, we believe the main reason for the departure is that Parker opted to, instead of focus on a plethora of piecemeal accomplishments, pass two major pieces of legislation: a non-discrimination ordinance and an overhaul of vehicle-for-hire laws. We agreed with her on the former and disagreed on the latter, though we had serious reservations with the roll-out on both.

But some of Parker’s other accomplishments were marked with what we deemed to be executive overreach. Perhaps the best example of this was the unilateral decision to allow food trucks downtown, rescinding a dully-passed ordinance in the process. We agree with her on the underlying issue, but found the methods troublesome.

Some of the mayoral candidates for this year’s election, namely former Congressman Chris Bell, has suggested allowing councilmembers to introduce agenda items. We think this is a good idea, and thus have valued councilmembers who we believe would effectively participate in the legislative process.

Finally, we determined that the practice of deriding the “Worst” members of the council was unproductive. Given the small and non-partisan nature of the council, there is little parallel to State Legislature in that way.

Without further ado, we present our list:

THE BEST

MIKE LASTER: IT’S HIS WORLD, WE JUST ALL LIVE IN IT

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City Hall runs on a two-party system. No, not Democrats and Republicans. As any even cursory observer of municipal politics could explain, the system is official non-partisan. Most informed voters could tell you how the candidates fall one way or another, and super-partisans probably care about that type of stuff, but it just is not that important on Bagby street and around the horseshoe. The two parties at City Hall, much like a high school cafeteria, are the in-crowd and the outcasts. You can be on the mayor’s good side or not, and rarely is there a middle ground. The closest thing to one is Councilmember Mike Laster, the Democrat from District J (Sharpstown).

Early this past summer, Laster stood close with Parker as one of the council’s key proponents of the contentious non-discrimination ordinance, sometimes known as the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO). Be it the press conferences, the never-ending public sessions or the at-times heated debates, Laster was a dependable and steadfast supporter of LGBT rights as well as the plethora of other demographics protected by this good-senses ordinance.

However, unlike some others, Laster was always a pragmatic and respectful voice on this issue. This board believes that the principle of equality for all is indisputable, but that does not mean that legislation ensuring that right must be beyond the horse-trading and moderation of municipal politics. Laster understood this principle well. If and when the NDO fight transforms into a municipal referendum, its survival depends on voices like his to not lose track of the big picture.

But Laster is not just a pragmatic voice in the majority, he can sometimes be an effective member of the loyal opposition. This was seen best during the summer-long fight on vehicle-for-hire ordinance, specifically seeking changes to accommodate Uber and Lyft into the market. Laster, representing an outer-loop middle class neighborhood, did not get caught up in the gleefest over the new yuppie infatuation. Instead, he calmly looked at how changes would affect his constituents, his city and his values. When he determined — rightly so — that the inequities in the system proposed were unfair, he audaciously fought against its implementation.

One may think that, allied with so many of his opponents from the NDO fight, this would have made for strange bedfellows. But Laster is not a tribal politician who holds grudges, especially not at city hall. Always one for integrity, he transcended the “parties” at city hall and assumed his new role capably.

C.O. BRADFORD: THE SMARTEST GUY IN THE ROOM

Politics all too often is about obfuscation, confusion and misdirection. Officeholders love using doublespeak, code words and other silly tricks to avoid telling the truth or to conceal their agendas. Unfortunately, that mindset — typically associated with the dysfunction of Washington — is present within local political structures as well. Thankfully, Councilmember C.O. Bradford, a Democrat from the fourth At-Large position, is one of the dependable voices of reason in the room, to not only cut through the fluff but possessing arguably the best command of the rules of procedure around the horseshoe.

This was perhaps best noticed during the aforementioned vehicle-for-hire debates. Every time Bradford was recognized to speak, he essentially took control of the situation, using his persuasive rhetoric and his encyclopedic knowledge of pertinent rules and procedures.

But, possibly most importantly, we have been in awe of Bradford’s conduct in regard to the aforementioned NDO. Firmly a member of the anti-Parker team, he played devil’s advocate at every turn, examining a roll-out that was at times sloppy and without focus. In the past few months, as opponents have attempted to place a referendum on the ordinance on the ballot, Bradford has been reasonable in his comments. However, on the most important underlying point, Bradford has never, ever wavered from a bedrock belief supportive of LGBT rights.

For one member of this board, the decision to include Bradford was particularly easy. Early last year, the council approved an overhaul of ordinances on stray dogs, and Bradford voted incorrectly in our opinion. Reaching Bradford for comment, he passionately, articulately and demonstrably defended his position in a way that not only made his views understandable but reinforced our positive impressions of municipal politics.

DAVE MARTIN: SPEAKING TRUTH TO POWER

The Houston City Council, like any governmental body, does its fair share of silly stuff, so every one in a while someone has to come along and scream that the Emperor has no clothes, so to speak. That person, on Bagby Street, is usually Councilmember Dave Martin, the Republican from District E (Kingwood).

Undoubtedly the best example of this asinine mindset was on the final day of deliberations on the vehicle-for-hire overhaul. The lobbyists for Uber and Lyft had convinced the council to allow their taxi companies slide by the regulators under a different category than Yellow Cab, Lone Star Cab and others, thus prompting vastly different regulations for each category despite the fact that the services provided the exact same service. This board split on the underlying principle of reforming taxi laws, but we unanimously agreed that two different systems for the same service was exceedingly dumb. Most egregiously, the proposals allowed for the so-called “TNCs” like Uber and Lyft to charge whatever they wanted while the other taxis would have their fares completely locked in by city hall.

We asked a lot of people to explain this at the time, and no one could. All we got were ad hominems and sanctimonious dribble. Evidently, Martin had some trouble understanding the proposal’s value too. After it became apparent that the proposal would pass, Martin worked quickly to submit a handwritten amendment — later approved — that allowed all taxis to charge variable rates. Whatever your opinion on taxi laws, you should at least agree that equity should be present within the regulatory scheme. Martin eventually abstained on the underlying ordinance — poignantly reminiscent of our own indecision —  but his noble dedication to even-handedness was not unnoticed.

That is the best anecdote to illustrate the quintessence of Martin’s time around the horseshoe. Always prepared, always willing to speak truth to power and always a bunch of fun to watch in action. And lest you think Martin is a show-horse, to borrow the colloquialisms used in councilmembers’ mailers, his commitment to constituent services is one of the strongest at city hall.

Martin’s district, with Kingwood on one end and Clear Lake on the other, faces unparalleled challenges in many ways. The geographic diversity, for one, is daunting. But Martin — as well as his ever-talented staff — have worked well to respond to the district’s unique needs.

HONORABLE MENTIONS

ROBERT GALLEGOS: ROOKIE OF THE YEAR

Freshman on the city council often have quite an uphill climb to prove themselves in their first year in office. Proving as the exception to the rule, Councilmember Robert Gallegos, a Democrat from District I (East End), has done exactly. From his staff picks, which included young rising stars and former rivals, to his attention to detail at council meetings, Gallegos has proven himself as a positive addition to the council.

He has been a dependable ally of the mayor, by and large, but Gallegos has also begun setting himself apart. On the NDO, which originally only applied to employers with at least 50 employees, Gallegos spearheaded the amendment that lowered the threshold to 15, drawing the ire of the Greater Houston Partnership in the process. On vehicles for hire, he broke with the administration to champion 24/7 commercial insurance for all taxis, a priority of ours. All in all, look for Gallegos to be going places in the next few years.

RICHARD NGUYEN: PROFILE IN COURAGE

When Councilmember Richard Nguyen, hailing from District F (Little Saigon), defeated the two-term incumbent in 2013, few expected a very newsworthy representative. Little was known about him, but when he interviewed with us during the campaign (one of his few public comments), he disclosed his affiliation was a registered Republican because he believed “strongly in the United States Constitutions [sic].” Needless to say, he was not considered a very likely vote for an ordinance extending non-discrimination to LGBT people.

But Nguyen surprised us. In a heartfelt moment, Nguyen described his emotional journey in coming to a decision to support the NDO, in part because of his responsibility to be a good father to his young daughter. Later, Nguyen — becoming more and more affiliated with Parker — took a further step and officially became a member of the Democratic Party.

No doubt, he will be challenged this year for that brave stand. And while the other details of Nguyen’s first year in office haven’t been extraordinary, that special moment alone was. A courageous act for a courageous representative that his district should be proud of.

THE BULL OF THE BAGBY

MICHAEL KUBOSH: THE PEOPLE ARE THE CITY

Councilmember Michael Kubosh, the Republican representing the third At-Large position, has two main principles as an officeholder that guide how he votes. First, follow the law. Second, follow the people. A successful bail bondsman by trade, he possesses an erudite legal knowledge that could put many attorneys to shame.

This first principle was exemplified best during the vehicle-for-hire debates. New entrants, such as Uber and Lyft, began operating illegally months before the actual council debate. The rogue operators openly flaunted the law of the land, then absurdly asked for a more agreeable set of laws (that they would then supposedly follow). Kubosh would have none of this. In every public session on this issue, he made a point of reminding all who would listen that the new taxis were operating illegally. It is not a very hard principle to grasp, but it appeared lost on most of his contemporaries. In the council meetings following Uber and Lyft’s respective legalization, Kubosh has not lost sight of this pesky fact. Week after week, he inquires as to the adjudication of citations issued to Uber and Lyft drivers while they were operating illegally.

But the second principle is the more fascinating one. Kubosh could be described as a populist, in that he values direct democracy above most else. He first got well known in municipal politics in 2010 after he organized opposition to Red Light Cameras, and successfully spearheaded a referendum against their use. When the council passed asinine restrictions on feeding the homeless in 2012, Kubosh also became a leader in the push the see a referendum on that issue. And now, with the NDO, Kubosh is hoping for the people to voice their opinions on that issue.

This board is not a big fan of voting on civil rights. We disagreed with his vote against the NDO, but his reasoning is consistent and admirable nonetheless. In a day and age where our politics is dominated by ideologues, Kubosh is quite literally the furthest thing from it.

He listens to the people, whatever they say. In the age old dispute of “Delegate” versus “Trustee” systems of representatives, first formulated by Edmund Burke, Kubosh has firmly taken to the latter option. He’s bold, he’s unpredictable and he’s fearless. And while he certainly hasn’t made a friend of Parker, he’s earned our respect.

Now, the rumor is that Kubosh could challenge Congressman John Culberson, a Republican from the 7th district. We’d love to see him in congress, but city hall would certainly lose out.

The Texpatriate Editorial Board is comprised of George Bailey of Boston, Noah M. Horwitz of Austin and Andrew Scott Romo of New Orleans. Editorials represent a majority opinion of the voting board.

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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.

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?

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.

Don’t let the door hit you!

Editorial note: Noah M. Horwitz is not currently employed or contracting with any entities designating a conflict of interest on this topic.

The Houston Chronicle reports that Lyft, the popular taxi service based off of an app, will be ending its services in Houston just days before new laws go into effect regulating its operation. Since February, Lyft has operated illegally in Houston; however, Mayor Annise Parker’s administration tolerated the lawbreaking because she was sympathetic to their proposed changes to the vehicle-for-hire industry, along with those of their chief rival, Uber. In August, the City Council approved regulations largely accommodating Uber and Lyft into the marketplace. Technically, Lyft is still operating illegally, since the new rules do not go into effect until next week.

One of the provisions in the new law is that drivers for these so-called Transportation Network Companies (TNCs), such as Uber and Lyft, can abstain from city-mandated background checks (ones that involve fingerprinting) for up to 30 days. This was done at the behest of Lyft lobbyists, as Uber doesn’t have a problem with these fingerprinting background checks. Now, Lyft is threatening to leave Houston unless the meager background provision is eviscerated entirely.

Lyft claims they do their own background checks, and that they are superior. Of course, from a municipal regulator’s point of view, I don’t see how secret checks could be evaluated or trusted; we are a little old to use the honor system for something like this. And given that Uber has no problem with the fingerprint background checks, it is obvious that this business model can sustain these types of checks.

Supporters of Lyft showed up en masse at City Hall today and attempted to lobby the City Council into relaxing the rules. Miya Shay, a reporter for KTRK, tweeted a picture of them loitering in the hallway. Personally, if there are people who are this vehement in opposing fingerprint background checks, they honestly freak me out a little bit.

From what I have heard, City Councilmembers are somewhat unenthusiastic about changing the rules, with some of them even pestered by this whole idea. Given how hard they fought over the rules this summer, I doubt many representatives — or the Mayor, for that matter — want to revisit this divisive issue. Additionally, even most of the tribalistic supporters of TNCs could probably not care less about this issue. If Uber is the favorite son of the new entrants into vehicles-for-hire, Lyft is the red-headed stepchild.

You know my overall opinion on TNCs, but I would hope that everyone could be behind background checks that include fingerprints. The risks are just too high otherwise. For the safety of everyone, the Council should stand firm on this issue.

Parker subpoenas pastors

On Tuesday, the Houston Chronicle noted that Mayor Annise Parker and City Attorney David Feldman have subpoenaed the sermons of prominent pastors who have been a part of ongoing petition efforts against the local non-discrimination ordinance. The NDO, passed last May, prevents discrimination on the basis of race, sex, religion and other distinguishing features, as well as sexual orientation and gender identity. Those last two qualities garnered a great deal of controversy both before and after the Houston City Council passed the measure, even prompting a petition drive to force a referendum.

In a still controversial decision, city leaders disqualified most of the signatures provided, saying not enough valid voices signed against the ordinance to compel a referendum. Since then, litigation has been pending and a referendum is still quite possible in the future. I suppose that the city is now trying to cover its behind by proving many of the tactics exhibited by these pastors, who are legally required to remain apolitical, have been unlawful.

On Wednesday, however, Parker distanced herself from the subpoenas, calling them “overly broad” and regretting the incident was handled the way it was. As they likely realized right away, this little bout of theatrics did the Mayor and all supporters of the NDO no favors. In fact, it merely stirred the pot even more, riling up the same group that so vociferously opposed the ordinance and fought it throughout the summer.

National news and opinion sites have been quick to castigate Parker, and she has received 20 bits of negative press for every item of support thus far. Fox News didn’t look too kindly, nor did The Washington Times. Forbes Magazine wrote that the city has “a first amendment problem.” Meanwhile, a columnist for The Washington Post even opined that the whole exercise is a trampling of the first amendment. The whole story is so outrageous at first glance that Snopes.com even ran a feature on it.

Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Attorney General Greg Abbott, the Republican candidate for Governor, both made big stinks today as well against this decision.

As a matter of law, I don’t know that Parker did anything too egregious. But beyond the shadow of a doubt, as a matter of policy, it was a foolish move on her office’s part. Fire and brimstone clergy, particularly those who all too often bully others, are remarkably talented at feigning victimization. In a place as religious and conservative as Houston, picking a fight with them will always be a losing proposition.

Parker even noted in a press conference today that these are fairly well-famed pastors, with expansive followings both on television and online. The sermons are easily accessible through less intrusive means than a court order. The whole point of this exercise was for show, and in that department, Parker undoubtedly lost. I’m glad she has backed off from this, hopefully it can cause the press to move past it and focus on some real issues. Typically, on Wednesday nights, I recap the events of the Houston City Council from the preceding morning. But the council did nothing of real note today. Everything revolved around press conferences involving this puny anonymity and the Ebola hysteria, respectively.

Rhymes with Right has more, from the other side of the aisle.

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?