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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Civil Affairs: Law

CIVIL AFFAIRS

Editorial note: Noah M. Horwitz has previously contracted work with the Clifford Group, a public relations firm that counts Yellow Cab among its clients. He currently does no work on behalf of them.

Serving on the Editorial Board of The Daily Texan, I have gotten the opportunity to sit down with a diverse set of stakeholders in community issues. This evening, I had a conversation with a few corporate representatives of Uber, who are trying desperately to pressure the Austin City Council into legalizing their service later this week. I don’t really want to get into the weeds of that issue right now, but what struck me as peculiar was their cognitive dissonance upon being confronted on operating illegally.

Uber and Lyft, app-based vehicle for hire services, routinely jump into new markets by cavalierly breaking the local laws until the municipal government agrees to legalize their courses of action. Once again, I don’t want to get into arguing why I think most all of the regulations currently governing taxis in most Texas cities are sound, or why the reforms Uber and Lyft are fighting toward are misguided. This is just about their strategy when entering a new marketplace. In Houston, they received some citations, but in Austin, they have racked up a lot of them and have even seen the impounding of many vehicles.

When I asked the Uber representatives about this, they confidently stated that they were not, in fact, breaking the law. The Austin Police Department begs to differ, but Uber’s response was that they had a different “interpretation” of the laws currently governing vehicles for hire. Of course, I know some people who have “different interpretations” of laws on cannabis and underage drinking, but it doesn’t ever seem to help them on the weekends.

Many reasonable proponents of Uber will concede that the service breaks the law, but that their lawbreaking is somehow justified by the fact that the laws are allegedly silly. Indubitably, the same thing can be said about our tax code, but the last time I checked, the IRS still does not take too kindly to tax evasion.

I will freely admit that I was radicalized on this issue when Uber and Lyft first began nonchalantly violating the law in Houston, last February. In May, they followed suit in Austin. Now, I grew up in a fairly secular household, and my father is a super old-school attorney, so I was raised with an almost spiritual reverence and respect for the law. I couldn’t ever justify taking either service in a city that is illegal in, and I really do not understand some of the people I know, who gloated about driving for the services on their social media accounts. Perhaps I’m a goody-two-shoe, but the casual attitude on breaking laws –especially local ones– is troubling. These were not imposed by some malevolent dictator in a faraway land, they were concurred to by rather pure representatives of the people not so long ago. Say what you will about the laws being obsolete or wrong, they still need to be respected until they are changed.

And if I hear one more self-righteous liberal gripe about “civil disobedience” or compare Uber and Lyft to players in the Civil Rights movement, I think I am going to lose it. Be it from Thoreau or Martin Luther King, there is a history in this country of violating unjust laws, but this is only in the rare exception of a statute that violates higher law, be that the Constitution or the inherent liberties of man. I don’t think you would find a single person who could say with a straight face that taxi regulations requiring 24/7 commercial insurance or prohibiting variable pricing violate either of these principles. This isn’t a moral struggle.

Personally, I’m offended by how few of my contemporaries are offended by Uber and Lyft’s cavalier lawbreaking. We have a social contract in this society, and that includes abiding by mutually-agreed upon laws.

2015 Mayoral election

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

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

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Texpatriate opposes Vehicle-for-Hire overhaul

Editorial note: Noah M. Horwitz is currently employed by The Clifford Group, a public relations firm in Houston that counts the Greater Houston Transportation Company, Yellow Cab’s parent, among its clients. Horwitz took no place in the deliberation or compilation of this editorial. A majority of the board concurs to the opinion, but the Editorial itself was penned solely by Andrew Scott Romo.

The debate over regulations for taxis in Houston is complicated. The debate over the proposed ordinance before the City Council today is not. The ordinance does not pass the smell test; it allows for equivalent services in the same marketplace to be treated differently. We have long struggled to understand why the City of Houston has drafted an ordinance that would allow such a gross inequity in the law to stand. We’ve tried asking the Mayor, we’ve tried asking the City and we’ve tried asking all the pertinent stakeholders in the community. None of them could give us a clear answer. We are beginning to suspect that one simply does not exist.

This board has long been struggling to pen an editorial on this topic. We disagree sharply among of our ranks with the question of what direction Houston’s taxi industry should move in. Some of us think that the ordinances currently regulating Yellow Cab and other companies should go on relatively unchanged, while some prefer minor changes. Some of us even think that the regulations should be completely eviscerated and replaced with a fully free-market taxi industry, where the consumer and the consumer alone decides who she wishes to ride with and for how much. What we all agree on, however, is that the proposed ordinance is a bad piece of legislation that needs to be voted down.

Uber and Lyft, two new entrants into the taxi industry, wish to not follow the regulations Yellow Cab and others currently follow. These include expensive measures, such as insurance and the guarantee of rides to all, to the more symbolically ethical, such as metered fares that cannot ever be changed or tampered. For one largely supportive of these laws, for example, this proposal lacks any serious positive attributes, as it allows for Uber and Lyft to follow much different, much more lenient, laws regarding insurance, fares, background checks, drug tests, inspections and many more, all while the legal cab companies are forced to follow the letter of the law in every single ordinance previously governing them.

This should be a red flag even for those who are otherwise supportive of calls to reform the taxi industry. Take, for example, the proponent of moderate reform, who may wish to facilitate the creation of discount pricing and promotions for vehicles-for-hire in Houston. While Uber and Lyft, under the dubious category of Transportation Network Companies, may do this, Yellow Cab and others simply may not within the boundaries of the law.

Even advocates of radical deregulation can see the problems with such a proposal. If Uber and Lyft can charge whatever they want, slash some of the most expensive charges for the operation of taxis and only take profitable trips, it would be wildly unfair to compel Yellow Cab to play in the old system. Much has been said about letting the free market take care of consumers in this industry. That simply was not the intention with this bill, as it does not trust the free market to operate. Alternatively, in an example of a most non-free and unfair market, Yellow Cab is restrained by burdensome regulations with Uber and Lyft are not. That is patently absurd and without any justification.

The Houston City Council has already delayed this action once in the naive hope that same grand bargain could be struck or a better bill could be drafted. Instead, the substitute proposal was even worse, replete with even more inequalities between the two same systems. For these reasons, this board recommends that the Council simply kill this proposal. No amendments, no posturing and no compromise-talk. Vote it down.

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

Uber openly breaks the law

The Houston Chronicle reports that Uber, the taxi/ridesharing company which has existed in a legal grey area of sorts for the past couple months, has decided to openly flaunt the law of the City of Houston and begin accepting payment for its rides. This, despite the fact that current City ordinance requires all drivers accepting money for transportation to be licensed cabbies with the City, which is admittedly a somewhat lengthy and cumbersome process, especially for a start-up. As I have said for a few months, there is a conversation that needs to be had over taxi regulations in this town. But, simply put, extortion is not the proper way to go about it.

Uber feels entitled to bully its way into the market. If there is anything that Houstonians could all rally behind, or at least I would hope, it is defending ourselves from bullies, especially those hailing from California or Dallas; Uber is a native of the former. I hope that the City Councilmembers do not stand for this preposterous attempt at intimidation. Uber says that it wants Houston to rewrite its laws to cater to them, or even come up with an amenable compromise for all parties. However, why should we trust a pledge that they would abide by newly crafted law if they have already repeatedly demonstrated their callous indifference to the laws currently on the books. The company likes to play the victim, and it rants and raves about how “unfair” and “uncompetitive” the old laws are. As I have said, that’s a sound argument, and a conversation should commence on the validity of many of these ordinances. However, now that Uber has shown that they feel above the law, what would stop them from simply ignoring any regulations that they find “unfair” or “uncompetitive” in a new set of ordinances. When is it okay for Uber to break the law? Unless your answer is “never,” something is wrong.

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Taxi Co. sues Uber/Lyft

The Houston Chronicle reports that local taxi companies (i.e., the Greater Houston Transportation Company) have sued Uber and Lyft in Federal Court, alleging that the ridesharing apps (which moonlight as de facto taxi companies) are violating City ordinance by illegally accepting payments. As many will recall, Lyft and Uber recently entered the market in Houston, with the understanding that they could not accept any payment until everything is straightened out, legally speaking, down out City Hall. Lyft tried, at first, to say they did not actually charge for their services but were really “donation based,” but after Mayor Annise Parker made an admittedly epic comparison to streetwalkers, Lyft backed off from that sentiment.

The problem with this delicate arrangement is that Uber and Lyft have not lived up to their end of the bargain. Just last Saturday, Dug Begley at the Houston Chronicle delineated the plethora of citations these companies have been receiving in recent days for allegedly operating illegally. 26 citations just in recent days, as of Saturday. Accordingly, the argument shifts to the Taxi Co. who, for better or for worse, must abide by the regulations that are currently on the books. Whether or not you believe that there should be reform of the City’s taxi ordinances, everyone should be united against the overt lawbreaking on the part of Lyft and Uber.

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Is Uber right-wing?

There was an article from The Wall Street Journal making the rounds today that literally made me facepalm in response to its many oversimplifications and errs. Accordingly, I would like to summarize the points it alleged and what exactly it got wrong. The point the article alleged was that Republicans were starting to find a home in the ride-sharing app Uber, which also evidently moonlights as a startup taxi company. Sagacious followers of this site will be familiar with Uber, which (along with Lyft) is trying to enter the marketplace right now as the City grapples with possibly reforming taxi regulation laws. I, of course, have a fairly strong opinion on that underlying issue, but that does not belong in this piece. Simply put, the Journal article makes the straw-man argument that Uber is simply about regulation and free market reforms, with Republicans standing to possibly benefit from young people.

The big issue with this, of course, is that it makes the assumption that the frustratingly diametric and polarized political system of Washington DC translates into municipalities, which, of course, is where these Uber debates are being held. National Republicans do not really stand to gain much of anything from this issue, because there is little the Federal Government can do, as these rules governing taxis or otherwise transportation are mostly left to States and cities. In Texas, specifically, to the latter.

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