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August 4th, 2014:

Decision on validity of HERO-repeal petitions coming today

Get ready for the fireworks.

City of Houston officials plan to announce Monday whether a petition submitted by opponents of the city’s new nondiscrimination ordinance contains enough valid signatures to force a vote on repealing the measure this November.

Opponents claimed to have gathered and verified 31,000 names, but City Attorney David Feldman said Friday many of the more than 5,000 pages fall short of legal requirements set out in the city charter. The final tally likely will be closer than many expected to the minimum threshold of 17,269 signatures, Feldman said.

“There’s an issue there with respect to the validity of pages,” Feldman said. “But right now I don’t know what the final count is.”

Feldman provided no numbers, but said his staff had found many invalid pages, most notably because some of the circulators who collected stacks of signatures were not qualified Houston voters, as required by law. In such cases, all the signatures the circulator gathered would be void, Feldman said.

Many names on valid pages also did not belong to registered Houston voters, Feldman said, and some signatures were gathered before June 3, when the ordinance was published and the petition drive could begin.

Noel Freeman, who led a volunteer group of ordinance supporters doing their own count, went further, saying the number of invalid pages alone pushes the signatures below the required level.


Freeman, who is treasurer of the Houston GLBT Caucus but said his group was distinct from the caucus, said its count showed almost 3,000 pages were invalid, voiding nearly 19,000 signatures. Assuming all of the signatures on the remaining pages are valid, Freeman said the count stands at 16,499.

“We hope that the city secretary and the city legal department have reviewed the same things we’ve reviewed, consistent with those criteria that the city has laid out, and our hope is that they come to a conclusion that is similar to or identical to the conclusion we came to,” he said.

Remember when the petitions were turned in and the opponents claimed they had gathered 50,000 signatures on them? Yeah, it turns out that was a wee bit of an exaggeration. Now they’re saying that they had only 31,000 signatures that they could verify. That’s a lot less than 50,000 and puts them squarely in the danger zone, since the conventional wisdom is that you need double the minimum required number to feel safe about meeting the validity requirement.

Freeman, whom I emailed with questions about the numbers in this story, said his group gave the opponents credit for 35,452 sigs originally, based on tallying up the numbers written at the bottom of each page, which they presumed was the number of valid signatures the petitioners’ own verification team thought they had on each page. They then knocked out all of the pages that did not meet legal requirements as noted in the story, and that plus the individual invalid signatures that they found on valid pages was enough to get them down to the 16,499 mark. They stopped looking at that point even though there were other valid pages that had not been scoured. Given the likelihood of more invalid sigs on those unexamined pages, plus the fact that the petitioners themselves thought they had some 3,500 fewer sigs to begin with than Freeman’s group assumed, it’s probable that the final tally is even lower.

Outsmart had a look at the petition review process as it was going on.

When it became clear that the opposition would be calling for its repeal, Freeman, along with numerous other community leaders and HERO advocates, developed a strategy to deal with the anticipated petition process. They held several training sessions at Resurrection Metropolitan Community Church in the Heights to educate HERO supporters on how to check the petitions and determine whether or not signatures are valid. Over 80 people have been trained thus far, according to Kris Banks, a prominent volunteer who has been active in this process.

Signatures on the petitions can be marked invalid for numerous reasons, including signers not being valid registered voters and petitions not being properly notarized. Banks said that each page of the petition is different, with some containing 15 valid signatures, and others with none. “There are some things that the city secretary won’t be checking for, like fraud and duplicates,” Banks explained. “There are just so many potential issues with these petitions that it really helps to have many eyes looking at them and thinking about what problems there might be.”

Freeman has spent over 50 hours reviewing these petitions, and he plans on reviewing every single one of the 5,199 pages before presenting his findings. During this process, Freeman believes he even discovered a problem with one of the petition pages associated with longtime antigay activist Dr. Steven Hotze.

“We have found a very large number of petition pages that may be invalid because they do not appear to comply with state law,” Freeman said. “One of those pages is a page Steve Hotze both signed and circulated.”

Oh, the humanity! You’d think this gang of chuckleheads might have included a person or two in a leadership role that knew something about quality assurance, but that doesn’t seem to have been the case. Still, it’s up the city to make the call. Not that this will be the final word, of course.

Mayor Annise Parker, the first openly gay mayor of a major American city, has predicted the issue ultimately will find its way to a judge.

“If we say there are enough signatures, I’m assuming we get sued by groups like Mr. Freeman’s who have done their own count and disagree,” she said Tuesday, “and if we say that there are not enough signatures, I’m assuming we get sued by those who passed the petitions.”

Given the petitioners’ inability to do their own accurate count in the first place, that will be interesting to see. How can they claim they have enough valid signatures if they don’t even know how many signatures they turned in? HERO Petition, which had been the host of petition page scans during the validation process but which will transition to being an information site about the process, Buzzfeed, and Lone Star Q have more, and if you need a reminder of what the people behind the repeal effort are all about, see this.

UPDATE: From Facebook: “Not enough valid signatures on petitions to overturn HERO. 15,249 valid. 17,269 needed.” Will have a full report tomorrow.

Houston municipal employees may see health insurance costs get hiked again

It’s one of many possible proposals for closing the upcoming budget shortfall.

Mayor Annise Parker

Mayor Annise Parker

A key option, [Mayor annise] Parker has said, is to increase the share of health care costs employees pay. The city now pays three-fourths, and employees pay one-fourth.

“We have a very generous health benefits plan, even with the changes,” Parker said, referring to premium increases and cuts to benefits made last year. “We could shift more of those costs to our employees.”

Forcing employees to pick up 30 percent of health costs, rather than a quarter, could save the city up to $20 million in the first year, officials estimate. Requiring employees to cover half of health costs could save $80 million.

Melvin Hughes, president of the Houston Organization of Public Employees, said such discussions mean the mayor and council are not considering the people who make the city run. Such an increase would lead many workers to stop seeking care for themselves and their families, Hughes said.

“There’s no way we could accept that. We can’t afford an increase on health care. We do not make that kind of money,” Hughes said. “I understand it’s tight and I understand there’s a budget shortfall coming this way. They’re going to have to manage the money a little bit better.”

This is not the first time city employees have faced this. I’d be pretty unhappy if I worked for the city right now. They may have generous health insurance benefits, but this is a pay cut no matter how you look at it. There are other ideas being explored to deal with the shortfall, but you can only sell real estate once, and the projections are four several years. The city would like nothing more than to reduce its pension payments, but as we well know much of that is not in their hands. One way or another, the next Mayor is going to have to deal with a lot of this.

Marriage equality’s legal winning streak may be on the line this week

And it’s not even the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals that might bring a halt, however temporary, to the march of progress.


Marriage equality has had a very good run in the federal courts ever since the Supreme Court declared the anti-gay Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional in 2013. Every single federal court to consider the question has sided with marriage equality, although two federal appellate judges have dissented from this consensus view in the United States Courts of Appeals for the Fourth and the Tenth Circuits.

Nevertheless, equality is likely to face more skeptical judges as more of these cases advance to the court of appeals level. As ThinkProgress warned last June, “appointments to federal circuit courts have historically been much more politically charged than appointments to the lower-ranking district courts, so litigants are far more likely to encounter a judge who was selected for their loyalty to a particular ideology.” We also predicted that the Sixth Circuit, with a strong Republican majority and a history of partisan acrimony, was especially likely to treat a marriage equality case with skepticism.

Next Wednesday, a three-judge panel of the Sixth Circuit will convene in Cincinnati to hear several marriage equality cases arising out of Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky and Tennessee — and the GOP-dominated panel that will hear these cases is unlikely to bring joy into the hearts of equality’s supporters.

If the Sixth Circuit really wants to accept a bunch of ridiculous and widely discredited arguments on behalf of discrimination, there’s not much anyone can do to stop them. History will remember them unkindly, but I suppose we’ll all be dead by then, so YOLO and all that. As the story notes, there’s a chance it might not go down this way, so let’s not get ahead of ourselves. In the end, even a bad decision just means that the Supreme Court will have to take it up sooner rather than later.

More on San Felipe Highrise Lawsuit II

Here’s the Chron story on the latest adventure in urban planning via the courtroom. The basics are covered here so I’m going to cut to the speculation about effect.

Observers have said the Ashby case could have an effect on development moving forward. Now, local land-use experts say the San Felipe project and the neighbors’ fight against it may be the first evidence of that.

“They could be taking from the Ashby logic,” said Matthew Festa, a South Texas College of Law professor who specializes in land use issues, who testified for the developers in the November trial. “It could be a death by a thousand cuts: everyone who lives nearby suddenly feels empowered to sue for damages.”


Barry Klein, president of the Houston Property Rights Association, said not many homeowners could afford the costly litigation involved in the Ashby and San Felipe cases.

“Maybe this is a case where people have so much money, it’s a way to cause pain to the developer, even though they recognize they can’t stop the tower,” Klein said. “It could simply be spite on their part to cause the developer more trials and tribulations. … Most neighborhoods don’t have people that can take the legal gamble like this. I don’t expect this will happen in many parts of Houston.”

Bill Kroger, a partner with Baker Botts, which is defending Hines, said the Ashby case is far from resolved and the arguments of the River Oaks neighbors in the latest lawsuit are very different.

Kroger said there has not been a flood of litigation against high-rise office buildings, despite the boom in construction.

Yet John Mixon, a retired University of Houston law professor who specializes in property law, said the lawsuit against Hines signals an “open season” on development and highlights the needs for zoning.

“Developers are now paying the price for not having a system for rational regulation to settle these issues,” he said. “I think we are going to see some fireworks over the next few years.”

I’m more inclined to agree with Klein and Kroger here than with Festa and Mixon. The Ashby decision is going to be appealed – in fact, the defense has just filed a motion to appeal – and it’s possible the plaintiffs could follow suit since the judge gave it the go-ahead to be built despite the damages awarded. In both of these cases you have people with the wherewithal to pursue legal action doing so. Not every neighborhood can meet that. The fact that as yet I’ve heard of no legal action planned by any of my Heights neighbors over the multiple projects going on that they scorn suggests to me this kind of litigation will be the exception rather than the rule. Plus, who knows, the San Felipe plaintiffs may lose. I for one think that the Ashby location was a lot less sensible than this one is for a highrise, and the fact that it was so much of an outlier may be the difference. Of course, I thought the Ashby plaintiffs were going to lose as well, so what do I know. It’ll be a long time before we know for sure what the outcomes will be.