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August 7th, 2014:

Council approves vehicles for hire overhaul

At long last.

Lyft

Technology companies that have unapologetically disrupted vehicle-for-hire markets in cities across the country will be able to operate legally in Houston after City Council on Wednesday ended 16 months of wrangling by approving new rules.

Council voted 10 to 5, with two absent, to open the heavily regulated paid ride market in Houston to new entrants, such as Uber and Lyft, that use smartphone applications to connect willing drivers with interested riders, using the driver’s personal car.

Mayor Annise Parker, who supported the rule changes but has made no secret of her desire to move on to other topics, said the months of delay were driven by the difficult issues at play, as well as the measure acting as a “full employment opportunity for lobbyists” as an entrenched, regulated industry fought well-funded, innovative startups.

“This is something that’s been a contentious issue in cities all across the United States,” Parker said. “I think we did the right thing and I think we did something positive for the citizens of Houston who rely on vehicles for hire to navigate the city without doing something I think would have a negative impact on existing providers.”

Uber

Yellow Cab President Roman Martinez said he also is happy the discussion is over so his contracting drivers can return to the streets. He said he does not see the vote as a loss, though he acknowledged the failure of an amendment to cap the number of Uber and Lyft drivers allowed to enter the market – by a 9-8 vote – was significant.

“We’ve always said we are not afraid of competition,” Martinez said, surrounded by colleagues in bright T-shirts. “Everybody here that’s in this room today, who are cab drivers, limousine drivers, jitney operators, we’re going to compete. We just wanted to make sure the playing field was level and that everybody was going to play by the same rules. Council had a little bit different opinion about what those rules are, but now we get back to work.”

Uber spokeswoman Lauren Altmin said the vote shows the power of citizen support for her company’s services, and said it shows Houston’s commitment to innovation.

[…]

In opposing the ordinance itself, Council members Laster, Jerry Davis, C.O. Bradford, Michael Kubosh and Jack Christie pointed to the absence of caps and round-the-clock insurance as key reasons. Kubosh echoed Martinez’s comment about a level playing field.

“We’re not even close to the same rules,” he said. “It’s really lopsided, it really favors the transportation network companies; it doesn’t favor the cab companies at all.”

The mayor said drivers for Uber’s luxury sedan service, UberBLACK, can begin registering with the city immediately, while drivers for the taxi-style services Lyft and uberXmust wait 90 days to sign up.

That likely will not stop Uber or Lyft from continuing to operate, given that the firms launched illegally in February and have racked up more than 800 citations between them and their drivers since then.

There were a bunch of amendments offered, with perhaps the most interesting being proposed by CM Laster that would have limited the number of Uber/Lyft-type drivers to 250, Seattle-style. That was defeated 9-8, which may be just as well. There was a requirement added for a minimum of 3% of all vehicles for hire to be wheelchair accessible (see this press release from CM Brenda Stardig) with a proviso that it can’t be met by one company alone. Whether that will have an effect on the recent litigation filed by disability rights activists or not, I don’t know. I do know I’m glad that this is over, and I suspect you are, too. Your turn now, Dallas and San Antonio. The Houston Business Journal and The Highwayman have more.

HERO repeal lawsuit moved to federal court

And the bad guys are very unhappy about it.

PetitionsInvalid

Conservative activists seeking to repeal Houston’s equal rights ordinance accused the city of stalling the issue Wednesday after city lawyers moved the opponents’ lawsuit over rejected ballot petitions from state to federal court.

Opponents blasted the move, calling it a delay tactic aimed at keeping the issue off the November ballot. City officials called it a routine move invited by the plaintiffs’ decision to cite federal law in their suit.

[…]

Plaintiff Jared Woodfill, a conservative activist, said the city’s move was less about federal rights and more about putting off a ruling. Woodfill and opponents sought an injunction in state court Tuesday night, asking Visiting Judge John Coselli to suspend enforcement of the ordinance, effectively triggering the referendum process. Parker, however, already has said the city will not enforce the ordinance until there is a legal ruling.

Coselli did not rule on the injunction request Tuesday and by Wednesday afternoon the city had filed its notice of removal.

“They’re doing everything they can to keep the people and the courts from ruling on this,” Woodfill said.

Aw, poor baby. Here’s the original story on the lawsuit, which as noted was filed late Tuesday.

The lawsuit asks a state district judge to declare that City Secretary Anna Russell met her legal duty by verifying a sufficient number of signatures to force a vote, only to have City Attorney David Feldman illegally insert himself into verifying the petition, invalidating more than half of the petition’s 5,200 pages for failing to satisfy legal requirements in the city charter. That left opponents roughly 2,000 names short of the 17,269-signature threshold needed to force a referendum.

In a memo to Mayor Annise Parker and the City Council, Russell said she had found 17,846 valid signatures before Feldman reviewed the pages, and attributed the lower count to her review of his office’s work. At an injunction hearing Tuesday night, plaintiffs argued Russell’s initial count was the important one by law and should have triggered a referendum. City attorneys disagreed, saying Russell ultimately found there were not enough signatures.

“If he (Feldman) felt there were underlying problems with the petition then he, like us, has the right to file a lawsuit if he doesn’t agree with what the city secretary did,” said conservative activist Jared Woodfill, one of the four plaintiffs. “Going in before she’s ever made the decision and influencing her is inappropriate, it’s illegal and we believe the court will agree with us and that folks will have their voices heard in November on this issue.”

[…]

Feldman strongly disputed the idea that his involvement crossed ethical or legal lines, saying he has a specific duty under city ordinance to interpret the law and give legal advice.

“There’s nothing that would preclude me from giving legal advice to the city secretary,” Feldman said. “In fact, that’s what our ordinances would expect me to do: Give advice to her on an issue which is really a legal issue. The question of whether or not those pages are valid because of the issue of meeting or not meeting the requirements of the charter is a legal issue.”

As noted yesterday, you can see a copy of the lawsuit here, but those paragraphs above basically capture it. Woodfill and his playmates claim that only Anna Russell can determine the number of valid signatures. I thought their argument was kinda thin, but I am as always Not A Lawyer, so what do I know. As far as the complaints about delays go – remember, August 18 is looming as the last day for any measure to be put on the ballot – they are cordially invited to cry me a river.

One more thing, from the first story:

During her weekly press conference after Wednesday’s City Council meeting, Parker referred to a training video that shows Dave Welch, of the Houston Area Pastor Council and a leading opponent of the ordinance, explaining the rules signature gatherers needed to follow. With a power point presentation behind him, Welch tells the audience the unique repeal referendum process “makes it more challenging for us.”

Signature gatherers must be registered city voters, Welch said. If they are not, the entire page gets thrown out.

“Let me repeat that so everybody really understands that,” Welch said.

Parker said she had not seen the video, but that her staff had been “enjoying” it.

“So, it’s kind of amusing if, in fact, his own language is used against him in court,” Parker said.

Here’s the video in question. Skip ahead to 6:30 to hear the bit Mayor Parker is referring to. I don’t know that this makes any difference legally, but it’s pretty funny anyway.

Finally, on a side note, the Forward Times hosted a public forum recently to discuss the HERO and its effects. Supporters and opponents were invited to come and speak, but at the last minute the opposing speakers dropped out. TaShon Thomas is not impressed.

Puss in Boots tells the story of a cat that uses trickery and deceit to gain wealth, power, and the hand of a princess for his lowly master. Much like the mischievous cat, the opponents of the ordinance used every manner of trickery and deceit to get their point across and try to sell their side to the citizens of Houston. But when given the opportunity to actually talk about the ordinance in a sensible approach, none of the leaders of the petition drive decided to show up.

I have always been one who is open to hearing opposition and trying to understand where they are coming from, but it is impossible for me to do that if they do not show up when it is important. The mayor’s announcement should have not deterred the petition leaders from attending the forum; it should have been a rallying cry.

If you truly care about bettering the city of Houston and believe the ordinance would lead to its downfall, then you should use whatever avenue is given to you to get your point across. Do not just say you are going to attend and back out at the last moment as though you are cowering in defeat. Especially now since the window for the repeal to be placed on the ballot is approaching fast.

I hope this serves as a cautioning for anyone, especially elected officials or anyone trying to bring something to our community, who make commitments and fail to live up to his or her promises.

How can we support or trust you if you can’t even face the people you are trying to persuade to join your cause and go your way? In other words, do not let your mouth write a check that your behind can’t cash!

Amen to that.

Ike Dike versus Centennial Gate

It’s an academic storm surge mitigation smackdown!

Lawmakers on Monday told representatives of two of Texas’ most distinguished universities to stop feuding and come together on a plan for protecting the Houston region from a storm surge similar to the one spawned by Hurricane Ike six years ago.

At a hearing at Texas A&M University Galveston, members of the Joint Committee on a Coastal Barrier System expressed frustration that the universities who took the initiative to devise a storm protection plan – Texas A&M Galveston and a Rice University-based center – were still arguing over the best approach.

“The fact is that Hurricane Ike was six years ago and we are still talking about how to come to a consensus,” said Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood and the co-chairman of the joint committee. “We’ve got to move forward.”

Legislators said they wanted a proposal they could turn into legislation soon. “You have to come up with a plan that can be passed,” said committee Co-Chairman Joe Deshotel, D-Beaumont.

If the two sides fail to come together by the time the committee reconvenes in September, legislators said, they will take steps to bring about an agreement. “We’ll do something to encourage them,” Taylor said, adding that it could include picking a person or a committee to work out a deal.

“We have ways of making you achieve consensus,” Sen. Taylor did not say, definitely not twirling his mustache while not saying it. Sorry, got carried away for a minute there. Won’t happen again, I promise.

Texas A&M is backing a storm protection barrier proposal known as the Ike Dike, which would stretch from San Luis Pass at the western end of Galveston Island to High Island on the eastern end of the Bolivar Peninsula. Skeptics have said the idea is too costly.

Texas A&M marine scientist William Merrell proposed the concept soon after Ike caused an estimated $25 billion in damage to the Houston area, making it the costliest storm in Texas history.

The SSPEED Center, which draws on ideas from all over Texas, originated the proposal for the Centennial Gate at the head of the Houston Ship Channel. That plan calls for a ring barrier around the populated portion of Galveston Island, and a storm levee along Texas 146 to protect the western edge of Galveston Bay.

After the hearing, Jim Blackburn, a professor at the SSPEED Center, said he was confident that an agreement could be reached. But when Merrell was asked if there was a chance of a compromise, he responded, “No.”

“We’ve got a concept, we think it’s a good one and we are going to keep doing it,” Merrell said. “The Centennial Gate never did hunt.”

Merrell said he would welcome the backing of the SSPEED Center.

“Save time, see it my way,” Merrell did not say. Yeah, I know I said I wouldn’t do that again, but sometimes it’s just too easy.

See here and here for some background. I don’t know what the “right” answer is here. It’s a matter of how you calculate the risk and how much you’re willing to pay to mitigate that risk. There is such a thing as too much insurance, but there’s also such a thing as too little. What’s it worth to you? How will you pay for it? Answer those questions and you’ll answer the other one. Lisa Gray is right, that’s the Legislature’s call.

Texas blog roundup for August 4

The Texas Progressive Alliance thinks Congress can stay in recess all the way till November as it brings you this week’s roundup.

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