Almost missed this.
A trial is set to begin Tuesday morning to determine whether Houston Community College trustee Dave Wilson actually lived in the district in which he ran last November.
Wilson, who ousted former HCC Chairman Bruce Austin in the Nov. 5 election by 26 votes, is being sued by the Harris County attorney. The lawsuit says Wilson did not live in the college system’s District II – the bulk of which sits in northeast Harris County – when he ran for office. Wilson has contended that he lives in “a 1,140-square-foot apartment upstairs” at his office, located at 5600 W. 34th St., which is in the district.
The building there is an 11,340-square-foot commercial metal warehouse, according to county records. A city inspection in January determined Wilson doesn’t have permission to use the warehouse as a residence.
Wilson, a 67-year-old businessman, gained national attention when he beat a 24-year incumbent for the predominantly black district after leading voters to believe he was black. Wilson – who is white – mailed campaign fliers without his photo that said he was endorsed by Ron Wilson – his white cousin, who happens to share the name of a black former state representative.
Jury selection begins this morning, and the trial is expected to last about a day and a half.
See here and here for the background. The trial was originally scheduled to begin April 15, but you know how these things go. The trial may have already concluded by the time you read this, or maybe it will stretch till tomorrow. In any event, I presume we’ll get a ruling soon. I hope there’s some more news coverage to go with it when that happens – this blurb on the free chron.com and this News 92 FM piece were all I saw for it. A search in houstonchronicle.com came up empty, and if there was something in the dead tree edition I missed it. I’d have missed this as well if Houston Legal hadn’t included it in its daily link roundup yesterday.
I have no idea what will happen in this trial. As we’ve discussed before, there’s little precedent to go by, and a lot of vagueness when it comes to what constitutes “residency”. If nothing else, I hope this will help with that. If Wilson loses, I expect him to appeal, going all the way to SCOTUS and maybe the World Court in the Hague if need be, because that’s how he rolls. If Wilson wins, I don’t know if Vince Ryan will pursue it any further. I’m not sure it would be worth the effort unless there’s good reason to think the trial judge screwed up.
I’ve been giving some thought to how this could be better addressed via legislation, and what I’ve come up with is this: A bill that says you are not eligible to serve as a trustee or the equivalent on a school board, community college board, MUD or RUD board, and anything else I might be overlooking, if you or your legally married spouse claims a homestead exemption outside the boundaries of the political entity in question. Note that this wouldn’t prevent someone like Dave Wilson from running for something like the HCC Board of Trustees, but it would require him to sell the house on which he has the exemption, divorce his wife, or give up the exemption. (I put the “spouse” requirement in there because you know the first line of escape by this kind of scoundrel would be to put the home in question in the spouse’s name. It also provides a loophole for same sex couples, at least until same sex marriage is officially legal in Texas. Yeah, I’m evil like that.) If you want to run for something here while owning a home there, you can still rent an apartment or claim a spot on someone’s couch and re-register as a voter here to qualify. You just have to forfeit the tax advantage on that house over there. I think that’s a suitable answer.
Now this is the part where I remind everyone that I am not a lawyer, and so there may be some legal or practical reason why this idea is nuts and completely unworkable. If so, please let me know in the comments. If you want to point out that this would affect some politicians that I happen to like as well as Dave Wilson, my answer is that I’m fine with that. They can make whatever choice to get right that they want, and we’ll have one less fig leaf in politics. If there isn’t a good reason why this idea is stupid, then I plan to start lobbying a few of my favorite State Reps about it. I didn’t include cities in my fantasy bill because I think they should come up with their own requirements for office, but if this can work at the Lege then I’d certainly support amending Houston’s charter to this effect as well. What do you think? Like I said, if this is crazy, go ahead and tell me why.
UPDATE: Today’s Chron reports on the first day of the trial. I’ll have a full post about this tomorrow.