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There will be charter referenda next year

Details are pending, but one way or another we’ll get to vote on some charter changes next November.

HoustonSeal

City Council members on Thursday agreed that any city charter reforms, including changes to term limits, should go to voters in November rather than May next year, but they kicked most substantive discussion of those issues to future meetings.

Thursday marked the second charter committee meeting on possible changes, most notably switching from three two-year terms to two four-year terms and repealing a voter-imposed revenue cap. The committee’s actions have no binding power, but the goal is to come up with recommendations for which changes should go to voters.

And though Thursday’s agenda called for discussion about the proposed reforms, the meeting largely turned on the logistics of future charter meetings: how many to schedule, whether they should be held during the day or at night and if they should be conducted outside of council chambers.

Council members agreed to hold six bi-weekly meetings starting next year, to alternate meeting times between day and night and to hold them in council chambers.

[…]

Councilman C.O. Bradford, who has been pushing the charter reform conversation for months, has laid out four basic reform proposals. Councilman Michael Kubosh on Thursday tacked on another voter issue, a possible vote on a failed feeding ordinance petition he helped organize.

Bradford’s reforms, in addition to the term limits, are as follows:

  • Any item advanced by at least six council members could be placed on City Council agenda.
  • City Council could meet in executive session.
  • The city would dedicate any funds above the revenue cap (if repealed) to paying down general fund debt.

See here, here, and here for the background. The first point that needs to be made is that I don’t see a specific proposal to repeal the revenue cap. What I do see is Bradford’s “revenue cap lite” proposal, which I object to for the same reason that I object to the existing revenue cap. If the Mayor and Council choose in a given year to dedicate funds to paying down the debt, that’s fine. I have a problem with requiring them to do so, in the same way that I have a problem with requiring them to pass pointless tax cuts instead. We elect Mayors and Council members to make these decisions. If we don’t like the decisions they make, we should vote them out. That’s how this is supposed to work.

As for the term limits proposal, Campos asks why the fixation on four year terms (he has some good thoughts on the subject as well that you should read). I think the simple answer is that switching from three two year terms to two four year terms is about the most minimal change to the term limits law you can make, and as such will be the easiest change to sell to a public that has accepted term limits as the de facto standard. You know how I feel about this. I can’t see me voting for this change. I recognize that rejecting this will be seen as an affirmation of the three two year term status quo, which I don’t like either. I don’t have a good answer for that. All I can do is continue to stump for something better, which to my mind would be a combination of no term limits and some form of public financing for campaigns. And while I’m at it, I’ll write a letter to Santa Claus asking him to bring me a pony this Christmas. I figure the odds of that happening are about as good.

I have no opinion on the other items at this time. What I do have an opinion on is that if we’re going to go through this exercise, why not also include a proposal to repeal the 2001 amendment that banned domestic partner benefits for city employees? Yes, I know Mayor Parker issued an executive order extending these benefits to all legally married couples, including same sex couples, and yes I know there is litigation over that. Repealing the 2001 amendment would put her order on firmer legal ground, it would enable more employees to take advantage of this benefit, and it would remove a stain from the charter. And yes, I know that we might have to vote on a repeal referendum for the equal rights ordinance. But maybe we won’t – we should know well in advance of the August deadline for ballot items – and even if we do, why not play offense as well? I’d at least like for us to talk about it. More from Campos here.

Charter review gets set

From Campos:

HoustonSeal

This Thursday, December 4 the City Council’s Ad Hoc Charter Review committee will meet and several members of Council want the following in BOLD discussed. I have added a few devil’s advocate observations. BTW: All members of City Council are on the committee. Here are proposed changes:

1. Authorize any item(s) acknowledged and advanced by at least six (6) Council Members to be placed on the Council Agenda for full Council consideration. I would like to be given an example of what items some Council members would want on the agenda. Why can’t they just ask the Mayor to put something on?

2. Authorize Executive Session meetings for City Council. This to me right off the bat doesn’t sound good. This doesn’t speak well of transparency in government. We have been doing OK without Executive Sessions. I don’t like the idea of trying to guess if deals were cut in closed session – if you know what I mean.

3. Change term limits to two four-year terms beginning with the 2015 City Election. I think if you want to change term limits, go get petitions and do it from the grass roots up. This is just pi__ing off some voters again and haven’t we done enough of that lately. Just go for broke and get signatures to do away with term limits – period.

4. Authorize the City to keep and invest excess revenue above the Rev Cap Spending Limits to be used exclusively to pay down the General Fund Debt. Now this one is going to need a lot of ‘splaining.

It is going to be interesting to see what the Mayoral candidates have to say about the proposals. Stay tuned!

Texpatriate was on this right before Thanksgiving. These ideas first came up last year, and I outlined my basic positions on them in October. I’d say Marc and Noah and I are broadly in agreement on the first three. The last one, as far as I can tell, is what I’d call “revenue cap lite”. The rationale for it is described in the comments to this post. What it means, more or less, is that if city revenue exceeds the stupid revenue cap for whatever the reason, then instead of forcing Council to pass a pointless tax cut, the revenue above the cap can be used to pay down debt. It’s superficially appealing in the same way that the revenue cap itself is superficially appealing, and if my only choices were this and the revenue cap as is, I’d choose this. The problem is that as with the cap itself, it substitutes slogans for discretion and imposes a priority (in this case, debt reduction) over everything else, in particular investment in infrastructure or other worthwhile possibilities. What if we wanted to spend the extra revenue we have this cycle on body cameras for HPD, as a for-instance? Sorry, no can do – it has to compete with everything else in the rest of the budget. Maybe debt reduction really is the best use for the bonus revenue we might have in a given year. If so, then let Council and/or the Mayor make the case for it, just like anything else. Last I checked, that was how representative democracy was supposed to work.

Anyway. Hard to know which if any of these proposals will have enough support to make it past the committee meeting stage, or if this will wind up being a lot of talk for no action. As Campos says, it will be interesting to see what the 87 and counting Mayoral candidates think about all of this. Texas Leftist has more.

Council approves meaningless tax cut

Such awful policy.

The Houston City Council unanimously passed a nominal property tax cut Tuesday afternoon, the first rate reduction in five years, as the city for the first time runs into a revenue cap imposed by voters a decade ago.

The modest rollback equates to $12.27 a year for the owner of a $200,000 house with a standard homestead exemption. Many Houston property owners will not pay less in overall property taxes, however, as appraisals continue to rise.

The city’s new property tax rate is 63.108 cents per $100 of assessed value, a reduction of about three-quarters of a cent. State law requires the city to adopt its tax rate within 60 days of receiving the certified tax roll, so the approval came Tuesday rather than Wednesday, when the council typically votes.

Officials in Mayor Annise Parker’s administration have said the rate reduction will not force immediate budget cuts because the spending plan the council passed for the fiscal year that began July 1 assumed property tax revenues would not exceed the cap.

However, the cut does mean the city will collect an estimated $12.7 million less than it otherwise would have, and will have that much less on hand to deal with a looming $120 million deficit for the fiscal year starting next summer.

Basically, thanks to the stupid revenue cap, the city is forced to spend $12.7 million and get nothing in return for it. May as well withdraw it all in cash and set it on fire. I’ll say again, I will not support any candidate for Mayor next year that does not support repealing the revenue cap.

Chartering

There will be more than just the Mayor’s race going on in 2015.

Mayor Annise Parker

Mayor Annise Parker

Houston is guaranteed a frantic 2015 political season with an open mayor’s race on the ballot, but it could get busier still with growing talk of placing the city charter before voters for possible changes to term limits, the city revenue cap and other reforms.

Whether any of the proposed amendments goes to a vote next May or alongside the mayoral contest next November, the state constitution requires a two-year gap between charter changes, so all reforms would need to be voted on at once.

The question, given a difference of opinion between term-limited Mayor Annise Parker and some City Council members, is what will make the ballot.

Parker has warned of widespread layoffs with next summer’s budget unless the decade-old, voter-imposed revenue cap is altered or scrapped, but she may prefer a November vote to avoid the measure being torpedoed by the hard-core right in a low-turnout May election. Even at that, she has not guaranteed a vote on the issue.

The mayor also has pledged to let voters consider a change in term limits – likely from three two-year terms to two four-year terms – but support evaporated on City Council when that idea last was discussed in 2012.

Some council members, meanwhile, are pushing for broader reforms, including a proposal to let six members team up to place items on the council agenda for a vote; only the mayor can do so today, though three council members can call a special meeting.

Councilman C.O. Bradford, who long has argued for charter reform, is pushing that idea, which he says will enable council to better address small, neighborhood issues.

All that is in addition to the possibility of a referendum to repeal the Equal Rights Ordinance, depending on how things go in court. All forty-seven Mayoral candidates (or is it fifty-eight, I’ve lost count) will need to deal with these issues whether they want to or not.

I know, I’m still not ready to start talking about 2015 yet, so let me keep this brief.

1. I support any and all efforts to repeal the stupid revenue cap. I will not vote for any Mayoral candidate that is not on board with repealing the revenue cap.

2. My preference for term limits is to abolish them. Given that that isn’t going to happen, I would greatly prefer extending them to allow more two-year terms – six seems like a reasonable number to me – over any proposal that includes changing the length of the term in office to four years. To me, the ability to quickly correct a mistake like Helena Brown outweighs any purported downside of making people begin campaigning for re-election so soon. If the real complaint here is that nobody likes having to raise money for their campaigns – a complaint with which I sympathize – then let me propose a system of public financing for campaigns, which not only would alleviate the dialing-for-dollars drudgery, it would also address the original justification for term limits. I call that a win-win.

3. I currently have no opinion about CM Bradford’s proposal. I will be interested to hear what the seventy-three Mayoral candidates have to say about it.

Mayor Parker announces same sex spousal benefits for city employees

Mayor Parker had been talking recently about a more comprehensive non-discrimination ordinance for Houston and possibly revisiting the 2001 charter amendment that forbids the city from offering domestic partner benefits. I knew something would be coming, but I didn’t expect this.

Mayor Annise Parker

Mayor Annise Parker

The city of Houston will offer health and life insurance benefits to all spouses of legally married employees, including same-sex couples, despite a voter-approved 2001 charter amendment that had banned the practice, Mayor Annise Parker announced Wednesday.

Parker’s action relied on a legal opinion from City Attorney David Feldman that cited the U.S. Supreme Court overturning the federal Defense of Marriage Act this year, federal agencies’ subsequent decisions to recognize legal same-sex marriages and other relevant case law.

“Based on the right to equal protection under the law, it is unconstitutional for the city to continue to deny benefits to the same-sex spouses of our employees who are legally married,” Parker said. “This change is not only the legal thing to do, it is the right, just and fair thing to do.”

The 2001 charter amendment states, in part, “Except as required by State or Federal law, the City of Houston shall not provide employment benefits, including health care, to persons other than employees, their legal spouses and dependent children.”

Parker said the language is plan in referring to legal marriages. Same-sex marriages conducted in any jurisdiction where the act is legal, including foreign countries, 17 states and the District of Columbia, will be recognized, she said.

Here’s the official press release, with a bit more information.

The city of Houston is following actions already taken by several federal agencies, including the Internal Revenue Service, which announced in August that all legally married same-sex couples will be recognized as married for federal tax purposes, even if those couples reside in states that do not recognize same-sex marriage.”

As a result of this policy change, same-sex spouses of city employees will now be eligible for the same health care and life insurance benefits previously offered only to heterosexual married couples. It is unclear at this time as to how many employees will take advantage of the change because there is no way to know how many have legally recognized same-sex marriages. The new policy will not extend to domestic partners; it applies only to legally married couples.

I’m delighted to see this happen, and very happy for my friends Noel Freeman and Brad Pritchett, who are the first beneficiaries under this directive. I think we all know that this is hardly the end of it, however. For one thing, Attorney General and candidate for Governor Greg Abbott is sure to weigh in, either on his own accord or because he’s formally asked for an opinion by the likes of Sen. Dan Patrick, who requested the opinion about domestic partnership benefits earlier this year. Abbott has intervened in the gay divorce lawsuit with the contention that same sex marriage simply doesn’t exist in Texas. Doesn’t matter what you did in Massachusetts or wherever, your gay marriage disappears in a puff of constitutional smoke once you cross back over the state line. I’m sure Abbott et all would argue that since the state of Texas does not recognize Noel and Brad’s marriage, the city of Houston is not allowed to recognize it, either. If the state is willing to screw over active duty military members, it’s willing to screw over municipal employees.

I also fully expect blowback from the Dave Wilson crowd. The man himself is ready to oblige.

“My understanding of the Texas state law is that you cannot be legally married unless you’re the opposite sex in the state of Texas, and that will be the overriding thing,” Wilson said. “They’re just trying to monkey with the words. I will absolutely take this all the way to the Supreme Court.”

Wilson is the main reason we have that charter amendment in the first place. If there’s any justice, he’ll spend himself into the poorhouse pursuing this and lose anyway. Politically speaking, one way or another, we still need to have a vote to repeal that amendment. I’m sure this will be on Mayor Parker’s agenda for her third term.

But all those are concerns for another day. For now, let’s celebrate this advance for equality in Houston. Kudos to Mayor Parker for making it happen. Texpatriate, Texas Leftist, and the Observer have more.

No repeal petition for San Antonio non-discrimination ordinance

Good.

RedEquality

Opponents of San Antonio’s nondiscrimination ordinance spread the word at churches and parks about their petition drive to place the policy on a citywide ballot.

A few hours before Tuesday’s deadline, they informed city officials that effort had fallen short.

Pastor Gerald Ripley, a petition leader, estimated the group collected about 20,000 signatures, well below the required 61,046, or 10 percent of eligible voters.

[…]

The group had 40 days from the Sept 5 Council vote to adopt the NDO.

Apart from Cornerstone Church, few large religious groups joined the effort. Several of the city’s biggest evangelical megachurches and the Catholic Archdiocese of San Antonio sat it out.

The archdiocese raised its concerns in a respectful dialogue before the Council vote, archdiocesan officials said. They added that petition leaders did not distinguish well at first that the repeal effort was separate from recall drives against council members who voted for the NDO.

The archdiocese would have legal reservations about mixing the two, said Pat Rodgers, archdiocesan spokesman, citing nonprofit law banning churches from partisan candidate campaigns.

See here and here for the background. I’m glad to see this, of course, and just a little relieved because the Tuesday morning story said that the repeal backers were “preparing to submit” a petition, which sure made it sound like a closer deal than it was. Our super-litigious Attorney General will not be filing suit against the ordinance, so modulo the efforts of the recall petitioners, this matter is settled for now. Recall or not, there will be future elections, and as noted in my second link above, one reason why the NDO passed is because of favorable outcomes in two SA City Council elections this past May. So let’s not rest too easy. And let’s get cracking on a more comprehensive NDO for Houston.

Endorsement watch: For the Mayor

The Chron endorses Mayor Parker for a third term.

Mayor Annise Parker

Mayor Annise Parker

During Annise Parker’s first term, Houston was stuck in a drought. The global economy was in an economic downturn. And City Hall had to prune a budget suffering from wilting revenues. At the end of her second term, the grass is green again. Houston’s supercharged energy economy has us growing to new heights. Risk-averse, competent and scandal-free, Parker is using the good times to transform Houston from a city where people want to work into a place where people want to live. Voters should give her a third and final term as mayor to conclude her 16-year marathon run of public service.

[…]

The once-hostile relationship between Houston and Harris County has turned into, as one City Council member put it, “a rapid group hug.” And her successful public-private partnerships set a model for unifying Houstonians behind a worthy cause. B-Cycle stations have sprouted up across the Inner Loop. The bayous are being transformed into a citywide system of parks and paths, funded with matching private dollars. Her newly announced Complete Streets plan will help ensure that roads aren’t just for cars, but pedestrians, bikes and businesses.

This is an admirable agenda – we’ve supported it. And yet it lacks a sense of cohesion. If you step back and squint, these individual policies can come together like pixels on a screen. Despite her efforts, there is still too much white space between the policy dots. Our most vulnerable residents are falling through those gaps.

Affordable housing inside city limits is increasingly scarce, and changes that allow denser housing construction only seem to encourage expensive townhouses. Our burglary rate isn’t the worst, but it merits a higher ranking on Parker’s priorities. Human trafficking runs rampant in several parts the city. It isn’t just massage parlors. Kitchens, fields and factories are essentially filled with modern-day serfs. The same trade that has brought our city untold wealth has also made us the crossroads for trafficking in the Western Hemisphere. Parker’s Human Trafficking Task Force is a step in the right direction, but it may not be enough to combat such a pervasive evil.

Memories of Hurricane Ike, which barely missed Houston Ship Channel, should have led our county and coastal cities to implement a storm protection plan years ago. They’ve dallied for too long, and it will fall on the mayor of Houston to set the agenda if no one else will. Too much of our national energy economy relies on Texas’ refineries for another hurricane season to pass by without a plan in place.

Parker has tried to set a comprehensive agenda, and she can secure this ambitious goal for future mayors by overseeing city charter reform that will extend term limits.

Houston is in full bloom. We’re diverse, cool (so they tell us) and an economic powerhouse – the Energy Capital, in more ways than one. We’ve survived the booms and busts, though these days it feels like our city truly follows the ethos engraved at Main Street Square: As we build our city, let us think that we are building forever. Mayor Annise Parker deserves a final term in office.

The endorsement comes with a certain amount of sideshow drama, as Ben Hall refused to participate in the screening because it wasn’t open to the public. You can read his press release here, and a copy of the email exchange between Hall and the Chron is at that first link. Texpatriate notes that this is how the Chron has always done things, and indeed the closed nature of their endorsement screenings has always been one of the many grievances certain partisan interests have had against them. I don’t see the point of this other than to feed into that narrative and hope it gets a few votes from the people that already hold those views, but I suppose if one thinks the process is rigged against them for whatever the reason, one does what one thinks one must. It did generate discussion, so there’s that.

As for the substance of the endorsement, I’m not quite sure what the Chron is getting at about the Mayor’s vision. Does anyone recall what Bill White’s vision was for the city? I’m not being snarky, I just don’t remember it being a big part of his tenure. The only Mayoral candidates I can recall in recent years who had a clearly defined vision was Peter Brown, and the Chron didn’t much care for it. There’s something to be said for having a vision, if it’s a good one, but even more to be said for getting stuff done. I’m also not sure what to make of the Chron’s call for charter review, for which they wrote a separate editorial. I’m happy to have the conversation, but I hardly think Mayor Parker’s third term depends on it to be successful. I can think of plenty of other things I’d like to see her get done ahead of that. PDiddie has more.

Can we get a charter review?

Council Member C.O. Bradford and HCC Trustee Carroll Robinson would like one.

HoustonSeal

Houston needs a Charter Review Commission to review, update and propose recommendations to the voters to modernize our charter, the structure and operations of city government, with specific attention paid to the budget process.

It might seem counterintuitive to call for appointment of a Charter Review Commission now, with municipal elections set for Nov. 5 and some faces likely to change on the City Council. We don’t think so. By appointing a Charter Review Commission in the next few weeks, the City Council can lift the process of improving and modernizing the operations of city government above politics.

A Charter Review Commission appointed now to make recommendations for the November 2014 ballot could not reasonably be perceived as an attack on any candidate currently seeking to serve as our city’s next mayor. The commission’s membership should be former city elected officials, academic and legal experts on Texas municipal governance, finance and infrastructure issues as well as local business leaders and entrepreneurs. No current elected city official or employee should be allowed to serve on the commission. The work of the commission should not be a political exercise.

As I’ve noted before, I’m pretty sure the next charter referendum cannot be until May of 2015, because two full years will not have passed between Election Day 2012 and Election Day 2014, but that’s a minor point. I’m happy to have the discussion – really, we should be having this same discussion at a national level, not that that will ever happen – though I don’t know how many of the suggested changes Bradford and Robinson include that I’d vote for. But sure, let’s talk about it, and if there’s enough support for this change or that, let’s vote on it. It’s our city, and just because we’ve always done something one way doesn’t mean we have to continue doing it that way.

Time for a real NDO in Houston

Bring it on.

RedEquality

Last week, San Antonio passed an ordinance protecting gay and transgendered residents and veterans from discrimination. Houston Mayor Annise Parker says that vote “upped the ante” and that Houston should follow suit.

“It is absolutely something we should do, and the majority of council members have publicly stated they are in support of a nondiscrimination ordinance,” said Parker, the first openly gay mayor of a major American city. “But this is an issue that requires all of council to be engaged and agree it is time to move it forward. When it happens, we will do that.”

Parker’s spokeswoman Janice Evans said no action is expected before next year, and no specifics have been discussed.

City Attorney David Feldman said the wording would be tricky, given a 2001 voter-approved change to the City Charter prohibiting employees’ unmarried domestic partners – same sex and opposite sex – from receiving employment benefits.

The charter amendment also says the city cannot provide any “privilege” in employment or contracting on the basis of sexual orientation, which Feldman said has been interpreted to mean that gays could not be given preference, such as having their companies included in affirmative action contracting goals.

The charter amendment’s wording might allow a nondiscrimination ordinance to protect gays from discrimination in some areas, Feldman said, but more research is needed to be sure. Any Houston nondiscrimination measure would be odd, he said, because to comply with the charter, it would have to specify that some types of discrimination – specifically in the area of employment benefits – were allowed.

“We would have to either accommodate the prohibitions in the charter or, to effectuate it as San Antonio did, we would have to put an amendment on the ballot,” Feldman said. “The cleanest thing would be to take it the voters.”

Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, a thousand times Yes. Let’s have a vote on this already. If you’ve been listening to my interviews, you’ve heard me ask all the candidates whether or not they’d support an effort to repeal that awful 2001 charter amendment, and for the most part the responses are positive. There had been some talk about putting a referendum over this on the ballot in 2012, but it never materialized. Because there were some minor charter amendments that were ratified on the 2012 ballot, the next such vote cannot take place until two years later. Since Election Day in 2012 was November 6 and Election Day 2014 will be November 4, that means the next eligible election for a charter amendment referendum would be May of 2015. I don’t know if it would be better to have it then or to wait till November of 2015, which may also feature an open-seat Mayoral race, but I firmly believe that given the relative closeness of the vote in 2001 and the changes in society and the Houston electorate since then that repealing the 2001 amendment would be a favorite. But by all means, let’s start talking about it now. Let’s make the case for repealing that discriminatory charter amendment, and for protecting the civil rights of all Houstonians. Let the haters like Dave Wilson make their case, too. The “morality” argument has basically crumbled to dust on them, and any claim on their part that they’re really nice people who just want to deny legal equality to others should be taken as the self-serving twaddle it is. So let’s get this started. I’m more than ready for it. Texpatriate, PDiddie, and Texas Leftist have more.

What does the DOMA decision mean for Texas?

Last week, the day after the disappointing SCOTUS ruling on the Voting Rights Act, we got a much more heartening ruling on DOMA, declaring it to be unconstitutional. However, not all of DOMA was struck down.

In a landmark Supreme Court decision on Wednesday, justices ruled that Section 3 of the 1996 law, which denies federal benefits to same-sex couples, is unconstitutional. As Justice Anthony Kennedy argued, “DOMA writes inequality into the entire United States Code.”

But other parts of the law itself are still in effect, including Section 2. This part of the law allows states where same-sex marriage is either illegal or unrecognized not to honor the legal unions from other states around the country. Say a same-sex couple gets married in Iowa; their marriage does not have to be recognized in Alabama. This could become an issue if a couple needs to move to a different state.

That includes Texas, of course. The fact that same-sex marriage remains illegal in Texas was noted by the Chronicle:

“Individual states will continue to enforce their laws until challenged, but we see those challenges coming,” said Houston appellate lawyer Allie Levy. “We will have to go state by state, but we might have much better weapons than we had before.”

Local blogger Michael Coppens believes Wednesday’s rulings make the building momentum for full marriage equality unstoppable.

“For Texas, it doesn’t have a huge impact immediately,” said Coppens, who is gay. “We still have a long way to go. Congratulations to California – they’ve got it and we don’t. But fundamentally it turns the tide. I don’t think the national movement for same-sex marriage can be stopped. With the general public becoming more supportive, and now this ruling taking place, you have the foundation for the anti-gay marriage laws we have across the country going away.”

And by the Dallas Morning News.

“Texas still bars couples from same-sex marriage, and this decision doesn’t change that,” said Cary Franklin, a constitutional law professor at the University of Texas at Austin.

Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott’s office declined to comment on the effect of the rulings.

One Democratic lawmaker, Fort Worth state Rep. Lon Burnam, immediately vowed to reintroduce legislation to legalize same-gender marriages in Texas. The state became the 19th to adopt a constitutional ban of same-sex unions in 2005.

“It’s a perfect opportunity to refile my marriage-equality bill, and that’s the first thing I will do on Monday,” said Burnam, who filed a similar bill in February that died in committee.

The bill cannot advance in the Texas Legislature’s special session unless Gov. Rick Perry, an ardent opponent of same-sex marriage, adds it to the agenda.

The Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that married same-sex couples were entitled to federal benefits and, by declining to decide a case from California, effectively allowed same-sex marriages there.

UT’s Franklin said the high court’s rulings may inspire lawsuits, anti-discrimination policies and scrutiny of same-sex marriage bans nationwide.

“People in Texas didn’t immediately gain any rights, but the court issued a decision that talked about the importance of equality for couples,” she said.

RedEquality

I noted Rep. Burnam’s bill, which will not see the light of day in the special session but which is still laudatory, over the weekend. There’s no question that right-thinking legislators need to mount a full assault on Texas’ awful Double Secret Illegal anti-gay marriage amendment, in the 2014 campaigns and in the 2015 legislative session – and beyond, as will be necessary – but as I have said before, the fact that it is in the constitution makes this an extra heavy lift. I continue to believe that the death of this atrocity will come from a courtroom and not the Lege, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t keep trying to kill it in the Lege. It’s still the right thing to do, and hey, you never know. Attitudes have shifted so quickly on the national level, I may be wrong about how long it will take to shift sufficiently here to make a legislative fix viable. Nobody would have thought we’d be where we are now after that stupid thing was ratified in 2005.

There is another avenue available to apply pressure on this, and that’s in the cities and school districts. They need to have full, up to date non-discrimination policies, and they need to offer domestic partner benefits, even if they can’t call them “domestic partner benefits”. Make as much of Texas as gay-friendly as possible within the confines of the current law, and get as many people as possible used to the idea that this is the way things are now. The entities that already have such policies are keeping them in the face of hostility from AG Abbott and some small-minded legislators; they could use some company. If that leads to lawsuits from the forces of backwardness, I say bring it. I don’t fear this being fought out in court.

What that means for those of us who support equality is that in addition to supporting like-minded candidates for state office, we need to support them for local offices, too. Where do your Mayors and Council members and school board trustees stand on this? We’re behind the curve here in Houston thanks to a 2001 charter referendum that banned the city from offering domestic partner benefits. We can’t have a charter amendment referendum until either November 2014 or May 2015 (because we passed amendments last November and can’t put any others on a ballot until two calendar years after that date), and it’s time to start working towards that. Mayor Annise Parker has applauded the SCOTUS DOMA ruling – as far as I can tell by looking at their Facebook pages, she is the only one of the four Mayoral candidates to have commented on this. That’s a good start, but she and all other candidates for Houston city offices need to be pushed to take action on undoing the ban on offering domestic partner benefits. HISD Trustee candidates need to be pushed on offering such benefits, too, if only to get the stench of the 2011 election out of everyone’s mouths. The same is true for other cities and other school boards. I mean, the Supreme Court has just unequivocally acknowledged that this kind of discrimination is wrong. What are we waiting for? BOR, CultureMap, and the Trib have more.

UPDATE: Kudos to Texpatriate for getting a statement out of Eric Dick, and trying to get one out of Ben Hall.

Interview with Mayor Annise Parker

Mayor Annise Parker

It’s bonds and more bonds this week, as we discuss the remaining referenda on the ballot. First up is the city of Houston bond package, which by law will be broken out into five separate propositions for your approval. Proposition B, the one having to do with parks and recreation, is easily the highest profile issue among them, but all five are important and worth your time to consider. I had the opportunity to discuss these issues with Mayor Annise Parker, and you can hear the conversation below, but before I get to that, the Mayor references several web pages in her answers, which are as follows:

Mayor’s Fiscal Responsibility page
Capital Improvement Plan Web Application
Information on the City Bond Referendum and Proposed Charter Amendments
Assessment of Facility Needs

One more thing to note before we get to the main event: As the Mayor says in her opening answer, each referendum is just about granting approval to the city to borrow money. It doesn’t mean the city will necessarily wind up borrowing the full amount, especially for the Parks By You item, since the city is essentially providing matching funds for private capital. If the private fundraisers fall short of their $100 million goal, it’s that much less that the city will borrow. With that out of the way, here’s the interview:

Mayor Parker MP3

You can still find a list of all interviews I did for this primary cycle, plus other related information, on my 2012 Harris County Primary Elections page and my 2012 Texas Primary Elections page, which I now need to update to include fall candidate information. You can also follow this blog by liking its Facebook page.

The ballot propositions we won’t have

Today is the 78th day before the November 6 election. That makes it the statutory deadline for ordering an election, as noted by the Secretary of State. They cite Sec. 201.054 of the Elections Code for this, which seems wrong to me; Sec. 201.051 appears to be more on point, though that still doesn’t specifically address ballot referenda. In any event, assuming they know what they’re talking about, that means today is the last day that a charter amendment referendum can be added to Houston’s ballot for November. So, even if the City Secretary has finished certifying the petition signatures for the measure to overturn the homeless feeding ordinance, unless City Council approves it today, the item is moot. It can’t be voted on this year. Moreover, since there were two charter amendments in with the bond referenda, if those charter amendments are approved, there can be no more charter amendments put on the ballot for two more years. And since Election Day in 2014 is November 4, which is not quite two years after this year’s election on November 6, the next available time for a charter amendment election would be May of 2015.

There were at least two more charter amendments that had been potentially on tap for this year that will also now have to wait. There were a pair of anti-immigration proposals for which signatures were collected but apparently never submitted. I can only presume they did not get enough signatures, which makes me happy. Of course, if Dan Patrick gets his way and passes a “sanctuary cities” bill then it ultimately won’t matter. The other was a referendum to overturn the 2001 charter amendment that bans the city from providing domestic partner benefits to its employees. As far as I can tell, no effort to collect petition signatures for that was ever launched. I’m pretty sure the Lege will not intervene on this matter before May of 2015, so it will have to wait for the next electoral opportunity. Those are the ones I recall, anyway. If you know of others let me know.

The door will stay open

Good decision.

A proposal to give Houston City Council the ability to meet behind closed doors is dead.

What a mayor’s spokeswoman called a “lack of consensus” was manifest in a committee meeting last week during which several council members criticized the idea as bad policy and bad timing.

[…]

Mayor Annise Parker’s agenda for Wednesday’s council meeting seeks approval to put the two charter housekeeping amendments and the five bond measures on the November ballot. The closed-session proposal was not on the agenda.

Mayoral spokeswoman Janice Evans wrote in an email that Parker had no pre-conceived opinion on closed sessions.

“She is able to see all of the arguments both for and against. Given the lack of consensus on Council, she decided not to move forward,” Evans wrote.

That’s clearly the right call. If there really is a need for this – if there’s an example or two of something that was discussed in an open Council session that would have been better off being discussed behind closed doors – then bring it up and let’s debate the merits with full information, and maybe consider a referendum in the future. Otherwise, let’s join hands and get the bonds and cleanup amendments passed. Stace, who has the bond items detailed, has more.

Discussing the Z word

I have three things to say about this.

Going up whether you like it or not

The go-ahead for the Ashby high rise has left me feeling really depressed. If affluent residents with all their political and social connections can’t keep a 21-story skyscraper out of their bucolic neighborhood, what hope is there for the rest of us?

When Mayor “I’m against the project, but I can’t do anything about it” Parker touts lopping two stories off and instituting a shuttle service that few people will likely use as some sort of neighborhood victory, you know it’s time to talk about the “Z” word.

Yes, zoning.

The fact of the matter is that Houstonians have virtually no tools to stop developments that promise to irrevocably alter the character of a neighborhood. As my CultureMap colleague Katie Oxford has written, why do developers build such projects in the face of overwhelming neighborhood opposition?

Because they can.

[…many examples of development projects that neighborhoods don’t like…]

I realize that critics will carp that those opposing such projects are elitists with a “Not in My Backyard” mentality. However, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with fighting to preserve the character and integrity of Houston neighborhoods and asking for an orderly process of notification and neighborhood input before construction commences.

One thing seems clear: This messy patchwork of limited protections doesn’t seem to be working well. That’s why I think it’s time to talk about land use and — yes —zoning.

Otherwise it will only get worse.

1. I don’t know how you can discuss having a conversation about the Z word without at least mentioning the C word – “charter”. Zoning is forbidden by the city’s charter, so unless you’re also talking about organizing an effort to repeal that charter amendment, the discussion you want to have is strictly academic.

2. More basically, if you want to have a conversation about zoning, the first thing you really need to do is define exactly what zoning is. I say this because “zoning” is a shibboleth, used primarily as a code word for “horrible government overreach that destroys cities”. Just look at the comments in this article to see what I mean. On the flip side, since author Pugh never talks about what zoning is or what a zoning ordinance might do to deal with the problems he identifies, it’s also code for “magic government powers that can prevent whatever awful development I don’t like from being approved”. It’s kind of hard to have a productive discussion starting with those premises.

3. Beyond all that, there are plenty of options that aren’t zoning to give neighborhoods the ability to push back on development they object to, including things like minimum lot sizes, setback requirements, and form-based codes. The city is still working on its revamp of Chapter 42, which governs a lot of these things. Perhaps a better use of one’s time would be to catch oneself up on these things, and get involved in that process. At least it won’t require a charter amendment to get it done.

Another homeless feeding update

Depending on how you look at it, time is either running out for the petition signature gatherers who hope to overturn the homeless feeding ordinance, or it isn’t.

Free to Give Houston, a recently formed political action committee, needs about 28,000 registered voters’ signatures to trigger a charter amendment election in November. The group sent out 30,000 letters last week urging voters to sign the petition.

Houston attorney Paul Kubosh, who formed the committee with his brother, Randy Kubosh, said the ordinance is an example of local government overstepping its bounds and ignoring the will of the people.

[…]

City Attorney David Feldman said the only approved way to challenge the ordinance is by referendum.

A petition with 12,362 signatures would have to be submitted within 30 days of the ordinance’s passage or any time prior to the effective date. The deadline for the latter is the end of this week.

However, Paul Kubosh said residents can seek a charter amendment under state law, which trumps the city charter. As a result, there is no petition deadline, he said, and the opposition plans to submit a petition by July 30.

See here and here for some background. The requirement to have signatures collected by either the ordinance’s effective date or 30 days after passage was the basis for Judge Hughes’ ruling in the red light camera lawsuit that invalidated the 2010 referendum. It was suggested prior to that, and prior to Council’s vote to put the referendum on the ballot, that a charter amendment, which has a higher signature requirement but no similar deadline, would have been a valid path, and that seems to be the route the Kuboshes are taking. That’s not clear to me, and I don’t think the matter was directly addressed by Hughes or by the dismissal of the city’s lawsuit against ATS. What I’m saying here is that I foresee another date before a judge in the city’s future. I welcome speculation on this from the lawyers in the audience.

On a side note, I found this a bit grating:

Backers of the current petition drive argue that public property is owned by citizens and therefore they shouldn’t have to ask the city for permission to use it.

“We have a huge problem asking the city for permission to feed the poor,” said Manuel Sanchez, a volunteer with Simple Feast, a church ministry.

I agree that public property is owned by the citizens, but that includes the citizens who want to use that property for something other than feeding the homeless, too. How are we to settle a dispute that arises from such a conflict? “We were here first” seems lacking to me. Feeding the homeless is a noble purpose, but that doesn’t mean less-noble purposes have to be subordinate to it. I understood the objections to a lot of the other provisions that are now not in the homeless feeding ordinance, but this one I confess I just don’t get.

Non-discrimination ballot referendum coming

I’ve been waiting for this.

they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights

Activists are preparing a petition to put a referendum on Houston’s November ballot, calling for a ban on discrimination against gays and permission for the city to grant health insurance benefits to the unmarried partners of city employees.

If organizers collect the 20,000 signatures needed to get it on the ballot, the measure again would take the temperature of Houstonians who have voted against both proposals in separate measures in the past 27 years and could make Houston the focus of national attention as the latest political battleground over gay rights.

“Discrimination exists everywhere. It’s really hard to determine how big the problem is,” said Noel Freeman, president of the Houston GLBT Caucus, who said he expects to submit petition language to the city secretary as early as the end of the month. A local law is necessary, Freeman said, because gays and lesbians who want to press claims of discrimination currently must undertake costly litigation in state or federal courts.

Houston voters rejected two initiatives in 1985 that would have banned discrimination against gays and lesbians in city employment. In 1998, Mayor Lee Brown issued an order banning discrimination against gay city employees. It survived a three-year legal challenge from Councilman Rob Todd.

[…]

Todd supports Freeman’s referendum.

“I believe that everyone has a right to be loved,” said Todd, a Republican. “And everyone has a right to gainful employment and to be able to support their loved ones, and if those aren’t bipartisan values, then I don’t know what is.”

The former councilman explained that his objection to Brown’s order was parliamentary – that such a change should come from the voters or Council, “not some wave of the wand by the executive branch.” Todd said he believes this referendum has a chance of passing where others have failed because of a new generation of voters, an influx of newcomers and changed attitudes among long-time Houstonians.

I got a similar response from former Council Member Todd when I asked him about it after the city of San Antonio extended domestic partnership benefits to city employees. I too believe that a referendum like this – we don’t have the exact wording yet – should have a better chance of passing than previous ones had. The 2001 charter amendment that denied domestic partner benefits in Houston received 51.52% of the vote, not an overwhelming mandate. It won’t be an easy fight, and a lot will depend on how the issue is framed and who lines up with whom, but it’s a fight worth having and a fight that needs to be won. I’m looking forward to it.

No action on red light camera settlement yet

Going, going...

Houston City Council voted to wait two weeks before deciding whether or not to accept the settlement agreement with camera vendor ATS.

The City Council on Wednesday delayed approval of a $4.8 million settlement with its red-light camera vendor amid questions about the effect of an appeals court ruling that lets two Houston lawyers intervene in the lawsuit.

On Tuesday, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that brothers Michael and Randy Kubosh should be allowed to join in the lawsuit.

Though the city and American Traffic Solutions plan to ask for the case to be dismissed if the settlement is approved by City Council, the Kuboshes said they want to keep the case alive to overturn a judge’s ruling that invalidated the November 2010 charter referendum they organized to ban the use of cameras in Houston. Their attorney also argued in a hearing after Wednesday’s council meeting that the Kuboshes should have standing in the contract dispute. U.S. District Judge Lynn Hughes granted them a hearing on Feb. 6 to make their case.

Should the judge allow the Kuboshes to intervene in the contract dispute, City Attorney David Feldman said, he will not bring the settlement back to the council on Feb. 8 as planned.

“I’m not walking into quicksand,” Feldman said. The Kuboshes’ intervention could undermine any deal the city reaches with ATS, he said.

Feldman says that dismissing the suit would wipe away the ruling that invalidated the election; the Kuboshes disagree. They want it enshrined in the charter that cameras can’t be put up again without a popular vote. The city and ATS say that’s already the case, and besides, changes to state law enacted after the city installed its cameras would make re-installing them more onerous and expensive to do. I’m not a lawyer, I’ll let the courts sort all this out, but I do want to comment on this:

David Furlow, an attorney for the Kuboshes, said in an interview following Tuesday’s Council meeting, “The real issue is vindication of the people’s constitutionally protected right to vote.” In Furlow’s view, Hughes has ruled that a local ordinance trumps state constitutional rights. The people’s right to challenge an ordinance should last more than a month, Furlow said.

I don’t necessarily disagree with that. Seems to me the way to address the issue is with a charter amendment. Surely that’s preferable to taking your chances with a judge. Houston Politics has more.

Anyway. We’ll see what happens with the hearing in Judge Hughes’ court. In the meantime, since I brought up the question of how much money the city currently has in the escrow account that holds previously collected fines, I heard back on my inquiry to the Mayor’s office. According to them there is now about $3 million in that escrow account, meaning that the up front payment and most of the first year’s payment after that are covered. The city – presumably, an agent on their behalf – would take over collection duties from ATS. We’ll see how that goes.

Finally, in red light camera news elsewhere, League City residents will vote on whether or not to extend that city’s contract with a red light camera company. The contract runs through 2014, and a proposition about it will be “in the next special municipal election”, whenever that is. Red light opponents have a pretty good track record in these elections, and I’m sure they will be gunning for this one as well.

Parker joins other mayors in push for marriage equality

Good for her. Good for all of them.

On the right side of history

Houston Mayor Annise Parker seized the vanguard of a drive by 78 mayors Friday to win the equal rights of marriage for gay couples, donning a national leadership role that contrasts sharply with her low-key demeanor back home.

“This is an issue whose time has come,” Parker told the Houston Chronicle on Friday in Washington, where mayors from New York, Los Angeles, San Diego, Boston and Tacoma, Wash., launched Mayors for the Freedom to Marry.

[…]

Despite personal support for awarding same-sex couples the legal rights of married heterosexual couples, Parker said it was not her role to fight for an amendment to the Texas Constitution to override the state’s defense of marriage act or to win a ballot referendum to overturn it.

Nor was it her role to push to overturn the city’s voter-approved charter amendment banning same-sex couple benefits for city workers.

Those changes “are going to have to be something that is important to the citizens of Texas and the citizens of Houston who want to step up,” said Parker. “It needs to come from the community.”

Not sure what is meant by “ballot referendum” here. We don’t have ballot referenda at the state level, we have votes on Constitutional amendments. And before it gets to that stage, it takes a two thirds vote in both chambers to put the amendment on the ballot. Which is why backers of the Double Secret Anti-Gay Marriage Amendment were pushing it, because then a future legislative majority in favor of marriage inequality would be insufficient to overturn it. Here in Houston, a charter amendment would be required to restore domestic partner benefits for city employees, since it was a charter amendment that forbade them in the first place.

As for the leadership question, the Mayor is right that ultimately it’s the will and the actions of the people that are going to make change happen. It doesn’t hurt to have people in leadership positions speak out and take what steps they can to move the people in the right direction, however. Mayors are people, too, after all. The more people speaking out about doing what’s right, the better. I mean, there’s no shortage of people speaking out about what’s wrong:

The latest effort builds upon a resolution unanimously adopted by the U.S. Conference of Mayors in 2009 supporting “marriage equality for same-sex couples, and the recognition and extension of full equal rights to such unions, including family and medical leave, tax equity, and insurance and retirement benefits, and opposes the enshrinement of discrimination in the federal or state constitutions.”

However, Dave Wilson, one of Parker’s mayoral opponents in November, was critical of the mayor’s appearance, saying, ” It’s totally uncalled for. She needs to be back here dealing with the issues rather than in Washington promoting her agenda.”

Hey, Dave, how about you take care of your own business and file that campaign finance report with the county that was due last week before you start telling other people what to do with their time? I mean, I know you’re only running for County Commissioner to screw with the Democrats, but that doesn’t excuse you from obeying the law.

Anyway. Texas on the Potomac has more, or you can go straight to the source and check out the bipartisan Mayors for the Freedom to Marry initiative, via BOR.

Elections from a bygone era

All through the Early Voting period, I’ve been comparing turnout this year to elections from 2005 through 2009. It’s not like we didn’t have elections in this city before then, of course. Obviously, the city now is different than it was before, and as such I don’t know how much there is to learn from turnout levels in the 1990s. But given the concerns about poor turnout that some folks have expressed, I thought I’d take a look and see what’s there.

Year: 1993

Total votes cast: 214,306. No turnout figure is cited.

Mayoral votes cast: 186,944, or 87.2% of the citywide total. Bob Lanier, running for his first re-election against a squad of no-names, set the standard by which all future Mayors will be measured by garnering 90.10% of the vote.

Controller votes cast: 178,411, or 83.3% of the citywide total. George Greanias topped the field of four with 54.43% .

At Large votes cast: Ranged from 167,057 in the 12-candidate At Large #2 race (78.0% of citywide) to 157,974 in the 14-candidate (!) At Large #3 race (73.7%). Eleanor Tinsley led the former with 47.64%, while Lloyd Kelley at 18.26% and Cynthia Canales Gorczynski at 16.97% made it to the runoff in the latter. For those of you keeping score at home, a mere 26,822 votes were enough to make it into the finals in At Large #3. The top votegetter among all Council candidates, second only to MayorBob himself overall, was none other than Sheila Jackson Lee in At Large #4, with 103,866. How do you like that? She would defeat Craig Washington in the Democratic primary for CD18 in March, 1994, so this was her last Council election.

Familiar name: Orlando Sanchez finished fifth in a field of seven for the open District C seat, with 10.36% of the vote. He’d do better in his next election.

Special circumstances: Kids! You know that Houston is world-famous for being a city with no zoning, right? Well, did you know that we actually once voted on whether or not to impose some form of zoning on ourselves? It’s true! On the ballot in 1993 was a city proposition to allow for zoning ordinances. It failed, but by less than 7000 votes out of 168,009 ballots cast. It’s too long ago for me to remember the details, and I wasn’t paying much attention to it then. But it sure is a shame that there wasn’t an Internet back then to record everyone’s breathless utterance about it, so we could see what crazytimes it was, isn’t it? (Yes, I know there actually was an Internet back then. It was a lot smaller, and most of what was there isn’t easy to find nowadays. You know what I mean.)

Year: 1995

Total votes cast: 142,117, which is given as 13.88% turnout. It’s the only turnout figure on these result pages. This implies there were 1,023,898 registered voters in Houston at the time of this election. Let’s keep that number in mind for when the turnout figures are given for this year.

Mayoral votes cast: 126,081, or 88.7% of the citywide total. MayorBob dropped to a mere 82.66%, ahead of our old friend Dave Wilson in second place with 9.05%

Controller votes cast: 108,798, or 76.6% of the citywide total. Lloyd Kelley succeeded Greanias by winning a three-way race with 53.35% of the vote.

At Large votes cast: Ranged from 87,066 (61.3% of citywide) in At Large #1, where Gracie Saenz ran unopposed, to 114,036 (80.2%) in At Large #2, where Joe Roach easily cruised past two challengers with 73.35% of the vote. And proving that more candidates does not mean more votes, the 11-candidate pileup in At Large #3 drew only 97,961 votes. Among its other contenders were Chris Bell, who finished third with 14.17%, and Griff Griffin, who came in fourth with 10.31%. Like Orlando Sanchez, the eventual winner of this seat, Bell would do better in his next election. Unlike Orlando Sanchez, Griff would not.

Familiar name: Andrew Burks eked into a runoff in a seven-candidate District E race, finishing exactly eleven votes ahead of the third place contestant, and 20 votes ahead of fourth place. This is what they’re talking about when they say every vote matters, kids. He then got skunked in the runoff, losing to Rob Todd by a 63-37 spread.

Special circumstances: None. Total dullsville. Basically, 1995 was the 2007 of the 90s.

Year: 1997

Total votes cast: 348,680, in a wild eight-way open seat Mayoral free-for-all. Here we begin to get Harris County precinct data appended to the City Secretary reports, which includes turnout for the Houston portion of Harris County. For this election, it is given as 28.20%.

Mayoral votes cast: 313,123, or 89.8% of the citywide total. I think it’s safe to say we won’t match that total this year, though it would not shock me if the Mayoral share of total turnout is comparable. In the race, Lee Brown led the way with 132,324 votes, with Rob Mosbacher joining him in the runoff with 90,320. Round One also included former Controller George Greanias, who got squeezed between constituencies and finished third, and former Council members Gracie Saenz and Helen Huey.

Controller votes cast: 259,418, or 74.4% of the citywide total. Sylvia Garcia scored a clean win over Lloyd Kelley, 55.40% to 33.50% (there were three other candidates), becoming the first of so far only two challengers to defeat a sitting incumbent since term limits were adopted in 1994. (Jean Kelley, who inherited District G from her husband John in this election, would become the other such incumbent in 1999, losing to Bert Keller.)

At Large votes cast: Ranged from 226,382 (64.9%) in the nine-person At Large #5 race, eventually won by future HCC Trustee candidate Carroll Robinson, to 250,933 (72.0%) in At Large #2, where the late Joe Roach cruised past a single opponent and collected the high vote score for the cycle, with 190,841.

Familiar name: Annise Parker, who finished second in a seven-candidate race for At Large #1, then won in the runoff.

Special circumstances: The only open seat Mayor’s race of the 90s, as Bob Lanier had ousted incumbent Kathy Whitmire in 1991, and the genesis of the term “the Greanias line” for city election wonks. And if that wasn’t enough, a charter referendum to end affirmative action, which lost 55-45, and a bunch of bond referenda. Yeah, there were a few things pushing people to the polls that year.

Year: 1999

Total votes cast: 268,109. Turnout for the Houston portion of Harris County is given as 21.57%.

Mayoral votes cast: 206,778, or 77.1% of the citywide total. This was the infamous election in which one-term incumbent Mayor Lee Brown received only 67.29% of the vote against two no-chance opponents, Jack Terence (23.16%) and Outlaw Josey Wales, IV (9.55%, and no, I’m not kidding about the name), thus setting up the narrative that he was vulnerable to a challenge for 2001, and giving too many political pundits with too much time on their hands something to point to a decade hence.

Controller votes cast: 150,385, or 56.1% of the citywide total. Sylvia Garcia, having established herself as the first challenger to defeat an incumbent in the term limits era, established the tradiion of uncontested Controller races after that.

At Large votes cast: Two uncontested seats (#s 4 and 5, Chris Bell and Carroll Robinson), received 141,489 and 142,022 votes, respectively, each less than 53% of the citywide total. Three contested races had totals ranging from 174,774 (65.2%) in the 11-candidate At Large #2 race, in which Gordon Quan would go on to defeat Dwight Boykins in the runoff to 179,095 (66.8%) in At Large #3, where Orlando Sanchez won a 54-46 re-election against Andrew Burks, which somehow did not create a narrative that he too was electorally vulnerable.

Familiar name: Have I not given enough already? All right, Toni Lawrence made the first of two unsuccessful attempts to defeat Bruce Tatro in District A. She didn’t run in the open seat race in 1997 (Tatro defeated our old buddy Dave Wilson in the runoff), and eventually won the seat after Tatro got termed out.

Special circumstances: Four more city referenda, of which the one “relating to residency of elected officers” received the highest vote total of 194,543, which as you can see easily exceeded every city race other than the Mayoral. The other three ranged from 174,654 to 185,971 votes. As with the zoning referendum of 1993, I have no memory of what these were about, but they clearly helped drive turnout.

What do we learn from this? Well, other than the fact that certain characters have been recurring in our elections for a long time, it seems to me that a charter amendment is a pretty good way to drive turnout. Note how great the falloff is from the city vote totals to those of individual races, a factor that I have to believe is related to some people showing up only for the referenda. As such, I think that while we are correct to lament low turnout in city races, we should be careful about comparing our current elections to those of the 1990s, when turnout was superficially pretty high. Perhaps if the red light camera referendum had been on the 2009 ballot, or on this one, we’d be having a very different conversation about the turnout levels. Just something to think about. Hope you enjoyed this trip down somewhat-cloudy-memory lane.

Council redistricting will be messier than it needs to be

Houston City Council is set to start their discussion about redistricting, but some people want them to stop.

Councilman Mike Sullivan views expansion as a function of mayor-council politics, and he opposes it.

Houston’s residents, Sullivan said in an impromptu news conference after last week’s council meeting, “don’t want to see us trying to disenfranchise council members. The mayor has a leg up on us, if you will, in the strong mayor form of government. A super-majority with new council members would be 12, and that throws entirely too much power to the mayor’s seat.”

Mayor Annise Parker followed with a news conference of her own. “It’s going to be messy. It’s going to be contentious. We don’t have a choice (but to expand),” she said.

To Sullivan’s thinking, expansion dilutes the power of existing council members who shed turf, constituents and the weight of their individual votes as the council adds members.

Any increase in the super-majority, which is needed for such parliamentary maneuvers as extending speakers’ time, Sullivan explained, gives the mayor a tighter grip on the reins of a meeting.

I do not understand this position. Campos is right – we had a deal. The city agreed to expand Council to 11 districts when the population hit 2.1 million, and it was moving towards that when the official Census number came in an inch shy of that figure. The city was acting in good faith based on pre-Census estimates which had Houston’s population over the line as far back as 2006. I don’t see what the justification is for stopping now.

I suppose I have a pinch of sympathy for the “letter of the law” argument that if the Census says we’re short, the agreement is not in force. The problem with that is when do you then agree that the 2.1 million milestone has been officially reached? If you want to go by the next Census estimate, I’ll remind you that we already had Census estimates that indicated we should get a move on. If you say we should wait till the 2020 Census, I’ll cordially invite you to file a lawsuit and convince a judge of that position. If you have something else in mind, I’d like to hear it, as neither CM Sullivan nor any other advocate for applying the brakes articulated an endgame position in the story.

Finally, the argument that adding Council members somehow dilutes Council’s power is irrelevant. As Greg notes, there is nothing to stop anyone from pursuing a charter amendment that would alter our current strong Mayor system in whatever fashion suits you. Personally, I think Council members should have the ability to put items on the agenda if they can get a majority of members to sign on to it. Regardless, one has nothing to do with the other.

County GOP Chairman Jared Woodfill said he suspects partisan motives in the expansion.

“Our concern is that the mayor is looking to add two new seats when the numbers don’t justify it in an effort to give Democrats or Democrat-leaning council members more control and more power,” Woodfill said.

One could argue that Republicans are currently over-represented on Council, so if redistricting leads to more Democrats that would simply balance things out. But so what? Nobody has an R or a D next to his or her name when they run for Council. Woodfill is just whining, and he too is ignoring the settlement agreement. And there’s more where that came from.

At least half a dozen Council members are saying that without the Census to prove the threshold has been crossed, it’s not time to expand.

“We don’t have the money to add two new seats,” Council Member Wanda Adams said.

“I’m not going to change the rules to accommodate anyone’s agenda,” Council Member Brenda Stardig said.

Council Member Jarvis Johnson questioned whether city should even try to prove a 2.1 million population. “Let’s fight to go down,” not up in number, he said.

To CM Adams, I say will it be any less expensive to defend against the lawsuit that will surely be filed to force the city to live up to the settlement agreement in the event that Council tries to weasel out of this? The city was sued before, and I guarantee it will be sued again. This time, I would expect it to lose. Which do you expect will cost more?

To CM Stardig, I say what agenda? The city’s position, which it still has every reason to believe, is that its population is at least 2.1 million, which subjects it to the 1979 settlement agreement. What agenda do you think is in play here?

To CM Johnson, I say what the hell are you talking about? Seriously, I have no idea what you mean.

Here’s the full Chron writeup. The last paragraphs sum it up:

Meanwhile, though the charter calls for using “the best available data, including, but not limited to, the most recent federal census,” council members have seized on the census number to make their case that the population has not crossed the threshold for council expansion.

Should council find next week that the city’s population has not reached 2.1 million, it will put the city’s governing body on record that it has accepted the 2010 census count while city staffers ask the Census Bureau to correct it. City Attorney David Feldman said he believes the Census Bureau would decide whether to change the count based on technical data and will not consider council votes.

I’m trying, but I just don’t see the justification for backing out now. The item was tagged till next week, so we’ll see how it goes. More from Greg is here.

Renew Houston

The fact that Houston is currently in the throes of a severe revenue shortage doesn’t change the fact that there’s a great need to renovate and repair large portions of the city’s infrastructure. Naturally, that will cost a lot of money, which we don’t have. But with a new revenue source, we could do it.

Renew Houston, a $10 billion dollar program, has been created to bridge the gap between what the city can afford and the infrastructure construction, repair and replacement needed on an ever-growing basis.

City Councilman At-Large (Position 1) Stephen C. Costello and Jeff Ross, city of Houston Planning Commission member and vice president of Pate Engineers, Inc., unveiled the proposal before about 30 members of the Willow Waterhole Greenspace Conservancy last week in southwest Houston.

Renew Houston, Costello said, is a nonprofit advocacy group with the mission of establishing a designated fund that would be disbursed through the city to shore up Houston’s aging streets, drainage and water and sewer systems.

“The city has two programs, one that takes 12 years for the city to decide to rebuild streets and seven years for drainage projects,” Costello said. “We’re looking to set up a separate enterprise fund. This is something we desperately need.”

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The proposal, paid for through several sources, would require an amendment to the city charter, Ross said.

“To get a charter amendment, we have to do a petition drive,” Ross said. “We have to write the ordinance in such a way that the money cannot be re-purposed.”

You do want safer streets and better drainage and improved flood abatement, right? Well if you do, you can either hope the Infrastructure Fairy will leave you a sack of money under your pillow some night, or you can find a way to pay for it yourself. Building and repairing infrastructure isn’t just a good investment for cities to make, it’s also a jobs program at a time when one is really needed. I wish Ross and CM Costello luck with their task.