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Ellen Cohen

January 2018 finance reports: City of Houston

We didn’t have any city of Houston elections in 2017, and while we ought to have some charter amendments on the ballot in 2018 we won’t be voting for people till next year. Still, everyone has to file campaign finance reports. Let’s see how everyone has been doing since last July.


Candidate       Office    Raised      Spent     Loan    On Hand
===============================================================
S Turner         Mayor   308,744    123,288        0  1,901,225

C Brown     Controller     1,400     19,559        0     62,811

M Knox      At Large 1    36,125      8,191        0     51,946
D Robinson  At Large 2    41,575     12,117        0    126,924
M Kubosh    At Large 3     8,575      7,364  276,000     32,267
A Edwards   At Large 4    16,900     24,311        0    140,866
J Christie  At Large 5     1,264      3,892        0     28,711

B Stardig       Dist A     3,750     18,173        0     89,964
J Davis         Dist B     5,934     15,988        0    137,038
E Cohen         Dist C    10,100     31,528        0     41,691
D Boykins       Dist D    27,950     66,249        0     18,492
D Martin        Dist E     2,510     26,887        0     92,371
S Le            Dist F    21,800     11,237   30,823     13,015
G Travis        Dist G    27,050      8,211   76,000     70,817
K Cisneros      Dist H    
R Gallegos      Dist I    32,850     12,963        0     69,181
M Laster        Dist J       300      8,510        0    161,402
L Green         Dist K    29,100     36,617        0     77,110

I started writing this post before the tragic death of CM Larry Green. CM Green was among the members who are term-limited; the others are Stardig, Davis, Cohen, Laster, and Christie. I did not find a finance report for Karla Cisneros; she had $25,336 on hand in the July ’17 report. No one raised a whole lot – not a big surprise, especially given how there was already a bunch of Congressional fundraising going on in the latter half of 2017 – and in fact many people spent more than they took in. If one of the potential negatives to the change to four-year terms was that it gave incumbents that much more time to accumulate cash, I’d say that effect has so far been muted. Among the first-termers, Amanda Edwards was a big money-raiser in 2015 and Greg Travis still has loan money. Mike Knox got a boost in this period, which he will need because he’s got a big target on his back for 2019. Steve Le doesn’t have much on hand, but he too can self-fund to an extent.

While those term-limited candidates continue to be among the top cash-holders, none of them increased their shares during this period. I continue to believe that at least some of them have another candidacy in their near-term future, but that’s just my impression. Some of the possibilities they may contemplate will depend on how the 2018 elections go. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves, though. I’m just reporting what we know now. I’ll check back in July. Look for a post on the HISD and HCC reports as soon as I can get around to it.

Looking ahead to 2019

Yes, yes, I know. We’ve barely begun the 2018 cycle. Who in their right mind is thinking about 2019? I plead guilty to political insanity, but the beginning of the year is always the best time to look forward, and just as 2018 will be unlike any election year we’ve seen before, I think 2019 will be unusual, too. Let’s just take a moment to contemplate what lies ahead.

I’ve posted this list before, but just to review here are the Council members who are term-limited going into 2019:

Brenda Stardig – District A
Jerry Davis – District B
Ellen Cohen – District C
Mike Laster – District J
Larry Green – District K
Jack Christie – At Large #5

There is an opportunity for progressives to elect a candidate more favorable to them with CM Christie’s departure, and his At Large colleagues Mike Knox and Michael Kubosh will also draw attention. Against that, I would remind everyone that Bill King carried Districts C and J in 2015, so we’re going to have to play defense, too.

It is too early to start speculating about who might run where, but keep two things in mind. One is that there’s likely some pent-up demand for city offices, since there won’t have been an election since 2015, and two is that some number of people who are currently running for something in 2018 will find themselves on the sidelines by March or May, and some of them may decide to shift their focus to a more local race. The point I’m making here is expect there to be a lot of candidates, and not just for the term-limited offices. I don’t expect Mayor Turner to be seriously challenged, but I do expect the firefighters to find someone to support against him. Finally, I expect Pasadena to be a hotbed of action again for their May elections, as Democrats missed by seven votes in District B winning a majority on Pasadena City Council.

The following HISD Trustees are up for election in 2019:

Rhonda Skillern-Jones – District II
Sergio Lira – District III
Jolanda Jones – District IV
Diana Davila – District VIII

Skillern-Jones was forced into a runoff in 2015, but she then won that easily. Lira was elected this year to finish Manuel Rodriguez’s term. Jolanda is Jolanda, and no election that includes her will ever be boring. Davila sued to get on the Democratic primary ballot for Justice of the Peace, but was not successful. I have to assume whoever runs against her will make an issue of the fact that she was job-hopping in the interim.

The following HCC Trustees are up for election in 2019:

Zeph Capo – District 1
Dave Wilson – District 2
Neeta Sane – District 7

It is too early to think about who might be running for what in Houston and HISD. It is very much NOT too early to find and begin building support for a good candidate to run against Dave Wilson and kick his homophobic ass out of office. That is all.

Council passes dumb forced tax cut

This is where we are.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

City Council rejected Mayor Sylvester Turner’s proposal to leave Houston’s tax rate unchanged from last year Wednesday, instead approving a tiny rate cut to comply with the voter-imposed cap on property tax revenues.

Turner had proposed using Hurricane Harvey to invoke a disaster exception clause in the 13-year-old revenue cap and leave the rate at 58.642 cents per $100 in assessed value. That plan would have let the city collect $7.8 million next year for storm recovery costs in addition to what the cap otherwise would allow, or about $7 next year for the typical homeowner.

It was the same process, Turner stressed, that his administration and former mayor Annise Parker’s administration had followed to collect funding above the revenue cap after floods in each of the last two years – actions that went unnoticed by council members and news media at the time.

The council nonetheless voted 15-2 to approve an amendment from Councilman Mike Knox to lower the rate by 0.221 cents – the rate City Controller Chris Brown had said the revenue cap dictated independent of Harvey-related expenses.

You can read the rest if you want to. I’ve said my piece, and I don’t have anything to add to that. If you need a little more, go read Mayor Turner’s response to Paul Bettencourt, which is exactly what needs to be said to that little toady.

When might the Supreme Court speak on the Houston term limits lawsuit?

So as you know there is an ongoing lawsuit over the language used in the 2015 referendum that altered the city’s term limits ordinance. It was filed shortly after the election, with the city winning the first round in district court. Appeals are ongoing, with the most recent ruling coming this past January on a procedural matter. In addition to all this, the plaintiff in the original suit filed a writ of mandamus with the Supreme Court on June 2 that asks them to direct the district court judge to vacate his previous order allowing the 2015 result to stand and to require city elections this November. I’m on the plaintiff’s attorney’s email list (for my sins, no doubt) and as he sent out a missive last week urging his followers to contact the Supreme Court and ask them to rule on the writ in time for an election to occur, I figured I ought to bring this up.

So as we are now halfway through June, I have to think that time is rapidly running out for a non-farcical election to be conducted this November. Normally at this time, multiple candidates for a variety of offices, especially the open ones, will have been at work for months. There are always people who pop up to run in July and August, including a few at the filing deadline, but by this point you usually have a pretty good idea of who is out there. Funds have been raised, materials have been printed, websites and social media presences have been built, volunteers have been recruited, etc etc etc. Campaigns require resources, and one of those resources is time. We’re basically four months out from the start of early voting. To get a campaign up and running from scratch, especially for an At Large position, that’s not a whole lot of time. It could be done, but it would greatly favor those who already have some of the other resources, namely money and some amount of name recognition. In other words, incumbents and people who can write a check to get their campaign going quickly.

For what it’s worth, the Supreme Court issued a ruling requiring a vote on HERO on July 24, 2015, which was in response to a writ of mandamus. That was about a referendum and thus didn’t directly involve any candidates, though I’d argue that it had a negative effect on the pro-HERO side, since the antis had been gearing up for a campaign for some time by then. Let’s call that the outer bounds of when a writ mandating city elections for this year may happen, though really I’d say that’s too late. Bear in mind that Council members Brenda Stardig, Jerry Davis, Ellen Cohen, Mike Laster, Larry Green, and Jack Christie are all in their last terms one way or the other, so if those terms wind up ending this year instead of 2019, a whole gaggle of hopefuls are going to have to get up to speed immediately. There’s no question that the Supreme Court has no qualms about meddling in the affairs of the city of Houston, but that doesn’t mean it feels compelled to do so. We ought to know soon enough.

Houston will get involved in the SB4 fight later this month

Very good to hear.

Mayor Sylvester Turner plans to ask City Council to vote this month on joining lawsuits challenging the constitutionality of Texas’ new “sanctuary cities” law, ending months of equivocation on the controversial immigration enforcement measure.

If City Council votes to sue, Houston would join San Antonio, Austin, Dallas and several other local governments already challenging the state or planning to do so.

“I will ask this month City Council to consider and vote to join the lawsuits challenging the constitutionality of SB4,” Turner tweeted Thursday morning, after the Houston Chronicle ran a front page story about his decision to remain on the sidelines of debate over the statute.

Here’s that front page story. You can see what a change of direction this is.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Turner has asked the city attorney’s office to review the law known as Senate Bill 4, which allows police to ask people their immigration status if detained even for a routine traffic stop, but otherwise continues to deflect questions about whether he plans to challenge it.

That has meant carefully sidestepping the term “sanctuary city,” while touting Houston as a diverse, “welcoming city” and assuring residents that Houston police will not violate their constitutional rights.

On Wednesday, the mayor attempted to redirect attention to Austin by urging Houstonians to take up their concerns at the Capitol, even though the law has been signed and the Legislature is not slated to revisit the issue during its July special session.

“The right forum to reconsider Senate Bill 4 before it goes into effect on Sept. 1 is Austin, Texas, and I’d encourage people to write to call to drive or go to Austin,” Turner said. “Go to Austin by the hundreds, by the thousands, and ask those who authored, voted for and signed Senate Bill 4 to repeal Senate Bill 4. Those of us around this table, we cannot repeal Senate Bill 4, as we did not author Senate Bill 4.”

So Houston may follow in the footsteps of San Antonio and Bexar County and Dallas, if Council goes along. According to the full Chron story, it looks like that will happen.

Houston could sue over SB4 without City Council approval, but Turner nonetheless promised a vote. City Council is in recess next week, meaning a vote would come June 21 at the earliest.

As of Thursday, the left-leaning City Council appeared to be breaking along party lines, with Democratic members largely favoring a lawsuit and Republican members generally opposed.

District I Councilman Robert Gallegos, who supports a lawsuit, said he worried the law could tear families apart if it causes more parents to be deported, calling it “an open door for racial profiling.”

District C Councilwoman Ellen Cohen also plans to vote to sue, citing concerns that the law could discourage victims from reporting crimes, echoing law enforcement leaders across the state, including Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo.

“We now have a percentage of the population that, out of fear for their own lives and deportation, won’t report, and it jeopardizes women’s lives and others,” Cohen said.

At-large Councilman Michael Kubosh said he opposes a lawsuit because of the potential cost.

“I don’t want to spend the money on a lawsuit that’s already been well-funded by other cities,” Kubosh said. “It won’t have an effect on the outcome of the case.”

He and others also worried that suing the state could put Houston at risk for losing federal funding.

Two council members, Mike Laster and Brenda Stardig, declined to say how they would vote, and at-large Councilman Jack Christie said he was likely to abstain.

“I’m not in favor of suing people to just show where we stand,” Christie said. “We show where we stand by example.”

There’s a sidebar on the story with a vote count for when this does come before Council (and while it could come as early as June 21, you can bet your bottom dollar someone will tag it for a week). Counting Mayor Turner, there are eight Yeses, five Nos, Christie’s abstention, and three who declined to comment or could not be reached. Of those three, I’d expect two Yeses – Mike Laster, who has since suggested on Twitter that he would likely vote in favor, and Jerry Davis – and one No, Brenda Stardig. You should probably reach out to your Council member and let them know how you feel about this. In the meantime, I agree with Campos, this would not have happened, at least at this time, had not there been pressure from the Texas Organizing Project and the DREAMers. Activism works, y’all. The Press has more.

A look ahead to Houston’s 2017 elections

I want to return to something in that story about Mayor Turner’s 2017 agenda, which was near the bottom but which is a very big deal for the coming year:

A lawsuit over the ballot language used last year to extend terms to a maximum of two four-year terms, from three two-year terms, hovers in the background.

A state district judge ruled in March that the language was “inartful” but legal, and the case now is under appeal.

At stake in the near term is whether Turner and members of City Council must run for re-election in 2017 or wait until 2019.

See here for the background. Usually around this time I’m writing about the upcoming election year and what we have to look forward to. Thanks to this lawsuit, we could have a year with no city elections, or a year in which nobody knows we have city elections until April or May and everyone operates on an insanely accelerated schedule from there. With that in mind, let’s look at our Year of Elections 2017 with a frame of The Elections We Will Have, The Elections We May Have, and The Elections We Could Have.

The Elections We Will Have

Whatever else happens with the term limits lawsuit, there will be elections in HISD and HCC. The following trustees for each board are up for election this year:

HISD – Anna Eastman (District I), Mike Lunceford (District V), Greg Meyers (District VI), Anne Sung (District VII), Wanda Adams (District IX)
HCC – Carolyn Evans-Shabazz (District 4), Robert Glaser (District 5), Chris Oliver (District 9)

Mike Lunceford is not running for re-election, so his seat will be open. Greg Meyers has already submitted his resignation, and a replacement Trustee will be selected by the Board in January. It is not clear if the Board will prefer a caretaker who will not run for election in November or if the new member will try to stake a claim. Anne Sung of course won the special election to succeed Harvin Moore a couple of weeks ago. Whatever happens in November, the Board will have three different members in the traditionally Republican districts than it had at the start of 2016. That has some negative potential, as all three were devoted to public schools in a way that is not necessarily characteristic of modern Republicans, meaning that whoever wins in November could be more antagonistic than what we are used to seeing. We’ll have a better idea when we know who is selected to replace Meyers, and who emerges to run for these seats. As for Eastman, she is my Trustee and as far as I know she is in for another term, but I haven’t spoken to her in the last few weeks, and she has not made any formal announcements. I’m not aware of any reason why Adams would not run for another term.

In HCC, both Shabazz-Evans and Glaser won elections to complete the unexpired terms for trustees who had resigned following their 2011 campaigns. Evans-Shabazz was appointed to replace Carroll Robinson in District 4 in May of 2015, and then was unopposed for election. Glaser won a contested race to succeed Richard Schechter in 2013; appointed replacement Leila Feldman did not run for the seat. Oliver is a multi-term incumbent who easily defeated a challenger in 2011. Sometimes there are interesting things to say or look forward to in these races. This is not one of those times.

There will also be some number of constitutional amendments on the ballot in November, but we won’t know what they are until May or so when the Legislature finishes its business. If the term limits lawsuit goes down, preserving the new four-year terms for city officeholders, these referenda will be the only guaranteed items on your ballot this year.

The most interesting race in the area that is not in Houston will be in Pasadena, where Mayor Johnny Isbell is term-limited out and where the City Council lines may or may not be redrawn, pending the ruling in the voting rights lawsuit that is currently in the judge’s hands. That election will be in May. Other area cities such as Bellaire, West U, Sugar Land, and Rosenberg, also have elections in May. I hope to have some more information about some of these races in a subsequent post. Also of interest in May will be the San Antonio elections, where Mayor Ivy Taylor has some competition for a second full term. I’m sure I’ll do some writing about that as well.

The Elections We May Have

In addition to the statewide ballot propositions, there are two local ones that could be on your November eSlate machine, both of which could be quite contentious. Mayor Turner has stated his intention to put a referendum about the revenue cap on the ballot this year, though one presumes that could change if his pension reform bills do not pass. You can be sure that the opposition to this, mostly from the likes of Paul Bettencourt and no doubt with the help of the statewide Republican cabal, will be ferocious and very well-funded. Which in a way will be good for Mayor Turner, because if he can successfully cast this as a partisan issue, especially a “statewide Republicans meddling in our business AGAIN” issue, he ought to at least begin with the larger share of the vote. Getting those people to vote, whether or not there are other city elections to draw them out, will be the challenge. I suspect Mayor Turner doesn’t do anything without planning out how it will go, so I sure hope he has a plan for this one.

The other possible ballot item we might have is an updated Metro Solutions plan, which may include more rail construction projects, possibly including another shot at the Universities Line. This has been floated as an option by Metro Chair Carrin Patman, but it is not yet clear that it would be on the ballot, and if it would be there this year if so, and it is not yet clear what the scope of it would be. Needless to say, any rail component would generate some opposition, with a new Universities Line plan bringing out the usual suspects, some of whom would already be fully engaged in a revenue cap fight. It’s an interesting question whether you’d rather have this item on the ballot by itself, or in the same space as a revenue cap item. I’m glad that’s not my call to make.

The Elections We Could Have

This is the one that is entirely contingent on the Supreme Court, which as we know has not hesitated to stick its collective nose in our electoral business. If the 2015 term limits referendum is thrown out for having insufficiently clear wording, then the people who will be the most affected are the Council members who are in their last terms: Brenda Stardig, Jerry Davis, Ellen Cohen, Mike Laster, Larry Green, and Jack Christie. Cohen’s District C and Laster’s District J represent challenges for Democrats, as Bill King carried both districts in the 2015 Mayoral runoff. The ideal District C candidate is in the Anne Clutterbuck-Ellen Cohen spectrum, while the low turnout District J will always be a bit of a wild card. Against that, Dems will have opportunities in both Christie’s At Large #5 and first-term CM Mike Knox’s AL #1, though as we have discussed before, cattle call races with lots of similarly-profiled Democrats have benefited Republican citywide candidates in the recent past. The ideal here is for a candidate who begins with a lot of backing to get in and largely hoover up all the support – think Melissa Noriega in 2007, or Amanda Edwards in 2015.

I don’t want to spend too much time on this, as it’s even more speculative than usual, but I do want to at least put a marker on it, since if these elections do happen they may happen all at once, with little warning and not much time to prepare. I’ll be keeping an eye on this, and will be ready for either a busier or more relaxed interview season this fall.

More speed bumps coming

Like ’em or not.

Houston officials are speeding up the process of slowing down residential street traffic.

A laborious process to improve traffic and safety by installing traffic calming devices such as speed humps is radically streamlined in a new method by the city’s public works department, unveiled Monday at a City Council committee meeting. Council members applauded the change.

“I am doing the happy dance here,” said District K Councilman Larry Green, whose southwest Houston area has some of the neighborhoods that have waited the longest for relief from speeding cars.

In the future, with demand for speed humps high in many areas, public works will no longer require traffic and speed analyses, Public Works Deputy Director Jeff Weatherford said.

“We believe all local neighborhood streets should automatically qualify for speed control if they want it,” Weatherford said, citing overwhelming evidence that pedestrians and bicyclists are safer with lower residential street speeds.

The change would only apply to residential streets, where speed humps are practical, and not thoroughfares that carry far higher volumes of traffic.

[…]

In the past, neighbors upset at a cumbersome city process left dissatisfied, especially when the analysis found they didn’t have a speeding issue. Residents would then frequently ask public works to assess the traffic volume, which would start the process over again.

When requests from residents come to public works in the future, staff will analyze the neighborhood and then deliver their recommendations to the district council member for the area.

Pending approval from the council member, public works will then coordinate construction of the speed humps. Plans are devised for entire neighborhoods, often a 10- to 20-square block area between two major streets. Public works will normally consider streets best suited for traffic calming, then locate humps, medians and other features where appropriate to control speed.

District D Councilman Dwight Boykins noted the city successfully dealt with fast-moving vehicles crashing in a curve in a residential area by placing the humps not at the curve, but leading to it.

Under the old way, however, that process often took nine months to complete. The new method that reduces studies decreases it to six to eight weeks, but it also puts a lot more responsibility in the hands of council members, [CM Ellen] Cohen said.

I confess, I hate these things. I hate driving over them, and will go out of my way to avoid them. But I understand why we have them, and I’ve seen more than enough jackwads doing in excess of 40 on residential streets to accept them without complaint. Well, OK, with a bit of whining, but without any expectation of sympathy. If we want safer streets and fewer traffic fatalities – and we do, or at least we should – then this is a part of that. I’ll just have to suck it up.

Other runoff results

Here are the rest of the winners from yesterday:

Controller: Chris Brown

At Large #1: Mike Knox

At Large #2: CM David Robinson

At Large #4: Amanda Edwards

At Large #5: CM Jack Christie

District F: Steve Le

District H: Karla Cisneros

District J: CM Mike Laster

HISD II: Rhonda Skillern-Jones

HISD III: Manuel Rodriguez

Here are the Chron stories for the Council/Controller and HISD races. A couple of stray thoughts:

– Chris Brown and David Robinson are to me the big winners of the make-it-partisan strategy that was employed. I was especially worried about Robinson, because an elevated level of African-American turnout would not necessarily favor him. But both won Harris County, by larger margins than Turner (15,000 votes for Robinson, 9,000 for Brown), and both won Fort Bend, so I have to think that the message about who was the Democrat got through.

– That said, I strongly suspect that undervoting was a key in these races, and also in the AL1 race. Brown won early voting by about the same margin as Turner did, but then also won on Election Day. Robinson led early voting by a smaller margin than Turner, mostly on the strength of absentee ballots. He then dominated Election Day. On the flipside, Georgia Provost trailed in early voting, losing in absentee ballots while barely leading the in person early vote. Basically, she collected 10,000 fewer in person early votes than Turner did, while Mike Knox lost only 5,000 votes off of King’s total. This is something I plan to look into more closely when I get the precinct data.

– A lot was made before the election about King leading the vote in District C. It was a small lead, and a lot of District C voters went for Adrian Garcia, Steve Costello, and Chris Bell. If I had to guess right now, I’d say Turner won District C, but other races may be all over the place. King clearly got some crossovers, almost surely more than Turner did, but how many will be hard to tell. I really think the undervotes will tell a big part of the story.

– I’m sad to see CM Richard Nguyen lose, but I can’t say I’m surprised. Again, I’ll be interested to see what the precinct data says. After the Mayor’s race, this one had the lowest undervote rate, at 8.77%.

– Amanda Edwards’ and Karla Cisneros’ wins means that Council will have four women but only one Latino. I’m guessing that’s going to cause some angst.

– Here’s my guess at a whip count if and when another HERO comes up:

Likely Yeses – Robinson, Edwards, Davis, Cohen, Cisneros, Gallegos, Laster, Green

Likely Nos – Knox, Kubosh, Stardig, Martin, Le, Travis

Voted No originally, but maybe could be swung – Christie, Boykins

Counting Mayor Turner, a worst case vote would likely be 9-7 in favor. It would be nice to focus some effort on Christie and Boykins and maybe get that to 10-6 or 11-5. It’s a small thing, but I’d hate to give the other side the talking point that HERO 2.0 was less popular on Council than the original was. If it’s not possible to move that needle, then aiming to take a couple of seats to make up the difference and trying again after 2019 might be the best course of action. Christie’s term will be up, while Mike Knox and Steve Le could be targeted. By the same token, Jerry Davis, Ellen Cohen, and Mike Laster will also be termed out, and those seats would need to be defended, so this strategy has some risk as well. I’m just thinking out loud here. Point being, it’s never too early to start thinking about this sort of thing.

Anyway. Congratulations to all the winners. May you all fulfill your promises to make Houston a better place.

Leave a new HERO to the next Mayor

I hate having to say this.

HoustonUnites

Opponents of Houston’s repealed equal rights ordinance haved placed 300,000 calls and will release a new TV ad next week warning about a possible City Council revival of the controversial non-discrimination law.

All that despite no certainty that Mayor Annise Parker will find the political will and, most importantly, the time, to bring forward new equal rights legislation in the dwindling weeks before her term is over at the end of December. Several City Council members are battling heated Dec. 12 runoff contests and unlikely to willingly delve into the politically charged law that 61 percent of voters opposed this month.

Shortly after the defeat, Parker said she had no set plan and needed to speak with council members about bringing back similar protections before she leaves office. But foes seized on her statement that some council members had suggested voting on individual protections, such as those offered in housing or employment or public accommodations.

“I’m going to sit down with the council members and see how they want to proceed,” Parker said. “We will also, of course, evaluate what the national and international response from the business community is, because that certainly will make a difference.”

[…]

Councilwoman Ellen Cohen, one of the biggest champions of the law, said Friday that she has no plans to broach any non-discrimination legislation before the runoff election and “most likely not” before the end of the year.

“It would be the decision of the mayor but I think right now we need to concentrate on the runoffs and move forward,” Cohen said. “Quite honestly, I’m comfortable taking a breath. I do have plans at some point in the future to make sure that equality is brought to Houston.”

I can’t see any justification for bringing up any part of an equal rights ordinance before the end of the year. The liars won this round. (*) The runoff election presents another opportunity to engage the fight, since Sylvester Turner and Bill King are on record stating opposing views as to whether or not they would introduce a new HERO if they win. Get Sylvester Turner elected in December and there will be a mandate to have a do-over, hopefully this time with a better rollout campaign. I wish it were different, but then if it were we wouldn’t need to be having this discussion at all. The way to change the conversation is to win the next election. Let’s focus on that.

(*) Way to continue to characterize the “debate” over HERO as a he said/she said disagreement about bathrooms and how effective that campaign tactic was, Houston Chronicle. Very Shape of Earth: Views Differ of you.

What the passage of the term limits referendum means

It’s a little unclear from this story.

calvin-on-term-limits-for-dads

The passage of Proposition 2 also means some current officeholders will be able to serve longer than the six years they originally signed up for.

Current freshman council members will now be able to serve two more 4-year terms, for a total of 10 years. Those serving their second terms will be permitted a final term of four years, for a total of eight years. Those finishing their third terms this year, including Mayor Annise Parker, are not permitted to run again.

[…]

Polls did show voters were more likely to oppose the measure when told incumbents could benefit, but there was no organized campaign on either side – aside from some radio ads and phone calls funded by GOP state Sen. Paul Bettencourt – and the ballot language did not detail the impact on incumbents. Ultimately, it passed by a wide margin.

Barry Klein, who was involved in the original fight to pass Houston’s term limits in 1991, lamented that his small-government colleagues were too occupied with other issues to mount a campaign.

“The citizens of Houston used to get four elections over eight years and now will get only two, and I think we’re all worse off for that. I really do think it weakens accountability,” Klein said. “The special interests will find it easier now because when they get their man in place they won’t have to worry about him getting replaced because of term limits.”

I don’t often agree with Barry Klein, but on this matter I do. I voted against Prop 2 because I think two-year terms for city officeholders are the better idea. Increasing the number of terms they could serve is to me the much better idea, but that’s not what was on the ballot. We can argue all we want about how much voters understood Prop 2, but first let’s be clear on what this does mean, because the wording of this story is confusing. Searching my archives, I found this story from August, when the term limits item was put on the ballot. Here’s the key paragraph:

The change, if passed, would take effect for officials elected this fall. Current freshman council members could pick up two four-year terms and those serving their second term would be permitted one four-year term. Elected officials who are already term-limited would not be affected by the change.

So the next municipal election will be in 2019, and at this point all terms have become four years. Anyone elected for the first time this year – Greg Travis, for example – can run again in 2019 and serve a total of eight years. Council members elected to their third term this year, like Jerry Davis and Ellen Cohen, can serve until 2019, also for a total of eight years. This is why the original idea was to not put the change into effect until 2020, so no current members would get extra time. And the real lucky duckies, the people who were first elected in 2013, like Michael Kubosh, can run again in 2019, and if he wins he will get to serve a total of 10 years.

So. Did you know this going in? I admit, I didn’t, but then I was always a No vote on Prop 2, so this particular detail more or less didn’t matter to me. If you voted for Prop 2, does seeing this change your mind?

One side effect of this change, which I doubt has received any consideration, is that the turnout level in HISD and HCC elections will vary dramatically in years with and without city elections. How many voters do you think will show up for Trustee races in 2017 if there are no Mayor or Council races on the ballot? I mentioned this as a potential problem for the idea of moving city elections to even years, and it’s as true here. I suppose that’s not the city’s problem, and if anyone in HISD thought about it they didn’t think loudly enough for the rest of us to hear, but there it is. What effect might this have in the off-year odd-numbered elections? Other than lower turnout, hard to say. Maybe it makes it easier for upstarts to get traction, maybe it helps incumbents stay entrenched. We’ll just have to see.

Endorsement watch: For Ellen

The Chron endorses CM Ellen Cohen for a third term.

CM Ellen Cohen

CM Ellen Cohen

District council members don’t usually make national headlines, but last summer Councilwoman Ellen Cohen got her 15 minutes of fame while questioning Pastor Betty Riggle’s opposition to Houston’s equal rights ordinance.

Riggle was arguing at City Hall that shopkeepers should be allowed to follow their religious beliefs when it came to discriminating against customers. The councilwoman took that rationale to its logical ends, and asked whether Riggle would defend discrimination against people like Cohen, who are of the Jewish faith.

“No, I’m not saying – yes, I am saying that. But that is not the issue that we’re talking about,” Riggle clumsily responded.

The exchange made headlines in publications like The Daily Beast and the Jewish Daily Forward, broadcasting Cohen’s quick wit and tough questioning to a national audience. However, Cohen’s constituents are probably more impressed by her ability to draw down 22 percent of the capital improvement plan budget for District C.

[…]

After four years, Cohen remains an exemplar on council and deserves two more years at City Hall.

Here’s a reminder (with video) about that interaction with Betty Riggle, who committed the classic political gaffe of telling the truth. You don’t need me to remind you that I called this endorsement correctly, do you? Though I didn’t interview CM Cohen this cycle – here’s the interview I did with her in 2013 if you want to give it a listen – I’ve been a fan since she first ran for State Rep in 2006. I’m a couple of blocks east of District C, but if I lived there I’d be happy to vote for her.

Endorsement watch: Houston GLBT Political Caucus 2015

Congrats to all the endorsees.

A raucous municipal endorsement meeting brought mayoral candidate Sylvester Turner the coveted backing of the Houston GLBT Political Caucus on Saturday, positioning the 26-year state representative to broaden his coalition to include the city’s progressive voting bloc.

Caucus members voted 142-85 to endorse Turner after more than an hour of insult-laden discussion in which they rejected the recommendation of the group’s screening committee to endorse former Harris County Sheriff Adrian Garcia.

Turner also beat out former Congressman Chris Bell, a longtime ally of the gay community who had been considered a likely pick for the group’s endorsement.

Once-shunned, the caucus’ supprt is now highly sought-after by candidates aiming to win over left-wing voters, known for reliably showing up at the polls.

“This is a major step to the finish line,” said Turner, seen as a frontrunner in the crowded mayor’s race. “This is a race about the future of the city versus its past, and this group represents a vital component of Houston’s family.”

[…]

Of the five mayoral candidates angling for caucus support, Turner, Garcia and City Councilman Stephen Costello received the highest ratings from the group’s four-member screening committee.

Committee members said concerns about Bell’s viability landed him a lower rank.

Bell closed out the first half of the year with less money in the bank than any of the other top-tier candidates.

“He’s in a tough position, because absent resources, financial resources, he would need key endorsements like this one to bolster his candidacy,” [consultant Keir] Murray said. “It just makes what was already a tough road even tougher.”

Bell, for his part, remained optimistic after the endorsement vote.

“Obviously not everyone participates in the caucus endorsement process,” Bell said. “I still think I am going to have tremendous support in the progressive voting bloc.”

See here for some background. I followed the action on Facebook and Twitter – it was spirited and lengthy, but everyone got a chance to make their case and to be heard. Here’s the full list of endorsed candidates:

Mayor – Sylvester Turner

City Council
District B – Jerry Davis
District C – Ellen Cohen
District F – Richard A. Nguyen
District H – Roland Chavez
District I – Robert Gallegos
District J – Mike Laster
District K – Larry Green
At Large 1 – Lane Lewis
At Large 2 – David Robinson
At Large 3 – Doug Peterson
At Large 4 – Amanda K. Edwards
At Large 5 – Phillipe Nassif

Controller – Chris Brown

HISD District 2 – Rhonda Skillern Jones
HISD District 3 – Ramiro Fonseca
HISD District 4 – Jolanda Jones
HISD District 8 – Juliet Katherine Stipeche

HCCS District 3 – Adriana Tamez
HCCS District 8 – Eva Loredo

None of these come as a surprise. Several could have gone another way, thanks to the presence of multiple qualified and viable candidates. I look forward to seeing this slate – and the near-misses – do very well in November.

Remaking Allen Parkway

It’ll be different, but it makes sense.

Next summer, after workers have spent months shifting lanes, adding crosswalks and planting trees, Allen Parkway will be a parkway again, at the cost of a slight slowing of vehicle traffic and the reintroduction of traffic signals.

Partnering with the Downtown Houston Management District, city officials expect to start construction on a redesigned parkway after July 4, the date of the Freedom Over Texas celebration in Eleanor Tinsley Park just north of the parkway. The goal, downtown district president Bob Eury said, is to finish the work in time for Free Press Summer Fest in late May 2016.

When completed, the $10 million in changes planned will improve pedestrian and bicyclist access from Midtown and Montrose to the Buffalo Bayou park system and add up to 175 parking spaces for visitors to the growing outdoor offerings along the bayou.

“The goal we have is how do we improve access to this park,” said Andy Icken, chief development officer for the city.

[…]

The work planned doesn’t dramatically change the parkway’s design, only its intersections and medians. Allen Parkway is essentially three strips of pavement separated by small concrete medians. The westbound and eastbound main lanes are accompanied by an access road south of the parkway.

The redesign shifts the eastbound and westbound lanes south and converts the existing westbound lanes into an access road and parking area.

Between the lanes, officials plan grassy medians planted with small trees, meant to calm traffic and bring back some sense of an enjoyable drive.

“We are making Allen Parkway a real parkway and not a raceway,” [CM Ellen] Cohen said.

The most dramatic adjustment for drivers will be signals at four key places.

At Dunlavy, Taft and Gillette, traffic signals will give pedestrians and drivers a safer way to turn onto the parkway. Closer to downtown, officials plan a pedestrian-activated crossing, similar to the signals used along the new light rail line near the University of Houston campus.

The light stays green most of the time until activated by someone needing to cross the street. It then warns drivers by following the traditional shift from green to yellow to red, stopping traffic to let the person cross, then turning green again.

As a driver, I will miss the stoplight-free experience (except for Taft Street eastbound) that has always made Allen Parkway such a pleasure. As someone who would like to take more advantage of the new dog park and other non-car amenities, I approve. There’s no safe place to cross the street east of Montrose. It’s a tragedy waiting to happen, so taking action now is the right move. As the story notes, those lights will be green most of the time, and will add at most a minute to one’s driving time end to end. We can all live with that. If you need something to help you achieve inner peace with this, let me recommend the Psalm for Allen Parkway, which I’m going to copy here because I can’t believe that the defunct Houstonist website is still available:

1 On Allen from Shepherd, I shall not stop.

2 She maketh me to drive down concrete pastures:
she weaveth me beside the brown waters

3 She adoreth my stroll:
she leadeth me to the paths of Montroseness or the Waugh’s take.

4 Yea, though I haul through the valley of the radar of death,
I will fear no evil: for thou art speedy;
the cops on Memorial they shake fists at me.

5 Thou preparest a jog path before me in the presence of El’nor Tinsley:
thou doth pointest to down-town toil,
my trip almost over.

6 Surely good views quite worthy shall carry me all through haze and the blight:
and I will dwell on your curves with my Ford forever.

Amen.

January campaign finance reports – Council

CM Jerry Davis

CM Jerry Davis

Mayoral reports
Controller reports

Four Council members are term limited this year. Two, CMs Stephen Costello and Oliver Pennington, are running for Mayor. The other two, CMs CO Bradford and Ed Gonzales, do not have any announced plans at this time, though both were on the list of Mayoral possibilities at one time or another. While there are some known candidates for these offices, there are many more to come. No one who isn’t or wasn’t a candidate before this year has a finance report, and no one has any contributions to report, so the data we have is somewhat limited.

Brenda Stardig (SPAC)
Jerry Davis
Ellen Cohen
Dwight Boykins
Dave Martin
Richard Nguyen
Robert Gallegos
Mike Laster
Larry Green

David Robinson
Michael Kubosh

Name Raised Spent Loans On Hand ==================================================== Stardig 0 21,191 0 59,517 Davis 0 6,091 0 97,563 Cohen 0 23,304 0 63,769 Boykins 0 5,845 0 1,129 Martin 0 20,345 0 34,339 Nguyen 0 20,120 0 15,020 Gallegos 0 7,326 0 45,021 Laster 0 5,791 0 78,216 Green 0 45,671 0 55,983 Gonzales 0 35,987 0 29,603 Brown 0 3,858 0 34,900 Robinson 0 1,565 0 48,334 Kubosh 0 17,403 10,000 0 Bradford 0 12,282 0 20,088

I’ve included the totals for Helena Brown above, since rumor has it that she’s aiming for a rubber match against Brenda Stardig in A. Beyond that, the two numbers that stand out to me are Boykins’ and Nguyen’s. Boykins was the big dog in 2013, nearly winning a first round majority in a very crowded field. I presume he emptied his coffers in the runoff, I haven’t gone back to look at his last reports from 2013 and his January 2014 report to confirm that. He burned some bridges with his vote against the HERO last year, so it will be interesting to see how things develop from here. As for Nguyen, he came out of nowhere to knock off Al Hoang in F. He then made a courageous vote for the HERO and announced that he was a Democrat. All of these things would put a target on his back even if he had a big cash on hand balance. As for Kubosh, he did a lot of self-funding in 2013, and I’d expect at least some more of the same. It will be interesting to see how much of the usual suspect PAC money he gets. We’ll have to wait till July to find out.

Vape ’em if you’ve got ’em

E-cigarettes are not affected by the city of Houston’s smoking ban. For now, anyway.

When city officials announced a sweeping ban on smoking in public parks last month, many in Houston’s growing ranks of electronic cigarette users worried the new rules applied to them.

They do not, but the concern was well founded. Of the country’s five most populous cities, Houston is the only one without a ban on where the devices can be used. There is not enough research on the relatively new, battery-powered plastic or metal tubes that heat liquid nicotine to know their medical effects, leading many cities to preemptively ban them and others to watch how the national debate plays out. For now, Houston is in the latter group.

E-cigarettes emit a water vapor rather than smoke. While most health officials agree using e-cigarettes, known as “vaping,” is less harmful than traditional smoking, many have raised concerns about whether the devices reduce or lead to conventional smoking. Other unknowns include precisely what chemicals the water vapor contains and whether bystanders absorb any nicotine.

Even as Houston has expanded its general smoking restrictions, officials have been hands-off with the controversial devices. The city smoking ordinance does not include e-cigarettes.

A spokeswoman for Mayor Annise Parker said it is not something the administration is looking to change, largely because e-cigarettes are not considered a tobacco product.

The American Lung Association’s Houston chapter, however, is advocating for the city take the approach of other large urban areas and ban them in the same places as regular cigarettes while the health risks remain unknown.

Some city officials, too, are keen on broaching the issue. Council member Jack Christie, a chiropractor with strong opinions on health policy, said he would like to see restrictions on e-cigarettes in public places, voicing concern about the potential effects of second-hand vapor. Council member Ellen Cohen, chair of the Council’s Quality of Life Committee, also has concerns about second-hand vapor and said she would like to see more federal guidance before considering whether to include them in the city’s smoking ordinance.

“There’s are a lot of things that Houston doesn’t just throw out regulations on,” Christie said. “We let other cities experiment and see what works. And I’m not for over-regulation, but if it helps innocent people, and I think this would, we should do it.”

As you know, I’ve been wondering about this. I’m okay with things as they are now – as the story notes, there’s no litter issue with e-cigarettes, and I don’t think they’re nearly as prevalent as the traditional kind; I know I’ve not encountered any vapers in public spaces as yet. Should there be further regulation at the federal level – which multiple states and local health officials are asking for – or more research showing that they’re harmful, especially to people in their vicinity, then that would be a different story. Until then, I can live with the status quo.

It’s past time for a garbage fee

Yes, this.

For years, Houston’s Solid Waste Management Department Director Harry Hayes has suggested the city implement a garbage fee to expand curbside recycling and pay for other initiatives. And for years, Mayor Annise Parker has demurred.

Now, with a looming budget deficit that could force widespread layoffs and cuts to services, the idea may see serious discussion at the council table for the first time.

Though Parker has not endorsed any particular path, she acknowledges a garbage fee is among the most important of the dozens of ideas officials are considering as they try to close a $150 million budget gap by next summer.

[…]

For Hayes’ part, he said he has “been like the North Star on this,” pushing roughly the same fee for the same reasons for six years, always reminding council members that Houston is one of the only major cities in the country, and the only one in Texas, without a garbage fee.

“I have consistently stated the same things to both mayors, who have both been huge recycling advocates, and the same thing to all the council members,” Hayes said. “If you’re asking me what to do and I’m your appointed and confirmed expert, here’s what we should do as a best practice in this particular city business.”

The fee Hayes has pitched – $3.76 a month or $45.12 per home, per year – would ensure recycling trucks and containers are replaced on time and without taking on too much debt, would deploy officers to better enforce rules against illegal dumping, and would add neighborhood depository sites.

Hayes said any broader proposal in line with what other Texas cities charge would be designed to generate enough revenue to cover his department’s $76 million budget, removing waste operations from the tax-supported general fund entirely. Such a fee in Houston, Hayes said, would be $15 to $20 a month per home, or $180 to $240 a year.

Using fees for 96-gallon bins, the type Houston distributes, Dallas charges residents about $21.92 a month, San Antonio $17.69 to $19.93, Fort Worth $22.75, Austin $33.50 and El Paso $16. Austin also levies a monthly $6.65 fee that funds other waste operations.

I’ve supported the idea of a garbage fee for some time now. The city would have been able to roll out the single-stream recycling bins a lot sooner with a dedicated fee, instead of having to wait till it had collected enough money from the program itself to finance the purchase of the equipment. How much better it would have been to deal with this back in one of the good budget years when the focus could have been on the improved service that a garbage fee would have meant instead of now when it’s all wrapped up in a deficit-reduction veneer.

The oddball argument was unconvincing to Councilman C.O. Bradford.

“When you look at business magazines, trade publications, economic forecasts, Houston is separate,” he said. “Houston is doing much better than those other cities because we do things differently. We don’t have to do it just because other cities are doing it.”

Councilwoman Ellen Cohen said an informal survey of civic clubs in her district last year showed general support for the $3.76 monthly fee.

“People were willing to consider that,” she said. “For me, we have serious issues ahead and I think everything should be on the table for the purpose of talking about it.”

Dwight Boykins said he is supportive of the garbage fee concept, but is far more comfortable with the lower amount than leaving a $15 to $20 monthly fee in place indefinitely, particularly for low-income residents.

Councilmen Larry Green and Jerry Davis are against the idea, saying constituent surveys have found more opposed than in favor.

All due respect, but the “Houston exceptionalism” argument is hooey. Sometimes, when you’re the only one not doing what everyone else is doing, you’re the one that’s doing it wrong. I get where CMs Green and Davis are coming from, but one of the things that a garbage fee can help finance is better surveillance and enforcement of illegal dumping, which is a huge problem in District B. I hope the potential benefit of this can be made clear – perhaps Director Hayes could put together a short presentation detailing some of the dumping hotspots that would be first in line for enhanced attention with a garbage fee – before any vote is taken.

The bricks of Freedmen’s Town

Surely we can do something about this.

Most in the Fourth Ward community know the lore – that freed slaves and descendants first laid the bricks on the streets 100 years ago.

Now most agree the roads need repairs, but residents and preservationists worry a recently approved city plan to remove the bricks to fix piping underneath will ruin the original streets, a key element of Freedmen’s Town designation as a National Historic District. Some activists also say the process to approve the project violated federal laws intended to preserve national historic districts.

“I’m appalled that the mayor wants to disturb those bricks like that,” resident Terrance Williams said.

More than 100 years ago, Fourth Ward residents paid $1 per brick to have the streets paved in front of their houses, said Catherine Roberts, co-founder of the Rutherford B.H. Yates Museum in Freedmen’s Town, and a major force for the area’s conservation. Not only are the bricks themselves significant, but the patterns they form tell a story. The designs at some intersections can be traced back to African crossroads – which pointed the way to safehouses for the black community – or religious traditions of the Yoruba people of West Africa.

“This is an in-the-ground cultural resource,” Roberts said. “You don’t take them out.”

Their inability to stop construction has made the community feel powerless – a community once considered the heartbeat of black Houston. Doctors, lawyers, dentists and ministers populated the area until the 1920s, when the Third and Fifth wards became more popular.

[…]

After decades of discussion and planning to install new utilities in the neighborhood, City Council approved a $5 million plan this month to repipe portions of Andrews and Wilson streets. Work is scheduled to start by early August, said Mike Cordova, project manager for the city.

Water and sewer pipes will be replaced, and then the salvageable bricks – estimated to be just one-third of those there now – will be cleaned and put back, but likely not in their original designs.

Texas Department of Transportation architect Mario Sanchez said the bricks will be regrouped at intersections rather than in their original locations. “It was determined infeasible to re-install them in their original locations, specifically because there would be a lack of continuity based on the number of salvageable bricks,” Sanchez wrote in the email to the Houston Chronicle.

That’s heartbreaking news to residents and historians, who believed that years ago they had reached a solution on upgrading the Freedmen’s Town streets. They pleaded with the city to tunnel underneath the bricks instead of moving them, and in 2007 former Mayor Bill White reached an agreement with U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee to do just that.

In a letter sent to the Chronicle from Jackson Lee to White, the congresswoman discusses the agreed-upon plan: using a combination of trenching and tunneling to put the water and sewer lines beneath the sidewalks instead of under the bricks, leaving them undisturbed.

City officials now say the streets are too narrow for tunneling, and construction costs could quadruple.

“It just wasn’t a practical way to move forward,” said council member Ellen Cohen, whose district includes Freedmen’s Town.

It always comes down to money, doesn’t it? There’s a lot more in the story about the historic preservation process and whether it’s being followed correctly, and you should read the whole thing. What it comes down to is that these bricks and these streets are a unique and very important piece of culture and history in a neighborhood that has lost so much of that culture and history to the demands of modern times. We really need to find a way to improve these streets without losing or damaging what they’re all about.

Council adopts its budget for next year

Might be the last easy budget for a couple of years.

BagOfMoney

The Houston City Council agreed to boost funding for after-school programs, add cameras to catch illegal dumpers and give $1 million to each district council office to spend on projects for their constituents during a marathon session Wednesday to approve Mayor Annise Parker’s $5.2 billion budget.

The budget was approved in a 14-3 vote that followed council members slogging through 63 amendments they and their colleagues had proposed to Parker’s spending plan for the fiscal year beginning July 1.

Council members interested in new programs bested those interested in controlling spending, despite ample discussion of the deficits looming in the coming years.

Parker said council’s decisions concern her, given the warnings of trouble ahead, and said some “naivete” exists around the table on budgeting.

“Council members were clearly in a mood to spend rather than save,” she said. “They see the economy, they see things are picking up. They also see a lot of needs and they want to respond to those needs, and it’s very hard to say, ‘But we have a rainy day down the road, you need to put some money aside for that.'”

[…]

The largest amendment passed Wednesday was Councilman C.O. Bradford’s idea to give each of the 11 district council members $1 million to spend on local issues, from mowing overgrown lots to fixing sidewalks to razing dangerous buildings.

“I don’t want this splashed around the media as a slush fund. That’s not what it is,” said district Councilwoman Ellen Cohen, who supported the amendment. “This is discretionary funds we can use in our district to expedite some of the issues. I have 80 civic clubs in my district. I promise you I hear from all of them what they need.”

The $11 million will be drawn partly from money that would have been saved for next year in Parker’s budget, and partly from the city’s capital spending plan, which comes to a vote soon. Parker said council members’ spending requests from the funds, to be legal under the City Charter, will need her approval. Expenditures topping $50,000 will need council approval, as with all other city spending.

Next year is when some deferred debts kick in and we have to deal with them, which will be a whole lot of no fun for the whole family. The money that Council chose to spend via their amendments has a lot of merit to it, and it wouldn’t have made that much difference for next year if they had chosen to bank it all instead. But it would have made some difference, and when we’re dealing with this next year we’ll feel like every little bit helps. As such, I fully expect the 14 Council members that supported this budget to not only support but also advocate for repealing the revenue cap so that they won’t be artificially and recklessly constrained by that poor decision ten years ago. It would be mighty inconsistent to support more spending now followed by needlessly maximal cuts later. We’ll know who tries to have it both ways soon enough.

Falkenberg on Wilson and the NDO

Lisa Falkenberg weighs in on the “Reverend RJ Ballard” email.

Dave Wilson

Dave Wilson

The e-mail is the handiwork of Houstonians for Family Values, the group affiliated with none other than Dave Wilson. You may remember him as the old white anti-gay activist who got elected to the Houston Community College board last year in a predominantly black district by leading voters to believe he was black.

He’s still up to his old tricks. He told me this week he’s gotten 10,000 signatures for his anti-ordinance petition, and he’s getting ready to drop a new batch of mail.

“What’s the old adage?” he said, almost gleefully. “Strike while the hammer is hot?”

Yes, this is the guy speaking for “the families.” An affable but bigoted trouble-maker who deals in racial caricatures, and his little friend – Portrait of Man Pointing.

As it happens, the Chron ran a correction on Saturday, which noted that while Wilson did indeed send an email campaigning against the NDO, he denied having sent this particular email that I’ve now reviewed twice. Falkenberg called me on Friday to give me a heads up about that since I had forwarded the email to her and pointed out some of its obvious falsehoods. I looked over the email again after I got her message, and when I called her back I told her that it was possible he was telling the truth. The reason for that, which I hadn’t given any thought to till her call, was that the email in question was sent via Mail Chimp, which as we know from before isn’t secure. Well, crap.

I hadn’t given the matter any thought before this because unlike our previous experience with mysterious Mail Chimp emails, this could hardly be an attempt to slander Dave Wilson. As noted in the correction, Wilson agreed with what was said in the “Reverend RJ Ballard” email and made similar points in the email he did admit to sending. Why would anyone pretend to be Dave Wilson for these purposes? If this was a forgery – and while I have no inclination to give Dave Wilson the benefit of the doubt, I also can’t think of a reason why he’d bother to lie about this – it had to be deliberate – why else include Wilson’s mailing address in the email? I’ve thought about it all weekend, and I can come up with three semi-plausible scenarios:

– The email was sent by someone who has a public reputation for being pro-equality but who secretly wants the NDO to be defeated, and so sent this out under the cover of a well-known bigot figuring his or her tracks would be covered. It sounds even less believable having typed that sentence than it did in my head, but it was the first thing I came up with, so there you have it.

– It was sent by some other Anglo conservative in an attempt to mobilize a group with which he or she has no credibility or influence, done more as a flattering imitation of Dave Wilson than as a forgery. I can almost believe that, but I still get hung up on why the author would bother to include Wilson’s address. You’re already sending it out under a phony name, why confuse things by pointing a finger at someone? Maybe the answer to that is that the sender knew that some smartypants on the Internet would make the Wilson connection and that would serve to amplify the effect of the email. I guess that’s possible, but I’m reluctant to give this hypothetical second emailer that much credit for intelligence.

– Finally, perhaps it was sent by a supporter of the NDO who feared that energy among its proponents was flagging, and s/he thought this might be a shot in the arm for their advocacy efforts. Seems pretty convoluted and with a potentially high downside, but I suppose someone could see it that way. For what it’s worth, even after the second delay, I haven’t seen any signs of proponents losing fervor for the fight, but perhaps someone else saw that differently.

As before, we’ll likely never know the answer to this. If you think you know something about it, by all means leave a comment or drop me an email. And for the record, while Wilson’s denial is plausible, I’m not ready to let him off the hook. Even if he didn’t send this, one way or another he inspired who sent it.

Back to Falkenberg’s column, and her conversation with one of the email’s targets, CM Jerry Davis. Davis says what needs to be said about this:

“The god I serve, to me, loves everyone,” Davis said. “And it’s hard for me to believe that he’s telling me to discriminate against people.”

Yet, his constituents are saying something different: When he polled them, 47 percent came out against the ordinance and about 30 percent for it.

Then there’s other feedback: “Some of the phone calls I’ve received in the last few weeks, it sounds like the same group of people who said ‘we believe in equal rights, but not for blacks; they weren’t meant to be equal to us.’ ”

And isn’t that the classic argument? We believe in rights. Just not for those people.

“I want to make sure I’m not one of those persons who are doing that,” Davis told me.

Good for you, Jerry Davis. People certainly do make some ridiculous arguments when they try to argue against the basic humanity of others. The website Good As You caught a great example of that during the Council meeting, in which CM Ellen Cohen got Pastor Becky Riggle to admit that opponents of the NDO like herself was equally arguing for the right to discriminate against people whose religion they disagreed with. You’d think with all the huffing and puffing lately about folks like Condoleeza Rice beind denied the right to collect a fat speaker’s fee at a commencement ceremony that it might occur to the Becy Riggles of the world that a right to discriminate includes the right to discriminate against them, but somehow that connection never gets made. Just another downside to lacking empathy, I suppose.

NDO delayed two weeks

I thought it would be over by now, but it’s not.

RedEquality

A proposal to extend equal rights protections to gay and transgender Houston residents, which had been swiftly advancing to a City Council vote, stalled Wednesday as council members voted for a two-week delay to allow more public input on the increasingly divisive measure.

Mayor Annise Parker, the first openly lesbian mayor of a major American city, said she had the votes to pass the ordinance Wednesday but hopes to pick up even more before the council’s May 28 meeting. The 12-5 vote in favor of delay reflected not an erosion of support, she said, but the council’s desire to address constituents’ questions.

“There were several council members who fully intend to vote for the item who asked for an opportunity, in the interest of complete transparency and openness on this issue, to have another round of conversations with their various constituent groups,” Parker said. “This has never been about getting something rushed through. It is about getting something right.”

Most opposition has come from clergy, from conservative megachurch leaders to black ministers. Opponents said they, too, plan to continue rallying votes; council offices have been deluged with calls and emails now numbering in the thousands.

The proposal, already delayed one week amid tearful cries of support and angry protestations, has been the subject of intense debate for nearly a month.

Houston political consultant Keir Murray said the delay is driven in part by some council members’ desire to address concerns from community leaders, particularly elderly black pastors, who may be uncomfortable with gay and transgender issues.

“They’ve got the votes,” Murray said. “The mayor and others are just trying to cut colleagues some slack, give them a little time and go back to constituencies and say, ‘We gave you more time to make your voices heard.’ ”

The key piece of evidence here is that an amendment proposed by CM Robert Gallegos that reduced the minimum size for companies to be subject to this ordinance from 50 to 15 was adopted by an 11-6 vote. I can’t think of any good reason to vote for that amendment, then vote against the final ordinance, so I think it is safe to say that it is headed for passage.

But first, more talk.

Steve Riggle, senior pastor of Grace Community Church, said neither his megachurch brethren nor influential ministers of color were engaged in the drafting of the law, saying, “We’re willing to sit down at the table and talk.”

Asked whether there were any protections for gay and transgender residents he could support, Riggle said only, “Let’s sit at the table and see.” But he added, “Gender identity is a term that is a problem.”

Councilwoman Ellen Cohen noted that scores of faith, nonprofit and community leaders have announced their backing for the proposal.

“The idea that somehow this was a secret process, particularly after how many countless hours of public hearings we’ve had over the last few weeks, is interesting,” Parker said.

Councilman Dwight Boykins pushed for the delay, saying he hopes to convene a meeting for pastors and business owners in his south Houston district: “Within the next two weeks, I think we will come to some conclusion where this city will heal this divisiveness in this city today.

“The people in this city, the ones that have questions about this ordinance, have questions that can be dealt with.”

Councilman Jerry Davis held a similar meeting in his north Houston district, and said many pastors left with a better understanding of the measure even if they remained opposed.

If CM Boykins, who voted for the Gallegos amendment, feels he needs more time to explain things to his constituents, then fine. That’s easy for me to say, since I get to do life on the lowest difficulty setting, but my scan of social media after the motion to postpone indicates that the folks who have real skin in the game are handling this latest delay with grace. My hat is off to them for that.

So this will now be decided on Wednesday, May 28. There will be no Council meeting on the 27th, so the 28th will be both a public-comment session and a Council-vote-on-agenda-items session. That means you have one more chance to tell Council in person what you think, and of course you can continue to send them emails, telegrams, mash notes, what have you. The vote may be highly likely to go in favor, but if you’ve got a story to tell it’s important to tell it. Contact the City Secretary and get on the list of speakers for the 28th.

One more thing. In my previous entry, I analyzed Dave Wilson’s latest piece of hate mail and pointed out two ways in which he was being blatantly dishonest. Turns out I wasn’t thorough enough. See the picture at the bottom with the caption about girls claiming to be “harassed” in the school bathroom by a transgender classmate? Though there is no link provided, that was an actual story that ran on some legitimate news sites. However, it was based on a complete lie put forward by a group of haters, and was subsequently pulled down after it was exposed as the fabrication it was. A reporter named Cristan Williams did the legwork, and you can read her story here, with a followup here. The original “story” was first printed last October, and a cursory Google search would at least indicate that maybe it’s not a hundred percent kosher. Given Wilson’s longstanding record of abject dishonesty, it’s far more likely that he knew all this but pushed the lie anyway than that he was confused or minsinformed. The lesson, in case I haven’t been sufficiently blunt, is that you should never, ever believe a word Dave Wilson says. Thanks to Transgriot and Media Matters for the links.

Combs tells strip clubs to pay up

Interesting.

Susan Combs

Texas Comptroller Susan Combs is pressing the state’s strip clubs to cough up millions of dollars she says they owe under a new “pole tax” even though the $5-a-patron fee still faces a court challenge.

“Any claim that ongoing litigation is a basis for nonpayment of the Sexually Oriented Business Fee is not valid,” insists an April 11 letter from the comptroller’s tax division that was sent to roughly 200 clubs in Texas that offer nude entertainment.

The fee, which strip club attorneys have claimed is an unfair tax, has been the subject of legal fights virtually since it was passed in 2007 as a way to fund programs for sexual assault victims and health care. The strip clubs’ lobby organization, the Texas Entertainment Association, filed a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the fee, arguing that erotic dancing is a form of expression protected by the First Amendment. But in 2011, the Texas Supreme Court ruled the fee did not violate free speech.

A new challenge, still under consideration by the 3rd Court of Appeals, argues that the “pole tax” is unconstitutional because the fees are not used appropriately. In the April 11 letter, Combs’ office said the continuing legal battle doesn’t mean the clubs can avoid paying all the fees they owe since the law took effect six years ago.

[…]

“They don’t like to be seen or heard,” state Rep. Harold Dutton, D-Houston, said of the club owners. “And I think that is what caused them to get in the ditch on this thing.”

So far, Dutton is the only lawmaker defending the clubs. In an April 23 letter to Combs, he asked the comptroller why her office decided last month to send out letters while the clubs’ latest court challenge is awaiting a decision from the 3rd Court of Appeals.

“I did send her a letter, asking her what has changed,” said Dutton, who opposes the fee. He said that if sexual assault programs need money, “the Legislature ought to step up to the plate and do that.”

Instead, what often happens, he said, is that lawmakers create fees against things they don’t like, like strip clubs.

“Where does it end once you start down that road?” he said.

A spokesman for the comptroller’s office, R.J. DeSilva, indicated in an emailed response that there was nothing remarkable about the timing of the collection notice.

“Our agency regularly sends notices or updates to taxpayers on various taxes and fees,” he wrote. “This particular notice was to remind business owners that the Sexually Oriented Business Fee is still in effect while litigation continues.”

In 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the strip clubs’ challenge after the Texas Supreme Court determined that the fee does not violate the First Amendment.

Now, the clubs are arguing that the state “fee” is really an occupation tax that should be directed to public schools under the Texas Constitution. They contend that the fee violates the state Constitution, which requires that one-fourth of occupation taxes go to public schools, because none of the money goes to schools.

The clubs’ attorneys are also asking the court to consider free speech provisions in the Texas Constitution, which they claim are broader than that of the First Amendment.

The state maintains that the fee is not an occupation tax, though, and it rejects arguments that it encroaches on free speech.

I must have missed the news about the second lawsuit, because I didn’t find anything in my archives about it. As noted, the original lawsuit was decided in favor of the state in 2011 by the Supreme Court, so it’s fair to wonder why now, almost three years later, the state is finally demanding payment from the clubs and rejecting the argument that ongoing litigation is no excuse. That said, while I may sympathize with Rep. Dutton about how the Lege should appropriate money for various things, the fact remains that the strip club fee was passed by the Lege and has been upheld by the Supreme Court, and wishing that the Lege did its business differently doesn’t change that. Not clear what effect, if any, this may have on the city of Houston’s strip club fee, which is also still being litigated.

GHP endorses proposed NDO

Good for them.

RedEquality

The Greater Houston Partnership came out in support of Mayor Annise Parker’s proposed equal rights ordinance, giving the measure a boost as it heads to a City Council committee hearing on Wednesday.

Parker plans to put the measure before the full City Council for a vote next week.

The Partnership initially had reservations about the sweeping anti-discrimination proposal, aimed at private businesses as well as city employment and contracting, but President Bob Harvey said most of the group’s concerns had been addressed by the time the mayor’s office released a draft of the ordinance last week. The Partnership’s executive committee voted unanimously on Friday to support the proposal.

“The business community and the community in general views our city as remarkably diverse and welcoming,” Harvey said. “I think this ordinance is consistent with what this city stands for.”

That’s exactly right. Many large companies have had their own version of this for years, so it’s something they’re comfortable with. Via Houston Legal, the Houston Business Journal makes this message even more explicit.

If Houston businesses are concerned about the potential unintended consequences of Mayor Annise Parker’s Equal Rights ordinance, they should look to the Americans with Disabilities Act, said Stephen J. Roppolo, a regional managing partner and employment law attorney at Fisher and Phillips.

“All of us were concerned that 40 million people were going to be declared disabled,” Roppolo said. “There were some jokes at legal seminars that were only half jokes that claimed, ‘If you’re follicly challenged, you’re disabled.'”

The net result of ADA, Roppolo said, “was not nearly as bad — as expansive — as everyone thought.”

[…]

Gender identity can be confusing to some people, Roppolo said, but he’s confident human resources departments at most Houston businesses are already prepared for this. In fact, businesses have been dealing with gender identity issues for some time.

“Everyone likes black-and-white, easy-to-decide issues. Gender identity is not black and white; it’s shades of gray,” Roppolo said. “What I tell employers is that if you’re focused on whether that person, whomever they are, is doing the work in a way that helps the business, that’s all that matters.”

Furthermore, Roppolo said employers are increasingly sensitive to workplace harassment.

“It’s not productive,” he said. “When people are doing that kind of stuff to one another, they’re not doing work.”

But the biggest message that Roppolo and other lawyers have for Houston employers is: Relax.

“Sit tight,” he said. “This is going to be fine. At the same time, I am telling employers that this is going to take some work to get your front-line supervisors to understand what the new parameters are.”

Yes, it’s going to be fine. It’s good to have the GHP officially on board, since that ought to shut up anyone that wants to claim this fairly benign ordinance would somehow be harmful to business. If anything, it’s the opposite, as the kind of innovative employees that companies like to recruit want to live in a city that reflects their own values. There’s nothing controversial about this ordinance, which as CM Ellen Cohen, the chair of the Quality of Life Committee, noted has been revised multiple times after much feedback from stakeholders.

That doesn’t mean the usual suspects won’t piss and moan about it, of course. Back to the Chron:

Major Republican donor Steven Hotze sent an email from his Conservative Republicans of Texas PAC that dubbed the proposal “Parker’s Sexual Predator Protection Act,” suggesting the measure will create a loophole to allow people to lie about their gender to enter bathrooms where they could attack women and children. He also wrote against protections based on sexual orientation.

“This would make those who engage in deviant sexual acts a new minority class equal to African-Americans, Hispanics, Asians and other legitimate minorities. This is a slap in the face of true minorities,” the email read.

Dave Welch, of the Houston Area Pastor Council, echoed Hotze in saying the ordinance is a solution to a problem that does not exist and that the true reason for Parker’s proposal is to force the Houston community to accept her same-sex marriage.

Texas Leftist has a copy of Hotze’s hate mail. I’m loathe to give these d-bags the attention they so desperately crave, but a reminder of who they are and what they stand for is always useful. They represent a small and shrinking group, and they deserve to be ignored. When Council finally takes up the NDO – in two weeks, since I assume someone will tag it – I hope Council passes it unanimously, or at least overwhelmingly. Don’t be with the losers here, Council members. Campos has more.

Mayor Parker releases draft of non-discrimination ordinance

From the inbox:

Mayor Annise Parker

Mayor Annise Parker

Mayor Annise Parker today released a draft of her proposed Equal Rights Ordinance. The document is the result of more than two months of collaborative discussions with various stakeholders.

“As I stated in my State of the City Address earlier this month, the Houston I know does not discriminate, treats everyone equally and allows full participation by everyone in civic and business life,” said Mayor Parker. “We don’t care where you come from, the color of your skin, your age, gender, what physical limitations you may have or who you choose to love. It’s time the laws on our books reflect this.”

Houston is currently the only major city in the country without civil rights protections for its residents. The draft ordinance will prohibit discrimination in city employment, city contracting, housing, public accommodations and private employment at businesses with at least 50 employees. To avoid First Amendment issues, religious organizations are exempt from the definition of an employer.

Complaints about violations of the ordinance and decisions regarding prosecution are to be handled by the City’s Office of Inspector General and the City Attorney. If the subject of a complaint refuses to cooperate with an investigation, the City Attorney may ask City Council to approve the issuance of a subpoena to compel cooperation.

In addition, the mayor has the discretion to create an advisory task force to study and report on matters related to the ordinance.

“Equal protection under law is a cornerstone of our democracy and the Equal Rights Ordinance will help to ensure that all Houstonians are protected from discrimination,” said District C City Council Member Ellen Cohen, who has been involved in the drafting of the ordinance. “As the most diverse city in the nation, I’m pleased that we will offer these protections in public accommodations and employment to all our citizens.”

“This ordinance gives us another tool to demonstrate that Houston is a world class city that is open for business,” said District J City Council Member Mike Laster, who has also played an integral role in the drafting of the ordinance. “If you are willing to work hard, and treat your neighbors with respect and fairness, you will be welcome in Houston, and you will succeed in Houston!”

Mayor Parker intends to present the draft ordinance to City Council’s Quality of Life Committee on April 30. Consideration by the full City Council is scheduled for May 7. The ordinance may be viewed by clicking the Ordinance Feedback icon under the mayor’s photo on the homepage of the city’s website at www.houstontx.gov.

See here and here for the background. A direct link to the ordinance is here, and if you’re wondering why we need such a thing in Houston, I recommend you read this Equal Rights Ordinance Guide helpfully put together by the Houston Stonewall Young Democrats. As we know there had been some concern about private employers not being included in the ordinance, but as you can see that has been addressed. Nothing like a little public engagement on an important issue.

The Chron story gives us a feel for the lay of the land.

Parker initially had talked of creating a human rights commission to hear complaints, but that idea was left out of the proposal announced Monday.

[…]

Greater Houston Partnership President and CEO Bob Harvey said his group’s key concern with the idea had been the commission.

“At this juncture, admittedly upon a very quick review, I would say there is plenty in this proposal that we can support,” Harvey said, noting that a majority of GHP members already have anti-discrimination policies. “We now must take the time to review the proposal in detail, and we plan to take it before our board for discussion in the next several days.”

The Houston GLBT Caucus, during last fall’s elections, asked the mayor whether she would introduce, and council members whether they would support, a nondiscrimination ordinance; Parker and 11 council members said yes. Caucus President Maverick Welsh said he is pleased private employers were included.

“She kept her commitment to the GLBT community and I’m hoping the council members that made a commitment will keep theirs, too,” Welsh said. “Houston is competing with other cities for the best and brightest talent out there and if Houston has these protections in place we’re more competitive and welcoming.”

Councilman Michael Kubosh said he is concerned Parker is stressing the ordinance’s sweep when her goal is adding protections for gay and transgender residents. If accurate, he said, that is where discussions should focus.

“The mayor needs to come out and just say what it’s really about. Let’s start from there and go on,” Kubosh said. “The most important thing is transparency.”

Councilman Jack Christie said the draft’s dropping of a commission makes it an improvement over earlier discussions.

“Just have direct access to the city attorney, if the state and federal hasn’t helped you,” Christie said. “I just don’t hear that much discrimination, but if there is, if there’s less than 1 percent, we need to stop that.”

There was a quote in there from one of the usual suspects that can be summed up as “haters gonna hate”, but beyond that I find these reactions to be encouraging, and boding well for passage. Still, I am sure there will be more opposition now that this is out, and I’m sure some members of Council will need a bit of pushing, so don’t quit engaging just yet. Just remember, when the predictions of doom and employers fleeing and whatever else begin to crop up, plenty of other cities in Texas and elsewhere have passed ordinances like this one, and last I checked the earth was still rotating on its axis. Nothing bad will happen, but a lot of good will. Texas Leftist, Lone Star Q, Texpatriate, TransGriot, and PDiddie have more.

Counting votes on the non-discrimination ordinance

From the Houston GLBT Political Caucus Facebook page:

Members have asked for the responses on our questionnaires to the questions below. The President of the Caucus, Maverick Welsh, has asked me to post the information. As the chair of the Screening Committee, I have reviewed the questionnaires from 2013 and below is the result:

Mayor–We asked:

Question: If elected, would you be willing to introduce a non-discrimination ordinance, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity or expression in employment, housing, and public accommodation, that provides reasonable exemptions for small businesses, religious organizations, and federally exempt residential property owners?

She answered:

Annise Parker: Yes

City Council–We asked:

If elected, would you publicly advocate for and vote in favor of a non-discrimination ordinance, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity or expression in employment, housing, and public accommodation, that provides reasonable exemptions for small businesses, religious organizations, and federally exempt residential property owners?

They answered:

Jerry Davis: Yes
Ellen Cohen: Yes
Dwight Boykins: Yes
Ed Gonzalez: Yes
Robert Gallegos: Yes
Mike Laster: Yes
Larry Green: Yes
Steve Costello: Yes
David Robinson: Yes
C.O. Bradford: Yes
Jack Christie: Yes

There’s been a lot of speculation about who may or may not support the ordinance that Mayor Parker has promised to bring before council. As yet, there is not a draft version of the ordinance, and that seems to be the key to understanding this. As CMs Bradford and Boykins mention to Lone Star Q, without at least a draft you don’t know what the specifics are. Maybe it’ll be weaker than you want it to be. Maybe it’ll be poorly worded and you will be concerned about potential litigation as a result. It’s not inconsistent for a Council member to say they support the principle and the idea of the ordinance, but they want to see what it actually says before they can confirm they’ll vote for it.

Nonetheless, everyone listed above is on record saying they would “vote in favor of a non-discrimination ordinance, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity or expression in employment, housing, and public accommodation”, and they will be expected to do exactly that. If they want to make arguments about making it stronger, that’s fine. That list above is more than enough to pass the ordinance, so there should be no waffling, no fretting about vote counts, and especially no fear of a backlash. When the time comes, everyone needs to keep their promises. Now would be an excellent time to call your Council members and let them know you look forward to seeing their vote for this NDO.

Yes, Council is short on women

It is what it is.

CM Ellen Cohen

CM Ellen Cohen

The Houston City Council will have its fewest women in 15 years this January, which political observers called a troublesome regression for one of the most diverse cities in the U.S.

Just two women will remain on the 16-member council. And for the first time in about 25 years, a minority woman will not hold a seat.

“It’s more a step back rather than a step forward for the city of Houston,” said Rice University political scientist Mark Jones. “Women represent slightly over 50 percent of population but will account for less than a fifth of the City Council.”

There are currently four women on the council. Except for 1999, when there were also just two, the council has had at least three females in each of the last 25 years. It peaked at eight in 2005, according to data compiled by Rice University political scientist Bob Stein. Also, from 1989 until 1999, there were at least three women on council.

Political analysts say the makeup, likely a result of chance, is not an optimal mix.

[…]

Brenda Stardig

Brenda Stardig

Stein said a persistent finding in social science research shows that a higher proportion of women on governing bodies means less gridlock and more efficiency. He said some believe this is a genetic trait in women and also because women have different experiences than men.

Stein said this election season saw a diverse group of candidates in the mix, including women, but the turnout was extremely low. He predicted it would be a challenging year for Mayor Annise Parker, who is heading into her final term with her sights on statewide office. In part, this will be because women may be more sympathetic to some of her issues, such as discrimination.

Rice University’s Jones said because Parker will be at the helm of city government, the policy impact will not be dramatic, but that the new council makeup could draw attention to the under-representation of women in governing bodies.

He said these election results were due to bad luck and he does not believe there is any broader anti-woman trends in Houston, noting several races where women were contenders. He also pointed out this low representation of women could persist because incumbents have such an advantage in future elections.

I noted this last week. Took about as long as I figured it might for the Chron to write a story about it. As I said at the time, I think it’s a temporary aberration and not indicative of any trends. If the ball bounced a little differently in the first round of At Large #3, we might not be having this conversation at all. Or maybe we’d be talking about another missed opportunity, who knows. Be that as it may, I don’t quite understand the comment about turnout. Turnout this year was roughly the same as it was in 2009, and it was much higher than it was in 2011 or 2007. It’s not clear to me what effect turnout is supposed to have had on the outcomes. It’s not clear to me that a higher level of turnout would have benefited Graci Garces in the runoff – given the margin of victory in District D, I don’t think any level of turnout could have helped Georgia Provost – or one of Jenifer Pool and Rogene Gee Calvert in November. As for the effect on Mayor Parker and her agenda, I look at it this way: Mayor Parker swapped out two troublemakers in CMs Brown and Burks, and got back only one potential troublemaker in CM-elect Kubosh in return. I’m thinking she’ll take that deal.

While I do think the results of this year’s elections are not predictive of future elections, that doesn’t mean that the current makeup of Council should be accepted without any need to do things differently next time.

Cindy Clifford, who runs a Houston-based public relations company, said she plans to start a group to empower promising women in Houston to consider public office and donate to female candidates. She said women have a harder time raising money and asking for things for themselves. She said she hopes to inspire confidence in promising female leaders.

“It’s important for women to have a seat at the table,” she said. “Women see things differently; there will be a different dialogue and discussion.”

Having good candidates run and ensuring they get the support they need is always a fine idea. If you find the lack of women on the new Council troublesome, now is an excellent time to start working on a solution for 2015.

July 2013 finance reports for district Council candidates

We move now to the remaining Council races, which are the district races. Here are the July finance reports for candidates in District Council races. Please note that all reports now appear on my newly-published Election 2013 page. Refer to that page for future updates, candidate interviews, and so forth.

Dist Candidate Raised Spent On Hand Loan ------------------------------------------------------- A Brown 67,446 29,633 46,674 0 A Stardig * 56,650 21,206 60,439 0 A Knox 41,666 13,139 35,624 12,500 A Peck 4,481 3,526 9,163 5,000 A Hale 2,670 3,438 137 0 B Davis 52,600 7,990 104,820 0 B B-Daniels 5,000 2,564 5,000 5,000 C Cohen 128,064 33,716 106,696 0 C Sosa D Boykins 150,155 52,262 100,592 0 D Richards 37,108 10,318 18,294 0 D Provost 20,916 17,618 2,378 9,000 D McGee 4,560 4,570 1,369 0 D White 780 780 780 0 D Caldwell 2,725 2,234 490 0 E Martin 53,950 6,225 23,710 5,000 F Hoang 13,480 2,100 11,399 0 G Pennington 185,500 44,455 249,059 0 G Taef 150 755 150 0 H Gonzalez 79,639 20,524 73,364 0 I Mendez 94,632 43,092 12,048 0 I Ablaza 27,230 4,574 16,582 0 I Gallegos 16,945 7,649 9,295 4,379 I Garces 18,917 13,195 4,272 0 J Laster 66,403 12,916 80,858 0 K Green

For reasons unclear, CMs Cohen and Green do not have finance reports posted as yet. I’m sure they will show up eventually. I was able to inquire with CM Cohen’s staff and get a copy of her report, which they had submitted on time; I did not get to do that with CM Green. There are several other candidates in District D, including Lana Edwards, wife of At Large #3 candidate and former State Rep. Al Edwards, and perennial candidate Larry McKinzie; I’ve just listed the candidates whose reports I could find. Let’s go through these in some more detail.

District A

Brown report
Stardig report
Stardig SPAC report
Knox report
Peck report
Hale report

Note that former District A CM Brenda Stardig filed two reports, one of which is for a special purpose PAC. That one had all the contributions and a portion of her expenditures, while the other one, which is the same basic form everyone else submitted, had the bulk of her expenditures. She’s clearly spending more on actual campaign outreach, which stands in contrast to her July 2011 report. Stardig took in $6,500 in PAC money, and also received $1,000 from Peter Brown, $1,000 from Rusty Hardin, and $20 from Orlando Sanchez.

I may have to recalibrate my estimate of CM Helena Brown and her odds of winning, because that’s a pretty decent haul she’s got. Only $4,750 of it was PAC money, which is less than what former CM Stardig got. You can look at that as the establishment being unwilling to back her, or as evidence of her ability to connect with individual supporters. She got no money from incumbent officeholders, but did get donations from activist types like Steven Hotze, Don Sumners, and Dave Wilson. Unlike last time, when she filed at the last minute and came out of nowhere based on pure disgruntlement and dissatisfaction with the incumbent, Brown has to run a “real” campaign this time around. Towards that end, she spent $9,600 on consulting services, mostly to an outfit called Colonnade. I don’t recall seeing that name on other forms, so we’ll see if this is their breakout moment, or their fleeting moment of fame.

Mike Knox also had a good report. Among his contributions were several with oddly specific amounts, which showed up more than once, including such figures as $92.25, $471.25, and six donations of $47.13 each. I have no idea what that’s about. $2,100 of his contributions were in kind. Most of his expenditures, including $2,900 for consulting services, were made from personal funds with the intent to seek reimbursement.

I’m puzzled by Amy Peck’s lack of fundraising success. You’d think the District Director for Sen. Dan Patrick would have more connections to utilize. She did receive $500 from SBOE Member Donna Bahorich, but there was nothing and no one of interest beyond that. In what may be a sign of a newer-generation approach to campaigning, she spent $463.05 on Facebook ads, and $438.90 on T-shirts. Make of that what you will.

Ron Hale contributed $730 to his campaign, and spent a bit more than $900 from personal funds.

District B

Davis report
Blueford-Daniels report

While at least two other district Council members have opponents so far (Cohen in C and Pennington in G), I consider first term CM Jerry Davis’ situation to be more like Brown’s than like theirs, since Davis won as an outsider in 2011, and there are members of the establishment in B that don’t like him. He has a credible opponent in Kathy Blueford-Daniels, who didn’t make the runoff in 2011 but was the Chron’s endorsed candidate in November. He’s definitely taking his task seriously, judging by his report. Of his contributions, $21,000 came from PACs, including $250 from Planned Parenthood PAC. I note that mostly because I don’t recall seeing anyone else receive money from them as yet. He also received $750 from Peter Brown. No major expenditures – mostly event sponsorships and other related expenses. The only entry I saw that had anything related to consulting in it was $8 for a birthday cake for his consultant. Awww.

Kathy Blueford-Daniels had nothing particularly notable on her report. She had $5K in pledges in addition to her contributions. She hasn’t been campaigning for long – I got a note to like her campaign Facebook page on June 25 – so perhaps her 30 day report will tell a different story.

District D

Boykins report
Richards report
Provost report
McGee report
White report
Caldwell report

This is Dwight Boykins’ fourth run for Council, and first time vying for a district seat. He finished third in At Large #5 in 1997, lost in the runoff to Gordon Quan in 1999, and lost to Michael Berry in At Large #5 in 2003. He’s clearly separated himself from the pack here, however. Of his astonishingly large haul, $14K of it is PAC money, with another $8,375 in business donations. He spent $20,051 on consulting fees, some of which were “field operations” and “printing expenses”. He probably doesn’t have to raise another dime the rest of the way, but what he can do is aim for 50% in the first round by flooding the district with name recognition-boosting ads.

Assata Richards’ total would have been a standout in some other years. As it was, she did receive $3,500 from Peter Brown, $1,500 from David Mincberg, plus another $324 in kind, $100 from Sue Lovell, and $50 from Sue Davis, who is one of the key members of Team Annise Parker. She spent most of her money on advertising – website design, push cards, yard signs, and the like.

Georgia Provost had the distinction of receiving a $1,000 donation from Ben Hall. She also put a lot of her money into advertising, but she was a bit more old school than Richards, with ads on radio station KCOH and in the Forward Times, in addition to push cards, yard signs, and robocalls. She also donated $25 to Battleground Texas, which bumps her up a notch in my estimation. The loan she received was from Justin Jordan.

District I

Mendez report
Abalaza report
Gallegos report
Garces report

Ben Mendez had the most complicated non-Mayoral report so far. Of his generally impressive total, $37,100 was in kind, most of which appears to be items for a fundraising auction. That includes items such as $100 for a yoga mat and $150 for an hourlong massage, both of which strike me as overvalued, though that doesn’t really make much difference to the bottom line. There were also in kind donations of $5K for website design and $3500 for campaign advertising/digital marketing, the former of which also strikes me as high. Most of the other reports had website design figures in the $1000 to $2000 range. Mendez also received contributions of $500 from State Rep. Ron Reynolds, and $100 from HCDE Trustee Erica Lee. He spent $19,500 for consultants.

Leticia Ablaza is back for a second try at District I, with a solid if not terribly interesting report. $7,660 of her contributions were in kind, and she received a $100 donation from At Large #3 candidate Chris Carmona. Not much of interest beyond that.

Neither Robert Gallegos nor Graci Garces did anything spectacular. Gallegos, a former staffer for now-Sen. Sylvia Garcia, received $500 from her and from Peter Brown, plus a few bucks from some current Garcia staffers. $2K of the loan he reported is from James Dinkins. Garces got $500 from Drayton McLane and spent $6,800 on consulting fees.

Other districts

Cohen report
Martin report
Hoang report
Pennington report
Gonzalez report
Laster report

The lobby made newest CM Dave Martin feel welcome, with $30,200 in contributions to him from PACS. He spent $1,500 on consultants.

I don’t quite understand why CM Al Hoang doesn’t have more campaign cash. Be that as it may, he got $7,500 from the PACs, and also spent $1,500 on the same consultants as CM Martin, Blakemore and Associates.

CM Oliver Pennington continues to be a fundraising machine. He got $30,900 in PAC and business donations, and many, many four-figure contributions from individuals, among them $1000 each from Patricia Dewhurst and Bob McNair. I just scanned his expenses since his form was so long, and spotted recurring fees of $3K to Sarah Tropoli (his daughter) and $2K to Richard Cron for consulting; $2500 and $500 to Walden and Associates for fundraising and office rent, respectively. Clearly, the fundraising fees are money well spent.

Also a prodigious fundraiser is CM Ellen Cohen, and she keeps that up here. In addition to $24,900 from PACs, she got $100 each from Kathryn McNeil, the campaign consultant for CM Stephen Costello; Sallie Alcorn, CM Costello’s chief of staff; and Sue Davis. She also got $100 from Ann Johnson, the 2012 Democratic nominee for HD134, Cohen’s former legislative seat, $500 from Peter Brown, and $20 from Stuart Rosenberg, Mayor Parker’s campaign manager.

CM Ed Gonzalez, my Council member, had another one of those solid reports that didn’t have anything terribly interesting to blog about. He took in- $28,500 from PACs and $20 from Stuart Rosenberg. He spent $8,321 on consulting fees.

Last but not least is CM Mike Laster, another solid performer. He received $250 from Peter Brown, $100 from Sue Lovell, $100 Rodrigo Canedo, who was one of his opponents in 2011, and the customary $20 from Stuart Rosenberg. He also got $31,750 in PAC money, and spent $4,644 in consulting fees.

And that’s all I’ve got for this report. Still to come are a look at the reports filed by people not running in 2013, a closer look at the Mayoral reports, and looks at the reports filed by officeholders and candidates in HISD, HCC, Harris County, and the Legislature. Did I mention that July was a busy time of year? As always, any questions or requests, leave ’em in the comments.

Interview with CM Ellen Cohen

CM Ellen Cohen

CM Ellen Cohen

Welcome to the start of the 2013 interview season. Things are going to be a little different for me this year, because my personal schedule is not as flexible as it has been in years past. What that means is that it’s going to be more of a challenge for me to schedule interviews, and at this time I can’t make any guarantees about what interviews I’ll be able to do. I’ll do my best as always, but I’ll get to what I get to, and that’s about all there is to it.

Kicking things off this year is a person I’ve had the pleasure of interviewing several times in the past, first term District C Council Member Ellen Cohen. Cohen is a former two-term State Representative who was elected to the new District C in 2011, scoring a solid majority in a five-candidate race. As was the case in the Capitol, Cohen has jumped right in and gotten busy at City Hall, staying on top of the concerns of her demanding district and working to create a Parking Benefit District in the Washington Avenue corridor, among other things. Here’s what we talked about:

Ellen Cohen Interview

Putting together a dedicated page for my interviews and the candidates’ campaign finance reports is somewhere near the top of my to do list, but it’s not been done yet. Check back later for that.

Alexan Heights trying again

The Leader News reports that the proposed mid-rise apartment complex for Yale at 7th Street has been reworked in a way that would avoid the need for a variance.

Alexan Heights on Yale

The deed restrictions involved single-family homes within the proposed complex — properties that the owners did not want to sell and that TCR was able to design around. TCR’s earlier request for construction with a variance failed before the Houston Planning Commission.

An advance copy of the new notice was part of a TCR/Maple Multi-Family Land TX letter to District C Councilwoman Ellen Cohen dated April 19, portions of which read: “The replat includes properties that were previously restricted to single family. The deed restrictions for these properties have been amended to allow multi-family so the replat will include all 3.55 acres of the site as an unrestricted reserve.”

The letter to Cohen also says TCR has restricted the project’s driveway on Allston Street to be a service exit, left turn only, to divert traffic away from the neighborhood. And, the developer “is willing to work” with Allston Street neighbors if they seek parking restrictions or “No Parking” signs adjacent to the apartment project.

In addition, the letter to Cohen says that if the city will approve a HAWK signal — a crossing signal controlled by pedestrians or bicyclists — at the bike trail adjacent to the mid-rise’s site, TCR will fund and build it. Similarly, the company “is prepared to make a contribution” to the detention pond/park at Rutland and 6th streets.

See here for the last update, and see here for a copy of the letter sent to CM Cohen’s office, which they shared with me. “TCR” is Trammel Crow Residential. I had thought they’d get the variance that they were ultimately denied, so I’m not going to speculate what may happen here. The neighborhood is still opposed to the idea, or at least the more vocal factions of the neighborhood is opposed. I know there’s a lot of interest in putting some kind of signal at the bike trail crosswalk, so you’d think there might be room for negotiation here. Be that as it may, there is a public hearing scheduled for 2:30 p.m. May 23 at City Hall Annex, 900 Bagby St to discuss this, so we’ll see what happens this time. Swamplot has more.

Memorial Park will not become the Riverwalk

Council will vote on the proposed Uptown/Memorial TIRZ this week, which may or may not put an end to some of the wild speculation about what expanding the Uptown TIRZ boundaries to include Memorial Park may mean.

Imagine you’re jogging through Memorial Park, squinting past rows of neon signs in front of fast food joints, the music from bars in a kitschy corridor akin to San Antonio’s Riverwalk barely audible over the roar of nearby bulldozers.

This is the dystopian portrait some citizens paint of a proposal to annex the park into the Uptown Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone. They say the move is a takeover of the city’s most precious green space by an unelected board, and fear the process could result in disruptive projects being built before the public has a chance to weigh in.

The problem with this view is that there is no evidence to support it, as city leaders repeatedly have said; Mayor Annise Parker bemoaned the “really goofy theories” that have been swirling.

Adding the park to the nearby Uptown zone is simply a way to funnel $100 million during the next 27 years from one of the city’s richest redevelopment boards into a park ravaged by the 2011 drought and in need of erosion control projects, irrigation, a new jogging trail and other repairs, officials say. Though the Uptown zone or Memorial Park Conservancy may take the lead on select projects, officials stress any improvements in the park must be specified in advance and approved by the city Parks and Recreation Department and by City Council.

Parker pointed out the Uptown zone already is working in a small portion of the park in its boundaries, and that a similar arrangement is succeeding in Emancipation Park.

That has not stopped Councilwoman Ellen Cohen, whose District C includes Memorial Park, from fielding numerous calls and emails from concerned residents.

“What I want to hear from you is that we’re not looking at Ferris wheels along Memorial Park, fast food restaurants lining Memorial Park,” she said to parks director Joe Turner at a hearing last week. “We’re not looking at any of the kinds of things that really would destroy the integrity of the park if this program goes through.”

Turner assured her no such plans are being discussed. The only specific project on the table today is the Uptown zone contributing $1 million toward a new master plan for Memorial Park, which he said would include ample time for public comment, including at least four public meetings, in addition to several hearings before City Council.

The concern about “neon signs” and comparisons to the Riverwalk come straight from that Lisa Falkenberg column about whether there is sufficient transparency built into the TIRZ plan:

They make some important points – none better than Olive Hershey, the stepdaughter of Terry Hershey, the determined conservationist and life member of the conservancy who fought government agencies trying to pave parts of Buffalo Bayou in the 1960s.

“There’s been virtually no disclosure of the real details of this scheme and the public stands to lose any meaningful control of an irreplaceable park in our public lands and waterways,” Hershey told the council Wednesday. “Memorial Park must not be turned over to a group of bureaucrats who may have little understanding of how to nurture and defend this fragile jewel. If the city needs money to reforest the drought-damaged landscape there, it seems a shame to basically turn the park over to TIRZ 16 because the city can’t afford to protect the remaining trees.”

She wondered aloud whether the powerful influence of developers and other interests over a relatively few conservancy members could lead to “neon signs” along trails and retail developments similar to San Antonio’s Riverwalk. The mayor dismissed such scenarios as “far-fetched” and stressed that the park can only be used for “park purposes.”

I didn’t address this when I wrote about it then because it seemed a bit ridiculous to me. I understand the concerns about transparency and public input, but I just don’t find the scenario being put forth here as remotely realistic. If there were ever even a rumor of this sort of thing being proposed or in the works, people would storm city hall with pitchforks and torches. Nobody who could be elected to anything in Houston would allow this to stand. I don’t understand where this is coming from. There may be less-farfetched things that could happen, but I don’t know what they are, and it’s still not clear to me what level and form of public input would be acceptable to assuage these fears – I still haven’t seen any suggestions to that effect. As noted in the story, the TIRZ meetings are open to the public, and five of the eight members are appointed by the Mayor and Council, which gets back to that pitchforks and torches thing. I totally get the desire to ensure that Memorial Park is preserved. I’m right there with that. I just want to know what the remedy is that would also allow for the needed improvements and infrastructure repairs to be made to the park.

Endorsement watch: Planned Parenthood gets an early start

From the inbox on Friday:

Today the Board of Directors of the Planned Parenthood Gulf Coast ACTION FUND Inc, (PPGCAF) voted to endorse the following candidates for the November City Election. Each of the endorsed candidates has demonstrated a strong commitment to the health and well being of Texas women and families. PPGCAF encourages all Houston registered voters to cast their ballot for candidates who support women’s health education, information and services. 

 

  • Annise Parker for Mayor
  • Ronald Green for Controller
  • Stephen Costello for Houston City Council At-Large Pos. 1
  • C.O. Brad Bradford for Houston City Council At-Large Position 4
  • Jerry Davis for Houston City Council District B
  • Ellen Cohen for Houston City Council District C
  • Ed Gonzalez for Houston City Council District H
  • Mike Laster for Houston City Council District J
  • Larry Green for Houston City Council District K
  • Anna Eastman for HISD Board of Trustees District I

A copy of the release is here. I’m still a little too focused on the legislative session to pay that much attention to the city elections, but I’m not going to let a slate like this pass by without notice. The only mild surprise on this list is CM Costello, who started out as a Republican in good standing but who has been a pragmatic moderate in office. He drew a challenge from the right in 2011 and will likely draw another this time around, but he was still viewed with considerable skepticism by left-leaning groups despite winning numerous endorsements from Democratic clubs. It’ll be interesting to see how that dynamic plays out this time around.

The PPGCAF will likely have more endorsements to make as the open seat contests come into greater focus; it’s possible they’ll take a side against an incumbent or two, depending on who files for what. I’ll be curious to see if they take a position in At Large #2, where CM Andrew Burks is a Democrat but will almost surely face a strong challenge or two. The same is true for HIDS Trustee Larry Marshall. Speaking of HISD, Anna Eastman now has an opponent, Hugo Mojica, who ran in the special election for District H in 2009. As I noted before, there are currently no open seats in HISD. Campos had an update on who’s filed designations of treasurer so far. Needless to say, that list is a work in progress. This is as good a time as any to ask what rumors and rumblings you’ve heard lately. Leave a comment and let us know.

Clearing the rape kit backlog

Some excellent news from the Mayor’s office.

Mayor Annise Parker

Mayor Annise Parker and the Houston Police Department today announced details of a plan that will eliminate the backlog of untested sexual assault kits (SAK). Under the plan, which will be formally considered by Houston City Council next week, the untested kits will be sent to two outside labs for testing. It is anticipated the work will be completed in 12-14 months and cost the city $4.4 million, which will be covered with grant funding already awarded to HPD and dollars set aside for this purpose by City Council in the city’s current budget.

“Today is an important day for rape victims and the city as a whole,” said Mayor Parker. “With this plan we will finally be able to say the backlog is gone. The problem was years in the making and we’ve been working to solve it since I became mayor. It has been a struggle to deal with during a period of extremely difficult economic times, but we remained determined. I am committed to it never happening again.”

HPD is recommending the contract be awarded to Bode Technology Group, Inc. and Sorenson Forensics, LLC. They were selected through a competitive process. Both are recognized leaders in the field and both have worked on other large backlog projects in various places, including New York, Los Angeles and Los Angeles County. Due to the volume of work, the city is able to maximize the use of a low, fixed-price contract.

“This plan will eliminate the backlog of SAKs and other DNA cases entirely,” said Houston Forensic Science LGC Chair Scott Hochberg. “This will allow the existing crime lab to focus on current casework and give the LGC a clean start and the ability to focus on other issues as it works to establish an entirely independent city crime lab.”

“Department personnel have worked diligently on this project and will be implementing an aggressive plan to complete it in an effective and efficient manner,” said Houston Police Chief Charles McClelland. “I am extremely confident this will not be an issue in the future. I am also very proud of all the men and women who have helped us reach this milestone.”

The contract will include the following:

  • Testing of 6,663 stored SAKs
  • Testing of 1,450 active SAKs
  • Testing of 1,000 SAKs HPD anticipates receiving in the next year
  • Testing of 1,020 other non-SAK cases

The proposed contract with Bode Technology Group and Sorenson Forensics is expected to be on the February 20 City Council agenda. Approval by City Council would clear the way for transfer of all SAKs and other DNA cases to the two firms for the start of testing.

The backlog of these rape kits is a longstanding scandal, and clearing it would be a major accomplishment. Amazing the positive things that can get done when there’s money in the budget, isn’t there? The Chron story adds a few more details, including the fact that clearing the backlog would mean that DNA testing for property crime cases can proceed; that’s what the “1,020 other non-SAK cases” item above refers to.

The main question I have in reading this is whether the money came from the $5 per customer strip club fee that Council adopted last June. I wouldn’t think so, for two reasons. One, CM Ellen Cohen, who proposed the fee as a way to help pay for the rape kit backlog, estimated it would collect between one and three million dollars per year. Two point two million in six months seems like an awful lot. More to the point, I’m not sure the fee is even being collected yet, or if it is if its revenue is available for the city to use since the strip clubs filed a lawsuit over the fee in October. The state held the revenues collected from their fee in escrow for years while that litigation was being resolved. In any event, I posed the question to the Mayor’s office, also asking if the fee would still be needed now that the backlog was on its way to being resolved, and got the following response:

While the litigation is pending, the clubs are not paying the fee. The $2.2 million from the General Fund is part of $5 million City Council included in the current city budget last June for testing and to help with start up of the independent crime lab. It is not from the fee. There is no implication that the fee will no longer be needed. It just may not be needed for this purpose.

So there you have it. Speaking of the lawsuit, and I want to emphasize that this is my own speculation here, it seems to me that the resolution of the backlog would be a useful pretext for settling that litigation if both parties were so inclined. If the backlog is cleared then the fee is no longer needed, right? The city could agree to quit collecting it, and then modulo any haggling the clubs might want to do over fees that had already been collected, that would be all there is to it. Like I said, entirely my own speculation. Hair Balls has more.

Council approves Washington Avenue parking benefit district

We’ll see how this works.

The Houston City Council on Wednesday formed a special parking district along Washington Avenue, intended to ease the woes associated with the bustling corridor’s mix of bars, restaurants and residential streets.

The plan will add parking meters on about 350 spaces along Washington, and will make it easier for residents to require parking permits on sleepy side streets. The district extends one block on either side of Washington between Westcott and Houston Avenue.

After paying for the meters, two parking enforcement officers and a meter mechanic, the new revenues will be split between the district and the city, with the district keeping 60 percent for enhancements. Projects will be chosen by a committee of local business owners and residents and could include security, lighting, sidewalks, shuttles or a parking garage.

Councilwoman Ellen Cohen, who, with Councilman Ed Gonzalez, represents the area, cheered the approval, saying it will spur turnover for businesses and protect residents. She said data from other cities shows the meters will add patrons, not drive them away.

“People that go out to restaurants and are prepared to spend a significant amount of money want to find a place to park,” Cohen said. “They’re certainly prepared to spend a little bit more to find a place and pay for it.”

See here for the background, and here for more information about what this means. Once the meters are in place, the clock will start on the 18-month pilot period, after which the program can be modified, renewed, or terminated. I think this is a perfectly reasonable response to the problem, certainly a better solution than just giving out residential parking permits, which would only exacerbate the shortage. I look forward to the announcement of the first improvement projects that result from the revenue that this will raise.

On the Parking Benefit District

A proposed ordinance to create a parking benefit district in the Washington Avenue corridor was on Council’s agenda this week, but it was tagged and will wait a week while everyone gets up to speed on it.

CM Ellen Cohen

District C Council member Ellen Cohen says the city has been working with business owners to come up with a plan to test having parking meters,not only better regulate the constant influx of traffic, but:

“To deal with the issues of parking, increased crime, of safety, and neighbors live several streets off, and they walk in the evenings to restaurants and other services there. It’s a great place, but we want to make sure that it works, and so we’re gonna give it an 18 month trial and see how it goes.”

Mayor Annise Parker says contrary to some belief, they’re not creating an entertainment district.

“We’re trying to create a tool, so we can better manage the intersection between the businesses and the neighborhoods, and the public that needs to travel these major thoroughfares. I do hope that taking some of the lessons learned from creation of this parking benefit district will have 18 months to prove itself. We are not trying to create a one-size-fits-all model of this is what a parking benefit district looks like.”

Jane West is president of the Washington Avenue Coalition. She says money generated from parking meters will go to things like more sidewalks, better lighting and overall improved safety.

“This is a rare example of where members of our residential community, our business community and our development community have come together in a consensus opinion, for a proposal before city council. We’re disappointed that is wasn’t vote on this week, but we anticipate a favorable vote next week.”

See here for some background. I think this is an idea that makes a lot of sense. It’s based on the simple principle that parking is a valuable commodity, and it seeks to leverage that commodity and invest the revenue it generates back into the district. If you’ve ever tried to walk along Washington Avenue, you know how badly the infrastructure there needs work. Anyway, courtesy of CM Cohen’s office, here are some documents to help familiarize yourself with this proposal:

The PBD FAQ and flyer, plus the full presentation put together by the city. Be sure to at least read this document.

The left and right halves of the map of the area in question.

We’ll see what Council does with this, but I fully expect it to pass. What do you think about the idea?

Strip clubs sue city over $5 fee

Remember the $5 per customer strip club fee that was added as a budget amendment by CM Ellen Cohen as a way to fund clearing HPD’s backlog of rape kits? The clubs threatened to sue the city at the time this was debated, and last Thursday they followed through on that threat.

CM Ellen Cohen

In the lawsuit the strip clubs argue that the $5 per-customer fee on sexually oriented businesses passed by Council in June is unconstitutional on several grounds:

  • That state law requires that fees be based on the cost of processing permits and investigating applicants, whereas Cohen pushed the fee simply to raise money for the rape kits.
  • That a city cannot levy a tax targeting an occupation unless the state has already done so. Cohen’s state legislation applies to live nude entertainment. The plaintiffs offer what the city calls “semi-nude” entertainment, so their businesses are exempt from the state fee and therefore can’t be targeted by the city.
  • That it violates state law requiring that such taxes be equal across an industry. Here the strip clubs argue that they’re being singled out by a fee because of high prostitution, violent crime and drug use near adult establishments while the areas around bars without strippers have even higher rates of such crime.
  • It’s an infringement of the right to free speech. While a state court rejected this argument as it applied to Cohen’s state legislation governing nude entertainment, the ruling did not find that the spillover crime effects justifying free-speech restrictions were not as great for businesses that present semi-nude entertainment.

The ordinance and requested council action from June can be seen on starting on pdf page 123 here.

The story doesn’t have a copy of the suit, so the best I can do is tell you that it’s case number 201260353, which you can find on the District Clerk webpage. I reviewed the history of the strip clubs’ lawsuit against the state over that fee here. I’ll leave it to the legal experts to opine whether this suit has a better chance of success than that one did.