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Houston City Secretary

Firefighters have their signatures

On to the next act in this drama.

A petition Houston firefighters submitted last summer seeking pay parity with police contains enough valid signatures to trigger a referendum election, City Secretary Anna Russell reported to Mayor Sylvester Turner and the city council Thursday.

Russell finished verifying the signatures a day ahead of a deadline given to the city by a state district judge last month. The judge originally set a deadline of April 27 after the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association sued the city last December, complaining Russell’s office had not validated its referendum petition in time for either the November 2017 or May 2018 ballots. Judge Dan Hinde agreed to give Russell another week after city lawyers said additional staff and overtime had been approved to finish the count.

Russell’s memo to the mayor and council said her office checked 26,708 signatures against Harris County’s list of qualified voters; 20,228 were verified. State law requires 20,000 qualified signatures on a petition to get a referedum on the ballot.

It is unclear when the item will appear before voters. City attorneys argued in court that the Turner administration does not intend to schedule a vote before the next regular municipal election cycle in November 2019, but the mayor, when asked about the petition count Wednesday, said the city council would have to discuss the matter.

[…]

Turner said Wednesday he presumed the petition contained enough names to trigger a vote, but suggested the proposal’s lack of clarity could undermine its validity, noting, for instance, that hundreds more firefighters than police officers carry the rank of “captain.”

“I don’t know what parity means,” Turner said. “Does it mean you scale everything down? If the voters vote on something, the voters need to know what they’re voting (on).”

See here and here for the background. You know how I feel about this, so you know I agree with the Mayor’s assessment of what this means. As to when the election should be held, I suppose there’s an argument for 2019 instead of this November. I’m sure we’ll get to hear that argument from the city when the firefighters file a motion to force the election this year. Council does need to approve putting the item on the ballot, along with the language of it, whether this year or next. We’ll see how that goes.

Count of firefighters’ pay parity petitions needs to be done by Friday

Or else. Not sure what follows the “or else”, but maybe we won’t have to find out.

City Secretary Anna Russell has one week to finish verifying a petition Houston firefighters submitted last summer seeking pay parity with police or risk being hauled into court, a state district judge said Friday.

Judge Dan Hinde had given Russell until Friday at 5 p.m. to verify whether the firefighters had reached the minimum threshold of 20,000 signatures needed for the item to appear before voters.

City attorneys asked the judge for an extension Friday morning, however, saying that, after a slow start, the count had reached 14,000 names and was proceeding briskly with the help of eight staffers who were assigned from other departments about two weeks ago and approved for overtime pay.

The judge denied the city’s request. However, he asked only that the firefighters’ attorneys submit a draft writ for him to issue by May 4, indicating that if he got word the count had finished before then, he would leave the paperwork unsigned.

“I understand the city has a variety of services and duties to its citizens. I don’t discount those,” Hinde said. “But it was not apparent that the city secretary was emphasizing enough the importance of the electoral franchise and referendum power, the legislative power, the citizens are entitled to.”

[…]

At the hearing Friday, Hinde asked why the count had not begun in earnest immediately after his March order was issued.

“Why didn’t she use the extra time I already gave her?” he asked Assistant City Attorney Brian Amis.

Amis said the secretary’s office began preparing the paperwork on which the formal count would be recorded on the day the judge’s order was issued, a process that includes individually numbering each signature line and stamping each page. Within a week of the order, Amis said, Russell asked Turner to approve money for overtime pay and to lend her additional staff.

Russell and her staff must verify that a sufficient number of the names on the petition are those of registered voters who live inside the city of Houston.

“With the diversion of resources from other departments, along with the expenditure of unbudgeted overtime, the city believes it can finish counting the petitions by or before next Friday,” mayoral spokeswoman Mary Benton said, adding it was unclear how much the effort would cost.

“We see no need for an extension,” said Troy Blakeney, an attorney for the firefighters. “We’re not standing before the court to ask that Ms. Russell be brought over here on a writ, but we think timing is really important.”

It is unclear when the petition, if validated, would appear before voters.

City attorneys have indicated that Mayor Sylvester Turner intends to schedule a vote on the petition, if it is validated, during the next municipal election cycle in November 2019. Blakeney has said, he expects to wind up in court again to accelerate the vote.

See here for the previous update. You know how I feel about this, so let me just say that if there are sufficient valid signatures to force a vote, it should happen this November. Enough is enough already, let’s get this over with so we can skip to the part that really matters, the litigation.

Judge orders firefighters’ petitions to be counted

Can’t say I’m surprised.

A state district judge on Tuesday ordered Houston’s city secretary to finish reviewing firefighters’ petition asking for pay parity with police, giving her until April 27 to validate the eight-month-old signatures.

Firefighters submitted a petition last July asking for a ballot referendum that would grant firefighters the same pay as police officers of equal rank, but City Secretary Anna Russell did not validate it in time for the November election.

Leaders of the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association sued in December asking the court to give Russell 30 days to review the petition signatures, and last week appeared before state District Judge Dan Hinde.

Hinde did not immediately issue a ruling, but sided with firefighters on Tuesday.

“The city secretary’s continuing failure to count signatures and verify the sufficiency of the pay parity petition constitutes a continuing failure to fulfill her ministerial duty,” Hinde wrote. “The city secretary has been and remains in default of her ministerial duty.”

See here for the background. I mean, look, the petitions were delivered to City Hall last July, which is to say eight months ago. Given that there were other petitions ahead of it, I could believe that Secretary Russell might not have been able to get them checked out in time for last November, but this is ridiculous. It didn’t take nearly this long to verify the anti-HERO petitions, for example, and as I recall her staff worked overtime to do that. I think this is a lousy proposition and I plan to vote against it, but at some point the job just needs to get done.

Now if the deadline to count the valid signatures is April 27, that means this will be ticketed for November, assuming enough of the sigs do check out. (Boy, wouldn’t that be a farcical conclusion to this saga if the verdict is “sorry, you fell short”.) From a participatory democracy perspective, having this voted on in a large November turnout context is better than a single-digit May electorate. Of course, since we know someone is going to sue to have the election overturned no matter what the outcome is – there’s literally no chance that the referendum can be written in a way that is both fully explanatory and not confusing; the ballot language lawsuit can be drafted now and ready to go as soon as the vote totals are in and a suitable plaintiff can be located – I feel like we could save ourselves the trouble by just flipping a coin to determine who “wins” and then going straight to the litigation. Eventually, the Supreme Court will tell us what their preferred result is, and we can take it from there.

UPDATE: The KUHF story, which includes a copy of Judge Hinde’s ruling, confirms that the next opportunity for this to be on a ballot at this point is November.

What are the elections of interest this May?

That’s a question I’m asking as well as one I’m trying to answer. Normally, there are no elections in May of any kind of year for Houston folks, though there are some for parts of Harris County and surrounding areas. This year for the uniform election date of May 5 we do have the special election in City Council District K to succeed the late CM Larry Green. The filing deadline for this is March 26, so we should know in very short order who is in the running.

We should also know by March 26 whether that firefighters pay parity proposal will be on the ballot or not. The firefighters would like to know about that, too.

There is one legislative special election on tap for May 5. State Rep. Leighton Schubert in HD13 stepped down earlier this year, so this race is to fill out the remainder of his term. That doesn’t really mean much unless the winner of that race also wins in November, in which case he or she will have a seniority advantage over all the other members of the class of 2018. If I’m reading this list correctly, there are three candidates – Democrat Cecil Webster, Republican Ben Leman, and Republican Jill Wolfskill. Webster is on the November ballot – he also ran in 2016, getting 21.4% against Schubert in a district that voted 76.8% to 20.4% for Donald Trump. Leman and Wolfskill are in the runoff for the GOP nomination. If Webster can somehow make it to the runoff for this, even with the low stakes, it would be quite the achievement.

Closer to home, I know there are elections in Pearland for Pearland City Council – they have three-year terms, so they have elections every year – and Pearland ISD – I don’t know offhand what their terms are, but as you can see on the election results page, they have those races every year as well. Dalia Kasseb, who ran a strong race for Pearland City Council last year, is making another run this year. She is on the list of TDP-endorsed Project LIFT slate, as is Al Lloyd for Pearland ISD.

There are other races on that slate, though none in the Houston area. I’ve seen ads on Facebook for a candidate running for Deer Park ISD, but at this time I know nothing about her. Ballotpedia says these are three-year terms but there isn’t a page for 2018 yet. These elections are apparently not conducted by the Harris County Clerk, and I’m not seeing anything on the DPISD Board of Trustees webpage, so I’m throwing this out to y’all – if you know anything about this, please leave a comment and let me know.

So there you have what I know about elections for this May. What am I missing? Please fill me in.

Firefighters sue to get their pay parity petitions certified

I’m just going to put this here.

Houston firefighters on Monday asked a judge to force the city secretary to validate signatures on an equal pay referendum petition that has been backlogged in City Hall for eight months.

The referendum would require firefighters to receive the same pay as police officers of corresponding rank. It was first submitted to the city in July but wasn’t validated before the November election. In December, leaders of the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association sued, asking a judge to give City Secretary Anna Russell 30 days to count and validate the petition signatures.

State District Judge Dan Hinde did not issue an immediate ruling after a three-hour trial Monday.

City attorneys argued the firefighters’ claim lacks the urgency needed to secure a court order.

State law forced Russell last year to count a petition related to alcoholic beverages in the Heights within 30 days, after which she returned to tallying a pension-related petition to amend the city charter that her office received in April, said Assistant City Attorney Brian Amis.

The firefighters’ petition, which also would amend the charter, was submitted in July. State law sets no deadline by which charter petitions must be validated.

When neither petition was verified in time for the November 2017 ballot, Amis said, that removed any urgency behind the count, as the next municipal election will not be held until November 2019.

See here, here, and here for some background. There’s a long section in the story that goes into City Secretary Anna Russell’s process for certifying petitions and how she doesn’t take direction from the Mayor or accept help from the petitioners, both of which I think are good things. I’ll say that it feels a little ridiculous to me that this hasn’t been completed by now – I mean, if it had taken this long to count the anti-HERO petitions, that one may never have gotten on the ballot. On the other hand, maybe this isn’t the sort of thing that should be decided by an oddball sure-to-be-under-ten-percent-turnout election in May. And on the other other hand, I’m hard pressed to imagine any ballot language that won’t be seriously challenged in court regardless of the outcome, which given past history makes one wonder if it wouldn’t be more expeditious to litigate first and vote later. All I know for sure is that as with the District K special election, if we don’t have this ready for the ballot by March 26 – that is, two weeks from today – it ain’t happening in May. Good luck sorting this all out.

No charter amendments on the fall ballot

Just bonds, school board and HCC races, and the mostly boring constitutional amendments. Oh, and Heights Alcohol 2.0, if you live there.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Houston voters will face $1.5 billion in city bonds and nine community college or school board races this November, but will not be asked whether to give firefighters a pay raise or change the pension plans given to new city employees.

Monday was the last day on which candidates could file for the November ballot, and on which local governments could call an election. That means the clock ran out on the citizen-submitted petitions seeking the change in city pensions and backing the firefighters’ push for pay “parity” with police officers of corresponding rank.

There are exceptions to Monday’s deadline. Houston ISD trustee Manuel Rodriguez’s death in July means candidates looking to fill his seat have until Sept. 6 to file for office. Candidates who meet today’s filing deadline also can withdraw from the ballot as late as Aug. 28.

In broad terms, however, the fall election campaign is set.

[…]

State law sets no deadline by which petitions seeking changes to a city charter must be tallied.

“We’ve always done first one in, first one out,” City Secretary Anna Russell said late Friday. “We are still working on the 401(k) (petition) as we do our regular work.”

The petitions, if validated by Russell’s office, could be included on a May ballot.

And I think that’s fine, and will likely allow for a more focused discussion of that issue as there won’t be anything else for Houston voters to consider; the 401(k) item no longer has anyone advocating it, so the pay parity proposal would be all there is. Given the lack of city elections on this November’s ballot, it’s not clear that a May 2018 referendum would have much less turnout, especially if both sides spend money on it. I’m sure the firefighters wanted their issue to be voted on now, but having to wait till May is hardly an abomination.

I hope to have a finalized list of candidates for HISD and HCC soon. HISD has some candidate information here, but there’s not a similar page for HCC. I’ve got a query in to find out who’s running for what and will report back later. I’m starting on the interviews for 2017, and will have an Election 2017 page up in the next week or so.

Firefighters complain about petition counting process

Oh, good Lord.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Houston firefighters are accusing Mayor Sylvester Turner of standing between them and a voter-approved pay raise by failing to ensure a petition they submitted last month is certified in time to appear on the November ballot.

Turner rejected any suggestion that he has involved himself in the City Secretary’s effort to verify their petition, and his office on Thursday said an offer by the fire union to cover any staffing costs needed to count their signatures is being examined as a possible attempt to improperly influence a public official.

[…]

Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association Local 341 president Marty Lancton accused the mayor of seeking to run out the clock, and said the speed with which firefighters gathered the required 20,000 signatures shows that voters want a say on the matter quickly.

“The mayor has the ability to provide Anna Russell with the resources with which to count this. He has not done it,” said Lancton. “I’m simply trying to find a way to get these counted. Firefighters are just asking for fair treatment and for there to be a resolution.”

The mayor dismissed the criticism.

“She’s the one who’s doing the counting, she verifies the signatures. That’s the process,” Turner said. “No one runs the city secretary’s shop but the city secretary.”

[…]

Accusations aside, Turner said that he is proceeding as if the item will reach a November vote, and has worked to get his message out by appearing on radio programs and discussing the issue publicly. The annual cost of the proposal, he said, could be “well north of $60 million.”

Russell, for her part, said neither the mayor nor anyone from his office has spoken to her about the matter. The process of verifying signatures, she said, must be completed in the spare minutes between her staff’s daily tasks of preparing ordinances, motions, contracts and the council agenda.

My head hurts. Why don’t we just assume that Anna Russell is going to do the job she’s been doing since God was in short pants and give her some room? If for some reason she can’t get it done in time for the filing deadline for November, then get it done for next May. Am I missing something here?

David Feldman, a former city attorney who is representing the fire union, said Russell should make an exception in this instance because he views the pension-related petition she now is reviewing as irrelevant.

That petition, which was submitted in April, calls for all city employees hired beginning next year to be given pensions similar to 401(k)s rather than traditional “defined benefit” pensions. Turner’s pension reform bill that passed the Legislature this year, however, specified what pension new hires would receive, Feldman said, and state law trumps local charters.

“If, in fact, they have 20,000 signatures and she certifies it, it can’t go on a ballot because it’s an unlawful measure,” Feldman said. “That’s where the tipping of the scales comes into play. That communication can be made to her. It obviously has not been made to her.”

Bernstein said Feldman’s reading is wrong. He pointed to a similar case out of Galveston in which the court ruled that a city secretary had a “ministerial duty” to validate a petition and forward it to the City Council, notwithstanding her view that its content conflicted with existing laws.

State law “does not give the City Secretary any discretionary duties,” a state appellate court held in that case. “Any complaints about the proposed amendment’s validity will be decided only if the voters approve the proposed charter amendment.”

Feldman stepped into the anti-HERO petition counting efforts in 2015, insisting that they needed to be checked for fraudulent signatures after Russell had certified that there were enough of them. Seemed like a reasonable argument at the time, but as we know the Supreme Court did not buy it, on grounds of those “magisterial duties” which dictated that she count ’em and that was that. And to answer my own question above, the one thing that could prevent the firefighters’ referendum from getting a vote in May would be having some other charter amendment on the ballot this fall. I had been wondering about that other petition effort, since the originator of it has since said the passage of the pension reform bill – the same one that has the firefighters so upset now – made her effort unnecessary. But if they still need to be counted, then I don’t know what happens next. Like I said, my head hurts.

On to the revenue cap

With one major accomplishment (basically) finished, Mayor Turner moves on to the next major challenge facing him.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

“This is the most consequential campaign of the mayor’s career,” University of Houston political scientist Brandon Rottinghaus said. “These things are more complicated and more politically fraught than either his mayoral campaign or the lobbying to get the pension bill passed to begin with, and those were both complicated.”

Turner has made his own climb steeper by pledging to ask Houstonians to repeal a voter-imposed cap that limits what the city can collect in property taxes. That rule is a lightning rod for conservatives, who spearheaded its passage 13 years ago.

[…]

Turner thanked city employees for shouldering $2.8 billion in cuts to their retirement benefits, and said it is now time for all Houstonians to join in sacrificing for the good of the city. The revenue cap, Turner said, hurts the city’s credit rating and hamstrings its ability to provide sufficient services and compete on a global scale.

Many conservatives don’t see it that way, arguing that the cap protects taxpayers and gives the city an incentive to operate more efficiently.

The Harris County Republican Party plans to campaign against Turner’s repeal effort, and is expected to have company.

Voters approved the revenue cap in 2004, limiting the annual growth of property tax revenue to the combined rates of inflation and population growth, or 4.5 percent, whichever is lower. Voters tweaked the rule in 2006, allowing the city to raise an additional $90 million for public safety spending.

Houston exhausted that breathing room in 2014, and, with property values still on the rise, has had to trim back its tax rate each fall since to avoid collecting more revenue than allowed.

Despite the cap’s complexity, conservative political strategist Denis Calabrese said he doubts there will be a shortage of voter education on the issue.

“Voters will come into that election very well informed and knowledgeable and they’ll be able to express their opinion,” he said. “The predisposition going into this is that voters don’t support the repeal of the cap, and we’ll see if that changes as a result of the education efforts on both sides.”

You know that I support repealing the cap. The question is how to sell that idea. I agree that the predisposition is likely to be to keep it, though I’d argue that most people know very little about the cap. I’d approach this primarily as a plea from Mayor Turner, as part of his overall plan to get the city’s finances in order. Have him say something like “I promised you I’d get a bill passed in the Legislature to rein in pension costs, and I did that. But the work isn’t done just yet, and I need your help to finish the job. The revenue cap limits Houston’s economic growth and lowers our city’s credit rating. To really get our finances in order, we need to repeal it.” You get the idea. Basically, the Mayor has as much credibility with the voters right now as he’ll likely ever have. That’s a huge asset, and he should leverage it.

Alternately, if the local GOP is going to oppose repealing the cap, then one might keep in mind that the city is much more Democratic than it is Republican, so if this becomes a partisan fight then the Mayor has a larger pool of voters available to him. There are also a lot of potential villains to demonize in such a campaign, from the President on down. This would almost certainly be the kind of low-information, high-heat campaign that makes newspaper columnists wring their hands about civility and discourse, but it would get people to the polls. I’d take my chances with it.

One more thing:

Meanwhile, the City Secretary is reviewing a petition that calls for a vote on giving 401(k)-style retirement plans to all city workers hired after the start of next year, which employees view as insufficient.

Conservative activist Windi Grimes, an organizer of the effort, however, said her group thinks sufficient fiscal safeguards were added to the pension bill passed in Austin, and will not mount a campaign behind the petition.

See here for the background. Is there a provision to allow for submitted petitions to be withdrawn? That would be the better option if the proponents of that idea are no longer interested in advocating for it.

City appeals Wilson petition order

No surprise.

Dave Wilson

Dave Wilson

The verdict on whether anti-gay activist Dave Wilson collected enough valid signatures to force a vote to amend the city charter and bar men “who perceive or express themselves as women” from entering women’s restrooms will have to wait.

On Friday evening, the city appealed District Court Judge Brent Gamble’s order to count the signatures on Wilson’s petition by Saturday’s deadline, saying it “is an untimely referendum petition, not a charter amendment.”

Wilson, a Houston Community College trustee, said he collected more than 22,000 signatures, more than the needed 20,000 to change city charter.

The secretary’s office was counting signatures under order from a state district judge since late July. Wilson says the city tried to delay validating signatures until Monday and asked Gamble to clarify his order in a conference call on Monday. Gamble refused to grant the city a delay or to clarify his order, according to both Wilson and the letter from the city appealing the order.

[…]

Wilson has said the equal rights ordinance is not driving his petition, which seeks to define gender identity “as an individual’s innate identification, as either male or female, which is assigned at birth.” It would require businesses to adopt the same definition.

To Wilson, the petition is a small step in reversing a cultural decline in the city.

“We need to focus on filling potholes rather than the homosexual agenda,” Wilson said.

See here, here, and here for the background. Anyone who believes Wilson, who didn’t start collecting signatures for this effort until after the HERO had passed, wasn’t motivated by the HERO probably also believes in the Easter Bunny. That’s not exactly the same as saying his effort is equivalent to a repeal, however, so I’ll refrain from speculating what an appeals court might rule. And anyone who thinks the repeal effort isn’t being driven by a deep-seated animus towards LGBT folks need only read those last two paragraphs. We’re either a city of opportunity for all, or we’re Dave Wilson’s Houston. I know what my preference is.

Judge rules Wilson petitions must be counted

Thanks, Supreme Court. Thanks a hell of a lot.

Dave Wilson

Dave Wilson

City of Houston officials must count the signatures on a petition filed by anti-gay activist Dave Wilson, who is seeking a vote to amend the city charter and bar men “who perceive or express themselves as women” from entering women’s restrooms, a judge ruled Tuesday.

State District Judge Brent Gamble ruled Tuesday that City Secretary Anna Russell has a “nondiscretionary ministerial duty” to count and certify the signatures Wilson submitted in early July, and to present the count to City Council by Aug. 8.

City attorneys, however, intended to file an immediate appeal late Tuesday, said Mayor Annise Parker’s spokeswoman, Janice Evans. She did not comment further.

[…]

Wilson submitted a similar petition in April, but apparently misunderstood state law and was 300 signatures shy of the 20,000 names needed for a charter amendment. He said he started over and said he submitted more than 22,100 valid signatures on July 9.

For months now, Parker’s legal team has contended that Wilson’s proposed charter revision too closely resembles a repeal petition pertaining to the city’s equal rights ordinance that had been tied up in court. His effort is too late and should not be considered, they have said, because those seeking to repeal an ordinance must submit their petition within 30 days of the law going into effect; City Council passed the ordinance in May 2014.

Regardless of the future of Wilson’s petition, the equal rights ordinance itself likely will be put to a vote in November, thanks to a Texas Supreme Court ruling last week.

See here and here for the background. I suppose the good news, if you want to call it that, is that thanks to that awful Supreme Court ruling, we’re going to have a HERO repeal vote anyway, so what difference does this make at this point? Because let’s be clear about two things: One, Wilson’s efforts have totally been about trying to damage HERO. Anyone who believes otherwise also believes in the tooth fairy. And two, if we take that Supreme Court ruling on its face, Wilson could have simply signed the names of the first 22,000 or so registered Houston voters himself on his petitions. If all Anna Russell is supposed to do is check that yep, those are the names and addresses of registered Houston voters, then why not cheat a little to make sure you make it across the goal line? Who’s ever going to know?

OK, I’m being a little bitter here, but just a little. We’ll see what if anything comes of the city’s emergency appeal, but consider this: if we take to heart the core of the Obergfell and Windsor decisions – and Lawrence v. Texas before them – a law that is based on animus against a group of people cannot be constitutional. I’m not a lawyer, but it seems clear to me that Wilson’s hateful proposal could not survive judicial scrutiny if it were approved. But putting all that aside, thins is just wrong. It’s wrong to use the weight of a majority to push around a minority, and it’s wrong to put people’s humanity to a vote. Funny how a heathen like me understands that better than a “Christian” like Dave Wilson.

Supreme Court rules HERO must be repealed or voted on

Ugh.

PetitionsInvalid

The Texas Supreme Court ruled Friday that Houston City Council must repeal the city’s equal rights ordinance or place it on the November ballot.

The ruling comes three months after a state district judge ruled that opponents of Houston’s contentious non-discrimination ordinance passed last year failed to gather enough valid signatures to force a repeal referendum.

“We agree with the Relators that the City Secretary certified their petition and thereby invoked the City Council’s ministerial duty to reconsider and repeal the ordinance or submit it to popular vote,” the Texas Supreme Court wrote in a per curiam opinion. “The legislative power reserved to the people of Houston is not being honored.”

The city’s equal right ordinance bans discrimination based not just on sexual orientation and gender identity but also, as federal laws do, sex, race, color, ethnicity, national origin, age, religion, disability, pregnancy and genetic information, as well as family, marital or military status.

Houston City Council has 30 days to repeal the ordinance or place it on the November ballot.

[…]

A “disappointed” Parker said she thought the court had erred in its “eleventh hour ruling” and said her team was consulting with the city’s pro bono outside counsel on “any possible available legal actions.” She said the ordinance resembles measures passed by other major U.S. cities and many local companies.

“No matter the color of your skin, your age, gender, physical limitations, or sexual orientation, every Houstonian deserves the right to be treated equally,” Parker said. “To do otherwise, hurts Houston’s well-known image as a city that is tolerant, accepting, inclusive and embracing of its diversity. Our citizens fully support and understand this and I have never been afraid to take it to the voters. We will win!”

You can read the opinion here. To be clear, this was not an appeal of the trial court verdict that declared the number of petitions collected to be insufficient. It’s a ruling on a writ of mandamus filed last August to force the city to accept the City Secretary’s initial count, which only looked at registrations and didn’t consider whether petition pages were proper or whether any signatures had been forged. I personally think it’s perverse to ignore the findings of widespread forgery and general not following the rules, which to me just rewards bad actors, and if that’s what they were going to do they could have issued this ruling back in April and given the city and the HERO defenders more time to prepare for a campaign. As with the ReBuild Houston ruling, I’m having a hard time seeing this as anything but political in nature. It’s a screw job and there’s not much we can do about it.

As to what happens next, I don’t have any faith in the “possible available legal actions” the Mayor alluded to in her statement, so we’ll see what Council does on Wednesday. It’s theoretically possible that the decision could be made to repeal the ordinance and then try again next year, so as not to disrupt this year’s election and have to run a campaign on little time. That obviously requires electing a “good” Mayor, and it of course gives the haters another shot at collecting repeal petitions, this time with full knowledge of the boneheaded mistakes they made last year. I don’t know that I’d go that route, but it is an option.

Regardless of that decision, this will have an effect on the Mayor’s race, and thus on the rest of them. I’ve been asking about HERO in the At Large races where I’ve done interviews, but in the context of it being a settled issue. I’m going to have to put a note on most of them to indicate I did them before today’s ruling was made, as there’s no convenient fence-straddling position any more. Where one could have said something to the effect of “well, I didn’t support it then, but it’s the law now and I don’t see any reason to repeal it” before, now everyone needs to give a straight up keep-or-repeal answer. Five Mayoral candidates – Sylvester Turner, Steve Costello, Adrian Garcia, Chris Bell, and Marty McVey – are known HERO supporters. One – Ben Hall, of course – is not. One – Bill King – has been a fence-straddler. If the repeal referendum is on the ballot, how will you vote? If the decision is made to pass the question to the next Mayor and Council, what will you do? Everyone needs to ask that of all their candidates. I assure you, in the interviews I have left to do, I will be asking.

In the meantime, you should assume that this will be on the ballot, and you should do whatever you can to ensure it doesn’t get repealed. HOUEquality is your one stop shop for information and ways to help. Lane Lewis in his role as HCDP Chair has sent out emails vowing support for HERO. Find something you can do to help and do it. The Trib, Hair Balls, Think Progress, TPM, and Texas Leftist have more.

Campaign finance reports may be a bit more interesting this cycle

And by “interesting”, I mean in the Chinese curse sense. From the city’s campaign finance reports page:

BagOfMoney

In April 2015, the Texas Ethics Commission released a new Electronic Filing Application. The changes made have to do with the separation of the types of contributions and political expenditures. Though these changes are minor, they require substantial modification to the databases that facilitate the electronic filings that campaigns will be making.

The Mayor’s Office, City Secretary, Legal Department, and the Houston Information Technology Services Department are working diligently to modify the database in a way that will allow electronic filings that comply with the amended TEC requirements. We do not currently have that database available, and will be providing daily updates to enumerate the status of the database reconstruction. In the meantime, if you intend to file before the deadline of July 15th at 5 p.m., the only current option available will be to file by paper in the City Secretary’s office. To produce a report that will satisfy the requirements enumerated by the TEC, you can go here to file as a local candidate and print the PDF, which you can then submit to the City Secretary’s Office in person, or via email at citysecretary@houstontx.gov. The instructions on how to file are enumerated by the photo set below. The Texas Ethics Commission has also issued detailed instructions and troubleshooting information available here.

Until further notice, the City of Houston will not be enforcing Chapter 18 Sections 18-103 and 18-104.

If you have any questions, you may email Steven David in the Mayor’s Office at steven.david@houstontx.gov, or Danielle Folsom in the Legal Department at danielle.folsom@houstontx.gov.

Otherwise, we will update this site once daily to show the current status of the database and its ability to receive electronic filings.

As of 07.14.2015 at 9:00am, the filing database is not working.

Via Campos, who reports that campaigns were informed about this last Thursday. I don’t know what this will mean exactly from my perspective as someone who examines finance reports and posts them to a webpage, but it definitely looks like they won’t be appearing just yet – usually by this point there are at least a few early filers up, but there has been nada so far this year – and at the very least I’ll have to get used to a new look. On the plus side, it may make it easier to add up the in-kind donations, which as we have discussed may make a current report or two look different than it sounds. We’ll see about that. All I know for now is that I want to see ’em, and I wish this could have gone better. Maybe by the time the 30 day reports are due, I hope.

Our forthcoming early voting problems

This is the view in front of the West Gray Metropolitan Multi-Service Center, also known as the busiest early voting location in Houston. 8,390 people voted early here in the 2013 election. There was a water main break there, which caused foundation damage, and as you can see it is closed for repairs. Given the seriousness of the damage (which happened before all the recent rain we’ve had) and the need to go through a competitive bid process to get a contractor to do the fix, this could take months. Early voting for the November election begins in a bit more than three months. What are the odds that the Metro Multi-Service Center will be available by then?

My guess is, pretty slim. So we’d better be thinking about alternate locations. I sure hope someone in the County Clerk’s office and City Secretary’s office is already on this, but in the (sadly probably likely) event that they’re not, let’s help them out a bit. Alternate locations should be 1) inside the Loop, since the West Gray location is about the only Inner Loop EV center outside of downtown (yes, I know, the Fiesta on Kirby at OST is inside the loop; I’m looking for something more central, ideally in HD134); accessible via public transit and on a main road; and 3) actually available, with no scheduling concerns, for at least a two week period in October. The West End Multi-Service Center is one possibility, though it’s not nearly as big as the West Gray center and hosts some public health events that might cause crowding issues. Another interesting possibility might be a vacant storefront – the old Audio/Video Plus on Waugh is still sitting empty, and it has a (small) parking lot, with street parking available around it. Maybe its owner would rent it out cheaply to the county for a month.

These are just a couple of suggestions. I rather think the best answer will be to find two or even three small locations to fill in for the West Gray center, as I seriously doubt there’s one location that’s big enough to substitute for it alone. Like I said, I hope someone other than me is thinking about this, and I hope there is a workable solution being planned. I’m just not willing to take any chances on that. What do you think? Leave any suggestions or other bright ideas in the comments.

Dave Wilson will never go away

What’s that definition of insanity again?

Dave Wilson

Dave Wilson

Opponents of Houston’s equal rights ordinance have once again submitted petitions calling for a voter referendum to put a gender identity issue on the ballot in November, but the mayor says it’s not going to happen.

Anti-gay activist Dave Wilson showed up at Houston City Hall Thursday with boxes of petitions he said bore the signatures of 20,000 voters calling for a referendum on a city charter amendment defining one’s gender as whatever sex was assigned at birth.

“It will prohibit men from going into women’s bathrooms and vice versa in all sex-oriented facilities — like swimming pools, locker rooms — that the city has,” Wilson said.

[…]

Wilson said his proposed charter change would effectively nullify much of the equal rights ordinance. And that’s precisely why Mayor Annise Parker said Wilson’s latest petition drive will come to nothing.

“It’s a non-starter, because it has been determined by a federal court that you cannot change an ordinance with a charter amendment,” Parker said.

The legal precedent the mayor cited comes from a ruling in a case involving Houston’s troubled history with red light cameras. It’s a complicated matter involving the difference between an ordinance and the city charter.

Any petition effort to repeal an ordinance in Houston must be completed within 30 days after the passage of that ordinance. Opponents of Houston’s red light cameras thought they’d worked their way around that restriction by proposing not a repeal of the ordinance, but a charter amendment that accomplished the same goal.

But a federal judge issued a sharply worded opinion against that notion.

It was just three months ago that Wilson failed at this the last time, having not turned in enough signatures to meet the statutory minimum. Not that it mattered, since as Mayor Parker points out, you can’t use the charter process to amend an existing ordinance except within a 30 day period of the ordinance taking effect. Needless to say, that ship has long since sailed. But as always this is really all about Dave Wilson getting attention for himself and painting himself as a victim of oppression, both of which he is highly successful at doing. The rest of it, not so much. And to add to the mountain of evidence that the law means nothing to Dave Wilson, he’s filed a lawsuit against the city to force them to count the signatures anyway, presumably before dumping them all in the trash since they’re irrelevant. I guess all this activity keeps him off the streets, so we should be thankful for that. I just pity the poor judge who will have to deal with this, since Wilson is representing himself. (According to the Chron story, the case is in the 270th District Civil Court.) And I’m sure we’ll be back in another few months with another batch of pointless petitions. Lather, rinse, repeat.

Mayor Parker testifies at HERO repeal petition trial

Monday was Mayor Parker’s turn to take the stand at the trial over the validity of the HERO repeal petitions. You’d think this would be a momentous occasion of high drama, but since this whole thing is about technicalities and not about the merits of the ordinance, it was a lot less exciting than it sounds.

Mayor Annise Parker

Mayor Annise Parker

Parker, for her part, labeled her testimony “tedious” and remarked “those poor jurors” to an aide during a morning break.

“They’ve made a lot of public allegations about what I did or did not do, but they really didn’t ask me about what my job was and what I actually did do, which was surprising,” Parker said. “They spent a lot of time asking me to second-guess the work of the legal department. As I had to reiterate, I wasn’t down in the weeds, that wasn’t my role.”

On some level, tedium was expected. Jurors are not examining the merits of the ordinance, which City Council passed last May, banning discrimination among businesses that serve the public, private employers, housing, city employment and city contracting but exempting religious institutions.

The jury instead is tasked with parsing the thousands of petition pages opponents submitted last July. The plaintiffs – conservative pastors and activists – say they verified 31,000 of the signatures, but city attorneys now say only 3,905 are valid, citing alleged fraud, perjury and additional errors they did not find when they initially rejected the petition.

Parker’s critics had questioned a meeting that took place in her office the same day the city announced opponents failed to gather the required 17,269 signatures. At that meeting, according to a deposition of City Secretary Anna Russell, a video of which was played in court Monday, then-City Attorney David Feldman asked Russell if he could add his own analysis to her page-long memo that originally found enough valid individual signatures to qualify the petition. Citing errors that disqualified entire pages, Feldman’s added paragraphs ultimately doomed the petition.

[…]

The plaintiffs used Russell as their final witness. In her deposition, Russell said she believed she had completed her duty when she verified more signatures than the group needed to qualify for the ballot. Taylor closed with Russell’s answer to his question about whether she was proud of her office’s work in light of the city’s finding that the petition had failed and Parker and others had criticized the signature gatherers’ work as fraudulent and sloppy.

“I feel like we did our job, and I’m proud of it,” Russell said.

But attorneys for Russell and the city chose clips from her deposition that painted a more coordinated portrait of the city’s effort, with Russell saying she was aware that the City Attorney’s office was conducting its own review. She also said that while it was her responsibility to look at whether those who signed the petition were registered Houston voters, certifying the petition was not within her duties.

See here and here for previous updates. The Anna Russell testimony is the more interesting action, since the plaintiffs’ case largely rests on the assertion that only her review of the signatures, which involves checking to see who is and who isn’t a Houston voter, is relevant. I suspect the excitement level will ratchet up when the city puts on its defense, at which time it will present its evidence about fraud and forgery. In the meantime, David Feldman will take the stand. That ought to be worth watching even if the subject matter is dry. Project Q has more.

Lies are worse than missteps

But you know what we’re going to hear more about.

PetitionsInvalid

Conservative outrage over the Parker administration’s admittedly bungled subpoena of five pastors’ sermons last week marked just the latest episode in a messy political saga surrounding the city’s equal rights ordinance, with both critics and supporters making significant blunders.

For example, a recently leaked deposition of City Secretary Anna Russell shows she entered a meeting with Mayor Annise Parker and City Attorney David Feldman having drafted a memo saying there were enough signatures, then left agreeing to tack on a paragraph from Feldman saying the effort had failed.

Similarly, opponents of the non-discrimination ordinance have struggled to explain a video showing one of their leaders explaining the very rules the city says they violated to those who would be gathering petition signatures as the effort got underway.

“If you’re going to undertake these efforts, you want to drill people pretty carefully,” said Richard Murray, a University of Houston political science professor. “You don’t want to waste people’s time.”

For her part, Parker has handled the back-and-forth around the case “clumsily,” Murray said, pointing to the subpoena of the pastors’ sermons that drew national attention and criticism. “Usually, she shows pretty good political judgment. She let her political guard down a bit with this.”

See here, here, and here for the background. I’ll stipulate that the subpoenas should have been better, and I’ll leave the petition questions to the court. But the outrage over those subpoenas is vastly out of proportion with the magnitude of the sin committed by the city’s lawyers, and that outrage is fueled by a relentless barrage of bald-faced lies, the same kind of lies that have underpinned the opposition to the HERO from the beginning. Lies, it should be noted, that are being peddled by members of the clergy, the kind of people whose behavior might reasonably be held to a high standard. I’m not talking about exaggerations or spin or the like but provably false statements that are intended to be factual. You wouldn’t know it from most of the stories you’ll read about the HERO and the attempts to repeal it, though. I have no idea why that is.

HERO repealers try their luck with the Supreme Court

Because sure, why not?

PetitionsInvalid

Opponents of Houston’s equal rights ordinance have asked the Texas Supreme Court to force the city secretary to certify the signatures on a petition they submitted seeking to trigger a repeal referendum on the law.

Houston’s 14th Court of Appeals denied a similar request on Aug. 15, ruling that the emergency writ of mandamus would have the same result as a favorable ruling in the pending lawsuit opponents filed against the city earlier this month. The plaintiffs, the judges wrote, could appeal after a ruling comes down at the trial court level.

Trial in that case is set for Jan. 19.

The new filing with the Supreme Court, turned in late Tuesday, is similar to the group of conservative pastors and activists’ previous requests. It seeks to have the court force the city to suspend enforcement of the ordinance, to put the ordinance to another vote of the City Council and, if the council does not repeal it, to put the issue before voters.

Mayor Annise Parker already has agreed to suspend enforcement until a legal ruling is issued. Officials have said the deadline for placing items on the November ballot was Aug. 18, meaning a favorable ruling for opponents would appear to result in a vote in either May or November of 2015.

City Attorney David Feldman pointing to the appellate court’s denial of the similar mandamus filing, said opponents will face the same legal hurdles in going to the Supreme Court.

“It doesn’t change because the venue changes,” he said. “The law is still the same.”

Plaintiff Jared Woodfill said his side simply disagrees with the appellate court’s ruling and is hopeful the Supreme Court justices will see things differently.

See here, here, and here for the background. Remember, Woodfill et al are suing to get their referendum on the ballot. The writ of mandamus they have filed with the Supreme Court asks that the referendum be put on the ballot. You may wonder, as did Judge Shaffer and the 14th Circuit Court of Appeals, what the point of the lawsuit is if the mandamus gives them what they’re suing for. But like me, you probably don’t have the brilliant legal mind of Jared Woodfill. It doesn’t cost them anything but Andy Taylor’s exorbitant legal fees to ask, so what the hell. Texpatriate has more.

HERO repeal hopefuls try another venue

Whatever.

PetitionsInvalid

Conservative opponents of Houston’s equal rights ordinance have asked an appeals court to force the city secretary to certify the signatures on their petitions to force a repeal referendum on the November ballot.

Equal rights ordinance critics filed a request late Monday with Houston’s 14th Court of Appeals for an emergency writ of mandamus that would compel the city secretary to certify their rejected petition.

The filing marks the latest legal wrangling over the group’s lawsuit, already scheduled to be heard in state district court Friday. The suit claims City Attorney David Feldman illegally inserted himself into the petition verification process, throwing out entire pages of signatures based on notary and signature-gathering mistakes.

[…]

Jared Woodfill, one of the plaintiffs, said Russell’s original count should be validated. The writ of mandamus the group is seeking would compel Russell to verify signatures based solely on whether those who signed the petition are registered Houston voters and disregard the notary requirements Feldman considered.

“The people need to decide this as soon as possible,” Woodfill said.

If the group cleared the signature threshold, the ballot language immediately would go before City Council.

Feldman said the group’s filing largely mirrors the suit already pending in state court.

“They’re effectively trying to get two bites at the same apple,” Feldman said. “Substantively, we’re really dealing with the same issues.”

That’s what I think, too, but as always I Am Not A Lawyer, so don’t take my advice. In any event, the writ of mandamus is here, and the case information is here. If you look very closely at the Parties section, you might notice a small misspelling. For the record, this is Anise, and this is Annise. Slight difference.

One more thing:

Woodfill said the group has until the end of the month to get the issue on the November ballot. However, he said he anticipates that even if the court of appeals grants the group’s request, there will be a “battle” to meet that deadline.

I’ve noted this before, but according to the Secretary of State, the deadline for any referendum or measure to be put on a ballot is Monday, August 18, which is 78 days before the election. This is a matter of Texas law. I’m not sure what Woodfill thinks the deadline is or why, but I’m pretty sure it’s August 18.

HERO repeal lawsuit moved to federal court

And the bad guys are very unhappy about it.

PetitionsInvalid

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

One more thing, from the first story:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen to that.

HERO repeal effort falls short

Too bad, so sad (not really).

PetitionsInvalid

Opponents of Houston’s new non-discrimination ordinance did not get enough valid signatures to force a November repeal referendum, Mayor Annise Parker and City Attorney David Feldman announced Monday.

“With respect to the referendum petition filed to repeal the ‘HERO’ ordinance, there are simply too many documents with irregularities and problems to overlook,” Feldman said. “The petition is simply invalid. There is no other conclusion.”

The council approved the ordinance on an 11-6 vote in May. Opponents who took issue with the protections extended to gay and transgender people under the ordinance promised to send the issue to the voters. On July 3, they claimed to have delivered more than 50,000 signatures to the city secretary’s office.

Opponents needed a minimum of 17,269 valid signatures – 10 percent of the ballots cast in the last mayoral election – to put a referendum on the November ballot. Feldman said some of the petition gatherers did not satisfy the requirements set out for such petitions in the city charter, such as by not being registered Houston voters or by not signing the petition themselves. If such requirements were not met, he said, all the signatures the circulator gathered were invalid.

Less than half of the more than 5,000 pages opponents submitted were valid, Feldman said, leaving the final valid tally at 15,249 signatures.

The bad guys may have claimed to have turned in over 50,000 signatures, but as noted yesterday, the number they subsequently claimed to have validated on their own was much lower than that. You can see the memo from the City Secretary and City Attorney’s offices here, with the latter spelling out the reasons why each individual page was invalidated and how many signatures were on them.

Needless to say, there will be litigation to force this onto the ballot. Mayor Parker has acknowledged the inevitability of this before and does so again in her press release. We are rapidly approaching the deadline for any referendum or measure to be put on a ballot – according to the Secretary of State, that deadline is Monday, August 18, 78 days before Election Day. I have no idea what the chances are of getting a definitive answer by then. I do find it amusing that one of the head haters, Dave Welch of the Houston Area Pastors Council, is claiming that they have “already assembled the top elections law attorneys in the state to review this” because by all the accounts I’ve heard the petition effort was incredibly sloppy. I mean, go back and look at those memos – you’ve got page after page of petitions being invalidated for not being signed by the circulator, or having only an illegible signature with no corresponding printed name by a circulator. How amateur night is that? They really needed to have those Top Men working on this at the beginning, not just now.

Anyway. You can still see the petitions themselves by searching Scribd for “hero petition” if you want to cross-check the City Attorney’s work. This isn’t over by a long shot – it’s certainly possible that a court could decide that the city was being too nitpicky in its review, or that some of the requirements in the charter are unconstitutional, or just that we should cut these poor bastards some slack, I don’t know. We’ll know more when we see the lawsuit that they file. KTRK, Equality Texas, Equal Rights Houston, Lone Star Q, Texas Leftist, and BOR have more.

UPDATE: More from ThinkProgress. And no, CultureMap, it’s not a bad thing that voters won’t be “allowed” to vote on whether or not to let discrimination continue to be legal.

One point of perspective on the repeal petitions

Here’s the Chron story about the HERO-haters turning in their repeal petitions.

Opponents of Houston’s new non-discrimination ordinance Thursday turned in well more than the minimum number of signatures needed to trigger a November vote on whether to repeal the measure.

Staff in the City Secretary’s office will have 30 days to verify that the names – 50,000 of them, opponents said – cross the minimum threshold of 17,269 signatures from registered Houston voters that foes needed to gather in the month following the measure’s passage in an 11-6 vote of the City Council.

Most of the divisiveness around the ordinance stems from the protections it extends to gay and transgender residents, groups not already protected under federal laws barring discrimination on the basis of sex, race, color, ethnicity, national origin, age, religion, disability, pregnancy and genetic information, as well as family, marital or military status.

Mayor Annise Parker pledged to fight the effort to overturn the ordinance should it make the November ballot, a task she acknowledged city rules make fairly easy.

“This was not a narrowly-focused, special-interest ordinance,” said Parker, the first openly lesbian mayor of a major American city. “This is something that the business and civic community of Houston was firmly behind, and we fully expect if there is a campaign that it will be a spirited campaign, but we’ll have the same outcome in November as we had around the council table.

“Houston does not discriminate, Houston will not discriminate and Houston will not be fooled by misinformation, hyperbole – I would use the word ‘lies’ but I’m going to back off from that – and people who are just simply unwilling to read the ordinance for themselves.”

See my post from Thursday evening for the background. As we know, the haters were busy collecting petitions last weekend, and my presumption was that if they weren’t scrambling to clear the bar, they were aiming for a show of force. It would actually have been enough to force a recall election against Mayor Parker, if they largely prove to be valid. The haters claim to have verified 30,000 of the sigs themselves, but we’ll see about that. As I said on Thursday, the petitions will be very closely scrutinized, and I expect the final number to be a lot lower.

One thing to keep in mind when we talk about that number. Via Facebook, I understand that the haters are referring to it as “two-thirds of the total vote against Mayor Parker in 2013”. That’s true enough as it goes – remember, that 50,000 is likely to be an illusion – but we’re not in a low-turnout odd-numbered election year. We’re in an even-numbered partisan election year. We had a situation much like this in 2010, with the red light camera and Renew Houston items on the ballot. That year, there were 389,428 votes cast in the Houston part of Harris County – a smidge less than half the total county turnout – plus another 8,492 votes in Fort Bend County, with between 320,000 and 350,000 votes cast in each of the three propositions. Even if all 50,000 signatures represents a valid Houston voter that will show up in November, that’s still less than 1/3 of the total that will likely be needed for the haters to win.

Let me provide one more number, as long as I’m on the subject. Last year, the Early to Rise group submitted 150,000 signatures to put an item for raising HCDE’s tax assessment to fund pre-K in Harris County. Of those signatures, 80,505 were verified. If the haters have the same level of accuracy, their total number of valid sigs will be around 27,000. Still plenty to qualify for the ballot, but a lot less than 50,000. They may well be more accurate than that, but I do know they were using paid canvassers as the Early to Rise proponents were, so I expect they’ll have a fair amount of slop in their work. Again, we’ll see how much.

I don’t post any of this to encourage complacence in HERO supporters. We’ve definitely got our work cut out for us. But if we put our heads down and do the work, I feel confident we will win. As Greg highlights, the city of Houston is Democratic, and we’ve got more voters to reach out to than they do. Register voters, talk to voters, and make sure everyone who should be voting does so. That’s the winning formula. PDiddie, John Coby, Texas Leftist, Lone Star Q, and Hair Balls have more.

NDO vote will be next week

The proposed non-discrimination ordinance was on Council’s agenda yesterday, but it did not come to a vote as it was tagged, which means it’ll be voted on next week. The Chron’s preview story gave some insight into what we should expect from the ordinance based on the experience of other cities that already have protections for sexual orientation and gender identity in their local codes.

RedEquality

Houston handles discrimination complaints from city employees and sends a hundred housing complaints to federal authorities each year, [city attorney David] Feldman said. The work added by protecting sexual orientation and gender identity and covering places of public accommodation may be modest.

Less than half of 1 percent of the housing complaints Fort Worth received last year were based on sexual orientation, and the city received no employment claims based on sexual orientation, according to an annual report

Fort Worth has received five complaints against places of public accommodation in the last two years; Austin typically sees three or fewer per year.

“The fact that it creates a scheme that is almost entirely voluntary compliance doesn’t reduce the value or the effect of it,” said Jonathan Babiak of Austin’s Equal Employment/Fair Housing Office. “Many, many people are going to comply just because it’s the law.”

Since passing its nondiscrimination ordinance last fall, San Antonio has learned of three incidents of alleged discrimination in areas other than housing, all against transgender or gay residents. The events, one involving a city contractor and two involving businesses that serve the public, have not yet resulted in formal complaints, said deputy city attorney Veronica Zertuche. One city employee also has filed a complaint based on sexual orientation, she said.

In El Paso, deputy city attorney Laura Gordon said she is aware of two incidents of alleged discrimination in places of public accommodation, both from gay couples, and neither of which resulted in a complaint. El Paso does not cover private employment.

Feldman said a Dallas official reported that city has received 12 complaints not related to housing in the decade that its ordinance has been in effect.

Feldman said he foresees Houston fielding more employment and public accommodation complaints than other cities, due, in part, to its size.

“We’ve never had it before, and now people will say, ‘Ah, there’s a remedy here,’ ” Feldman said. “But I also think it will dissipate in time.”

Houston’s added workload also would be limited by its exemption for businesses with fewer than 50 employees. Fort Worth and Austin exempt businesses of 15 or fewer employees, matching federal and state laws. Texas Workforce Commission data show 29 percent of the state’s private workforce is employed by firms with fewer than 50 workers.

Houston GLBT Political Caucus president Maverick Welsh and others want the 50-worker exemption dropped to 15. “I’m very optimistic,” Welsh told the council Tuesday. “I believe you’ll do the right thing.”

See here and here for the background. An amendment proposed by CM Robert Gallegos would lower the threshold to 15 employees; we’ll see how that one goes. As there will be another public session of Council on Tuesday the 13th, with the vote scheduled for the 14th, there will be another opportunity to address Council and show your support for the ordinance and CM Gallegos’ amendment. Email citysecretary@houstontx.gov to get on the list of speakers for that.

The late Wednesday story has more on the amendments.

Councilman Oliver Pennington proposed the most substantial changes to the measure, seeking to exempt all private employers and to permit discrimination in the sale or rental of a single-family home if the seller or landlord owns eight or fewer homes; the current drafts exempts the owners of three or fewer houses.

Pennington also seeks to allow a first-offense conviction to be dismissed if the person is not convicted of discrimination again within a year, and wants to let someone accused of denying a transgender person access to the public restroom of his or her choice to have the complaint dismissed by submitting an affidavit explaining the decision to deny access.

“The thrust of my amendments today was to promote voluntary compliance, and I know reconciliation is provided for now, but for first offenses there’s still a possibility for criminal prosecution,” Pennington said. “Whatever we can do, in the long run, to promote interaction with the affected parties on a voluntary basis will be a worthwhile thing to do and I hope we can reach that.”

[…]

Other council members sought to strengthen the ordinance.

Councilman Robert Gallegos wants the measure to cover more private employees by dropping the proposed exemption for businesses that employ fewer than 50 workers to those with 25, and then to 15 over two years.

That change had been advocated by the Houston GLBT Political Caucus, which said the stated exemption left too many workers unprotected.

“The transition from 50 to 15, which is the more common standard across the United States, was thoughtful,” Parker said. “That may be doable … .”

CM Pennington’s amendment is a non-starter. CM Gallegos’ amendment is the one to watch. Most of the rest were technical in nature.

Back to the Tuesday story:

[Mayor Annise] Parker and 11 of the 16 City Council members agreed last fall to support a nondiscrimination ordinance. Some members have expressed concerns about the item, however.

The 11 Council members that stated their support for an NDO in their screening questionnaire for the Houston GLBT Political Caucus are listed here. Of those 11, CM Christie has waffled a bit, but I think in the end he’ll be a Yes. In addition, based on his willingness to engage on the issue and the feedback I’ve heard, I have hope that CM Kubosh will vote in favor as well, though he expressed some doubts in Wednesday’s story. CM Nguyen is hard to read, CM Martin is a firm No, CM Pennington is a likely No, and as of Tuesday CM Stardig is a No. I recommend you read Brad Pritchett’s response to CM Stardig, as he says what needs to be said. It’ll be interesting to see how that plays out in 2015. Be that as it may, I expect this to pass with a healthy majority next week, and about damn time for it. Texpatriate has more.

Mayoral multitude

Campos has an update on who’s running for what.

Keryl Douglas

Keryl Douglas

Commentary dropped by the City Secretary Office a couple of days ago to check out the latest campaign treasurer designations.

Here is who I will add to my political page later on today:

For Mayor: Keryl Douglas, Eric Dick, Michael Fitzsimmons, and Victoria Lane.

For At-Large 2: David Robinson, Dr. Carolyn Evans-Shabazz, and Brent Gordon.

For At-Large 3: As reported yesterday, Al Edwards.

For District B: Joe Joseph.

For District C: Pete Sosa.

For District D: Lana Edwards, Larry McKenzie, and Anthony Robinson.

For District G: Ben Taef.

Of course, these folks still have to plunk down the filing fee when the time comes.

Yes, former HCDP Chair candidate Keryl Douglas is running for Mayor. I’d heard about this from two different people before Campos did his digging at the City Secretary’s office. I have no idea why Keryl Douglas thinks she can be elected Mayor, but then the same can be said for everyone not named Annise Parker and Ben Hall. Speaking of whom, you have to figure Hall is not happy about this. Douglas will be competing with him directly for African-American voters. I’m sure he’d prefer to not have that competition.

You can see Campos’ list of candidates who have filed designation of treasurer papers here. This week is when campaign finance reports for the period ending June 30 will be appearing on the city’s reporting website. That will give a good indication about who’s running for what as well. I’ll be keeping an eye on those and will write about what I find. First order of business will be to see what Parker and Hall’s reports look like. Stay tuned.

Lawsuit against anti-feeding ordinance dropped

From last week:

The plaintiffs suing the city of Houston over its charitable feeding ordinance have abruptly dropped a suit they filed over the issue, just hours after the judge in the case recused himself.

The ordinance, which requires property owners’ advance written permission for the charitable feeding of more than five people, was one of the most passionate issues debated at City Hall last year. City officials said the measure would help control litter associated with feedings of the homeless and allow for better coordination of such efforts. Opponents decried the ordinance as criminalizing charity.

Paul Kubosh, of the bailbondsmen Kubosh brothers who are reliable opponents of Mayor Annise Parker, was the plaintiff in the suit, filed in December, which alleged the ordinance is unconstitutional because it violates the Kuboshes’ Constitutional rights. The Kuboshes religious beliefs, the suit states, encourage them to share food with the homeless in ways that violate the ordinance.

The Kuboshes collected 34,000 signatures on a petition that sought to overturn the requirement only on city-owned land, not on private property. The city said they had turned in the petition too late for it to be voted on last fall, a move the Kuboshes said was against the law.

Several preliminary motions had been filed in the case by both sides, but last Tuesday the issue took an odd turn when U.S. District Judge Ken Hoyt recused himself from the case without offering a reason and, hours later, Kubosh’s attorney dismissed the suit.

Kubosh said he had to dismiss the case because the judge assigned to pick it up was U.S. District Judge Lynn Hughes, with whom the Kuboshes dealt in a similar episode in 2010 and 2011 in which they sought to intervene in a lawsuit related to the city’s red light cameras. The Kuboshes had led the ultimately successful charge to place the cameras on the ballot and have them rescinded.

“After litigating with the city in Judge Hughes’ court on things that deal with charter amendments and the people’s right to vote, I didn’t think it was in the citizens’ best interest, the people we’re trying to help, for us to continue in Judge Hughes’ court,” he said. “We couldn’t go back into that bear trap again. We’re not abandoning this, but we have to regroup.”

You may be saying to yourself “Wait, what lawsuit? I don’t remember a lawsuit being filed”. I didn’t remember one being filed, either, but it was filed just before Christmas.

The plaintiffs are members of Champions Forest Baptist Church and have given and shared food for free “with more than five people at a time on Houston public property” since about 2008.

According to the suit, the city passed the ordinance about six months ago and was not open to efforts to get it placed on the previous election’s ballot.

More than 34,000 people signed a petition in opposition of the ordinance, however, the city was not swayed, the original petition says.

The ordinance carries a jail sentence and a $200 fine for any violations.

The suit claims the ordinance is “unconstitutionally vague”, stating the term “those in need” has no clear definition and “in its broadest sense can refer to anyone.”

It additionally asserts that the complainants’ First, Fourth, Fifth and Fourteenth Amendment rights were infringed upon through the passing and implementation of the ordinance.

A jury trial is requested.

Attorney Randall L. Kallinen with the Law Office of Randall L. Kallinen PLLC in Houston is representing the plaintiffs.

The case number is 4:12-CV-3700, if you want to look it up. The only mainstream news coverage I found of this when I googled “Kubosh homeless lawsuit” was on KTRH. That and the timing of the suit is probably why you and I might not have heard of it before now. The last update I had in my blog was from August from when petition signatures were turned in to force a referendum on the ordinance. The problem was the timing – the ordinance had gone into effect on July 1, meaning the 30-day window for a repeal petition had passed, and on top of that the deadline for any item to be placed on the ballot was only a few days afterward, which gave the City Secretary very limited time to verify the signatures. This was the first I’d heard of anything relating to the ordinance since then.

Now as you know, in Judge Hughes’ ruling on the red light camera lawsuit, he wrote that that referendum should not have been on the ballot since it was an attempt to repeal an ordinance, which requires petitions to be submitted within 30 days of the ordinance going into effect. However, the city settled with the camera company before a final ruling went into effect, so that question was not actually settled. I sent an email to Paul Kubosh to ask if this lawsuit intended to bring that matter up again, but he said “No, we filed the lawsuit to try and get the ordinance declared unconstitutional. I did not attempt to re-litigate the charter amendment issue in Federal Court.” I asked for a comment about the status of this lawsuit, and this is what he said:

“We chose to dismiss the case. However, the issue is not over. Currently, we have not gotten any word from the administration as to the status of the petition count. They are ignoring the petition. I still think I have the remedy of Mandamus to force the City Secretary to count the signatures. This ordinance will die. Its just a matter of time.”

So there you have it.

The ballot propositions we won’t have

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

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

Red light camera opponents turn in their petitions

I was beginning to wonder if the anti-red light camera crowd was ever going to turn in their petition signatures, as it’s starting too get a little late in the game. They made their move on Monday, submitting 30,000 petition signatures (22,000 valid ones are needed) to City Secretary Anna Russell to get their proposition to ban the cameras on the ballot. As with everything else they do, this was not without controversy.

Mayor Annise Parker questioned whether there would be enough time for the city secretary to verify that the signatures are from registered Houston voters before an upcoming Aug. 24 election deadline.

Parker said the city secretary’s office would follow the same procedures used for Renew Houston, a group of engineers seeking voter approval for an $8 billion initiative to prevent flooding and shore up Houston’s infrastructure. Backers of that referendum turned in their signatures July 8, and they were verified July 30.

In a statement issued Monday afternoon, Parker said, “Citizens Against Red Light Cameras have turned these petitions in very late in the process and the Renew Houston petitions took three weeks to be certified. … If it takes just as long, it will not meet the deadline to be on the ballot this fall.”

Andy Taylor, a lawyer representing Keep Houston Safe, a political action committee formed to advocate for the cameras, also said the proposed referendum is illegal, citing a city ordinance that requires petitions for a vote to repeal a law be turned in within 30 days of when it takes effect.

“Who could possibly be against safety cameras that save children’s lives?” Taylor said. “This petition is too late. This petition is out of time and dead on arrival.”

[Paul] Kubosh noted that signatures for several other referendums put to voters in the past decade have been turned in either in August or September and still made it onto the ballot, including the 2001 charter amendment that authorized light rail and another that outlawed benefits for same-sex partners of city employees.

(Before anyone brings it up, yes, that’s my old friend Andy Taylor. Insert your own joke about politics and strange bedfellows.)

The ordinance that limits petition-driven repeal efforts to 30 days after the passage of the law in question is news to me. Here’s the relevant bit from the city charter:

Section 3. – Referendum.

If prior to the date when an ordinance or resolution shall take effect, or within thirty days after the publication of same, a petition signed and verified, as required in section 2-a hereof, by the qualified voters equal in number to ten per centum of the total vote cast at the Democratic Primary for the nomination of Mayor and Commissioners, next preceding the filing of said petition as hereinbefore provided, shall be filed with the Secretary, protesting against the enactment or enforcement of such ordinance or resolution, it shall be suspended from taking effect and no action theretofore taken under such ordinance or resolution shall be legal and valid. Immediately upon the filing of such petition the Secretary shall do all things required by section 2-b of this Article. Thereupon the Council shall immediately reconsider such ordinance or resolution and, if it do not entirely repeal the same, shall submit it to popular vote at the next municipal election, or the Council may, in its discretion, call a special election for that purpose; and such ordinance or resolution shall not take effect unless a majority of the qualified electors voting thereon at such election shall vote in favor thereof. (Added by amendment October 15, 1913)

I dunno. What that says to me is that if you can get your petitioning act together within 30 days, you can actually get the law in question suspended until everything gets sorted out. It doesn’t say to me that after 30 days you can never change or overturn a city law via the referendum process. (Whether that would be a good thing or not is a separate question.) I’m not a lawyer, but I’d bet money that if this article is used as justification for rejecting Kubosh’s petitions the matter will wind up in court, and I strongly suspect a judge would be sympathetic to Kubosh’s arguments. Seems to me that given how arduous and expensive the petition signature-gathering effort is, a 30-day deadline for action is a mighty high hurdle to clear. Maybe I’m missing something – again, I Am Not A Lawyer – but I don’t see how this is a fatal flaw for Kubosh.

On the other hand, the matter of verifying the signatures in time may be a significant issue. The controlling statute here is Section 3.005, subsection (c) of the Elections Code, which reads “For an election to be held on the date of the general election for state and county officers, the election shall be ordered not later than the 70th day before election day.” That’s August 24 in this case, which makes it the deadline for Anna Russell to say whether or not Team Kubosh has met the threshold. Kubosh’s claims about the light rail and same-sex benefits referenda are irrelevant, because Subsection (c) was added to the code in 2005. Prior to that, the deadline was 62 days before an election, which given that Election Day can be as late as November 8 meant a drop-dead date as late as September 7.

Actually, the effective deadline in this case is even earlier than the 24th. As Jim McGrath of Keep Houston Safe reminded me in an email, Council must authorize the referendum for the ballot, and the last Council meeting before the deadline is August 18. (It’s not on Council’s agenda for today.) That ain’t a lot of time to get the job done.

My take on this, therefore, is that it will come down to whether or not Russell certifies the signatures in time, assuming there are in fact enough valid ones. One presumes, given the Renew Houston example, that she will be examining each signature and not using statistical sampling, which she has the discretion to do but is not required to do. (It’s not clear to me she could do it in the six working days she has before the 18th even if she did use sampling.) I expect Kubosh to wail and gnash his teeth about this, and I won’t be surprised to see it come before a judge as well, but if so I expect he’ll lose just as Carole Keeton Strayhorn did back in 2006. Mary Benton has more.

Finally, you may have noticed at the end of the story a reference to an updated red light camera study that shows collisions have in fact decreased at red light-enabled intersections, which contradicts the initial study, done by the same authors. I will deal with that in a subsequent post.

ReNew Houston officially makes the ballot

From their press release:

The ReNew Houston Campaign is pleased to announce it has met state requirements for qualified signatures from registered Houston voters to call for a charter amendment to create a dedicated funding source to improve and renew Houston’s decaying streets and drainage system. In other words, ReNew Houston is certified!

City Secretary Anna Russell has checked and validated 21,197 signatures, which is more than the 20,000 required by the state for a petition to call for a city charter amendment. In a letter July 30, 2010, to Mayor Annise Parker and Members of City Council, Russell says, “A sufficient number of valid signatures were checked without the necessity of checking the balance of the submitted signatures.” City Council must now approve placement of the ReNew Houston charter amendment on the November 2, 2010 ballot for consideration by Houston voters.

Among other things, that means that Council will have the opportunity to debate and potentially amend the ReNew Houston proposition. If you have concerns about what ReNew Houston will or won’t do, that will be your final chance to affect it before voting.

UPDATE: Please disregard the crossed-out bit at the end. Council will not have the opportunity to amend the proposition, they will merely vote to put it on the ballot. My apologies for the error.

Renew Houston submits petitions

Renew Houston has submitted signatures to get its drainage improvement proposition on the ballot this November.

Renew Houston, a group of influential local engineers, has collected more than 30,000 signatures in a push to seek voter approval for an $8 billion initiative — and a monthly drainage fee – to better prevent flooding across the city.

For an average Houston homeowner with a 5,000-square-foot lot and a 2,500-square-foot home, the fee would be about $5 a month.

Here’s the Renew Houston press release on this. For background and details about what Renew Houston is proposing, see John, Perry, Tory, Neil, and me. My impression of this idea and plan is a favorable one, and as things stand now I would vote for it. But of course many people are not so inclined – I expect this to be a tough campaign for them, especially if there is an organized and funded opposition. What are these people going to say?

“On days like today, I think it’s obvious why we need some improvements,” said Allen Watson, an engineer and board member of the Metropolitan Transit Authority who is involved in the campaign. He was referring to the street flooding that has enveloped various parts of the city amid heavy rainfall in the past week. “It’s obvious why we need some improvements. The drainage systems are old.”

Critics point out that engineers involved in educating voters and bankrolling the drainage campaign stand to make money on projects that the referendum would pay for if it passes. Engineers have countered that they are best suited to educate the public about the problem, just as doctors may educate people about a problem they can make money treating.

Norman Adams, an activist who was among the leaders of a successful fight against a scuttled drainage fee plan during the Lee Brown administration, said voters are likely to reject such a “rain tax” in this political climate.

“Voters will see this as an additional property tax, and voters are so upset with property taxes now that it will be absolutely opposed,” he said.

My understanding is that Renew Houston’s plan differs significantly from the Brown plan, mostly because of its pay-as-you-go nature, but I’ll need to do a deeper review to be able to fully explain that. Be that as it may, it seems to me that if you oppose Renew Houston’s proposal, then you must either think the status quo is fine – that is, that Houston’s drainage system is adequate as is, and that the CIP process is sufficient to make needed repairs and improvements – or that there’s a better way of funding drainage improvement projects than Renew Houston’s plan. So let me ask that question directly to Norman Adams or anyone else who opposes the Renew Houston plan: Do you believe Houston’s drainage system is adequate, and that the mechanism we have now for maintenance of it is sufficient? If not, what is your preferred alternative? I would hope that in any future coverage of this campaign, those questions are asked of the opposition.

Anyway. The story notes that both the anti-red light camera forces and the Mayor White term limits commission are planning to submit their petition signatures as well, so depending on what the City Secretary has to say, we may have an even more crowded ballot this November. Mayor Parker has also indicated her support for the Renew Houston plan, which is the first time she has done so – see this KUHF story from earlier in the week for an example of what she had been saying previously, before the petition signatures were submitted. Finally, the Ultimate Memorial blog discusses how Renew Houston is making its pitch to neighborhoods.

Several area Super Neighborhood councils have discussed the issue. And though none have given their full support, they do find the interesting enough to ask for more information and more time to discuss.

Ed Browne, a Memorial City District Drainage Coalition founder, recommends that all super neighborhoods and organizations raise three issues when RENEW representatives come speak to their groups so that the political action committee endorsing the proposed fee understands the need for fundamental changes in the way business is done in Houston.

There must be no more unwarranted variances given to developers by the city of Houston, he said. The city must enforce its ordinance that requires detention. And there needs to be an end to “grandfathering.”

Good questions all. That’s a discussion worth having, and one I look forward to.

UPDATE: John Coby has more.

34 > 20, and other campaign finance news

I’ve added two more candidate reports to my campaign finance report spreadsheet, Robert Kane and KA Khan, both in District F. Each of them had filed paper reports instead of electronic reports. You can see a list of such reports here, and you can see scanned PDF copies of their reports here: for Khan and for Kane.

If you look at these reports, you will note that on the cover page, each candidate signs an affidavit that includes the following: “I swear or affirm that I have not accepted more than $20,000 in political contributions or made more than $20,000 in political expenditures in a calendar year.” If you then take a look at KA Khan’s report, down at the bottom he lists his total contributions as $34,010. I realize math can be a tricky subject for some people, but I don’t think it’s too hard to grasp the concept that $34,010 is bigger than $20,000. Yet Khan signed the affidavit swearing he did not and would not collect more than $20,000 in contributions. Seems to me something is wrong here. And as Greg notes, among other things, Khan has spent a bunch of money sending out six mail pieces, yet those expenses are not accounted for on his report. I’m told a complaint is being filed against Khan. Should be easy enough to make a determination in this one.

Now as was noted in the comments to this entry when I complained about some other obviously erroneous reports, the City Secretary apparently doesn’t have the authority to reject them even if it’s clear at a glance that there’s problems. But I don’t see why the City Attorney, or some other agency acting as an ombudsman, couldn’t do a review of the forms as they come in and take some kind of action to respond to the ones that have glaring errors. If the City Attorney is going to disqualify candidates from the ballot for dumb yet basically harmless errors on the filing form, why isn’t there an equivalent level of vigor with campaign finance reports, in which the potential for deception and malfeasance is vastly greater? Right now we have a system that relies on third parties – often people acting on behalf of a rival candidate – to file complaints, which take however long to resolve, usually well after the election in question. There needs to be a better way. If this requires a legislative fix, then so be it. They’ve already got one issue from this election that needs their attention, may as well add one more item to the list.

As noted at the beginning of this post, I found campaign finance reports for the two more candidates, which I added to my spreadsheet. That still leaves a bunch of candidates for whom I can find no report. The same thing happened in July, where a number of reports did not show up until more than a week after the reporting deadline. One candidate to whom this happened in July, and whose report isn’t visible today, is Alex Wathen in District A. Wathen has confirmed to me that he did submit his report on time – you can see a PDF of his receipt here – but that the City Secretary’s office has had trouble reading his file, as they had in July. Mills Worsham in G has also confirmed to me that he submitted his report and that the City Secretary’s office said they were having trouble with it, too. Interestingly, I called the City Secretary’s office yesterday to inquire about a few of the missing reports, and the person I spoke to told me they didn’t have one from Worsham, or from Roger Bowden (District B), Otis Jordan (District D), Lewis Cook (District F), or Peter Acquaro (District F). I don’t know exactly what’s going on here, but given the issues we saw in July that are affecting Wathen and Worsham now, this really needs to be investigated to get to the bottom of it. Technical issues should not be a barrier to the public’s access to this information.

Corrections, clarifications, and conundrums

This is a followup to my post from this morning about the 30 days out reports. I’m sure there will be more of this stuff to come, from plenty of folks, but this is what I’ve got as of now.

– First, please be sure to see the updates I made to that post. In particular, be sure to read Martha‘s posts about the reports filed by C.O. Bradford and Roy Morales, and see my update about Phillip Garrison’s report. More generally, David Ortez has some observations about the reports as well.

– I doubt I’ll have the time to closely examine every report in detail, but I took a closer look at a couple that had oddities in them that I wanted to examine. One of them is the report of perennial candidate Michael “Griff” Griffin. Griff, who I can only speculate must really like seeing his name on a ballot, reported no contributions in either July or October, and loaned himself $1000 in April, yet he reports expenditures totaling over $3000 since the beginning of the year. He spent about $2200 before July 1 and a bit more than $800 since then. Needless to say, that doesn’t add up. I don’t know if the expenses above the $1000 loan that he declared should be considered subsequent loans to himself or if there’s something else going on, but regardless it seems to me this is the sort of thing that should be spelled out in a campaign finance report. I realize this is small potatoes, but by the same token, how hard could it be to do that?

– Along similar lines, I note that District F candidate Joe Chow reported exactly zero dollars on hand in both July and October. Yet his October report, which includes a $5000 loan to himself from June, shows that he took in less money than he spent. Now, he listed one single expenditure for the period ending June 30, a printing fee of $120, though he added some more pre-July expenditures in the October report, and given that he raised $5510 in the first six months, I’m sure he has some cash on hand, whether the loan amount is accounted for as cash on hand or not. But you can’t easily tell how much cash he has from what he reported.

– As I said, Griff’s report is small potatoes, though in the context of District F Chow’s totals are much more substantial. I’m pointing them out because they seem like such obvious red flags that I don’t quite understand why the forms weren’t simply rejected out of hand by the City Secretary. How can you leave the boxes for the totals blank, as Griff did? Davetta Daniels in At Large #5 did the same thing. At least in her case the contributions she listed outweighed the expenses, but the bottom line remains that you can’t tell at a glance what her cash on hand position is. Nor can you tell for Chow, who like Daniels appears to have several thousand dollars at his disposal. So I ask again: How is it that a form where certain required values are left blank can get accepted? If this were a web form, they wouldn’t have been allowed to submit it till those boxes were filled in. Shouldn’t the City Secretary do the same?

– Meanwhile, several candidates’ reports are still not available online. Among them are Alex Wathen and Bob Schoelkopf in District A (there’s no July form for Schoelkopf, either); Roger Bowden in B; Otis Jordan and Larry McKinzie in D; Lewis Cook, Peter Acquaro, and Robert Kane in F (no July forms for Cook or Kane, either); and Mills Worsham in G. Bear in mind that quite a few reports didn’t appear until many days after July 15, despite the fact that they had been submitted. I’m just noting this for the record, and will continue to look for them and update the spreadsheet as I find them.

– What is now available are the HISD Trustee candidates’ reports. Ericka Mellon summarizes them for us.

– One other report that isn’t there is for CM Noriega in At Large #3. I am told that unopposed candidates are not required to file a 30 days out report, or an 8 days out report, so that’s the reason for that.

– Finally, on a tangential note, Karen Derr also writes in to say that she has been producing campaign videos as well. I appreciate the update, and invite anyone else that I’ve omitted to correct me on this point.

Filings and endorsements

I’ve added several updates to my recent endorsements list. It’s not comprehensive, as it doesn’t include earlier endorsements, but it’s what I know of the recent activities. Endorsement lists added today were the Spring Branch Democrats and the Greater Houston Restaurant Association. I’ll keep adding to this post as I get more.

The filing deadline is this coming Wednesday, September 2, at 5 PM, and it will be followed by Council Member Melissa Noriega’s Let The Games Begin event. Martha continues to keep track of who has filed and who hasn’t done so yet. Council Member Ronald Green announced his filing for City Controller today (see press release beneath the fold), and I ran into Lane Lewis at City Hall Annex as he was on his way to file. Annise Parker did hers yesterday for Mayor – see Martha’s liveblog coverage for more. Gene Locke filed early, Peter Brown and Roy Morales haven’t done theirs yet. There’s always the potential for a surprise or two, so we’ll keep an eye on it right up till the last minute.

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Derr misses filing deadline

Yesterday was the filing deadline for the District H special election. Usually, that brings a last-minute surprise in the form of an unexpected candidate. This time, it brought a different kind of surprise.

As one of the first people to declare her candidacy to replace Adrian Garcia in the District H City Council seat, Karen Derr seemed to have lined up all her ducks in a row.

Until today.

The Realtor and potential candidate apparently forgot to file her papers with the City Secretary by yesterday’s deadline.

Oops.

Officially filing the paperwork in candidacy 101. Derr had done everything else by the book. She started a website (which was just taken down), appointed her husband treasurer, and had a high name ID thanks to her real estate business. The City Secretary’s list does not show Derr, and that is a major break for Maverick Welsh, the former Chief of Staff for Council Member Peter Brown.

That’s a shame, and I feel bad for Karen. She’d certainly been an active campaigner – there’s a ton of her yard signs in my neighborhood, and we’ve been contacted twice by her team, once on the phone and once at the door. Nobody else has done that yet. I hadn’t made up my mind who was going to get my vote in this election, but she was certainly on the list of possibilities. Her departure makes my decision a little easier, but it’s still a shame.

KHOU has more.

Derr tells 11 News that she thought the city’s deadline matched a state deadline for special elections, which is not until later this month.

“To tell you the truth, we’ve been out with a very grassroots campaign on the trail and going to three and four meetings a day,” she said. “We dropped the ball, evidently.”

“You dust yourself off, and you try again,” she said.

She added that supporters are urging her to either mount a write-in campaign or run for an At-Large seat in November. Derr says she has not yet made a decision, nor is she ready to endorse another candidate.

I doubt she’ll do the write-in thing. There’s just no percentage in it. I do have a feeling she’ll be getting a bunch of calls from other candidates, as an endorsement from her ought to carry some weight. I’ve got a statement from Derr beneath the fold.

So with Derr out, who’s left? It’s still a long list.

The order on the ballot, which was determined by a drawing according to a longstanding tradition set up by the city secretary, is as follows: Edward “Ed” Gonzalez, Lupe Garcia, Gonzalo Camacho, Hugo Mojica, Larry Williams, Maverick Welsh, James Partsch-Galvan, Yolanda Navarro Flores and Rick Rodriguez.

Williams ran against Adrian Garcia in 2005 and got 22% of the vote. Partsch-Galvan has run in multiple elections before, including in 2005 against Shelley Sekula Gibbs, getting 27%. The other candidates had all been actively running for awhile and had participated in the first candidate forum.

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A list of who has actually filed treasurer’s reports so far

Noel Freeman did us all the public service of trooping over to the City Secretary’s office and compiling a list of people who had filed treasurer’s reports as of Monday for election to a municipal office in 2009. As I discovered last week, they don’t give that information out over the phone, so this is the only way to know for sure who’s in and who’s not, at least for now. Here’s what Noel was able to find:

Mayor

Annise Parker
Gene Locke
Roy Morales
Peter Brown
Ben Hall

At-Large 4

Noel Freeman

District A

Alex Wathen
Jeff Downing
Brenda Stardig
Bert Schoelkopf

District E

Wayne Garrison

District F

Mike Laster

District G
Oliver Pennington
Mills Worsham

District H
Lupe Garcia
Rick Rodriguez
Ed Gonzales
Maverick Welsh
Karen Derr
Hugo Mojica
Yolanda Navarro Flores
Diana Davila Martinez
Gonzalo Camacho

The names in italics are folks who are at least rumored to be running but who have not yet filed. Nobody has made a move towards At Large #1 yet, currently held by Peter Brown. I figure no one will do so until he does his formalities for the Mayor’s race. I see freshman Member Mike Sullivan has an opponent – he’s the only incumbent so far to get one, though he surely won’t be the last. Lupe Garcia in District H is a new name to me – I’ve just stumbled across a Facebook group in support of his candidacy, but the man himself doesn’t appear to have a profile. Does anyone know anything about this person? Yolanda Navarro Flores had not filed as of Monday, but yesterday afternoon a press release announcing her candidacy (reproduced beneath the fold) appeared in my inbox. I also got a release for Mike Laster, who had filed but hadn’t made a formal announcement yet; that release is beneath the fold as well. Finally, there’s a release from Noel Freeman about a Facebook fundraising campaign he’s got going on. Miya and Greg have more. Anybody hearing anything else they’d like to add?

I’ll say again, I do not know why this information is not available on the web. I cannot think of a single good reason why it shouldn’t be. From the conversation I had with someone in the City Secretary’s office, I get the impression that this is extra work to them, which is probably why it’s not any kind of priority for them. It seems to me that the right answer is for the city to hire someone for whom handling elections and election-related activities like campaign finance reports is their primary duty. It was kind of amusing that the city didn’t get around to posting campaign finance reports online until 2007. It’s deeply embarassing that we can’t even get a list of candidates who have filed a simple report, not to mention a peek at those reports themselves, in 2009. What century are we in again? Let’s get with the program already.

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Derr files, Bradford contemplates

Karen Derr made her treasurer’s report filing on Thursday last week, becoming at least the second candidate for District H to do so. I know that Maverick Welsh has filed his report, and I know that as of Friday, Ed Gonzalez had not yet done so but would likely do it this week. Beyond that, I don’t know anyone else’s status. I think I may place a call to the City Secretary’s office this week to inquire about who has filed, and to ask why I can’t find that information online. It sure would be handy to have. I’ve reproduced a press release from Derr’s campaign beneath the fold. I figure with the opening of fundraising season a week from now, we’ll start to get a lot more action on this front.

In the meantime, I heard a report on Saturday that former HPD Chief and candidate for District Attorney CO Bradford is contemplating a run for an At Large City Council seat. Isaih Carey has now blogged about this – he’s looking at At Large #4, currently held by Ron Green, for which Noel Freeman has already filed his papers. As with all such contemplations, this may turn out to be nothing, but Bradford has been talked about as a citywide candidate before, and he would clearly be a strong contender for that seat. So we’ll see what happens.

One more report I heard on Saturday, which Carl Whitmarsh reminded me of in an email he sent out about his birthday party, which is where I heard both of these things, is that there’s another contender looking at District A: attorney Jeffrey Downing. He joins Bob Schoelkopf in expressing interest in that seat, and if Carl’s reaction is any indication, he’ll get the bulk of the Democratic support for that race. Which, as I’ve said, is enough to make a race of it in that district. This is going to be a fun year.

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