Despite the 34,000 signatures on the petition to get the feeding the homeless issue on the next ballot, one person is all it takes to put a stop to it. Houston City Attorney David Feldman has declared that the petition has been turned in too late to be added to the November ballot.
Feldman argued that the petition called to overturn the feeding ordinance. If this is the case, the deadline should have been July 1st. Paul Kubosh, who was instrumental in organizing the petition, said that the petition is not meant to overturn an ordinance; rather, they are seeking a charter amendment. The amendment they proposed says, ”The City of Houston shall not criminalize or penalize any person or organization for, nor shall any group or individual be required to receive permission from or register with the City of Houston before, feeding or sharing free food with any other persons on any and all public property, rights of way or easements for which the City of Houston maintains jurisdiction.”
There are several issues to consider:
- The City of Houston needs to clearly define the difference between a petition that seeks to overturn an ordinance versus a petition that seeks a charter amendment. These are two very different things, but the city is notorious for deciding that they are the same. Even Judge Lynn N. Hughes basically said that it is the same thing in the red light camera ruling. Until the city really distinguishes between the two, battles like these will continue.
- The length of time to sign a petition to overturn an ordinance should be extended. Currently a petition must be submitted within 30 days of the ordinance’s passage or any time prior to the effective date. Groups seeking signatures for a petition are very organized, and with social networking, it should be relatively easy to get plenty of signatures, but timing is the issue. Since this continues to be a problem, it seems that groups aren’t given enough time to notify people and obtain the signatures.
- Catch 22: The City Secretary’s office must have at least two weeks to validate and count the signatures. That is not an unreasonable amount of time. There must be checks and balances. Also, because of the Open Meetings Act, the city must give a 72 hour notice prior to holding a meeting to discuss putting this on the ballot. Additionally, state law has a deadline of 78 days before the election for placing items on the ballot. So in total, we are talking about at least 95 days. What happens when the effective date of an ordinance is less than 95 days out from the election? The petition couldn’t possibly be on the ballot. The city would have to either try to validate the signatures very quickly (which may not be possible), wait for the next election, or hold a special election.
- People need to be very careful when amending the city charter. First let me say that I am 100% against the feeding ordinance. I know that the group had to try to get this on the ballot as a charter amendment due to time constraints; however, in the future (and if changes can be made to extend the time to turn in a petition), people should think very carefully before amending the charter. A charter or constitution should contain general rules for running the government. It shouldn’t be so specific that it turns into legislation. The Texas Constitution has been amended over 400 times and is often criticized for legislating rather than providing general rules. Compare that with the US Constitution, which has only been amended 27 times.
In the end, it doesn’t look like the petition will be on the next ballot, but there are clearly items the city needs to consider before moving forward.