No Changes Made to Term Limits

July 11, 2012

Council Member Andrew Burks proposed to double the six-year term limit for council members.  He also suggested lengthening the terms from two years to four.  Although CM Burks provided some valid points, like saving money in election costs and promoting a long-term vision for the city, the Committee on Ethics, Elections, and Council Governance ultimately voted against the measure.  They basically said that the timing of this just isn’t right.

CM Burks seemed to take the defeat as a personal attack, saying that CM Stephen Costello “‘said the word, he used k-i-l-l. That upset me. Why would you want to kill something that we need to fix? He’s trying to be mayor.’”  CM Burks also disapproved of the influence of lobbyists on council members under the current term limit system.  I disagree with his assumption that increasing the terms and years in office will somehow decrease the amount of lobbyist control.  Longer terms could also mean that council members have longer to foster unbreakable bonds with lobbyists who will ultimately fund their winning campaign.  CM Burks, who won after his 13th try at office, should know that better than most.  Just about every year someone proposes to either change the term limits or to study its implications, but it never has enough votes from council to put it on the ballot.  According to a study in 2010, voters support term limits, and although they are willing to change the length of each term, voters are likely to agree that six years is enough time for elected officials in Houston.

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Results of the Budget Amendments

June 20, 2012

Here is a list of all of the budget amendments and votes on each (the final ones will be updated once the archive video is online for me to view):

Amendment List (click here)


Proposed Budget Amendments

June 13, 2012

Today’s city council meeting was packed with discussions about many different issues including amendments to the budget.  One that just cannot be overlooked is Council Member Helena Brown’s amendment for the city to stop paying into the pension systems.  Her solution to the pension problem is to just stop paying.  CM Brown’s amendment will “bring to question the state constitutionality of forcing a municipality into bankruptcy by obliging them to maintain an unsustainable pension plan” (see here).

CM Brown has a history of taking the easy way out, and this is no different.  A council member’s job is to critically consider every ordinance.  If a member already knows that he or she is voting “no” no matter what, that council member doesn’t have to take the time to fully consider anything.  There is a difference between making tough decisions and making no decision.  Also, rather than doing the hard work required to fix the pension situation, she is now saying that we should just stop funding it instead.  Unlike many other projects in the city, this is not one that can just be defunded.  City workers entered into a contract with the city, and the city has to hold up their end of the agreement.  Can you imagine what would happen if they don’t (the red light camera contract comes to mind)?  It is because of these types of situations that people have so little trust in our government.  Surely changes must be made with the pension system.  One idea might be to stop pensions for new employees, but pensions should still be paid to any current or former employee who presently qualifies for the pension and who we are contractually obligated to pay.  While I can appreciate her sentiment that the current pension program is expensive, her proposal just acts as a roadblock and makes real proposals more difficult to introduce.   Why propose ideas that have no chance of being implemented?

Other budget amendment Highlights:

Council Member Jack Christie – Proposed an amendment to require certain departments to fill all job vacancies with three months or forfeit the position.  Interesting idea, but I think CM Christie needs to look into this one a little further.  Departments such as Police and Fire might have vacancies because they are waiting to hire the best officers and firefighters for the jobs.  So this might be useful in some departments, but I think he should not extend this amendment to agencies across the board.

Council Member Ellen Cohen – Proposed a $5/person fee on adult entertainment establishments.  This is expected to generate about $3 million per year, and the money would go to help with the backlog of untested rape kits.  You may remember that when CM Cohen was a state house representative, she passed a similar tax on the state level (House Bill 1751 in the 80th Session) and received bipartisan but not unanimous support.  We will see how this pans out on the city level.

Council Member Andrew Burks – Proposed a ballot measure to change term limits from the current two-year term (up to three terms) to a four-year term (up to two terms).  So while this wouldn’t change the number of years members are in office, the change would allow members to serve longer terms and not have to campaign every other year.  This has been introduced in the past, but members failed to put it on the ballot.  While Mayor Parker supports this, it is not an issue she has pushed for.

Council Member Melissa Noriega – Proposed for an evaluation of cost savings to provide electronic documents for council meetings.  If it’s cost effective, I don’t see why they shouldn’t make this change.


Hobby Expansion Almost Ready for Take Off

May 23, 2012

Mayor Parker announced that Southwest Airlines (SWA) will pay for the $100 million Hobby Airport expansion, which is the first step to opening the airport up to commercial international flights.  The agreement made by Mayor Parker and SWA says that the city will own the improvements to the airport, but SWA “will have preferential scheduling rights and pay no rent for its use of four of the five new international gates, and will also pay no rent for its use of the customs facility. The fifth additional gate and the customs facility will be available for use by all other airlines at Hobby, but unlike SWA, the other airlines will pay rent.”  In addition, SWA must abide by the Hire Houston First policy to make sure that local workers get a chance at the construction jobs.   This agreement must be confirmed by City Council, likely to take place on May 30th.

With many groups, such as Greater Houston Partnership supporting the Hobby expansion, there has also been plenty of criticism. The most vocal critique was a so-called independent study that said that the expansion would add 10,000 jobs and bring $1.6 billion to the Houston economy.  Many council members said that the study was biased and should be thrown out.  United Airlines, the competitor which flies out of Bush Intercontinental, argued that the expansion would actually cost Bush Intercontinental thousands of jobs and lose $295 million in the local economy.  Of course, both competing companies have their own agendas that conflict with each other.  It seems likely that both studies are exaggerated.

There are so many different theories out there about whether having one central hub for major flights is better than having several options where essentially the city would “compete against itself” as United President and CEO Jeff Smisek says.  However, if companies want to compete, should the government really stand in the way of that?

So far council members supporting the expansion are: Helena Brown, Andrew Burks, Stephen Costello, Ed Gonzalez, Al Hoang, Melissa Noriega, Oliver Pennington, and James Rodriguez.  I would like to know whether the other members just have not made a decision yet or are actually against the proposal.  If they are against it, I am curious as to the reason, as there surely could be more items to consider.

So far it seems like this is a pretty good deal for Houston.  It requires a private company to cover the costs of something the city will have for years to come.  Ultimately even if Hobby does not see an increase in 20 more flights a day as predicted, there appears to be very little risk for the city, so I hope to see this expansion take off.


The Feeding Ordinance is Hard to Swallow

April 4, 2012

Houston City Council passed the feeding ordinance today despite the protests from many Houstonians. Although this ordinance is slightly better than the one originally proposed, Mayor Annise Parker severely failed on this one.  The ordinance that passed requires written permission from the property owner to feed five or more homeless people and gives the city parks director the authority to designate certain parks as legal feeding venues (see here).  The ordinance also asks for charitable organizations to voluntarily register with the city and agree to safety rules and the coordination of scheduling.  The penalty for violations is $500.

There are many, many things wrong with this ordinance, and I think many of the council members and others have done a great job explaining that.  So rather than reiterate the same reasons why this ordinance is so awful, here is my take on how they should fix the ordinance (IF they HAD to pass something at all – and at this point, I am not convinced of that):

The City of Houston could create a website that allows charitable organizations to sign up on a voluntary basis, similar to the current ordinance.  The website would allow charitable organizations to sign up on a calendar for a date, time, and location for where they are planning on feeding the homeless.  Owners of private land even put their location on the calendar to allow charitable organizations to sign up at their place too.  The difference between this and the current ordinance is that this plan wouldn’t prohibit other groups from feeding the homeless on the same day.  Rather, it would just allow groups to coordinate their efforts, and since the website could run on its own, it would cost very little for the city to help this coordination…. Again, only if the city really thinks that this “problem” is as necessary as they say.

Charities that feed the homeless have to work very hard for the monetary donations they receive.  I am sure that many charities would voluntarily sign up for this website to join efforts to make sure that they aren’t planning a big event to feed the homeless at the same time and place as another group.  Coordinating efforts is helpful and might be welcomed by groups.

This would completely do away with penalties and requiring written permission to feed five or more people.  Charities would be able to see many private locations that welcome their services.  If a private land owner is worried about loitering and littering, there are already laws on the books for them to follow.  We don’t need more!  Also, if a land owner has tried to remove the homeless from his or her land to no avail, they could put up a “no loitering” sign and another sign explaining that food is not allowed on the property.  Surely charities will listen and find another place to feed the homeless.  Charities aren’t here to make enemies!

There are many other cities that have similar ordinances such as Orlando, Dallas, and Las Vegas.  All of these cases ended with lawsuits and many unhappy people, and there is no concrete evidence that such ordinances have helped anyone concerned.  Mayor Parker should rethink the message this is sending to the city.  This ordinance will do little other than making Houstonians angry and criminals out of those who are here to help.

Thanks to the following council members who voted against the ordinance: Mike Sullivan, Helena Brown, Al Hoang, Oliver Pennington, C.O. Bradford and Jack Christie.

Council Members who voted in favor of the ordinance are: Jerry Davis, Ellen Cohen, Wanda Adams, Ed Gonzalez, James Rodriguez, Mike Laster, Larry Green, Stephen Costello, Andrew Burks, and Melissa Noriega.


Helena Brown v. Annise Parker

February 23, 2012

I try to give all new council members the benefit of the doubt for a while before being really critical of them.  After all, it takes time to understand how the city works, how to vote, and how to critically analyze ordinances.   With that being said, I cannot let this incident go without commenting on it because this situation didn’t seem to be just a matter of not understanding the process; rather this was a complete mishandling of what should have been a simple problem.  Yesterday, Council Member Helena Brown got into an altercation with Mayor Annise Parker over the appointment of a member to the Spring Branch Management District.  The way this process is supposed to work is Mayor Parker picks members for a board, and she gives this list to all council members.  They then have two weeks to vet the members and let Mayor Parker know if they see an issue or even make other recommendations to the mayor.  If there are no issues to be worked out, she will bring it before council, and they can vote to accept or decline the members.

In the council meeting yesterday, CM Brown tried to remove current Board member (who was up again for consideration), Victor Alvarez, and add another person, Randy Simms, in his place.  CM Brown commented that Simms would be better for the “Korean community.”  Here is how the rest of the meeting played out (or watch the video here  – Item 2 on the agenda):

– Mayor Parker explained that Brown can’t do this.
– CM Brown asked for clarification from the city attorney who ruled with the mayor.
– Long rigmarole of procedural questions.
– After much discussion, Mayor Parker said to CM Brown, “I’ve been attempting to schedule a meeting with you for about two and a half weeks now.  I’ve made multiple requests, and I have resorted to communicating with you by email in order to discuss a range of items. You have consistently refused to meet with me, and had you had the opportunity to meet with me we may have been able to deal with this privately.”
– CM Brown said, “Mayor, I will not be bullied. You have made a request via one of your assistants for a meeting two weeks ago for which I specifically asked for specifics so I can decide whether the meeting is to be merited. And I don’t appreciate you announcing what is supposed to be our business before the whole city of Houston.  I’m a duly elected council member, and I will not be bullied.”
-Mayor Parker said, “I certainly apologize if you feel in any way bullied by my request that you meet with me privately in my office.”
– After the vote, Mayor Parker’s nominees were confirmed.

There are many things wrong with the scenario that played out in the council meeting.  First, Victor Alvarez is a supporter of former Council Member Brenda Stardig.  In fact, he let her use his garage apartment for her campaign headquarters (see full story here).  Many may remember that CM Brown beat Stardig last year, and Mayor Parker was a big financial contributor to Stardig’s campaign.  CM Brown brought nothing to the council meeting to show why Alvarez shouldn’t be on the Board other than saying that he sent “negative communications” – whatever that means.  If she had really disconcerting evidence, she should have explained further.

Next, I am a little confused why CM  Brown would want to delay a vote where two weeks won’t make a difference, but in other circumstances, she will not delay a vote to hear her constituents out (see here).  In January, some of her constituents asked her to hold off on selling 8,840 square feet of land in the district for $41,990 to a body shop owner.  The constituents have been trying to have a park built in that location for a long time.  She could have tagged it for a week just to have time to discuss it with her constituents.  Maybe in the end the outcome would have been the same.  Regardless, she should have tagged that item, but she didn’t, and she never said why she refused.  Somehow that vote was not ok to delay, but this is?

Finally, CM Brown really should have met with Mayor Parker before this hearing.  The mayor doesn’t ask to meet with you so she can say, “ha ha.  Too bad that you disagree with me.”  She calls a meeting so she can get someone’s input and have a discussion.  Maybe in the end Mayor Parker would have still disagreed with CM Brown, but at least they could have discussed it.  CM Brown accused Mayor Parker of bullying her.  If anything, CM Brown is the bully in this scenario by bringing this up in front of everyone to make Parker look bad and telling everyone that Mayor Parker’s meeting may not have been merited.  ALL meetings with the mayor to explain your point of view is merited!  CM Brown should have met with Mayor Parker, and if Mayor Parker still didn’t agree, that’s when Brown should have informed the other council members about Alvarez’s “negative communications” within the two weeks they had to discuss it.  As Council Member Andrew Burks said, “Who is Randy Simms?  Is he in the room today? … How can I make an intelligent decision on this?  I can’t. If Victor Alvarez has some problems, I’d like to know.”  How did CM Brown expect the other council members to agree with her if they knew nothing about the situation?  Either she didn’t think this through, or she brought it up to serve some other purpose (maybe to make Mayor Parker look bad?)  Either way, she didn’t handle this in the right way.

Whether you agree or disagree in general with Mayor Parker, she is still the mayor, and being disagreeable is NOT the way to get the job done.  I understand being the voice of opposition and trying to shake things up in a system that isn’t ideal; however, this is not the way to do it.  The way to do it is to work within the system to get things done and then try to work within the system to change it.  Voting no EVERY time just because it was brought up by the mayor is just as bad as voting yes every time.  What disrespect to one’s constituents to not even give an ordinance the proper time and consideration just because of politics.  With a strong mayoral form of government, she is never going to get any of her items on the agenda.  She needs to vote no when a no is warranted (and vice versa), but she needs to be respectful.  The point is that she needs to learn how to be an effective council member, and so far I haven’t seen it from her.

Other notable quotes:

Council Member Melissa Noriega said, “Forgive me.  I must object strenuously to this.  I think that it has not been our practice to single out individual appointments, nor has it been our practice to hammer them out at the table.  It is a lot of work and a lot of exposure and a lot of things for folks to do these jobs, and I am both uncomfortable and in opposition to the idea that we are going to handle it this way.”

Council Member James Rodriguez called it “unprofessional” to call out someone who is not there to defend themself.  He also said, “To pin two different cultures against each other is unprofessional.  I’m not going to stand by it, and I’m not going to support the motion”


Giving Up Power for Electricity Deal

January 6, 2012

On Wednesday Houston City Council voted 16-1 (CM Mike Sullivan was the only “no” vote) to give Mayor Annise Parker complete power to close a $550 million electricity deal.  I am ok with Mayor Parker being the one to negotiate the contract (as is the situation in most cases).  What I am not ok with is allowing her to sign the final contact with no approval from Council.  Usually city contracts are negotiated by the mayor but then must be ultimately approved by Houston City Council.  Council voted to usurp their power to make the final decision.
 
Council members generally said that these contracts move so quickly, so there is no time to bring it to a council vote and just asked to be “kept in the loop.”  They mentioned a few times that although there is still 18 months left on the current contract, they need to take advantage of a low rate if given the opportunity. 
 
I understand that contacts move quickly.  Electricity rates change all the time too, but I seriously doubt that any company would want to close the door on a huge, multi-million dollar contract so badly that they couldn’t wait a few days (at least 72 hours because of the Texas Open Meetings Act) for council to vote.  If they want to move quickly, instead of giving Mayor Parker so much power, they should have voted to take away tagging power for this item (when a council member tags an agenda item, it delays the vote for a week.  Members do this when they need more information to vote on an item or to want to get more feedback from constituents before voting).  This would have allowed for a much faster vote.  
 
I almost can’t fault Council Member Andrew Burks’ vote.  From the questions he asked, I don’t believe he fully understood what he was voting on (I’m not trying to be mean, but he just kept asking again and again if council members would be able to ultimately vote on the contact.  No, they can’t!  That’s the whole point of this vote!  Let’s move on.) 
 
Council Member Helena Brown is one of the 16 members who voted in favor of the item only to turn around and write a memo basically saying that she made a mistake.  I guess that is better than making a mistake and then just going along with it to not look bad.  Just like CM Burks, she is new, so I’ll give both of them the benefit of the doubt here and hope that they both make better decisions in the future.