Scandals at City Hall

August 23, 2012

What is happening at the City of Houston??  Elected officials are supposed to represent us, but with scandal after scandal, it seems like all they are doing is representing their own interests.

1. Controller Ronald Green – He acted as a character witness and asked a judge for probation for his friend, Dwayne K. Jordon, who has pleaded guilty to felony theft.  According to the Houston Chronicle, “Jordon pilfered 23 Houston properties from different owners and then duped unsuspecting buyers into purchasing homes built on stolen ground.”  Controller Green’s wife, Justice of the Peace Hilary Harmon Green, ordered the eviction of tenants on behalf of Jordon.  Surely this was a conflict of interest considering her personal ties to Jordon, but should Controller Green be kicked out of office at the next election for his role?  Elected officials walk a very fine line between their public and private life.  Did Controller Green ask for probation, or did Ronald Green?  It will be interesting to see if this will have any impact on the next election.

My guess is that it won’t carry that much weight considering the $120,000 he owes to the IRS didn’t really play a factor in his initial election in 2009.  This might actually be worse than the incident with Jordon.  The controller is the money manager of the city, and yet, he can’t handle his own finances.  Controller Green said that it was an “‘honest dispute’” and is working to get it resolved.  Apparently he still owes $112,000.  Disputes like this happen all the time, and we really don’t have all the facts, but people are often quick to jump on these types of issues.  Surprisingly, it wasn’t a huge issue in his 2009 race, but it has yet to be seen if this coupled with Jordon’s case will be enough for someone to run against him and win.

2. Council Member Larry Green – He left the nonprofit workforce training center, HousonWorks, with $1.7 million in unpaid bills after stepping down as its CEO to focus on city council.  Although the organization was in trouble before CM Green’s arrival, board president Howard Lederer said that CM Green held galas and golf tournaments that “turned out to be expensive events that did little more than pay for themselves.”  Furthermore, an audit by the Houston-Galveston Area Council (H-GAC) found “extensive mismanagement at the organization.  The report also resulted in the H-GAC deciding not to renew a long-standing multi-million dollar contact with HoustonWorks.”  It sounds like he completely mismanaged this program and made many poor choices.

3. Council Member Helena Brown – She hired a private attorney to sit in with her on public meetings and then tried to seek $850 in reimbursements from the city.  It is fine to consult an outside attorney, but it shouldn’t be paid for with tax dollars considering that council members are already given access to an attorney.  She also asked for $2,108 in reimbursements for gas money for her volunteer, William Park.  City policy does not reimburse volunteers.  Finally, her $3,000 purchase of 13,000 magnets is also being reviewed as to whether or not it constitutes political advertising.  CM Brown said that the magnets will be included in a mail out for a district convention to be held later this year.

4. Council Member James Rodriguez – Spent tax dollars for a trip to Disney World for a Latino elected officials’ conference.

5. Council Member Jack Christie – Spent tax dollars to visit Harvard for a leadership seminar.

6. Council Member Wanda Adams –  Spent tax dollars on a trade mission to Ghana as well as iPads.

7. Council Member Jerry Davis – Spent $3,500 from his budget to produce a PSA on illegal dumping and another $2,300 to air it on a radio station.  This one isn’t terrible, but how many people really heard that PSA?  I doubt it was worth the money.  It probably would have been better if he worked with the city for a city-wide campaign that would have cost less to produce and would have reached more people. He also spent $600 worth of brisket and sausage for an event promoting women’s health…. Because brisket and sausage are so healthy… and are typically loved by women…..

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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)


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.


Predictions for the November 2011 Election

November 4, 2011

Now that Election Day is right around the corner, here are my guesses as to who will win.  Keep in mind that this is not a list of who I want to win.  It is a list of who I think will win.

Mayor:
Kevin Simms
Amanda Ulman
Dave Wilson
Fernando Herrera
Annise D. Parker
Jack O’Connor

I think Mayor Parker will win reelection.  Although there are many people who will gladly vote for anyone else, there are still plenty of people who are excited to continue voting for Parker.  As of November 3rd, early voting was down by 23%.   This shows that people might not be as excited to rush out to vote for Parker, but it also shows that people aren’t excited to vote against her either.

District A:
Brenda Stardig
Helena Brown
Bob Schoellkopf

CM Stardig will likely win again.  Although Brown raised more money than a challenger to an incumbent is expected to, beating an incumbent is so difficult, and I don’t think Brown did enough.

District B:
Kenneth Perkins
Kathy Blueford-Daniels
Phillip “Paul” Bryant
Alvin Byrd
Jerry Davis
Charles A. Ingram
Bryan Smart

It is really difficult to predict who the front runners are in this one.  There will be a runoff, but I don’t think anyone can predict at this point who will be in that runoff.

District C:
Randy Locke
Josh Verde
Ellen Cohen
Karen Derr
Brian Cweren

I think Cohen pretty much has this one locked up.  The only thing standing in her way is the fact that she and Derr might split votes, causing a runoff between Cohen and Cweren.  Even with a runoff, I think Cohen will win.

District D:
Wanda Adams
Larry McKinzie

CM Adams will most likely win reelection. 

District E:
Mike Sullivan

District F:
Al Hoang
Hoc Thai Nguyen (Nguyen Thai Hoc)
Peter “Lyn” René

I predict CM Hoang will win.  Even if a District F resident is incensed with Hoang’s job (which many definitely are), the presence of two other candidates to choose from will render a splitting of votes, causing Hoang to win.

District G:
Clyde Bryan
Oliver Pennington

Although CM Pennington is an incumbent, many people in District G know Bryan.  Still I don’t think that enough people are upset with Pennington’s performance to change their vote.  Let’s not forget that Pennington beat four other people in 2009 and won with 59.10% of the vote.

District H:
Patricia Rodriguez
Edward “Ed” Gonzalez 

CM Gonzalez will likely win again. 

District I:
Leticia Gutierrez Ablaza
James Rodriguez 

CM Rodriguez will likely win again.

District J:
Mike Laster
Rodrigo Canedo
Criselda Romero

Laster raised the most money.  Although this district is considered a “Hispanic-Opportunity District,” with only 17 of registered voters with Hispanic surnames, I don’t think being Hispanic automatically predicts a win here.  I think Laster will win.

District K:
Pat Frazier
Larry Green
Alex Gonik

Simply, Green has the money and the endorsements.  While that doesn’t always predict a win, I think it will in this case.

At-Large 1:
Stephen C. Costello
James Partsch-Galvan
Scott Boates
Don Cook 

This is a hard one to say.  CM Costello is the one behind the Rebuild Houston drainage fee, and I think most voters know that by now.  Although many are angry about it, let’s not forget that it did pass by the voters in the last election.  Even when you take away the number of people who originally voted for it and are now against it, there are still many who support the fee and who support Costello.  Couple that with the fact that Boates recently stated that he “‘ joined both parties this year as part of this run for office.'”  It’s fine if someone is a moderate (actually that might not be a bad thing at all), but his poor choice of words and the fact that it will be difficult to make headway with either party might cause a clear opening for Costello to win again.  I am fairly confident in many of my predictions, but I really won’t be shocked if Costello loses. 

At-Large 2:
Kristi Thibaut
Elizabeth C. Pérez
Andrew C. Burks, Jr.
Gordon R. Goss
Bolivar “Bo” Fraga
Eric B. Dick
Jenifer Rene Pool
M. “Griff” Griffin
David W. Robinson
Roslyn “Rozzy” Shorter 

This is another one where it is really difficult to predict.  I think there will be a runoff that includes Thibaut, but I am not sure who will be in it with her.  Maybe Robinson, but then again, let’s not discount the fact that for the last couple of months you couldn’t drive anywhere in Houston without seeing an Eric Dick (illegal) sign.  In the end I think Thibaut will win. 

At-Large 3:
Melissa Noriega
Chris Carmona
J. Brad Batteau 

CM Noriega will likely win.  I think those who supported her last time still support her today. 

At-Large 4:
Louis Molnar
Amy Price
C. O. “Brad” Bradford 

I don’t see CM Bradford losing his seat.  He has lots of support from both sides of the aisle and hasn’t done anything that the majority of voters would find alarming. 

At-Large 5:
Laurie Robinson
Jolanda “Jo” Jones
Jack Christie
Bob Ryan 

I really think Christie will win this time.  I think enough people are mad an CM Jones and want her out.  With Christie as the clear front runner with Jones, I think it will end up being just a battle between them with Christie winning. 

City Controller:
Ronald Green


It’s $3 Million…Can you Hear Me Now?

July 24, 2011

In a city where we’ve had to look for new ways to collect taxes, increase fees, and decrease services, we have been told that every penny counts.  Then shouldn’t $3 million count considerably?? 

Mayor Parker recently barely secured enough votes to approve a new wireless contract that would save $3 million.  AT&T is the current provider for city cell phones and emergency communications.  Parker has been trying for a while now to switch the contract over to Sprint to save $3 million.

Sure, there are a few detriments to consider: Sprint is not a Texas company like AT&T, Sprint might not have the  infrastructure and personnel support needed during disasters like hurricanes as AT&T does, and Parker’s former campaign treasurer is a registered lobbyist for Sprint.

So with all of these items to think about before approving the new contract, what was the main concern with Sprint?  They are not a union like AT&T!  $3 million is on the table here, and that is what council members are concerned with?  Council members approve contracts for the city all the time, and I can’t remember a time where members tried to go with another company based only on whether or not they are a union.  It is time for them to wake up and hear from their constituents that we need to take a serious look at our finances and cut every place we can.

How the council members voted:
FOR (approving the change from AT&T to Sprint):
Anne Clutterbuck, Stephen Costello, Sue Lovell, Oliver Pennington, James Rodriguez, Brenda Stardig, and Mike Sullivan

AGAINST (voted to keep the AT&T contract):
Ed Gonzalez, Melissa Noriega, Wanda Adams, C.O. Bradford, Jarvis Johnson, and Jolanda Jones


Houston’s $4 Billion Budget

June 23, 2011

Houston City Council voted on the budget for the next fiscal year.  The general funds budget ended up being about $1.8 billion, and the overall budget is $4 billion ($2.2 billion is for the enterprise funds like airport and water utilities that usually generate their own revenues through user fees).  All members voted in favor of it except Mike Sullivan and Anne Clutterbuck.  Here are the highlights :
 
Items Cut:
–  Total of about $100 million less than the current fiscal year.
– Largest cuts were to HPD and HFD (Note: I’m sure no one wanted to do this, but most of the budget is allocated to these departments, so there was no way to significantly reduce the budget without touching these two departments.   No officers or firefighters were laid off).
– Mayor Parker cut eight pools and seven community centers, but private donations of $350,000 are keeping the pools open.
– Layoffs of 747 city workers.
– Reduction of library hours.
 
Amendments that Failed:
– Council Member Wanda Adams introduced an amendment to increase each council member’s office budget.  The current office yearly budget is $382,432, and CM Adams wanted to increase it to $392,222.  She said she is getting 67,000 more constituents after redistricting.  Council Member Jolanda Jones said that they are elected to be responsive to their constituents.  I agree, but many (not all) council offices seem to just push you to call 3-1-1 instead of their office.  Or if you do call their office, they just give your information to 3-1-1 to “handle” your concern.  My thought is start doing actual constituent casework, and then we’ll talk about budget increases.  Council Members Adams, Jarvis Johnson, and Jones voted in favor of the amendment, but it failed. 
– Council Member Stephen Costello introduced an amendment to look into the lack of grocery stores in poor communities.  The amendment called for an establishment of guidelines for loans or grants, giving priority to projects in underserved communities.  While this certainly is an important issue, especially for those living in these areas, there are bus stops by many grocery stores in Houston, so it’s not like there is absolutely no access.  Mayor Parker pointed out that state law covers development deals; however the city has been known for approving development deals with grocery stores before.  This usually happens with tax incentives and not loans.  I’m ok with tax incentives in some regards but not with giving loans to companies.  Do we want to become the federal government?  This amendment ended up being pulled by CM Costello.
 
Problems for the Future:
– The budget defers tens of millions of dollars.  A deal with the police pension board allows the city to put off $17 million in pension contributions for three years.  A deal with the firefighters union allows the city to put off about $10 million in lump-sum payments for firefighters who leave the department.  This will be paid over four years instead.
– The red light camera issue has not been resolved.  If the red light camera company sues to recoup their money, or even if they make a deal with the city, we are taking about millions and millions of dollars here.
 
The budget also calls for a Long-Range Financial Management Task Force to recommend how to address the unfunded liabilities, pensions, debt, and other obligations.  The task force will include two council members, an appointee by the mayor, and representatives from the finance department, labor unions, pension boards, and controller’s office.  I’m ok with this idea, but shouldn’t the council members, pension board, and controller’s office have already been working on how to address these problems??  I guess they haven’t, but at least they are now.  Also, the budget includes no property tax increases.  It also doesn’t tap into the reserve account nor does it borrow money to pay for pensions (like Bill White’s budget did).


Update: No Change to Term Limits

August 19, 2010

Houston City Council voted against a proposed charter amendment to change term limits from three 2-year terms to two 4-year terms.  I think this was a smart move.  Council members have more to worry about than extending their own terms in office. 

More new members voted in favor of putting the amendment on the ballot, but it was not split on party lines the way some might have predicted (CM Jolanda Jones was absent for a family obligation).

Those voting in favor of putting the proposed charter amendment on the ballot: Mayor Parker, Brenda Stardig, Jarvis Johnson, Wanda Adams, Mike Sullivan, Al Hoang and Oliver Pennington.

Those voting against putting the proposed charter amendment on the ballot: Stephen Costello, Anne Clutterbuck, Ed Gonzalez, James Rodriguez, Sue Lovell, Melissa Noriega and C.O. Bradford