City of Houston Bond Referendum and Charter Amendments

October 16, 2012

If you live in Houston, you will have seven propositions to vote on in November:

Proposition One:
This proposition is just to update the City Charter to remove obsolete items.  Proposition One would repeal the following:

Article I:
Section 2-a. – Extending City Limits upon Petition.
Section 2-b. – Extending Limits by Action of City Council.

These deal with annexation issues.  Annexation and extending the boundaries of the City of Houston are now governed by the state, so there is no need to have this in the Charter anymore.

Article II:
Sec. 14. – Schools—City of Houston an Independent School District.
Section 14a. – School board to furnish free school books.

These sections talk about public schools in the city.  Although many candidates for City Council over the last several years don’t realize, Houston no longer oversees public schools in the city!  This would remove this language from the Charter.

Article II:
Sec. 16 – Peace and Good Order.

This will just remove the items in this section that have been superseded by state or federal law such as:
Regulating the price of goods and treating disabled people less favorably than people who are not disabled.

Article IX:
Sec. 10. – Freeholder in city not disqualified as juror, etc.; city employees exempt jury service.

This section exempts city employees from jury duty, but state law (which supersedes the City Charter) made jury duty mandatory for city employees.

Proposition Two:

Articles VII-a and VII-b of the City Charter lay out the rules for recall, initiative, and referendum. The current Charter doesn’t recognize the single member council districts (A-K).  This will recognize the districts and make them subject to the same petition requirements as at-large members (1-5).

Analysis of Propositions 1 and 2:
I don’t see anything wrong with these two propositions.  The City Charter should accurately reflect what the City can and cannot do, so it’s a good idea to streamline it; however, I don’t know how voters will react to these.  It can be confusing even to the most experienced government insiders.  It is very likely that people will be confused and then just vote against them.  Example: many people don’t know that the City of Houston doesn’t oversee HISD or any of the other school districts in Houston.  They might think that this proposition will take away oversight in some way, and then they will vote against the proposition.  With the long ballot and pretty much no buzz on these items either way, we will just have to wait and see how people vote.

Proposition A: $144 million in Public Safety Improvement Bonds
Improvements at neighborhood police stations citywide
Expansion of Fire Station 55, City Council District D
New fire station to serve Pine Brook area, City Council District E
Expansion of Fire Station 22, City Council District I
Fire station maintenance/improvements citywide
Facility security improvements
Other building repairs

Analysis: Police and Fire stations desperately need upgrades, and there just isn’t money in the city budget right now with the way things are going.  I am concerned with the vagueness of what is being done with some of the money.  “Improvements at neighborhood police stations citywide.”  Will it really be citywide?  How will they decide which stations need improvements?  As with most bonds, there are a lot of questions that will have no answers.

Proposition B: $166 million in Park Improvement Bonds
Improvements at parks citywide, including at Haden, Busby, Judson Robinson Sr., Jaycee, Wright, Bembry, Hermann, Alief, Nieto, Squatty Lyons, Gragg, Braeburn Glen and Wildheather Parks
Pavilion replacements
Swimming pool upgrades and replacements
Ball field lighting upgrades
Trail replacement and overlays
Bayou Greenways Project

Analysis: The group responsible for putting this together is Parks By You.  Although they have some specifics on what they plan to do, so much of it is up in the air.  They are trying to receive $166 million in bond money, but they still have to raise $105 million from the private sector to complete their projects.  From what I heard from a recent presentation by the group, they don’t have this money together yet.

Proposition C: $57 million in Public Improvement Bonds for health, sanitation/recycling, and city facilities improvements
Repairs to City Hall and City Hall Annex
Renovation of the Westpark recycling facility, City Council District J
Renovation of the Central Depository, City Council District I
Possible repair of Sunnyside Multi-Service Center, City Council District D
Environmental remediation

Possible repair of Sunnyside Multi-Service Center?  Do they not know if it needs repairs? It would make me nervous to vote for something that they don’t really know specifically how the money will be used.

Proposition D: $28 million in Library Improvement Bonds
Renovation of the Montrose Library, City Council District C
Replacement of the Moody Library, City Council District H
Replacement of the Meyer Library, City Council District K
Renovation of Robinson-Westchase Library, City Council District F

Analysis: This one is pretty concrete in terms of how they are going to use the money.  It really comes down to whether or not you agree with spending that much money on libraries.

Proposition E: $15 million In Public Improvement Bonds for affordable housing
These bonds will be used to demolish blighted properties to provide locations for construction of affordable housing using federal funds.

Analysis: There is no question that there are blighted properties that need to be demolished, but do they really need to then turn those areas into affordable housing units?  If the federal government wants to build in that location badly enough, they should pay to remove the property.  The city might do better to sell off the land to the highest bidders who are also willing to demolish the property.

You can find more information about Propositions One and Two here and A-E here.  The actual Charter can be found here if you want to see the exact language you are voting about.


District A Convention

October 15, 2012

Council Member Helena Brown is hosting a District A convention on 10/20/12.  You can register here if you’re interested.  It is from 8:00 AM – 6:00 PM at Spring Woods High School.

Houston is Known for….Art and Culture?

September 27, 2012

Tourists visiting Houston go to the zoo and the Galleria and….
Well at least as Houstonians we know that we can either go outside and melt the day away or go to….

If you’re having trouble finishing these sentences, apparently you’re not alone.  Although the arts (operas, ballets, symphonies, theatres, and museums) bring in about $869 million dollars a year, Houston isn’t known as the “arts capitol of the country” and maybe not even of the state.  Furthermore, the arts in Houston bring about “about 20,000 jobs and $97 million in revenue for local and state government.”   Still somehow Houston is known as a business destination.

With such high numbers, obviously people are participating in the arts, but it seems likely that we as a city aren’t capitalizing on this significant money maker.  Rice University Kinder Institute conducted a great study about the arts in Houston.  Interestingly 56% of those surveyed said that they would rather have the arts than sports in the city, yet it seems like sports are publicized far more than arts.

Here are some of the best places to take tourists in Houston according to different sites:
Houston Chronicle – Kemah Boardwalk. Note: Kemah isn’t in Houston
Yelp – Spec’s Liquor Warehouse

Then you have TripAdvisor and Yahoo Travel with arts/museums as their top places listed; but as you can see, it’s kind of all over the place, which can cause confusion for travelers.  The website lists Theatre and Arts as the 5th (out of 6) thing that Houston is known for after diversity (?), space and science, shopping, and sports.  Last on the list: restaurants.  Finally, when you do a Yahoo search for “things to do in Houston, Texas” one of the related searches that is shown at the bottom of the page is “Kemah Boardwalk.”  Again, Kemah is not Houston!!

So how can Houston capitalize on its apparently booming art industry?  One idea might be to expand on the types of art that Houstonians and visitors want.  In the Kinder survey, page 11 shows that 30.9% of those surveyed listen to Rock, pop, hip-hop, or rap music, whereas only .8% listen to opera.  I was about to suggest a Houston hip-hop festival, but after doing a search, I discovered that there already is one.

This brings me to my next suggestion: use social media to get the word out!  According to the study, 38.5% of people get information about art events from radio and television whereas 18.7% receive it from the Internet and smartphones (the survey then says that 3.9% receive it from social media…. You can probably add that to the category of “Internet.”)  The average age of those attending arts events is older, but surely newer ways of advertising will increase chances of more people attending the event.

Finally, Houston needs rebranding.  Las Vegas did it in the 90s when they tried to make it more family friendly.  New York did it in the 70s with “I love New York.” This is where city council and the mayor should step in.  While I don’t believe the government should be responsible for much outside of safety and infrastructure, I do believe in the government stepping in on tourism.  We won’t have money for safety and infrastructure if we don’t have people coming here and spending money.  While I’m not suggesting that we spend a ton of money on this, I am suggesting that we rethink how we spend the funds.  It is time to promote Houston as the city that it truly is.

Parking Violations Must Make “Cents”

September 4, 2012

According to the Houston Chronicle, the Downtown Management District and the city of Houston are looking at ways to make downtown parking less of a hassle so people will want to be repeat customers.  Although it took them a long time, I am glad to hear that the city is FINALLY starting to study these issues, something I have been calling for since I ran for office in 2009.

One of my platform issues was to implement a tax dollar review program.  Under this program, the controller’s office would have to audit every city program.  Each program would come up for review on a rotation every X number of years, depending on the program.  Some should be audited more often than others.  The controller’s office already conducts audits at the mayor’s request, so adding the number of audits won’t increase costs for the city much, and the amount of waste they would find would pay for this and then some.

Parking meters is one of the examples I usually gave to illustrate this concept.  What if we were spending more money on the salaries of those who gave tickets to violators than we were making from the meters?  We finally know that parking meters are making the city money, but how many years did it take them to figure that out?  If the city would have audited this program years ago, they would have found ways to streamline it and ways to make people want to come downtown more often.  Instead, years later, they are just now realizing that changes need to be made.

Implementing a tax dollar review program across the city will surely show elected officials how to be better stewards of our money and will strengthen the effectiveness of our tax dollars.

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…..

Houston Feeding Ordinance and Petitions

August 14, 2012

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

The Secret is Out on Open Meetings

August 7, 2012

Houston City Attorney David Feldman proposed a new plan to allow for “closed-session discussions of hirings and firings, lawsuits, real estate transactions and other matters allowed by the Texas Open Meetings Act” (see here).   Feldman said, “‘Contrary to what some might say, and that is that this is a move away from transparency, I believe that just the opposite is true.  We are oftentimes – this administration, any administration of the city – accused of bringing matters to council as a fait accompli.  The reason that that’s the case is that we can’t have an executive session like everybody else in the state of Texas to discuss these things before they’re placed on the agenda for action.’”

Mayor Parker ultimately decided not to try to put this proposition up on the ballot in November, but the idea is interesting.  The Open Meetings Act “was adopted to help make governmental decision-making accessible to the public. It requires meetings of governmental bodies to be open to the public, except for expressly authorized closed sessions, and to be preceded by public notice of the time, place and subject matter of the meeting.”  Basically the council members and mayor are prohibited from getting together and discussing city matters unless they open the meeting up to the public.  It sounds reasonable, but, as with most things in life, there are pros and cons:

Pros to open meetings:
–          Less likely to have under the table deals.
–          We elect people to represent us, and we should know their thoughts and opinions.
–          Transparency in government is always a good thing.

Cons to open meetings:
–          Council meetings are soooooooooooo long.  Members ask questions that they should have already asked, and then many of them talk and repeat what others said just to make a point.  Closed meetings might allow some of their questions to be answered without dragging out council meetings.  Honestly, who besides reporters, staffers, and me really sit through the meetings?  It might be open, but who is watching?
–          A closed meeting might allow members to work out sound policy ideas without worrying about politics and their next election.

One interesting note about closed meetings is that the Constitutional Convention in 1787 was completely closed and secretive.  The delegates wanted nothing to leak out before their final draft was complete.  They also wanted to be able to speak freely.  The Convention was actually so secretive that windows and doors were closed, and no one was allowed in without signed credentials (from The Real George Washington, the True Story of America’s Most Indispensable Man by the National Center for Constitutional studies – I highly recommend it.  It’s a long book, but it’s really good).  I think the delegates at the Convention had good reasons for keeping this meeting secretive.  Primarily if anything from the meeting leaked and was printed in the paper, it could take months before people were able to read it.  By then the ratification fight already began, and the delegates needed to make sure that people received the real and final information, not bits and pieces from the discussion.

Clearly closed meetings have their time and place, but it was wise to not proceed with this proposal.  Ultimately in today’s age of technology, I don’t think the public would have voted in favor of making this charter amendment, and the prospect of it might have made people angry and wonder what the city is hiding.