On the history of recent City of Houston charter amendments – and their enforcement (and this means same sex benefits too!)

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Well, well, well. The November 2013 City of Houston elections have come and almost gone. As is often the case, the show isn’t entirely over, as there are some runoffs to determine the final winners of some races because one of the candidates in a particular race did not manage to obtain a simple majority to win outright. Runoffs will be held on December 14th, 2013.

Be that as it may, sitting City of Houston Mayor Annise Parker did manage to win a final term in office, and since the City of Houston has a very strong mayoral form of government, Mayor Parker has come out swinging since her reelection. She has decided to push for increased regulation of payday and automobile title loans, which are primarily used by those with low incomes. Another ordinance on wage theft applying to companies that do business within the city is also on the way. However, the act on Mayor Parker’s part that has raised the most eyebrows amongst the populace clearly has been to issue an offer of life and health insurance benefits to same-sex city employees, contravening a city charter amendment passed in 2001 prohibiting such, and a statewide constitutional amendment in 2005 defining marriage as between a man and woman. This act of Mayor Parker’s, in regard to overturning a standing city charter amendment passed by voters, is what this post is about.

The charter amendment process

Texas statutory law, specifically the Texas Local Government Code, section 9.004, affords the residents of Texas who live in home rule cities the ability to amend their city charters, provided they obtain the required number of valid signatures needed to put the issue at stake onto the ballot (in the case of the City of Houston, the number of required valid signatures is 20,000). Signatures must come from City of Houston residents. This legal device has proven to be rather popular amongst various groups of Houstonians since the start of the 21st century, who have used charter amendments to push through various agendas. I know from personal experience, since I worked on two charter amendment drives back in 2001, one pertaining to the construction of rail lines within City limits, and the other to impose a revenue cap on all forms of money taken by the City.

Something that few of my friends know is that I (along with a few others) went to court back in 2001 over the revenue cap proposition, because the City of Houston Secretary’s office, overseen by longtime Secretary Anna Russell, failed to confirm that we had submitted enough valid signatures in time to put it on the November 2001 ballot. The revenue cap proposition did not actually get put on the ballot until 2005, because Dave Wilson’s same-sex benefit prohibition proposition did get passed in November 2001, and the law states that no new propositions can be adopted to amend a city charter for a period of two years after a previous proposition has been adopted as a city charter amendment. The November 2003 City of Houston elections were held some 1 year and 363 (or so) days after the November 2001 elections, hence the City used that as a reason to keep it off the ballot until November 2005. By then, the City had a new mayor, Bill White, who persuaded Houston City Council to put a counter proposition to our Revenue Cap, leaving a confused citizenry to vote on two competing revenue propositions. Both were passed, leading to yet another legal battle, this time taken up by conservative activist Bruce Hotze against the City of Houston, an argument that lasted for years before the City seemingly prevailed. It appears that in recent years the City isn’t even bothering to follow any revenue limitation imposed via charter amendment.

Which charter amendments “stick” — and which don’t

Which brings me — at last — to the crux of this post. There has become a discernible pattern over the past dozen years of which city charter amendment propositions are able to stick, and which ones don’t.  Generally, history has shown that the charter amendments that stick are the ones that the political classes lurking around at City Hall are happy with because they expand City monies or power, while the ones that aren’t allowed to stick are the ones that the political classes can’t live with, usually because they intend to restrain the City somehow.  Here is a summary of the fate of the politically notable charter amendment propositions:

1) The citizen-driven same-sex benefit prohibition (2001 – passed): This is the charter amendment that Mayor Parker now intends to ignore.

2) Citizen-driven proposition to require public votes on Metro rail in the City of Houston: (2001 – passed). This has been adhered to.

3) Citizen-driven City of Houston revenue cap: (2001 – public vote was delayed until 2005). See above concerning the fate of the revenue cap.

4) Citizen-driven Rebuild Houston drainage fee: (2010 – passed): The “drainage fee” was adopted and put into effect almost immediately. I’ve been told that the monies collected are going into the City’s general fund, contravening the political promises that the monies would be a dedicated funding source for drainage and roads. The City has also used drainage fee monies for purchasing City vehicles.

5) City Council-sponsored change regarding City of Houston residency requirements for elected officials: (2010 – failed). This proposition would have lowered the residency barrier for elected officials in the City of Houston from one year to six months. Residency laws are usually enforced, but there have been many arguments and battles around the country concerning whether officials actually obey residency laws.

6) Citizen-driven prohibition of the operation of red-light traffic cameras within the City of Houston: (2010 – passed). This proposition passed in 2010 after a pitched political battle, largely because the sponsors of the proposition — the Kubosh family — had enough money and, just as importantly, a big mailing list and public opinion, to fight City Hall and to prevail. Initially the City dithered over taking them down since the City was bound in a contract with the red-light camera manufacturer, but eventually the City backed down and coughed up the money to break the contract.

7) City Council-sponsored removal of obsolete charter language pertaining to City involvement with the Houston Independent School District, extending city boundaries via petition, and obsolete references to party primaries in what are supposed to be officially non-partisan city elections: (2012 – passed). These propositions passed.

8) However, there was an untold story to these propositions in 2012 passing, namely that there was another citizen-driven proposition whose intent was to overturn a public feeding ordinance, that was kept off the ballot, and will now not be allowed to get on the ballot for at least two years because these propositions passed.

Wow! For some reason, that sounds strangely familiar.

And so it goes. Again, the overall pattern regarding city charter propositions that emerges is that those propositions that find favor with the political classes down at City Hall — usually meaning that they expand power or monies available for the City — often stick. Meanwhile those propositions that are pushed by outsiders — which usually are intended to restrain the City somehow — are often shoved aside one way or another. That observation should give some pause for the Kubosh brothers and their popular (and well publicized) victory over City Hall over red-light cameras. Another inference that one can draw from these stories is that there are impositions upon government that the citizenry can get to stick (like term limits on officials), and then there are other impositions that are much harder (if not impossible) to get the government to abide by, like formal limits on revenue or taxation monies, or spending caps.

So what does this all mean for the upcoming battle over Mayor Parker’s move no longer to abide by the citizen-driven charter amendment to prohibit benefits to city employees who are in same-sex partnerships or marriages? Well, we know that it matters who sits in the mayor’s chair. However, because of the statewide vote back in 2005 regarding same-sex marriages, there is likely to be a long and winding road that will be taken, strewn with legal landmines aplenty, before the issue is for the meantime settled.

Does that mean that I’ve given up on charter amendment propositions as a vehicle to effect change in City of Houston government? No, but this long experience with charter amendments has given me something of a jaundiced view as to how effective the proposition and charter amendment method can be in effecting change. My advice to any group of Houstonians in the future who are contemplating trying to mount a charter amendment campaign would be to ask yourselves, “can we get the City of Houston actually to abide by what we want, and will it actually stick?” If the answers to those questions are no, then you’d better think twice before spending your time and money on making the effort.