A new City of Houston reform group: Citizens Empowered

Image credit: Pixabay

This past Friday, November 1st 2013, the Houston Property Rights Association had, as guest speakers, Kathryn Van Der Pol and Carlos Doroteo. Ms. Van Der Pol is owner of a local auto repair garage, while Mr. Doroteo is an attorney and former staffer for Democrat politicians, Rick Noriega, his wife Melissa Noriega, and Councilmember Ed Gonzalez. They have formed a group, Citizens Empowered, which has the aim of bringing a series of reforms to City Hall.


Ms. Van Der Pol told HPRA that she became somewhat unwittingly entangled in politics (as do many people) because of changes that Mayor Annise Parker had proposed in regulating automobile shops. She told HPRA that there are over 600 repair shops that are part of her association, and thousands of shops within Harris County, clearly denoting how large the industry is. Mr. Doroteo, on the other hand, has seen City Hall and politics from inside the belly of the beast. Neither of these two is entirely happy with the way things are down at Houston City Hall.

One can read what Ms. Van Der Pol and Mr. Doroteo are proposing at their website, but we were given handouts on their proposals. Having battled City Hall a number of times, and having watched the regime fairly closely for many years, I can certainly agree with many of their proposals, which include posting the weekly City agenda one week in advance rather than a mere three days; holding Council meetings in the evenings (since most people who have to obey the government’s edicts have to work, stay around the house to watch kids or family, etc); and improving transparency in showing how the City handles money (showing tax breaks, itemizing spending, etc).  It will require hiring a few City employees to handle these ideas, but will shine greater light on how government burns through your money.

Some of Citizens Empowered’s proposals, however, will probably need charter amendment level approval, namely allowing councilmembers to introduce legislation. There was much talk about the current, longstanding regime of Houston government, with its very strong mayoral system. Ms. Van Der Pol told the audience that she was stunned that the new regulations she was facing were drawn up by only four people — a City bureaucrat, a police officer, former Councilmember Sue Lovell, and Mayor Annise Parker. She was pointedly critical of what she saw as a lot of secrecy in how decisions were made. Clearly, many councilmembers are often fearful of the mayor, and I’ve come to agree that the mayor has almost monarch-like power.

One of the goals of Citizens Empowered that I do not support, however, is that of requiring that fees be spent for their intended purposes. Why? Well, it sounds like a noble idea, but the reality of government is that money is fungible, and there is nothing that citizens can do to compel any government to spend monies they confiscate from the citizenry for the stated reasons they are collected. There are some rules that government officials can be forced to follow (like abiding by term limits), but unfortunately commanding officials on how money is to be spent isn’t one of them. Again, it’s a noble idea, but it simply can’t be enforced.

There are others who have joined the Citizens Empowered coalition, including longtime activist Jane Cahill West and former Mayor Hofheinz aide George Hernandez. It’s too late for this initiative to gain enough steam to affect the City of Houston elections occurring Tuesday, but I look for Citizens Empowered to affect the local dialogue. Indeed Councilmember C.O. Bradford and former Councilmember Carroll Robinson have joined the chorus, airing an Op-Ed in the Houston Chronicle calling for a somewhat different set of reforms. One reform proposal where there seems to be an agreement allows councilmembers to put items onto the agenda on their own, or allows them to introduce legislation. I like the idea, but I tend to look at government in a different light, and by nature am always wary of change without fully thinking through what might happen if the change were adopted. Still, I plan on joining the coalition, in order to speak out on what I’d like to see, and am planning on spreading the word to get people to join.