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A Most Unusual Water Bill Complaint

To set the scene, here are two names from the Houston City Council agenda for public speakers to address council on Tuesday afternoon:

  • Mr. Deepak Upreti – 8500 Nairn Street – 77074 – Water dispute discrepancy
  • Mr. Kamal Bhambhani - 8500 Nairn Street – 77074 – Water dispute discrepancy

What jumps out from this is the address. 8500 Nairn is the Rockport Apartments here in southwest Houston. It is also one that was particularly hard-hit by the tornadoes and flooding that happened over Labor Day weekend. Here's some background on why this particular apartment complex means anything:

» KTRK: Many Residents Displaced After Tornado Hits SW Houston Apartment Complex

The scene was pretty gruesome. Council Member Mike Laster and his crew worked overtime to help families in the days after 11 of the 22 buildings in this complex were damaged.

Anyhow, it turns out that the owners of the complex chose to address council about what they believe to be a $2,000 overcharge on the water bill for the complex - supposedly related to the impact the damage had on the occupancy rate for the complex. Things did not go well.


The Six-Year Itch for Term Limit Reform

» Chron: As council seats churn, calls for term-limit reform

I'm a bit behind Kuff on this, but I think there are at least a few points worth making about it that don't seem to come up by the time this idea gets studied by "very serious people."

The mayor's tenure in local government - on city council, as city controller and as mayor - has been under the current term limits regime approved by a voter referendum in 1991, but Parker said she has come to fully appreciate its weaknesses as a chief executive.

"San Antonio and Houston are the two megacities in America that have two-year terms, and it puts us at a disadvantage vis-à-vis our fellow mayors and those cities in terms of competing for grants, in terms of working through the organizations that support cities," Parker said. "It's expensive for the city and for candidates, and it provides for distractions."

In 2010, a commission appointed by former Mayor Bill White proposed asking voters for two four-year terms. It failed in a 7-7 full council vote. In 2012, a council committee voted 9-1 not to forward a proposal for three four-year terms to the full council amid concerns it would fail on a crowded ballot.

I tend to think that the "every two year complaint" is fairly weak. There might be some kind of argument on that for a Mayor and maybe even Controller. But I don't see why a two-year term for city council member is any more debilitating than it is for a member of Congress, State Representatives, half of the State Senate (at least at the start of the decade), and any unexpired state administrative office.

A few ideas that I wish were on the table are the following:

» Fix the JoJo exclusion. The statute, as written, is amazingly short and simple:

Section 6a. – Limitation of terms.
No person, who has already served two full terms, shall be eligible to file for that same office.

The statute is also amazingly unequal in how it applies a qualification for office. So much so, that I'm curious if this inequality provides an opening for a legal challenge. Basically, the law says that some folks get to serve three full terms and some only get to serve two full terms. If a candidate loses re-election to their second term (ala Brenda Stardig and Helena Brown), you have an entirely different qualification for office than someone who lost re-election to their third term (ala Jolanda Jones and Al Hoang).

There haven't been many parties aggrieved by this statute, so it seems to me that there might be improved odds of that happening now that we have two such individuals. I would think that there might be ground to make this application more equal by substituting equally simple language that limits any officeholder to no more than three full terms ... period.

That may not address any deeper concerns about the Clymer Wright-era limitations. But it does offer an incremental cleanup. And if it were to go through a charter amendment vote, it might be an easy enough one that it opens the door for public perception to see that elected officials aren't trying to change the rules they have to abide by in the middle of the game. If you're not sure about the public appetite for altering term limits, this modification would be a good test run.

» Why not three? - Many Texas towns have three year terms. Why is there such an immediate impetus for four-year terms when there is already a more common model already being utilized throughout Texas? You could leave the term-limit language as-is or make the tweak above. Doing so would create a nine-year window of service for people.

More importantly, it would also open Houston City Council to the whims of bigger electorates. If you really wanted to see a different City Council, the easiest place to start has always been to hold the election on even-numbered years. District A would be quite a bit more Dem-friendly, as would District F. My own District J, as it turns out, is as close to 50-50 in terms of partisanship among city year voters. That tilt would be eviscerated with an even-year electorate and the district would be reliably Dem-leaning. The rotating cycle of seats would lead to a seat being up for a vote in two odd-numbered election years for each six-year cycle. So there is some moderation to those swings that might be appealing.

It would seem practical, under this scenario, to stagger the elections so that each individual year would see one-third of city seats up for a votes. I'm not sure who that may appeal to or be unappealing to, frankly. One positive that I can see from this is that it might lead to an increase in competition for seats. If an elected thought to run for Mayor one year after being elected to a council seat, they could. In short, there would no longer be an incentive to sit out six years when terms are the same - as they currently are for the office of Mayor and Controller.

» Lacking that ... of course, there's always the "blow it all up" approach and do away with term limits. I would hope that the office of Mayor, and possibly Controller, could still be term-limited. I think there could even be an argument for limiting the terms of At Large seats while leaving district seats unlimited. That could theoretically provide a bit more power to district council members and your mileage may vary as to your preference for seeing that.

» Lastly ... while we're looking at term limits, why not look at the strong-mayor form of government?


Houston City Council: 1/2/14

I don't know how much monitoring I'll have time for on a lot of local governments that I'd like to see in action this year. But in the spirit of beginning new year resolutions regardless of whether I can finish out the year with it, today is an easy day to cover City Hall.

Everyone was sworn in earlier at a big inauguration celebration where many ties and tuxes were worn. I'm a little more interested in what happens once they get to the shoehorn. So here's the live-blogging:

While we wait for the obligatory late start, here's the whopping agenda for the day ...

11:00 A. M. - ROLL CALL

1. CONFIRM appointment of Council Member Edward Gonzalez as Mayor Pro Tem
2. RECEIVE nominations for appointment of Vice Mayor Pro Tem
    a. CONFIRM appointment of Vice Mayor Pro Tem
3. RECOMMENDATION from the Director Administration & Regulatory Affairs for purchase and approval of Individual Fidelity Bond Form for ANNISE D. PARKER, MAYOR in the sum of $50,000.00 and RONALD C. GREEN, CITY CONTROLLER in the sum of $50,000.00 as required by the City Charter and the Code of Ordinances - $648.00 Total Premium - Property and Casualty Fund

I'm not privy to any rumors, but I'd expect a no-surprise move of C.O. Bradford to be re-named VMPT.

11:15am ... all systems go.

Ed Gonzalez gets a unanimous approval as MPT.

Jerry Davis gets nominated as VMPT by now-former VPMT C.O. Bradford (and ultimately approved unanimously).

The council members now get their moment to speechify ...

Ronald Green ... "This is my last term as Controller, but I look forward to serving with you for many years to come." Make of that what you will.

Dwight Boykins ... first of the newbies on the docket. For a guy who starts off saying he was going to thank just one person, there sure were a lot of followups.

Richard Nguyen ... nice shout-out to Karen Loper among his thank-yous. Interestingly, he names Alvin Byrd as his Chief of Staff (assuming I heard that correctly).

Robert Gallegos ... introduces his staff. Notably, his CoS is Leah Olive-Nishioka (formerly with Laster's office) and Daniel Santamaria moves over after being on Al Hoang's staff previously.

Mike Laster ... another shout-out for Karen Loper on the campaign side.

David Robinson ... two notable shout-outs: one to the recently departed Jack Blanton. Another to the mayor and her partner, Kathy Hubbard. The mayor follows with a very coy "Stay tuned."

The One True Felix ... Kudos to Mayor Parker for leading off the Santa comparisons.

And after a zillion thanks, council adjourns at 12:27pm. Next week, we get an ordinance that relaxes alcohol sales near schools for big grocery stores, which is part of the "food desert" repairs that CM Costello and others have been working on. I suspect the conversation might be more substantive then.


In Defense of Helena Brown

» Chron: Hear, hear: Helena Brown explains herself

The Chron Ed Board gives me something of an excuse to pick up on an item I'd otherwise skipped over ...

... [I]t was a pleasant change of pace to see the council member take a positive step forward by posting a YouTube video discussing some of her "no" votes. We hope this will be the first step of many toward better engagement with her constituents, including a more active presence on social media.

In the video, titled "Helena Brown's August 1, 2012 Agenda Report," Brown sits at her desk and calmly states why she voted no in otherwise overwhelming majority votes. While we disagree with her general premise that Houston is in the midst of an immediate fiscal apocalypse, we're glad that she is engaging in dialogue.

The video in question ...

While the still relatively recent bout of bad press on "All Things Helena" isn't without it's charm for reading material, I'd agree that a video release reviewing a Council Member's voting on agenda items is a good thing. That was certainly my first reaction upon seeing the video. Rather than the banal social media pointers offered by the nameless Chronicle beat writer*, I'd suggest that a greater level of explanation by Brown (or any other CM who wishes to improve on the concept) would be nice rather than the dismissive "we need to re-prioritize" explanation.

I've been of the opinion that Council can generally withstand one critical voice from the right and left even if it only chips away at the facade of what might otherwise be unanimous steamrolling. I don't see the need to agree with every crackpot idea that Helena may hold to see some value in taking the concept she's introduced here to a richer level. I think if she's able to elaborate - persuasively, one would hope - on some areas of spending that may not be as necessary as others, more than a few people might be surprised at who might come around to agree with her.

Now, that being said, I realize that a good portion of the Council's well has already been poisoned with regard to CM Brown. Tag overrides are now a thing, it seems. I haven't watched enough Council meetings lately to know how much of that breach might be repairable. But there's still an opportunity to make a positive contribution to discussion on city finances and spending. It's just up to Helena to prioritize that.


* - and, seriously, who knew that the Chron's Ed Board had a social media beat writer? Is the lack of a user-friendly account name on the video really the biggest issue with this?


Aggre-blogging: One Last Time

Hopefully, I’m nearing the end of my need to do a bit of daily aggregation to recap current events in order to avoid overloading the brain cells. Just a guess, but maybe the Iowa Caucus results tonight will provide plenty of fodder for more normal blog activity. In the hours until we see what the results are, here’s what’s got my attention:

» Almanac Updates: This sorta stuff is coming along easier and easier since much of the work is just cataloging material from days/months/years/eons past. So it’s turning out to be a great multi-tasking time-killer to do while sports are on TV or there’s dead time to kill in the day. But with the end of 2011 behind us, I’m still frantically trying to get the 2011 Elections page of the Almanac properly seeded for the historical record. The Houston results are there, and most of the contests have a brief little writeup. I’ve also got the complete election history of Mayor Parker in one handy spot and am working on the same for a few other current elected officials as well. Obviously, there’s still a lot of blanks to be filled in: bios, narrative descriptions for each election, and probably a few things that I might not think to add but you may. If you feel compelled to dive in and start adding copy, feel free.

» NY Times: In Flop of H.P. TouchPad, an Object Lesson for the Tech Sector
Very interesting tech read for the week. I was among those who instantly dismissed the TouchPad when they attached the words “WebOS” to it. Nice to know that I wasn’t being totally irrational in doing so. But the build process described for the operating system rings pretty true of a lot of memories from my pro coding days. I guess it’s more amazing that something as ginormous as Windows or as ubiquitous as Android ever really gets “done right” despite what I’m sure are several of the same challenges that Palm and HP had with WebOS.

» Wash. Post: World music star Ndour challenges Senegal’s aging leader with presidential bid
It’s not comforting to know that the US isn’t the only place where the over-celebritization of everything is occurring. But it is pretty predictable.

» Chron: UH’s co-offensive coordinator Kingsbury headed to A&M
A let-down after yesterday’s bowl game. But also predictable. This may be manageable if Jason Phillips stays behind, but there’s already rumor of him heading to SMU to work with June Jones. Defensive Coodinator Brian Stewart is always a candidate for leaving for greener pastures and the defense’s improvement makes him even more attractive to higher-paying gigs. It gets depressing to think about at some level. But there will be others looking to come to Houston. We’ll see what things look like once everything shakes out. I just hope it’s not truly

» Chron: New council members means new staff at City Hall
Some interesting updates on the new support staff for the incoming council members. A particular shout-out for Jerry Peruchini, the new Chief of Staff for Ed Gonzales. Jerry makes two CoS for Gonzales that I’ve worked with in other lifetimes. And there definitely seems to be a tradition of quality there.


It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane …

CSPAN wishes they were this lucky ...

That's from the February 1 Council session. Ya know, in case there's confusion over which of the many appearances at City Council that I suspect he's made since landing from his escape pod from Krypton.


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