Parker touts progress, plan to protect human rights

Apr. 4, 2014Memorial Examiner

Mayor Annise Parker made clear in her State of the City address Thursday that she intends to “finish what we’ve started” in her final term, including an end to chronic homelessness and passage of a human rights ordinance that will prohibit discrimination in city employment and contracting, housing and public businesses such as bars, restaurants and retail stores.

“I’m not slowing down. There’s still a lot to do,” she told a packed house at the annual Greater Houston Partnership luncheon.

Parker touted progress made since her first State of the City report in 2010, which was mostly about what the city would do without in the wake of economic recession. Houston recovered faster than most cities, and Parker highlighted its reduced crime and cleaner neighborhoods, creation of an independent crime lab, economic growth that has added 340,000 jobs and led to a building boom of more than 100 projects valued at $7.5 billion, increased exports and international air travel, and voter support to re-program how the city’s infrastructure is funded, among other accomplishments.

Since its inception, the Rebuild Houston program has spent $250 million to repair 450 miles of streets, clean out 550 miles of ditches and overhaul 150 miles of storm sewers. More than 200 projects are slated to start soon.

“I wish Rebuild Houston could come faster,” Parker said. “But there are no quick fixes for decades of deferred maintenance.”

She also called on business leaders to aid in the ongoing effort to end chronic homelessness in Houston. With help from key business, religious and philanthropic leaders, more than 1,400 homeless have moved to safe, stable and permanent housing. The homeless population downtown has been reduced by 50 percent, she said.

“This is about men and women who need a path to a safe home and a safe haven, and our responsibility in a rich environment is to provide it,” Parker said.

The mayor agreed with comments by Harris County Judge Ed Emmett in his recent State of the County address on the need for more cooperation among the local governments, pointing to examples already taking place at joint libraries, shared parks and the city and county housing authorities working together for the first time. Harris County Sheriff’s Office is using the city’s new Sobering Center, and voters last year approved a joint processing center for city and county prisoners. The city also is discussing absorbing the Metropolitan Transit Authority’s police force, she said.

Going forward, Parker promised new regulations that will protect existing cab drivers while still enabling the new Uber and Lyft modes of shared transportation, finalizing plans for a botanical garden in Houston, creating a cultural roadmap for the arts as well as general development and master parks plans.

But in a press conference that followed the GHP luncheon, Parker spoke largely about the human rights ordinance that she is drafting right now.

Houston is the only mega-city without a local law that governs “how we treat each other,”, the mayor said.

The ordinance would codify policies that already exist among the city’s large employers and in federal law and extend them to gay and transgender individuals, Parker said.

She anticipates a draft ordinance being presented to City Council committee on April 30 and placing it on the council agenda May 7.

Violations would be reviewed by the city’s Office of Inspector General and a new seven-member Human Rights Commission.

Parker believes “virtually all” on City Council previously have voiced support for a local civil rights ordinance.