City Council won’t pursue ‘executive session’ power

Jan. 15, 2015Houston Chronicle

A Houston City Council committee Wednesday night opted not to recommend a charter change that would allow them to meet in executive session on certain topics, deciding the public was likely to be wary of closed-door meetings.

Wednesday’s meeting marked the first of six public meetings where a committee will weigh five or so proposed changes to the City Charter. The committee cannot take any binding actions but will send recommendations to the mayor’s office.

The two most significant proposals up for consideration are changing terms limits from three two-year terms to two four-year terms and altering or removing the city’s revenue cap. All revisions would need to go to voters, most likely in November.

A wide-ranging and at-times tense conversation about executive session Wednesday ended in a unanimous decision not to pursue the issue, though several council members said they thought that power would keep them more informed and be a good tool if used judiciously. The City of Houston is the only governmental body in Texas without the power to convene in executive session and discuss such matters as litigation against the city or real estate deals, City Attorney David Feldman said.

Under the state’s open meetings law, a governmental body that meets in executive session cannot vote on an issue but they can discuss their opinions and consult city attorneys on topics that fall within nine categories, ranging from economic development deals to security audits.

Feldman cited several instances where he thought executive session would have kept council better informed, including the recent debate about whether or not to repair of replace thejustice center complex and ongoing litigation around the city’s equal rights ordinance.

Such issues today must be communicated to each council member individually, leading some to question whether they are being given the same information as their colleagues.

“It’s an opportunity for council to be more actively involved,” Feldman said.

Councilman C.O. Bradford, however, said he once supported the idea but has changed his mind and now believes that “selling it to the voters on the ballot is almost impossible to do.”

“Sunshine, openness is the best rule,” Bradford said. “In Texas and across America today there’s a push for more openness, more transparency, more citizen involvement. And those cities that have closed sessions, they could not get that today.”

Even some council members who said they liked the idea of being briefed in executive session ultimately said it was a less of a priority than other charter revisions they’d like voters to pass, mainly the change to term limits.

“I’m trying to remember one time in my two years on council where I would have used executive session,” Councilman Dave Martin said. “I just don’t see executive session as being the big end-all.”

The committee also broached the city’s charitable feeding ordinance at the request of Councilman Michael Kubosh.

Two years ago, Kubosh helped to organize a failed petition seeking to overturn those regulations, which outlaw the charitable feeding of more than five people anywhere in Houston without the advance written permission of the property owner.

City officials have long maintained the intent of the ordinance is to better coordinate and ensure the sanitation of mass feedings. Opponents, however, say it limits charity efforts and deserves to be considered by voters.

Feldman told council that it is not an issue that could be placed on the ballot for charter amendment, though council members could try to call a council vote to place it on the ballot to be repealed.

Still, council heard more than two hours worth of testimony from community members who said the ordinance unfairly criminalizes charitable feeding.

Kubosh said the ordinance is an overreach and penalizes churches and other groups that simply want to feed the homeless.

“This thing was out of control from the get-go,” Kubosh said. “Why criminalize the giver?”

Nick Cooper, of Houston’s Food Not Bombs, said groups fearing city fines have simply stopped giving food to the homeless.

“This atmosphere of intimidation has caused food insecurity,” Cooper said. “This body made a really big mistake.”

The next charter review meeting will be held in two weeks.