Houston City Council is poised to vote Wednesday to affirm the city’s equal rights ordinance, a move that would send the controversial issue to voters this fall, per a Texas Supreme Court ruling issued last month.
Thirteen of the 16 council members and Mayor Annise Parker responded to questions Monday about how they intend to vote. Parker and nine council members said they would vote to affirm the equal rights ordinance; three said they would vote to repeal it; and at-large Councilman C.O. Bradford said he would affirm the law if the ballot language is rewritten. Because of a state Supreme Court ruling issued last month, a vote to affirm the ordinance would force the city to send the issue to voters.
There’s likely to be a slightly closer vote on the other ballot item before council on Wednesday – switching the city’s three two-year terms for elected officials to two four-year terms starting in 2020. Parker and six council members said they would support sending that proposal to voters; four said they would oppose it; two said they supported the general principle but wanted to hear more about the plan; and one was unsure of his stance.
In the wake of the Texas Supreme Court ruling late July, Parker said she was considering pulling back on both term limits and another proposed charter amendment to loosen the voter-imposed revenue cap for public safety spending so she could focus on campaigning for the equal rights ordinance. She ultimately dropped the more politically difficult revenue cap idea but moved forward with the term limits proposal.
Rice University political scientist Bob Stein said the equal rights ordinance could drive turnout in what is usually a low turnout election. But most of the political energy will be spent on the equal rights ordinance, Stein said, making it a bad time to push through an item such as changing term limits.
“I thought (Parker) was absolutely correct when she said this is probably not the time for term limits or revenue cap,” Stein said. “Term limits would need a strong campaign, and I don’t think there’s enough oxygen in the air to go around. It’s going to be all about HERO.”
City Council approved the equal rights ordinance 11-6 in May 2014. The ordinance bans discrimination based not just on sexual orientation and gender identity – the flash points for opponents – but also, as federal laws do, sex, race, color, ethnicity, national origin, age, religion, disability, pregnancy and genetic information, as well as family, marital or military status. The ordinance applies to businesses that serve the public, private employers, housing, city employment and city contracting. Religious institutions are exempt. Violators can be fined up to $5,000.
Conservative opponents submitted a petition to send the law to voters last summer, but city officials rejected it, saying it was riddled with errors and did not contain the needed 17,269 valid signatures from Houston residents. Opponents sued the city and lost in district court. But a Texas Supreme Court ruling issued last month ordered the city to either repeal the ordinance or put it on the November ballot.
Court costs sought
Some of the same opponents filed suit against Parker again Monday, seeking unspecified court costs and other damages associated with the case. Three pastors are also suing Parker for damages and legal costs incurred when the city, as part of a broad discovery request, issued subpoenas that included a demand for certain sermons. Those subpoenas were eventually pulled down amid significant backlash.
“She trampled the voting rights of over a million people in the fourth largest city in the United States of America,” attorney Andy Taylor said. “And so we’re here today to say ‘uh-uh,’ there’s going to be accountability for doing that.”
Parker responded in a written statement Monday, dismissing the allegations.
“This new lawsuit is not about civil rights or religious freedom,” Parker said. “It’s about politics. It is being waged by a small group that wants to take Houston backward instead of moving it forward.”
Councilmen Oliver Pennington, Dave Martin and Michael Kubosh opposed the ordinance last year and said they would vote to repeal the law Wednesday. Of the remaining three council members who voted against the ordinance last year, Councilwoman Brenda Stardig and Councilman Jack Christie did not return calls for comment and Councilman Dwight Boykins said he would vote to affirm the ordinance.
“I voted against the ordinance because I’m always representing the interests of my district,” Boykins said. “Voters want a say on this, so that’s why I would affirm it.”
Councilman Mike Laster, a supporter of the ordinance, did not return requests for comment.
Councilwoman Ellen Cohen, who also championed the ordinance, said voters would have two compelling reasons to leave the law intact in November.
“You support and believe in equal rights for all,” Cohen said. “And if that is not as persuasive an argument as it might be then the second is that for a purely bottom-line business position we can’t afford for the city of Houston to overturn the equal rights ordinance, or we’re going to be threatened with the loss of the Super Bowl and the Final Four. There’s no question about it.”
On term limits, there’s likely to be discussion about changing the effective date of the switch.
Martin said he strongly favors four-year terms, saying two-year terms are “one of the most ridiculous things I’ve seen in government” because they work against long-term solutions to problems like the city’s pension obligations. Martin, however, is considering putting forward an amendment to make the change take effect immediately, pending discussion with his colleagues. He said he would not support the 2020 proposal, though supporters and political scientists say that is likely to go over much better with voters because no current council members stand to benefit.
“Why wait five years when the dynamics of the city change completely?” Martin said. “There are going to be people that are going to move here over the next couple years. When this thing is implemented in 2020, five years from now, they’re going to go, ‘What was this all about?'”
Bradford, Kubosh and Boykins also oppose the term-limits proposal. Boykins said he would like the switch to go into effect in 2016 and would not support the 2020 proposal.
Councilman Ed Gonzalez said he supports the general principle of making the term limits longer but wants to review whether now is the ideal time for such a campaign. Pennington, too, was supportive of the idea but said he wanted to look more closely at when to make the switch.
All November ballot items are due Aug. 24.