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Equal Rights Fight

Petitions declared invalid, but voters deserve the right to weigh in on Houston Equal Rights Ordinance

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Mayor Annise Parker, Dave Feldman, Ellen Cohen at Houston City Hall equal rights ordinance August 2014
From left, Mayor Annise Parker, City Attorney Dave Feldman and City Council member Ellen Cohen meet the press to discuss the HERO referendum petitions. Photo by Clifford Pugh
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It's always dicey to put civil rights to a popular vote. But if you really believe in human rights and the decency of people to treat others fairly when confronted with discrimination, shouldn't you allow the voters of Houston to weigh in on the decision?

Until Mayor Annise Parker fought for and won passage of the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance in May, Houston was the largest city in the nation with no laws protecting citizens from discrimination. But a lot of vocal pastors, spreading misinformation that the new ordinance will allow men to enter women's restrooms all over the city, claimed they had gathered 50,000 signatures on petitions asking voters to decide the issue in the November election and said they had verified more than 30,000 of the signatures.

"If the mayor is so confident in her position on this vote, then let the people have a voice. If they vote to reinstate the ordinance, so be it. We're saying, 'Let the people vote,' " Welch said. 

On Monday, City Attorney Dave Feldman, with Parker and City Council member Ellen Cohen by his side, said the petitioners fell short by just over 2,000 signatures.

"There are too many irregularities to overlook," Feldman told reporters who gathered on the third floor of Houston City Hall in the mayor's ornate reception room. "The petition is simply invalid. There is no other conclusion."

He explained that, under the Houston City Charter, petitioners must be registered voters who live within the city limits of Houston. Anyone who collected signatures must have personally signed the petition, which must then be notarized in that person's presence. Many of the signature sheets do not appear to meet those requirements.

"This is about maintaining the integrity of the process," he said.

Feldman has a point. The law is the law, and if it's not followed exactly, what happens the next time a petition drive is launched?

Enough signatures

Yet, in a memo to Parker and Houston City Council, City Secretary Anna Russell confirmed that 17,846 signatures had been verified, which is above the number required to put the measure on the ballot if the technicalities had been met. And in the press conference, Parker admitted that there were enough valid signatures if all the paper work had been in order.

 "It is what it is," Parker said. "The petitions are available for anyone to examine." 

"If the pages were not invalidated, there were sufficient signatures to require a vote, but the invalidation of entire pages because of irregularities (is part of the process)," Parker said. "As specified in the existing charter, in order to pass a petition you must be a signer of the petition. That is an usual requirement."

Despite the announcement, no one looked particularly thrilled with the outcome. Feldman appeared nervous and spoke so softly that he could barely be heard. Cohen didn't say anything (in fairness, she wasn't asked) and Parker skirted the question on whether she was relieved.

"It is what it is," Parker said. "The petitions are available for anyone to examine. I have been confident since we started down this path, I fully expected it to be on the ballot. And it would win."

But outside of the chamber, Dave Welch, head of the Houston Area Pastor Council, which spearheaded the petition drive, asked if Parker were so optimistic her side would prevail, why doesn't she endorse a vote?

"We're just asking the administration, what are you afraid of? If the mayor is so confident in her position on this vote, then let the people have a voice. If they vote to reinstate the ordinance, so be it. We're saying, 'Let the people vote,' " he said.

Compelling argument

While I don't agree with Welch's position on the ordinance, I find his argument compelling. Sure, a fight over the HERO ordinance would be ugly and messy and, if it were overturned, the national press would have a field day pointing out the city's intolerance just as such events as the Final Four in 2016 and preparations for the 2017 Super Bowl focus attention on Houston, as a recent Bloomberg Businessweek article, titled "Potty Politics Divides Houston As Rights Law Faces Repeal," suggested.

While I fear that the other side might appeal to voters' worst instincts in the worst way, many of my friends believe that Houston has changed so much since voters turned down an affirmative action ordinance in 1996 narrowly repealed a 2001 ordinance extending same-sex benefits to domestic partners of city of Houston employees that it would send a strong message of how far we have come and boost the city's reputation far more than any ad campaign.

I'm not so sure we've come that far, but I'm willing to find out. 

We might get the chance. Welch said his organization is consulting with attorneys to review the decision and will announce a decision on whether to file a lawsuit by Wednesday.

The ordinance, which Houston City Council passed by an 11-6 vote in May, bans discrimination in more than 15 areas, ranging from sex and race to pregnancy and genetic information. But protections for sexual orientation and gender identity have been the flash points in the battle. Religious institutions, private clubs and businesses with fewer than 15 employees are exempt.

Parker said she will delay the implementation of the new ordinance "to allow some of these issues to work their way out" — but not indefinitely.

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For a different viewpoint, check out L. Wayne Ashley's column Astrodome deserves a vote; HERO doesn't: Why equality should never be decided at the ballot box

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