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The people may have spoken, but who’s listening?

How much respect to city councils owe voter-approved referenda?

Voters in two Central Texas cities overwhelmingly passed propositions earlier this month that would stop citations and arrests for low-level marijuana offenses within city limits. But elected officials in Bell County are pushing back.

On Tuesday, Harker Heights City Council voted to repeal the measure, saying that decriminalizing small amounts of marijuana was inconsistent with state law, as marijuana possession remains illegal statewide and federally. The City Council in Killeen agreed to put its decriminalization measure on hold as elected officials there weigh whether to repeal, amend or green light the ordinance that passed on Election Day.

Neither ballot measure legalizes marijuana. Instead, they prevent people from being cited or arrested for having up to 4 ounces of the drug. The propositions also prohibit city police officers from stopping someone because they smelled marijuana.

David Bass, the founder of Texas Veterans for Medical Marijuana, told City Council on Tuesday that the people of Killeen have spoken. Regardless of the legality of marijuana, the ordinance was clear and he said the council should respect voters’ decision.

“What I know is that the people of Killeen voted overwhelmingly for our police to stop arresting people for small amounts of cannabis,” Bass said. “We should listen to the will of the people of Killeen.”

Shirley Fleming, a former Killeen city councilwoman, told the Harker Heights City Council that repealing the ordinance could make residents feel like their vote doesn’t matter.

“If you stomp on this, a lot of people will say, ‘My vote doesn’t count,’” Fleming said. “Let’s respect their vote.”

See here for some background. With all due respect to Ms. Fleming, and speaking as someone who supports these measures and would vote for a similar one if it were to be on my ballot someday, I don’t think it’s quite that simple. All of the city council members here were also elected by the people, and if they believe that the ordinances that were adopted without their input are bad policy, then it’s consistent with their mandate as elected officials to take action as they see fit. I wouldn’t have done it this way – some public hearings would have been a better way to begin – and if I were a dissenting council member I’d have approached it from the perspective of modification rather than repeal. But they can do this, and I don’t see it as necessarily ignoring the will of the people but as different mandates.

Look at it this way: A President gets elected, begins to implement a policy agenda, and then two years later the voters elect a Congressional majority from the opposing party. Both were duly elected with a valid mandate, it’s just that those mandates conflict with each other. This isn’t a perfect analogy – the opposition Congress and the incumbent President were surely campaigning directly against each other, and the new Congress or the existing President may well not reflect a true majority of voters for various reasons – but the idea is the same. The voters may now render a judgment on those city council members in the next election, and that may or may not provide clarity. That’s just the nature of our system.

To be clear, I think the city councils of Killeen and Harker Heights should have started from the position that the voters made a valid statement that they should engage with seriously. They do have the latitude to make changes, and if they want to put themselves on the line they can act in opposition. I can easily imagine scenarios where the voters might approve something unjust, where the moral imperative would be to undo the damage. I can also easily understand the frustration of any voter who worked to pass these referenda only to see their work bulldozed by the same government officials who had acted as the obstacle they sought to overcome. All I’m saying is that it’s more complex than “the voters have spoken”. I’ll try to remember that if it happens here.

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20 Comments

  1. David Fagan says:

    IF it happens here? Prop B? The city of Houston challenging collective bargaining, which is perfectly legal?

    +4 and counting…….

  2. Joel says:

    DF yet again proving that he knows numbers both above and below zero. And also that he still does not know how to read the room.

  3. David Fagan says:

    If you don’t care today, then don’t care tomorrow either.

  4. Ross says:

    Prop B was illegal, David, but you knew that. Unfortunately, illegal propositions cannot be challenged until after the election. Prop B was rent seeking by the firefighters union. Prop B also did not include a way to pay for the increased costs, and I would layoff as many firefighters as necessary before cutting other city services like libraries and parks.

  5. David Fagan says:

    What makes prop B illegal?

  6. Ross says:

    David, what makes Prop B legal? Tell me why firefighters deserve to be paid more.

  7. David Fagan says:

    I’m really exhausted with explaining this. This entire issue has been going on for six years. If I lay out everything that has happened, I may as well start my own blog. My previous comments on this blog should be sufficient. I don’t want to talk about it anymore.

    Your understanding of the issue has brought you to a conclusion, and I was curious of your point of view. But I’ve really said too much now, you don’t have to reply to this, I don’t want to talk about this any more.

  8. Jonathan Freeman says:

    The city hasn’t challenged collective bargaining as a whole, only a small portion of it. The legal merits of the challenge are up to the courts to decide, not just those who directly benefit, the same for Proposition B. Mayor Turner won’t be in office long enough to feel the full effects of how the courts rule but won’t this be a case where the union winning the lawsuit means losing a lot of firefighters to layoffs?

    Now that our resident firefighter is too tired to discuss it further, does that mean he will stop posting his meaningless countdown clocks that never explain anything and just reset every time the courts push it further down the road? If the courts rule back pay is warranted, will that double the number of layoffs?

  9. David Fagan says:

    “means losing a lot of firefighters to layoffs” –
    This statement uses the assumption that there is enough firefighters to lay off. The city hasn’t had a problem with lay offs because they’ve been leaving voluntarily. The 18% ‘bonus/ call it what you want’ over three years was the realization that Houston could not get recruits, or retain the trainees they had, so, yes supply and demand and Houston is competing with the other big cities. Since the city provided the number of 18% on their own, it sure makes everything about a 9.5% and the rhetoric that went with it look like the absolute joke it was, and justifies everything the Firefighters and their Union have done,
    for that I am VERY PROUD of them and they still have my support. This is a regurgitation of what has been said before, as much as this countdown has been going on. But it is tiring to say the same thing over and over and over.

    What would be new is: voters approved the collective bargaining state law as it was written by legislators. Challenging the one part of the law changes the whole law together, so the supreme court would be acting in the role as legislator, which is what the city is trying to challenge in the first place. Also, one justice said over thirty other cities had adopted the law as it is, and with no issues, so what’s the problem with Houston?

    Another interesting interaction is when those representing the city said something to the affect of ‘the city did not adopt prop B, it was a voter referendum’ and the justice says something to the affect of ‘well doesn’t that mean the City of Houston Adopted the measure?’ That showes the attitude of this city, the city is more than Houston First, or a The Greater Houston Partnership, or the Mayor.

  10. Joel says:

    “If I lay out everything that has happened, I may as well start my own blog”

    Yes please.

    “My previous comments on this blog should be sufficient. I don’t want to talk about it anymore.”

    And yet …

  11. David Fagan says:

    +5 and counting…….

  12. C.L. says:

    I’ve come to the point where, if a see a Kuff post with DF as a reader/responder, I just move on. Don’t know if it’s the down clock ticking or the doomsday clock counting up, either way the reader’s post is more world salad nonsense.

    I get that he wants to make a point and get said point out to the masses, but the whole ‘I’m gonna start my own blog’ is something I could really get behind.

    Maybe if HFD was actively driving around my neighborhood Looking For Fires instead of responding to fires, etc., I could get behind them, but the only time I see them is when they’re parking their pumper truck and front of Kroger while they shop. Just seems like the two jobs, HFD vs. HPD are so incredibly different, this whole ‘paying one what the other makes’ argument is just nonsense.

  13. David Fagan says:

    C.L,

    Easiest way to see HFD to respond is to go outside and set your own house on fire.

  14. Manny says:

    DF, what you suggested is a crime. Is that what you are in the habit of doing? Is that job security?

  15. Jonathan Freeman says:

    David, if my assumption on the possibility of layoffs is incorrect, isn’t your assumption that HFD is mandated to maintain a set in stone number of employees equally incorrect? For that matter, why couldn’t the city restructure various aspects of the department to reduce costs to help pay for the additional costs? Given my experiences with the police, I’d have been all in to reduce their numbers as well except the state passed a law preventing that but no such measure impacts firemen.

    I admit that I do not know the intricacies of the job but layoffs or simply letting hundreds leave and not replace them might be the answer. I am with the others in the thread that refuse to support closing libraries, parks, and other city services just to provide very large raises based on a feel good measure. Your dark humor about setting fires strengthens my resolve to support candidates who will stand up to these demands.

  16. David Fagan says:

    “OSHA mandates that at least four firefighters must be present during structural fire fighting; this regulation identifies that there must be two firefighters outside while two personnel are inside the structure.”

    “NFPA 1710 continues to require that engine companies be staffed with a minimum of four on-duty members, as stated in 5.2. 3.”

    +6 days and counting…….

  17. David Fagan says:

    Then there’s this:

    https://www.khou.com/article/news/local/hfd-works-to-fill-350-positions/285-e6c96326-0f77-4a5a-92a2-c84605d4abaf

    So Houston would spend all this money hiring people to turn around and lay them off?

    Houston is in a pickle no matter how you look at it, raise or no raise, layoff or no layoff, if you care or you don’t care, so have fun with that.

  18. mollusk says:

    I did not attend or listen to oral arguments nor have I read any of the briefs, but based on the Supreme Court of Texas Internal Operating Procedures (available to the public via the Supreme Court’s website) it could well be sometime next summer before any ruling is made public and opinion(s) issued.

    I also have little hope that this real world explanation of what sort of timeline to expect will have any more impact on the daily counting exercise than that exercise has on whatever the eventual outcome turns out to be.

  19. Jonathan Freeman says:

    David, you can provide as many specific changes that can’t or shouldn’t take place but eventually someone smarter will come up with other changes that can be made. Keep four on a truck and make sure fires have a certain number present but just cut back on absolute numbers if that is needed. HPD offered incentives of $12,000 in the past yet seems to have survived reducing their cadet classes and manpower issues, attrition offers a double bonus as the employees retiring are the highest paid in my experience.

    Budget a certain amount and the resulting number of employees is what you get, those remaining will just have to handle whatever comes along. Strap a gun to their hip and let them answer 911 calls or teach them to be librarians between fires for all I care but the answer can’t be limited to giving in to every demand they make. Change is inevitable, just like you changed your mind to continue discussing the matter after stating otherwise.

  20. Jason says:

    David, the only thing you’re doing wrong is trying to convince a small subset of a greater population of people that they are wrong. It will never happen because they are the type that is never wrong. They lost a fair and legitimate election that offered us an opportunity to provide our firefighters an opportunity to receive fair compensation for the honorable work that they do. “We” the “majority” as in 59% did that. They the “minority” as in 41% did not stop that. It is shameful that this mayoral administration cannot move past and beyond what they consider a slight or matter of disrespect and carry out our mandate. The people complaining over it are the same ones complaining at the self-checkout lane in Walmart or the Kroger, they so often visit, wondering why no one is there to check out their items for them…they left for better a better job, working conditions, and/or better pay. Maybe once we are relegated to providing CPR on our loved ones or attempting to put out our own fires they will get it.