I was beginning to wonder if the anti-red light camera crowd was ever going to turn in their petition signatures, as it’s starting too get a little late in the game. They made their move on Monday, submitting 30,000 petition signatures (22,000 valid ones are needed) to City Secretary Anna Russell to get their proposition to ban the cameras on the ballot. As with everything else they do, this was not without controversy.
Mayor Annise Parker questioned whether there would be enough time for the city secretary to verify that the signatures are from registered Houston voters before an upcoming Aug. 24 election deadline.
Parker said the city secretary’s office would follow the same procedures used for Renew Houston, a group of engineers seeking voter approval for an $8 billion initiative to prevent flooding and shore up Houston’s infrastructure. Backers of that referendum turned in their signatures July 8, and they were verified July 30.
In a statement issued Monday afternoon, Parker said, “Citizens Against Red Light Cameras have turned these petitions in very late in the process and the Renew Houston petitions took three weeks to be certified. … If it takes just as long, it will not meet the deadline to be on the ballot this fall.”
Andy Taylor, a lawyer representing Keep Houston Safe, a political action committee formed to advocate for the cameras, also said the proposed referendum is illegal, citing a city ordinance that requires petitions for a vote to repeal a law be turned in within 30 days of when it takes effect.
“Who could possibly be against safety cameras that save children’s lives?” Taylor said. “This petition is too late. This petition is out of time and dead on arrival.”
[Paul] Kubosh noted that signatures for several other referendums put to voters in the past decade have been turned in either in August or September and still made it onto the ballot, including the 2001 charter amendment that authorized light rail and another that outlawed benefits for same-sex partners of city employees.
(Before anyone brings it up, yes, that’s my old friend Andy Taylor. Insert your own joke about politics and strange bedfellows.)
The ordinance that limits petition-driven repeal efforts to 30 days after the passage of the law in question is news to me. Here’s the relevant bit from the city charter:
Section 3. – Referendum.
If prior to the date when an ordinance or resolution shall take effect, or within thirty days after the publication of same, a petition signed and verified, as required in section 2-a hereof, by the qualified voters equal in number to ten per centum of the total vote cast at the Democratic Primary for the nomination of Mayor and Commissioners, next preceding the filing of said petition as hereinbefore provided, shall be filed with the Secretary, protesting against the enactment or enforcement of such ordinance or resolution, it shall be suspended from taking effect and no action theretofore taken under such ordinance or resolution shall be legal and valid. Immediately upon the filing of such petition the Secretary shall do all things required by section 2-b of this Article. Thereupon the Council shall immediately reconsider such ordinance or resolution and, if it do not entirely repeal the same, shall submit it to popular vote at the next municipal election, or the Council may, in its discretion, call a special election for that purpose; and such ordinance or resolution shall not take effect unless a majority of the qualified electors voting thereon at such election shall vote in favor thereof. (Added by amendment October 15, 1913)
I dunno. What that says to me is that if you can get your petitioning act together within 30 days, you can actually get the law in question suspended until everything gets sorted out. It doesn’t say to me that after 30 days you can never change or overturn a city law via the referendum process. (Whether that would be a good thing or not is a separate question.) I’m not a lawyer, but I’d bet money that if this article is used as justification for rejecting Kubosh’s petitions the matter will wind up in court, and I strongly suspect a judge would be sympathetic to Kubosh’s arguments. Seems to me that given how arduous and expensive the petition signature-gathering effort is, a 30-day deadline for action is a mighty high hurdle to clear. Maybe I’m missing something – again, I Am Not A Lawyer – but I don’t see how this is a fatal flaw for Kubosh.
On the other hand, the matter of verifying the signatures in time may be a significant issue. The controlling statute here is Section 3.005, subsection (c) of the Elections Code, which reads “For an election to be held on the date of the general election for state and county officers, the election shall be ordered not later than the 70th day before election day.” That’s August 24 in this case, which makes it the deadline for Anna Russell to say whether or not Team Kubosh has met the threshold. Kubosh’s claims about the light rail and same-sex benefits referenda are irrelevant, because Subsection (c) was added to the code in 2005. Prior to that, the deadline was 62 days before an election, which given that Election Day can be as late as November 8 meant a drop-dead date as late as September 7.
Actually, the effective deadline in this case is even earlier than the 24th. As Jim McGrath of Keep Houston Safe reminded me in an email, Council must authorize the referendum for the ballot, and the last Council meeting before the deadline is August 18. (It’s not on Council’s agenda for today.) That ain’t a lot of time to get the job done.
My take on this, therefore, is that it will come down to whether or not Russell certifies the signatures in time, assuming there are in fact enough valid ones. One presumes, given the Renew Houston example, that she will be examining each signature and not using statistical sampling, which she has the discretion to do but is not required to do. (It’s not clear to me she could do it in the six working days she has before the 18th even if she did use sampling.) I expect Kubosh to wail and gnash his teeth about this, and I won’t be surprised to see it come before a judge as well, but if so I expect he’ll lose just as Carole Keeton Strayhorn did back in 2006. Mary Benton has more.
Finally, you may have noticed at the end of the story a reference to an updated red light camera study that shows collisions have in fact decreased at red light-enabled intersections, which contradicts the initial study, done by the same authors. I will deal with that in a subsequent post.