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Petition drive to overturn the homeless feeding ordinance

It’s underway.

The petitioners have until July 1 to gather their signatures because that’s when the ordinance goes into effect. City Attorney David Feldman just informed me that petitioners have the longer of either 30 days following an ordinance’s passage or until the ordinance’s effective date to gather signatures. In this case, it’s the latter. So if the signatures get turned in by July 1, City Council will not be able to point to the ruling — moot though it is – even as a basis for declining to put it on the ballot.

So a coalition of civil libertarians and charities against the feeding ordinance plan to proceed in hopes of gathering 28,000 signatures to give voters the opportunity on the November ballot to overturn the feeding ordinance passed in April. It requires anyone who wants to feed more than five people free meals to get permission of the property owner before doing so.

Randall Kallinen, a civil rights attorney who is leading the repeal drive, said he believes that since the red-light camera election’s validity remains intact because of the ruling by U.S. District Judge Lynn Hughes has been set aside, people are free to challenge ordinances even more than a month after the fact.

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The petition asks for signatures in support of a city charter amendment that states the following:

The City of Houston shall not criminalize or penalize any person or organization for, nor shall any group or individual be required to receive permission from or register with the City of Houston before, feeding or sharing free food with any other persons on any and all public property, rights of way or easements for which the City of Houston maintains jurisdiction.

Such language does not overturn the ordinance’s requirement that feeders receive permission from the owners of private property on which charitable meals are served. By limiting the language to the City of Houston property it also leaves in place the requirement that feeders get pre-clearance from other government agencies before using those agencies’ property for charitable meals. For example, permission from the Texas Department of Transportation would be necessary to hand out meals to more than five people at a freeway underpass.

They started Tuesday, so they have a bit more than five weeks to collect 28,000 valid signatures. Given the need to have a buffer to allow for some duplicates and invalid sigs and whatnot, they’ll need to average about 1,000 signatures a day for that time period. I think if they succeed in getting this on the ballot they will win easily, but I have no idea if they can collect those signatures in time.

I’m no lawyer, but Kallinen’s assertion that the time limit isn’t in effect because the red light camera ruling was set aside seems specious to me. Even if there isn’t a legal precedent now, the basic facts are the same. If it comes down to it – for instance, if Council declines to put it on the ballot because the July 1 deadline was missed and Kallinen et al sue – I don’t see why some other judge wouldn’t reach the same conclusion as Judge Hughes. Am I missing something here?

It’s interesting to me that the scope of the petition is so narrow. In part, that’s because the ordinance itself is pretty limited. But for all the hue and cry at the time of its passage, the activists involved here have conceded the point that permission is needed for private property – I daresay that few people would disagree with that – and have also drawn a distinction between city property and property owned by other government entities. I suspect that’s more a practical matter than a theoretical one, since their beef has mostly been about access to city parks, but it still strikes me as a bit odd. Be that as it may, one reason why I think this will be an easy win if it makes it to the ballot is that I doubt it will be presented in such narrow, specific terms in a campaign. It’ll be about freedom and principle and compassion and so forth. Which is fine – I don’t have any problems with this ordinance, but I’m not going to expend any effort defending it if it comes to that. I mean, given what a lousy job the ordinance’s proponents did presenting and explaining it to the public in the first place, I seriously doubt anyone will expend much effort to defend it. I don’t feel nearly as strongly about this as the ones who are spearheading the petition drive, and as such I believe they will prevail if they can beat the clock. We’ll see if they can.

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2 Comments

  1. B. K. Oxley (binkley) says:

    Thanks for posting this. Our church hates this ordinance, and it really rubs me the wrong way. We’ll be signing the petition.

    Cheers,
    –binkley

  2. […] here and here for some background. The requirement to have signatures collected by either the […]