From Shelby to Pasadena

You might have noticed this Chron editorial from last week.

Pasadena City Council

After former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay’s fall from grace, we thought that Texas politicians would know better than pursue mid-decade redistricting. Not so in Pasadena, where Mayor Johnny Isbell is trying to change Pasadena’s city council districts.

Isbell proposed last month to replace two of Pasadena’s single-member districts with two at-large seats. The Bond/Charter Review Committee recommended against moving forward with the changes, at least for the upcoming election. But the proposal alone is distressing enough. Historically, replacing districts with at-large seats has been used to discriminatory ends, and such moves are often blocked by the Department of Justice. Only a few months ago, that would have been the case here. Not anymore. For decades, the Voting Rights Act has been a useful speed bump in Texas. Due to our history of discrimination, any alteration to voting laws or processes had to be approved by the Department of Justice. When the Supreme Court struck down the part of the VRA that based preclearance requirements on past discrimination, it busted open a hole in that wall, and Texas politicians have wasted no time to climb through.

This newfound lack of federal oversight allows local politicians to implement maps that threaten to discriminate against minority voters. The current individual districts in Pasadena allow large, compact and politically cohesive minority populations to elect the representatives of their choice. Replacing these districts with at-large seats could dilute minority voting power, submerging the voting-bloc in a sea of majority voters.

I’ve been peripherally aware of this, but I can’t claim to have followed it closely. I got an email from Pasadena Council Member Ornaldo Ybarra, whom I interviewed in 2012 when he ran for the Legislature, alerting me to this. Pasadena did a normal redistricting process in 2011 that wound up being quite contentious amid allegations that Pasadena Mayor Isbell was driving it with an eye towards furthering his own political ends by drawing his opponents out of their districts. (Stace noted this last year; there’s more here.) I’m told that there’s a 4-4 partisan split on Council (Mayor Isbell is a Republican), with the Mayor being a tiebreaking vote on some issues. An attempt to reduce the number of district seats from 8 to 6, with two At Large seats, was quashed by the Justice Department, but barring a bail-in to Section 3 preclearance by the courts, that plan is now back in play.

In fact, it’s on the agenda for tonight’s Pasadena City Council meeting (agenda item F, on page 5, in the section beginning “(2) First Readings”). Neither a search of Google or the Chron’s archives found much on the history of this, but here’s a Your Houston news story about what is on tap for tonight.

The short road to a destination that finalizes what will be on the November ballot in Pasadena has had plenty of bends and even u-turns.

In July, a quickly assembled citizen committee considering bonds and charter revisions met publicly and privately. They recommended bonds only, not charter revisions for the November ballot.

At last Tuesday’s (August 13) council meeting, after three councilmembers spoke for a slimmer bond package and lost, and the original proposal passed, Mayor Johnny Isbell said he “…doesn’t understand how anyone can vote against the bonds.”

Then, Thursday (August 15), Isbell wrote a memo with another twist; forget the bonds for now. Instead, we’re going to consider charter amendments.

With two readings needed to get it approved and a Harris County election deadline fast approaching, Isbell has put the charter amendments on the Tuesday (August 20) agenda and also called a Special Council Meeting for Thursday morning (August 22) at 8 a.m. to get it done.

In his Thursday memo from to councilmembers and the citizen committee obtained by The Pasadena Citizen, Isbell states, “As a result of opposition to the bond proposal by three Members of Council, I have elected to withdraw the proposed ordinance,” and, “If the representatives don’t present a united plan, then voters are concerned and many may be unwilling to commit the tax dollars necessary to improve neighborhoods they know nothing about.

“How could we persuade a voter who lives in Village Grove to support spending millions of dollars in the Gardens or Deepwater areas if the representatives of those neighborhoods oppose such expenditures. I find the task of convincing voters, under such circumstances, to be daunting.”

Also in the memo, Isbell praised the work of the Bond/Charter Review Committee, as the rest of council has publicly done, then he added, “However, in view of the Committee’s hard work, I am proposing an election to amend the Charter.”

Isbell wrote that charter changes don’t require as high a standard of unanimity as bonds do.

“The Committee proposed four changes to the Charter and I am adding a proposed fifth change which deals with redistricting,” Isbell wrote.

So if you have any interest in this, you might want to head over to Pasadena City Hall this evening at 6:30 to watch the proceedings. As noted in that story, there are some other things going on as well – see this Easter Lemming Facebook post for more.

Like I said, I’ve not followed this closely, and the details are a bit fuzzy to me, so please forgive the lack of data. But look at it this way: If Mayor Parker – or any Houston mayor – suddenly announced the need to redraw Houston’s Council districts, and produced a map that she herself had drawn without input from Council, wouldn’t you be suspicious? And if that map just happened to draw a couple of her persistent critics out of their seats, wouldn’t that look even more hinky? That’s what appears to be going on in Pasadena. And if it happens there, you can expect it to happen elsewhere, too.

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