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June 9th, 2010:

Council passes demolition moratorium for historic properties

Houston City Council has taken a step forward to providing stronger protection for historic properties.

City Council passed a temporary law today that puts a moratorium on demolitions in Houston’s 15 historic districts.

The city’s 15-year-old preservation ordinance has allowed a property owner to proceed with a renovation, demolition or relocation in one of the districts after a 90-day waiting period — even if the change had been rejected by the Houston Archeological and Historic Commission.

After today, the commission’s ruling will stand as the city makes permanent changes to the law.

The vote was 13-1 in favor, with Council Member C.O. Bradford the lone “No”; CM Mike Sullivan, who had previously voiced some objections to the law, was absent. I had thought this would be more contentious, but maybe that will come when the permanent ordinance gets debated. I’m glad to see this happen, and I look forward to that discussion. Along the way, Council also designated First Montrose Commons as a historic district. One subdivision of my neighborhood is also working on that. Quite the change for Houston, isn’t it?

Were the Green signatures obtained illegally?

Wayne Slater follows up his previous reporting on the petition signatures that were gathered by an outside organization for the Green Party with the question about the legality of it.

It’s unclear who paid for the petition drive, but funding went through Take Initiative America, a Missouri nonprofit corporation. Buck Wood, an Austin lawyer and expert in election law, said Monday that such a transaction is illegal under state law.

“That corporation cannot make contributions to political parties in Texas. And to do so is a felony,” he said. “It is also a felony for a political party to accept a corporate contribution.”

[…]

Wood said that while an individual donor could legally bankroll petition drives to put a party on the ballot, corporations cannot. Wood has represented Democrats in litigation in which corporate money was illegally used to defeat political candidates.

In the case of the Texas Green Party, a Chicago-based petition-gathering company, Free and Equal Inc., gathered the signatures under contract with Take Initiative America.

It’s unclear whether the petitions could be disallowed based on how the Green Party reports the donation. But the party and its leaders could face significant penalties if they are found to break the law.

The Texas secretary of state is reviewing the signatures submitted by the Green Party. If the agency validates the petitions, the party will be on the ballot in November. A decision is expected by the end of the month.

I have a lot of respect for Buck Wood, who knows a hell of a lot about election law, but he’s not exactly a disinterested bystander here. I’d like to hear from some more experts to see if there’s a consensus view on this. I’m also unclear about whether or not the Secretary of State’s ruling on the signatures’ validity includes consideration of the issue that Wood raises, or if their only mandate is to check to see if the signers are registered voters who did not participate in the primaries. If so, then I presume a lawsuit would have to be filed to challenge the legality of the petitions and their funding source. Can anyone confirm this? Thanks.

Emmett speaks about his county elections administrator proposal

County Judge Ed Emmett has a brief op-ed in the Chron to respond to some concerns about his proposal to study the possibility of an appointed elections administrator.

There have been several false statements made that an elections administrator would be appointed by Harris County Commissioners Court. As laid out by state law, an elections administrator is appointed and overseen by a commission of five members — the county judge, county clerk, tax assessor-collector and the county chairs of the Democratic and Republican parties.

The Chronicle editorial said, “The need for a nonpartisan election administrator in Harris County has become obvious.” And although partisan candidates for the office of tax assessor have made false and outrageous statements in an effort to politicize voter registration, many others from all across the political spectrum have told me they would like to see us consider such an office. Clearly, voters are tired of candidates who put their candidacies above the public good.

I also need to clarify an issue that those candidates have intentionally tried to muddy. Unfortunately, even the Chronicle editorial reflected this error. There has never been any intention to create the office of elections administrator before the November elections. As I said before and after the editorial was published, I personally would favor creating an office of elections administrator only if I believed it to be feasible and only would do so after Jan. 1, when elections for county judge, county clerk and county tax assessor-collector are over and the winners sworn in. That, I believe, would best ensure that the new elections administrator would reflect the desires of the voters of Harris County.

I appreciate that Judge Emmett wants to wait until after the November election to see if we want to take any further steps with this, but he didn’t address the Chron’s assertion that this proposal is only being made because Emmett’s preferred candidates lost their primaries. It’s not unreasonable to ask why this is being brought up now. Whatever the merits of this idea – and again, I’m willing to hear it out – it’s easy to believe we’d not be discussing it at all if Leo Vasquez and Kevin Mauzy were on the November ballot. If that’s not true, then show some evidence that this has been in the works, or at least under consideration, since before the March primaries. And if it is true, then be up front about it. If there really are a lot of people clamoring for a non-partisan elections administrator, then a straight-up admission by Judge Emmett that he thinks it would be preferable to any of the candidates running for either County Clerk or Tax Assessor ought to be a selling point.

Midtown development

The Sunday Chron had a look at some new development coming to Main Street near the Ensemble/HCC station. In it was this observation about what had previously been built in the area:

When the Main Street light rail line opened in 2004, there were hopes that transit-oriented developments would follow, particularly at rail stops, but there has been relatively little growth.

One notable exception is the block next door to the soon-to-open shops at 3600 Main, at the Ensemble/HCC stop: 3700 Main, which houses the Continental Club, the Breakfast Klub, T’Afia, Julia’s Bistro and Mink bar. Four businesses on the 3700 block — the Continental Club, Tacos A-Go Go, Sig’s Lagoon and Big Top Lounge — were developed by Bob Schultz and his partners Steve Wertheimer and Gordon, and investors. Some of those businesses, including the Continental Club, predate light rail.

[…]

Ed Wulfe, chairman of the Main Street Coalition, a group aiming to enhance the street, offered reasons why only a relative few blocks have been developed along the rail line: land speculation, which causes real estate prices to soar and makes development less desirable; the lack of incentives to encourage development; and the recession.

It all depends on how you look at it. Christof Spieler documented in 2007 a whole bunch of new construction and renovation work done along and nearby the Main Street Corridor. The vast majority of it was downtown or in the Medical Center, though there were a few things in Midtown. My own observation is that much of what I’ve seen happen in Midtown, before and since the construction of the light rail line, has happened on the streets near Main Street, but not so much on Main Street. For whatever the reason, that’s been a much tougher nut to crack.

TCEQ versus EPA

This fight between the TCEQ and the EPA, or more broadly between polluters and people who like to breathe, has been coming for a long time.

Environmentalists are excited by the EPA’s new aggressive posture and hope it prompts an overhaul of the TCEQ and Texas environmental regulation in the sunset process.

Former TCEQ Commissioner Larry Soward, who is helping environmentalists prepare for the fight, fears the opposite is about to occur.

“I’m almost concerned that there’s going to be a legislative backlash and the Legislature is going to join the governor and the agency and say, ‘Hell, no!’” Soward said.

[…]

Soward, a former Perry aide, said the fundamental problem of the TCEQ is that state law set it up to favor industry. He said he often had to vote for permits he did not like because state law does not allow the agency to change a permit up for renewal without the operator’s agreement.

“We have a culture at the agency and in the state that economic interests are more protected … than the environment,” Soward said.

Well, yeah. This is Texas, and that’s how our Republican government rolls. If you haven’t already, you really need to read this Observer story about the extreme, radical, pro-industry slant the TCEQ has taken under Rick Perry. I really can’t stress this sort of thing enough: If you care about pollution, about clean air, about clean water, about ensuring the citizens have a voice in what various polluting industries want to do, you need to vote for change in the Governor’s office. Just read the section in the Observer story with the sub-head “TCEQ vs The People”, about what happens when a giant chicken-raising business moves in next door to you. What remedies would you want to have if it happened to you? Whatever you thought of, the TCEQ isn’t interested in letting you have them. That’s how it is, and it’s how it will be as long as we have the government we have now.