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July 3rd, 2014:

Get ready to defend the HERO

From the inbox:

Surrounded by members of the community who are impacted by the ordinance, Mayor Annise Parker announced today that the City will mount a vigorous effort to defend Houston’s Equal Rights Ordinance from being repealed.

“The Houston I know does not discriminate, treats everyone equally and allows full participation by everyone in civic and business life,” said Mayor Parker. “We don’t care where you come from, the color of your skin, your age, gender, what physical limitations you may have or whom you choose to love. I am confident voters will soundly defeat any challenge to the ordinance.”

A total of 17,269 valid signatures are required to place the referendum on the November ballot. The City Secretary has until August 4, 2014 to complete the validation process. No signature may be older than 30 days prior to today’s date.

The deadline for a City Council vote to place the referendum on the ballot is August 18, 2014.

Since City Council approval of the ordinance in May, opponents and the uninformed have been spreading a lot of misinformation. Bathrooms have been the subject of the most heated discussion. Mayor Parker stressed that there is no mention of the use of bathrooms in the ordinance. “Let’s be clear, this in no way grants men the unfettered right to access women’s bathrooms or locker rooms,” said Parker. “It is simply not true and I know Houstonians are wise enough to see through the misrepresentations and exaggerations.”

Under city law, it is illegal for anyone to knowingly and intentionally enter any public restroom designated for the exclusive use of the sex opposite to such person’s sex with the permission of the owner or another supervisor for the calculated purpose of causing a disturbance.

“I sponsored the Equal Rights Ordinance because I believe all people deserve to be treated fairly and equally and protected from discrimination,” said Houston City Council Woman Ellen Cohen. “I led the Houston Area Women’s Center for 18 years – working to eliminate sexual and domestic violence against women. This law protects women and girls – and does absolutely nothing to put their safety at risk.”

HERO prohibits discrimination in employment, public accommodation and housing on the basis of sex, race, color, ethnicity, national origin, age, familial status, marital status, military status, religion, disability, sexual orientation, genetic information, gender identity or pregnancy.

More than 80 current and former elected officials, community organizations and nonprofit groups have endorsed HERO. It had the backing of the Greater Houston Partnership, the NAACP, Rice University and the Houston Association of Realtors. The support was broad-based and diverse.

The haters claim to have turned in 50,000 signatures. The one thing I can tell you for sure is that as these are public records, they will be scrutinized very closely.

Also from the inbox:

HOUSTON – The Equal Rights Houston Committee, representing a broad coalition of businesses, faith leaders, community organizations, teachers, medical professionals, public safety leaders, elected leaders and neighbors across Houston, announced its intention today to defend Houston’s landmark Equal Rights Ordinance against an attempt by opponents to repeal it.
Houstonians can join the campaign at www.EqualRightsHouston.com.

Mayor Annise Parker said:

“If opponents of equal rights succeed at putting a referendum on the ballot, we will forcefully defend the Equal Rights Ordinance and make sure that Houston stays a place where everyone can work hard, provide for our families and give our kids the opportunity for a better life. That’s why a diverse coalition from the Greater Houston Partnership to the NAACP to LULAC to more than 70 faith leaders across Houston worked to support this ordinance.”

Councilmember Ellen Cohen said:

“I sponsored the Equal Rights Ordinance because I believe all people deserve to be treated fairly and equally and protected from discrimination. I led the Houston Area Women’s Center for 18 years, working to eliminate sexual and domestic violence against women. I can say with certainty that – despite misinformation being spread by opponents of the law – the Equal Rights Ordinance protects and empowers women and families.”

Rudy Rasmus, Sr. Pastor of St. John’s United Methodist Church, said:

“As a humanitarian and community servant with ongoing efforts both globally and in my hometown of Houston, Texas, it is important that I support communities working to build equality. I stand for equality, dignity, and respect to be provided to all people. I support Mayor Parker’s efforts to fulfill the mission of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to support fair and equal treatment of all people.”

Lou Weaver, Houston LGBT Community Leader, said:

“African American Houstonians, Disabled Houstonians, LGBT Houstonians, Hispanic Houstonians, Asian American Houstonians, Houstonians from anywhere. We’re all Houstonians – and we deserve the dignity, respect and honor that proud name carries. I am a proud transgender man; I was designated female at birth, but I’ve lived as a man for the past seven years. I want to work hard, earn my way, provide for my family and not live in fear of being fired for reasons based on who I am or who I love and have nothing to do with my job performance. Every Houstonian deserves that opportunity.”

About the Ordinance

The Houston Equal Rights Ordinance – often called HERO – modernizes our laws and strikes a balance. It provides a quick and inexpensive local tool to protect hard-working employees from being fired or discriminated against by a boss or manager who doesn’t do the right thing. And it lets businesses hold all employees to the same professional standards.

The comprehensive ordinance protects Houstonians from discrimination in employment, housing and public accommodations based on sex, race, color, ethnicity, national origin, age, familial status, marital status, military status, religion, disability, sexual orientation, genetic information, gender identity or pregnancy. Exemptions are provided for religious organizations and small businesses. A copy of the ordinance can be viewed at: www.houstontx.gov/equal_rights_ordinance.pdf

To view a list of suporters and learn more, visit www.EqualRightsHouston.com.

The embedded image from this post is from www.EqualRightsHouston.com. Go visit and like their Facebook page. I’m posting this now because I plan to (mostly) take tomorrow off, but you can believe I’ll be all over this going forward, staring with an updated story on Saturday. Happy Fourth of July, and get ready to join forces against this monstrous attempt to move Houston backwards.

Why would you want to regulate that?

I mean, what are a few fiery explosions among friends?

Members of the state House Homeland Security and Public Safety Committee have been struggling for several months over how to respond to last year’s massive explosion at the West Fertilizer Co. that killed 15 and devastated the nearby city of West.

On Tuesday, committee Chairman Joe Pickett, D-El Paso, unveiled a draft bill that would require businesses to store ammonium nitrate, a chemical compound used in fertilizer, in noncombustible buildings or in buildings equipped with a sprinkler system.

Affected businesses would have three years to comply, though new facilities would have to meet the heightened standard immediately, Pickett said.

The bill also would open the facilities to inspections by all certified firefighters to verify safe storage and to create a strategy on fighting potential fires. Pickett said the provision was in response to a state law that allows inspections only by paid firefighters.

“Over 70 percent of firefighters in Texas are volunteers … so 70 percent of our first responders do not have that authority,” he said.

Most controversially, Pickett’s proposal would require storage facilities to meet standards developed by the National Fire Protection Association, a nonprofit that develops research-based fire codes.

Rep. Tim Kleinschmidt, R-Lexington, said the bill includes fire standards that are too complex for small businesses to navigate.

“I count no less than 10 different state and federal codes, standards and regulations listed in this bill, some of which I have a problem with,” he said. “We may be making things a little too complex.”

Rep. George Lavender, R-Texarkana, said the proposal was overkill, and he recommended letting businesses opt out of bill’s provisions if they agree to store ammonium nitrate in a noncombustible building and allow fire inspectors to conduct periodic checks.

“I think the bill as written would put a lot of people out of business,” he said. “I recognize the tragedies that we’ve had, and we certainly need to avoid that in the future, but there is a lot of stuff in here that is bad for the industry.”

Rep. Dan Flynn, R-Canton, said he was concerned about shifting unaffordable costs onto an industry “that has operated safely for decades.”

“It seems like we’re out there with kind of a power grab,” Flynn said.

Pickett replied that he could not live with himself if he didn’t try to improve safety around the facilities.

“I think, Dan, that if we do nothing, we’ll have another West disaster,” Pickett said. “I’m not going to sugarcoat it. If I have an ammonium nitrate facility, with the possibility of a catastrophic situation, I am going to be asking them to spend some money.”

The Chron story has more of the same in this vein. I mean, come on, who in their right minds could possibly think that requiring highly combustible materials to be stored in non-combustible buildings is a good idea? How could these poor businesses possibly be expected to survive if we made them do that?

Well, at least we have the right to know where the hazardous material is, right? Surely the government will require that the places that could blow sky high any minute tell us about that possibility, right? Wrong.

You want to be the boss, you get to deal with boss problems

Republican Attorney General Greg Abbott, under fire for blocking public access to state records documenting the location of dangerous chemicals, said Texans still have a right to find out where the substances are stored — as long as they know which companies to ask.

“You know where they are if you drive around,” Abbott told reporters Tuesday. “You can ask every facility whether or not they have chemicals or not. You can ask them if they do, and they can tell you, well, we do have chemicals or we don’t have chemicals, and if they do, they tell which ones they have.”

In a recently released decision by his office, Abbott, the Republican candidate for governor, said government entities can withhold the state records — in so-called Tier II reports — of dangerous chemical locations. The reports contain an inventory of hazardous chemicals.

But Abbott said homeowners who think they might live near stores of dangerous chemicals could simply ask the companies near their homes what substances are kept on site.

Collected under the federal Community Right to Know Act, the information was made available upon request by the state for decades to homeowners, the media or anyone else who wanted to know where dangerous chemicals were stored. But, as WFAA-TV recently reported, the Texas Department of State Health Services will no longer release the information because of the attorney general’s ruling.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve got plenty of spare time in my day to drive around to every chemical facility in Houston and ask them about what hazardous and explosive materials they have, which I’m sure they’ll be delighted to tell me all about. Why, I’ve got so much free time I may just drive around to chemical plants that aren’t in my area and ask them about this. Thanks for the great suggestion for how to spend my time, Greg Abbott! I’m sure the terrorists that you’re hoping to hide this information from are thinking the same thing, too.

Of course, you know the real reason why Greg Abbott issued this opinion:

The story.

Five months after an ammonium nitrate explosion that killed 15 people in West, Attorney General Greg Abbott received a $25,000 contribution from a first-time donor to his political campaigns — the head of Koch Industries’ fertilizer division.

The donor, Chase Koch, is the son of one of the billionaire brothers atop Koch Industries’ politically influential business empire.

Abbott, who has since been criticized for allowing Texas chemical facilities to keep secret the contents of their plants, received more than $75,000 from Koch interests after the April 2013 explosion at the West Fertilizer Co. storage and distribution facility, campaign finance records filed with the state showed.

[…]

For decades, Texans wanting to know about companies keeping such chemicals could find out from the state.

But Abbott has said that those records are closed. And the state agency that collects and maintains information on large chemical supplies has stopped sharing it with the public.

Abbott contends his opinion, issued in May, strikes a balance. On Tuesday, he called it a “win-win” that keeps information about large chemical inventories off the website of the Department of State Health Services but doesn’t forbid homeowners from asking companies in their neighborhoods what they store.

He said companies should respond within 10 days, but it’s not clear what penalties, if any, private companies face if they decline to tell a member of the public what chemicals are on site.

In blocking public access to the information, Abbott cited a state security statute passed after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

A Davis aide rebuked Abbott for the remarks.

“The only thing more outrageous than Greg Abbott keeping the location of chemical facilities secret is telling Texas parents they literally need to go door to door in order to find out if their child’s school is in the blast radius of dangerous explosives,” said spokesman Zac Petkanas. “Parents have a right to know whether their kids are playing hopscotch next door to the type of facility that exploded in West.”

[…]

Chase Koch donated $25,000 in September, shortly after his father, Koch board chairman Charles Koch, also gave $25,000. The Koch Industries political committee sent Abbott $25,000 in November.

In addition, the company flew Abbott on a company jet in August to an invitation-only gathering in New Mexico that offered wealthy donors an opportunity to meet and mingle with GOP elected officials and leaders of conservative groups supporting the Koch agenda of less government regulation and disclosure.

In the Texas Legislature, Koch lobbyists are on record advocating repeal of notification requirements regarding company pipeline construction and discontinuing the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality’s compliance history program.

Remember when Greg Abbott made ethics reform a key component of his campaign? Boy, those were the days. Burka has more.

UPDATE: Looks like Abbott realized he stepped in it.

Attorney General Greg Abbott this week said private companies must release information about their hazardous chemical stockpiles, weeks after his office ruled the same information no longer would be available from state agencies.

“Homeowners who think they might live near stores of dangerous chemicals would simply ask the companies what substances are kept on site,” Abbott told reporters Tuesday, adding, “And if they do, they tell which ones they have.”

Not everyone agrees with Abbott’s reading of the law, however.

Requests by the Houston Chronicle to 20 companies and local emergency response agencies last month produced mixed results: Half of the companies and agencies sent extensive data on the hazardous chemicals they held on site, known as Tier II reports; five sent basic chemical inventories that often did not include amounts or other details; one asked for more information; two refused to release any data; and two did not respond.

[…]

Tom “Smitty” Smith, the Texas head of consumer advocacy group Public Citizen, said “this is a huge campaign issue and should be.”

“Other former attorneys general would have stood up for the citizens,” Smith said. “The process Abbott has now created is almost impossible for the average citizen that doesn’t have the Houston Chronicle’s name to back them up.”

Abbott acknowledged to the Associated Press on Wednesday that the process may be more difficult than he originally had proposed, calling it “challenging” to get chemical facility information.

Abbott’s statements also could encounter opposition from the business community.

Attorney General spokesman Jerry Strickland said any private company that denied the Chronicle’s requests was providing the public with “misinformation” and could face unspecified “penalties.”

“Chemical companies have an obligation under the Community Right-to-Know Act to disclose that information to the general public within 10 days,” Strickland said in a statement to the Chronicle. “Private companies are required to provide the information. Any failure (to) do to so carries with it penalties to be assessed by the Department of State Health Services.”

Strickland said Abbott’s office was reaching out to the Texas Ag Industries Association, a trade group to which Orica does not belong, to ensure its members understand the law. TAIA President Donnie Dippel said he would urge his members to comply with the law.

Strickland reiterated that the refused information requests were not Abbott’s choice, but what was required under state law.”

Industry lawyer and lobbyist Pam Giblin said the issue was not that cut and dried.

“If the government doesn’t have to release it, how in the world does a private company get this disclosure obligation thrust on it?” Giblin asked, adding she sees possible litigation on the horizon. “There are a lot of homeland security issues. … I think you’re bound to see some court tests because this just doesn’t make sense.”

What would make sense would be for the state’s top law enforcement official to ensure that this information is made available to the public by the government. Too bad Greg Abbott is answering to a higher power than that.

John Bradley’s second act

Lisa Falkenberg brings a fascinating and unexpected update to the story of John Bradley, the former Williamson County DA and Texas Forensic Science Commissioner who served as one of the main villains in the Michael Morton case.

Since losing elected office, Bradley has tried to find work. In 2012, I wrote about him applying to lead the state’s Special Prosecution Unit.

No one would take him. Until now. It seems Bradley has landed another prosecutor’s post. Not in Texas. Not in the United States. In the tiny Republic of Palau, where, according to several sources, Bradley has accepted a position in the attorney general’s office.

The former U.S. territory of about 20,000 people in Micronesia was granted independence in 1994, and now operates in “free association” with the United States.

Barry Scheck, co-founder and co-director of the New York-based Innocence Project, said he learned about Bradley’s new job in a mass email from Bradley’s wife.

[…]

Rob Kepple, executive director of the Texas District and County Attorneys Association and a former colleague of Bradley’s at the Harris County District Attorney’s Office, said he hoped the island nation would provide a fresh start for his friend.

“It’s been awhile,” Kepple said, referring to the Morton revelations. “You know, maybe he gets another chance. Maybe he’s got to go all the way to Palau to get it. But I wish him well.”

Scheck, at the Innocence Project, echoed that sentiment.

“He’s certainly going quite a few thousand miles away in order to reinvent himself and we’re all in favor of second acts in American lives,” Scheck told me Tuesday.

Even Michael Morton maintained his graciousness when I asked what he thought about the prosecutor who wronged him returning to prosecuting.

“I don’t wake up every morning gnashing my teeth and shaking my fist at, you know, ‘where’s John Bradley?’ I’ve literally and figuratively moved on,” he said.

“At this stage of the game, I wish him well,” Morton said. “And, you know, adios.”

Morton’s Houston-based attorney John Raley, who worked the case for free, and fought Bradley at every turn as he tried to stymie Morton’s appeals, was a tad less gracious.

“I’m not aware of any evidence that he has learned the lessons of the Morton case,” Raley said of Bradley. “His actions in the future will answer that question.”

Part of me thinks everybody, even John Bradley, has the right to make a living, to learn from mistakes and to get on with life after grievous errors.

The other part thinks Bradley is still a danger to justice everywhere, even 8,000 miles away.

I’ve said repeatedly on this blog that I’m a believer in redemption. It’s the Catholic in me – I may not be a churchgoer any more, but what I learned while I was stays with me and still shapes how I think. The thing is, as we Catholics also know, you can’t be absolved of a sin until you stop committing it. Other than one brief feint in the direction of acknowledging his responsibility in the Morton saga, John Bradley has never shown any indication that he thinks he did anything wrong. If it were up to him, Michael Morton would still be in jail, Ken Anderson would still be on the bench, and the evidence that exonerated Morton and ousted Bradley and Anderson would be in a box somewhere, if it hadn’t been destroyed. So count me in the tad-less-gracious group here. It’s fine by me if John Bradley wants to put his life back together, but he can do that outside the practice of law. Flip burgers, sell cars, groom dogs, dig ditches, paint houses – there’s tons of honest, dignified jobs John Bradley can hold that won’t put him in a position of power over someone’s freedom. If he truly wants redemption, he knows what he has to do to earn it. Grits, who is more gracious than I, has more.

The Mexican abortion option, one year later

Exactly as predicted.

Misoprostol

The Alamo flea market sits right off South Texas’s lengthy Highway 83; a sprawling, dusty, labyrinth of a place. Under canopies in the converted parking lot, vendors in dark sunglasses stand behind tables heaped with piles of clothing, barking in Spanish and hawking their wares. The air is hot and muggy, thick with the scent of grilled corn and chili.

Customers browse simple items—miracle-diet teas, Barbie dolls or turquoise jeans stretched over curvy mannequins—but there are also shoppers scanning the market for goods that aren’t displayed in the stalls. Tables lined with bottles of medicine like Tylenol and NyQuil have double-meanings to those in the know: The over-the-counter drugs on top provide cover for the prescription drugs smuggled over the border from nearby cities in Mexico. Those, the dealer keeps out of sight.

I’m here to look for a small, white, hexagonal pill called misoprostol. Also known as miso or Cytotec, the drug induces an abortion that appears like a miscarriage during the early stages of a woman’s pregnancy. For women living in Latin America and other countries that have traditionally outlawed abortion, miso has been a lifeline—it’s been called “a noble medication,” “world-shaking” and “revolutionary.” But now, it’s not just an asset of the developing world.

As policies restricting access to abortion roll out in Texas and elsewhere, the use of miso is quickly becoming a part of this country’s story. It has already made its way into the black market here in Texas’s Rio Grande Valley, where abortion restrictions are tightening, and it is likely to continue its trajectory if anti-abortion legislation does not ease up and clinics continue to be closed.

Over the past several years, dozens of states have restricted abortions. Since 2011, at least 73 abortion clinics in the nation have shut down or stopped providing services; and more than 200 abortion restrictions were legislated throughout the nation. Despite the passage of Roe v. Wade more than 40 years ago, states with pro-life politicians are still gunning to reverse the ruling—in the words of Rick Perry in 2012, “my goal is to make abortion, at any stage, a thing of the past.”

Yet these myriad restrictions on women and abortion providers have set the stage for women to skirt medical institutions to take charge of their own health. A similar story has already been written in many countries around the world, where pro-life legislation has inspired similarly creative solutions. Today, throughout Texas—from the Rio Grande Valley to El Paso—miso’s story is being drafted anew. And in this narrative, it is Latin America that has answers for the United States.

There was a NY Times story about this less than a month after HB2 passed last summer, and so far things have played out exactly as expected. I guess it’s good that there’s still an option for so many women, one that’s clearly better than coat hangers and the like, but it sure is depressing that said option is a black market pill that’s supposed to be taken in conjunction with another pill and which can be harmful if not taken in the proper dosage. How any of this is good for women’s health is of course a mystery. But it’s where we are today, and it’s where we’ll be tomorrow and the next day until we get a Legislature that will undo all this damage and a federal appeals court that doesn’t suck.

Texas blog roundup for the week of June 30

The Texas Progressive Alliance wishes everyone a safe and happy Fourth of July as it brings you this week’s roundup.

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