Monday was Mayor Parker’s turn to take the stand at the trial over the validity of the HERO repeal petitions. You’d think this would be a momentous occasion of high drama, but since this whole thing is about technicalities and not about the merits of the ordinance, it was a lot less exciting than it sounds.
Parker, for her part, labeled her testimony “tedious” and remarked “those poor jurors” to an aide during a morning break.
“They’ve made a lot of public allegations about what I did or did not do, but they really didn’t ask me about what my job was and what I actually did do, which was surprising,” Parker said. “They spent a lot of time asking me to second-guess the work of the legal department. As I had to reiterate, I wasn’t down in the weeds, that wasn’t my role.”
On some level, tedium was expected. Jurors are not examining the merits of the ordinance, which City Council passed last May, banning discrimination among businesses that serve the public, private employers, housing, city employment and city contracting but exempting religious institutions.
The jury instead is tasked with parsing the thousands of petition pages opponents submitted last July. The plaintiffs – conservative pastors and activists – say they verified 31,000 of the signatures, but city attorneys now say only 3,905 are valid, citing alleged fraud, perjury and additional errors they did not find when they initially rejected the petition.
Parker’s critics had questioned a meeting that took place in her office the same day the city announced opponents failed to gather the required 17,269 signatures. At that meeting, according to a deposition of City Secretary Anna Russell, a video of which was played in court Monday, then-City Attorney David Feldman asked Russell if he could add his own analysis to her page-long memo that originally found enough valid individual signatures to qualify the petition. Citing errors that disqualified entire pages, Feldman’s added paragraphs ultimately doomed the petition.
The plaintiffs used Russell as their final witness. In her deposition, Russell said she believed she had completed her duty when she verified more signatures than the group needed to qualify for the ballot. Taylor closed with Russell’s answer to his question about whether she was proud of her office’s work in light of the city’s finding that the petition had failed and Parker and others had criticized the signature gatherers’ work as fraudulent and sloppy.
“I feel like we did our job, and I’m proud of it,” Russell said.
But attorneys for Russell and the city chose clips from her deposition that painted a more coordinated portrait of the city’s effort, with Russell saying she was aware that the City Attorney’s office was conducting its own review. She also said that while it was her responsibility to look at whether those who signed the petition were registered Houston voters, certifying the petition was not within her duties.
See here and here for previous updates. The Anna Russell testimony is the more interesting action, since the plaintiffs’ case largely rests on the assertion that only her review of the signatures, which involves checking to see who is and who isn’t a Houston voter, is relevant. I suspect the excitement level will ratchet up when the city puts on its defense, at which time it will present its evidence about fraud and forgery. In the meantime, David Feldman will take the stand. That ought to be worth watching even if the subject matter is dry. Project Q has more.