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Arturo Michel

Inflatable gorillas win one in court

How often do you get to write a headline like that?

U.S. District Judge Vanessa Gilmore ruled that a 1993 city ordinance restricting the use of attention-getting devices, such as the giant balloons atop businesses, violated the due process and equal protection rights of Houston Balloons & Promotions. The judge awarded the company, owned by Jim Purtee and his wife, $927,841 plus an additional $187,000 in expenses and attorneys fees.

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After a two-day trial earlier this month, Gilmore ruled the Houston sign ordinance section about attention-getting devices such as banners, pennants, streamers, strobes, spotlights, whirligigs and inflatable objects violated the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment.

She ruled that there was no rational relationship between the regulation that banned balloons with nongeneric messages, like logos, and the city’s stated goals of traffic safety and visual aesthetics, especially because balloons with generic messages like “Sale” were allowed.

The judge found that the city violated the due process clause because the regulations were vague and the city enforced them arbitrarily and inconsistently.

Houston City Attorney Arturo Michel said the city will take a close look at the judge’s decision to see if it should appeal the case.

Michel said he does not think this ruling has implications for the new ordinance that bans the balloons.

My advice would be to drop this case and pay the man, and to give a lot of thought as to the implications for the new ordinance, which Purtee says will be challenged in court. I’ve said before that on balance I think the new ordinance is a good thing, but I’m sufficiently ambivalent about it to feel that this development changes things. The risk of losing in court is now a lot higher, and unlike with billboards, I don’t think this is a big enough issue to take that risk. It won’t bother me if the city decides to cut its losses and not enforce the new ordinance.

As for Mr. Purtee, what else can one say but this?

Go ahead and crack open that cold one, dude. You’ve earned it.

Here we go again with City Council redistricting

Or at least, here we go again with arguing about when we should be redrawing City Council lines.

Mayor Bill White’s decision to delay redrawing the boundaries of City Council districts has angered numerous community activists, who say his stance is defying Houston’s charter.

Under a 30-year-old legal settlement with the U.S. Justice Department, the number of council members “shall increase” from 14 to 16 when Houston’s population hits 2.1 million. That settlement later was incorporated into the city’s charter.

The mayor, City Council members and officials all acknowledge that the triggering population threshold has been crossed.

But White and several council members have resisted the push for redistricting, asserting that the city lacks population data needed to redraw district lines accurately. That data will come from the U.S. Census Bureau’s decennial survey in 2010. Pressing on without it, they say, could lead to a court challenge under federal voting rights laws.

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Houston has had more than 2.1 million people since 2006, according to population estimates the city has been using in official documents. To create new districts and change boundaries, however, the city would have to use detailed population estimates for specific tracts of land, city officials said. Though demographers are assumed to estimate the overall city population accurately, the only accurate tract-level data would have to come from the 2000 Census.

Redrawing district lines now would, in effect, be based on almost 10-year-old data, said Jerry Wood, a former city planner and redistricting expert. He noted that the city went through redistricting in 1982 and 1985, based on dated census figures. The estimates used those years were shown to be wrong in the 1990 Census, Wood said.

That possibility, and any lawsuit that could stem from it, led City Attorney Arturo Michel and Chief Administrative Officer Anthony Hall to advise the mayor against redistricting now.

“I have no doubt that our actual population exceeds the threshold number, but there are substantial legal issues about whether federal law allows us to draw districts based on guesses about where people live,” White said.

I appreciate that perspective, and as far as it goes, I agree we’ll have much more accurate data real soon now. But we’ve been talking about this for over three years, and the city could have taken action in 2006 in time for the 2007 elections, but demurred on the grounds that we weren’t really sure we were past the 2.1 million mark. That seems to have been an erroneous belief. Anyway, the last time this came up, the word was wait till 2010. Which makes sense in a vacuum, but it didn’t have to be this way. I have a lot of sympathy for the people who are complaining about it again now.

Presently, in a city made up of 41.7 percent Hispanics, 24.3 percent African-Americans and 5.3 percent Asian-Americans, there is one Latino council member, four African-Americans and one Asian-American.

“We’re the fourth-largest city in America. Let’s act like it,” said Vidal Martinez, an attorney and former Port of Houston commissioner who urged council members recently to take up redistricting now.

But council members noted that much of the city’s growth that would be addressed in redistricting has happened in west Houston.

“We’re going to have to peel away (new districts) from existing western, white districts,” Councilwoman Anne Clutterbuck said. The problem with drawing out districts to address a certain population, like a Hispanic population, is Hispanics are scattered across the city.”

We’re likely, though certainly not guaranteed, to have another Latino member after the special election for District H. That would make Council exactly half Anglo, half non-Anglo, and while that’s not really aligned with the overall population, I’ll bet it’s a pretty fair representation of the population that actually votes. Some Latino leaders have a summit coming up in three weeks to talk about issues like that – see Marc Campos for details. More voter participation, and more Latinos running At Large would make a big difference even with the current lines.

If you’ve read any of my precinct analysis posts from the 2008 election, you know I agree with Council Member Clutterbuck about the electoral map out west. Another question that will need to be dealt with for the eventual map-drawers is what to do with District E. It really doesn’t make sense to glue Kingwood and Clear Lake together, but splitting them apart is likely to create two districts that will tend to elect Anglos, instead of just one. If the goal is to increase minority representation, that will come into conflict. Whenever we do get around to this, it’s going to be a tricky and contentious task.