When it comes to petitioning local government, Barry Klein leads the pack. Klein’s activism started back in the 80s, when the City of Houston was looking to build the George R. Brown Convention Center. Living in Houston’s Sixth Ward at that time, Klein knew that if he didn’t come up with an alternative proposal, he and others in his community would have to see the center built west of downtown. This meant it would block the Sixth Ward’s view of downtown and stifle any would-be economic development. Though Klein later opted for a third option, which required less taxpayer dollars, the coalition of civic clubs that he organized successfully followed through with his original proposal.

In the 90s, Klein’s interest shifted to transportation issues, but his focus and level of passion remained the same.

After reading about the benefit of competitive taxis and jitneys, Barry recruited four civic groups to persuade Houston City Council to ease regulations. During this same time, he formed Citizens for Responsible Transit, which he says was to “fight Metro’s plan to build a heavy rail system, which unlike most light rail, has an exclusive right of way.” While his coalition couldn’t get city council to ease regulations on taxis, his group was successful in their push against heavy rail.

Klein also created the Houston Property Rights Association (HPRA) back in 1992. About the creation of the HPRA, Klein said, “We created it as a PAC to petition for a charter amendment to kill city hall’s plan to bring citywide zoning to Houston.” His petition drive led to an election in 1993 when voters defeated a citywide zoning plan, and a subsequent election in 1994 that amended the Houston charter, ensuring that from then on any zoning proposal would require voter approval. Because of Klein’s vigilance, Houston remains the largest U.S. city without zoning ordinances.

Klein’s initial participation in politics was a $5 contribution to a successful campaign fighting to repeal state laws requiring motorcyclists to wear helmets. “It was the best return on money I ever got in politics,” said Klein.

Klein was born in Ontario, Canada, and moved to Geneva, New York, just a few years later. He moved to the Houston area after high school to study at St. Thomas University.

Today Klein spends his time arranging meetings for the HPRA, which is in its 23rd year. In his free time he says he “guides activists of all stripes on how to use direct democracy, especially in the form of charter amendments, to bring political reform at the city level.”

Last year eight petition drives were launched in which Klein played a key role. Six of those eight were were completed, three charters have successfully been amended, and there are three more to go. All in all he says, “$1.1 billion in tax savings have been realized.”  He said, “only 5 percent of registered voters need to sign a petition to put a reform on a city ballot … when the grassroots catches on to these tactics, I see amazing possibilities for Texas and for America.” Because of his work, the Property Rights Foundation of America called him, “one of the most respected property rights activists in the nation.” With Klein’s tireless efforts and wealth of knowledge, he is changing local government a little every day.

Charles Blain

Charles Blain is the president of Urban Reform and Urban Reform Institute. A native of New Jersey, he is based in Houston and writes on municipal finance and other urban issues.