After the ongoing and predictably divisive battle surrounding Houston’s Equal Rights Ordinance (ERO), one would expect a just and representative government to identify the very flaws that originally caused the contention. One would also expect an effort from officials to make it easier for residents to effect change in the future. Instead, Houston politicians are viciously fighting in the opposite direction.

In what seemed like a slip of the tongue gaffe during this week’s public hearing, Mayor Annise Parker said, “The new policy [regarding citizen-petitions] in Houston is the City Attorney’s office reviews all petitions for accuracy and relevance,” before the petition even lands on the City Secretary’s desk. This policy has no precedence.

When Council Member Michael Kubosh asked when this policy became effective, Parker replied, “When we were not allowed to advise the City Secretary on legal issues.” In other words, the change came after the discrepancy between the City Secretary and City Attorney’s signature counts. The change enables Parker to kill any petitions she opposes. But this is in violation of the city’s own charter.

It specifically states the petition review process only involves the City Secretary. Council Member C.O. Bradford raised the same concern, stating, “A change in policy can’t trump the city charter.” But Parker, staying true to her dictatorial record, said it was an “administrative prerogative.” She believes she can selectively choose which legal restrictions apply to her office.

Parker didn’t change the process to ensure ease of access and accountability in the petitioning process—she changed it to add another level of bureaucracy in her favor in direct conflict with Houston’s charter.

Kubosh went on to say, “The charter does not give the Mayor of the city, or the City Attorney, the right to pick and choose which charter amendments qualify for the City Secretary to consider. Any action preventing the City Secretary from considering a petition is wrong…had it been a revenue cap or drainage fee charter amendment it may have readily been accepted.”

Fortunately for Houstonians, the Texas Supreme Court addressed something similar in nature in their recent opinion. “The City Attorney may, no doubt, give legal advice to the City Secretary, but he cannot assume her duties.” Allowing the City Attorney’s office to review and deny a petition would be assuming the Secretary’s duties.

The policy change is essentially the mayor saying that the City Secretary isn’t competent enough to review and verify a petition without oversight from Parker’s appointed City Attorney.

For those unfamiliar, City Secretary Anna Russell has been in the same position and verifying citizen petitions for sixty-three (63) years, the equivalent to roughly eleven mayoral terms. She has done so without legal consultation, and has managed to avoid most discrepancies regarding petition signatures prior to Parker’s administration. The “policy change” was purely political retribution for refusing to do the Mayor’s bidding by invalidating enough signatures to kill a citizen-led effort.

We reached out to Parker’s office to get more detail regarding the policy change. Her Chief Policy Officer and Communications Director, Janice Evans, said the policy was changed “a while back.” Evans also reconfirmed that the added step of petitioning Houston’s government is now a “legal department review to determine if the petitions should be counted.”

This is yet another example of the abuse of power that Houston’s mayor is able to exert, in large part, because of the city’s dictatorial governing structure that places too much power in one politician. As this publication has demonstrated before, the policy making power in Houston needs to be dispersed equally among councilmembers and the mayor.

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.