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by Megan Smith
Opponents of the recently passed Houston Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO) were quite pleased on July 3 as they turned in their petitions—which they claim boasted 50,000 signatures—in an effort to repeal the ordinance. Although it is ultimately the job of city secretary Anna Russell to verify that these signatures are valid, HERO supporters have organized an independent review of the petitions, which are available to the public online. Supporters are claiming that the signatures are saturated with errors and are nothing to be proud of.
“The petitions are a mess,” Noel Freeman, a public policy analyst who is helping spearhead the independent review, said. “They are the worst petitions I’ve ever seen.”
Before its passage on May 28, more than 300 people testified in front of City Council in favor of the HERO, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of 15 different protected characteristics in city employment, city contracting, housing, places of public accommodation, and most private-sector employment.
When it became clear that the opposition would be calling for its repeal, Freeman, along with numerous other community leaders and HERO advocates, developed a strategy to deal with the anticipated petition process. They held several training sessions at Resurrection Metropolitan Community Church in the Heights to educate HERO supporters on how to check the petitions and determine whether or not signatures are valid. Over 80 people have been trained thus far, according to Kris Banks, a prominent volunteer who has been active in this process.
Signatures on the petitions can be marked invalid for numerous reasons, including signers not being valid registered voters and petitions not being properly notarized. Banks said that each page of the petition is different, with some containing 15 valid signatures, and others with none. “There are some things that the city secretary won’t be checking for, like fraud and duplicates,” Banks explained. “There are just so many potential issues with these petitions that it really helps to have many eyes looking at them and thinking about what problems there might be.”
Freeman has spent over 50 hours reviewing these petitions, and he plans on reviewing every single one of the 5,199 pages before presenting his findings. During this process, Freeman believes he even discovered a problem with one of the petition pages associated with longtime antigay activist Dr. Steven Hotze.
“We have found a very large number of petition pages that may be invalid because they do not appear to comply with state law,” Freeman said. “One of those pages is a page Steve Hotze both signed and circulated.”
According to the Mother Jones website, Hotze, who is the president of the Conservative Republicans of Texas, has “trafficked in hysteria over equal status for gay citizens, which he has said would give gay people ‘a free hand to come and have relations with a minor, molest a child.’” Hotze was also active in overturning a nondiscrimination ordinance similar to HERO, passed by City Council in 1984. In an attempt to oust the Council incumbents who supported gay rights, Hotze then backed “The Straight Slate,” a group of eight candidates for City Council who shared his homophobic ideology (including former mayor Louie Welch, notorious for his statement that the best way to fight AIDS was to “shoot the queers”).
Hotze is now back at it again, spreading hate and blatant lies about the HERO. His statements were recently published by Nonsequiteuse, a blog run by Houston fundraising consultant Andrea Greer:
Mayor Parker’s ordinance would include minority status for the so called ‘transgendered,’ allowing a biological male to legally enter women’s public bathrooms, locker rooms, and shower areas and expose himself to women and girls or just ogle them like a peeping Tom,” Hotze said. “All he has to claim is that he ‘thinks of himself as a woman.’
I want to protect my wife, daughters, and granddaughters from being exposed to the dangers of male sexual predators masquerading as women in women’s public bathrooms, locker rooms, and shower facilities. Don’t you want the same for your wife, daughters, and granddaughters? Shame on Mayor Parker and City Council for passing an ordinance that would put women and children at risk from sexual predators. That is why it is referred to as the Sexual Predators Protection Ordinance.”
When asked how marking Hotze’s page invalid made him feel, Freeman replied, “There is a bit of irony in it because Hotze sent out a mass mailing at significant expense to conservative voters that said it was vital for people to follow the proper rules and procedures because ‘Annise Parker and her liberal friends will stop at nothing to invalidate as many petitions as possible.’ Given his history, I really would have expected him to get it right, but their election-law attorneys are from Arizona, not Texas, from what I understand. I think it is an embarrassingly amateur mistake for their side, but any joy I take from it is overshadowed by the very serious nature of this process.”
During the Ethics, Elections, and Council Governance committee meeting on July 25, city attorney David Feldman announced that city secretary Anna Russell is progressing with her verification process, and will have her findings no later than August 4.
“We would have no expectations that our findings would be binding upon anybody,” Freeman told the ethics committee. “We believe that in the interest of open government, we have an obligation as citizens of Houston to validate these petitions just as the people who submitted them went through their own validation process.”
If the opposition has indeed collected the 17,269 valid signatures that they need, the item will then be placed on City Council’s agenda in the first week of August, according to Feldman. The Council will then have the option of electing to repeal the ordinance. If they do not elect to do so, they are obligated to place it on the ballot for the voters to decide the HERO’s fate.
Neither Feldman nor the HERO supporters have announced specifics on the signature validation count thus far. However, as Freeman said, “I don’t think anyone’s rights should be subject to a popular vote.”
All HERO repeal petitions can be viewed online at heropetition.com.