Almost a year after the nondiscrimination ordinance’s passage, HERO is finally enforced
by John Wright
City officials have begun investigating complaints received under the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO) since its passage last May.
Meanwhile, HERO opponents confirmed their plans to appeal a state district judge’s April 17 ruling that their petition to repeal the ordinance doesn’t have enough valid signatures to qualify for inclusion on the November ballot. But the lead attorney for the city in the HERO case said he was confident the ruling will stand.
The ordinance took effect 30 days after the City Council approved it last May, but officials voluntarily placed enforcement of HERO on hold pending the outcome of the lawsuit from opponents. Pursuant to Judge Robert Schaffer’s ruling last month, the Inspector General’s Office is processing the handful of complaints received under HERO in the interim.
“We’re ready to go,” Inspector General Robin Curtis said on April 23. “We’re friendly people and not intimidating, and if people have a concern, bring it forward. Part of the reason for the process is for it be used when there’s a need.”
Curtis’ office has posted discrimination complaint forms online, and she said enforcing the ordinance won’t be a major adjustment for her staff of eight, which has long been charged with investigating complaints based on discrimination in city services, as well as fraud, waste, and abuse in government.
“I won’t tell you that we don’t expect to learn as we go along, but I don’t expect it to be enormously different than the kind of investi-gations we do every day,” Curtis said. “We’d like to be able to do this without increasing our costs.”
The ordinance, approved by the council in an 11–6 vote on May 28, 2014, prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in employment, housing, public accommodations, and among city contractors.
After city officials rejected a petition to repeal the ordinance, opponents filed their lawsuit in August. In February, following a two-week trial, a jury rendered its verdict about which signatures should be considered valid. Based on the jury’s verdict, and after two months of deliberations and subsequent motions, Schaffer handed down his ruling.
Schaffer determined the petition contains 16,684 valid signatures—565 short of the 17,249 needed to qualify for the ballot. In addition to ruling against them, Schaffer ordered the plaintiffs to pay the city’s court costs, which total about $10,000 so far.
Dave Welch, executive director of the U.S. Pastor Council, which has led opposition to the ordinance, said he anticipated filing an appeal of Shaffer’s decision in late April.
“We’re up against a major political legal machine that has basically decided they’re going to trample the little guy, and it’s the old issue of run them out of money or run them out of time.
But what they’re going to find is we’re not going to let this go,” Welch said on April 22. “We’re going to pursue justice until justice is served. We will not yield to tyranny.”
Geoffrey Harrison, lead attorney for the city, noted that opponents of the ordinance demanded a jury trial in the case, and the jury’s verdict determined that only 2,110 signatures on the petition are valid.
Although Schaffer’s ruling substantially increased that number, opponents of the ordinance are now attacking the judge—which Harrison called “a sad, dark irony.” If opponents of the ordinance appeal the decision, Harrison said, all signatures on the petition will again be in question.
“Just as the plaintiffs will be potentially arguing for more signatures to count, the city is free to demonstrate, as a matter of fact and law under the jury’s verdict, that far fewer signatures should count,” Harrison said. “The plaintiffs will have a very heavy burden of proof to overcome the fact-finding of the jury and the rulings of the court. Now the plaintiffs have to run away from the jury verdict and run away from the judge’s legal rulings. That is a difficult challenge for the plaintiffs to meet.”
Welch said that in addition to filing the appeal, opponents of the ordinance planned to seek an injunction blocking enforcement of HERO.
“I think it is terribly sad that these pro-discrimination forces are trying so hard to deprive the citizens of Houston their equal rights,” Harrison said.
Harrison noted that jurors determined 64 out of 97 petition circulators had failed to sign and subscribe their oaths in accordance with election law. In addition, 12 out of 13 of the highest-volume circulators submitted pages containing forgery.
“The jury’s fact-finding of rampant forgery and false oaths highlights the morally bereft manner in which plaintiffs sought to advance their pro-discrimination political agenda,” Harrison said.
For more information about filing a complaint under the ordinance, visit houstontx.gov/legal/Office-of-Inspector-General or call the Office of Inspector General at 832/393-6509.