UPDATE (9:15 p.m. EDT): The Houston Area Pastors Council and other city conservatives Wednesday night declared their “great disgust” with Mayor Annise Parker’s administration after City Attorney David Feldman requested to move their lawsuit to federal court.
Opponents called the move from state court a “delay tactic” to keep a referendum petition to repeal Parker’s “Equal Rights Ordinance” off the November ballot.
The city’s official review invalidating the petition is itself rife with questions. City Secretary Anna Russell said in a letter dated Aug. 1 that she had reviewed a report from Feldman throwing out the petition, though it wasn’t sent to her until Aug. 4, documents say. Russell did not return a phone call Wednesday, though her office confirmed she had received my request for comment.
The mayor’s office responded at 5:30 p.m. EDT to a separate inquiry, stating the Aug. 1 date was a typo. “It’s a very simple explanation. … She was still reviewing petitions up until shortly before the announcement was made at 5 p.m. on Monday,” said Janice Evans, the mayor’s communications director.
Evans did not comment on how Feldman’s report is also dated Aug. 4. If that date is correct, Russell accepted in a matter of hours 100 percent of the 2,500-plus invalidation decisions Feldman made, including those apparently overruling her own decisions. For example, Feldman threw out some 700 signatures as illegible, when Russell on July 27 thought they were fine.
OUR EARLIER REPORT: Conservative Christians in Houston filed suit against Mayor Annise Parker’s administration after city officials ruled invalid a petition to overturn a new LGBT anti-bias ordinance. City officials threw out thousands of signatures that would have forced the city to put the ordinance on the November ballot. But conservatives are not willing to declare defeat yet.
Parker in May rammed through her “Equal Rights Ordinance” in hearings some called a sham. Supporters say the ordinance is a generic rights rule that simply adds “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” to a list of other protected classes. But Parker, who is open about her homosexual relationship, has publicly declared the ordinance “about me.”
Religious liberty experts say the ordinance clearly forces Christian organizations and businesses to act against their biblical beliefs about sexuality. Among other things, the ordinance bans Christian colleges from enforcing sexual conduct policies in housing. It also opens public restrooms to anyone, regardless of gender. Expecting a legal challenge, Parker delayed the ordinance’s implementation.
Opponents included several Houston-area churches and the Houston Area Pastors Council, led by president Dave Welch. The group’s “No UNequal Rights” campaign dropped off a more than 31,000 signatures on 5,199 pages at City Hall on July 3. If even 17,300 signatures were verified, Houston would have had to place the ordinance on the November ballot. The confident group claimed its legal team verified more than 30,000 signatures before submitting the documents.
But Monday, Parker and City Attorney David Feldman declared the group only had 15,249 valid signatures. Officials threw out 2,750 pages of signatures—more than half. “In this instance, there are too many documents with irregularities and problems to overlook,” Feldman claimed.
Welch and other conservatives sued the city on Tuesday. “We are disappointed we don’t have honest government. We’re not surprised—because we honestly knew who we were dealing with,” Welch told me.
Conservatives were already prepared to sue after a July 25 meeting in which Feldman, Parker’s close ally, revealed he was intimately involved in the review process. “At that moment, we knew what they were up to,” Welch said.
The documents themselves back up at least some of Welch’s concerns. The city charter places the responsibility for verifying signatures on City Secretary Anna Russell. By her own admission, in a report sent to Parker, Russell said she verified more than enough signatures by July 27 to put the petition on the ballot. But before releasing her final decision, she allowed Feldman extraordinary power to review the petition.
Feldman threw out more than 2,000 pages—containing more than 11,000 signatures—because the circulator’s signature was too much like print and not enough like cursive. The circulator is a signee who also verifies a given sheet. In other cases, cursive signatures were ruled out because reviewers said they were illegible. Russell rubber-stamped all Feldman’s decisions to throw out pages, meaning no matter how many valid pages remained, the petition was doomed.
Russell claimed she “reviewed” the attorney’s analysis in an Aug. 1 letter to Parker, but Feldman’s detailed report to the secretary wasn’t sent until Aug. 4—the day Parker declared the petition invalid. The discrepancy casts even further doubt about how Russell could allow Feldman to determine a signature’s readability after she had already reviewed the page. WORLD left a message with Russell’s secretary seeking an explanation for the discrepancy, but Russell did not respond.
“What I witnessed was a mockery of the rule of law—again—by a mayor who blatantly interfered in the right of the citizens to petition our government,” Welch told the U.S. Pastor’s Council. Parker is a “radical” who is “willing to do anything in order to achieve a legacy,” he said.
Any court battle must be resolved by Aug. 18 for Houston citizens to vote on the ordinance in November.