The city's expert witnesses made the
near-legendary assertion that streets are
only "psychologically rougher" in Houston's
ghettos and barrios than in River Oaks.
been excluded due solely to racial considerations.
It was during five weeks of testimony
on city services that the city's expert
witnesses made the near-legendary assertion that streets are only "psychologically rougher" in Houston's ghettos and
barrios than in River Oaks.
The downtown establishment apparently thought it could squelch the growing discontent with the council election
set-up in 1975 with a non-binding referendum on the panel's make-up. To force
the electorate to choose between the two
extremes, it offered voters only two alternatives—all at-large and all single-
"It came out a cigar that exploded
right in their faces," Davidson says.
Single-member got 53 percent, at-large
47 percent. So the city argued in court
the turnout was too low to be significant.
Davidson has found that is the only
instance in six straw votes since World
War II in which the city did not subsequently go along with "the will of the
It was not the first time the city had
been told to change its council system,
either. A "blue-ribbon" citizens' commission studied the matter in the 1960s and
recommended the city adopt a mixed
Ironically, the present system was put
into effect with the support of minorities. In 1955, the city still had the
ward system, though the wards were
gerrymandered in such a way that blacks
didn't even consider running for city
Roy Hofheinz, Fred's father, was
mayor, and he had angered the conservative establishment in many ways. He had
done such outrageous things as forcing
the desegregation of country clubs and
paving streets in black parts of town. So
the powers-that-be got an election set on
18 charter changes designed to clip his
Hofheinz retaliated against the city
council with Amendment 19, which abolished the ward system, established the
present at-large system and led to the
defeat of some of his foes at the hands of
a Hofheinz slate.
While Hofheinz could not have instituted the system without the support
of blacks, "it didn't occur to them how
bad it would be down the road,"
Davidson said. There had been no involved discussion of council make-up; the
plan was seen merely as a stratagem to
Now, single member district foes raise
the specter of a return to the era of narrow-minded, big-city ward heelers. Reform advocates respond that single-
member districts would not give the
council new, administrative powers; it
would only force council members to
be more responsive with the powers
they already have.
Remarkably. the single-member
district suit, tried in 1976, resulted in a
victory for the status quo. Perhaps the
aging Judge Allen B. Hannay was
more impressed by the race of the lawyers than by the evidence. Then-City
Attorney Otis King, a black, was in
charge for the city. Greene is white.
The suit is currently on appeal to the
Fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in
New Orleans. It is the busiest appeals
panel in the nation and has not announced when it will rule.
In 1975, largely through the efforts of
then-Congress woman Jordan, Congress
amended the Voting Rights Act of
1965, extending its coverage of southern
states to Texas and giving single-member
district proponents new hope. The law
requires Justice Department "pre-clear-
ance" of any change in voting "standards,
practices or procedures" by any political
entity in the state. Greene's clients
eventually filed three more law suits,
two of which are still pending, alleging
When the city annexed 17 parcels of
land and some 140,000 new citizens in
1977 and 1978, including mostly white,
middle-class suburbs of Alief and Clear
Lake City, the Justice Department had
the city over a barrel. The feds objected
to 14 of the additions, saying they
diluted minority voting strength. That
probably wasn't the reason the downtown establishment wanted the new
territory, just a happy coincidence.
King testified last December that the city
had spent $100,000 in its legal effort
against single-member districts on just
the annexation matter. A spokeswoman
for City Controller Kathy Whitmire's
office said it would be impossible to
determine the total costs. But Greene
estimates the tab has already topped
$300,000. Other significant costs include
hiring the Dallas law firm of Bob Strauss
(of Jimmy Carter's inner circle) to have a
Mexican-American associate represent the
city in Washington.
City officials could have elected to
fight Justice in U.S. District Court in
Washington. The cost of transporting
witnesses to the nation's capital would
have severely drained the finances of
single-member district advocates here.
Even though such suits are rarely success
ful, it would have held reformers at bay
But the city sorely wants to hold a
$400 million capital improvements bond
election. And Justice will allow no city
elections to be held until the other matter
Although Mayor Jim McConn has
blasted the "nameless, faceless bureaucrats" for interference, one councilman
has admitted the city met its comeuppance in not getting Justice's pre-clear-
ance of the annexations.
"When you break the. law, you're
subject to all sorts of things. And we
broke the law," Councilman Louis Macey
told reporters, with unusual candor.
The Justice Department said the
situation could be righted if Houston
were to change its council plan to include
some single-member districts. So this
July, city council started listening to citizen groups about new council plans to
put on an August 11 ballot.
A veritable army of interest groups
marched before council with a wide variety of plans. But the groups realized that
if they were to get a shot at anything like
an acceptable plan, they would have to
rally behind one.
More than 30 groups formed a coalition to back the plan presented by Mary
Schlett, chair of the Harris County Democrats, a group of liberal Democrats. It
called for 16 single-member districts and
four at-large seats, plus the mayor, elected at large, who has a tie-breaker vote on
George Brown, the godfather of the
downtown establishment and the Brown
of Brown & Root, Inc., also appeared before council to urge the present system of
no single-member districts and eight at-
large seats be retained.
McConn first suggested a five-five plan,
but that was nixed immediately by the
The single-member coalition met with
City Attorney Robert Collie to work out
a compromise. The coalition was willing
to accept a 14-4 plan.
The plan council finally approved putting on the ballot calls for nine single-
member districts and five at-large seats. It
is a plan no group had suggested publicly.
The council also voted to put a zero-eight
plan, a very slight modification of the
present system, on the ballot.
Coalition leader state Rep. Ben Reyes
charges Collie negotiated in bad faith and
did not even take the 14-4 plan back to
council. Collie denies the charge.
The council had originally hoped to
get the bond issue on the ballot, too. But
Reyes and Moses LeRoy, a black community leader, went to Washington and
persuaded the Justice Department it
would be giving up its leverage over the
council were the bond issue to pass.
The council did vote to put seven other proposed charter changes on the ballot
next month. Two were property tax limitation proposals. The other five, the council claimed, were innocuous "housekeeping" matters.
But while such items as establishing a
vice mayor pro tern post seemed harmless
on the surface, there was a rub. The state
constitution provides that cities may not
amend their charters in any way for at
least two years after a change is approved.
So if no new council make-up plans passed
but any one of the "housekeeping" proposals were approved, single-member
proponents would be stymied by state
law for two years.
The Justice Department apparently
recognized this and ruled that Houston
may vote only on the nine-five plan in
August. As a conciliatory gesture to city
officials, Justice offered to help the city
go to court to void the two-year wait requirement in this special case. But the
city, anxious to have Justice seen as "the
bad guys," so far has said only that such a
legal effort would fail.
The Justice Department did not, however, approve the nine-five plan itself.
Federal officials indicated they probably
would but said it would depend on how
the district lines are drawn. A three-judge
federal panel here upheld Justice.
The city council's nine-five "compromise" has infuriated the single-member
coalition. They say it is simply not good
enough, the districts are too big (189,000
people each, using a 1.7 million estimate
for the city's population) to allow neighborhood campaigns and give candidates
without funds for media campaigns much
of a chance. Each district would be larger
than the population of Shreveport, Louisiana. "
Virtually every spokesperson for the
groups in the coalition has come out
against nine-five. They vow to defeat it at
the polls and then work to get 20,000 signatures to force another charter change
referendum-on a more acceptable plan.
The prospects for the coalition's success are murky, though. The issue is complicated, and Houston's big media have
done a poor job of explaining it. Neither
daily newspaper has taken time to put the
matter in perspective, giving a historical
review of the issue. They have stuck to
blow-by-blow coverage of the political
and legal maneuvers.
One point city officials have harped on,
both in and out of court, is that there has
been no "groundswell" of public opinion