Unlimited Dogs Next Door: Supporting the Administration at all costs
Being a nice guy and having a pleasant persona is all well and good I suppose, but what most voters are looking for are results. So when issues facing our neighborhood arise, we look to our elected officials and our District J Council Member Mike Laster to be in the middle and protect our interests. Such is the case with three distinct but related items; problems with dogs and cats that are noisy, loose, or dangerous — abandoned dilapidated and dangerous homes– and a new slush fund to reward friends and punish enemies. This is a tale of deafness, arrogance, and deflection, all neatly placed at the feet of CM Laster who in all three cases has failed to take the neighborhood’s side.
In early 2014, after Mike was re-elected to a second term (with no opponent), I became aware of proposed changes to Chapter six of the city code relating to animals. While the changes ultimately created a new regulatory scheme for pet businesses such as that owned by my spouse, the real concern was the proposed repeal of the “kennel license” which would have allowed residential property owners to keep an unlimited number of dogs. Having been deeply involved in deed restriction enforcement with the SCA, I knew first hand of the high volume of complaints about noisy, loose, and/or dangerous dogs and cats inside the subdivision. Repealing the limit of three dogs, and placing the burden on the community to resolve issues through deed restriction enforcement was not a good idea. I engaged Mike and his staff right away and while there were meetings and dialogue, what I mostly heard were the Mayor’s talking points regurgitated, with no real closing of the gap regarding differences.
At that time the City’s Animal Bureau (BARC) ** was substantially under funded, able to respond to barely 25% of the then 50,000 annual calls for service. Unless a dangerous dog actually attacked a human causing injury, there was little chance a BARC Officer would respond. But alas, given a bite and a sworn affidavit of complaint, BARC was required to investigate and take action. The simplest solution to nuisance backyard breeders was to keep the required “kennel” license, but that provision had been un-enforced for some time while they were developing this new ordinance. In what seemed to be a provision to allow foster groups to keep as many dogs as possible, this kennel designation was to be repealed. The good, responsible folks like foster groups would have no fear of citation, even when keeping many dogs, but the backyard breeders would have the same luck, with no city enforcement mechanism, and the chance for unlimited dogs.
The SCA Board of Directors considered the new ordinance and passed a resolution of opposition including the following:
“We are opposed to changes of Division 5. KENNELS which would remove the limit on the number of dogs allowed at a residence inside a residential subdivision. We will have little recourse to address nuisance issues such as barking dogs as residents will be allowed to have as many dogs and cats as they wish. The limit of three dogs should remain in force.
CM Laster as usual did not take any official position, operating in his preferred role of self-appointed mediator, in an attempt to stay out the fray and avoid accountability. But now the community had directly asked for his support in opposing the March 2014 version of the ordinance, and this was his moment to stand by us. We were soon disappointed as a meeting was held at his law office in late March to go over the almost certainly final version of the administration’s amended ordinance. I remember listening for some time as Mike and Jonny Flores, his policy staffer, discussed the new law line by line. I made no progress in changing Mike’s view and after some time remarked that he was just repeating BARC’s talking points, which I knew quite well but opposed. Then it got interesting!
CM Laster as usual did not take any official position, operating in his preferred role of self-appointed mediator, in an attempt to stay out the fray and avoid accountability.
Mike said to me that on the following day, Jane West and the Super Neighborhood Alliance (SNA), an organization comprised of the presidents of the various super neighborhood groups across the city, would be announcing their support of the proposed ordinance. Fairly deflated I paused, saying that they just did not understand the proposal, but with their support the ordinance would pass, no question. That was that, and the meeting ended.
As I thought about it that evening and the next morning, I felt it would be helpful to reach out to Jane West and get her view, so I sent a quick email to a person who I thought could put me in touch. I forwarded the SCA resolution and announcement and within a short time my phone rang with Jane West on the line. The SNA was not in favor, as they had not been able to take a vote having learned of it late in the process, while in addition there was un-official opposition just as we had described in our resolution. It appears that Mike’s SNA claim, and it’s unclear whether he created it or passed it along, was designed to get me to drop it and move on. When I called Mike the next day, relating Jane West’s and the SNA’s real view, he declined to admit who made the claim, only remarking that it was a “city official.”
With Jane’s help the ordinance was modified and changes were made that protected the neighborhood, which included for the first time a limitation of three cats as well as dogs. Had I believed Mike and just dropped it, not contacting Jane, we would very likely have unlimited dogs allowed inside our boundaries, with no city protection. This scenario would repeat itself very soon.
Abandoned Homes: A Place for Vagrants, High Grass, & Bootleg Power
As noted in the first installment, it’s not like there have been no results at all, but they have been pretty thin. On heavy trash, the District J Office has produced educational signage, conducted neighborhood ride—a-longs with inspectors, and followed up on chronic complaints. But these issues almost certainly resolve themselves in a few weeks as the trucks show up to haul off the offending material. But results on abating bigger issues, like abandoned homes, there’s not so much. This is the story of Elvis Earl Manley Jr., a very nice and courteous man, fresh from the Texas Criminal Justice System where he was incarcerated for some years, who became a squatter at the long vacant house at Roos and Pella.
Another in a long line of squatters, Elvis Manley arrives last summer, telling the neighbors he’s buying the house and will be fixing it up. This house has been abandoned since 2008 when the owner Peter Fox died. There has been no successful estate transfer, with the taxes in arrears for years, and no viable party for the SCA to file a lawsuit against. He convinces Centerpoint to reconnect the electricity and he starts living in this dilapidated structure, which promptly catches fire and is seriously damaged. The next door neighbor reports the fire to the SCA and I visit the site (again) to find out the details. Manley is present and is as sweet as pie, but the house is a disaster and he has no legal claim to be there. The request for abatement to the City of Houston through Mike’s office has never been properly addressed. The house remains unsecure, with tarps on the roof, and until recently still had a damaged panel with electrical service.
This is the type of REAL PROBLEM we need help with, yet nothing is to be done, not even boarding up the windows or securing the doors, much less bringing in a bulldozer. If there were only an additional bucket of City funds that could be tapped for this type of immediate and important issue. But wait, what about the new $1 million district service fund?
Council District Service Fund (DSF): Reward Your Friends, Punish Your (Perceived) Enemies, Throw Money in the Wind
In the 2015 budget cycle, a new pool of funds was made available to District Council members for use in cutting the red tape to addressing this type of pressing issue. Neighborhoods were asked to submit requests for projects and Sharpstown did so, asking for sidewalk replacement, abandoned home abatement, and an additional neighborhood protection inspector. The City Charter prohibits the council members from acting in any administrative role, so the Mayor must approve every project. In our case only about $35,000 for sidewalks was approved, with all other requests rejected. This was not a huge surprise, as these types of funds are easily spent on friends with others ignored. It appears that while the $50,000 cost for an extra Dept. of Neighborhoods inspector in Sharpstown was declined, allegedly because the funds would be coming from a non-permanent source, DISTRICT A in Spring Branch was approved for $60,000 in DoN Inspector overtime. That would have been just fine for Sharpstown.
The first and biggest announcement made about the use of District J funds was for a new youth skate park in the Gulfton community, as Mike stood with a poster size check for $100,000. I was not surprised that Mike’s name was on the check, rather than a city of Houston logo, reinforcing that this is just a political effort on his part. What about our existing Sharpstown parks? Many will remember the rusty roof of the Landsdale park pavillion and wonder when the funds for that project will arrive, as it’s been touted for some time now. But there is also $50,000 for HPD overtime (400 hours at $125 an hour) to address panhandling on the Southwest Freeway intersections, and $125,000 for traffic flow improvements in Shenandoah, and by all accounts $175,000 for more HPD overtime for the Midwest division, and $123,000 for Westwood.
I’ve yet to review a full accounting of exactly what was approved and funded but I will watch and make sure I understand what was done. What is important to know is that the dangerous house on Bellaire, destroyed by fire last year, is still standing un-secured, a magnet for vagrants and an eye sore to the community. We know the 9014 Roos house remains a disaster, and that properties on Roos, Hendon, Leader, and others do too. These are just not important enough it seems.
In total over one third of this new $1million funding source for District J projects went to HPD overtime. It’s easy to make friends with HPD by throwing overtime cash at them, but there was no real evaluation of crime to begin with, no objective measures determined, and there will be no results announced. That $348,000 in overtime will go to the wind, and nothing will change because it’s easy to claim dollars spent, but hard to get actual results.
If you need something easy, then call the District J office, but the hard stuff, good luck! This is one big reason why we need different leadership at City Hall and why I am not supporting Mike Laster for another term.
** Learn More About This Photo Very Soon
Part Four: Take from the Needy and Give to the Rich: Midway leaves Gulfton for Uptown!
Part Five: Citizens Ignored: A Tale of (Attempted) intimidation at Bellaire & Fondren