Civil Liberties

Houston Has Some Problems


Last November, residents of Houston voted down Proposition A, a ballot initiative that would have ended a set-aside program designed to give about 20 percent of municipal contracts to companies owned by women and racial or ethnic minorities. By a margin of 54 percent to 46 percent, voters said no to Prop. A, which read, "Shall the charter of the city of Houston be amended to end the use of affirmative action for women and minorities in the operation of city of Houston employment and contracting, including ending the current program and similar programs in the future?"

Although one might assume that the voters' decision is final, the backers of Prop. A are taking their fight to court. That's because the wording voters encountered on November 4 was markedly different from the language used to collect the 20,000 signatures necessary to get the proposition on the ballot. The original version of Prop. A borrowed heavily from the successful California Civil Rights Initiative, which itself leaned on 1960s civil rights legislation: "The city of Houston shall not discriminate against, or grant preferential treatment to, any individual or group on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity or national origin in the operation of public employment and public contracting."

After Prop. A qualified for the ballot, Houston's city council rewrote it, citing a state election code that allows the rewording of initiatives; in justifying its action, the council also noted it had changed the wording of five of the last seven ballot propositions. The chief proponent of Prop. A, businessman Edward Blum, charged the council had "sabotaged" the proposition and sued to put off the election until his original wording was restored.

Prior to the elections, however, a state district judge ruled he had no jurisdiction to stop the vote, since absentee voting had already begun. A three-judge panel upheld that finding after the election. Blum has filed an amended petition in a state district court asking that the Prop. A vote be nullified and a new election be held using his original language. The case is expected to get under way in early 1998.