Lawsuit filed against city of Houston

February 12, 2009 4:09:45 PM PST
A new lawsuit against the Houston city could have far reaching implications, possibly even affect the next election. Community activists say the city has outgrown its representation, and it's past time to add new council members. [SEE THE SUIT: Read the lawsuit filed against the city of Houston]

In a city where nearly 40 percent of the population is said to be Hispanic, there's only one Hispanic on Houston's city council after Adrian Garcia left to become sheriff.

A special election is being held to fill Garcia's office in May. The perceived lack of representation is now figuring into a lawsuit.

"Ask yourself. There's about 40 percent plus of the Latino community that's the city's population now," said attorney Vidal Martinez. "Why is there only one city councilmember on city council and no at-large members?"

"And how would you answer that?" we asked.

"Because we haven't complied with the Voting Rights Act," he said.

The city of Houston hasn't expanded council districts since 1979, but the city charter requires adding two new ones when Houston's population reaches 2.1 million. The census says that's already happened, but the city hasn't rushed to redistrict and expand, so now council is being sued. The claim is that the Voting Rights Act has been violated.

"They decided to leave the pot on the stove and let it boil over and Vidal and I had to come in with this lawsuit and bring some extra help, the Justice Department," said attorney Carroll Robinson. "And we're now trying to mop up the floor, clean off the walls and get the stove and the soup back on."

The mayor says redistricting is a certainty, but when that will happen is not.

"I'm very sympathetic with the purposes of the lawsuit, but we think the law requires us to wait until the census numbers are out," said Mayor Bill White. "Otherwise, we think any redistricting can be subject to tremendous court battles or challenges."

The penalty for violating the Voting Rights Act, if the city were found to be in violation, could be to void every city election after 2006. The next election will be in May. The general city election will be in November.

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