Deliberations over equal rights ordinance continue for fourth day

HOUSTON (KTRK) -- The jury spent its fourth day in deliberations Tuesday. At issue are thousands of petition signatures and the people who gathered them.

The petition was an effort of opponents of the city's 2014 Equal Right Ordinance (HERO) to get the measure on the ballot.

The petition needed 17,000 signatures. Organizers turned in more than 30,000. But the city certified only 5,000. So, those organizers sued the city.

And while the Houston law firm Susman Godfrey is defending the city in the courtroom at no cost to taxpayers, Eyewitness News has learned the city paid close to $24,000 in legal fees related to the case in August and September 2014. Those are the only months, so far, for which the city has provided its costs.

But in a statement to Eyewitness News, Mayor Annise Parker's policy officer Janie Evans:

"As stated numerous times before, the team of lawyers representing the City at trial are all offering their services on a pro bono basis. This doesn't mean there have been no expenses. Last summer, shortly after the lawsuit was filed, the city's legal department spent about $25,000 on a legal consultant with expertise in election law for guidance on issues related to review of the petitions and signature validity. Likewise, there have been various other expenses related to the case that the City has paid."

City records do show Susman Godfrey has been paid roughly $1.1 million for other work since 2013, unrelated to the HERO lawsuit.

So, what exactly is HERO? It passed City Council 11-6 last May, and it prohibits discrimination against sex, race, color, ethnicity, national origin, age, familial or marital status. military status, religion, disability, sexual orientation, genetic information, gender identity, or pregnancy in city employment, services, and contracting practices, housing, public accommodations, and private employment. Religious institutions are exempt.

Once the jury reaches a verdict, the outcome is not as simple as a win or loss for either side. The judge overseeing the trial will take the verdict into consideration when he submits the final ruling. Both sides have already indicated they will appeal that ruling should they lose.
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