City Council agrees any charter changes belong on November ballot

Dec. 4, 2014Houston Chronicle

City Council members on Thursday agreed that any city charter reforms, including changes to term limits, should go to voters in November rather than May next year, but they kicked most substantive discussion of those issues to future meetings.

Thursday marked the second charter committee meeting on possible changes, most notably switching from three two-year terms to two four-year terms and repealing a voter-imposed revenue cap. The committee’s actions have no binding power, but the goal is to come up with recommendations for which changes should go to voters.

And though Thursday’s agenda called for discussion about the proposed reforms, the meeting largely turned on the logistics of future charter meetings: how many to schedule, whether they should be held during the day or at night and if they should be conducted outside of council chambers.

Council members agreed to hold six bi-weekly meetings starting next year, to alternate meeting times between day and night and to hold them in council chambers.

“I’ll be real quick because we spent 40 minutes talking about where we’re going to meet,” said Councilman Dave Martin, before pivoting to the individual reforms. “We’re not trying to boil the ocean.”

Committee Chairman Ed Gonzalez said council has until mid-August to vote to place items on the November ballot, which will also feature an open mayor’s race. Council members agreed the November ballot would bring more voters to the polls and give the reforms a better chance of passing. Council members voted unanimously to recommend that date, with Jerry Davis, Ellen Cohen, David Robinson, Mike Laster and Dwight Boykins absent for the vote.

Councilman C.O. Bradford, who has been pushing the charter reform conversation for months, has laid out four basic reform proposals. Councilman Michael Kubosh on Thursday tacked on another voter issue, a possible vote on a failed feeding ordinance petition he helped organize.

Bradford’s reforms, in addition to the term limits, are as follows:

  • Any item advanced by at least six council members could be placed on City Council agenda.
  • City Council could meet in executive session.
  • The city would dedicate any funds above the revenue cap (if repealed) to paying down general fund debt.

Council members broached the executive session issue toward the end of the meeting, calling for more information from the City Attorney’s office.

Houston’s charter is rare in barring closed session, which would enable discussion of personnel problems, real estate deals, lawsuits and other issues. Today, such information must be communicated to each council member individually, leading some to question whether they are being given the same information as their colleagues.

There was some discussion Thursday of whether City Council should have broader discretion to meet in executive session, as allowed under state law, or stick to certain guidelines — meeting for personnel and litigation purposes only, for instance.

Councilman Jack Christie said he didn’t want public mistrust of executive session to potentially turn voters off from the other charter reforms. A complicated explanation of those guidelines could “cloud the issue,” Christie said.

“The voters come back with repulsion of the idea,” Christie said. “So just keeping it simple makes sense.”

Bradford pushed for specific restrictions. Other jurisdictions that operate under the state’s excecutive session guidelines have done so for a long time, Bradford said.

“Other jurisdictions have it, and they have it because they’ve had it for decades and decades,” Bradford said. “I bet they could not get it now.”