Potential Changes To Houston City Charter Would Be Most Consequential In Decades

Jan. 12, 2015Houston Public Media

First, let’s establish the basics. What is the City Charter anyway?

We went out and asked some Houstonians.

“Uh… city charter…No, I’m not sure what it is,” said one man.

“I don’t know. I don’t care,” said another.

One woman said, “A city charter, I think, would make a statement as to what they expect the city to be for the people of the city.”

Yeah, something like that last one. But how about we turn to an expert?

Mark Jones chairs Rice University’s political science department.

“Well, the City Charter in Houston is the city’s constitution,” he said. “It governs how the city functions, it governs the rules under which administration occurs, under which legislation is passed and under which members of the City Council and the mayor are elected.”

In other words, it’s the city’s most important document.

An ad-hoc committee made up of all 16 council members will meet every other week to review the City Charter in the next couple of months.

The goal is to present what they come up with to the voters for the city council election in November.

Jones said charter amendments are on the ballot almost every election cycle. The approval of a citywide drainage fee four years ago is one example.

But this year is special in terms of the scope of the changes council members are considering.

“What we’re looking at here is a situation where voters will be voting on two of the more significant charter reforms of the past few decades,” Jones said. “And that is the 1991 adoption of term limits and the 2004 adoption of a revenue ceiling.”

Council members are discussing changing term limits from three two-year terms to two four-year terms. Jones said that change would make the most sense because two years is not a lot of time to get things done.

And then there’s altering or eliminating the city’s revenue cap.

The cap limits the amount of taxes property owners have to pay when home values keep rising. In other words, doing away with the cap would potentially mean higher tax payments for homeowners.

But some say it’s irresponsible by the city not to take in that money when it’s facing a looming budget crisis.

Even so, Jones rates the chances of Houstonians voting to eliminate the cap rather low.

“Unless the city is able to present a compelling case to voters that absent the repeal or at least modification of the revenue cap we’re going to see a significant cut in core city services like police and fire, voters aren’t going to go for any lifting or any modification of the revenue cap,” he said.

Also under discussion is allowing for executive sessions — that is, council sessions the public cannot attend.

That would allow council members to discuss sensitive issues such as lawsuits, hiring and firing of city employees and real estate deals — which they currently simply don’t, at least not as a group.

Another item would let council members directly influence the council meeting agenda. Right now, the mayor alone determines what gets put on there.

More potential charter changes could be added during the review process.

Council member C.O. Bradford has long called for a charter review. He said it would make sense to let the people vote on each amendment individually rather than on one reform package.

“That has to be discussed in the committee here, but my preference is certainly individual items,” he said. “I don’t want to hoodwink or bamboozle or try to force the voters into a box where you have to choose A if you want B.”

But Bradford also says he’s concerned that this might not be a good year for any charter amendments.

“Given the climate in the city today and with the subpoenas being issued to the pastors and the churches — that has a real negative connotation across all city and people are frustrated with City Hall that that happened — I question whether any charter revisions are going to happen,” Bradford said.

Well, now that you don’t have to guess anymore what the City Charter is and does, you may want to weigh in on the discussion.

HERE’S THE PROPOSED SCHEDULE FOR THE COMMITTEE MEETINGS (SUBJECT TO CHANGE):

  • Wednesday, January 14, 6:30 p.m.
  • Thursday, January 29, 9 a.m.
  • Tuesday, February 10, 6:30 p.m.
  • Thursday, February 26, 9 a.m.
  • Tuesday, March 10, 6:30 p.m.
  • Tuesday, March 31, 9 a.m.

All meetings will take place in the City Council Chamber, City Hall, Second Floor, 901 Bagby, Houston, TX 77002, unless otherwise notified.