When the Houston Charter Amendment Coalition submitted a petition with about 37,500 signatures to the city secretary’s office, in early April, co-organizer Charles Blain said he thought the issue at hand would be on the ballot this November.
The bipartisan coalition wants to amend the city charter to allow at least three Houston City Council members to place an item on the council’s weekly meeting agenda. As it stands, only the mayor has agenda-setting authority.
But the thousands of petitioners and an even greater number of Houston voters will not be able to make their voices heard on the issue this year – or even next year, for that matter. That’s at least in part because the mayor still has the exclusive power to set the council’s agenda.
Mayor Sylvester Turner proposed in August to place the measure on the ballot in November 2023, invoking a Texas law that allows local governments to put charter amendments up for a vote in either the next election or the next municipal election, which in Houston’s case is 2023. The council voted unanimously to approve Turner's proposed ordinance – after two amendments failed that called for placing the item on this year’s ballot or the one in November 2022.
“It is precisely why we wanted to get the law changed,” said Blain, the founder of a conservative policy blog called Urban Reform. “I think most people understand that if we did what we were supposed to do, which was get the minimum number of signatures (20,000), that we would get the nearest election date. The state law is written with the intent to not delay getting this petition on the ballot. The only real delay was the power that the mayor has.”
With a vote on the proposed charter amendment postponed for two years, the ballots for area voters will be fairly short this year. The most locally relevant races are for two seats on the Houston ISD Board of Education – the District I seat held by Elizabeth Santos and the District VII position occupied by Anne Sung, both of whom represent schools in the Heights, Garden Oaks or Oak Forest areas.
There also will be a series of statewide propositions on the ballot, and four seats on the Houston Community College board of trustees are up for grabs as well.
The deadline to register to vote in this year’s election is Monday, Oct. 4. Early voting is scheduled for Oct. 18-29, with Election Day on Nov. 2.
For more information on voting in Harris County, including sample ballots for local residents, visit harrisvotes.com.
Regarding the proposed charter amendment that was intended for this year’s ballot, local council member Amy Peck of District A is a member of the coalition that supports the idea and was the council member who proposed placing the item on this year’s ballot when the issue came up in the August meeting. Peck said she ended up voting for Turner’s proposed date of 2023 because her proposal failed and she wanted the item to come up for a vote at some point.
Peck said she also supported Turner’s assertion that putting off the charter amendment vote until 2023 would be more cost effective for the city, which would need to spend more than $1 million to hold a special election this year. City attorney Arturo Michel, in a statement to The Leader that was provided by a spokesperson for the mayor, said the 2023 option also allows for subsequent charter amendment proposals to be placed on the same ballot, because the state constitution prohibits amending the city charter more frequently than every two years.
“We don’t want to spend money that we don’t have to,” Peck said. “But in my opinion, it’s not my money, it’s the people’s money. Enough people signed the petition to get it on the ballot, so they’re telling me their priority.”
Blain said he believes Turner prefers a vote in 2023 so the mayor can “retain the amount of power he has currently through the end of his term.” Turner is midway through his second four-year term at City Hall, and the November 2023 election will decide who succeeds him.
When asked Tuesday about the mayor’s motives related to delaying the vote on the charter amendment, spokesperson Mary Benton said she had not had the opportunity to present the question to Turner and provided the aforementioned statement by Michel. Turner said in April that the agenda-setting proposal is “bad for the people of Houston,” adding that it would “create chaos, confusion, tension and factionalism.”
Regarding the timing of the vote on the proposed charter amendment, local council member Abbie Kamin of District C said in an emailed statement, “We need to have clear procedural rules and standards for filing deadlines that coincide with the specific date those petitions will be placed on a ballot. We also need to invest in modernizing the City Secretary’s office to make it more accessible for Houstonians.”
Peck echoed that sentiment, saying she wants to improve the technology in the city secretary’s office while creating clearly defined standards and timelines for petitioning the city to have an item placed on the ballot, because the nearly 40,000 petitioners in this case did so under the assumption that a citywide vote would happen this year. Blain said the city secretary does not have a consistent, established timeline for verifying signatures on a petition.
The only way to create such rules and standards, Peck said, is for the city council to do so through an ordinance. And in order for that to happen, the issue would need to be placed on the council agenda by the mayor.
It is unclear whether Turner is in favor or against that idea. That question also was posed to the mayor’s office, which did not provide an answer before press time Wednesday.
“It’s a never-ending cycle,” Blain said.