While voters are focused on the upcoming presidential election in November, the Amarillo City Council may consider placing another item on the ballot.

During the council meeting on Tuesday, Councilman Howard Smith gave a presentation on a potential November election to amend the Amarillo Municipal Charter, which was first adopted in November 1913.

According to Smith, a city charter subcommittee is currently discussing presenting the city council with recommendations for the charter amendment election, including changing the frequency of the city council’s meetings, the terms of elected officials, term limits, and compensation for elected officials.

Smith said both he and Mayor Ginger Nelson have been attending the subcommittee meetings, which have been going on for some time. According to Smith, the subcommittee held a final meeting on July 8. However, according to Amarillo.gov’s meeting calendar for municipal boards, no agendas have been posted regarding charter subcommittee meetings.

Smith added that the subcommittee is expected to offer the city council its final recommendations next week. City staff said the council must decide by August 17 whether to have the election.

Councilwoman Elaine Hays asked several questions of city staff during the meeting, and she seemed to express hesitation when staff noted the turnaround from the subcommittee’s initial presentation to the first reading of the charter election ordinance would allow only about two weeks for citizen feedback.

“I can tell by your facial expression you think that’s rushed,” Mayor Nelson said to Hays, blaming the hurried timeframe on the coronavirus. “And, I mean, this is a different timeline than what we thought we were going to be on because of the COVID. When [the members of the subcommittee] bring their recommendations, if you think November is rushed, then that’s part of the conversation we as a council can have.”

While the announcement of a potential charter election comes as a surprise, the topic of extending term lengths for councilmembers was discussed during the 2019 Amarillo municipal election.

At a candidate forum hosted by the Potter-Randall Democratic Club in February 2019, Mayor Nelson said she was interested in seeing the city council’s term lengths extended to four years each, with staggered elections for the council seats, saying the change would prevent voters from having the opportunity to “flip the whole boat again.”

The comments drew widespread opposition from grassroots activists in Amarillo, who cited that Nelson herself was elected in a clean sweep of the council in 2017. After the forum, the topic of term length was rarely revisited on the campaign trail.

Aside from the possible charter amendment election, the Amarillo City Council also expressed support on Tuesday for continuing forward with a bond election for the Amarillo Civic Center Complex and other downtown development projects. The bond issue is for roughly $275 million in general obligation bonds to pay for an expansion of the complex, the construction of an indoor arena downtown, relocation of Amarillo City Hall, construction of a second downtown parking garage, renovations to the Santa Fe Depot, creation of a downtown central park, and more.

The full cost of the project is expected to run roughly $319 million, but city staff said the scope of the project may be updated before the election. The bond election was originally set for May but was postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Based on the timeframe discussed during the council meeting this week, it is expected the first vote on ordering such an election could come as early as August 4, with two readings necessary. Citizens who are interested in addressing the council during a meeting on this issue should visit this link.

Thomas Warren

Thomas Warren, III is the editor-in-chief of the Amarillo Pioneer newspaper in Amarillo, Texas.


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