Houston’s ad hoc charter review committee met recently to discuss proposed reforms for the city’s charter. The council members voted to recommend the reforms be put to the people of Houston for a vote next November, rather than May.

With a wide open mayoral race, sixteen city council positions, a host of other city and countywide seats, and charter reforms being up for consideration, next November’s ballot is sure to be a crowded one.

The most controversial of the propositions proposed by the committee include allowing council members to conduct closed-door executive meetings, changing terms of office from three two-year terms to two four-year terms, and repealing the city’s revenue cap imposed by voters.

While these are just recommendations to the mayor’s office for what changes should be presented to voters, it is very telling, and it shows how Houston officials think the city should operate.

While the details ironed out at this committee meeting mostly revolved around the planning and scheduling of future meetings, the committee discussed the option of closed-door executive sessions.

If asked individually, every council member emphasizes the need for transparency in local government, but this proposition is the exact same cloak-and-dagger politics seen time and time again.

Allowing city council to meet in closed-door sessions to hash out details of, “personnel (HR), real estate, and litigation”, may start off with good intentions but will quickly turn into the backdoor negotiating that occurs in Houston school board executive sessions.

The committee discussed limiting it to those three issues, but a Houston City Assistant Attorney suggested that council use the state’s definition of executive session. State law allows more leeway to determine what is crucial enough to be discussed behind closed doors than the city charter currently allows. The committee is set to hash out the specific details of this proposal in their next meeting.

Another proposition for November’s ballot is a repeal of the city’s revenue cap. The property tax limit was originally adopted by voters to protect themselves from appraisal abuse and unnecessary tax hikes, but unfortunately members of the charter reform committee, and those in city hall, seem to have no interest whatsoever in maintaining those taxpayer protections. Despite its popularity, city politicians have no interest in such a cap. Although the committee claims its removal will allow “excess funds” to make up for the city’s crippling $120 million budget deficit, officials have not shown a willingness to govern responsibly with existing funds. Instead of making the necessary spending reforms, they’re seeking to impose higher taxes on Houstonians to make up for their fiscal mismanagement.

Finally, the committee’s proposal to extend the length of city official’s terms is misguided at best. While some will argue extending their terms from two years to four years in length will reduce the pressure on officeholders to be in constant “campaign mode,” it also reduces Houstonians’ ability to hold them accountable at the ballot box. As representatives of the people, it’s important for elected officials to maintain a sense of awareness regarding their constituents’ wishes and desires.

Houstonians hold the power and it’s time to reign in the mess that inundates city hall. Houston is too great of a city to fail because of the actions of irresponsible and careless public servants. Next November the ballot will be full, but it is an opportunity for the public to speak loud and definitively. This is the opportunity send a message to city hall telling them what you want, who you want to represent you, and how you want the job done.

Charles Blain

Charles Blain is the president of Urban Reform and Urban Reform Institute. A native of New Jersey, he is based in Houston and writes on municipal finance and other urban issues.

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