Proponents of a Houston city charter amendment that would end the mayor’s unilateral control over city council agendas say Mayor Sylvester Turner is abusing that power by delaying a public vote on the amendment for two years—a political move they’re calling “voter suppression” and “a slap in the face” to Houston voters.
“Setting the election two years away is the very voter suppression that the mayor is claiming the Legislature is doing,” Houston resident Charles Blain told Texas Scorecard. “As citizens, we collected signatures, patiently awaited verification, and expected our city to do the right thing and set the election for the nearest uniform election date. Anything short of that is attempting to silence our voices.”
Blain is the president of Urban Reform, an organization offering conservative solutions to problems faced by U.S. cities. Urban Reform was part of the coalition backing the charter amendment petition drive.
Currently, Houston’s mayor has sole authority to put items on city council agendas, effectively controlling what issues the local government considers. The proposed charter amendment would end this “strong mayor” form of city governance by allowing any three council members to place an item on the agenda.
Citizens petitioned the city to put the proposed charter amendment on the ballot, collecting almost double the 20,000 petition signatures required by state law to force a vote on the amendment.
The city secretary certified the petition in July; at a July 14 city council meeting, Turner told members they would decide at a future meeting if the charter amendment election would be held this November or delayed until November 2023.
“Voting delayed is voting denied,” Councilmember Michael Kubosh said at the time, urging a public vote on the issue at the earliest opportunity in 2021.
Instead, Turner used his power to deny Houstonians a timely vote, adding an item to Wednesday’s council agenda to hold the charter amendment election in 2023:
ORDINANCE ordering a Special Election to be held on November 7, 2023, for the purpose of submitting to the qualified voters of the City of Houston, Texas, a proposition to amend the City Charter to enable three or more Council Members to place an item on a Regular City Council Meeting Agenda
Because state law requires November 2021 elections to be ordered by August 16, the mayor’s move denied council members a chance to postpone a decision so the earlier election date could be considered.
Turner’s proposed ordinance delaying the vote for two years passed.
Blain called Turner’s move “political gamesmanship.”
“We’re tired of having to fight the city to do the right thing,” he said at a press conference Monday with other members of the Houston Charter Amendment Petition Coalition, a diverse group of citizens who support decentralizing power within city government.
“I don’t know how anyone can argue that the Legislature is pursuing voter suppression when they’re standing in their city and suppressing a rightful and lawful petition for a November vote in 2021,” he said. “By pushing it to 2023, they’re not just delaying a right to vote, they’re delaying citizens’ and community voices from being heard.”
“Ironically, over the last few weeks, Mayor Turner has flagrantly abused the very powers at issue in this petition in an effort to delay the election that Houston voters have demanded and that state law requires,” Houston attorney Jerad Najvar said in a statement issued Tuesday on behalf of Urban Reform:
The legislative power of the people, reserved through the right to petition for a charter amendment, is specifically designed to enable citizens to vote directly for important changes when their interests are ignored or rejected by incumbent officials.
The Texas Supreme Court has repeatedly warned against city officials “thwarting the will of the public” by manipulating the process regarding measure elections…
In this case, while state law is intended to ensure a prompt election—specifically providing the City Council with the option of a November 2021 election—the current Mayor has cynically abused his unilateral authority over the Council agenda to delay changes to that power.
“This is a slap in the face to Houston voters, as Mayor Turner maneuvers to retain his stranglehold on City Council agendas for another two years even after tens of thousands of Houstonians have demanded an election to decentralize such authority,” Najvar said.
“This is no longer about the content of the petition,” Blain added. “It’s about the duty of our elected officials to do what is right, moral, and just.”