Texpatriate has learned that the Houston City Council’s ad hoc “charter review committee” has assembled a memorandum of four proposed rule changes to the city’s constitution-like document and plans on holding a public hearing on the matter. On December 4th at 1:00 PM, a week from tomorrow, the council will hold a public hearing on these four proposals, which I will delineate below. Additionally, to call it a “committee” is a misnomer, as the whole council sits on this special group. Mayor Pro Tem Ed Gonzalez (D-District H) will preside.
The four proposals were initially suggested by City Councilmember C.O. Bradford (D-At Large 4). They are eliminating the so-called “revenue cap” for local property taxes, allowing for secret sessions of the council, modifying term limits and allowing a coalition of at least six councilmembers to add agenda items. Personally, I think the first and the last proposals are slam dunks that should be ratified, but the second and the third should prompt fuller and more robust discussion.
Talk of cleaning up the city’s charter has been abound for the last couple of months, but rather than simple housekeeping measures, these proposals tend to focus on more divisive, political disputes. That’s not to say these are not important topics to consider, but it must be done slower and with more scrutiny than, say, neutral cleanup measures.
The first suggestion, the revenue cap, is something that most astute followers of local politics concede is a silly and ill-conceived roadblock to municipal development. Back in 2004, as Charles Kuffner has noted, voters approved an asinine measure that limited increases of property tax revenue to the combined rate of population and inflation. However, this failed to take account of the possibility of rapidly increasing property values down the road, as has occurred in the last few years in Houston. Thus, next year, Houston will face a large shortfall, arguably larger than during the economic downturn. Mayor Annise Parker has supported nixing this cap, as have many member of the council. Furthermore, some mayoral candidates — including, most notably, former Congressman Chris Bell — have also opined against the cap. Kuffner has even gone so far as to claim he would withhold support from any 2015 mayoral candidate unless he or she backed the cap’s removal.
As for the second proposal, I have mixed views on the prospect of closed-door sessions of the council. As I have previously mentioned, such a proposal — in my view — runs counter to the Texas Open Meetings Act, and just rubs me the wrong way. I understand that some meetings involve touchy subject matters, but it sets a dangerous precedent to move the machinery of government behind closed doors.
With the third proposal, I similarly find myself uneasy. Like Kuffner, I am more-or-less an opponent of term limits for legislative offices (though I’m fine with them for executive positions). But this topic is not about the underlying validity of term limits; the main point of contention is the length of individual terms. While those terms for council, City Controller and mayor are currently at two years, the proposal would augment it to four years.
I really don’t like increasing the amount of time in between which politicians are held accountable by their constituents. I fully empathize with the concerns over excessive campaigning and stress, but those concerns are far outweighed by the need for citizens to control representatives in government. Certain one-term councilmembers of yesteryear demonstrate that somewhat well.
Last, but certainly not least, is a proposal to allow a coalition of at least six councilmembers to add agenda items in meetings. Currently, only the mayor has the ability. Upon first glance, I like this idea, as it allows the despotism of the chief executive to be removed in favor of a more inclusive cross-section of the community. That being said, Parker has largely lost my confidence in being a unifying leader, so it is within the realm of possibility that my point of view could change when presented with a new, more unifying, mayor.
What do you think of the proposals?