Endorsement watch: For the proposition allowing Council members to put an item on the agenda

I didn’t think we’d begin Endorsement Season with a charter referendum, but here we are.

This is no way to run a representative democracy in the nation’s fourth-biggest city. Thankfully, Houstonians have an opportunity to change that in this year’s local elections. Voters will have to decide whether to approve a charter amendment that would enable three or more council members to, by written request, have an item placed on the weekly City Hall agenda for the full council to consider. For instance, if Plummer and just two other members supported her proposed ordinance to charge slumlords a fee for neglecting repairs, they could put it on the agenda and force the council to vote on it. The charter currently allows three council members to call a special meeting and set the agenda, but that maneuver is seen as a rebuke of the mayor, and as such, rarely attracts a required quorum of council members.

The amendment to enhance the council’s legislative power would not slide Houston toward a system of minority rule. In fact, the amendment petition was supported by a strikingly diverse coalition of local political groups, including the Houston fire union, the Harris County Republican Party, the right-leaning group Urban Reform, Indivisible Houston and the Houston chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America.

We believe the amendment would simply empower the communities that elected Houston’s 16 council members — five of whom, like Plummer, are at-large, representing the entire city. Councilmembers should be able to give a full public hearing to the issues that matter most to the people they serve.

Opponents of the amendment believe that it would encroach on the mayor’s ability to get things done and lead council members to bring pointless resolutions and politically unpopular ordinances to the floor that stand no chance of passage. Anyone who’s sat through a Harris County Commissioner’s Court meeting knows all too well how maddeningly inefficient it can be when stacked agendas turn into marathon sessions that drone on for hours.

While that is a salient concern, we believe it sells short the seriousness of the council as a deliberative body. Consider that right now, the only forum for a council member to enact priorities without the mayor’s approval is during budget negotiations, when members can propose individual amendments for the full council to consider.

The change would allow a bloc of council members to bring up an item for consideration whether the mayor likes it or not, but the item could still face significant hurdles to passage. It would still have to win majority support from the full council.

That doesn’t strike us as an infringement on the mayor’s broad power, just a check.

See here, here, and here for some background. Yes, the petitions for this referendum were certified in 2021 but we are voting on it now. I believe this will be City of Houston Proposition A on your ballot; the Fair for Houston item is apparently Prop B, so that would make sense.

I have expressed the concerns noted by the Chron about this referendum in the past. I have also had a couple of people I trust push back against those concerns in conversation with me, using language similar to what the Chron editorial board uses here. I’m still not fully sold on this item but I’m thinking it over. I’ll be asking some of the folks I interview about it as well, so you’ll get to hear more opinions about it. Now I can’t wait to see what the Chron says about Fair for Houston. In any event, I don’t recall seeing a finance report for a campaign related to this item in the , so as yet I can’t say what kind of push there may be for or against it. I have always believed this would pass, but if there’s a big No campaign and nothing to counter it, then it could go down. I don’t think that will happen, but we’ll see.

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