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The residency referendum

As we know, Houston will get two more City Council districts after the 2010 Census is completed. To allow potential candidates sufficient time to adjust to the new map, Council will put a charter amendment on the ballot that reduces the residency requirement from one year to six months; that is, you would have to live in a given district for six months before an election to be eligible to run for that Council district.

Because the new boundaries are not likely to be known until April 2011, changing the residency requirement to six months potentially will allow more candidates to qualify for the November election.

The charter change would be in effect only for the 2011 general election.

“I was the one to suggest it,” Mayor Annise Parker said in a written statement. “This change helps make it as flexible as possible in terms of allowing people access to the ballot.”

I’m okay with this. I’m sure there will be a flurry of activity by potential candidates next year as a result, but given the unique circumstances, it’s acceptable. Maybe we should consider changing it back after 2011, though I doubt that will happen. (Note: The referendum is only for the 2011 election. See the update at the end of this post.)

The redistricting process could create a situation in which a sitting council incumbent is drawn out of his district, said Councilman Mike Sullivan, who chairs the Ethics and Council Governance Committee, which is handling redistricting.

The April-to-November timeline would make it impossible for a council member to relocate to his or her old district before the November election, Sullivan said.

Of course, in a partisan redistricting context, that happens all the time. Scott Hochberg used to represent HD132, before being drawn out of that district in 2001. I wouldn’t have expected any Council members to be targeted in this fashion, but the reality is that it could be necessary to make a map work, and giving that member the chance to relocate is only fair. Note that for offices that hold their elections in even-numbered years, you have plenty of time to make your move for a 12-month residency requirement. When you redistrict the same year as the election, your time frame is considerably shorter.

Anyway. I don’t think this is a big deal, but you never know until someone starts speaking up in opposition. See Prof. Murray’s preview of how redistricting may play out next year for more.

UPDATE: I have not seen a published report about this, but after making an inquiry with CM Noriega’s office, I am told that the residency item was passed by Council.

UPDATE: Please see the comment from CM Mike Sullivan, who informs us that the change to a six month residency requirement is for the 2011 election only. My thanks to CM Sullivan for the correction, which has been noted above.

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  1. Jay Crossley says:

    Just for the sake of exploring the rationale, why is it inherently fair for sitting elected officials to change the rules so that they have the best chance of staying in office?

    If the district changes and council member 5 and 6 are now in the same district, why shouldn’t they have to run against each other?

    I personally believe in getting rid of term limits or extending the time, so that people have time for policy instead of politics, but at the same time, we shouldn’t make our democracy less competitive. Every single election, a newcomer should have a reasonable chance to persuade the people to replace incumbents.

    This kind of agreement for all the incumbents to agree to protect each other really stinks to me.

  2. Three points, Jay:

    1. If an incumbent gets drawn out of his or her district and has to move to run again, that would seem to me to be a perfectly valid issue for a challenger to use against him or her.

    2. It’s entirely possible that a given district may only change a small amount, but that small amount happens to include the incumbent’s home address. Why should the 90%+ of the district that remains the same then be denied the opportunity to retain their elected representative if they choose to do so?

    3. Redistricting can only affect district council members, not at large members. Why should district members be treated differently?

    That’s how I see it.

  3. Mike Sullivan, Council Member says:

    Charles: The ordinance is written that this change in ordinance will apply to the upcoming 2011 election only, and then reverts back to the 12-month residency requirement. This issue came through my committee (actually a “committee of the whole”) and only one council member was absent, so there was ample opportunity for council members, and the public, to make their opinions known.

    Feel free to call or email if you have any questions.

    Thank you.

    Mike Sullivan
    Council Member

  4. […] special elections on the ballot, there are three referenda for City of Houston residents. One is a fairly non-controversial one to change residency requirements for Houston Council districts for the 2011 election, which will be […]