With the bulk of the population but a fraction of the power, Houston and Harris County long have complained about getting shortchanged when the influential Houston-Galveston Area Council speaks for the region on major infrastructure projects.
Houstonians will have the chance to vote this November on a plan to reshape the powerful agency, activists said this week.
Campaigners said they have collected more than 23,665 signatures, more than enough to put a proposed charter change on the ballot to force Houston officials to enter into negotiations to reform H-GAC’s voting structure to mirror the region’s population. If those negotiations break down, Houston would have to exit the council.
The Houston-Galveston Area PAC, the group leading the “Fair for Houston” campaign, submitted its signature sheets to City Secretary Pat Daniel on Wednesday, an employee in her office confirmed.
“Until the ballot, we’re not going to stop,” said Ally Smithers, a spokesperson for the campaign. “There is a lot of education. People don’t know H-GAC, so even before we get on the ballot, we’re going to continue working all summer.”
Supporters say they have not seen any sign of organized opposition thus far. If it makes it to the ballot, however, the proposition could face pushback from officials in other counties.
“If they get it put on the ballot, my hope is that it’s voted down,” [Waller County Judge and H-GAC Board Chair Trey] Duhon said. “I wouldn’t want to see a scenario in which the city of Houston no longer has a seat at the table.”
If the charter amendment wins approval, supporters say it will go into effect in January. What happens next could hinge on the result of negotiations with other members of H-GAC. Molly Cook, an organizer with the PAC who also ran against state Sen. John Whitmire in the Democratic primary last year, acknowledged those negotiations would be “uncharted territory.”
The language of the charter proposal would require the city to take part in planning organizations only if their boards reflect the region’s population distribution. The charter also would require the city to withdraw its membership “if the voting system is not corrected within 60 days of the effective date of adoption of this section.”
Advocates say they are optimistic negotiations would succeed. If the talks are unsuccessful, Houston could be forced to exit H-GAC and attempt to form a new regional council.
“What Houston is doing right now is, frankly, boldly leading the nation in a people-driven campaign to fix a problem that exists in most large metropolitan areas,” Cook said. “We’re going to get to write our own story.”
See here and here for some background. They needed 20K signatures, so submitting 23,665 feels a bit tight to me, but if they’re confident of their totals then I’m sure they’re fine. As I’ve said before, I fully support this effort but I have questions about how this will work and what happens if the negotiations fail. If any kind of legislative action is needed to change the focal point of federal funds from H-GAC to just Houston, I can’t see it happening. Ideally, H-GAC will recognize the need for change and will work with Houston in good faith, but given the things that the members from the small counties said in this story, I don’t expect that.
It’s clear that the H-GAC model hasn’t worked for Houston and Harris County in a long time. It’s equally clear that a change has to be made to rectify that. I very much hope this can be the fulcrum for that change. I have no idea what Plan B is if that doesn’t happen for whatever the reason. That’s about the size of it. I expect to do at least one interview relating to this for November, assuming it does get on the ballot. We’ll check in again once we get an answer from the City Secretary.