How are the city’s talks with H-GAC going?

Things seemed to be going reasonably well. The deadline had passed but no one seemed to fussed about it.

Despite a deadline set by Houston voters for early January, the process to increase Houston’s role in regional planning will take at least another month, as concerns from other local governments complicate negotiations.

Last November, Houstonians approved a ballot measure that aims to give the city more representation on the Houston-Galveston Area Council. Comprising over 100 local governments, the council makes key regional decisions and distributes federal funding in areas like flood protection, workforce development and large-scale infrastructure.

Houston, making up over 30% of the region’s population, has only two seats on H-GAC’s 37-member board. The recent ballot measure compels the city to leave any government council that does not apportion votes based on population, giving city officials 60 days to either renegotiate with H-GAC or withdraw from the group altogether.

Facing concerns from some representatives of smaller jurisdictions, however, H-GAC officials decided last week to spend an additional month educating members about the potential impacts of a revamped voting structure.

Waller County Judge Trey Duhon, leading an H-GAC committee in charge of reviewing the board’s voting structure, said the holiday season made adhering to the 60-day timeframe challenging, but assured the public that the team is working on the matter with urgency.

“There are some folks that still feel like they need a little bit more time to digest some of the legal ramifications, some of the impacts that this will have,” Duhon said at H-GAC’s monthly board meeting on Jan. 19. “Everybody wants to be very deliberate in this process.”


Having exceeded the 60-day deadline, the city of Houston now faces the possibility of legal challenges. But Smither said her group is so far content with the progress made by Houston and H-GAC officials.

“We see good faith progress,” [Alexandra Smither, spokesperson for the grassroots advocacy group Fair for Houston,] said. “I would say right now, we are fully living in the moment of being supportive of this process.”

H-GAC officials have crafted and presented proposals to amend the voting structure of both their own board and the board of their Transportation Policy Council.

The current proposals envision a two-layer voting structure for both the H-GAC board and the Transportation Policy Council board. In both cases, the existing board would handle everyday decisions, but members would have the option to invoke a second vote. This second vote would be done by a different board that takes into account each jurisdiction’s population size.

Houston, for instance, would have 5% of the vote on the H-GAC board in the first instance but 23% in the second. The aim, according to H-GAC officials, is to acknowledge population differences while also ensuring that Houston and Harris County do not monopolize every discussion.

Many H-GAC members, including Houston and Harris County officials, expressed support for the proposals at the latest board meeting last week. Several members, however, raised concerns. They resisted the notion of granting more power to Houston and Harris County and argued that the proposed system is overly convoluted.

“I personally am opposed to this whole process,” Montgomery County Judge Mark Keough said. “We didn’t create this problem…but we’re just kind of offering it up and changing how we do everything.”

Houston Council Member Sallie Alcorn, recently elected chair of H-GAC’s board of directors, emphasized the city’s desire to remain in the council but also highlighted the limitations imposed by the approved ballot measure.

“We’re kind of in uncharted territory,” Alcorn said. “I do think to honor the charter amendment, there would be at least some discussions of what that would mean for the city of Houston if we would have to leave. I don’t know how that plays out. I’m hoping we don’t have to get there.”

See here for the previous update. And then the Transportation Policy Council, which was also required to undertake similar reforms, had a meeting on Friday to discuss that and it all went to hell.

The Houston region’s transportation board stepped into uncharted territory Friday, with suburban members of the board nixing consideration of proportional voting to satisfy a Houston ballot measure.

The decision, which could have ramifications for regional planning and potentially funding, leaves Houston members of the board caught between the will of their voters and the unwillingness of their regional peers to adjust.

“We were hoping it would not come to this, but it did,” Houston City Council Member Sallie Alcorn said, after the Houston-Galveston Area Council’s Transportation Policy Council ended work on a proportional voting plan.

The goal here was to reform H-GAC in a way that better represented Houston. Leaving is the last resort. If Fair for Houston is content with how the negotiations are going, that’s good enough for me. According to the story we should see some action at the next board meeting in about a month. If things are still at an impasse then, we’ll see if that moves us closer to the leave option.

In ending work on the plan, policy council members also denied Alcorn’s request for another 30 days to work on compromises, saying a deal was unattainable.

“I have heard from my constituents, and they do not want to change the voting structure, period,” Pearland Mayor Kevin Cole said.

Alcorn, also chairwoman of the H-GAC board of directors, said she would consult with the city’s legal department about what options are available going forward. While the decision does not immediately halt projects or stop planning for new roads and transit, it casts doubt on how Houston participates.


Without Houston on the regional board, under certain scenarios, the region could begin to lose out on federal funding or become less competitive for grants when the Houston area cannot provide universal support for projects.

That risk, however, did not prompt officials to move ahead without voting changes. Calling the idea of proportional voting everything from a confusing plan to a power grab, the majority suburban members of the transportation council defended the status quo of every member of the 27-person board being equal.

“In every instance this body has come together and voted for what is best for the region,” Sugar Land Mayor Joe Zimmerman said.

Very few of those votes have been contentious, but rancor has been growing since a 2021 decision to support the planned rebuild of Interstate 45 in Houston, over the objections of transportation council members from Houston and Harris County.

Since then, suburban officials have lamented changes to both H-GAC policy and project rankings, arguing they are too advantageous for urban areas as opposed to growing suburban regions.

Transportation council members voted 20-6 to end any work by H-GAC staff on proportional voting. The vote was opposed by Houston’s three members of the committee and appointees of Harris County, Metropolitan Transit Authority and Gulf Coast Rail District.

The minority, however, had support from Fort Bend County Commissioner Grady Prestage, who pointedly called the refusal to even continue discussions “pretty disrespectful and disingenuous.”

“We are serving a half-baked cake right now, and I think we need that month,” he said in support of Alcorn’s request for time, though he later voted with suburban interests. “I don’t like the spirit of that.”

Prestage added that ending the discussions “won’t heal some of the wounds we are going to inflict right now.”

Don’t forget the screw job on federal storm mitigation funds, which wasn’t part of the TPC but was part of the overall complaint about H-GAC. I will stipulate that the overall record for H-GAC and its representatives has been reasonable and focused on the needs of the region as a whole. I don’t know what the specific complaints of the suburban areas are about the H-GAC policy and project rankings, but they have the majority of the power and we have seen clear examples of how their representatives in the Legislature and Congress think about Houston, so trusting them to do right by us based on historic performance is not a bet I’m willing to make. There were provisions built into the voting reform proposals to ensure that Houston and Harris County did not have an unassailable majority to force its will on the rest of the body. They could have kept the dialog going to see what kind of consensus could be reached. This right here is why it was possible to convince a large number of Houston voters why change was needed.

I don’t know what happens next. I’ve been concerned about that possibility all along, but I was hopeful that compromise could be reached. Maybe people will cool off over the weekend and want to give it another go. If not, well, we tried. A few statements from Fair for Houston advocates before we go, from the Yes on Prop B Twitter feed:

Fair for Houston hasn’t released their statement yet; I’ll update when they do. In the meantime, we wait and see what happens next.

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One Response to How are the city’s talks with H-GAC going?

  1. David Fagan says:

    I support the outlying areas. This is a loose- loose situation for them. Once Houston starts getting more influence and control it will be the beginning of Houston taking over the entire board and the federal dollars that come with it. This is not about proportional representation, this is about the control of money. The Senate is governed in a similar, equal vote manner and proves the validity of that type of representation when one area has the potential to overrun a system of government. I hope Houston is forced to leave and follows its own charter, the outlying areas will be better off. If they lose the federal funds, so be it, because they would lose them to Houston and Harris county eventually anyway.

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