Meh, I say.
A Houston City Council committee Tuesday night recommended changing the term limits of elected officials from three two-year terms to two four-year terms starting in 2019, a charter change that could go to voters in November.
The ad-hoc charter review committee voted 10-3 to recommend the two four-year terms in January, but questions lingered about whether council would ask voters to implement that change in 2015 or 2017, potentially lengthening the terms of some current council members.
Instead, the lightly attended committee voted 5-4 last night to recommend the 2019 start date, saying voters would be more apt to support the change if they didn’t view it as a self-serving political move orchestrated by sitting council members.
The committee ultimately recommended two proposals: one to change the term limits and the other to allow six council members to place an item on agenda, a power that is currently held only by Mayor Annise Parker.
I agree with not having any changes to term limits affect current elected officials, which was the position advocated by CM Bradford. Anything else would be seen as self-serving. That said, I am at best lukewarm on both of those proposals. I still don’t think two four-year terms represents an improvement over the existing system (and you know I don’t like the existing system), and I don’t care one way or the other about the council-can-place-items-on-the-agenda proposal.
Mayor Parker, on the other hand, is against it.
Mayor Annise Parker has largely dismissed a council-backed city charter change that would allow six members to place an item on the agenda, undercutting Houston’s strong-mayor form of government that grants only her that power.
Last summer, Parker branded the proposal a “non-starter,” saying “voters don’t care” about the issue. Recently, she also said that it might violate the state’s Open Meetings Act, which prevents council members from gathering to discuss an agenda item outside of a properly posted meeting.
“What they want to do is for six council members to get together and secretly meet and decide on an agenda item,” Parker said. “Well, you can’t secretly meet to decide on an agenda item. You can’t even publicly meet. In order for council members to confer at all about an item of business, it has to be publicly posted.”
Councilman C.O. Bradford, a lawyer, said that a state Attorney General decision allowing Dallas’ agenda rule disputes the mayor’s claim that the Open Meetings Act would be violated. So long as voters approve the charter change, he said, council members could take up issues at regularly scheduled committee meetings and decide there whether to place them on the full council agenda.
“The council voting unanimously in favor of the item surprised (Parker,)” Bradford said. “And now she’s had to take this stand of, well, now it’s illegal. But that is just simply not the case.”
Rashaad Gambrell, a senior assistant attorney for the city, said Bradford has raised a complicated legal issue. As the proposal is written now, Gambrell said, there’s no clear legal mechanism to allow council members to poll one another and develop an opinion on an item. The proposal would need to be reworked, Gambrell said, noting that several of the charter reforms City Council is mulling will need editing before they’re considered “ballot ready.” A similar proposal in the 1990s that would have allowed three council members to place an item on the regular agenda failed at City Council and never made it to the ballot.
Legal questions aside, Parker’s dismissal of the agenda proposal is hardly surprising, said University of Houston political science professor Richard Murray.
“You’ve got the strongest mayor job in the country and this would significantly alter the way City Hall operates,” Murray said. “It’s the instinctive reaction to say ‘no.'”
It’s not unreasonable to be wary of this fundamental a change. I suspect one’s opinion of Mayor Parker colors one’s view of the proposal. On a related note, I also still think the committee wussed out in not putting forward a proposal to repeal the revenue cap. We’ll see how I feel in six months or so, but right now the odds are a No vote from me on each.