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What the passage of the term limits referendum means

It’s a little unclear from this story.


The passage of Proposition 2 also means some current officeholders will be able to serve longer than the six years they originally signed up for.

Current freshman council members will now be able to serve two more 4-year terms, for a total of 10 years. Those serving their second terms will be permitted a final term of four years, for a total of eight years. Those finishing their third terms this year, including Mayor Annise Parker, are not permitted to run again.


Polls did show voters were more likely to oppose the measure when told incumbents could benefit, but there was no organized campaign on either side – aside from some radio ads and phone calls funded by GOP state Sen. Paul Bettencourt – and the ballot language did not detail the impact on incumbents. Ultimately, it passed by a wide margin.

Barry Klein, who was involved in the original fight to pass Houston’s term limits in 1991, lamented that his small-government colleagues were too occupied with other issues to mount a campaign.

“The citizens of Houston used to get four elections over eight years and now will get only two, and I think we’re all worse off for that. I really do think it weakens accountability,” Klein said. “The special interests will find it easier now because when they get their man in place they won’t have to worry about him getting replaced because of term limits.”

I don’t often agree with Barry Klein, but on this matter I do. I voted against Prop 2 because I think two-year terms for city officeholders are the better idea. Increasing the number of terms they could serve is to me the much better idea, but that’s not what was on the ballot. We can argue all we want about how much voters understood Prop 2, but first let’s be clear on what this does mean, because the wording of this story is confusing. Searching my archives, I found this story from August, when the term limits item was put on the ballot. Here’s the key paragraph:

The change, if passed, would take effect for officials elected this fall. Current freshman council members could pick up two four-year terms and those serving their second term would be permitted one four-year term. Elected officials who are already term-limited would not be affected by the change.

So the next municipal election will be in 2019, and at this point all terms have become four years. Anyone elected for the first time this year – Greg Travis, for example – can run again in 2019 and serve a total of eight years. Council members elected to their third term this year, like Jerry Davis and Ellen Cohen, can serve until 2019, also for a total of eight years. This is why the original idea was to not put the change into effect until 2020, so no current members would get extra time. And the real lucky duckies, the people who were first elected in 2013, like Michael Kubosh, can run again in 2019, and if he wins he will get to serve a total of 10 years.

So. Did you know this going in? I admit, I didn’t, but then I was always a No vote on Prop 2, so this particular detail more or less didn’t matter to me. If you voted for Prop 2, does seeing this change your mind?

One side effect of this change, which I doubt has received any consideration, is that the turnout level in HISD and HCC elections will vary dramatically in years with and without city elections. How many voters do you think will show up for Trustee races in 2017 if there are no Mayor or Council races on the ballot? I mentioned this as a potential problem for the idea of moving city elections to even years, and it’s as true here. I suppose that’s not the city’s problem, and if anyone in HISD thought about it they didn’t think loudly enough for the rest of us to hear, but there it is. What effect might this have in the off-year odd-numbered elections? Other than lower turnout, hard to say. Maybe it makes it easier for upstarts to get traction, maybe it helps incumbents stay entrenched. We’ll just have to see.

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  1. Ms. Marty Panz says:

    There is an upside, possibly. It would balance out the stranglehold the city department heads have currently. ???

  2. Paul Kubosh says:

    For the record Michael voted against putting this term limits on the ballot. However, lets be clear no one would have ever been able to vote on this if it hadn’t been for


    putting this on the agenda for City Council to vote on.


    wanted the public to vote on it and we did. So if you have anyone to blame then blame


    for putting this on the agenda for City Council to vote on.

  3. Joe says:

    I never understood the argument that Klein makes that special interests are benefited by having officeholders serving longer. It’s been my experience that special interests do well when dealing with inexperienced electeds. When you take away the institutional knowledge of the person serving in office, you place more power in the hands of lobbyists and staffers that know the process. It takes time to learn how to get something done in a legislative body and navigate through the procedural waters. A newly elected official and a seasoned vet can both be beholden to a special interest, their time in office doesn’t impact that. All things being equal, it’s always better to have an experienced legislator than a newbie. That said, I agree this change was ridiculous because it limits the voter’s power to choose whether their representative should stay, exactly like term limits.

    tl;dr – terms limits are dumb and do exactly what their proponents hope to avoid: empower lobbyists.

  4. 10 years with kubosh?

    My heart goes out to houston and city council

  5. Ross says:

    I don’t agree with Michael Kubosh on a number of issues, but he’s pretty sane and level headed. Far better than most of the alternative choices

  6. General Grant says:

    If you just have to have four year terms, the Council races need to be staggered with half coming up every two years. That is an obvious detail, the absence of which shows just how sloppy this proposal was.

  7. Paul kubosh says:

    Grant…yep…I agree.

  8. voter_worker says:

    Was there an intention of reducing expenditures on elections? I suppose it’s only a drop in the larger budget bucket, but does anyone have an estimate of the City’s direct costs to run this election? If staggered terms are a superior option (not implying that they are not) why did Council pass this version? What do people in the political campaign business think of this? Apologies for so many questions, but I wasn’t paying attention when this proposal was making its way through Council.

  9. General Grant says:

    Given that you have to have a state constitutional amendment election anyway, and most of the City’s ISD’s vote in odd Novembers anyway, I can’t see how this saves any money in administration.

    My theory, Voter Worker, is that nobody else was paying attention to it either, including those on Council, so it wasn’t vetted well.

  10. voter_worker says:

    General Grant, I located a PDF of a document from Anna Russell to the Mayor requesting Council action (“Request for Council Action”) dated September 14, 2015. It concerns entering into an agreement with Harris County to run the November 3 election, and the amount shown is $800,500 to come out of the General Fund. This amount seems so relatively small that I doubt that reducing expenses was part of the plan.

  11. J says:

    If Christie is defeated, then all 5 At Large councilmembers will serve for 8 years from now. And then all 5 will be brand new in 2023, along with a new Mayor. (Assuming re-election is as automatic as it has been thus far.)

    Having everyone with full-City responsibility depart and getting all new people is not a great result. Lots of getting-up-to-speed.

    Hopefully, some At Larges and maybe the Mayor will be defeated in 2019, or maybe the new 2023 Mayor will at least be an experienced councilmember.