Houston has by far the largest population in the Southeast Texas region, but it holds only a small number of votes on the 37-member board of directors for the Houston-Galveston Area Council – two to be exact.
Come November, residents of the city likely will have an opportunity to give Houston more sway on the council that bears it name, which is a collection of government officials from the region that determines how to allocate federal, state and local funding sources to best serve the needs of a 13-county area that includes more than 7 million people – in areas such as flood mitigation, transportation infrastructure, childcare and workforce development.
A grassroots organization called Fair for Houston submitted a petition with more than 23,000 signatures this week that asks the city to place a charter amendment on the ballot for the upcoming municipal election. If approved by voters, the amendment would compel the city to negotiate for more proportional representation on the Houston-Galveston Area Council (H-GAC), and if that weren't to happen within 60 days after the law would take effect, the city would be required to remove itself from the council and potentially create a new one.
"(The proposal) grew out of engaged residents of Houston paying attention to a body that has flown under the radar for decades," said Molly Cook, an organizer for Fair for Houston. "We're finally putting our foot down, saying enough is enough and it doesn't make sense."
Dana Medeguari of the office of the City Secretary confirmed that it received Fair for Houston's petition and is verifying its signatures. Assuming the petition still contains at least 20,000 signatures after the verification process is complete, the proposed charter amendment would go before the Houston City Council for placement on the November ballot.
The two city council members who serve on the H-GAC board, Sallie Alcorn and Amy Peck, said they support the idea of giving Houston a presence that more closely correlates with its population. Both said the H-GAC distributes funding proportionately in many cases, but there have been high-profile instances in recent years in which that was not the case.
In 2022, the setup contributed to Houston receiving about 2 percent of the $488 million the H-GAC distributed in federal flood mitigation dollars, even though Houston was most severely impacted by Hurricane Harvey five years beforehand. Also that year, the H-GAC approved funding for the Texas Department of Transportation's Interstate 45 expansion project in Houston, even though officials from the city and Harris County expressed opposition to the plan.
"I certainly understand it," Alcorn said of the charter amendment proposal. "And I welcome the discussion about board composition. I've been on the side of getting outvoted."
It is unclear how receptive the H-GAC as a whole might be to the proposed charter amendment, which would at the very least shift the balance of power more toward Houston for a council that represents a total of 177 municipalities. And if Houston were to remove itself from the council, that also would have region-wide ramifications.
H-GAC executive director Chuck Wemple was not available for comment Thursday, but Alcorn said he has been open to discussing the board's composition in the past. Wemple explored a possible reshuffling in 2021 by creating a board composition committee, on which Alcorn served, but the committee voted against making changes, Alcorn said.
"As the local regional planning organization, the Houston-Galveston Area Council's job is to provide a forum for collaboration among its members that supports our region's growth as a whole," the H-GAC said in a statement to Houston Public Media. "This means that we cannot prioritize one city or county over the region as we have the tough conversations and take on those challenges that affect our entire region."
Michael Moritz, another Fair for Houston organizer, said the city can use its population to leverage more influence on the H-GAC with a fairly low risk in terms of losing out on funding opportunities and impacting the rest of the region. If the city were to withdraw from the council, he said, the H-GAC could still function as a regional council of governments under existing law.
The council's Transportation Policy Council (TPC), which allocates transportation infrastructure funding and serves as the region's metropolitan planning organization (MPO), would cease to exist if Houston were to exit, because federal law requires MPOs to include the largest city in a region, Moritz said. He added that the TPC could still function until a new, Houston-centered organization was created as a replacement.
Waller County Judge Trey Duhon, who serves as the chair of the H-GAC board, contradicted that claim in an email to Houston Public Media. He said the H-GAC is assessing the potential impacts to the Transportation Policy Council if Houston were to leave the council, adding, “While a restructuring might be triggered, creation of a new transportation group is not required, as that would take more than Houston and Harris County alone and is a complicated process that includes federal and state agencies and leaders as well.”
Duhon also said an exit from the council might not ultimately be a good thing for the city and its residents.
“I personally believe the effort to force Houston to not participate in H-GAC is misguided, as it not only goes against the principles of coordinated regional planning but it ignores decades of precedence that has benefitted the city of Houston year in and year out,” Duhon wrote. “To make such a drastic change because of a mitigation funding distribution methodology where Harris County received the vast bulk of mitigation funding ($750 million) is effectively throwing the baby out with the bathwater.”
Similar to the composition of the H-GAC's board of directors, its Transportation Policy Council includes 28 members total and two from Houston.
Moritz also said a new MPO would be legally required to represent at least 70 percent of the region's population, which could be done by combining Houston with unincorporated Harris County and nearby Fort Bend County. All new MPOs are required by federal law to have representation proportional to population, he added.
"No matter what way it goes, we're going to end up with a fair voting structure with our regional council of governments and metropolitan planning organization," Cook said.
Moritz also said he'd like to see the H-GAC periodically re-evaluate the composition of its board, because populations can fluctuate. He said Fort Bend County and Montgomery County also are underrepresented because of explosive growth in recent years.
"We think a mutually agreeable negotiation is the best way for improved regional governance," Moritz said.
If the charter amendment gets on the ballot and passes and Houston ends up leaving the H-GAC, the city could lose out on funding outside the realm of transportation infrastructure. That would be a concern, according to Peck, who said she otherwise favors the idea.
Alcorn, who is the chair elect for the H-GAC board, said the proposal starts a conversation worth having.
"We'll see how it plays out," she said. "They went about it this way to kind of force the issue. I think that's a good thing."