Politics

Houston City Council Votes To Delay Ballot Measure That Would Limit Mayor’s Power To 2023

The mayor and most council members haven’t expressed support for the ballot measure, which would give city council representatives the chance to put items up for consideration on the agenda.

Mayor Sylvester Turner at a Houston City Council meeting on June 2, 2021.

A proposed Houston charter amendment that would reduce the mayor's power by making it easier for council members to put items on the agenda is ready to appear on the ballot, but voters won't see it until November 2023.

Houston organizers collected enough signatures earlier this year for voters to weigh the measure. Now, Mayor Sylvester Turner and council members have decided unanimously to wait on holding that vote until 2023 — when Houston voters will elect a new mayor and council members.

"It's the decision of this council as to whether or not you want to spend $1.3 million in this election cycle, when, quite frankly, the turnout is going to be probably less than 3%," Turner told council members at Wednesday's meeting.

Some Houston-area voters will go to the polls in November this year to elect five positions on the HISD Board of Trustees.

Turner argued holding the ballot proposition vote this year wouldn't be a good use of funds.

"The only issue that's in this referendum pertains to council members, about you all not being able to get something on your agenda," Turner said. "If you've had any problems with getting something on your agenda, I'd like to hear that, but I don't think any of you have had it. So we're going to spend $1.3 million in a very low turnout on an issue that really doesn't pertain to this council."

Charles Blain, president of Urban Reform and one of the organizers behind the ballot proposition, said he believes the reason behind the delay is that Turner doesn’t support the measure.

“It's 100% because the mayor does not want to have this approved," Blain said. "If approved when he wants it to be — in November 2023 — it's mere weeks before he leaves office."

Organizers assumed the measure would be placed on the ballot for the nearest election date, Blain said.

“We did a rightful petition. We did it the right way. We submitted it the right way,” Blain said. “We just assumed and had faith that the city, the administration and the council members would do the right thing.”

 

Council members Amy Peck, Edward Pollard, Mike Knox and Michael Kubosh voted in favor of scheduling the election for November 2021.

Pollard, who represents District J, argued two years is too long a delay for an election — and the likely low turnout is beside the point.

"I don't think that is in the realm of what we should truly be considering, because our job is just to make sure that an opportunity is made for people to vote," Pollard said.

At-Large Council member Letitia Plummer proposed scheduling the election in 2022, but City Attorney Arturo Michel advised that it wasn't an option because the state election code offers council the choice between the "first authorized uniform election date" or "the earlier of the date of the next municipal general election or presidential general election."

Ultimately, council voted unanimously to put the proposition on the ballot in 2023.

A second proposed ballot measure would ask voters to decide whether the city should be required to reach an agreement with the firefighters union on pay raises. A petition for that measure was filed with the city in July, but wasn’t included in the discussion on scheduling the election because the signatures haven’t been verified by the city secretary in time for the state's Aug. 16 deadline for placing an item on the ballot.

Some council members raised the question of clarifying the city’s procedures moving forward.

"I would ask that we have a discussion after today to make sure that voters know what the expectations are for petitions," District C Council member Abbie Kamin said.

At-Large Council Member Sallie Alcorn pointed to the city's uncertain timeframe for verifying whether petitions have received the minimum 20,000 valid signatures.

"What I'm seeing in charter amendments way back to 2001 is wide variations in counting. One petition took 16 days to review. Another one, 816 days," Alcorn said. “So the process widely varies – in review time, in when it gets to the ballot based on the state law…I would like to see more certainty, some kind of clarification."

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Jen Rice

Reporter

Jen Rice is the City Hall reporter at Houston Public Media, where she covers topics like Houston City Council and housing. Jen was born and raised in Houston's 100-year floodplain. She graduated from Barnard College at Columbia University and has a master's degree from the LBJ School of Public Affairs...

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