On the Houston Charter Amendment Petition Coalition’s 2021 charter amendment

1905 City of Houston charter; Image credit: University of California Libraries/archive.org

In October 2020, a new coalition of Houstonians, dubbing themselves the Houston Charter Amendment Petition Coalition (HCAPC), gathered to push for a City of Houston charter amendment that would enable three City of Houston councilmembers to place an item on the weekly agenda. Under the current city charter, members can petition the mayor to put something on the agenda; if the mayor refuses, the councilmembers can call for a special meeting but a 50 percent +1 quorum must be met for the meeting to take place. In practice this rarely occurs.

As anyone who has been around in Houston for a while knows, the City of Houston has what is known as a strong mayor form of government. This new charter group thinks that the mayor has too much power, in that he or she has nearly complete control over the city agenda. In short, if the mayor wants to talk about something, it’s going to get talked about. If the mayor doesn’t want to talk about something, then it’s not going to get brought up – and that’s final.

One way that a casual observer can tell who has how much power in City of Houston politics is to simply look at the campaign finance reports. The City of Houston government is organized into 11 district council seats, 5 city wide at-large seats, a city controller, and the mayor. If you look at the finance reports, one typically finds that candidates for district council seats usually raise between $0 – $150,000, with incumbents or well financed candidates raising more, while challengers or newcomers typically raise much less. Likewise, at-large seats typically raise between $20,000 – $300,000. Meanwhile, serious candidates running for mayor will run multi-million dollar campaigns, with an informal floor of $1 – 2 million or so being needed to be seen as a serious contender for mayor. There have been several political candidates in recent Houston history that have raised and spent $5 million or more trying to win the office. From there, all you need to ask yourself is, “why does so much money flow towards candidates running for a particular office?”

In practice, I agree with the organizers of this charter amendment. However, I differ with this group on the best remedy for reining in the mayor’s power. I also think that it’s not enough to simply target the mayor.

A short history of Houston government and how we got here

The City of Houston was, as we know, founded in 1836 at the time of the Texas revolution for independence from Mexico. Shortly thereafter, the city received a charter from the Texas Legislature, which divided 19th century Houston into wards. The ward system was a precursor to the modern system of council districts.

However, as was detailed in University of Houston professors Robert Thomas and Richard Murray’s book, “Pro growth politics: Change and Governance in Houston“, in the year 1905 the City of Houston was granted a new charter by the Texas Legislature. The charter then was modeled after the City of Galveston’s government, and Galveston was the big honcho city in Southeast Texas at that time – although that wasn’t to be for long. The 1905 Houston charter provided for a mayor and four aldermen. The mayor had a veto power, budget preparation authority, and department head appointment power (with council approval). However, other aspects of city administration were divided between individual aldermen, which created a fragmented government, and citizens did not have any recall power over officials.

In 1912, the Texas Legislature proposed, and by vote was ratified, that home rule and charter amendments could be adopted by public vote. This resulted in a flurry of activity by Houston voters at the time and a slew of charter amendments were adopted in 1913.

Over time, there came to be dissatisfaction with Houston government, as aldermen (and later city commissioners) built patronage fiefdoms around the departments they oversaw. Mayors in turn did the same over functions they oversaw. In the 1930’s, these issues boiled over and resulted in a city manager form of government being proposed in 1938 and again in 1941. The thought was that a professional city manager would produce better administration. Eventually, this was approved, but in 1947 new charter amendments were approved, creating the strong mayor form of government that Houston has had ever since. What Professors Thomas and Murray observed is that the city manager system was effectively a prelude to the strong mayor system.

The 1947 amendments resulted in the city manager’s powers being transferred to the mayor. Furthermore, councilmembers could vote to confirm department heads, but to a large degree council oversight afterwards was diminished. In the city manager system, council appointed the city manager (who was accountable to them), but in the new strong mayor system, department heads,  once confirmed, answered to the mayor.

In some ways, Houston has been served well by this arrangement. I personally am not in favor of a city manager system. For better or for worse, if things go south in the city, Houston voters know exactly whom to blame: the mayor. The problem with this arrangement is that if things are going south, there isn’t all that much that city council can do to stop an out of control mayor, or for that matter out-of-control department heads who may or may not be doing their jobs. City of Houston voters do have recall authority over both elected and appointed city officials, but Article 7-A of the current city charter stipulates that petitions to remove elected or appointed officials require residents to meet a threshold of signatures equal to 25 percent of all the voters in a district (or city wide) depending upon the office holder. In this case, if voters wanted to recall an appointed or elected official, they would have to obtain over 50,000 signatures from City of Houston voters, and given that in any petition drive that at least 25 – 30 percent of signatures are likely to be invalid for some reason, then petitioners are faced with having to collect around 75,000 signatures for a recall to become valid. Then, the targets of a recall petition can challenge the veracity of the petitions, but later the Council has to sit in judgment over the petition and any objections to the recall. If the recall effort is found to be legitimate, then the target of the recall petition faces the voters in the next scheduled election and considering how politics is, the political figure in question may well end up surviving the challenge. Then what?

In practice, I can never recall in my nearly half a century as a Houston resident that a City of Houston elected (or appointed) official has ever been recalled, albeit some officials (like former CM Ben Reyes) have had downfalls because of other checks against local officials in the form of federal investigations of corruption. The last time there was a serious fight against the strong mayor form of government occurred in the mid-1950s soon after its adoption. The council tried in various ways to fight back against this new form of government during the Roy Hofheinz era, but their challenges failed. In practice, City Council members have been passive about their oversight roles and passive players in overall city governance ever since. Sitting mayors have immense powers in their agenda-setting capacity, and have plenty of ways to cajole, bully, or otherwise browbeat recalcitrant council members to go along with what the sitting mayor wants. As for checks, council members can ask the mayor, city attorney, controller, or department heads questions, but they can do little else – and I don’t think this is really a good thing.

Major failures in Houston government resulting from a strong mayor form of government

I would list at least four major failures in City of Houston government resulting, at least in part, from Houston’s system of governance.

1) The ongoing City of Houston pension woes
The City of Houston pension woes all started literally overnight around 20 years ago, and there’s one person to blame for all of it: former Mayor Lee Patrick Brown. I ran into one of my former  university professors at a fundraiser last year and had a long chat with him. He said that he had looked into the city’s pension funds and found that all the way until the late 1990s, the City pension plans were completely fine. They were in pretty good shape.

And then, all at once, the plans became immensely extravagant, and the city has been struggling to keep them funded ever since. And you know who was the one who – ahem – negotiated those pension benefit increases with the city fire fighters and police officers? You guessed it – it was Lee Brown. The unfunded pension liabilities got to be so bad that the Texas Legislature had to step in with new legislation (SB 2190 passed in the 2017 Legislature) to remedy the issue, although there’s good reason to think that the legislature’s solution to the issue didn’t really solve the problem. Hence, the pension liability problem still hovers over the city two decades after Lee Brown doled out the pension benefit increases out. And, given that council has relatively little power to do anything about it, they no doubt tacitly signed off on it; the same mayor that controls all the department heads, after all, can exert a lot of power over district services, so it often pays to go along.

2) The City of Houston water and sewer problem
Some years back when President Obama was in office, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency went on a campaign across America filing legal actions against municipal governments over sanitary sewer overflows that resulted in polluted water and sewer effluent discharging into local bodies of water. Former City of Houston Mayor Annise Parker negotiated a consent agreement with the U.S. EPA to implement remedies to correct the problem, which was formally agreed to by the U.S. EPA in August 2019. The Houston City Council voted to agree to the settlement, but at the cost of over $2 billion for local water and sewer ratepayers. Furthermore, there was a secrecy provision in the negotiations which allegedly prevented residents from looking into the matter. Houston residents are facing up to 60 percent rate hikes over the next 5 years, resulting in bills increasing by many hundreds of dollars every year for many residents, all because of the city’s failure to take care of this problem to begin with.

So, who is to blame for this? Well, ultimately since the mayor oversees all executive departments, it’s former City of Houston mayors and former public works department heads who are. City Council members could likely do little or nothing when events leading to this all unfolded.

3) The Chris Brown controller fiasco
In October 2019, current City Controller Chris Brown was accused of accepting over $5 million in local and federal tax money for some land he owned. Mr. Brown defended himself, but the whole affair just stinks. Vacuuming up enough money for some land that would instantly make Mr. Brown a member of the 1-2 percent class in this country should have been an absolute outrage, particularly for the political Left, which has been shrieking about inequality for years now.

So, how did this happen? Apparently when the deal came before City Council, councilmembers were either asleep at the wheel or did not have all of the relevant information regarding Mr. Brown’s interest in the deal to stop it when it happened. Also, the city attorney signed off on the deal – and who appoints the city attorney? You guessed it – the mayor does. Yes, council confirms the city attorney, but when the mayor has all that agenda-setting power, crossing the mayor over his or her appointments, like anything else, is fraught with political peril.

There are several possible remedies to this. The best one would have been for Mr. Brown to have been voted out of office, and at least be investigated if not eventually prosecuted. However, since his only opponent, Orlando Sanchez, was closely aligned with the Republican Party, and Republicans are a political minority within the City of Houston electorate, Mr. Brown managed to get himself reelected despite his malfeasance. That leads anyone thinking Mr. Brown’s behavior is an issue with the problem of mounting a costly petition recall campaign, which (as I described above) may or may not work.

4) The METRO rail fiascoes
Long time readers of blogHOUSTON (and my previous blog) know I’ve been bent out of shape about rail in Houston for a good 15+ years now. Over time, I’ve come to accept that for better or for worse, I live in a Republic where many things are a matter of public debate. For better or for worse – and it is for worse – METRO’s rail program has been pushed through.

It was one thing to see Houston’s political classes (and the Houston Chronicle) dance in the aisles over the rail program. However, it was another to watch three rail lines get built at a cost of over $2.2 billion, all of which are amongst the poorest performing rail lines in the entire world and which hardly transport any more riders than the previous bus routes, which cost a fraction of that. Furthermore, the Post Oak bus lane was completed at a cost of some $250+ million, only to see practically zero ridership.

By any stretch of the imagination, this has been a costly failure, but thanks to current arrangements, the City of Houston mayor has had de facto control over METRO’s governing board since its inception. If there had been a City Council with more power to question this, it might have been possible to bring this transit program to a halt, or at least scale it back. Or, ideas such as transit guideways could have been converted to bus or vehicle use if (when) then underperformed.

Is there a better remedy to Houston’s political ills than the HCAPC proposal?

I believe yes.

Before going further, I agree with the coalition that the city’s current form of governance puts too much power in the hands of the mayor, and I’ve outlined the case in this epistle instances where this has hurt the city and its residents. However, what worries me about the HCAPC proposal is that there is a real danger that the result of this charter amendment will be that more stuff will be piled onto the city agenda, with no means to pay for anything that interest groups will clamor for.

Rather, I’ve come to think that instead of giving councilmembers more carrots, so to speak, I would give councilmembers some big – massive! – sticks. I would propose giving City Council the power to remove the mayor, city controller, city attorney, and other major department heads like the chief of police, the head of public works, city-appointed METRO board members, and members of the Port of Houston Authority appointed by the mayor. While this is a pretty radical change, one thing it would definitely do is force sitting mayors and department heads to sit up and listen to city council members as well as mayors.

Now, I’ve been trying to think through all of the dynamics of how this would work. First, officials should not be easy to remove from office. One idea would be that it would take a 75 percent majority of the Houston City Council (12 of the 16 members), or even an 80 percent majority (13 out of 16) to remove a sitting mayor, controller, or other official from office. Another would be that City Council could vote to recommend to remove a sitting official from office, but then the matter would be put to City of Houston voters to have the final say. Yet another would be that it would have to be stipulated why an official is to be removed from office, rather than simply removing them simply because you don’t like them.

I’m the first to admit that my idea of giving City Council this grant of power against the city’s executives is pretty radical, and I haven’t thought through all potential negative effects. Still, I find myself left unconvinced by and sitting on the fence over HCAPC’s proposal, and I think my idea would lead towards more constructive reforms than HCAPC’s proposal for governing the City of Houston’s future.