Members of the Houston-Galveston Area Council's Transportation Policy Council voted Jan. 26 to end discussions on how to make the council voting structure more aligned with the regional population, calling into question what Houston's participation on the council could look like moving forward.

Now, officials with Houston Mayor John Whitmire's office said the mayor is meeting with Greater Houston-area county judges and mayors with hopes to keep discussions alive. Meanwhile, an informational briefing on the effort will take place Feb. 7, ahead of a board of directors meeting Feb. 20.

The backstory

Houston voters approved Proposition B in November, which amended the city's charter, directing the city to remove itself from any government council—including the H-GAC—that does not apportion board votes in a way that is proportional with population. The initiative was led by the grassroots group Fair For Houston, with advocates arguing the H-GAC's voting structure is not fair for the group's urban members, including Houston and Harris County.

After the proposition was approved, leaders with the H-GAC embarked on a series of discussions over how the board could be restructured that satisfies the ballot language while also working to alleviate concerns of the council's more suburban and rural members.

Catch up quick

At the Jan. 26 TPC meeting, council members voted 20-6 to end conversations on the proportional restructuring of TPC voting powers. Members representing the city of Houston, Harris County, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority of Harris County and the Gulf Coast Rail District voted against ending conversations, while all remaining members voted in favor of the item.

Prior to the vote, Sallie Alcorn—a Houston City Council and TPC member representing the city of Houston—asked for another 30 days to continue restructuring discussions. That motion failed by a vote of 7-19.

Digging in

A select committee met four times from November through January with the goal of coming up with a plan for how the TPC could provide a more proportional voting process. After a Jan. 3 workshop, officials came up with a plan that would have added a new weighted vote to the process. The new weighted vote would have been based on population, with roughly one vote for every 175,000 residents:
  • The city of Houston's weighted vote would have been worth 13 votes, 25% of the overall council voting power. Houston's population of 2.3 million is roughly one-third of the total population of the area covered by the H-GAC.
  • Harris County's weighted vote would have been worth 11 votes, 21.2% of the overall council voting power.
  • Fort Bend County's weighted vote would have been worth three votes, 5.8% of the overall voting power.
  • Montgomery County's weighted vote would have been worth two votes, 3.8% of the overall voting power.
  • Each remaining member—including five counties, nine cities, The Woodlands Township, two at-large positions, five regional agencies and one new caucus representing growth areas—would each get one vote. Combined, those members would represent the remaining 44.2% of the voting power.
Even with the weighted vote incorporated into the process, the council would have continued to cast votes in its standard method, with one vote per member. The weighted vote would only come into play if invoked by a member and seconded.

Additionally, the weighted vote would have:
  • Required a supermajority to pass, as opposed to a simple majority
  • Opened the item up for additional discussion and amendments, if passed
  • Not been enough to pass an item on its own; to pass, an item would have needed to pass both the weighted vote and the standard, numerical vote
What they're saying

Several TPC members who sought to end the discussion said they viewed it as a power play, arguing that it went against the TPC's purpose of planning from a regional lens. Some members also expressed concerns that Harris County and the cities that fell within it would combine for more than 50% of the weighted vote.

"It’s a pure power play; I’m just opposed to that," Sugar Land Mayor Joe Zimmerman said at the meeting.

Carol Lewis, chair of the Gulf Coast Rail District, said the vote to end the conversation backed up why advocates wanted to reshape the council in the first place.

"I trust everyone recognizes that [Prop B supporters] are not going to go away," she said at the meeting. "It will continue to make the point that the core is not well considered by those around and, in a way, is kind of disparaged by our neighbors."

Alcorn said it was too early to give up after all the work that had already been done. If given 30 more days, she suggested the time could be used to tweak the weighted vote calculations to make them more palatable to the rest of the council.

What's next

Beyond the TPC, Prop B also specifically called for a restructuring of the H-GAC's board of directors, conversations about which have also been underway. An informational briefing will take place Feb. 7, and the board itself will meet Feb. 20.

A spokesperson with the Whitmire administration said the mayor remains supportive of the goals of Prop B and is "confident the conversation will continue." Since the Jan. 26 vote, Whitmire has met with Zimmerman and plans to meet with other TPC members, according to a statement.

If the H-GAC board does not restructure with more proportional voting power, Prop B requires the city of Houston to leave the body. However, questions have been raised about how that would play out legally, and officials with the H-GAC said they are consulting legal counsel.