Correction: Evan Choate's title with Fair for Houston has been corrected to Campaign Manager.

Houston voters passed two ballot propositions during the Nov. 7 election that stand to have an impact on regional planning and city governance.

The first proposition gives Houston City Council members more power to place items on the council’s weekly agendas, moving away from the existing system where only the mayor can set agenda items.

The second proposition could give the city more say in regional planning efforts. Open-ended ballot language, an upcoming negotiation process and complex legal factors cloud what may ultimately come from the voter-approved change, but local advocates and officials with regional planning groups said they are optimistic about the next steps.

Two-minute impact

The two ballot propositions—commonly referred to as propositions A and B—both passed with approval of at least 65% of Houston voters. Proposition A requires the city to amend its charter to allow any member of the 16-member Houston City Council to place items on the agenda as long as they have support of at least two other council members.

District C council member Abbie Kamin—who covers the Heights, Montrose and other parts of the Inner Loop—said Proposition A will allow the council an opportunity to help move efforts forward that are already underway in some fashion but could fizzle out without council action. Kamin said she hopes items would still be subject to department review, legal review and fiscal analysis, which she said could help prevent abuse of the new powers.

“[Proposition A] enables [Houston City Council members] an opportunity to keep work going to ensure residents are receiving the caliber of services they deserve,” Kamin said.

Kamin said she did not feel there were any agenda items that were being held up solely because Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner was blocking them, adding that Turner has been willing to work with council members on items they felt were important.
Meanwhile, Proposition B calls Houston representatives to work with the Houston-Galveston Area Council—a regional planning group that plays a central role in allocating state and federal funds for projects—to make board voting power more in line with how population is spread throughout the region, specifically on the H-GAC's board of directors and its Transportation Policy Council.

The effort to promote Proposition B was led by advocates with the grassroots group Fair for Houston, who said the current structure results in unfairly weak voting power for urban representatives.

"I think this is a crystal clear mandate from the voters," said Evan Choate, Campaign Manager with Fair for Houston. "[The election results] are in the upper bounds of what we hoped for while working on the campaign."
H-GAC’s current 37-member board of directors includes:
  • One member from 13 counties, two members from Harris County
  • One member from cities with populations over 25,000, two members from Houston
  • Four representatives covering remaining cities, including two members chosen by home-rule cities and two members chosen by general law cities
  • One school district representative
Two city of Houston officials are on the board, but the city represents 30% of the region’s population. The 28-member transportation policy council has three representatives from the city of Houston, as required in H-GAC bylaws.

With proposition B approved, H-GAC members must work out a new structure that makes board voting power more “proportional” to population. The language is intentionally open-ended.
  • H-GAC has 60 days from election results being certified to make the changes
  • If H-GAC and city fail to reach agreement by deadline, Houston is obligated to leave H-GAC
A closer look

Council of Governments: The H-GAC is a regional Council of Governments that covers the 13-county Houston region. A majority of directors is all that is needed to conduct business.

Metropolitan Planning Organization: The MPO covers eight counties and provides input on distributing funds. To redesignate an MPO, approval is required from Gov. Greg Abbott and representatives covering 75% of H-GAC’s population.

Transportation Policy Council: The MPO’s policy-making body coordinates transportation planning. The TPC only requires a majority of members to conduct business.

What's next

Council members Mary Nan Huffman, Amy Peck and Carolyn Evans-Shabazz teamed up on what could be the first council member-spurred agenda item. If passed as part of a broader set of ordinance changes, the item would prohibit Houston Public Works from correcting water bill errors that are more than three months old, unless the correction is in the customer’s favor.

Proposition B gives the H-GAC 60 days to negotiate on a more “proportional” representation structure for its board of directors and its Transportation Policy Council. Fair for Houston officials said the ballot language was left open-ended so the H-GAC would not be constrained to specific quotas.

If Houston is not satisfied with H-GAC’s new structure, Proposition B calls on the city to leave the council. The fallout of Houston leaving the MPO and COG could result in the city losing access to federal funds, City Attorney Arturo Michel warned in the August memo to Turner, adding that any benefit of leaving the MPO is speculative.

H-GAC Executive Director Chuck Wemple said there is complexity to what would happen if Houston tried to leave the MPO and TPC, which are governed by a combination of state laws and local considerations. Wemple said he was optimistic that board officials will be able to navigate a way through the conversation, and that he didn't think anyone involved wanted to jeopardize funding for the region.

Choate said Fair for Houston advocates did a lot of research into the process and were confident that funding would be protected, adding that the city of Houston holds a lot of leverage in the upcoming negotiations.

Wemple said the H-GAC conducted a similar analysis of its board makeup following the release of U.S. Census data in 2020, with committee members at the time concluding that changes did not need to be made. However, Wemple said concerns that have been raised more recently warrant a "fresh look."

The TPC took action in October to stand up committees to take on the next phase of analyzing board makeup, Wemple said. Committees will meet in December to take a look at population growth in the region and consider roughly a dozen models used in other cities.

A vote on a potential bylaw change could take place in January. The process would involve sending ballots to board members and canvassing results.

“As we take a fresh look at [population], as we come together as a region to really work through this, I remain optimistic that we’ll be able to navigate a way through,” Wemple said.

Upcoming discussions among the TPC members will take other considerations into account, Wemple said, including a debate on whether the TPC should expand the area it covers and a request from The Woodlands to be part of the TPC through a transit operator option.

Although a shift in voting power toward Houston could result in less power for more rural areas, both Wemple and Fair for Houston organizers emphasized the conversation should not pit one city or county against everyone else.

"It's not 'us versus them,' but we're coming together to look at what's good for the region, how the region has changed and how we can approach this in a way that could be constructive," Wemple said. "I haven't heard from anyone who has been close-minded to that conversation."

Fair for Houston Communications Director Ally Smither said the group picked up supporters and volunteers during the campaign process from across the Houston region, including in Montgomery and Fort Bend counties as well as Harris County.

“We believe ... that a better future for the region is possible by updating this system to make it fair, not just for Houston, but for everyone,” Smither said. "Our whole campaign was really grounded in this idea that we really believe in our elected officials and giving them the backing of the people to update the system."

Also of note

In addition to changes coming to the Houston City Council through Proposition A, several runoff elections taking place Dec. 9 could change the council’s makeup. Find more information on the seats up for election here.