The proposal, circulated by a bipartisan group known as the Houston Charter Amendment Petition Coalition, aims to alter the city charter so any City Council member can place an item on the City Council’s weekly agenda as long as two other council members back the effort.
As it is written, the charter only allows the mayor to place items on the agenda. The effort is backed by wide-ranging groups, including the Houston chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America and the Harris County Republican Party.
City Council voted to approve a November 2023 election date for the proposal despite an effort led by Council Member Amy Peck to place the item on the November 2021 ballot.
At the heart of the debate between council members were differing interpretations of the Texas Local Government Code.
It states a council can authorize a charter amendment petition election on the “first authorized uniform election date,” which City Attorney Arturo Michel confirmed is Nov. 7 or “the earlier of the date of the next municipal general election or presidential general election.”
Michel said that gave council the option to place the item on the November 2023 municipal election during which City Council and the Mayors’ seats will be up for election as well.
Peck and Council Members Edward Pollard, Michael Knox and Michael Kubosh voted in favor of placing the item on the November 2021 ballot, citing a preference for getting the amendment before voters as soon as possible. The last day to file items on the November ballot is Aug. 16, according to the Texas secretary of state.
“Will voters sign petitions in the future if they know it won’t be on the ballot for years to come?” Council Member Michael Kubosh said.
The mayor and 11 remaining council members supported placing the item on the November 2023 ballot. Reasoning ranged from concerns over low voter turnout in a 2021 election, an off-year from other city contests, to the cost of hosting an election. City officials estimate it will cost $1.3 million to hold the election. Council Member Letitia Plummer offered a comprise to place the item on the November 2022 ballot but the city attorney advised against it.
“The cost of this election will be $1.3 million for a very, very low turnout, and the only issue on this ballot pertains to council members,” Turner said. “If you have any problems getting an item on the agenda, I would like to hear it."
Peck argued, however, that those who sign petitions expect to vote on the first election date possible.
“I think by submitting a petition people decide this is how they want to spend their money,” Peck said.
Council members also dwelled on the nature of the petition, which aims to change how city government functions.
“I do think people should be able to vote on this, but I don’t think we should change things midstream in the middle of an administration because of personality differences,” Vice Mayor Pro Tem Martha Castex Tatum said.
Organizers of the petition drive had been surprised when council was given option of approving the item on the 2023 ballot instead of the 2021 ballot.
“There is no justifiable argument to delay it,” Charles Blain, an organizer of the petition, told Community Impact Newspaper when the Aug. 11 City Council agenda was published Aug. 6.
A separate charter amendment petition was circulated by the Houston firefighters union; however, the city secretary has not yet completed counting its signatures.