A diverse coalition of Houstonians is seeking to change the city’s charter to make it easier to place items on the city council agenda, a change they say will give citizens better representation at city hall.
The Houston Charter Amendment Petition Coalition (HCAPC) consists of politically and ideologically diverse organizations such as the Houston chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) and the Houston Young Republicans. A press release for the group says the coalition includes “Republicans, Democrats, Progressives, Labor Organizations, and grassroots activists.”
The commonality is that all groups in the coalition say that Houston’s current system hinders democratic representation in city governance.
Under Houston’s current charter, the mayor primarily controls the agenda for each week’s public meetings. If the mayor rejects an agenda item request, three of the 16 council members can call for a special meeting, but nine members must attend to meet quorum requirements.
At a Monday news conference, coalition members announced the launch of a citizen petition to change the city’s charter so that just three councilmembers can place an item on the agenda. If the group is successful in gathering 20,000 verifiable signatures, the issue would be put before Houston voters in a ballot referendum.
Coalition member Charles Blain, founder of Urban Reform a right-leaning policy advocacy group, said that the initiative was neither partisan nor directed at any one elected official.
“The purpose of this initiative isn’t to advance a political party or specific cause or to give power to one specific elected official,” said Blain. “It’s to get equal representation to everybody in this city, and it’s to empower our council members to take our concerns to city hall to advocate for them and deliver on the results that they promise.”
Blain noted that the various groups had been talking about the problem for nearly two years and had decided to collaborate on a solution.
Bryan LaVergne, an organizer with Houston DSA expressed the frustration many groups had with bringing new issues before the council.
“The mayor has the total control over the city council agenda,” said LaVergne. “If your city council member talks to you about the issues you care about and takes those up, that issue will only get a vote if the mayor approves.”
LaVergne said the members of his local chapter had unanimously voted to support the petition initiative and would be working to gather signatures.
Former council member and mayoral candidate Sue Lovell urged citizens to support the measure.
“I believe that city council, city government should always be looking for new ways to be open and transparent to its citizens and participation,” said Lovell. “There is no downside whatsoever, to having council members bring an item to the agenda.”
Patrick “Marty” Lancton, president of the Houston Professional Firefighters Association union explained that if passed, the measure would not alter the number of council members needed to pass an item, but would allow more constructive dialogue on a variety of issues.
The coalition also includes Houston Civic Club Leader Doug Smith, representatives from the Houston Justice Coalition Durrell Douglas and E. Rain Eatmon, and Indivisible Houston, a progressive activist group.
Councilmember Amy Peck also attended the news conference in support of the initiative.
Lancton noted the uniquely bipartisan nature of the HCAPC.
“We want to move forward united…I cannot recall a time that there’s ever been people from the far right and the far left that are not only in agreement, but they’re putting forth resources for one cause, and that’s a positive.”
HCAPC website states that the group “values citizen governance with a mission to decentralize power from a strong mayor” to a more democratic model.
The Houston City Council consists of the elected mayor, city controller, and 16 council members, five of which are elected at-large, with the remaining elected by district. Council members are limited to two 4-year terms.
In giving council members more control over the agenda, HCAPC says city government would “permit a more moderate and sustainable planning cycle for long term city needs rather than four-year political cycles.”
The group also says the model will emphasize “safe streets, safe, neighborhoods, and safe roads as the core tenets of democracy driven city governance.”
More information and downloadable petition forms are available on the HCAPC website.
Editor’s note: The story has been updated to reflect the correct involvement of Houston chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America in voting to support the initiative.
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Holly Hansen is a freelance writer living in Harris County. Her former column, “All In Perspective” ran in The Georgetown Advocate, Jarrell Star Ledger, and The Hill Country News, and she has contributed to a variety of Texas digital media outlets. She graduated summa cum laude from the University of Central Florida with a degree in History, and in addition to writing about politics and policy, also writes about faith and culture.