“The mayor has resorted to political gamesmanship over statesmanship,” said Charles Blain.
Blain, founder of the right-leaning city policy group Urban Reform, is also a member of an unusually diverse coalition of activists and groups that joined forces last year to advocate for amending Houston’s governing charter.
The Houston Charter Amendment Petition Coalition (HCAPC) includes groups from across the political spectrum, such as the Houston Young Republicans, the Houston Chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America, and the Houston Firefighters Association. Despite their political and ideological differences, they are united in opposition to the city’s current system which they say hinders democratic representation.
Under Houston’s current “strong mayor” structure, the mayor primarily controls the agenda for each public city council meeting. If the mayor rejects an agenda item, three of the 16 council members can call for a special meeting, but at least nine members must attend that meeting to make quorum requirements.
HCAPC launched a citizen petition to change the city’s charter so that just three councilmembers can place an item on the agenda, and in April of 2021, the group delivered 40,000 signatures for verification, twice what is required to place an item before voters in a ballot referendum.
In early July, Houston officials announced that more than 20,000 of the signatures had been validated, making the issue legally eligible for placement on the ballot this year.
Until last week, Turner had taken no action towards placing the issue before voters, but on Friday the mayor posted an agenda item for the council’s August 11 meeting that proposes holding the charter amendment election in November of 2023.
Since the deadline to place any item on the November ballot for this year is August 15, the city council has little room to challenge Turner’s proposal for a deferral to 2023.
During a Monday press conference in front of city hall, at-large Houston City Councilmember Michael Kubosh joined HCAPC and other community activists in calling for a 2021 ballot referendum.
“This is voter suppression. These 40,000 citizens who signed this petition did not expect for this to be delayed two and half years,” said Kubosh. “Voting delayed is voting denied.”
Reportedly Kubosh or another city council member will attempt to amend Turner’s agenda item during this Wednesday’s city council meeting to allow for the council to vote to place the item on the ballot in November of 2021. If a member tags the item however, the issue could be deferred past the August 15 deadline to place an item on the ballot in 2021.
Turner has complained about the cost of holding the election, suggesting the price tag would be $1.3 million.
Aaron Cichon of West Loop Conservatives took issue with Turner’s comments over costs.
“May I remind them the cost of an election has been paid for by those who shed their blood and gave their lives for this country and their fellow Americans. The cost of an election has been paid for by civil rights leaders throughout many generations who secured American citizens’ right to vote.”
Cichon noted that the city had recently received $615 million from the federal government in American Rescue Plan Act funds.
Marty Lancton of the Houston Firefighters Association emphasized the bipartisan nature of the coalition and the need for change at city hall.
“This has nothing to do with ideological and political boundaries. What it is about is people coming together for a common purpose. That’s what our government should be about.”
Other local leaders voicing support for the charter amendment include former Houston city council member and 2019 mayoral candidate Sue Lovell and former mayoral candidate Bill King.
Lancton also noted that the city had not yet approved a second citizen petition regarding ongoing firefighter pay issues although the administration had received that petition and set of signatures on July 9.
While other large Texas cities use a sampling process to verify petition signatures, Turner says that his administration will perform a signature-by-signature verification process. Although the firefighters’ pay petition exceeded the 20,000 required signatures, the city is unlikely to verify in time for the item to be placed on the ballot in 2021.
Referring to Turner’s recent condemnation of Texas election integrity legislation, Blain said “I don’t know how anyone can argue that the legislature is pursuing voter suppression when they are standing in their city and suppressing a rightful and lawful petition for a November vote in 2021.”
Update: During the Houston city council meeting Wednesday, August 11, Councilmember Amy Peck motioned to change the election date to November of 2021 failed on a 13 to 4 vote. A second motion from Councilmember Letitia Plummer to hold the election in November of 2022 also failed after the city attorney advised that the date may not be legal and could be challenged in court.
Editor’s note: The piece has been updated to include the correct spelling of Aaron Cichon’s, of West Loop Conservatives, last name.
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Holly Hansen is a regional reporter for The Texan 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.