By Rich Heiland
Free Press Publications, LLC
For Walker County News Today
THIS IS THE next to last installment in our look at the 32 City Charter Amendments on the Nov. 6 ballot in Huntsville. Remember – early voting begins at the Walker County Annex Monday. The size of this ballot makes early voting even more of a convenience that normal.
Today we look at some miscellaneous amendments, and this will be the only time we will point out on some what you might want to think about when you vote. We are not making a voting recommendation, but rather looking at pros and cons depending on voter views.
First, we will start with athe two most likely to raise some eyebrows depending on your view of how you want government to be accountable. We are not saying vote for or against, but we are saying these two might cause some concern.
Shall Article XIV, Section 14.13(b) be amended to allow for the sale of land this NOT public park land to be sold in accordance with state law so that 14.13(b) will be amended as follows:
“(b) Any sale or lease of real estate owned by the City shall be performed according to state law.”
Explanation: That sounds innocuous enough. However, current language requires the city to advertise for bids on city-owned land for sale. State law was changed n 2013 to allow cities to basically behave like any landowner and hire a broker to sell land without competitive bidding. Some readers might recall a controversy over the sale of a small patch of land behind Humphrey’s on Sam Houston Avenue where the Council took bids but did not sell to the highest bidder. It took two or three tries to sell the land and in the end, the highest bidder was rejected “in the best interests of the city.”
It appears this amendment would mean the city would not have to go through a bid process, though it is not specifically excluded. It should be noted that estimated costs of bidding, including notice, can run around $2,000 and it is possible that could exceed the value of some very small parcels.
If you feel that simplifies things and are comfortable leaving such decisions in city hands, then you probably are fine with this amendment. If you have questions about whether this shuts out the public and could lead to inside dealing by some future Council, then you may want to vote against it.
Shall Article XI, Section 11.17 of the City Charter relating to limitation on issuance of new debt be deleted to be in accordance with state law?
Explanation: The section in question placed a limit on the debt a Council can incur without voter approval. State law does not require voter approval for non-bonded debt. All it requires is that the City show it is capable of paying off the debt through its revenue stream. At one time there was strong feeling that the city could incur high debt, then pay it off through increasing taxes. Hence, a limit on new debt above .002 of the net taxable value within the city, as determined by the Walker County Appraisal District, was put in place. Anything beyond that requires a public vote. Obviously a vote costs money, and obviously in an anti-tax environment a vote could lead to emotional rather than cost-effective reactions. If you feel this limitation is a responsible way to protect citizens from possible abuse and tax increases, you probably should vote against this amendment. If you are comfortable allowing elected officials to make decisions about needs involving debt then you should vote for it.
NOW, BACK TO more routine amendments….
Shall Article IV, Section 4.08 of the City Charter relating to City Council action have the following sentence inserted:
“No action of the Council shall be of any force or effect unless considered by five (5) councilmembers with no abstentions.”
Explanation:This is one of those where a “yes”vote is critical if you really want to see a true majority of the City Council approve items. Currently the Charter allows a majority vote of a quorum. What that means is five members could meet. A quorum is met. An action can be moved and a vote called. For some reason, two members abstain. One votes against and two voted for. That means something was just passed with two out of nine members approving it. Far-fetched? Maybe but this language would prevent that.
Shall Article IV, Section 4.17 be amended to allow the Council to make an appointment to fill a vacancy of twelve months or less by amending to read as follows (with no changes to Article V, Section 5.04, so that no appointment of any length can be made by the Council for the position of mayor.)
“For vacancies in the office of councilmember arising from any cause, for an expired term of twelve months or less, the remaining members of the City Council may appoint a person to serve as a Councilmember or call a special election to be held on the first uniform election date not earlier than 30 days after the vacancy occurs. The City Council shall not appoint more than on Councilmember in any twelve month period.
Vacancies in the office of Councilmember arising from any cause “for an unexpired term of more than twelve months” shall be filled for the remainder for the unexpired term at an election to be held on the first uniform election date not earlier than 30 days after the vacancy occurs. A special election shall be called “in accordance with state law” to elect successors to fill unexpired terms. Any person elected to fill a vacancy in the office of Councilmember, shall possess all of the qualifications herein required for the office.
Explanation:WHEW!! Basically this distinguishes between expired and unexpired terms, something the current charter does not do. It distinguishes appointment powers between vacancies with fewer than 12 months remaining and more than 12 months. Note that the Council has an option on the short-term one of appointment or an election. But, it can only make one appointment per year on the shorter vacancy so an election would need to be held on a second. With the longer term election is not optional. This writer’s view is this is a good change and would prevent a Council from stacking itself with like-minded members without voter options.
Shall Article IV, Section 4.18 of the City Charter relating forfeiture of office be amended to clearly include the position of Mayor so that Section 4.18 shall read as follows:
“The Mayor or a Councilmember who is absent from more than four consecutive regular meetings of the Council, unless such absences are the result of illness of the conduct of official City business, shall be deemed to have forfeited the office and the Council shall fill such vacancy in the manner prescribed by the Charter.”
Explanation: Adding the Mayor clears up an omission and is consistent with expectations of service.
Shall Article V, Section 5.08(a) of the City Charter relating to the Mayor’s duties be amended by amending so that Section 4.18 shall read as follows:
“must” appoint, subject to the confirmation and approval of the Council, the City Secretary, the City Attorney, the Municipal Court Judge, the Certified Public Accountant, and all members of all Boards, Commissions and Committees of the City.
Explanation:The word “must” replaces “to appoint” under definition of the mayor’s powers and makes it clear he or she is required to make the appointments, subject to Council approval. It could happen that a mayor, for whatever reason, might decline to make an appointment. That could possibly freeze some functions and allow a mayor to hold appointments hostage. With this change that could not happen.
Shall Article XIV, Section 14.05 of the City be amended to allow publication as provided by state law and to be retitled Information on Public Mattersand to read as follows:
“The Council shall cause to be published in any medium allowed by state law all ordinances, notices and other matters required by the Charter, by the ordinances of the City, and by the Constitution of the State of Texas to be published.”
Explanation:In the past most local governments declared an “official newspaper” in which any legal notices or public information would be published. The requirement was that the paper be of “general Circulation.” Times have changed with decline of newspaper circulation and competition from non-daily newspapers and on-line publications. Locally the Huntsville Item circulation has declined to the point a challenge could be made to “general circulation” language. As a possible competitor in some areas, to make a recommendation on voting for this amendment might be seen as self-serving for this writer. But, it’s not. It’s just a reality. It is very likely the city will continue for the most part to place notices in the Item. But, if the Item would decline further or a dominant alternative would appear, the city would have the options to choose to use it. What’s more likely – and this could have a cost impact – would be the placement of notices in more than one outlet to increase the odds citizens would see them.
Shall Article XIV, Section 14.11 of the City Charter be amended bydeleting the words “shall not be entitled to such reimbursements exceeding Five Hundred Dollars” and “Five Hundred Dollars” in the first sentence and inserting new language “the limit may only be exceeded by the affirmative vote of two-thirds (2/3) majority of the Council qualified and serving” to the end of the first sentence so that the first sentence of Section 14.05 shall read as follows:
“The Council may authorize the reimbursement of actual and receipted expenses incurred by any officer or employee of the City while acting in the City’s behalf in their official capacity; provided, the Mayor for each fiscal year and Councilmembers shall not be entitled to such reimbursements exceeding each for each fiscal year; the limit may only be exceeded by the affirmative vote of a two-thirds (2/3) majority of the Council qualified and serving.”
Explanation:Basically takes off a dollar amount, recognizing increased costs compared to when the Charter was written and previously amended. Bottom line is no one will be taking around the world cruises.
Next – A few dangling amendments….
Rich Heiland, former publisher of the Huntsville Item and owner of Free Press publications, LLC, a reporting/writing firm working with media, has been a reporter, editor and publisher at several daily papers. He was part of a Pulitzer Prize winning team. He taught journalism at Western Illinois University. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 936-293-0293.