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Huntsville Charter Review Committee Hears Recommendations

Recommendations from City Attorney, City Manager presented

by Walker County News Today staff

The City of Huntsville’s Charter Review Committee held its third meeting Wednesday, Dec. 6 at City Hall. All committee members were in attendance including committee chairman and mayor pro tem Keith Olson, councilmembers Clyde Loll and Tyler McCaffety, former mayor Jane Monday and former councilmember Dalene Zender. City secretary Lee Woodward and deputy city secretary Brenda Poe provided staff support along with city attorney Leonard Schneider and city manager Matt Benoit.

Three of the City’s four charter officers, Benoit, Schneider and Woodward, presented their recommendations for Charter amendments to the committee. The fourth charter officer Judge John Gaines was not in attendance.

Benoit began his presentation by suggesting a change to section 11.17 of the city charter “Limitation on Issuance of New Debt by City Council.”  This provision, approved by the voters in 2009, limits the amount of debt council may issue without voter approval. The ceiling is defined as .002 of the net taxable value applicable to the city tax roll. Currently that amount is approximately $3 million, which means council may not issue more new debt than that amount without placing a referendum on the ballot for voter approval.

Benoit claimed that not only does section 11.17 conflict with section 6.09 of the city charter but also with state law. He referenced a Texas attorney general opinion which states council may not place non-binding election referenda on an official election ballot, meaning that council cannot call an election for certain kinds of debt such as debt tied directly to revenue bonds as opposed to property taxes. He expressed concern that someone might file a law suit challenging last year’s election of proposition 3 concerning water infrastructure since the issuance of debt related to that proposal will be in the form of revenue bonds and not property tax supported debt.

Benoit also proposed changes to section 14.14 “Limitations on Contracts” which states that contracts over $1000 may not be entered into after a city general election until such time as all members of the council elected at that election are seated. He cited a recent mayoral election which, due to a run-off election, had a 60-day interim without a fully seated council hampering the ability to enter into contracts for an undue amount of time.

Section 14.13 “Sale or Lease of Real Estate” also conflicts with state law according to Benoit. The charter requires the city to obtain bids for the sale or lease of any city owned real estate whereas state law does not require bids to sell, lease or swap certain types of land including narrow strips of unusable land, streets or alleys, land intended for streets and land to be exchanged with another governmental entity.

Benoit also proposed striking section 14.17 “Health, Life, and Accident Insurance for City Employees” noting that this provision was drafted in the original 1968 city charter and is no longer tenable since insurance coverage has drastically changed in the last five decades.

Woodward cited section 14.18 “Publicity of Reports Relating to Municipal Matters” which requires all reports made by the state or any of its agencies and departments to be read aloud at city council meetings as a section that needs to be stricken. The sheer volume and length of such reports makes this mandate virtually impossible to perform and is unnecessary since all such reports are readily available to the public in other formats.

Woodward and Schneider proposed several “house cleaning” changes to various sections of the Charter to reword ambiguous or unclear language and to address redundancy with state law.

The city charter is the document that governs all of the city’s activities, except for that specifically called out in state law.  A charter review committee must be formed at least once every five years to review the charter. The committee submits their recommendations, if any, to council.  If approved by council, the matter is put before the voters in either a regularly scheduled election or during a special election.

The committee has scheduled meetings which are open to the public on the first and third Wednesday of each month at 4:00 at city hall.

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