Examining the geographic imbalance of power at Huntsville City Hall.
Last week’s public outcry over a proposed ordinance to prohibit new mobile homes in the City of Huntsville prompted us to take a look at just how badly most of the 16 “people’s representatives” at City Hall misread what the citizens of the city actually wanted.
Let’s Get a Little Background Information:
The Planning and Zoning Commission is made up of 7 volunteers that live within the City of Huntsville. They have the important job of advising the City Council on proposed changes to the Development Code and making sure that all new developments in the City meet the Code. They are also authorized to approve variances to the Code when the circumstances warrant. There are various such Committees and Commissions within the City filled with volunteers that contribute their time, their talents, and their energy to making Huntsville a better place to live. The question becomes whether the folks selected to serve on those committees are representative of the entire community.
The City Council is made up of 9 members:
- 1 Member from each of the 4 Wards in the City
- 4 At-Large members that represent all citizens of the City
- 1 Mayor, that represents all citizens of the City.
City Council members are also volunteers; they also contribute their time, talent, and energy to represent their respective constituents on Council. They receive and review the recommendations from the various committees, from various City staff, and from the citizens themselves. Their job is to pass the laws of the City (Ordinances), set tax and utility rates, oversee the budget, provide direction to the City Staff, and hire and oversee the performance of the City Manager, City Secretary, City Attorney and Municipal Judge.
Regulation Without Representation?
A search of public records shows a startling imbalance in the makeup of these two groups:
- 15 of the 16 live west of Sam Houston Avenue/State Highway 75
- 13 of the 16 live west of Interstate 45
- 11 of the 16 live in Elkins Lake
- 4 of the 4 At-Large City Council Members live in Elkins Lake
- 6 of the 7 P&Z Committee live in Elkins Lake
- 5 of the 9 City Council Members live in Elkins Lake
Living in a Bubble?
The only member of Council that lives outside of those areas is Ward 3 Councilman Allen. That may explain why he was one of only 2 people that voted against the proposal in the July 7th City Council vote. Much of the property east of Sam Houston Avenue/Hwy 75 and in the southern part of Huntsville is not deed-restricted; there are few subdivisions in those areas; homeowners associations are basically non-existent. Much of the area is a mix of commercial, residential, retail, multi-family and even some light industrial business. There are also LOTS of people living in these areas. Is the geographic makeup at City Hall representing these people?
Can people that spend their lives ensconced in a subdivision community described as a “serene refuge from the pressures of everyday living” really relate to someone that lives on the “family home place” in a single-wide mobile home? We’ll let our readers decide that for themselves.
With such an overwhelming majority of people making decisions at City Hall living in deed-restricted suburbia, it seems that they may be making decisions in something of a bubble. It is doubtful that there is any significant connection between them and the citizens of the rest of Huntsville. If we don’t attend the same neighborhood churches and social functions, don’t have children or grandchildren in the same schools, don’t shop at the same grocery stores, don’t work at the same places, don’t share the same concerns, then how are all of these decision-makers supposed to represent a true cross-section of our community?
It was almost amusing on Tuesday as both P&Z Committee members and then City Council members seemed surprised at the citizen blowback to their proposed ordinance. There were apologies and explanations from Council members following the public comments, but the fact that most of them seemed clueless about what was important to the very people they claim to represent is a sad display of how very disconnected some city leaders are.
They’re Not Alone.
If you’re one of those Huntsville citizens feeling like you’re not represented at City Hall, you’re not alone. Consider those that live in Huntsville’s Extra-Territorial Jurisdiction (ETJ). The ETJ is an area that includes 2 miles around the city limits. People in the ETJ aren’t allowed (or invited) to participate in any of the committees and can’t vote in City elections, yet are subject to many of the regulations passed by the City. Based on the assumption that the area inside the ETJ will at some point in the future be annexed into the City, the City gets to dictate much of how ETJ property is used and developed. If ETJ residents don’t like it, well that’s just too bad.