By Rich Heiland
Free Press Publications, LLC
For Walker County News Today
FOR THOSE VOTERS who may feel a little intimidated by the Huntsville city ballot this fall, rest easy. The 32 City Charter amendments may represent a lot of paper, but there are few difficult choices among them. Most are changes to bring the city in line with state law, recognize 21st Century accounting and financial procedures and in some cases, actually keep the public’s business public.
In this installment. we will look at the, well, for lack of a better phrase, “no brainers” that deal with state law.
Huntsville is a “home rule” city. The state has statues for home rule cities. There has been an assumption that a city can have its own laws and regulations that are more strict than the state, but it cannot be less strict. That assumption has been under challenge of late in Texas but the sense is that as long as a city does not contradict state law, it can have its own regulations. However, in some cases where the Charter has followed state laws, the laws have changed and the Charter has not.
Most of the state law-based amendments :
Shall the last sentence of Article III, Section 3.04 relating to street improvement and development be amended to read as follows:”
“As an alternate and cumulative method of developing, improving and paving any and all public streets, sidewalks, alleys, highways and other public ways within its corporate limits, the City shall have the power and authority to proceed in accordance with all of the powers granted to cities by law.”
Explanation:Currently the Charter cites specific state statutes that have changed or could change. This language simply says the city will follow the appropriate current state laws without citing specific statutes. This is a housekeeping area with little impact on citizens or operations but will mean that a change in state law won’t invalidate the Charter.
Shall the last sentence of Article IV, Section 4.06 of the City Charter relating to the City Secretary be amended to read as follows:
‘”Written minutes of the City Council meeting are to be kept as permanent records with provisions for public access.”
Explanation:Currently the language does not mention “public access.” What this means is that if ever there is a change in state law that might limit access, the Charter will allow it. While the “access” is not specifically defined having that language is an improvement.
In Article IV, Section 4.12 of the City Charter, shall the exceptions to the requirement for two separate readings be amended to have the following statement inserted:
“5. When a state statute provides that it controls over a city charter.”
Explanation: There are certain instances when state law does provide for the waiving of a second reading and where those arise the language of the Charter makes it more clear.
Shall Article VI, Section 6.06 of the City Charter relating to a City Council filing fee be deleted?
Explanation:State law requires that if a city charges a filing fee it also must include the alternative of a petition. The petition option is cumbersome and rarely used. The filing fee for council and mayor is one dollar. This eliminates headaches for candidates and city staff alike.
Shall Article VI, Section 6.07 of the City Charter relating to canvassing election returns be amended to be in accordance with dates set by state law by deleting the following language…..”not earlier than the eighth day or later than the eleventh day after the election.”
Explanation:The state law sets canvassing dates that vary depending on the year. The new language makes it unlikely City Council will have to hold, and announce, a special meeting simply to canvas and accept results.
Amending Article VI, Section 6.08 to qualify city officials in accordance with state law by amending the second sentence by deleting the language “general” and “not earlier than the eighth day or later than the eleventh day following the date of the election…” and deleting the third sentence “All other newly elected or appointed officials may enter upon their duties immediately” and inserting the language “in accordance with state law” so that Section 6.08 shall read as follows:
“It shall be the duty of the City Secretary to notify all persons elected or appointed to office of their election or appointment. All officials newly election at City election may enter upon their duties in accordance with state law. All elected or appointed officials must qualify by taking and subscribing their oath of office with thirty days following the date of their election or appointment; otherwise the office shall be deemed vacant.”
Explanation:This continues in the same vein as the canvassing amendment and brings the Charter more in line with state law.
Shall Article VII, Section 7.03 of the City Charter relating to items included on petitions be amended by amending the third sentence to be in accordance with state law so that the third sentence of Section 7.03 reads:
“For a petition signature to be valid, a petition must contain, in addition to the signature, the printed name of the signer, the signer’s voter registration number or date of birth, the signer’s residence address, and the date of the signing.”
Explanation:This brings the petition section into line with state law. The change is that previously a ward or precinct number was required. That no longer is.
Shall Article XI, Section 11.02(f) of the City Charter relating to statements of the financial condition of the City be amended by deleting the last sentence “a copy of the financial report as approved or rejected shall be submitted to the Huntsville Public Library for its public journals at the same time it is released for official publication, and one or more copies of the report shall be made available in the Office of the Director of Finance for public inspection during normal office hours” and inserting as the last sentence “Provision shall be made for public access.”
Explanation:This provides for public access regardless of any changes in state law and reflects what the city has been doing as a routine practice.
Shall Article XI, Section 11.16 of the City Charter relating to independent audits be amended by amending the last sentence to allow for public access by deleting “copies be placed in the Office of the Director of Finance and the Huntsville Public Library as public record” and inserting “provision for public access”so that the last sentence of Section 11.16 reads as follows:
“Upon completion of the audit, the results thereof shall be published immediately in a newspaper of the City of Huntsville and provisions made for public access.”
Explanation:This provides public access regardless of any changes in state law.
NEXT: A look at amendments dealing with finances and oversight of utilities and franchises.
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.