West U Council Set to Consider Extending Term Limits

The West U City Council may decide Monday night to put revisions to the city charter up to voters in November, which may include extending council term limits.

The Charter Review Committee held a public hearing on Wednesday to hear from residents about the proposed revisions. The committee presented a report to council last November, proposing seven revisions to the charter.

One of the revisions includes changing the number of successive terms from two to three.

Lynn McBee, a Bellaire resident who attended Wednesday’s public hearing, told the committee not to “run away from” considering four year terms. The City of Bellaire has four year terms for its council positions and it has not deterred young residents with families from running, which was a concern expressed by the committee.

McBee, along with former Mayor Bob Kelly and former Councilman Chuck Guffey voiced opposition to the recommendation to require the city secretary to report to the city manager.

Kelly told the committee that the proposal will change the form of government and it has worked well in the city. He said that they’ve only had one problem with a former city secretary and it was handled by council.

“I’m arguing not to recommend these changes,” Kelly said. “If you change this you’re married to it for six years.”

Guffey told the committee, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

McBee, who has served on a Bellaire Charter Review Committee, said she had concerns about the recommendation as well. She said she feels strongly that the city secretary should have an independent voice and should be able to talk freely and independently to the city council.

“If she’s employed by the city manager she has tape over her mouth,” she said.

Charter Review Committee Chair Phyllis Cohen said she wanted to clarify a few points that were being misunderstood.

In 2008, the city council, which Cohen served on as a council member and Kelly was serving as mayor, approved an ordinance that required the city secretary to report to the city manager.

According to the ordinance the city secretary shall “report to the city manager, who shall act as the city secretary’s supervisor. In this regard, the city council has delegated to the city manager the responsibility for supervision of the city secretary as a member of the administration department of the city and the city manager shall provide an evaluation of the city secretary to the city council at least annually.”

The ordinance also states that the city secretary shall “perform such other duties as may be assigned by the city council or the city manager.”

Cohen said the proposed change to the charter will put both documents in sync with each other and allow the city manager, with the consent of council, to hire, fire and set the salary for the city secretary.

Cohen said the comments were “attacking a straw man here.”

Kelly asked if he could address the committee again and said that the ordinance that the 2008 council passed was a “Band Aid.” Now that the city has a good city secretary, she “doesn’t need to be under a thumb.”

“We handled it with a Band Aid that didn’t hamstring future councils,” he said.

“We enacted an ordinance that made sense,” Cohen responded. “It wasn’t a Band Aid.”

After nearly an hour and a half of comments and discussion, the committee decided not to make any changes to its report.

Council may decide to place the recommendations on the November ballot during their meeting on Monday night.

The council recently made finalizing the city charter amendments and preparing for the November 2013 election one of their goals for 2013-2015.

The council was set to have residents vote on proposed charter amendments during the May 11 city election, but they decided to postpone a vote after receiving opposition from residents, including Kelly.

Charter Review Committee members include, Chair Phyllis Cohen, Ann Whitlock, Dennis Butler, John Palmer, Russell Schulze, John Neighbors, Katherine Shoebotham, Philip Bryant and Marshall Clinkscales.

The following revisions are proposed:

Limit on Successive Terms

Increase the number of successive terms permitted for mayor and council members from two to three.

“The Committee reviewed the issue of term limits in connection with the discussion of the length of terms. The consensus of the Committee was that while there did not seem to be a need to  lengthen the terms, there did seem to be value in allowing people to serve more terms. This would improve a Council Member’s ability to participate in outside organizations such as the Houston-Galveston Area Council of Governments since it takes time for a member to gain seniority in such organizations. In addition, allowing additional terms might enhance continuity between Councils as some members might choose to serve additional terms while others might not. The Committee also discussed how many additional terms should be allowed and felt that it would be appropriate to add one (1) additional term now and allow the next Charter Review Committee to evaluate that change and determine whether it is sufficient or not,” according to the report.

Power of Initiative and Power of Referendum

Increase the number of signatures required on initiative and referendum petitions from three percent to five percent of the qualified voters of the city.

“The Committee discussed the signature requirement and reviewed the number of signatures required by other cities in Harris County. In comparison to other cities, West U’s threshold seemed low. The Committee discussed increasing the signature requirement from three percent to five or 10 percent; however, concern was expressed that the requirement should not be so high as to effectively preclude the public from requesting an initiative or referendum. Given the number of qualified voters within the City (approximately 10,000) the Committee felt that approximately 500 or five percent would be a reasonable number of signatures to require on initiative and referendum petitions,” according to the report.

Results of Election

Limit the four-fifth vote requirement to a six-year period.

“Section 4.06 provides that an ordinance adopted at an initiative election may not be repealed for two (2) years and then, after the two-year period, only upon the vote of four-fifths of the Council. The Committee considered the continuation of the four-fifths requirement for perpetuity to be unreasonable. The Committee noted that circumstances can change over time and after six (6) years the Council composition will change. The Committee concluded that a six (6) year requirement would ensure sufficient respect for the initiative process, but would not create an administrative burden associated with tracking such ordinances forever,” according to the report.

City Manager and City Secretary

Require the city secretary to report to the city manager.

“Section 6.03 provides that the City Secretary is appointed by and serves at the discretion of the City Council. In the past, this has created problems in that the Council positions are not full-time positions, and therefore Council members are not present at City Hall on a full time basis to supervise the City Secretary. The Committee reviewed the Charters of other cities in Harris County and concluded that providing for the City Secretary to report to the City Manager, similar to the Department Heads of the City, would provide for a better organizational and management structure. This could be accomplished most sufficiently by listing the City Secretary along with the City’s department heads in Section 6.02 of the Charter,” according to the report.

Interim Government

Change reference of “Commissioners” to “Council Members.”

“Section 10.11 refers to the Mayor and Commissioners continuing in office until the first regular election under the Charter. The reference to Commissioners is to the form of government of the City prior to adoption of the Home Rule Charter a more current reference would be to Council Member,” according to the report.

InstantNewsWestu Staff

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