Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Charter Amendments: First Look

The Charter Review Commission presented their recommendations to the Richardson City Council June 1, 2015. Now it's up to the council to decide which, if any, of the recommendations to adopt and place before the voters in November, 2015.

The commission made recommendations in about fifty areas, meaning that the ballot facing the voters could contain more than fifty propositions. Many of the propositions will be inconsequential (changing spelling, punctuation, grammar, vocabulary, etc.), but by the commission's own estimation, twelve of the changes are substantive, meaning they will have practical effect on the operation of government.

Unfortunately, while the commission explained *what* their recommended changes are, they didn't explain *why* the recommended changes are necessary. It's left to the voters to either put blind faith in the commission or attempt to divine the reasons behind the recommendations. I'm not inclined to the former, and I don't have the skill for the latter. Unless someone offers some compelling reasons otherwise, here are three changes that I'll oppose.

The following quotes are from a memo to the Mayor and City Council from the Charter Review Commission.
Article 3.10 -- Open Meetings -- Clarified that visitors may speak at all city council meetings except those that are authorized closed meetings, emergency meetings or council committee meetings.
This isn't a "clarification" at all. In fact, it's a new restriction on the right of the public to address the city council.

Section 3.10 currently says, "All meetings of the city council and all committees thereof shall be open to the public except as otherwise permitted by state law, and the rules of the city council shall provide that citizens of the city shall have a reasonable opportunity to be heard at any such meetings, in regard to any matter there considered."

The changes eliminate the right of the public to speak at some city council meetings. I can't imagine what a compelling reason for this restriction might be. I'll be urging a "no" vote on this change.

Article 5.04 -- Recall Limitations -- Added a section that "no recall petition shall be filed against the mayor or any council member within six (6) months after such person has qualified for office or within three (3) months after an election of such person’s recall, and in no case within three (3) months prior to the expiration of such person’s current term of office."
I can understand the practical difficulties of scheduling a recall election late in a council term. The regular election can serve the purpose of a recall election. I'm fine with that.

But why prohibit recalls in the first six months of a term? It's not hard to imagine news that reflects badly on a candidate coming to light after the filing deadline for an election. It's not hard to imagine such a candidate winning election because no one filed to run against him or her. It's not hard to imagine the electorate wanting that officeholder gone immediately, if not sooner. Why force the electorate to wait six months before recalling such an officeholder? Again, I can't imagine what a compelling reason for this restriction might be. I'll be urging a "no" vote on this change.

Article 6.01 -- Appointment of a City Manager -- Removed language that the city council may choose to enter into a contract with the city manager for a period not to exceed 2 years.
The mayor and council members serve two year terms. Why let one city council bind future city councils by entering into a contract with a city manager that could cover the next council's entire term (and even longer)? The city manager is appointed by the city council. Each and every city council should have the power to review the city manager and replace or reappoint as deserved. I'll be urging a "no" vote on this change.

Two caveats. First, these are my initial reactions. Perhaps when members of the commission begin providing reasoning for their recommendations, I'll change my mind. Second, the commission estimated that there might be 50 such propositions on the ballot. I only reviewed the few they identified as substantive. I may have more to dislike after reviewing the rest of the changes.

Tomorrow: Three to Like.


mccalpin said...

Section 6.01 - here is the current text:
"The council shall appoint a city manager, who shall be the chief administrative and executive officer of the city. The city manager may be appointed without a definite fixed time or the city council may choose to enter into a contract with the city manager for a period not to exceed two (2) years. In any event, the manager shall be removable at the will and pleasure of the council by a vote of the majority of the entire council. The city manager shall receive such compensation as may be fixed by the council. " see Current Richardson Charter.

Note the critical sentence in bold. "In any event", any council can remove the city manager at any time, whether or not there is a "contract". Indeed, one wonders - as we did on the Charter Commission - what does "contract" mean if the employee can be removed at any time for no cause anyway?

As you can see, there was and is no way for one Council to "bind" another Council (at least in terms of the city manager), since the first thing that a new Council could do would be to remove the current city manager and install a new one.

And it is typical for municipal charters for Texas home rule cities to read this way. As the handbook at the Texas Municipal League website says, "The
typical city manager in Texas is appointed for an indefinite
term and is subject to dismissal by the council at any time.". (see TML Handbook

In fact, I recall looking through city charters in the area a while ago on this issue, and if memory serves me, I couldn't remember finding any that even spoke about a contract for the city manager.

In any case, all this language about a "contract" in the charter served to do was to confuse people. You may recall the ruckus raised about former City Manager Bill Keffler when a few people protested that he had a five year contract with the city in violation of the charter. Actually, he had a five year bonus agreement, not an employment contract, which is what 6.01 is clearly talking about. The city manager can be hired and fired at any time for any reason, just like in most other home rule municipalities. The Charter Commission (fyi: I am not an official spokesman, but merely one of the members) felt that deleting the otherwise useless language about a contract would not change the relationship of the council and the city manager, but would have the positive effect of reducing confusion among the residents.


Mark Steger said...

Bill, thanks for the insight into the thinking behind the commission's recommendations. IANAL, but "contract" means an agreement enforceable by law. The city may reserve the right to fire the city manager at will, but it would probably have to pay off the remaining term of an employment contract. But whether it's such an employment contract, a bonus agreement, or any other legally enforceable agreement between the city manager and city, I'd like to see it be limited to two years, that is, not bind future city councils in any way. The recommended charter change clearly moves what's allowable by the charter in the other direction. I'll still be voting no.

mccalpin said...

Mark, I feel that I have to point out that the language that you prefer doesn't accomplish what you want in any case. City managers are not hired at the beginning of a council's term, but whenever. Thus, it would certainly be plausible to have a new city manager hired 18 months into the normal term of the council (May of odd year to May of next odd year). If the current council were to offer a two year contract to the city manager, that contract would be valid for the first 18 months of the next council's term, thus 'binding' a future council.

To accomplish what you want, you have to offer different wording than what is in the charter today anyway...


Mark Steger said...

Bill, good point. Still, each city council should have the opportunity sometime during its term to review the employment agreements with the city manager and either renew the agreements or change their terms. That's what I want.

Sassy Texan said...

Most interesting dialog. And I agree with you Mr Steger. 3.10 is what is says today and must be adhered to at this point. Except in the Charter Commission. Those right to weigh in on any topic was denied. I too will vote against it, if forced to do so and a real charter commission by state statute is formed.

And again I agree with the notion of a 2 year contract. Contingencies are a standard protocol anymore so why put the public on the spot for another council decision. Anyone can be released from employment at any time for a myriad of reasons. It happens all the time.

Cheri Duncan-Hubert
(Typed full name unless you want my middle name too!) :-)