Friday, October 16, 2015

City Charter Amendments: Upon Further Review

A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.
Source: Ralph Waldo Emerson.
The League of Women Voters of Richardson hosted a panel discussion on October 14 about the upcoming Richardson city charter amendments election. Dr. Robert Lowry of UT-Dallas and Dr Matthew Wilson of SMU discussed the pros and cons of many of the 83 propositions on November's ballot.

And, just to show I was listening, and just to show that old dogs are capable of learning new tricks, I actually changed my mind on a few of the propositions.

First, let me relate a couple of general impressions. (I will attribute all comments to Lowry but in fact some were made by Wilson. I failed to note who said what.)

Lowry several times wondered about the justification for some of the amendments. What problem were they trying to solve? Has Richardson had problems with the current charter in regards to this or that? And, of course, he didn't know the answer because the charter review commission that recommended the amendments didn't leave behind any justifications for their work. Lowry didn't say it, but I consider that the biggest failing of the commission.

Lowry several times said the voter's decision on this proposition or that probably rests on whether the voter trusts city government or not. Several of the changes are designed to increase the flexibility of government to react to situations that the drafters of the charter couldn't have anticipated. If you trust your local government not to abuse that flexibility, then you should vote yes. If you don't, vote no.

Now for their specific analysis.

Proposition No. 3: A special election in case of a vacancy in the mayor's position increases democracy (good), but carries the cost of a special election (bad) and runs the risk of electing a mayor who is not the majority choice (because special elections have small turnouts). That's all true, but I'll stick with my recommendation of a "YES" vote.

Proposition No. 13: Transferring funds from, say, the water utility to the general fund to cover administrative costs of operating the water utility is reasonable, but the devil is in the details. How to compute joint costs is devilishly hard. The formula used to compute the size of the transfers ought to be transparently developed and publicly available. All good points, but I'll stick with my recommendation of a "YES" vote.

Proposition No. 16: This proposition strips much of the language from the city charter about issuance of bonds. It limits the city only by what is prohibited by state law. The pro is that this increases flexibility to take advantage of evolving bond instruments. The con is that flexibility can be abused. I recommended a "NO" vote but am changing my mind because of something Lowry said. Voters still have the final say in an election before the city can issue general obligation bonds. Because ultimate control still rests with the voters, I now recommend a "YES" vote.

Proposition No. 17: This extends to the mayor the power to sign contracts for the city. Lowry asked what problem this solves? I wondered whether it will actually introduce a new area of potential conflict in that there are now two people with signature power. I'll stick with my recommendation of a "NO" vote.

Proposition No. 19: This calls for a charter review at least every 10 years. I was surprised that Lowry didn't automatically see this as a good thing. He idly wondered where you draw the line between making 83 amendments and drawing up a whole new charter. He wondered whether there are better ways to select a charter review commission than having the city council pick membership. I agree that more expert opinions and more diversity of opinions would benefit the workings of such a commission in the future, but I'll stick with my recommendation of a "YES" vote. I won't let the perfect stand in the way of the good.

Proposition No. 44: This puts restrictions on the public's use of referendum to overturn ordinances. I recommended a "NO" vote until it received more discussion. Lowry and Wilson reassured me that the restrictions are already shielded by state law, so this proposition is less substantive than I feared. Because of that, I now recommend a "YES" vote.

Proposition No. 52: This puts time restrictions on when recalls may be made against council members. I recommended a "NO" vote because I didn't want to restrict the voters' right to remove bad officials. Lowry pointed out that the recall power can be abused. The side that loses an election can immediately start a recall effort. I fear the risk of such abuse is at least as great as the risk of having a delay before recall can be used against a truly bad official. Reasonable time limits on recall efforts can put an end to nuisance recalls without eliminating the recall altogether. Because of this, I now recommend a "YES" vote.

So, if you are keeping score, I'm flip-flopping on my recommendations for Proposition Nos. 16, 44 and 52 from "NO" to "YES." I'll update my earlier posts accordingly.

To see all of my (updated) recommendations, see "Charter Amendments: Vote Yes AND No".

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