Thursday, October 27, 2011

Chasing Squirrels in Richardson

DUG: "My master made me this collar. He is a good and smart master and he made me this collar so that I may talk -- SQUIRREL!!"
Source: Up.
The dog in the movie "Up" may have been fictional, but we all have a little bit of his weakness for easy distraction in us.

The League of Women Voters of Richardson presented an educational program on the question, "Is the current city charter right for Richardson?" You'd hope that it would prompt a productive discussion about what changes, if any, are needed to make Richardson's city charter work better for Richardson's residents in the 21st century. Instead, it's like the city has decided what's really important is ... SQUIRREL!

After the jump, chasing squirrels.

The LWV program was not an advocacy program. It was an education program. The LWV's goal was not to promote any specific changes to the charter. The goal was to inform voters about what city charters are; what form they take across Texas, across the country, across time; and what the history of Richardson's own charter is.

Instead of prompting productive discussion, instead we heard ... SQUIRREL! There were accusations that the LWV was in cahoots with the city or, worse, puppets of the city.
  • Because some council members attended, they must have been (secretly or not so secretly) in charge.
  • Because the topic wasn't, say, "All the Ways the City is Violating the City Charter," the whole exercise was a cover-up.
  • Because the date conflicted with the World Series, it must have been scheduled that way to suppress attendance, to keep the public from learning about the city's illegal practices.
  • Because one of the speakers (a UT-Dallas professor) was not from Richardson (?), he was unqualified to speak. The other speaker (a former mayor of Richardson) was unsuitable because he *was* from Richardson.
  • Afterwards, the hottest topic of conversation was whether audience members were discourteous by talking during the speaker's presentations, and if so, who were the culprits.
Here, boy! Now, I'm not saying that chasing squirrels isn't fun. Sometimes it can even be a worthwhile exercise. But there's a proper time and place. In this LWV program, the squirrels are merely distractions from a worthwhile topic in its own right, "Is the current city charter right for Richardson?"

In a (probably futile) effort to drag attention back to the intended subject, consider this section of the city charter. See anything in there that might need to be tweaked to catch up with the 21st century?

Section 11.04. - Public hearing.

At the council meeting when the budget is submitted, the council shall name the date and place of a public hearing. The hearing shall be no less than fifteen (15) days after the budget is filed. Public notice of the hour, date and place of such hearing shall be published in a newspaper of the city not less than ten (10) nor more than thirty (30) days before the hearing. At this hearing, citizens of the city may be present and express their opinions concerning items of expenditures and revenue.

Source: Richardson City Charter.
If you're reading my words, you're almost certainly reading them on the Internet, not in a "newspaper of the city." Even if there still were an independent newspaper focused on Richardson (sorry neighborsgo if you're offended by me not counting you), this section of the charter needs updating to recognize there are other media today for communicating with the residents of Richardson. I offer this example as one minor detail of the city charter that might be in need of amendment.

Readers, what other candidates for amendment can you point to in the city charter? For bonus points, specify not only the clause needing change, but how you would you change it. The more specific, the more bonus points awarded. You lose all previously awarded points if you are distracted by ... SQUIRREL!

A tip of my hat to program moderator Karen Ellis, trustee for the Richardson Independent School District (RISD), for suggesting the newspaper example based on her own experience working with the RISD's own board policies.


mccalpin said...

Mark, thank you for relating the silliness in such an amusing manner. Truly, after hearing descriptions of some events that certain people went to, you have to wonder if you were even at the same event...

Karen (and you) are quite correct that any notification section that mentions newspapers needs to be reviewed if not updated. However, some (all?) notification rules are driven by the State such as notifications for elections, so no matter what our Charter says, we'll have to get the State to update its legislation first (I believe that this is what Karen was referring to).

For example, here's the State law for public hearings for zoning:
"Sec. 211.006. PROCEDURES GOVERNING ADOPTION OF ZONING REGULATIONS AND DISTRICT BOUNDARIES. (a) The governing body of a municipality wishing to exercise the authority relating to zoning regulations and zoning district boundaries ... Before the 15th day before the date of the hearing, notice of the time and place of the hearing must be published in an official newspaper or a newspaper of general circulation in the municipality."

Note that subsection c allows home rule cities like us to add additional notice requirements, so if we wanted we could add the requirement to use the Internet somehow, but we can't drop the newspaper requirement yet...

Anyway, while I agree that we should look at updating the Charter on this issue (notifications of all types), we may have to do it in sync with Austin.


Mark Steger said...

Bill, thanks for bringing up the issue of conformance with state law. Although Richardson can't change state law, Richardson can clean up its own charter so it's ready if and when state law catches up with the times. The only reason (that I can think of) for Richardson to explicitly reiterate state requirements in its own charter is if the city wants to keep a requirement if and when the state drops the mandate and makes it optional for cities. And that's not the case for newspaper notices (I wouldn't think).

mccalpin said...

"Richardson can clean up its own charter"

I quite agree...but there is no point in getting ahead of State law either, or else we'll be in the same position as before where our Charter doesn't jive with State law, but people don't understand that (see the accusation that the City sells debt without voter consent). Or, I guess, we could VERY carefully word our Charter changes: "IF State law EVER changes to say such-and-such, then our Charter wants to say such-and-such..."...uh, no... ;-)


glbeach said...

Gosh, so many good conspiracy theories to choose from . . . certainly that is more exciting than the mundane realities encountered in City Charter law . . . ;-)