Despite the overall tone of contention in the election campaign, one thing that all candidates agreed on, every last man and woman, was that they were open to the idea of a charter review. It's been a quarter of a century since the last time a commission was appointed to review the city charter to bring it up to date.
The man ultimately chosen by the council to be mayor, Bob Townsend, said he would strongly support a charter review. Even the one candidate who expressed opposition to making structural changes to Richardson's form of government, Scott Dunn, even he said that if specific sections of the charter were found to be outdated, he'd be open to review and revision.
Monday night, the city council finally got down to work on the issue. Or not. After the jump, what went down.
The council took up two action items they had agreed on at the beginning of the current term. First was to consider placing before the voters in May, 2012, a charter amendment to allow for the direct election of the mayor. Second was to consider appointing a commission for a more general charter review.
The council rejected the first proposal (6-1, with Amir Omar the lone vote in minority) because they felt that the method of electing the mayor shouldn't be changed without reviewing the effect on the rest of the charter and there wasn't enough time to do that before May. As for the second proposal, the council rejected reviewing the charter as a whole (5-2, with Omar and Steve Mitchell in the minority) because it would take too much time and resources and would distract from more pressing matters.
Frankly, I was shocked with how cavalierly the council dismissed what I had considered to be a campaign promise. Not a promise as firm as, say, "Read my lips, no new taxes" but still, a consensus expressed during the campaign forums that it was time, after 25 years, to look into cleaning up our city charter and bringing it up to date. In one meeting, with no call for public input, with little or no homework evident on their own part, with no wrestling with conscience, the council quickly and decisively disposed of any further discussion of a charter review for this council term.
Let's examine some of the thinking behind the council members' decision. Let's start with the last word by Mayor Bob Townsend. He voted against a charter review because, as he said, he keeps going back to the October forum on the topic sponsored by the League of Women Voters of Richardson. Townsend claimed that forum panelist Robert Lowry, professor of political science at the University of Texas at Dallas, held up Richardson's city charter as "pretty much the model charter." Like I said, memory is a tricky thing. What Lowry in fact said is that Richardson's charter is closely modeled on the classic council-manager form of government, as opposed to a classic mayor-council form of government. Lowry suggested that Richardson voters first need to decide what form of government they want, then many of the details regarding the structure of government tend to fall into place. Lowry did not say that the choice Richardson made fifty years ago should never be reviewed. Lowry did not say that model city charters do not need periodic review to bring them up to date with changing state and federal law. Finally, Lowry did not say he himself had done such a review.
Amir Omar supported appointing a charter review commission (good for him). He also was ready to rush forward with a ballot amendment for direct election of the mayor (not so good, as you'll see). Omar offered no arguments in favor of direct election of the mayor other than it's popular. He predicted that it would be approved by 80-90% of the voters. It probably would.
[Update: The above paragraph was inartfully worded. I do not assume that 80-90% of the voters are incompetent to make an informed decision. I have faith that the electorate, if informed, will make reasonable voting decisions. I'm simply saying that "everybody else thinks that way" is not a convincing argument for me to think that way, too. I'm going to try to reason it out on my own.]
Speaking of taking the time to research pros and cons, I was shocked that none of the council members seemed to be aware of the research already done by Bill McCalpin. McCalpin made a quick pass through the city charter and identified over two dozen areas possibly in need of change, either because of conflict with changing state law or because of confusing or ambiguous wording, the kind of situation that leads to embittered citizens, at least, and lawsuits, at worst. I was shocked that the council would dispose of this action item without, at a minimum, directing the city staff to draw up their own such list for council review. Depending on the result, the council could then make an informed decision whether further action is necessary.
In hindsight, maybe I should not have been surprised by the council's decision. Last September, when the council drew up its list of action items for the term, the top four action items were all focused on Richardson's biggest challenge - redevelopment. (Full disclosure: I thought they had their priorities right.) Holding work sessions to discuss community interest in having a charter review just barely made it into the council's top forty. So, I should not have been surprised with Monday night's actions.
Council members agreed with Laura Maczka's concern that a charter review would consume a lot of time. Amir Omar conceded that the city had more pressing matters. Mark Solomon went so far as to say that rather than spend money on a charter review and election, he'd rather spend it "on a [water] slide" at the new Heights Park swimming pool. How much money has Richardson spent defending itself in court because, in following the Texas Open Meetings Act, it inadvertently found itself in violation of its own older charter? My guess is that if the city had reviewed its charter more than once every quarter of a century, such a lawsuit would have been avoided, saving enough money to pay for the charter review and a water slide.
The votes of Amir Omar and Steve Mitchell demonstrate that their election campaign support for a charter review was not just talk. As for the others? Well, I guess that was then.