Monday, June 1, 2015

Changing the City Charter

Now that the city council election is behind us, now that Mayor Laura Maczka has left the building, it's time for Richardson to turn its attention to something that's been bubbling away on the back burner for months: the work by the charter review commission to amend Richardson's City Charter. If all goes as expected, the voters will be deciding whether to amend the city charter in the November, 2015, election.

But before we dive into just what changes the commission has come up with, let's first look at the process. There seems to be some charges circulating that the commission is illegitimate, that it's a tool to provide a smokescreen for the city to change the charter to its own advantage and to the disadvantage of the citizens. Is there truth to that?

According to the city charter itself, there are two ways that the charter can be amended: tops-down or bottoms-up.

Tops-down: the city council can propose amendments, either directly, or by convening a charter review commission to make recommendations. Either way, it's the city council that decides the exact wording of the amendments that are placed before the voters.

This tops-down method was used in 2007 when the charter was amended to impose term limits on the city council and to permit the city council to hold executive sessions.

Bottoms-up: anyone can take it upon him or herself to draw up a charter amendment, then create a petition to force the amendment onto the ballot of an upcoming election.

This bottoms-up method was used in 2012 to give the voters the power to directly elect the mayor.

In both cases, tops-down or bottoms-up, it's the voters who get the final say on whether the amendments are adopted. Both methods are legitimate. Those who complain about the process, the process set out in the charter decided by the democratic process, are poisoning the well that sustains democratic government.

The current charter review commission is a case of a tops-down process. The charter doesn't insist that everyone who wants a seat on the commission get one. The charter doesn't insist that the voters themselves get to choose, by election, who serves on the commission. The charter doesn't insist that the commission contain a representative sample of citizens by geography, race, religion, or political affiliation. It certainly doesn't insist that the commission contain any of the most vocal critics of the city.

The commission is, as it's intended to be, a creature of the city council. It is appointed by the city council, as called for in the charter. It's a political process, in the neutral sense of that word. Voters choose the city council. The city council chooses the commission. If voters don't like who the council chooses, the voters have the power to replace the council at the next election. In short, any insinuation that the charter review commission is illegitimate because it was appointed by the city council fails to recognize how representative democracy works.

In the end, the voters have the final say. No matter what the commission recommends, no matter what the council itself decides to put before the voters, it's the voters themselves who will decide whether the charter gets amended or not.

If enough voters decide they don't like what the city council comes up with, with or without help from a commission, they are free to reject any and all changes at the ballot box. Then they are welcome to use the bottoms-up petition process to propose their own amendments to the charter, including amending the method that amendments are proposed and approved. If they do use the petition process, it will still be the voters who decide what the city charter says.

Ain't democracy great? Can I get an Amen, brother?

OK, enough about process. It's time to look at the specific charter amendments proposed by the commission. But that'll have to wait. The commission is scheduled to meet with the city council tonight (June 1) to introduce all of us to what they have been working on all these months. At that time, we are free to support or oppose the proposals themselves. Just don't be dissing the process the proposals arose out of as undemocratic.

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