With the bulk of the population but a fraction of the power, Houston and Harris County long have complained about getting shortchanged when the influential Houston-Galveston Area Council speaks for the region on major infrastructure projects.

Houstonians will have the chance to vote this November on a plan to reshape the powerful agency, activists said this week.

Campaigners said they have collected more than 23,665 signatures, more than enough to put a proposed charter change on the ballot to force Houston officials to enter into negotiations to reform H-GAC’s voting structure to mirror the region’s population. If those negotiations break down, Houston would have to exit the council.

The Houston-Galveston Area PAC, the group leading the “Fair for Houston” campaign, submitted its signature sheets to City Secretary Pat Daniel on Wednesday, an employee in her office confirmed.

“Until the ballot, we’re not going to stop,” said Ally Smithers, a spokesperson for the campaign. “There is a lot of education. People don’t know H-GAC, so even before we get on the ballot, we’re going to continue working all summer.”

Interstate 45, flood projects drive campaign

Although H-GAC long has flown under the radar for most Houston-area residents, it plays an important role under state and federal law as the official regional coordinating agency doling out some transportation and infrastructure funds.

Vehicles drive on I-45 South heading toward downtown Houston, Monday, July 3, 2023, in Houston. (Marie D. De Jesús / Houston Landing)

Representing 13 counties in the region, H-GAC has dozens of employees who work on a variety of issues, from flood management to transportation planning. Its board is composed of 37 elected officials. A separate, 28-member Transportation Policy Council, which weighs in on issues such as highways and rail, includes representatives from METRO and the Texas Department of Transportation.

The campaign to remake H-GAC was sparked by a pair of high-profile votes that have drawn criticism from officials and activists in Houston.

In March 2021, the transportation council narrowly backed a symbolic resolution in support of rebuilding Interstate 45, over the objections of Houston officials.

In February 2022, the board voted to send just 2 percent of the region’s $488 million in federal flood funds to Houston, despite pleas for more from Mayor Sylvester Turner. 

Fair or not?

There’s a reason Houston keeps losing out on major votes, charter change advocates say. They contend that by any reasonable accounting, H-GAC’s power structure does not reflect the region’s population. Houston has about 30 percent of the population in the 13-county region, but has only two of the agency’s 37 board positions. Harris County also has two board members. Advocates say that in total, Houston and Harris County have an 11 percent share of board seats compared to 57 percent of the region’s population.

Supporters of H-GAC’s structure say it is designed to encourage cooperation between local governments.

“We’re set up to where everybody is supposed to have a voice, because it’s regional planning, it’s regional coordination. If you give one member the clout, then it’s going to be about that one entity. It’s set up the way it is by design,” said Waller County Judge Trey Duhon, who serves as the H-GAC board chair.

Duhon said that instead of organizing behind the petition drive, frustrated Houston and Harris County residents should pressure their own elected officials to attend H-GAC meetings more regularly. Houston also should be lobbying Harris County for some of the $750 million in federal flood mitigation funds it has received, he said.

Long process

For months, campaigners have been knocking on doors to gather signatures. That is only the first step of what could be a protracted legal and political battle to actually change how H-GAC does business.

First, the city secretary must certify that campaigners have collected at least 20,000 signatures they need under state law. Two years ago, a separate petition to increase the power of City Council members faced a protracted counting process, but campaign leaders say they are confident certification will proceed smoothly. A staffer in the city secretary’s office declined to say how long the process could take.

Next, supporters say, the charter amendment proposal will appear on the Nov. 7 general ballot, when Houstonians also will elect their next mayor and city council. A majority vote on the up-or-down proposition will secure its passage.

One unknown is the position of Turner, who has voiced his frustration with the leadership structure of H-GAC, but has not come out with a stance on the proposition. His office did not respond to a request for comment.

Supporters say they have not seen any sign of organized opposition thus far. If it makes it to the ballot, however, the proposition could face pushback from officials in other counties.

“If they get it put on the ballot, my hope is that it’s voted down,” Duhon said. “I wouldn’t want to see a scenario in which the city of Houston no longer has a seat at the table.”

If the charter amendment wins approval, supporters say it will go into effect in January. What happens next could hinge on the result of negotiations with other members of H-GAC. Molly Cook, an organizer with the PAC who also ran against state Sen. John Whitmire in the Democratic primary last year, acknowledged those negotiations would be “uncharted territory.”

The language of the charter proposal would require the city to take part in planning organizations only if their boards reflect the region’s population distribution. The charter also would require the city to withdraw its membership “if the voting system is not corrected within 60 days of the effective date of adoption of this section.”

Advocates say they are optimistic negotiations would succeed. If the talks are unsuccessful, Houston could be forced to exit H-GAC and attempt to form a new regional council.

“What Houston is doing right now is, frankly, boldly leading the nation in a people-driven campaign to fix a problem that exists in most large metropolitan areas,” Cook said. “We’re going to get to write our own story.”

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Matt Sledge is the City Hall reporter for the Houston Landing. Before that, he worked in the same role for the Times-Picayune | New Orleans Advocate and as a national reporter for HuffPost. He’s excited...