Houston voters approved Proposition B with high hopes of increasing the city’s voting power on a regional planning organization called the Houston-Galveston Area Council.
How exactly officials will carry out the wishes of voters, however, remains unclear.
H-GAC is responsible for distributing millions of dollars in federal funding for transportation and other projects across our region. Under its existing structure, H-GAC’s board has 37 members representing 13 counties, 107 cities and 11 independent school districts.
Though Houston and Harris County account for 57 percent of the region’s population, each has only two seats on the board.
The proposition, which passed with 65 percent of the vote, requires the city to participate in regional planning organizations like H-GAC only if its voting privileges are proportional to its population. If the city is unable to renegotiate its voting power on H-GAC within 60 days after the proposition’s passage is certified, the city would be forced to withdraw from the organization.
Legal questions remain, however, about what proportional voting privileges for Houston could look like and whether the city can legally leave H-GAC, should negotiations for more representation on the organization fail.
The language of the charter amendment was very intentional, said Ally Smither, communications director for Fair for Houston, the organization that spearheaded Proposition B.
It does not prescribe any numbers or percentages needed for representation to be considered “proportional.” The language is intended to lead to a solution through negotiation, she said.
Houston City Council Member Sallie Alcorn, who is also H-GAC’s Chair-Elect, said she was “grateful” for the way the ballot initiative was worded.
The lack of a binding number of voters needed to reach proportionality could help ease tensions ahead of negotiations, she said, and it prevents either side from feeling too top heavy.
Houston City Council Member Amy Peck, Houston’s other representative on H-GAC’s board of directors, agreed. The open-ended wording, she said, will prevent negotiators from being boxed in at the very start.
Despite the lacking definition of proportionality, Alcorn said she knows any negotiated changes to H-GAC’s voting structure will have to be substantive in order to honor the essence of the proposition.
“It’s not going to be a one-for-one, but it’s not going to be something just very nominal,” she said. “It’s going to have to reflect the voters’ wishes.”
Alcorn and Peck questioned what a proportional voting structure would mean for membership on H-GAC. Alcorn suggested that a solution may include the use of weighted voting, where population size could determine the amount of votes an H-GAC representative could cast, as opposed to adding new members to the council.
Until negotiations begin, however, the potential outcome is up in the air.
Not every member of H-GAC believes a proportional voting structure is best for the organization.
Waller County Judge Trey Duhon, the outgoing chair of H-GAC’s board of directors, expressed concern about the consequences of proportionality.
“Strictly proportional representation destroys the whole intent of a regional coordinating council,” he said. “Because then Houston and Harris County would basically just dictate the agenda.”
Despite his concern, Duhon said H-GAC is prepared to negotiate with Houston whenever the city approaches the organization to do so.
Alcorn, Peck, Duhon and members of Fair For Houston all expressed the hope that Houston remains a part of H-GAC. Entering negotiations in good faith, Alcorn said, is key.
“It behooves us all to stay together,” she said. “And I think that that is certainly the goal that I will be approaching negotiations with.”
What if negotiations fail?
If negotiations fail, leaving H-GAC may not be a simple process.
According to a memo sent by City Attorney Arturo Michel to Mayor Sylvester Turner and obtained by Axios Houston, leaving H-GAC would require approval from the governor along with the support of 75 percent of the region’s representatives.
Leaving H-GAC, Michel wrote, “may result in the loss of federal highway and related funds coming to Houston.”
Peck said she was concerned about Houston missing out on crucial funding, if it were forced to leave H-GAC.
“I’m the first one to say ‘let’s make everything fair and proportional,’ and all of that stuff,” Peck said. “But yeah, there could be consequences, for sure.”
Bob Stein, a political science professor at Rice university, expressed concern that if Houston were to remove itself from H-GAC, the city would face challenges in receiving federal grant money, should it be held up by the state government.
Many of the consequences of leaving H-GAC, however, remain unknown.
Michel did not respond to multiple requests for comment for this story.
Regardless of Houston’s participation, Duhon said, H-GAC will carry on.
“We will continue on as a council, as a regional council,” he said. “And to not have your largest city with a seat at the table would harm Houston more than anything else.”