A news conference to start the day, a nonprofit’s luncheon at noon, and an evening photo op to end the day. 

Houston’s mayor, like almost every other in the United States, acts in many ways as the face of the city. A closer look at Houston’s charter and code of ordinances, however, shows our mayor is much more than a smiling face.

The Houston Landing asked residents what they’d like to know about this year’s mayoral election. Some wanted to learn more about the mayor’s exact role and responsibilities.

Some of the answers may surprise you.

It is no secret that the mayor functions as Houston’s chief executive. The city’s “strong mayor” model also gives Houston’s chief executive legislative powers unlike those of counterparts across the country.

“There’s none that even come close,” said Robert Stein, a political scientist at Rice University, about the power of Houston’s mayor compared to other major cities.

Along with ensuring that all ordinances passed by the Houston City Council are enforced — the basic function of any government’s executive branch — the mayor also oversees all administrative work within city government.

In practice, that allows the mayor to appoint, subject to the City Council’s confirmation, each department head. The mayor also can create department rules and regulations without the input of Council.

With a few exceptions, the mayor also is responsible for appointing members to the city’s various commissions and committees.

“Nobody serves the city without the mayor’s approval,” Stein said.

The mayor’s legislative powers

Along with an executive and administrative role, Houston’s mayor also serves as the head of City Council.

The mayor presides over each City Council meeting, holding near-total control over the council’s legislative agenda each week, Stein said. 

This ability to set City Council’s weekly agenda is uncommon, even among other “strong mayor” cities.

“Houston is unique in Texas. Most other major cities have a city manager, plus an elected mayor and council,” said Mary Benton, director of communications for Mayor Sylvester Turner. “In Houston, the mayor is the chief executive officer.”

How did Houston’s mayor get so much control?

A version of Houston’s strong mayor model can be traced back to the 1940s, according to an article by William Fulton, the former director of Rice University’s Kinder Institute for Urban Research. 

One man was responsible for boosting the mayor’s power even further.

“Houston has had a strong-mayor system since the 1940s, but the extremely strong-mayor situation is the work — like so many other things in Houston — of Roy Hofheinz,” Fulton wrote.

Hofheinz, who is known for building the Astrodome, was Houston’s mayor from 1953 to 1955.

He clashed with City Council members so often during his tenure as mayor that the council impeached Hofheinz and attempted to limit the mayorship to a ceremonial role, Fulton wrote.

In response, Hofheinz ran a ballot measure to give Houston’s mayor even more power — and he succeeded. 

Curbing the mayor’s influence is possible, but unlikely

The mayor’s power is not limitless.

Like City Council members and the City Controller, Houston’s mayor is limited to serving two four-year terms.

The mayor also can be impeached, similar to state and federal officials. A vote by 11 of the city’s 16 City Council members could remove a mayor from office.

In recent years, discussions have swirled about proposed amendments to the city’s charter, seeking to limit the mayor’s power. 

These proposals, Stein said, are unlikely to gain traction. 

Most political insiders are content with the status quo, meaning that, for at least the time being, Houston’s strong mayor model is here to stay.

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Tim Carlin is the Houston Landing's civic engagement reporter. An Ohio native, Tim comes to Houston after spending a year in Greenville, South Carolina, covering Greenville County government for The Greenville...