A dispute about recouping legal fees from a lawsuit over the annexation of Kingwood in the 1990s prompted a rare use of one of Houston City Council’s limited powers: the ability to add an item to the council agenda. 

That power is nothing out of the ordinary in municipalities across the state and the country, but in the strong-mayor city of Houston where the mayor sets the council agenda, it has been used only a handful of times in the past 30 years. 

If the backers of a November ballot measure have their way, city council members could have a greater say in what is considered at the table, potentially reshaping how legislative business is conducted at City Hall.

During the final days of 1998, former District E council member Rob Todd was so frustrated by the city’s decision to sue a Kingwood municipal utility district that he initiated the difficult, multi-step process to bring a motion before the council ordering the city attorney’s office to drop the lawsuit. 

Less than a week later, under pressure from Mayor Lee Brown and City Attorney Anthony Hall, Todd canceled the special meeting organized to add the item to the agenda, the former council member said. The move ended one of only three reported uses of the council’s ability to circumvent the mayor’s control of the agenda since 1990.

“The strong-mayor system has only gotten stronger over the years, and this is one of the few things the council has to keep them from being toothless,” Todd said this week.

The power balance between city council members and the mayor’s office could shift in the direction of the council if voters in November approve a charter amendment to simplify the process Todd used in 1998. 

Council already has the power to add items to the agenda, but it requires three members to call for a special meeting that a quorum of the council must attend and then vote to approve the item being placed on the agenda. 

Voters will be asked Nov. 7 to approve a measure that would allow three council members to simply sign a letter to add an item to the upcoming council agenda, said Charles Blain, founder and president of the conservative Urban Reform and an organizer for the petition drive that got the amendment on the ballot. 

“The idea is that we have so many people in this city and so many competing interests, but you only hear from the groups who have funding or have connections with the mayor, and not just this mayor, any mayor,” Blain said. “Every citizen deserves the opportunity to have their issue heard.”

Charles Blain, president of Urban Reform, poses for a portrait at Houston City Hall
Charles Blain, president of Urban Reform, poses for a portrait at Houston City Hall on Monday, Sept. 11, 2023, in Houston. Blain is the chief organizer of the petition drive which supports a charter amendment that could take some power from the mayor’s office and give it to city council by allowing three council members to add items to the body’s weekly agenda. (Joseph Bui for Houston Landing)

During Todd’s time on the council from 1996 to 2002, he said he frequently struggled to initiate policy discussions as one of the body’s few conservative voices.

Under Houston’s strong-mayor format, the mayor alone has the authority to appoint department heads and set the council’s agenda. 

“Houston is one of the only places in the state where you have a strong-mayor government, and that means a weak council,” said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston. 

Chris Bell, a colleague of Todd’s on the council that signed on to his 1998 effort, said the council’s lack of power has gotten worse since the implementation of term limits in 1991 has led to less experienced council members. 

The existing method for council members to add something to the agenda plays into that dynamic because it creates a public confrontation between the mayor and the council, Bell said.

“Just putting something on the agenda shouldn’t be such an affront to the mayor’s office,” Bell said. “One person, no matter how big their staff is, cannot sit down and know everything that’s going on in a city as massive as Houston is.” 

The proposed charter amendment could alter the power dynamic between the mayor’s office and the council as a new mayor takes office for the first time in eight years. 

The amendment has the backing of several mayoral candidates and organizations from across the political spectrum. 

Blain’s nonprofit Urban Reform, the Harris County Republican Party, the Houston Democratic Socialists of America, the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association and progressive nonprofit Indivisible Houston, among others, united in 2021 to collect signatures under the name Houston Charter Amendment Petition Coalition. Despite gathering more than 20,000 signatures, the number needed to get an item on the ballot, the coalition had to wait two years for the issue to come before voters after City Council, at the behest of Mayor Sylvester Turner, set the election for this November.

Mayoral front-runner state Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, said he supports the proposition, adding he is “not afraid” of working closely with the city council. 

“As a legislator, I did not need permission from the lt. governor or speaker to offer bills or amendments,” Whitmire wrote in a statement. “I will extend that same privilege to City Council. I want to work in partnership with council members and ensure they have more influence in city government. We work better when we work together.”

U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Houston, who was an at-large council member in the early 1990s and closely trailed Whitmire in a UH mayoral poll earlier this year, declined to take a position on the proposed charter amendment, but said she would prioritize working closely with the council, if elected. 

“I believe that combination of leadership will allow me as mayor to be able to work cooperatively and with a forward-moving approach to serve the city of Houston,” Jackson Lee wrote in a statement. “As mayor, as I did as a city council member, I will seek to work with reelected and newly elected council members to get Houston’s agenda done efficiently and effectively for our constituents.”

The issue has been brought up at multiple mayoral candidate forums. 

Former Metro chair Gilbert Garcia frequently includes his support for the proposition during candidate introductions. Attorney Lee Kaplan said he supports efforts to make “the deliberations of the council more democratic and transparent.”

There is no organized opposition to the charter amendment, but some candidates have voiced uncertainty over its use, if approved. 

When the council voted to place the charter amendment on the ballot in August, District I Councilman and mayoral candidate Robert Gallegos said he was worried the change could bring “chaos” to council meetings.

“I fear that it’s going to be easy for council members to get something on the agenda. Therefore, you’re going to have lengthy council meetings due to the fact there are several things on the agenda other than what the mayor placed there,” Gallegos told the Houston Landing. 

Gallegos and former councilman Jack Christie, who also is running for mayor, say they support the general idea of the charter amendment, but would like to see more than three council members required to add something to the agenda.  

The amendment could send the City Council down the same path as the Harris County Commissioners Court, which frequently holds meetings that last most of the day, Gallegos said. 

Blain said most U.S. cities give their municipal councils the ability to set agendas without it being notable. 

“You can’t say Houston is the outlier and everyone else is chaotic,” Blain said. 

Todd supports the charter amendment, saying it will empower the council, but added that it should be used sparingly and only on critical issues. 

If voters approve the charter amendment, it is unlikely to make more than a modest impact on the power dynamic between the mayor and council, Rottinghaus said.

Items on the council agenda generally are worked out behind the scenes and there normally is little room for debate or surprises at council meetings, Rottinghaus said. The charter amendment is unlikely to significantly change that, he added. 

The amendment could give more power to members in the ideological minority by providing an avenue for conservative members to force a vote on something not supported by most of the liberal-dominated council. A more moderate mayor also could be pushed to the left by members of the council seeking to force votes on liberal priorities, Rottinghaus said. 

The coalition’s priority is to get the charter amendment passed, but Blain said there is a need for further reform of Houston’s government. 

“I think we all agree there are a lot of reforms that could and should happen at City Hall, and this is just the start,” he said.

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Paul Cobler covers politics for the Houston Landing. Paul returns to Texas after covering city hall for The Advocate in Baton Rouge. During two-and-a-half years at the newspaper, he spearheaded local accountability...