Want to change your city’s rules? You’ll have to put it up for a vote
This fall at her 56-year high school reunion, Paula Portugal’s former classmates kept coming up to her with questions.
Portugal is the mayor of Paris, a city of about 25,000 people in northeast Texas. Most of the questions she fielded were about the upcoming election – specifically, all the amendments to Paris’ city charter that were on the ballot.
“One of the many questions I received was, ‘There’s so many, how do we vote?’” Portugal said with a laugh.
There are 24 propositions for voters in Paris to consider, all of which would somehow change the city’s charter.
A city’s charter describes its laws; it’s like a constitution for the city. Some charter revisions have big consequences, while others are procedural, like cleaning up obsolete language. But big or small, all changes have to be approved by a public vote before the charter can be edited.
In Paris, the amendments are a mix of policy changes and getting rid of out-of-date references. For example, it says the city should use an accounting system approved by the National Committee on Municipal Accounting – an organization that hasn’t been active since the 1940s. There’s also a proposition to delete a requirement for copies of the city budget to be made with a mimeograph machine.
Other cities also have a high number of charter amendments on the ballot.
Jacksonville voters have 23 separate amendments to consider, including new term limits for elected officials, and whether council members should be able to abstain from voting.
In Slaton, just outside Lubbock, potential charter amendments include the necessary qualifications to serve on a city commission, and changing how special meetings of the City Council are called so that it conforms to the Texas Open Meetings Act.
Keeping up with a city charter is kind of like routine maintenance on a car. If you don’t keep up with it, the thing will still run – but if you let it go neglected for too long, problems will pile up.
“You’d be surprised about how many, really really old charters have not been amended at all in years,” said Don Edmonds, a consultant from Tyler.
Edmonds, who used to be a city manager, now works with cities that are rewriting their charter or starting a new one. Edmonds picked up consulting as a retirement job. He doesn’t advertise or leave East Texas, but he still stays busy part-time.
“It’s a good way to make a living,” Edmonds said.
Cities contract with him to help identify the outdated parts of their charter, how to change them, and how to word those changes on the ballot so that voters approve them.
Edmonds finds all kinds of stuff buried in old charters. Once, he worked with officials in Marshall, which had one of the oldest charters he’d ever seen.
“Their charter still provided for poll taxes, and still provided for capital punishment in the case of certain violations,” he said.
After federal legislation outlawed them, it’s not as if poll taxes were being collected in Marshall just because it was in the city charter to do so. So why spend the time and money to call an election and maybe hire a consultant like Edmonds just to get rid of a powerless portion of a city document?
Edmonds says the answer is: If you’re thinking of the charter as the city’s constitution, then you want that to have the right information.
“Ideally, that constitution will describe exactly how that city operates,” he said. “And so it’s just not good government to just ignore the language of the constitution or the charter, just because you don’t want to fix it.”
Normally, these charter amendments are pretty low-profile elections. One exception this year is in Abilene.
Of the many revisions up for a vote on Election Day, one would change many of the charter’s titles and pronouns. Right now, all the pronouns in the charter are male. The amendment would include female pronouns as well – so “his or hers” instead of just “his,” and “councilmember” instead of “councilman.” In an August meeting of the Abilene City Council, a group of men spoke out against the amendment. One compared including female pronouns in the charter to boiling a frog – that it signaled the slow creep of something more sinister.
The lone woman on the City Council, Donna Albus, didn’t see it that way. She was happy to be included in the city’s governing document.
“It has nothing to do with putting the males down. It means that we’re finally being recognized,” Albus said. “And no I didn’t drive this train, and no I didn’t bring it up. But thank you, council, for finally recognizing that women in this town are major contributors.”
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