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April 24, 2015

Seabrook Charter Amendment Election

Early voting on these charter amendments begins on Monday, April 27. I’d like to offer my take on them and suggest whether or not they are worthy of adoption. I believe the commission that recommended these changes did so in good faith and out of the highest of motives, but I cannot endorse the entire package put before the voters. Let me offer my view of each, complete with my recommendation for voters.

Proposition 1: Section 2.01—Term Limits Change the term of a. Councilmember from a 3-year to a 4-year term, beginning with the General Municipal Election in 2017 for the Mayor and Council Positions 2, 4 and 6 and in 2018 for Council Positions 1, 3 and 5.

Commission Explanation: The Commission identified the following disadvantages of the current term lengths: 1) difficulty for the City to place Council representatives in leadership positions in external organizations that have a direct impact on the City; 2) administrative costs involved with the orientation and training of Council members every three years; 3) costs associated with more frequent elections; and 4) availability of candidates. Extending the terms of office from three to four years mitigates these disadvantages, while still adhering to the limitation of two consecutive terms of office.

Budget Impact: This proposition is expected to save money, as elections would be held less often.

On one level I like this proposal, given that it does away with the rather strange three-year terms we currently have on a six-member council. After all, we currently elect three members at a time, so that means one year out of three we do not have a city election at all. For reasons to be detailed later, going to terms that have an even number of years is potentially quite desirable.

Yet at the same time, I would have preferred seeing the charter changed to make all positions two-year terms with all seats elected biennially. You know – on the model of the city of Houston, where the mayor and the council members can serve a maximum of six years. Given our city’s limit of two consecutive terms, is the possibility of eight consecutive years of service really preferable to four years of consecutive service – or perhaps six, with a change that would allow for three consecutive terms.

More to the point, with four year terms being implemented in 2017 and 2018, that would mean that there would be a three-year gap (until 2021) in the holding of the next city council elections. That is too long – and would leave us without the power to change council personnel without resorting to recall (assuming there are no deaths or resignations in the interim). Better that we either wait for a proposition creating two-year terms or alternating four-year terms elected two years apart than what we have here. I therefore urge the voters to reject Proposition 1.

Proposition 2: Section 2 .05—Vacancies, Forfeiture, Filling of Vacancies (and related Charter requirements for filling a vacancy, such as Section 8.13, “Results of Election”)

Allow an affirmative vote of four (4) or more Councilmembers to fill a vacancy on Council by appointment if the remaining term of the vacant position is 12 months or less.

Commission Explanation: State Law now allows for this provision that permits a Council to fill an unexpired term without having to call a special election, which can be very costly. If the remaining term of the vacant position is greater than 12 months, a special election would be called by Council.

Budget Impact: It is expected that the City would save money as appointment is less costly than a special election.

The notion of having appointed members of the city council for any period of time is disturbing. It would be preferable to leave any seat with a vacancy of 12 months or less vacant until the voters could speak. Since that option is not offered, my preference is to see the special election option retained by the city so that the people have their say on who will be a member of the council. I therefore recommend that voters reject Proposition 2.

Proposition 3: Section 2.0—Administrative Offices and Departments

Delete the list of City’ Departments.

Commission Explanation: The name and number of City Departments can change or be modified over time, as is dictated by the needs of the City. The Departments are named by ordinance, which should suffice.

Budget Impact: There is no expected budget impact.

A perfectly reasonable change. I recommend that the voters approve Proposition 3.

Proposition 4: Section 2.O9—City Secretary

Require an affirmative vote of four or more Councilmembers to appoint or remove the City Secretary.

Commission Explanation: The Commission compared the voting requirements of Council for appointment or termination of critical positions within the City, including the City Secretary, City Manager, City Attorney and Municipal Judge. It found inconsistencies and, in some instances, silence on the subject. As all of these positions are essential for the operation of the City, it is recommended that the voting requirements be the same for all of these positions. The Charter requires an affirmative vote of four or more Councilmembers to appoint or remove the City Manager, so this is the template the Commission used for the other positions, including the City Secretary. In this instance, the Charter has no requirement for removal of a City Secretary, so one is added for consistency.

Budget Impact: There is no expected budget impact.

I don’t see where this is a strictly necessary change, but I also see the wisdom of standardizing the manner in which the holders of these critical positions are hired and fired. I therefore recommend that the voters approve Proposition 4.

Proposition 5: Section 2.08—Administrative Departments and Section 2.09—City Secretary

Move both sections from Article II (The Council) to Article IV (Administrative Departments).

Commission Explanation: It would be easier to reference both of these sections if they were in the Article that focuses on different departments, rather than the Article that focuses on the City Council. There is no other revision associated with this amendment.

Budget Impact: There is no expected budget impact.

This is a housekeeping matter, and I therefore recommend that the voters approve Proposition 5.

Proposition 6: Section 2.12—Rules of Procedure Clarify that all required Council actions shall be adopted by an affirmative vote of a majority of Council members present and voting, except as provided elsewhere in the Charter or in state law.

Commission Explaniation: The Charter currently limits any exception to this provision to Section 2.05. There may come a time when other sections of the Charter or state law will also apply, so the Commission recommends changing the exception to “as provided elsewhere in the Charter or state law” so that potential conflicts can be avoided.

Budget Impact: There is no expected budget impact.

Again, this is unobjectionable. I therefore recommend that the voters approve Proposition 6.

Provision 7: Section 2.13—-Passages of Ordinances in General

Delete the following: “A proposed ordinance may be amended at any reading but any ordinance amended in substance, as determined by Council, shall automatically be placed again on first reading at a subsequent meeting. Amendments involving such items as typographical, grammatical or spelling changes or renumbering of sections shall not be considered substantive.”

Commission Explaniation: The phrase “in substance” has caused great confusion in the past as it is left to City Council to interpret which changes are “substantive” in nature. Removing this statement allows less confusion in interpreting the Charter.

Budget Impact: There is no expected budget impact.

The devil is in the details here. While I do not doubt that the intent of this change is to avoid the confusion we have seen over the years as to whether changes are substantive or not, the potential effect of doing it this way is to allow an unscrupulous future majority to make substantive changes to an ordinance and adopt it at the time of the final reading. Better we have continued confusion than potential skullduggery. I therefore recommend that the voters reject Proposition 7.

Proposition 8: Section 2.13—Passages of Ordinances in General

Clarify that the effective date of ordinances with penal provisions be dictated by state law rather than after it has been posted for two weeks.

Commission Explaitiation: In ordinances with penal provisions, the state requires certain effective dates. This change is to avoid conflict with state law.

Budget Impact: There is no expected budget impact

Purely a matter of housekeeping to comply with state law. I recommend that the voters approve Proposition 8.

Proposition 9: Section 2.141—Emergency Ordinances

Require an affirmative vote of four or more Councilmembers to approve an emergency ordinance, except where otherwise provided in the Charter.

Commission Explanation: In an emergency, all Councilmembers may not be available, especially if an evacuation or natural disaster has occurred. For uniformity, the Commission recommends changing this voting requirement from two thirds of those present to four or more for approval. This does not impact emergency appropriations ordinances, which require a vote of five or more Councilmembers for approval.

Budget Impact: There is no expected budget impact.

I prefer the language here to what exists. Better to have a true majority of the council speaking than the majority of a rump council with members missing. I therefore recommend that the voters approve Proposition 9.

Proposition 10: Section 2.15—Authentication, Recording, Codification, Printing and Distribution of Ordinances

Change the requirement for availability of approved ordinances and resolutions from posting at City Hall and the library to posting at City Hall and on the City website.

Commission Explanation: There is a cost associated with copying and distributing every ordinance and resolution that is passed by Council. This would eliminate that cost. There is also a computer at City Hall where the public can access this information.

Budget Impact: It is expected that this proposition would save copying and administrative costs.

It is great that the City of Seabrook wants to enter the computer age by requiring the posting of ordinances and resolutions online (which it already does), but are we in such a grave financial situation that we need to eliminate the copying and posting of those ordinances and resolutions at the library? I say let’s do both (as I believe we already do anyway). I therefore recommend that the voters reject Proposition 10.

Proposition 11: Section 4.02—City Attorney

Change the voting requirements for appointment or removal of a City Attorney from “majority of members present” to “four or more Councilmembers”.

Commission Explanation: See explanation for Proposition 4. This proposition is intended to create consistency and uniformity in voting requirements. In this specific instance, a majority of members present could be as little as three votes.

Budget Impact: There is no expected budget impact.

See my explanation for Proposition 4 for details as to why I recommend the voters approve Proposition 11.

Proposition 12: Section 5.21—Citizen Approval Required for Certain Expenditures and Use of Reserved Funds

Consolidate this section and update it to address current and future City needs, allow for grant opportunities requiring matching funds and adjust for changing state mandates by allowing the City Council to make non-emergency capital expenditures in an amount not to exceed 20 percent of the combined General and Enterprise Operating and Reserve Fund Budgets, less any required reserve fund balance established by the City’s financial policy, in effect at the time of the expenditure.

Commission Explanation: This section has been discussed and debated for many years. Currently, the Council may not spend funds of one (1) million dollars or more without a vote of the people. This limitation prevented the City from applying for additional grant money following Hurricane Ike, which could have been a major help in the recovery of the City, because grant application deadlines do not generally allow for time to conduct elections. The Commission determined that having a fixed dollar amount in the Charter will cause future problems related to inflation, rising building costs and other economic factors. Therefore, the Commission recommends a percentage of the General and Enterprise Funds (only these two major funds of the City, not including special funds) to keep in line with the City’s current budget needs and limitations. As the budget rises and falls, so will the Council’s cap on spending. This proposition does not allow Council to spend any of the required fund balance that is established by the City finance policy, and it does not apply to emergency expenditures.

Budget Impact: Budget impact cannot be quantified due to variables.

This particular proposition bothers me. I understand the reasoning, but I find it difficult to reconcile this with the notion that the voters should have a say on major expenditures. Do we really want to surrender this check on the city council? I’m not so sure that we should. At the same time, the matter of inflation and pressing deadlines such as those the city faced after Hurricane Ike make changing the fixed dollar figure appropriate. Even though I find the 20% figure to be somewhat higher than what I would have picked (I would have set it at either 12.5% or 15% of the combined General and Enterprise Operating and Reserve Fund Budgets), I recommend that the voters approve Proposition 12 – and keep a template for recall petitions on their computer desktops for use if the city council abuses this spending authority.

Proposition 13: Section 7.01—Nominations and Elections

Allow the general City election to be held on a date other than the second Saturday in May, if allowed by state law.

Commission Explanation: The State recently changed the allowable dates for municipal elections and required cities to choose which date they would use. Because of this charter requirement, the City could not change the date of its elections. It resulted in the City having to purchase its own election equipment. This proposition would give the City flexibility to work within state law.

Budget Impact: This could save money if the City is allowed to hold elections with Harris County.

I serve as the election judge during elections held by Harris County. I recall a recent election day when we had a city council election going on the same day in a different location. Let’s move our election day to November so that we have a higher turnout for city elections – and have our elections during even numbered years as a way of ensuring that. The latter change, as I suggest in my recommendation on Proposition 1, will have to come later, but even without it I enthusiastically recommend that the voters approve Proposition 13.

Proposition 14: Section 9.02—Judge of the Municipal Court Change the voting requirements for appointment or removal of the Municipal Judge from “majority of members present” to “four or more Councilmembers”.

Commission Explanation: See explanation for Propositions 4 and 11.

Budget Impact: There is no expected budget impact.

See my explanation for Proposition 4 for details as to why I recommend the voters approve Proposition 14.

Proposition 15: Section 10.05—Ordinances Granting Franchises

Change the requirement for approval of franchise ordinances to correspond to other ordinances (after two readings unless otherwise required by state law).

Commission Explanation: The Charter currently requires three readings and a waiting period of 42 days after the first reading. It also requires the full text of the ordinance to be published in the newspaper, which can be very costly. The proposition would allow for publishing the title and caption in the newspaper after passage. The current requirements do not allow the City to be competitive with other cities.

Budget Impact: This proposition may save money due to the changes in requirements for publicizing in the newspaper.

Standardizing our practices is a good thing. Besides, if the full text of the proposed franchise ordinance is found on the city website when the title and caption are published, it will be easy to access. I recommend that voters approve Proposition 15.

Proposition 16: Section 11.08—Fire Department and Fire Marshal

Modify the allowable service providers to state that the City could utilize the Seabrook Volunteer Fire Department and/or other fire service providers as permitted by law.

Commission Explanation: The City is exploring all options with the Seabrook Volunteer Fire Department for providing services, including an Emergency Services District. This amendment would allow the City to select the best option for service.

Budget Impact: Budget impact cannot be quantified due to variables.

While presented as a cost-saving measure, we have no idea as to how much this will actually save the taxpayers. Until we know exactly what we are being asked to approve here, I cannot support this proposition. After all, I would hate to see this used as the basis for creating a new taxing authority without significantly more public discussion than this has received. I therefore recommend that the voters reject Proposition 16

Proposition 17: Section 11.18—Charter Review Commission Allow the appointment of a Charter Review Commission no sooner than two (2) years nor later than five (5) years after the most recent appointment.

Commission Explanation: This would allow City Council the flexibility to appoint a Charter Review Commission to coincide with the election schedule, rather than holding a separate, costly, election. It would also allow Council to handle issues as they arise, rather than waiting for the current prescribed time period.

Budget Impact: Budget impact cannot be quantified due to variables.

I think the idea here is well-founded, and I recommend that voters approve Proposition 17.

Proposition 18: Section 11.16—Amending the Charter and Section 11.18-Charter Review Commission

Combine these two sections into one titled “The Charter Review Commission and “Amending the Charter”.

Commission Explanation: These two sections really discuss different aspects of the same topic. The Commission felt that combining them would allow for easier reference in the future. There is no other revision associated with this amendment.

Budget Impact: There is no expected budget impact.

This is a housekeeping matter, and therefore unobjectionable. I recommend that the voters approve Proposition 18.

Proposition 19: Section 11.24—Comprehensive Master Plan Commission

Allow the appointment of a Comprehensive Master Plan Commission no sooner than two (2) years nor later than five (5) years after the most recent appointment and allow Council to extend the six-month term of the Commission.

Commission Explanation: The Charter Review Commission and Comprehensive Master Plan Review Commission meet concurrently, making it difficult for staff to support conflicting meeting schedules. The Council also finds it difficult to attract qualified volunteers for concurrent Commissions. This proposition would allow City Council the flexibility to appoint a Comprehensive Master Plan Review Commission at a different time than the Charter Review Commission, which would assist with staff allocation and volunteer recruitment. It would also maintain consistency between the Comprehensive Master Plan Review Commission and the Charter Review Commission (see Proposition 17). Finally, it would allow the terms for the Comprehensive Master Plan Commission to be extended in the event a planning consultant is hired or other needs arise.

Budget Impact: Budget impact cannot be quantified due to variables

A reasonable proposal – though indicative of the problem of community involvement we have in Seabrook. All of us need to make a point of trying to get involved with various city government activities to avoid the continued appointment of the same names and families to boards and commissions and committees. But we should alternate the Charter Review and Comprehensive Master Plan Review Commissions – preferably separating them by a year or two – and I therefore recommend that the voters approve Proposition 19.

Proposition 20: Section 11.28—Other Charter Requirements

Require that all City appointees to boards, corporations, organizations, committees and other related entities shall conform to the requirements of the Charter provisions regulating personal interest, conflicts of interest, nepotism and ethics.

Commission Explanation: The current Charter language is vague, which may lead to conflicting interpretations and appears to apply to entities in their entirety. The Commission is clarifying and limiting the specific Charter provisions that shall apply and shifts the emphasis to City appointees. The Charter cannot govern entities outside of the city’s jurisdiction; therefore, the proposed amendment places responsibility on the city representatives to comply with these mandates.

Budget Impact: Budget impact cannot be quantified due to variables.

Honest government – what a concept! I recommend that the voters approve Proposition 20.

In short, I recommend approval for Propositions 3, 4, 5, 6, 8, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 17, 18, 19, and 20. I urge the rejection of Propositions 1, 2, 7, 10, and 16. I hope my fellow residents of Seabrook will give these Propositions and my recommendations serious consideration and make the best choice for our city's future.





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