Charter Amendments – What Will Be on the Nov. 8 Ballot?

On November 8, there will be a referendum on proposed Dallas City Charter changes. Our Charter is like our city’s constitution: it dictates how our city is governed and how the power is divided among the different branches of government.

The proposed Charter changes are set forth in 13 separate propositions on the ballot. Proposition 14 is a bond referendum on the homeless intake center. I’ve put together an explanation of the ballot initiatives below. I support these changes to our City Charter.

Stronger Mayor and Increased City Council Finance and Audit Oversight

  • Mayor hires City Manager and determines compensation (not Council)
  • Mayor or majority of Council fires the City Manager
  • City Manager and Mayor jointly prepare the city’s annual budget for Council’s approval
  • Increases Mayor’s salary from $60,000 to $120,000
  • Mayor approves City Manager’s appointment of the police chief and fire chief
  • Creates a finance, audit, and accountability committee (composed of at least five Council members); all members, the chair, and vice-chair are appointed by a majority of Council (excluding the Mayor)
  • Majority of Council (excluding the Mayor) hires, fires, and determines the compensation for a Council finance and budget oversight officer
  • Council’s finance and budget oversight officer must be a Dallas resident
  • Provides assistants to the Council’s finance and budget oversight officer, who are exempt from civil service
  • Majority of Council (excluding the Mayor) hires, fires, and determines compensation for city auditor
  • These changes take effect on the date of inauguration of the City Council members elected at the May 5, 2007 general election, pending voting rights pre-clearance by the United States Justice Department

Requirements for Key City Staff

  • The following must live in Dallas: City Manager, city attorney, city auditor, and city secretary
  • Majority of Council (instead of 2/3) may fire city attorney and the city secretary
  • City secretary may fire his or her assistants without City Council consent
  • Clarifies duties of the city auditor
  • Provides for the appointment, discharge, and duties of assistants to city auditor
  • Lets Council members select their professional and administrative assistants

Municipal Courts and Municipal Judges

  • Provides procedure to remove municipal judges prior to expiration of their terms
  • Corrects obsolete references to the municipal courts as "corporation courts"

Emergency Management and Continuity of Governance

  • Lets city adopt a disaster emergency preparedness ordinance and develop a comprehensive emergency management plan
  • Lets city attorney initiate court action to order an election to fill City Council vacancies in the event of the simultaneous death or disability of all City Council members

Disciplinary Actions, Appeals, Civil Service, and Other Personnel Matters

  • Eliminates provision allowing a police chief or fire chief, or an assistant above the rank of captain, to be restored to a prior held rank or a lower appointive rank upon being removed for unfitness
  • Clarifies the process for disciplining employees of the police and fire departments
  • Eliminates requirements that the City Manager, the city attorney, and department directors be given a public hearing before the City Council prior
    to being discharged
  • Exempts the city secretary’s office and the city auditor’s office from civil service
  • Clarifies that city employees in the unclassified civil service and city employees exempt from civil service do not have the right to appeal disciplinary actions
  • Requires a "reasonable person" standard be used in civil service trial board hearings and administrative law judge hearings
  • Provides that charter provisions and city personnel rules will prevail over any conflicting civil service rule

Elections and Campaign Contributions

  • Lets the city to adopt regulations for campaign contributions and expenditures for city elections
  • Requires publication (both before and after a City Council election) of all campaign contributions made to City Council candidates
  • Lets general elections be held on the first authorized election date after March 1 (instead of after February 1) of each odd-numbered year
  • General elections will be held in May (instead of April) of odd-numbered years if the state ceases to restrict election dates
  • Councilmembers elected at a general election will take office the first Monday following the 30th calendar day after the final canvass of the general election

City Boards and Commissions

  • Increases the civil service board from five to seven members
  • Civil Service Board member or adjunct member may be removed without written reasons or an opportunity to present a defense
  • City board and commission members will be appointed during September (instead of during August) of each odd numbered year and will serve a term not to exceed two years from October 1 (instead of from September 1) or until their successors are appointed and qualified
  • Advisory board and commission members may not hold over longer than nine months after the expiration of their terms or after the creation of vacancies in their positions
  • redistricting commissioners’ terms end when they complete the redistricting
  • City Council must appoint a charter review commission at least every 10 years to review the city charter and make a report to the City Council

City Treasurer and Financial Matters

  • Provides that moneys from the sale of lawfully authorized commercial paper notes are deemed to be in the city’s treasury
  • Makes the city’s chief financial officer the city treasurer
  • Clarifies that city money is deposited into the city treasury or city
    depository instead of with the city treasurer
  • Corrects obsolete references to director of revenue and taxation and the
    director of finance

Solid Waste Franchises

  • Allows city to grant franchises for solid waste hauling, solid waste pickup, solid waste recycling, and solid waste disposal
  • Exempts such franchises from rate regulation

Fire-Rescue Department

  • Renames the city’s fire department as the fire-rescue department
  • Gives members of the fire-rescue department police powers in rescue situations

Official City Newspaper

  • Eliminates requirement for an official city newspaper
  • Requires city notices to be published in newspapers of general circulation in the city (instead of the “official” newspaper)

Annexations and Disannexations

  • Clarifies the process for annexing and disannexing territory to and from the city

Gender Neutral Language and Correction of State Law Cites

  • Makes the charter gender-neutral
  • Corrects obsolete references to state law

Bond for Homeless Assistance Center

  • Authorizes City to issue $23.8M in bonds for the homeless intake assistance center

City Council Meeting: Charter Amendments

Today we voted on whether to present the Charter amendments to the voters in a November referendum.

Voters will not simply vote up or down on the entire amended Charter. Instead, each of the proposed changes will be set forth in separate propositions on the ballot.

For example, Proposition 1 will address increasing the Mayor’s powers. It will also include increasing the Mayor’s salary from $60,000 to $120,000.

Councilmember Rasansky moved, and I seconded, taking out the salary increase from Prop 1 and putting it in a separate proposition. The Mayor should get a salary increase if he or she has greater responsibilities. But the voters should have the opportunity to vote separately on the stronger mayor issue and the salary issue. By putting the two issues together, we run the risk of killing the strong mayor issue simply because voters may not want to increase the Mayor’s salary. That’s not right. People should have an honest opportunity to vote up or down on the strong mayor issue. We shouldn’t try to obscure the matter with a controversial salary increase.

ACTION: Failed 7-8 (AH voting yes)

Next, we voted on whether to put the Charter amendments on the November ballot.

ACTION: Passed 14-1 (AH voting yes)

Council Briefing: Charter Amendments

After talking with residents, my colleagues, and members of the gay and lesbian community over the past couple of weeks, I decided not to propose that we change our City Charter to protect city employees from discrimination based on sexual orientation.

Our Charter currently only protects city employees from discrimination based on race, sex, political affiliation, and religion. A couple of weeks ago, I proposed to my colleagues that we consider adding sexual orientation to this list. By and large, the response I got from the other councilmembers was very positive.

However, like most things in life, timing is everything. Also on the November ballot will be the proposed State of Texas constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. Members of the GLBT community were concerned that folks who would come out to vote against gay marriage would also vote against the non-discrimination Charter language. If the proposed non-discrimination Charter amendment failed here in Dallas, it would be a blow to the GLBT community and might have legal ramifications for the non-discrimination ordinance already in place. So I tabled the matter for an upcoming Charter amendment.

My DMN Editorial: Strong Mayor Bad for Neighborhoods

The following is an editorial I drafted for the Dallas Morning News concerning the current Strong Mayor proposal. The editorial will appear in the DMN tomorrow, in slightly edited form.

In 1893, a clever salesman and self-proclaimed cowboy by the name of Clark Stanley began selling a “miraculous” tonic at the World’s Fair in Chicago. Promising immediate relief from everything from rheumatism to sciatica, the tonic quickly sold out and remained quite popular until the public realized that Stanley’s elixir was little more than turpentine, mineral oil, and a touch of camphor.

Like Stanley’s tonic, the current strong mayor proposal has been promoted as a cure-all for our city’s ills. Tired of running over potholes? Think we need more police officers on our streets? Want to see our parks revitalized, our economy thriving, and the Trinity ditch rebuilt into a glorious river? Just sip a little Strong Mayor Tonic, dab a touch behind your ears, and things will be better in no time.

Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. There are few things more attractive than change when the status quo doesn’t seem to be working, but this proposal is not the change we need. It puts too much control in the hands of one person, the mayor, with no checks and balances.

While giving our mayor more control over some aspects of city governance may be a good idea, it’s important to be clear that we aren’t voting on the general concept of a strong mayor system. Instead, we are voting on a very particular amendment to our city charter that eliminates the city manager, transfers all authority to the mayor, and renders our city council impotent.

Putting all governmental power into the hands of one person is like sipping Stanley’s concoction of turpentine and mineral oil. It not only fails to cure the problems you have, it creates a new set of ailments.

The mayor’s powers under this proposal are expansive and range from the most momentous to the most mundane. The mayor would have the power to create and eliminate city departments at will, to condemn privately-owned buildings, and to hire and fire all 13,500 city employees, including police officers, with or without cause. If any of those employees wanted to appeal the mayor’s decision, they would have to go before a review board selected by the mayor.

The proposed charter amendment would also change our city’s board and commission appointment process. Currently, each council member appoints citizen volunteers to the city’s 40 boards and commissions, ensuring that neighborhoods from across Dallas have a voice at city hall. Under this proposal, the mayor alone would appoint all 500 board and commission members (except plan commissioners), threatening broad-based public representation on such boards as the Board of Adjustment, Park Board, Landmark Commission, Library Board, and Cultural Affairs Commission.

Most troubling is the mayor’s new authority to enact “orders” that would have the same force and effect as ordinances passed by city council. With no oversight or public debate, the mayor alone would have the power to create new law by decree.

In addition to these sweeping powers, the mayor would also oversee such day-to-day tasks as selecting secretaries for council members and appointing clerks to the municipal courts.

With so much power concentrated in one person, residents who aren’t “in” with the mayor will be shut out of Dallas city government for four to eight years and their council members will be powerless to help them. Right now, there are fourteen other people who can champion a cause or give voice to concerns that may not be among the mayor’s priorities, whether it’s downtown revitalization, our non-discrimination ordinance, historic preservation, or arts funding. If the new plan is enacted, unless the mayor is on your side, you will not have a seat at the table.

Still not convinced the Strong Mayor Tonic is bad medicine? Consider this: Dallas’ much-criticized ward politics, the so-called “fiefdom” mentality in which council members allegedly take care of their own districts to the detriment of the city as a whole, would only get worse under this strong mayor proposal. Under “Boss” Daley, the strong mayor of Chicago, council members who didn’t see eye to eye with the mayor saw trash pickup in their district reduced to once a month, while the mayor’s buddies enjoyed smooth streets and clean parks. That’s ward politics. And let’s not even talk about the corruption and cronyism that can arise in a system with no checks and balances.

This proposal is fraught with problems not because many of its primary financial supporters are from the Park Cities, and not because of the questionable motives of its chief proponents, but because, on its own terms, it is a poorly conceived change to our city government. The argument that some change is better than none ignores the dangers posed by this proposal. The citizens of Dallas deserve the opportunity to develop a reasonable alternative that gives the mayor additional authority while preserving balanced government and equal representation at city hall.

The real medicine of sensible charter reform may not offer the promise of a quick fix that the Strong Mayor Tonic does, but it also won’t leave the citizens of Dallas with the bitter aftertaste of a flawed form of government peddled as a cure for everything.