Not long ago, the Houston Professional Firefighters Association, along with some other groups, proposed clipping Mayor Sylvester Turner’s wings by running a charter amendment that would remove the City Council agenda from his control.
Under Houston’s City Charter, Turner is an unusually powerful mayor. Not only is he the city’s chief executive officer, he also controls the council agenda — something most “strong mayors” don’t do. The arrangement means Turner controls the City Council more than most mayors and council members must curry favor with him to literally get anything done. The fire union’s proposal — technically supported by a left-right group calling itself the Houston Charter Amendment Petition Coalition — would require any item to be placed on the agenda if three council members ask for it in writing.
The firefighters, who have tangled with Turner since the 2016 pension reform, clearly believe they stand a better shot of getting what they want from individual council members than from the mayor. But what’s interesting is that the proposal would weaken the mayor’s office at the same time many cities are moving in the opposite direction.
Cities in the United States are evenly split between a “strong” mayor system (in which the mayor is the city’s CEO) and a “weak” mayor system (in which the city council-appointed city manager is the CEO).
In recent years, several major cities have switched from a council-manager system to a mayor-council system, including San Diego, St. Petersburg, Spokane, Hartford, Richmond and Oakland. In addition, Los Angeles strengthened the mayor’s position via a charter amendment. There are several reasons for this trend, including:
► A growing concern that district-elected city councils can become deadlocked in key policies issues;
► Fear that, in big cities, appointed city managers can become too powerful in a district-election system; and
► A desire to vest strong leadership powers in one person accountable to all voters in cities with diverse constituencies.
So far, Texas has not jumped aboard the strong-mayor train. Houston is the only large city in the state with a strong-mayor system; all the rest have city managers. Dallas rejected a switch to the strong-mayor system a few years ago and El Paso went in the opposite direction, reinstituting the council-manager system.
But under the Houston City Charter, the mayor is really strong. Most strong mayors are separate from their city council. They have executive power and veto power but they have nothing to do with the council. In Houston, the mayor is the chief executive officer of the city and serves, essentially, as City Council president. He sits with the City Council and has total control over the agenda. (The only power Mayor Sylvester Turner doesn’t have that other strong mayors have is veto power — because, really, if you control the agenda, who needs to veto anything?)
It is hard to overestimate the importance of agenda control. No matter how strong the mayor is, he can’t get most things done — the budget, policy initiatives — without council approval. And you can’t approve anything unless it’s on the agenda. He who sets the agenda sets the course for the entire city government. So, to get your item on the agenda, you have to stay on the mayor’s good side. For this reason, Houston City Council members often speak of the need to get his permission to work on particular issues — a view I’ve never heard council members express in any other city.
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. (Yes, that Roy Hofheinz, the guy who built the Astrodome.) As mayor in the mid ‘50s, Hofheinz clashed with the City Council so frequently that the council ran a charter amendment to make the mayor’s job strictly ceremonial. They also impeached Hofheinz and suspended him for a month right before the charter election. In retaliation, Hofheinz ran his own ballot measure to make the mayor’s job stronger — and won.
The end result was not only complete control over the City Council’s agenda, but a hammerlock on information. Up until the mayoralty of Jim McConn in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, council members didn’t even know what was on the agenda prior to the council meeting. But after the city switched to district elections for most council members in 1979, a new breed of council member began to demand more transparency. As a result, McConn appointed an agenda director in the mayor’s office, a position that persists to this day.
Although the mayor’s office unilaterally determines the council’s agenda each week, the agenda director who presides over a pre-meeting attended by council staff — and, on occasion, council members themselves — where the agenda is discussed at length. Council members can’t put items on the agenda or take them off, but they can delay consideration of an item for a week, a tactic known colloquially as “tagging.”
All this is serious inside baseball at City Hall, but it’s important because it dictates how policy issues flow to the City Council and how business gets done. The mayor currently controls the flow of both information and issues to the council. In other words, he is in complete control.
From one perspective, the fire union’s proposed charter amendment makes sense. Whatever the union’s motives, such a measure would simply bring the Houston mayor’s powers in line with “strong mayors” in other cities. But, on the other hand, being a mayor is a pretty thankless job. You’re the focus of everybody’s ire because you have to make tough decisions, and for that reason it’s usually viewed as a dead-end position. Therefore, it can be hard to get good people to run. Journalist Jake Blumgart, who specializes in writing about cities, recently wrote an entire story questioning why anybody would want to run for mayor these days.
So, one of the few reasons a good candidate would run is power. If the mayor has less power, will good candidates still run? Or will the field be winnowed only to those who are more interested in seeing themselves on TV than in governing the city?
Of course, it doesn’t have to be an either-or proposition. The fire union proposal might work if it were coupled with other reforms. For instance, if the mayor loses control of the agenda, he would almost certainly need veto power over council actions. And if information flow is a problem, Houston could follow the direction San Diego took when instituting the strong-mayor system — adding an office within the council to provide independent budget and policy analysis.
Every city government has its structural quirks, and Houston has more than its share. Whatever the fire union’s political motivations are, reform may be worth a look. But only if it’s a comprehensive examination that includes other possible reforms such as veto power and independent budget analysis.
William Fulton is Director of the Kinder Institute. He formerly served as the (extremely) weak mayor of Ventura, California.