Thinking About the Proposed Charter Amendments

Dr. Malcolm Cross

The latest weekend edition of the Stephenville Empire-Tribune had an excellent article summarizing the proposed amendments to the city charter which the council voted to adopt and pass on to the voters this November.  The article allows its readers to start thinking intelligently about what changes, if any, should be made to the charter.

Most of the proposed changes are of a technical nature, and should provoke no controversy.  Enacting them is simply part of the “housekeeping” which citizens and officials should engage in from time to time to make sure the government isn’t too burdened with unnecessary rules, regulations, and procedures.  But several proposals, if enacted, will change the way we select council officials—and not necessarily for the better.

What may prove to be the most controversial amendment is proposed Amendment 1, which, if passed, will reduce the number of council members, other than the mayor, from eight to six.  I’ve long thought this was a bad idea:  A reduction in council size reduces the opportunities of the voters to select council members, reduces the chances for diversity on the council, and increases the work burden on the remaining council members.  Some may think a smaller council can operate more efficiently, but the greatest determinants of efficiency are the levels of civility, courtesy, and maturity brought by the council members to the task of public policymaking.  Nine well-mannered council members can operate far better than seven, if one of the seven is the sort of bully or crybaby who takes issues too personally, who believes whoever opposes him is a mortal enemy, and who is more interested in conducting feuds and settling scores than in transacting the people’s business.  However, although I’m currently skeptical of the benefits of passing this amendment, I should note an interesting argument made by one of its supporters:  He argued that reducing the number of seats on the council may well increase the competition for the existing seats, and thereby increase the quality of council members as well as their sensitivity to the demands of the public.  At the very least, it’s a point worth thinking about.

Proposed Amendment 2, to increase terms of office for council members and the mayor from two years to three is more promising.  It will give newly elected officials more time to learn their jobs before facing the voters again, and thereby might make them better council members in the long run.  On the other hand, it would, if passed, reduce the opportunity of the voters to remove council members of whose work they disapprove.  There’s much to debate here.

There may be even more debate concerning proposed Amendment 3, which imposes term limits by prohibiting city council members from serving more than two consecutive terms, and requiring those who wish to serve longer to remain off the council for at least one year before running for another term.  Term limits are a good idea for officeholders who otherwise have the resources to affect the outcome of their elections, whether by channeling more money to their districts or redrawing district boundaries to better suit their electoral needs.  But a Stephenville city council member has no such power of incumbency, and hence there seems no need to protect the public from the possibility of anyone getting too much power.  Free elections are the best way to remove unsuitable council members while preserving the right of the voters to elect, or re-elect, those whom they want to serve them.

Our current election system is stable, and none of the three proposed amendments already discussed should threaten that stability, but proposed Amendment 14, to provide for recall elections for the mayor and city council members, may well do so.  A recall election is one in which the voters may choose to remove an elected official from office before the end of his term.  The virtue of such an election is that it relieves the voters of the need to suffer through the term of an official who, whether because of “incompetency, misconduct or malfeasance in office,” as the Empire-Tribune puts it, should be removed as soon as possible.  The danger here is that some voters may, out of pure dislike for certain council members, may choose to launch recall elections and thereby keep city politics in constant turmoil.  One hopes that should this amendment pass, then clear and binding definitions of “incompetence, misconduct or malfeasance in office” will be offered and serve as standards to determine when recalls are necessary and when they are simply frivolous and malicious.  I personally don’t see the need for this amendment at all:  Among all the city council members I served with, there were variations in competence, viewpoint, and civility, but none deserved to be recalled.

These proposed amendments will be on the ballot in November.  The Empire-Tribune has done its job in informing us of these proposals.  We, the people, must do our job in thinking these proposals through, and voting on them this fall.

Malcolm L. Cross has lived in Stephenville and taught politics and government at Tarleton since 1987. His political and civic activities include service on the Stephenville City Council (2000-2014) and on the Erath County Republican Executive Committee (1990 to the present).  He was Mayor Pro Tem of Stephenville from 2008 to 2014.  He is a member of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church and the Stephenville Rotary Club, and does volunteer work for the Boy Scouts of America. Views expressed in this column are his and do not reflect those of The Flash as a whole.

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