The City of Lubbock’s Charter Review Committee will host the first of at least two public hearings at 5:30 p.m. on Tuesday at Citizens Tower. This is one chance for citizens to have a say in updating the city’s guiding document - which hasn’t seen many changes in the over 100 years since it was adopted.
Senior Reporter Sarah Self-Walbrick has followed discussions about charter reform since they started last year. Here’s what you need to know as the process gets going:
Why is the city considering updates to the charter?
The city council has talked about doing this for some time, mostly to modernize the document. The full charter is available here.
The charter was adopted in 1917 and has been infrequently amended since. The most recent amendment happened in 2004, when the electric utility board was created.
Some things the charter gives the city the power to do just aren’t relevant anymore. For example, the charter allows the city to regulate potential nuisances like velocipedes. A velocipede is that old-timey bicycle with a large front wheel. You’re unlikely to see someone riding one down 19th Street these days.
A 2010 committee suggested many language updates to remove outdated references, but because citizens vote on charter amendments, that committee did not think an election to make those edits was necessary at the time. A lot of that committee’s work will likely be considered this time around.
Other aspects of the charter, for example some election details, are now superseded by state rules. Wording to acknowledge changes like that will also be considered.
What is the process for updating the charter?
A seven-person committee has been appointed to make charter review recommendations to the council. That committee has to host at least two public hearings to get citizen input. The first one is Tuesday and the second is tentatively planned for April 15.
Committee Chairman James Arnold said at the first committee hearing last week that he wanted to hear from citizens early in the process. The committee is allowed to schedule more public hearings.
The charter review committee has been tasked with delivering its recommendations to the council in June, before the council and city employees begin looking at next year’s budget. Then, the city council will decide which possible amendments will go to a public vote, after another public hearing for citizens.
The amendments would be added to the Nov. 2 general election ballot. Each amendment would be a standalone item.
While charter amendment elections have not happened often in Lubbock, they’re common across Texas. During one presentation, City Manager Jarrett Atkinson gave a few examples. Amarillo citizens recently voted on two amendments to their charters and Wichita Falls voters recently considered 10 changes.
What could be brought up?
Beyond language updates, there are several key items that have been talked about so far and are likely to be explored in these public hearings and committee meetings.
Pay - Currently, the mayor of Lubbock makes $900 a year and city council representatives make $300 a year. The elected officials receive other benefits, but their salary hasn’t changed in nearly a century.
The political organization Lubbock Compact would like to see that increased. The group sees the out-of-date compensation as a barrier for many citizens to run for office.
But what should that pay be? There are a few ways this could be changed.
One option is to pay council members a “living wage.” Based on the average income in Lubbock, $60,000 a year has been thrown out as an amount. In a Lubbock Compact survey, which received 231 responses, 65% of participants supported this amount. Conversely, in a Lubbock Chamber of Commerce survey answered by 525 people, a full salary was the least popular option with 13% of respondents in favor. It’s worth noting that Lubbock County elected officials make what’s considered a full salary.
Another option is a pay raise that would serve as more of a supplemental income. District 1 City Councilman Juan Chadis explained it well - this kind of pay could make up for work time lost to council responsibilities. A quarter of people who filled out the Lubbock Compact survey were in favor of this option, specifically for $30,000 per year. Nearly half of respondents to the Chamber’s survey supported a modest increase to council’s wages, but more like $7,200 a year for the mayor and $3,200 a year for district representatives. Another 24% of Chamber survey participants were in-favor of an inflation-adjusted wage of $24,000 a year for the mayor and $7,800 a year for councilmembers.
The Lubbock Compact survey found 4% of respondents did not support a wage increase. The Chamber survey found 18% of their respondents did not support a wage adjustment.
If a pay raise goes to a vote, the current council has indicated they would only want it to benefit future representatives and not themselves.
Term limits - Right now, the mayor of Lubbock serves a two-year term and district city council members serve four-year terms. Extending the mayor’s term to four years has been talked about.
However, as reported by the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal, a 1983 U.S. District Court ruling states Lubbock’s mayor should be up for election every two years. Because of this court ruling, changing this in the city’s charter could require more than just an election.
At-large positions - That same 1983 lawsuit ended at-large city council positions in Lubbock. Before Jones v. The City of Lubbock, each council representative was elected by the whole city. The court’s decision created six geographic districts and elected officials now represent the area they live in. This directly led to diversity on the council when the first two people of color were elected. The lawsuit was recently chronicled in the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal.
A Lubbock Chamber of Commerce survey about charter reform asked participants if they would support adding two at-large positions elected every two years to the city council. More than half of the Chamber’s respondents were in favor of adding these seats.
Kyle Jacobson, vice president of government relations for the Chamber, said this option was added in-hand with term limit conversations. If the mayor’s term is extended to four years, having two council members up at two-year intervals along with half the council that already goes to an election every two years allows voters to change representation more frequently, should they want to and based on candidates.
Dr. Nick Bergfeld with the Lubbock Compact has argued that history would repeat itself if these positions were added and minority populations in Lubbock could end up underrepresented.
Like term limits, adding these positions to the city charter could require more than an election.
Voting for ordinances - The “Sanctuary City for the Unborn” ordinance is going to a public vote in May because of the city charter, even after the city council unanimously didn’t pass it and its legality is questioned.
The charter allows a committee to collect voter signatures from more than 25% of the number of registered voters in the last municipal election to bring an ordinance or resolution to a citizen’s vote.
With this issue boiling over at the same time the city is reviewing its charter, it will likely be brought up.
What do some of these issues look like in other Texas cities?
Municipal governments vary, but here are two examples.
Laredo has a similar population size as Lubbock, with just over 250,000 residents, and is often used for comparisons. Laredo’s city council includes the mayor, who’s elected by all voters every four years, and eight council people who represent geographical districts. The Laredo mayor earns $75,000 a year and councilmembers make $50,000. That city has a similar local government structure.
Amarillo, with a population just under 200,000, elects a mayor and four at-large city council representatives every two years. According to their city website, “the Mayor and each Councilmember receives compensation in the amount of $10.00 per diem, for attendance upon each regular meeting of the Council.”
How do I share my opinions?
The first public hearing is March 30 at 5:30 p.m. at Citizens Tower, 1314 Ave. K. Commenters can share their thoughts in person, over Zoom at this link or by emailing email@example.com. Emailed comments will not be publicly read during the hearing but will be given to the charter review committee, according to a news release from the city.
A second public hearing is tentatively scheduled for April 15.
Have a news tip? Email Sarah Self-Walbrick at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her reporting on Twitter @SarahFromTTUPM.
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