February 13, 2019

Sidewalks Charter Election Will Have to Wait

The City Clerk, having diligently completed her review and verification of signatures, has now certified resident petitions for three charter amendments to be submitted to the voters concerning sidewalks.  That means the City Council will formally accept the petitions and call a special election at the next available opportunity.  Under Texas law, that won’t be until May of next year.

Article XI, Section 5(a) of the Texas Constitution provides:

Cities having more than five thousand (5000) inhabitants may, by a majority vote of the qualified voters of said city, at an election held for that purpose, adopt or amend their charters. ... Furthermore, no city charter shall be altered, amended or repealed oftener than every two years.  (Emphasis added).

The Attorney General has interpreted this language as meaning two calendar years, with a calendar year being 365 days, or 366 in a leap year.  Opinion No. JM-466 (1986).  In Bellaire, we last amended our charter at an election held for that purpose on November 7, 2017.

Texas Election Code, Section 41.001(a), requires that elections be held on uniform election dates, subject to certain exceptions not applicable here:

[E]ach general or special election in this state shall be held on one of the following dates:

(1)  the first Saturday in May in an odd-numbered year;

(2)  the first Saturday in May in an even-numbered year, for an election held by a political subdivision other than a county; or

(3)  the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November.

The November 2019 election date falls on November 5, just two days shy of two calendar years since our last charter election (the same scenario considered in the above-cited attorney general opinion).  Therefore, the next available election date is Saturday, May 2, 2020.

Note that a recent opinion request, inviting the Attorney General to reinterpret the two year requirement, also sought clarification whether it’s the election date or the canvass date that counts.  However, that request was subsequently withdrawn without explanation.  While it’s an interesting thought, going by the canvass date would not make any difference in our situation as we’d still be short two days.  The November 2019 election date is simply not an option.

A November 2019 special election, to go along with our general election, would have been preferable, to honor the petitioners’ intent and to give Bellaire voters an earlier up-or-down vote.  Moreover, because it doesn’t cost us any extra to conduct a special election at the same time as our general election, an off-cycle election always costs us more.  Add to that the fact that Harris County has told us they’re no longer able to run joint elections in May of even-numbered years, due to equipment retention periods and turnaround times following the March primaries, so we’ll be on our own and unable to split the costs with other entities as we do in our November elections.  The estimated cost of a May 2020 special election is upwards of $50,000, and could even be much more, if there are no voting machines available for lease (as opposed to purchase) at that time.  The way the timing works out is unfortunate for all of those reasons, but it is what it is.

Bellaire has been bitterly divided over sidewalks since the beginning of time.  This special election won’t somehow resolve that debate.  But it could fundamentally alter the terms of the debate, potentially with broader ramifications for our legislative process than intended.  Whichever side you’re on—pro or con doesn’t matter—amending the Charter is a pretty big deal and not to be taken lightly.  The Charter is our foundational document and the source of our self-governance, our “constitution,” if you will; as such, every one of us has a responsibility to take care and be well-informed when we go vote.  Though we’ll have to wait until May 2020 to do so, the silver lining is that we’ve got plenty of time to be informed.