The City of San Antonio’s Charter Review Commission will soon consider various reforms to the City’s charter, or constitution, including extending terms for the mayor and City Council members from two years to four years.
Mayor Ron Nirenberg charged the new commission he formed in March with exploring changes related to development, public finance, ethics, and governance. The subcommittees will make recommendations to the full 11-member commission, then the full body will finalize proposals for City Council. The City has a state-mandated deadline of Aug. 20 to call for a charter amendment election for Nov. 6.
Longer terms for elected officials, Nirenberg and others say, would allow policymakers to have more time to focus on their agendas on behalf of their constituents without being distracted by re-election campaigns every other year. Others say that two years provides voters with more accountability over their elected officials and that four years is too long for a potentially ineffective council member or mayor to hold office.
The overall time a council member or mayor could serve would remain the same, but officeholders would be limited to two terms. Currently, mayor and council members are limited to four, two-year terms.
“There would still be an eight-year limitation on how long a person can serve [in a position on Council],” said Frank Garza, a former city attorney who chairs the Governance Committee, during the commission’s second meeting on Tuesday.
If the city moves forward with four-year terms, then another proposal to stagger terms would not be recommended, he said.
Each subcommittee is considering a list of suggestions from Nirenberg:
- Development: Whether to change the Planning Commission’s membership to 11 and ensure that each member is appointed by each council member and the mayor.
- Public finance: Whether to allow the City to issue debt to support affordable housing.
- Ethics: Whether any changes should be made to the composition and appointments to the Ethics Review Board (ERB); whether the ERB should be autonomous with independent oversight and power to compel testimony, and whether any other recommendations would strengthen the board’s effectiveness or authority; whether the City should be able to appoint an independent ethics auditor with a legal background.
- Governance: Whether mayoral and Council terms should be extended from two to four years with a limit of two terms and whether terms should be staggered; whether City elections should be moved from May of odd-numbered years to November of even-numbered years to coincide with state and federal elections.
Most subcommittees are still in the exploratory stages of policy on their suggestions.
Dr. Charles Cottrell, chair of the Ethics Subcommittee, said the group is largely on-board with establishing a more independent Ethics Review Board.
The Governance Subcommittee will soon consider changing the threshold number of signatures required for recall petitions. Currently, 10 percent of the total voters that were able to vote in the most recent municipal elections are required to initiate a recall election for the mayor (10 percent of citywide voters) and City Council members (10 percent of each district).
Garza would like to see that language clarified and possibly adjusted. The subcommittee will discuss that element during its next meeting.
The legislation that allowed cities to move their elections to coincide with state and federal elections has expired, Garza said, so all the commission could do at this point is to “recommend to council to put in their next legislative [request] package to allow that legislation be amended so that the city can look at the issue.”
A series of public meetings will be held throughout the commission’s recommendation process, the first of which will be May 24 and 31 at locations yet to be determined. There is also an Outreach Subcommittee working with City staff to publicize the events and collect feedback.
During Tuesday’s meeting, most commission members did not comment on subcommittee work or recommendations so far. Those conversations will likely take place once subcommittee recommendations are formalized. The last time the charter was updated was in 2015, and it can only be changed every two years.
Meanwhile, the City Clerk’s office is still reviewing more than 100,000 signatures the firefighters union claims to have collected in support of three petitions to change the City Charter.
Those petitions aim to limit future city managers’ salary and tenure, force arbitration between the union and the City on a new contract, and make it easier for citizens to put proposed ordinances to a public vote – and override City Council decisions – by requiring fewer signatures and allowing petitioners more time to collect them.
Nirenberg and City Manager Sheryl Sculley have criticized the petitions, with Nirenberg saying that such charter amendments would hurt the city by turning it into a “referendum state.”