Jul 5, 2023 - News

Fair for Houston pushes for regional planning council changes

Photo: Courtesy of Austin Lewellen/Fair for Houston

Organizers who want Houston to have more representation on the area's planning council say they have enough signatures to force a vote on a charter amendment.

Why it matters: Houston and unincorporated Harris County account for 57% of the region's population — but get only 11% of the vote on the Houston-Galveston Area Council's board of directors, per January Advisors.

  • Smaller, more rural governments have more of a say in the region's planning efforts, which is how the council has been composed since it was formed in 1966.

Catch up quick: Houston is part of H-GAC, the region's metropolitan planning organization.

  • Houston is one of 37 local governments on the H-GAC board of directors and one of 28 governments on its transportation policy council.
  • The organization makes myriad policy decisions for the entire 13-county region, from doling out federal flood mitigation funding to approving transportation projects like the North Houston Highway Improvement Plan.

The consequence: The council voted in 2022 to give Houston just 2% of the $488 million granted to the region for flood mitigation following Hurricane Harvey, despite the city receiving the brunt of the damage.

  • "The city certainly has been disappointed in how the … funding was allocated," Mayor Sylvester Turner said in a statement to Axios. "We have also voiced concerns that the voting at H-GAC does not reflect the proportional population of its members, especially considering that Houston-Harris County is a major reason why significant dollars flow into the region."
  • "We will continue to try to work through these issues," Turner continued. "We have no objections to the people expressing their view."

Driving the news: Organizers with Fair for Houston, a grassroots initiative, say they have gathered enough signatures for a charter amendment to be placed on Houston's Nov. 7 ballot.

If approved by voters, the amendment would force H-GAC to negotiate with the city for more representation. If that didn't happen within 60 days, Houston would leave the council.

The catch: Metropolitan planning organizations like H-GAC must have the region's largest city onboard, per federal rules.

  • If Houston left the council, H-GAC would be forced to dissolve, Fair for Houston organizer and engineer Michael Moritz argues.
  • The city would then create a new metropolitan planning organization under new federal rules that say the organizations must "consider the equitable and proportional representation of the population of the metropolitan planning area when designating officials."

What they're saying: "That would place the metropolitan planning organization side of H-GAC in an existential crisis, because they need Houston as the largest city in order to exist," Moritz said. "... The path of least resistance here is just for the H-GAC to negotiate."

The other side: "What is being proposed would essentially kill the essence of a regional planning council of governments," Waller County Judge Trey Duhon told the Houston Chronicle in March.

  • "It would allow two jurisdictions to essentially control and dominate regional decisions amongst the 13 counties. That undermines the entire purpose of the council of government."

What we're watching: The city secretary will verify whether the signatures are valid.

  • If organizers have indeed gathered enough signatures, voters will decide on the issue in the fall.

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