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Educate yourselves on city charter amendments

September 27, 2018

Last week, I was to moderate the town hall meeting on the charter amendments, co-sponsored by the Express-News and the University of Texas at San Antonio. As reported in this paper and elsewhere, it was unexpectedly canceled. While we do not need to revisit why that occurred, it did represent a significant missed opportunity.

Certainly, the event would have been heavily attended by those who have already committed to their respective sides in this debate, and that contingent was understandably disappointed that it did not materialize. But the bigger loss was to the many residents I heard from who have not made up their minds and anticipated the meeting as an opportunity to have their questions answered.

In the course of talking to people about the town hall in advance and reading over the submitted questions, I learned there is a great deal of justifiable uncertainty about exactly what we will be voting for or against.

For example, while Proposition A declares that council-approved zoning ordinances could be overturned by referendum, state law appears to limit that option. It is also unclear whether Proposition B would impact our current city manager if or when her contract is extended. Finally, implementation details for Proposition C, concerning binding arbitration between the city and the firefighters union, are complicated and not fully addressed in the ballot language.

Residents also had many questions on what the municipal charters of other cities allow and on the evidence behind the pro and con arguments.

My suggestions about all of this are twofold. First, I challenge organizers and advocates on both sides to respect these valid questions on their own terms and to provide clear answers, free of overstatement and innuendo.

It would be impossible, and undesirable, to keep politics out of this discussion. Democracy can be messy, loud and boisterous. But it may be possible for both sides to provide greater clarity on the substance, and potential implications, of these measures. San Antonians want, and deserve, more than slogans.

Second, and more importantly, I encourage citizens to engage in their own research on the issues.

One helpful place to start is with the agenda from the Aug. 16 City Council meeting, where the vote was taken to include these on the Nov. 6 ballot. Included in the draft ordinance provided there, in addition to the ballot language itself, is a markup of how our charter would be changed if any or all of these pass. It is helpful to see these amendments within this context.

Furthermore, it is fairly straightforward to engage in online research on what other cities do. For example, you can simply do a search for the Austin city charter and read its provisions for yourself. This is not to say we necessarily should, or should not, copy that model. Still, knowing what others do provides a useful backdrop of comparison.

Finally, take a look at the Texas Local Government Code, which is also easily searchable and simpler than you might imagine. It provides a helpful background on different types of Texas cities (San Antonio is home rule, enjoying the broadest authority), what powers they have and what the state prohibits.

As a professor, giving homework comes naturally to me, and I know these “assignments” are far from what most people have in mind for a relaxing weekend. But knowledge is power, and the most influential citizens are the ones who know how to discover the answers to their own questions.

Dr. Francine Sanders Romero is associate dean in the University of Texas at San Antonio College of Public Policy.

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