Citizens of Home Rule Cities in Texas Possess the Power to Push for Changes
Residents of home rule cities in Texas are afforded some ability, under certain circumstances, to force their city government to act on measures the government might not have undertaken on its own.
This form of self-determination is not available in other Lone Star state locales and manifests itself in four particular democratic procedures applicable in home rule cities.
Before we elaborate, let’s take a moment to review what exactly a home rule city in Texas is. Home rule cities may enact local ordinances in areas that are not expressly preempted by state laws. This contrasts with general law cities, which follow state laws in all regards. In essence, a home rule city may opt to largely manage its own affairs pursuant to local interests.
Home rule cities have populations of more than 5,000 residents and operate under their own city charters. There are more than 350 home rule cities in Texas and some local examples include Fulshear, Katy and Sugar Land. The form of government may vary; these include council-manager and mayor-council. Again, a home rule city’s charter provides for it to decide for itself how to run the jurisdiction, including the form of government it takes.
But what if a grassroots concern arises that the government is not (purportedly) performing in some regard? There are four specific ways by which citizens could light a fire under the home rule city government: (1) initiative; (2) referendum; (3) recall; and (4) charter amendments. Deployment of one of these kinds of actions is not an everyday occurrence, but they are provided for under state law.
This process allows residents to propose legislation themselves, if the city government has not opted to act in some regard. First, citizens must gather signatures on a petition for such a measure, which would include text for a proposed ordinance. Just how many signatures will vary by home rule charter; some might be a particular number of voters and others are calculated by some proportion of votes cast in a prior generation election.
The next step is for the city secretary to verify that the signatories are registered voters in the city. If the petition is deemed valid, the city government can either adopt the ordinance or hold an election on the proposed ordinance.
This process is the reverse of an initiative in that it gives citizens a mechanism to rescind an unpopular ordinance. It also can force the hand of a city council. The procedures for demonstrating the will and intent of voters is similar to an initiative as well. Once a petition to nix an ordinance is valid, the city council may, again, either repeal the ordinance itself or hold an election to do so.
This action allows for citizens to remove an elected member of city council before their term is up. To initiate this procedure, citizens would file an affidavit laying out the alleged grounds for removing the individual official. In response, the city clerk or secretary would provide the filer a petition form to collect signatures for the ouster. There are usually limitations on recalls. For example, a city charter may only provide for one recall attempt per council member per term. Also, a city charter is likely to allow a newly elected council member some running room, say 60 days, to get started in their position before being subject to a recall.
What if citizens in a home rule city find the city’s charter lacking in some regard? Local voters may engage in amending the charter. To push through such a change, a petition signed by 5% of voters or 20,000 voters (whichever is less) is sufficient to require the city council to call an election on a proposed charter amendment. City charters typically include what form of government is established, provisions for administering city finances, procedures for levying taxes and other matters.
While such undertakings may be rare, the spirit of self-governance in home rule cities extends to the citizens. Just as home rule cities can make many of their own decisions, their residents too have some recourse to change how they are governed.
Please do not rely on this article as legal advice. We can tell you what the law is, but until we know the facts of your given situation, we cannot provide legal guidance. This website is for informational purposes and not for the purposes of providing legal advice. Information about our municipal law practice can be found here.
Drew Shirley is a Houston attorney with experience in tort and business litigation and business and real estate transactions. Shirley graduated cum laude from Duke University, then received two advanced degrees – a master’s in journalism and a law degree – from the University of Texas at Austin. He joined the Randle Law Office in 2015.