A small Texas city may make history with an upcoming vote to change its type of governance.
Bay City, a town in Matagorda County, tentatively accepted a recommendation from its charter review commission to allow a public vote on a complete overhaul of the city’s government.
Though the council has until August 20 to place it on the ballot, the mayor has all but confirmed it will be put up for a vote.
The city’s Charter Review Commission delivered 32 proposed changes to council. That initial list was reduced to eight, one of those being a switch from a strong mayor-council form to a council-manager form.
The differences may seem like semantics, but they are significant.
Bay City currently operates under a home-rule charter with a strong mayor-council form of government. This means most decision-making power falls in the mayor’s hands rather than those of the council. This uneven distribution of power prohibits the checks and balances needed to hold the mayor accountable.
There are about five major categories of town and city governments. The two primarily found in Texas are council-manager and mayor-council. The mayor-council category can be even further broken down to strong-mayor versus weak-mayor.
In a strong-mayor city, Bay City’s current form, the mayor’s power typically reflects that of state government. The mayor, like a governor, has expansive authority and can hire and fire department heads at will, issue priorities, and make autonomous decisions, while the council acts largely as a legislative body. Though in these instances the council can team up to overrule the mayor, they often choose not to out of fear of retaliation from their districts.
In weak-mayor cities, the council is empowered and the mayor’s autonomy is limited. This means the council gets a voice in the staffing of city agencies, the agenda, and overall spending.
In a council-manager type of government, where some in Bay City hope to go, all three offices work together, but the responsibility of drafting and altering budgets, appointing departmental heads, and implementing and enforcing council policies falls on the city manager with ultimate approval by council.
Bay City’s current structure allows most of the power to reside with the mayor who has, according to some, abused it to the extent of altering the charter without voter approval and casting votes when his vote should be reserved only to break a tie.
While the council-manager form of government removes the power from the mayor, many are hesitant because it places it in the hands of an unelected bureaucrat who isn’t as accountable to the public.
Texas Scorecard previously covered some of the issues surrounding San Antonio’s city manager abusing her power, which included “a runaway city government, gross misallocations of city resources, and unpopular pet projects.” However, one can argue, unless citizens stay vigilant, these problems will occur across all government types.
As mentioned before, one of the issues in Bay City is the mayor regularly casting votes that aren’t specific to tie-breaking instances. While this isn’t unusual (Houston’s mayor does this as well), Bay City’s charter explicitly says, “The Mayor shall only be entitled to vote in the case of a tie.”
Residents think this, and other instances, are clear examples of the mayor violating the charter. But with the current strong-mayor form of government there is no one who can, or will, hold him accountable and make him adhere to the charter. This is where the city manager would come in.
The provision still has the final hurdle of getting council approval to get on the November ballot, but the odds of it doing so are high. As strong mayors across the state are increasingly exerting influence and using their power to pressure city councils, citizens across Texas should pay attention to the process and, if passed, the impact of the changes.