Sugar Land Charter Changes fuel political opposition

By Michael Sudhalter

The Sugar Land City Council approved the placement of six proposed City Charter changes on to the May 7 ballot.

The majority of voters must approve the measure in order for it to go into effect to the City Charter, which is the municipal version of a Constitution.

But the proposed changes have already drawn opposition from Diana Miller, founder of the political group, “Sugar Land Votes.”

Miller announced that she will challenge two-term incumbent At-Large Position 1 Council Member Himesh Gandhi, and her group has endorsed longtime Sugar Land resident and business owner Myatt Hancock for Mayor.

Hancock’s candidacy is significant because he’s the third candidate in the mayoral election, joining current city council members Harish Jajoo and Joe Zimmerman. If no candidate garners more than 50 percent of the vote, the top two will enter into a June runoff election.

City officials defended the proposed Charter Changes – which include (1) changing council terms/term limits from the current two 4-year-terms to three three 3-year terms) and (2) equalizing the petition signature requirements to 15 percent as well as basing percentage on registered voters for all categories for consistency.

The other four proposed changes largely clarify and update existing language in the city charter – (3) city council members will communicate through the City Manager’s Office than directly to city employees, (4) updating the severability clause – which means if one aspect of city policy is struck down by a judge, the rest of it remains valid unless it’s also struck down, (5) clarifying the definition of council members and city council, and (6)clarifying that city council has power to regulate all city-owned property.

The current language says “city-owned grounds” and with the various property the city owns, “property” is a better fit, according to Charter Review vice chairman Dennis Parmer, the Sugar Land Heritage Foundation Commissioner and a city council member from 2003-09.

A five-person Charter Review Committee is appointed every five years. The most recent Committee met in 2013 and announced its recommendations in the spring of 2014.

The other members on the council were former Sugar Land Mayor Bill Little, Sugar Land attorney Jennifer Chang, former Judge Robert Kern and attorney Steve Weatherred.

The city council decided not to place the item on the ballot until 2016, when the maximum amount of voters would be heading to the polls – with a mayoral election and both at-large seats on the ballot.

Current Sugar Land Mayor Jimmy Thompson, who is term-limited this year, said the charter change recommendations are “much more citizen-friendly” than the status quo.

“Two years comes around more often – I’ve seen a wholesale turnover of council since I was elected in July 2008,” Thompson said. “I think three 3-year terms is a reasonable compromise.”

If the voters approve the changes, three-year terms will go into effect beginning with 2017 elections, and incumbent politicians will be grandfathered to where they can be in office for a total of 10 years.

Parmer said there’s a learning curve during a council member’s first term, and just as soon as they’re starting to become acclimated, they have to begin thinking about re-election.

Perhaps the most contentious of the Charter Changes is the percentage for a city to hear a petition. It’s currently 30 percent of the voters who voted in the last election.

“Under the status quo, we could have a recall election with 100 signatures – that’s not right,” Thompson said.

Parmer added that “the Charter shouldn’t be predicated on a single election” and that convincing 1.5 of 10 people is a fair amount to bring a petition to the city.

“If it truly is a problem, then it shouldn’t be a problem getting those signatures,” Parmer said.

Some residents have alleged a power grab for the city to make it more difficult to petition its leaders.

“(If the Charter Changes pass), it will be impossible to lance a successful recall petition or referendum/initiative petition in the future – the only effective protections citizens can employ against an out-of-control local government,” Sugar Land Peter Vogt said.

The petition issue is still a sensitive one for Miller’s group. They collected enough signatures to oppose a 900 multi-family unit proposal by Newland Communities.

Sugar Land restricts apartments to 200 per mile, but there are exceptions under the conditions of “Planned Development” when they’re part of mixed-use development.

As a result of the opposition and bad publicity, the developer took the multi-family aspect out of its proposal, and the city council voted for the Planning & Zoning Commission to take a closer look at restrictions on apartments.

The results of the Charter Changes vote could impact citizens who don’t currently reside in the city limits.

Sugar Land plans to annex the unincorporated communities of Greatwood and New Territory by the end of 2020, which would increase the city’s 83,000 population by approximately 30,000.

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