Explainer A data-driven story that provides background, definition and detail on a specific topic.

Civic explainer: What is the Dallas City Charter, and how can neighbors change it?

By Michaela Rush, Report for America Corps Member
|

January 18, 2024

Dallas News

Share this Post

This coming November, the people of Dallas will vote not only for the presidential election, but also for proposed amendments to Dallas’ City Charter. Until this Friday, Jan. 19, anyone in Dallas is invited to submit an amendment proposal to be considered for the citywide ballot. Feedback on proposed amendments is welcomed by the CRC and City Council from now through the finalization of amendments before the November election. 

What is the city charter?

The City Charter is Dallas’ governing document, overseeing everything from the number of city council members to how much power the mayor has. The city’s first charter was created in 1856, and in 2005 an amendment was added to ensure the charter is reviewed every 10 years by a city council-appointed commission, the Charter Review Commission. The full City of Dallas charter, including historical sections, can be found on the City of Dallas’ website

During a recent town hall meeting in South Dallas, Jake Anderson of the city’s office of government affairs said that the city charter is like Dallas’ constitution, whereas city codes are more like state laws. 

“[The charter] is more about where the power is located, who has the ability to make those policies and to dictate the day-to-day operations,” Anderson says. 

What is the Charter Review Commission?

The Charter Review Commission, or CRC, is made up of 15 members who are selected by the mayor and city council members. Their job is to review all suggested changes to the city charter, and work with residents and city staff to create a report of all possible changes.

How do you propose an amendment to the City Charter?

Anyone can propose changes to the City Charter. If you’re submitting a proposal, you’ll need to give the city:

  • Your name
  • Your email
  • The proposed amendment
  • What section of charter would be amended (optional)
  • Why you think your amendment is important

Proposed amendments can be submitted:

  • Online form (English or Spanish)
  • Via email charter.review@dallas.gov
  • In-person on a written form at City Hall, Room 4BN
  • Via mail on a written form to City Hall at 1500 Marilla Street, 4BN, Dallas, TX 75201: must be postmarked by Jan. 19

During a South Dallas town hall, Anderson said it was important for residents to know that a proposal is just the beginning of the charter updating process, so residents can propose anything from a general idea to a fully-formed amendment change. While the CRC will consider everything proposed, they may not accept all suggestions, and also will modify proposals based on feedback they receive. 

Related Article  What Dallas ISD parents are (and aren’t) being told about MAP tests

“If you’re thinking about submitting amendments, but you’re not exactly sure how it should look, please understand that this is a starting point for the commission and not an end point,” Anderson says. “They are looking at the spirit of what you’re submitting, and they will work and the attorneys will work to find the right language to implement those changes.”

What amendments have already been proposed?

All proposed amendments can be viewed on the City of Dallas’ website. As of Jan. 5, 67 proposals had been made, most notably regarding city council term lengths and the relationship between city council and the mayor.

For city council members, one proposed amendment is increasing the number of districts from 14 to 20. Philip Kingston, a former city councilman, proposed the bill as he believes this would decrease the number of people per district — each district currently has around 100,000 residents — and make it easier to “draw diverse districts.”

Currently, the Dallas City Council has 14 single-member districts, meaning that each council member is elected into office by voters who live in a specific portion of the city, and the council member represents that geographic area. Dallas also has an at-large mayor, who is elected into office by all Dallas voters and represents the whole city.

The last time the number of city council people was changed was in 1990, when a lawsuit moved the City of Dallas away from its make up of 8 single-member districts and 3 at-large members, the latter comprising two council members who represented the whole city and one who was the mayor.

Residents Roy Williams, Marvin Crenshaw and the Ledbetter Neighborhood Association in West Dallas brought the lawsuit against the mayor and the city for underrepresenting people of color through the at-large boundaries, approved by city council, that had resulted in white representatives from North Dallas. The federal government ruled on the residents’ behalf, ordering Dallas to change to the current 14-1 governing body.

Three different proposals also have been made regarding the term lengths of city council members. Currently, each council member serves two-year terms and can serve up to four terms (or eight years), and all council members are elected at the same time, in a municipal election in May during odd years. The proposed changes are as follows:

  1. From City of Dallas bond committee vice-chair Randall Bryant: Change to three-year terms, with a three-term limit (nine years), while also staggering elections, so not every district votes for a council member every year.
  2. From former councilman Philip Kingston: Change to four-year terms and a two-term limit (eight years), keep all elections in the same year.
  3. From CRC District 3 Commissioner Lisa LeMaster: Change to three-year terms, with a three-term limit (nine years), keep all elections in the same year. 
Related Article  The City created a home repair program for West Dallas residents, but they're struggling to qualify

Two proposals also have been made that would change the relationship between the city council, mayor and city manager. Currently, the City operates under a council-manager government, meaning that the mayor acts as an additional member of city council, and has to work directly with them to vote on initiatives and hire people such as the city manager and city secretary. The city manager oversees all day-to-day operations, but reports to city council for policy decisions. 

Here are two existing amendment proposals about this relationship:

  1. From resident Eugene J. Robinson: Eliminate the city manager position entirely; move responsibilities to mayor and council
  2. From resident Chris Culak: Move to a “strong mayor” system, where the previous responsibilities of the city manager fall to the mayor.

How can you give feedback on proposed amendments? 

Regardless of if you have proposed an amendment, anyone can give feedback on proposed amendments by emailing the commission at ​​charter.review@dallas.gov or by registering to speak at a Charter Review Commission meeting.

In West Dallas, District 6 City Councilmember Omar Narvaez appointed former District 2 Councilmember Adam Medrano to the Charter Review Commission, and in South Dallas, District 7 City Councilmember Adam Bazaldua appointed Dallas Eviction Advocacy Center managing attorney Stuart Campbell to the commission.

What charter amendments are already being recommended?

At the CRC’s Jan. 11 meeting, commissioners voted to include nine recommendations in their report to city council. All recommendations so far are technical, meaning language changes to match the charter to new state laws, city policies and the like, rather than substantial changes to city staff and elected officials’ powers.

  1. Technical: Language change from city manager presenting a proposed budget “on August 15,” to “by August 15”
  2. Technical: Language change of city council residency requirements to match the Texas Election Code, which would require council candidates to live in their district for six months and also in Texas for 12 months before the election filing deadline
  3. Technical: Removes the requirement for the city secretary to verify residency of local election candidates through an affidavit, because this task does not fit the secretary’s job responsibilities 
  4. Technical: Allow for a change in the start/end date of a council term if it would fall on a holiday or weekend, so council terms would start on the next business day, even when not a Monday
  5. Technical: Currently, candidates can’t miss tax payments to the city; this change specifies that they can’t be in debt to the office they seek to hold, based on legal precedent
  6. Technical: Currently, the city can create property liens — holds on property sales due to unpaid taxes — beginning on Jan. 1. This amendment would add that liens can also be created 30 days after a tax is due, which helps the city collect lien for taxes that grow monthly, such as hotel occupancy taxes.
  7. Technical: Changes the timeframe for employees to submit discipline appeals from within five to up to 10 days after a decision, to match personnel rules
  8. Technical: Language change to clarify that police and firefighters must complete a probationary period — a trial period before receiving a contract — in their new position, even if they’ve served in another City of Dallas role with a probationary period
  9. Technical: Language change to clarify that anyone may distribute a petition, even if not a registered voter, based on Buckley v. American Constitutional Law Foundation
Related Article  Reporter sought for Dallas Free Press, Dallas Morning News 'food apartheid' project

What happens after amendments are proposed?

After amendments are proposed, they are reviewed by the CRC and any appropriate city departments. The CRC will then work with city staff, using the proposal as a starting point, to consider the benefits of a possible change, and work to find the correct wording, while also ensuring that the proposal matches up with existing local, state, and federal guidelines.

It is important to note that the CRC does not have to move forward with any suggested amendments, but they are required to consider any suggestions submitted.

After the submission deadline has passed and all proposals have been reviewed, the CRC will work to create a report of all the proposals, as modified to fit city needs, to present to the City Council. City Council will then spend the next few months completing a similar review process, where council members meet with residents and city staff to receive feedback on how amendments could be modified, and what amendments have support.

In early fall, the City Council will finalize a list of proposed amendments, which will come back to residents on the ballot during the November elections. Amendments that receive enough support will then be added to the City Charter.

Share this Post

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *