Contrary to Council Member Adam Bazaldua’s belief that delaying a vote on proposed charter amendments is “good governance,” a local news outlet published an editorial calling out the Dallas City Council for its slipshod approach to leadership.

The Dallas Morning News noted that “[t]his pattern of avoiding or delaying dealing with a problem consumes city staff time and frustrates residents. The council took an equally muddled approach on short term rentals, on the recent bond process and now on the looming challenges of having to fund the pension obligations of public safety and other city employees and put together a lean city budget.”

On June 26, council members, in a 12-3 vote, deferred adopting an ordinance calling for a special election in November, when voters will decide which of the proposed charter amendments should be approved.

“The Dallas City Council had known for some time that this past Wednesday would be judgment day to approve or reject charter amendments to present to voters this fall,” DMN wrote in its editorial. “Yet, the council found reasons to postpone a decision and to pretend that this is all new in order to justify deferring and masking politically hard choices — like ill-advised proposals to give pay raises to the council and mayor and to extend council terms from two to four years.”

Council members have had several briefing meetings since May to offer amendments to the proposed Charter Review Commission amendments or accept them as written and propose their own charter amendments. The most recent was on June 18, when the council chose not to allow voters to revisit term limits.

For 45 minutes during their meeting on June 26, council members didn’t debate which amendments should be on the ballot in November, except for one. Instead, they argued over whether they needed another six weeks to contemplate that decision — but only after Council Member Cara Mendelsohn (District 12) made the first motion to delete the charter amendment that would extend council terms from two years to four years.

“This is so self-explanatory,” she said. “I’m not even sure it needs a lot of discussion other than to, say, our state representatives and congressmen [have] two-year terms. It’s very clear that it’s annoying for council members to run every two years. I don’t prefer it, either, but this is actually the way the citizens address our performance.”

Bazaldua (District 7) often reminds the council that he watched several Charter Review Commission (CRC) meetings and said “one thing was clear from the residents” about term lengths.

“That was that the terms should be higher,” he said. “Actually, there were, I think, four overall amendments that were submitted by residents of Dallas with various terms … but [it] ended up failing with their conversations.”

Jake Anderson of the City Office of Government Affairs said the CRC did, in fact, review three- and four-year terms as allowed under state law:

“There was a little bit of input on extending the term lengths, in favor. We did not hear much opposition against [it] when [the] National Civic League and the International City and County Management Association both spoke. They recommended four-year terms as well.”

Council members conducted straw voting during multiple briefing meetings on whether to advance proposed amendments. The four-year term proposal on June 5 was one of them.

“Currently, the ordinance reflects four years, which is a reflection of us already going through this exact exercise and listening to the public that we had proposed this,” Bazaldua said. “For just the simple reason of the fact that this was originally initiated from the public and also that this was essentially ratified in straw-vote form to be on our ordinance, I don’t agree with going back.”

Starting last fall, members of the Charter Review Commission met for months to debate which proposed amendments should be forwarded to the council. They ended their work in April.

“The only reason that I’m concerned about the two years … is the fact that at least the six months of any two-year term is spent campaigning,” Council Member Jaynie Schultz (District 11) said. “I’m not supportive of four years.”

Council Member Paula Blackmon (District 9) said that “there’s lot of amendments that we have before us that need to work out” before the August 19 deadline to call the election for November.

Mendelsohn, though, rejected Blackmon’s assertion.

“You know, this morning, there was an editorial from The Dallas Morning News titled, ‘Dallas charter amendment plan is a progressive mess,'” she said. “… So, with that point, I would encourage my colleagues to really think through what it is they think is good governance.”

Council Member Chad West (District 1) also wanted to vote on the ordinance rather than pushing discussions into August.

“I was the one who brought this back up … for a council vote,” he said. “My original intent was for this item to be combined with November odd-year elections, which … would make it easier for voters to vote and [provide] less fatigue as they would come out once every four years in a time of the year when they would be used to voting, allowing for more enfranchisement of voters.”

Bazaldua, however, had different ideas. He told the council he’d like to “hold this item under advisement” until August 14, the date of the council’s next voting agenda.

“I do think that just this first amendment speaks to how much we have some things we can work through,” he said. “And there are several pieces — whether it’s fine-tuning language, whether it is kind of just doing a little bit more due diligence on the implications of what’s being proposed, etc. I think it would be good governance to use the comment that was just spoke of for us to have that due diligence done,” he said.

The council and its committees are in recess until August. Bazaldua said council members can take advantage of that time.

“I think that there’s a lot that can be done from now until August 14 for us to come back and this be much better process, if you will, on the floor. So, for that reason, I would like colleagues to support so that we can have good governance, be productive, and be efficient whenever we are here on the horseshoe,” said Bazaldua.

Council Member Tennell Atkins (District 8) echoed Bazaldua’s position.

“You know, we will be breaking for the holiday. We get plenty of time to look at it. There’s some items on the charter that we need to have some discussion among ourselves. So, this gives us a fresh start to look at it during the holidays,” said Atkins.

It’s not clear what council members intend to do during recess without possibly violating the Texas Open Meetings Act (TOMA). They cannot deliberate or discuss City business as a majority, but elected representatives often do so by creating walking — or rolling — quorums. An example would be several members — but fewer than eight — meeting physically or otherwise to discuss the public’s business, rendering any action taken in a public meeting a mere formality. Rolling quorums are commonly achieved when council members “reply all” to emails or text messages.

However, council members independently communicating with the interim city manager and staff members does not violate TOMA.

“It’s like we really need to sit down and work on this and have good conversations,” Council Member Omar Narvaez (District 6) said. “… But I think that tapping the brakes — you hear me say it all the time — let’s tap the brakes. Slow it down because when we rush, we get bad policy. When we slow it down, we get it right, and we get good policy.”

Council Member Gay Donnell Willis (District 13) shared a similar opinion.

“There were a lot of constructive comments that colleagues made around some of these amendments, and I appreciate the work of the commission,” she said. “But it did seem a little like a little bit of a horse race. I mean, to just gun and gun and gun to get to this day. And I don’t know that … makes for the best policy.”

It’s that assessment that drew criticism from DMN in the editorial:

“It is laughable when council members talk about not rushing decisions when their propensity to run from serious comprehensive deliberation creates a governing and information vacuum. Is it any wonder that the City Council gets cold feet and tries to cobble together complex policy recommendations on the fly as crucial deadlines approach?”

Council Member Paul Ridley (District 14) asked that staff brief the council again on the proposed amendments on August 7.

“I do not agree to kicking the can down the road to August,” Mendelsohn said. “And I also will just say I’m highly suspect of a lot of work happening in July.”

Laura Morrison, an assistant city attorney, said that if the council doesn’t approve the election ordinance by August 19, it cannot be placed on the November ballot.