I am returning to Houston, exactly 25 years after moving to Galveston in 1984. Jan Coggeshall had just been elected mayor along with the best city council the city has had for the past quarter century, including Lou Muller, John Sullivan, Marc Cuenod, Phil Lohec, Don Brooks and James Thomas.
The island had just gone through Hurricane Alicia and the new city council worked together to move into a modern emergency management system, beginning with a series of annual hurricane awareness town meetings to establish evacuation as a standard practice when a major storm threatens; and developing a method of identifying residents so they could return to the island after a hurricane.
Although Galveston had a reputation for being insular, Coggeshall was active in the Houston-Galveston Area Council and the United States Conference of Mayors, holding major leadership roles in both organizations.
I was impressed with the efficiency of the council-manager form of government, which was new to me. I had just spent 20 years in Houston as a reporter and city employee.
Houston has a strong mayor form of government. The mayor is the chief executive officer and all city employees work for him or her. This includes the staff of the city council members and the city controller.
Although individual city council members in Houston have been successful in pushing forward specific initiatives such as fluoridation of the water system, laws against smoking and regulation of billboards, almost all city management in Houston originates in the Mayor's Office. Literally in the mayor's office, with the door closed to the media and the public, as well as other members of the city council. This includes decisions on the city budget, bond issues, annexation, water and sewer plant locations, and all other items on the city council agenda. The mayor, assisted by his department heads and advisors, makes the policy decisions; and the city council is asked to affirm them, deny them or amend them.
I knew about the council-manager form of government when I moved to Galveston, but had little experience with it. I had lived under a council-manager form of government during my youth in Port Arthur, but I didn't spend much time at City Hall in those days.
I underwent a bit of culture shock when I started covering Galveston City Hall.
I was very impressed with the openness of public meetings. New issues were raised at the city council workshop table, then they were discussed and decided in public. It was obvious from the start that the city manager worked for the city council.
"Whatever y'all want," said the city manager. "I work for you."
I was very impressed with the difference between the strong mayor and council-manager forms of government. However, my first impression has been tempered by changes in the membership of the city council and changes in the City Charter throughout the years. Two changes have had a particularly negative impact on the city.
The first is the establishment of single-member districts.
This was done at the insistence of then federal judge Sam Kent to settle a lawsuit filed by community activists.
The rationale for the change was to ensure the election of "minorities" to the city council, despite the fact that when I came to Galveston in 1984 there were two black members who had been elected at-large. There was no Hispanic at the time, but had been in the past.
The new districts were gerrymandered by the federal court to guarantee the election of two black members and to make it likely that a Hispanic member would be elected. That did happen in the first election under the new system - two blacks and one Hispanic were elected. One of the blacks, James Thomas, had previously been elected in a citywide election. But the Hispanic elected to the Hispanic-impact district chose not to seek reelection to a second term, and since then there have been no Hispanics elected to that district. There have been Hispanics elected to other districts, however. Two black members have usually been elected to the districts that were gerrymandered for blacks, but a white woman was once elected and then reelected to a "black" district. She voluntarily chose not to run for a third term.
Thus, the switch from at-large to single-member districts has had absolutely no impact on the racial makeup of the city council.
However, the system, designed to benefit "minorities" has severely reduced the voting empowerment of the majority of the city's voters, including those who choose to identify themselves as "minorities". Instead of being able to vote for seven members of the city council, now residents may vote only for the candidates in their city council district and the mayor. Rather than seven contested elections, Galveston voters now have two.
And, to make matters worse, in the most recent municipal election in 2008, the mayor had no opponent and two members of the city council were unopposed. So voters in those districts had no reason to go to the polls at all. The voter turnout was embarrassingly low. One race was decided by a total of 177 votes and the most hotly contested race was decided by a total of 768 votes.
Another change that had a major negative impact on the city was an amendment to the City Charter to hold all city elections in Galveston in the same year.
Previously, the mayor and two council members were on the ballot one year, two other members the next and the final two members the third year. This provided a continuity of government that was lost by the decision to elect all members at the same time. Every May, the voters had the opportunity to express themselves.
Now, in a year that follows the island's worst disaster since 1900, while voters in most other Galveston County cities will be holding elections in May, voters in Galveston have no opportunity to seek new leadership. There will not be an election for Galveston City Council until May 2010.
And it's not like we have a good government in place. After describing the city council of 1984 as the best in the past quarter century, I am not pleased to say that our current government is the worst that I have seen in any community that I have observed in the more than 40 years of my professional career.
I wrote the following two paragraphs for an essay that I wrote, but did not publish, before Hurricane Ike.