KETR

Piece of Mind: Princeton Struggles to Write a Home-Rule Charter

Jun 27, 2019

City governments make rules and regulations that have the most immediate impact on the lives of those who reside within a city’s corporate limits. Thus, it usually is imperative that they be able to exert maximum local influence and control.

To do that they need a charter, a framework that sets forth the rules the city writes for itself. Absent that charter, a city must govern under what’s called “general law,” or laws set forth by the state.

Welcome to Princeton, Texas, a rapidly growing community on the move in Collin County … but also a city that seems unable to write a charter under which it governs itself.

Princeton has conducted four municipal elections that sought to form a city charter, making Princeton a “home rule city.” It has failed all four times. Indeed, one of the major opponents of those failed measures, Michael Biggs, called it a “state record” for the number of futile charter election efforts.

Two issues appear to drive the opposition to the creation of a home rule charter, according to City Manager Derek Borg: taxes and annexation.

State election law prohibits Borg from commenting for or against a ballot initiative, he said. “We can explain these things in a factual manner,” he said. Campaigning actively is a non-starter.

Cities can seek to create home rule charters once they obtain a population of 5,000 residents, Borg said. Princeton’s population stood at 6,800 residents after the 2010 census, but figures to at least double that amount when they take the census in 2020.

Borg sought to explain the difference between a general law city and a home rule city. He offered this example: General law sets limits mandated by the state on how close sex offenders can live within schools or day care centers, Borg said, but home rule charters “give cities more flexibility, enabling them to write laws that meet what I guess you would call ‘local needs.’”

Taxes and annexation have sunk election efforts to establish a home rule charter.

On the tax issue, Borg noted, opponents of a charter have argued that the city could increase its municipal rate to as much as $2.50 per $100 assessed property value. The current Princeton rate is 68 cents per $100, Borg told me. “That would be insane” for the city increase its rate to $2.50 per $100, he said. He added that the city never would do what the home rule foes fear would occur.

As for annexation, Borg noted that state law requires cities to seek property owners’ permission to annex their property into the city limits. Home rule, he said, used to allow cities to annex land without property owners’ permission – until the 2017 Legislature changed the rule to disallow “involuntary annexation.” Which brings me to this point: The most recent charter election occurred in 2014, three years before the Legislature removed the involuntary annexation provision from state law.

For Biggs, a real estate developer who lives about 500 feet outside the southern Princeton corporate limits, annexation is by far the major issue that gets in the way of the city enacting a home rule charter.

Biggs blamed the failure on what he called “dishonesty” at City Hall. “As a general rule, I am not opposed to home rule in most cities. Princeton is not like most cities,” he said.

He said prior city councils and city administrators tried to annex property improperly. He said the council would meet in “executive session,” which is closed to the public, to discuss annexation; Biggs said the council’s declaration that annexation fell into the “real estate purchase” exemption often cited in the Open Meetings Law was not allowable.

Biggs also said previous charter proposals have made it “too difficult to recall” city council members. Biggs explained that draft charters “made it virtually impossible to recall anyone” by setting narrow timeline windows to get recall measures on the ballot; the city also sought to put too much “discretionary power” in the hands of the city secretary, who could rule whether the complaint brought against council members “met the standard” allowed for recall.

“It is easier now to remove a city council member going through the district courts than it would have been under the proposed charters,” Biggs said.

Borg said most of the opposition to the home rule charter creation issue comes from residents who live beyond the city limits. They reside in unincorporated areas of Collin County, he said, explaining that much of the resistance comes from residents of The Peninsula neighborhood.

Biggs said he owns up to the residency issue and does not “hide it from anyone. I have lived here a long time and I have a lot of friends here.” Biggs also noted that many members of his family also own property inside the city limits, which he said gives him standing to discuss municipal issues, even though he cannot cast ballots on them at election time.

The city in the past has appointed charter commissioners who would write the ballot measure, which then gets approval by the city council.

What might prompt Biggs to support a future home rule ballot measure? “They would have to remove (certain) barriers” to recalling council members, he said, and not mess with the state law that requires property owners to grant permission to be annexed into a city.

He fears that “these people” at City Hall “just can’t be trusted.”

For his part, Derek Borg continues to scratch his head while trying to carry out council policy under the limitations set by state government.

John Kanelis, former editorial page editor for the Amarillo Globe-News and the Beaumont Enterprise, is also a former blogger for Panhandle PBS in Amarillo. He is now retired, but still writing. Kanelis can be contacted via Twitter @jkanelis, on Facebook, or his blog, www.highplainsblogger.com. Kanelis' blog for KETR, "Piece of Mind," presents his views, and does not necessarily reflect the opinion of KETR, its staff, or its members.

Kanelis lives in Princeton with his wife, Kathy.