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Cotulla city councilors have taken the second of several steps in the long process of putting to voters an option for municipal government to switch from general law to home rule, for which a charter must be drafted.
A timeline for the radical shift that will give the city government increased influence over a broader jurisdictional boundary and may allow councilors to serve longer terms indicates that voters may be presented with a charter proposal in the spring of 2023.
Councilors first addressed the topic in December 2018, when they consented to a resolution that effectively opened the door to creation of a charter commission, which will be made up of local residents responsible for drawing up the city’s new document of government.
Mayor Javier Garcia said at the Tursday, April 14, council meeting that he believes five nominees to the commission will be sufficient to draft what both he and City Manager Larry Docvalina describe as Cotulla’s new constitution.
When a municipal government converts from a general law system under the auspices of the Texas Government Code to a home rule city, it is required to ask its residents for approval, and the charter will be presented to voters in next year’s election.
The mayor’s nominees for the charter commission are ET Page, former mayor Pablo Gonzales, Raul Rodriguez, Catarino Osio, and Tye Snowden. The names were put forward last week to no opposition from councilors, of whom four out of five were present.
“These names were chosen to represent a broad range in age and a good understanding of the charter and of city government,” Mayor Garcia said of the nominees. “Hopefully you will see the value of what we do.”
City Attorney Steve Pena told councilors that Cotulla may look to examples of home rule government set by Pearsall, Hondo, Cuero, Devine and others in South Texas, each of which has taken advantage of benefits in home rule by expanding their jurisdiction and having council table options.
Among those options are giving the mayor a vote at the council table (he presently serves only as a tie-breaker, as host of the council meetings, and as spokesman for city government issues and policy); and choosing the number of years to which a councilor may be elected to serve in a term. The council may also set term limits, restricting the number of consecutive times a councilor may serve.
A home rule city may also extend its jurisdictional reach from the present one mile to as many as six miles beyond the municipal boundary, not only in the provision of city services but also in the collection of property and sales taxes. This option, according to the city administrator, may enable Cotulla to lower its property taxes for local residents because revenues will be enhanced by contributions from outside city limits.
In some cases, both Dovalina and Pena said, commercial enterprises whose properties fall inside the expanded jurisdictional boundaries may opt to make “contributions in lieu of taxes” once a year, likewise boosting the city’s revenues.
“Presently, you are a Type A general law municipality,” the city attorney said. “You are subject to the government code. With a charter, as a home rule city, you can make changes. When a general law municipality wants to do something, it has to look to the government code. As a home rule city, the only thing you can’t do is conflict with state law.
“This is home governance,” Atty. Pena said. “The citizens are doing it.”
In addition to the original charter draft being put to voters next year, any changes in the city’s constitution will likewise go to a vote in a city-wide election before becoming local law. An example of such a move is being set by Pearsall this year, which has a proposal on its May 7 municipal election ballot to change councilors’ term lengths.
The city administrator said he believes Cotulla is ready to make the leap to independent governance because of its population growth and its expansion plans.
“We believe we are at a population of over five thousand,” Dovalina said last week. “We can operate as a home rule city. Our ETJ will extend to six miles, and that puts you closer to the energy industry plants.”
Dovalina said an estimate of Cotulla’s population on any given workday takes into account those staying in the city’s 25 hotels and motels, as the physical burden on the city is measured by an average of three people per water meter. In a residential population count, he said, the tally gives city government a good approximation of the number of people living or working in the city, but when hotel rooms are factored into the equation a population count exceeds 12,000.
A possible shift to four-year terms for city councilors, Dovalina and Pena said, would eliminate the constant cycle of election campaigning and give those at the council table time to focus on initiatives and projects.
“This gives you more latitude in your operations,” the city administrator said.
The city administrator and city attorney reiterated that any home rule options for Cotulla will be decided by voters, beginning with the charter document and the decision to convert the municipal government itself.
Dovalina said city residents can expect to keep track of the process through a series of town hall meetings before the issue is put to a vote next spring.
“It’s a big step for any city,” Atty. Pena said. “It is the highest form of governance for any city.”