Often referred to as “our local constitution,” the Killeen City Charter turns 72 this year, almost four generations after its adoption in 1949.
The charter grants incorporating powers to the city of Killeen, allows its residents to call elections, and creates a framework for city government that has lasted almost a century.
Because of the nature of a city’s charter, it remains a difficult thing to modify, requiring a majority of residents to agree to each individual amendment, which in turn requires a great deal of political willpower to educate and convince the public to pass charter amendments.
In the past 20 years, the most exciting charter revisions have included the creation of an interim government after former Councilman Jonathan Okray successfully recalled all but two members of the City Council in 2011, as well as the creation of single-member voting districts, which replaced the previous ward system in 2005.
Traditionally, however, charter amendments tend to lack excitement, being rote suggestions by the city attorney to add or remove verbiage to keep the city in line with state law.
This year, for example, City Attorney Traci Briggs has suggested that the council remove language that described methods for annexing without consent, as it was made virtually illegal by the 2019 state Legislature.
Additionally, the city charter does not need to be changed, according to Briggs. There is no ordinance or piece of legislation that requires a city council to review its charter every cycle.
That said, the charter is typically not visited more than once every two years, due to the necessity of a public vote.
This year, the city charter was placed under review by former Councilwoman Shirley Fleming to discuss the City Council’s monthly salaries of $100.
The process, starting by Fleming near the end of her final term and approved by the City Council in April, is lengthy and at times mind-numbing.
For actual review, the City Council has two options. The first, and perhaps easier option, is to simply go over the document, as a council. The City Council may, as it is currently engaged in doing, review the charter in parts at its council meetings and workshops, debating amendments right on the council floor.
Historically, however, citizen engagement has been a much more involved process. Typically, the “charter review committee” method has resulted in residents volunteering to source, suggest, and deliberate changes to the city’s charter, which are then placed on a ballot, pending approval from the City Council. While this method directly ties residents into the charter review process, actually getting residents to participate can be a challenge.
Councilwoman Mellisa Brown attempted to return to this particular system of citizen engagement at Monday’s council workshop meeting by making a charter amendment that would require citizen-led charter review committees to be formed. However, Brown failed to receive a second, as the City Council chose instead to invite residents to comment on the charter review process during citizen’s comments portions of council meetings while leaving actual discussion of the charter for the council chambers, emails, and one-on-one individual meetings.
Some council members, such as Mayor Pro Tem Debbie Nash-King expressed concern for the current process, arguing that the council should halt the process and introduce a more inclusive system.
“I am against changing the charter at this time because I believe the council should create a charter committee which would consist of residents and council members. It is very important to me that the residents have input on any changes to the charter because the City Charter to people is like the U. S. Constitution to the United States,” the councilwoman said in an email interview Thursday.
Without a consensus vote, then, the City Council will remain on its current trajectory, which is to review and debate charter amendments on the council floor while organizing individual events such as town halls.
Brown, in correspondence with the Herald, explained that residents benefit from having access to the city manager and attorney during town halls — a request that isn’t always possible.
“There will be questions, suggestions, and answers to citizens that could be the exact opposite of what happens at different town halls. Also, citizens deserve to be able to interact with the City Manager and City Attorney. This can’t happen when we are all doing separate or multiple town halls,” Brown said Thursday.
Councilman Ken Wilkerson, moreover, made his point clear during the Monday meeting, stating that it was “an individual’s responsibility” to host town halls.
However, the charter review process has already begun, as the City Council completed a review of Articles I, II, and XII Monday, moving to add amendments to those sections to the May ballot. To shift processes now would require the City Council and city staff to push back their timeline and find enough residents to form a charter review committee.
Currently, it does not seem as though there is enough support to do so.
City Council review of the charter will continue until Jan. 11 and Jan. 25, where the City Council will hold public hearings. The City Council is expected to pass an ordinance on Feb. 8 calling for a city charter amendment election.
For now, the City Council remains open to suggestion, with several members pledging to hold town halls.
“I will be hosting several community forums to keep the residents informed on the changes that are being recommended by the council so they will have the opportunity to provide input. I also encourage all residents to attend all charter review meetings because the City Charter is the voice for the people,” Nash-King said.
“I will have town halls on the Charter Review, but I firmly believe that the City should host at least one in every district,” Brown said.
City Council members’ contact information may be found online at killeentexas.gov.
The city charter may be found online at https://library.municode.com/tx/killeen.
City Council members were asked questions regarding the importance of the charter review process, what changes they would like to make to the charter, whether they would host town halls, and what residents’ role in the charter review process would be on Tuesday at 5 p.m.
As of Thursday at 5:50 p.m., Nina Cobb, Michael Boyd, Jessica Gonzalez, Ken Wilkerson and Rick Williams had not responded.
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