Municipal (City) Government

Governance

Picture of Houston city council meeting
Figure 6.3 Mayor Sylvester Turner presided over this Houston City Council meeting in 2019.
Image Credit: Andrew Teas, License: CC BY​​​​​

Who runs city government?

Cities in Texas can be organized in a variety of ways. The most common structure is the council-manager form of government. Citizens in San Antonio decided long ago that the political skill set required to be elected mayor of the city was not necessarily the skill set required to manage the day-to-day operations of a municipal water and sewer system with more than 12,000 miles of pipe – enough to stretch from Texas to Australia. While the mayor of San Antonio presides over council meetings, the daily operations of city government are overseen by a professional city manager, who is hired by the city council for that purpose. Most major Texas cities, including Austin, Galveston, Dallas, and Fort Worth, use a council-manager form of government.

 

Picture of Chris Brown
Figure 6.4 Unlike most cities, Houston has an independently-elected chief financial officer - currently Chris Brown, speaking here to a Houston business group in 2018.
Image Credit: Andrew Teas, License: CC BY.

Houston, on the other hand, uses a strong-mayor form of government. The mayor of Houston not only presides over city council meetings, but is also the city’s chief executive officer. Houston’s strong-mayor system is considered especially strong since Houston mayors also have unilateral control over the city council agenda. On the other hand, Houston has a unique counterbalance in the form of an independently-elected city controller, a chief financial officer who must concur in all city expenditures and bond issues, and who can conduct independent audits of city departments.

Some cities elect all their council member-at-large, meaning any qualified person who lives in the city can run for any position. Other cities have adopted single-member districts to ensure that every part of town has a council member looking after the needs of its residents. At-large systems are frequently criticized for making it difficult for members of racial minority groups to be elected. Single-member district systems are criticized for creating a “turf” mentality that places parts of town in competition with each other for parks and libraries, removing the political incentive for council members to consider the needs of the city as a whole. Houston has a mixed system, with five members elected at large, eleven from single-member districts.