Houstonians want a bigger voice at H-GAC

Houstonians want a bigger voice at H-GAC
Houstonians want a bigger voice at H-GAC

Local advocates have launched a petition aimed at increasing the city’s voice on the Houston-Galveston Area Council, a 13-county regional planning council that has been criticized by Houston leaders for what they consider an unfair allocation of federal funds.

Comprised of more than 100 local governments, including cities, counties and school districts, the council often serves as the decision maker for distributing federal funding for flood protection, workforce development and large-scale infrastructure work to member jurisdictions.

READ MORE: Houston is set to get just 2% of $488 million in federal flood funds from the regional council

With more than 2.3 million residents, Houston represents more than 30% of the population within H-GAC’s jurisdiction, but only two city officials serve on the 37-member board.

Since mid-January, volunteers from the newly formed Houston-Galveston Area PAC have been collecting signatures from Houston voters under an initiative called “Fair for Houston,” with the goal of putting a city charter amendment on the November ballot.

The proposed charter change would have Houston withdraw from any regional planning group without a proportional voting structure based on population size. The goal, said organizer Michael Moritz, is to force H-GAC to overhaul the voting system.

“This organization continues to impact Houston in a way that has great human cost,” Moritz said. “Flooding infrastructure not built in Houston is going to affect how our city experiences the next major hurricane. And transportation projects are going to affect the risk of someone being injured or killed in a car crash or the prevalence of asthma in children in schools near freeways .”

“Houston is the biggest city in the metro area,” he said. “We have significant leverage here. H-GAC would be in an existential crisis if they’re not willing to listen to Houston and adjust their voting structure.”

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Waller County Judge Trey Duhon, chairman of the H-GAC board, said a proportional voting structure would give Houston and Harris County too much power and go against the spirit of regional representation.

“H-GAC is a regional planning organization and must always consider the big picture when it comes to our Gulf Coast region and the impact we can have on each county in H-GAC, large or small,” Duhon said. “What is being proposed would essentially kill the essence of a regional planning council of governments. It would allow two jurisdictions to essentially control and dominate regional decisions among the 13 counties. It undermines the whole purpose of the council of governments.”

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In early 2022, H-GAC’s board awarded Houston only $9 million of $488 million in federal flood funds, while Galveston and Fort Bend counties were awarded $89 million and $83 million, respectively. Mayor Sylvester Turner then said that Houston may need to “reevaluate its relationship with H-GAC going forward”.

That same year, H-GAC’s Transportation Policy Council, which distributes federal transportation money, approved support for a now $9 billion plan to rebuild Interstate 45 despite strong objections from Houston and Harris County leaders over concerns about dividing neighborhoods and displacing citizens and businesses.

During a city council meeting in January, Turner again expressed frustration with H-GAC’s “unfair” fund distribution. At the same time, he said Houston must continue to build relationships with jurisdictions in the region and promote cooperation. The City Council voted unanimously to renew Houston’s membership on the Area Council at that meeting.

“We get used to pulling down the big dollars, but when it comes to making the distribution, we have to fight hard just to get a much smaller proportional share,” Turner said. “I think at some point inequality has to be addressed. Now, what’s the most constructive way to do that? I think the jury is still out.”

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The mayor’s office declined to comment on the Houston-Galveston Area PAC’s proposed charter amendment and petition.

At-Large Councilwoman Sallie Alcorn, who serves as chairwoman of H-GAC’s board, said she doesn’t want to take a position on the group’s charter amendment proposal, but supports re-examining the council’s current makeup to potentially give Houston more representation.

Last year, Alcorn requested an analysis of H-GAC’s fund distribution, which found that despite the heightened tension surrounding the flood mitigation money, the bulk of funds related to other areas, such as workforce development and transportation, have been distributed proportionately.

“I do my best to work from within and build relationships with the other members of the board so we all look out for the best interests of the region,” she said.

District A Councilwoman Amy Peck, the only other Houston representative on the board, said she hasn’t been very involved and has only been to one H-GAC board meeting so far. She said she supports the concept of restructuring H-GAC, but would need more information about how a potential withdrawal could affect Houston’s funding opportunities.

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