OpEd: Unelected, Powerful Management Districts Not Good Governance

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The following is an opinion piece written by College Station City Councilmember Jess Fields. City Manager David Neeley provided a response to the piece, which can be viewed by clicking here:

Tonight's College Station City Council meeting includes a proposal to approve the creation of two municipal management districts, or MMDs, within the Medical Corridor. Scott and White and the Med, respectively, will each be in their own district. These MMDs, which will can wield an incredible amount of power, are the epitome of bad governance. The rush to pass the proposal is equally bad process.

Each district will be governed by a board appointed by the city council to four year terms. The accountability of the districts to the people's elected representatives more or less ends there.

That's because Chapter 375 of the Texas Local Government Code grants MMDs a wide range of powers normally reserved for elected governments.

These authorities include, first and foremost, the ability to collect assessments. In the case of Scott and White's district, there will also be the authority to collect ad valorem taxes.

These funds are able to be used for a virtually unlimited array of projects, from infrastructure to parks and recreation, from fire fighting to public safety, from mass transit to water fountains.

The threshold for assessment is that only 51% of the properties to be assessed sign onto a petition. What that means, of course, is that as many as 49% of the other property owners could be opposed and an assessment still enacted. Once collected, the board can then implement the project, which as mentioned could be virtually anything.

The districts will also be able to sign agreements with any governmental entity, sue and be sued, acquire property, and even to impose impact fees. They will also have the authority to engage in economic development activities to, for example, provide incentives to private companies to attract them to their particular district.

These many powers are able to be exercised by governing boards whose members are not elected. In fact, under the statutes, if a vacancy occurs in the middle of a term, the board can fill it without approval from the city council. Really, other than issuing bonds, the boards can do just about everything without approval from the council.

If one of the districts were to fail or become otherwise insolvent, however, its dissolution would cause all of its liabilities to be transferred to the city. In other words, if one of these districts went belly up, taxpayers would be on the hook.

Curiously, the boards themselves might not even necessarily represent the entirety of their districts. After all, they are appointed by the city council, and board appointments are not exactly an objective process. Furthermore, the recent Dec. 4 special meeting brought out a concept previously unknown: that the biggest property owners in the districts would likely have multiple seats on the board. Obviously, this gives these property owners more influence over the districts and what projects are pursued, and how the money collected is spent. Combined with the unelected nature of the board, this setup creates a startling lack of accountability.

The special meeting on Dec. 4 was the first actual discussion about MMDs, as previous attempts to bring up the MMD issue were called out of order during council meetings dealing with the medical corridor. Because Dec. 4 was the first meeting in which the council discussed the MMDs as a policy matter, and now on Dec. 13 we are asked to pass the proposal forward to the Texas Legislature (which must approve a bill to create the districts, a mere formality), one has to wonder if nine days is enough time to consider such a profound issue that will certainly impact College Station's future.

Most of the powers heretofore mentioned, clearly in the statutes, were not even part of the presentation given to the council at the Dec. 4 meeting. The council could potentially write certain powers out of the bill, to narrow the scope of the districts, but no opportunity has been given for voting on what authority should actually be given these boards, which leaves in place all of the broad authorities granted by state statutes. In the frenzy of "getting things done," council was even told that perhaps the bill could be amended after it was already in committee in the legislature, instead of having the council vote on the details before approving the proposal.

Such haste is unnecessary and unwise.

The 30 day delay required by law from the time the council approves such a proposal to the time a bill can be filed does not necessitate such a rush, as the final deadline for filing bills is March 8 in this coming legislative session. That means that the city council could consider this issue for another two full meetings in January before making a final decision, instead of rushing it through.

We have a duty to fully consider all proposals that come before us, but the MMD issue has received only cursory treatment in the push to get it passed.

In light of the extraordinary authority given these unelected boards, that is truly unfortunate.