Big Charter Changes Up for Scrutiny

HomeCity of AustinCharter Revision CommissionBig Charter Changes Up for Scrutiny

Charter Review Commission schedules public hearings to gather citizen input before finalizing recommendations

Updated Wednesday May 9, 2018 9:45pm (Charter Review Commission—not Charter Revision Commission)

We the citizens of Austin, in reverence to the dignity and enrichment of all people, do ordain and establish this Charter to assure economic, environmental, and cultural prosperity throughout our community.

—Preamble to the Austin City Charter

The Austin City Charter is a fundamentally important document that bestows the “powers, privileges, rights, duties, and immunities” that form the foundation and structure for our municipal government.

Such is the Charter’s importance and the need to maintain stability that it may only be amended every two years and then only by the affirmative approval of each proposition offered at the polls.

From time to time the City Council appoints a Charter Review Commission and charges it with identifying potentially useful changes, vetting the resulting proposed changes with the public, and recommending to the council certain propositions to be placed on the ballot.

Propositions may also be put on the ballot via initiative petitions that contain a sufficient number of signatures of the city’s registered voters.

The City Council may on its own authority place Charter amendments on the ballot, as it did in 2014 by offering an 8-2-1 alternative to the 10-1 council structure that got on the ballot through initiative.

The 2018 Charter Review Commission was created last June and has met a dozen times, beginning on November 6, 2017. Now it has reached agreement on numerous propositions that it will offer for public input, and then decide what to recommend the City Council put before voters in the November 6, 2018, election.

The Commission last met March 5 and heard pitches for two additional Charter changes—both of which drew heated debate. This article first will cover these two new proposals and then summarize the proposals already approved by the Commission.

Planning Commission appointments

Fred Lewis
Fred Lewis

The first hot-button issue addressed at the March 5 meeting was a staff recommendation on Charter provisions related to terms and appointments of Planning Commission members. Attorney Fred Lewis had studied the issue beforehand and was so adamantly opposed to the recommendation that he immediately moved to table it. (Staff Recommendation linked below.)

Lewis said this was an effort by City staff to “gut the developer prohibition” in the Charter. He was referring to Article X Section 2, which states:

“The Planning Commission shall have a number of members equal to the number of members of the council plus two (2) additional members, a minimum of two-thirds of the members who shall be lay members not directly or indirectly connected with real estate and land development.” (Emphasis added.)

Jerikay “JK” Gayle, a special assistant city attorney who graduated from the University of Texas School of Law in 1983, briefed the Commission on the intent of the recommendation and the problem it was designed to solve. The same section of the Charter cited above requires two-year terms for those appointed to the Planning Commission. Five are to be appointed in every odd-numbered year and four appointed in every even-numbered year.

But that was not accomplished when the first 10-1 Council took office in January 2015. All council members made Planning Commission appointments at the same time and no provision was made to stagger the terms. That despite the fact that terms of the council members themselves were staggered through a drawing that assigned five council members to two-year terms and the other five to four-year terms.

This situation, coupled with the Charter’s silence as to how a Planning Commissioner can be removed, leaves some City Council members saddled with holdover appointees, as when Allison Alter won the District 10 seat by defeating incumbent Sheri Gallo in the December 13, 2016, runoff.

“We want to be in compliance with the Charter and there’s no way to get the stagger back,” Gayle said.

Planning Commission dominated by development interests

Lewis said, “If we were talking about terms I wouldn’t have an issue. But for two and a half years (the Commission) has had seven or eight people involved in development. The City has refused to fix it.”

To stagger the terms of Planning Commissions, Lewis said they serve at the will of the Council and can be removed by majority vote.

“Let me tell you what the legal department is saying,” he said. “They’re saying you can’t remove three current members of the Planning Commission that are over the limit because of the two-year term. They’re saying even if they are ineligible you can’t remove them.”

After considerably more discussion, Commission Chair Jessica Palvino said this matter would be brought back at a future meeting for further consideration.

But there’s more to the story

What Lewis left unsaid in the Commission meeting was even more confrontational. He told The Austin Bulldog the City has not acted to bring Planning Commission appointments in line with the City Charter because it wants to maintain dominance of real estate interests to recommend Council adoption of CodeNEXT.

KXAN-TV aired a report on this situation the evening of March 5. That report states that Lewis and six others signed a letter sent to the District Attorney October 30, 2017, and asked the disqualified commissioners be removed.

Leslie Pool
Leslie Pool

Council Member Leslie Pool in that report said she plans to press the Law Department for answers on how to remove commissioners and how soon.

Lewis made a call to action on this matter a Community Not Commodity email newsletter he issued on Tuesday, the day after the Charter Review Commission.

“The Planning Commission’s pro-land developer bias has skewed the review of CodeNEXT—the most significant municipal policy decision in three decades—and countless other land development matters. This is a conflict of interest that impacts every homeowner, renter, and business in Austin.”

The newsletter asked recipients to call the mayor and council members and “demand a fix to this problem.”

Remove auditors from civil service?

Jason Hadavi
Jason Hadavi

The second hot-button issue aired at Monday’s Commission meeting started when Deputy Auditor Jason Hadavi made a request for a Charter revision that would exempt all auditors and audit investigators from Municipal Civil Service.

He said the change was justified by the need to be able to investigate Municipal Civil Service without having conflicts of interest. (City Auditor’s Proposal linked below.)

“I’m not saying that we will audit Municipal Civil Service right off the bat but the whole thing is to increase transparency,” Hadavi told commissioners.

The change would affect 23 employee positions in the City Auditor’s office, which operates independently of the City Manager and reports directly to the City Council, per City Charter Article VI, Section 17.

If approved, Hadavi said, the change would add to the exceptions listed in City Charter Article IX, Section 1(B), which already lists seven categories of employees exempted from civil service, including the City Attorney and all assistant city attorneys.

Employee union rep opposed

Carol Guthrie
Carol Guthrie

Carol Guthrie, business manager of AFSCME, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees AFL-CIO Local 1624, strongly discouraged the change Hadavi offered. She said it would make the auditor’s staff at-will employees and strip them of protections afforded by Municipal Civil Service. They would lose access to grievance process and lose all recourse, Guthrie said.

“I hope you table this forever,” Guthrie said.

She noted that voters approved a City Charter amendment in 2012 that provided a civil service system for most city employees not already covered by a state civil service statute.

Election records indicate that Proposition 10 was approved November 6, 2012, by 57.81 percent of voters.

After voter approval, negotiations were needed before implementing Municipal Civil Service rules in 2014, Guthrie said. Those rules were made part of City Charter Article X, Section 4.

Fred Lewis asked why the City Auditor could not avoid the conflict by having an audit of Municipal Civil Service done by outside contractors.

Hadavi said that was not practical because of the expense and the fact that the City Auditor’s staff would still have to work with outside auditors to bring them up to speed and ensure they complied with the standards for city audits. “So the potential conflicts are still there,” he said.

Guthrie agreed to bring back more information and action was deferred to a future Commission meeting.

Five propositions about set for public vetting

Each of the recommended propositions were formulated by Commission committees that researched and debated various options before bringing the ideas to the full Commission for further discussion and a vote.

The Commission is required to hold a series of public hearings to solicit broad-based citizen input on the proposals before finalizing its recommendations to the City Council. These hearings are scheduled to kick off Wednesday March 21. The full schedule is listed below.

The proposed changes are:

Public campaign financing—Establish a Democracy Dollars Voucher system for financing qualifying mayoral and council candidates beginning with the 2022 elections. While the proposal formulated by a committee and discussed by the full Commission on numerous occasions, it is still a work in progress. The Commission will address the proposal again at its March 12 meeting and more changes could be made.

The current draft proposal of February 26, 2018, is linked below. It states the program would be funded with $1.5 million a year provided from the city’s general fund. According to financial projections, that sum would sustain the program going forward.

Democracy Dollars Vouchers—Two $25 vouchers for each position (mayor and council district) for which a recipient could vote—would be mailed on February 1 of election years to registered voters as well as those eligible to vote but not registered. Vouchers could be given directly to participating candidates or mailed to the Independent Ethics Commission.

City Council candidates eligible to solicit Democracy Dollars Vouchers would have to qualify by gathering at least 150 signatures accompanied by at least a $10 donation from each signer. Voucher support for City Council candidates would be capped $75,000 in the general election and $150,000 total.

Mayoral candidates would need 400 signatures and accompanying $10 donations to qualify and could receive no more than $300,000 in voucher support for the general election and $600,000 total.

The current draft calls for providing $5,000 upfront in seed money to each qualifying Democracy Dollars Voucher candidate, although the Commission has discussed raising the amount to as much as $20,000. Whatever amount is initially allocated to candidates would count against the caps.

Independent Ethics Commission—This new Commission would administer the Democracy Dollars Voucher system and enforce all campaign finance, ethics, conflicts, and lobbyist disclosure laws.

The Commission would be independent of the City Council, City Manager and City Attorney and would be operated by an executive director who reports to a public board. (Campaign Finance Committee Recommendation is linked below.)

If this item is placed on the November 2018 ballot and fails then its duties would be assigned to the City Clerk.

Council Budget Officer—A Council Budget and Efficiency Officer would be appointed by and report directly to City Council members on matters pertaining to the City’s annual budget.

The annual cost for a five-person staff is estimated at $800,000 a year.

Petitioning Process Revisions—This Charter change is being considered to modify the number of council votes presently in City Charter Article IV Section 2, which states:

“The people reserve the power to approve or reject at the polls any legislation enacted by the council which is subject to the initiative process under this Charter, except an ordinance which is enacted for the immediate preservation of the public peace, health or safety, which contains a statement of its urgency, and which is adopted by the favorable votes of five (5) or more of the council members.”

The proposed change would change the needed five votes (a supermajority under the seven-member at-large councils before January 2015 when the 10-1 council took office) to a supermajority of eight with the current council.

The change would also address numbers of signatures required to recall a council member per Article IV Section 6. Currently the charter requires signatures of 10 percent of the voters in the territory from which a council member is elected. That number would be increased to 20 percent for council members but remain at 10 percent for the mayor, who is elected at-large.

Further, the change would require more specificity as to why recall was being sought. The Charter currently requires “a general statement” of the grounds for which removal is sought, and one of the signers must make an affidavit that the statement is true.

The proposed change “shall contain one of the following grounds for which removal is sought” and includes a long list of specific shortcomings that might justify removal. (Proposed Chapter 2-9 City Budget and Efficiency Officer is linked below.)

City Attorney Appointment—The Austin City Attorney is currently appointed by the City Manager.

The 2012 Charter Review Commission recommended and the City Council approved a ballot measure to give voters the chance to approve a proposition to permit the City Council to appoint the City Attorney. [A copy of the Recommendation Regarding Article V, Section 6 (City Attorney) is linked below.

On November 6, 2012, Proposition 6 netted 49.37 percent of the votes but the measure was voted down by 50.63 percent.

The 2018 Charter Review Commission has approved a recommendation that this proposition once again be put before voters. The proposal notes that the City of Austin is an outlier in terms of how the city attorney is appointed. A Texas Municipal League survey back in 2010 shows that 73 percent of home rule cities authorize the council to directly appoint the city attorney.

The proposal concedes that this change “will likely have an impact on existing City laws, rules, practices and procedures (but) due to time and resource constraints, the full extent of this impact cannot be accurately assessed by the (Commission).”

Public hearing schedule

Wednesday, March 21—6:30 pm at the Asian American Resource Center in northeast Austin, 8401 Cameron Road, 78754.

Wednesday, March 28—6:30 pm at Anderson High School in northwest Austin, 8403 Mesa Drive, 78759.

Tuesday, April 3—6:30 pm at Dove Springs Recreation Center, Southeast Austin at 5801 Ainez Drive, 78744.

Saturday, April 7—1 pm at Austin City Hall, 301 West 2nd Street.

Tasks assigned to the Commission

The Commission was established by Resolution 20170622-040 June 22, 2017, and tasked to complete its work as soon as practicable, seek citizen input, consult with boards and commissions, and formulate recommendations to amend, revise or repeal provisions of the City Charter.

The Resolution directed the Commission to address campaign finance, city boards and commissions, requirements for citizen-initiated petitions, appointment of the City Attorney by the City Council, and correction of clerical matters. That scope could be expanded by the City Council or requested by the Commission.

Recommendations have to be made with the policy reasons for each proposal, the estimated fiscal impact, the impacts each proposal may have on existing city laws, rules, practices and procedures, and the proposed ballot language for each.


Article IV Initiative, Referendum and Recall, March 5, 2018

City Auditor’s Proposal for Article IX, Section 1, of the City Charter

Campaign Finance Committee Recommended Draft, February 26, 2018

Petition to amend the Austin City Charter concerning CodeNEXT  (1 page)

Petition for Reasonable Petition Requirements for Voter Referendum  (1 page)

Proposed Chapter 2-9 City Budget and Efficiency Officer (4 pages)

Recommendation Regarding Article V, Section 6 (City Attorney), February 12, 2018

Resolution No. 20170622-040

Staff Recommendation Regarding Article X, Section 2 (Planning Commission)

Related Bulldog coverage:

IndyAustin Nears Petition Goal: Plans to continue petitioning at city library facilities despite having been barred before, March 6, 2018

Library Commission Debates Petitioning Rights: Petitioners appeal for access to library properties, library director and attorney adamantly opposed, March 2, 2018

Council Campaigns Funded by Tax Dollars? Seattle council member elected with Democracy Voucher funds briefed Austin residents and Charter Review Commission, February 23, 2018

IndyAustin Petitioners Barred from Libraries: One IndyAustin petitioner issued a trespass notice to prohibit setting foot on Spicewood Library property, February 19, 2018

No CodeNEXT Election in May: Four weeks after saying petitions would be filed by mid-January, IndyAustin is punting, January 18, 2018

Tax Dollars for Council Campaigns? Charter Review Commission considering public financing to boost voter participation and reduce advantage of personal wealth, January 10, 2018

Push for CodeNEXT Election May 5: Petitioners aim to file with City Clerk by mid-January to trigger public vote, December 26, 2017

CodeNEXT Opposition Organizing in Earnest: Neighborhood Activists launching efforts to drum up support and raise campaign funds, October 10, 2017

Trust indicators:

Ken Martin has been covering local government and politics in the Austin area since 1981. See more on Ken on the About page. Email [email protected].

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