Big Press Conference, Big Pressure Promised
to Get Council Decision Before Council Elections
Event photographs by Mario Cantu
© The Austin Bulldog 2012
Posted Thursday, March 8, 2012 11:06pm
More than two-dozen backers of the proposal to change how council members are elected packed a room at City Hall today for an early morning press conference headed by former State Senator Gonzalo Barrientos (D-Austin).
Barrientos chaired the 2012 Charter Revision Committee appointed by the Austin City Council to recommend changes to the Austin City Charter. The Committee met in locations all over Austin starting last September and finished February 16. The Committee made a total of 19 recommendations for charter changes that the Austin City Council could put on the November ballot.
Most prominent among the 19 recommendations is a call for a proposition that would ask voters to approve a plan calling for 10 geographic council districts to be drawn by an Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission. Under this plan, only the mayor would be elected at-large by all Austin voters.
The Austin City Council could delay until August to decide what propositions to put before voters in the November general election. But the Charter Revision Committee’s majority faction, as well as the grass-roots coalition Austinites for Geographic Representation, are going to apply heavy political pressure for the Council to commit to putting the 10-1 plan and Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission on the ballot in November—and publicly do so before the May 12 mayoral and council elections.
First-time Candidate Sued City of Austin Over
Tax Abatements for Historical Preservation
by Rebecca LaFlure
© The Austin Bulldog 2012
When arriving at Austin City Council candidate Dominic Chavez’s campaign kickoff at the Rattle Inn Tuesday evening, one could not help but notice the road construction occurring just outside the 610 Nueces Street bar.
“It’s fitting seeing these guys working,” Chavez said to The Austin Bulldog, amid the sounds of heavy machinery. “In Austin I think we’ve forgotten about the people who built this city, who work here everyday. Austin is much more difficult for these folks to live in now than ever before.”
Chavez, an Iraq War veteran and senior director for external relations at the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, officially launched his campaign for Austin City Council in front of about 50 supporters, saying he hopes to make Austin a more affordable place to live.
Charter Revision Committee Votes 8-7
to Back 10-1 Plan for Council Elections
by Ken Martin
© The Austin Bulldog 2012
Former State Senator Gonzalo Barrientos knew things might get dicey at the final scheduled meeting of the 2012 Charter Revision Committee he chairs.
He brought in retired Travis County District Judge Bob Perkins, who sat on the 331st District Court bench for nearly three decades, to referee as parliamentarian, if need be.
It was a guaranteed evening of high drama given the scheduled final vote to decide what form of electoral system the committee would recommend to the Austin City Council. That vote culminated five months of public meetings in which the committee members listened to hundreds of citizens and heard the advice of several attorneys well versed in election law and compliance with the federal Voting Rights Act.
After voting 12-2 to recommend that a measure be put on the ballot to have an Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission draw council district lines should voters should approve some form of geographic representation—something voters nixed six times before between 1973 and 2002—the committee was at last ready to deal with what form of geographic representation to recommend.
During a sometimes heated and often passionate discussion that lasted nearly an hour, the deeply split committee was unable to reach a compromise.
The final vote was to recommend the 10-1 plan—in which 10 council members would be elected from geographic districts and only the mayor elected by all voters—passed 8-7.
The vote on a previous motion to recommend a 10-2-1 plan, where the mayor and two council members would be elected at large, failed 7-8.
There were calls for compromise that would unite the group and strengthen its recommendation for what the City Council should put on the ballot in November but in the end that was fruitless.
Committee members budged not one inch from the positions they had announced in previous public meetings.
Intense debate, no surrender
Posted Sunday, January 22, 2012 9:30pm
Updated Friday, January 27, 2012 3:20pm
Lobbyists Can Only Give Candidates $25 But
Can Collect Unlimited Contributions for Them
by Ken Martin
© The Austin Bulldog 2012
Why would city regulations prohibit a registered city lobbyist from contributing more than $25 to an officeholder or candidate for mayor or city council, but allow a lobbyist to solicit and bundle unlimited contributions on behalf of officeholders and candidates?
That was a question the 2012 Charter Revision Committee dealt with in its meeting last Thursday.
Based on the case presented by its five-member working group, the Committee voted 12-1 (with David Butts and Kathleen Vale absent) to approve a recommended change that would limit the amount of bundled contributions by registered city lobbyists to a maximum of $1,750 per candidate per election cycle for individual bundlers and $3,500 per candidate per election cycle for firms that bundle. This restriction would not apply to anyone who is not a registered city lobbyist.
This restriction would put a severe crimp in the kind of fundraising that some registered city lobbyists are doing for current officeholders.
The Austin Bulldog’s analysis of the most recent contribution reports filed by the four members of the City Council running for re-election—Mayor Lee Leffingwell, Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole, and Council Members Mike Martinez and Sheryl Cole—indicates that two registered city lobbyists bundled a total of $33,500 $44,470 in single reporting period for Leffingwell, Martinez, and Spelman. (Added Spelman’s bundled contributions to previous total January 27, 2012.)
In reality they bundled even more than that, but the contribution reports report filed by Cole and Spelman list lists only the names of bundlers and do does not identify the specific contributions these lobbyists solicited on their her behalf.
Lawyer-lobbyist David Armbrust of Armbrust & Brown PLLC bundled 24 contributions totaling $8,400 for Leffingwell, and 29 contributions totaling $10,150 for Martinez, and 36 contributions totaling $11,200 for Spelman. According to the lobbyist registration information posted on the city’s website, Armbrust has 17 clients involved in building, real estate and real estate development, financial services, hotels, property management, energy, and waste disposal.
Lawyer-lobbyist Michael Whellan of Graves Dougherty Hearon and Moody bundled 26 contributions totaling $8,050 for Leffingwell and 20 contributions totaling $6,900 for Martinez. City lobbyist registration records indicate Whellan has 13 clients, including property owners, real estate developers, taxi cabs, healthcare provider, and music.
The ambiguity of the current City Code regarding how to report bundled contributions was also addressed by the Charter Revision Committee. Members present voted unanimously to recommend more stringent and accessible disclosure of all bundled contributions.
With no discussion, the Charter Revision Committee also voted unanimously to recommend that Article X, Section 2 of the City Charter be clarified to indicate that ex-officio members of the Planning Commission are non-voting members whose attendance does not affect quorum requirements. Both the City Council and the Planning Commission had referred this matter to the Committee for consideration.
These recommendations will be forwarded to the Austin City Council, along with all the recommendations previously approved by the committee, for possible action.
What City Code requires
Over Pure Districts vs. Hybrid System
©The Austin Bulldog 2012
Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell was the first of many people to address the 15-member Charter Revision Committee last Thursday, calling for unity in getting behind whatever recommendation is made concerning some form of geographic representation in the election of City Council members.
“What is important is that all of us who support geographic representation be on the same page,” Leffingwell said. “Otherwise whatever we propose will not pass.”
Leffingwell urged the committee to strike a compromise for a unified proposal that everyone who supports geographic representation could get behind and support with great enthusiasm.
“We may not get a chance to do this again for a very long time if what we put on the table fails,” he said.
It’s been a decade since the May 2002 election in which voters last rejected a proposal. Proposition 3 on that ballot was the sixth attempt to gain voter approval for some form of electing council members from districts. Like many previous attempts, the plan offered would have created eight geographic districts. But this time the measure added two council member slots to be elected at-large, along with the mayor at-large. The proposition failed 42 percent to 58 percent.
Although nearly every member of the current Charter Revision Committee favors some form of geographic representation in council elections, the mayor’s lofty goal of achieving unity in the committee’s recommendation appears difficult if not impossible to achieve.
At a three-plus-hour meeting January 5, individual committee members became more vocal than ever in taking a strong public stance about whether they favored the 10-1 proposal being petitioned for by Austinites for Geographic Representation or some hybrid plan that would allow citizens to cast ballots for some of the council members to be elected citywide in addition to establishing geographic districts.
The 10-1 plan petition includes a requirement to establish a nonpartisan Independent Citizen Redistricting Commission that would draw 10 council districts that the Austin City Council would have no choice but to adopt. Under this plan only the mayor would continue to be elected at-large.
Any other plan put on the ballot by the City Council may not have an independent districting commission. Committee Chair Gonzalo Barrientos, a former state senator, said the normal procedure is to appoint a commission that draws the lines with expert assistance from attorneys. Critics of that method say it allows the incumbents to draw boundaries that favor their reelection.
Ultimately the U.S. Department of Justice must approve any change in the election system for compliance with the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Advocates for the 10-1 plan