City Charter

AG Sues to Remove Planning Commissioners

The City had it coming, did everything it could to ignore friendly warnings and prosecutors' advice Litigation filed in a Travis County district court by...

Attorneys Argue CodeNEXT Petition

CodeNEXT petition backers seek court order to force City of Austin to put petition on November 6 ballot Whether the City of Austin must put...

Charter Revisions Flushed Down the Drain

Two least substantial items on council agenda, if put on the ballot and passed would block other charter changes for two years It looks like...

Council election date to be set Friday

Posted October 4, 2011 6:54pm
Broad Community Interest Focusing on
How Mayor and Council Members Elected

Community Coalition, Austin Neighborhoods Council
and Charter Revision Committee All Working on Issues

by Ken Martin
© The Austin Bulldog 2011

There's a showdown coming in a Austin City Council meeting scheduled for Thursday and a special-called council meeting on Friday.

The result will decide whether the next election for a mayor and three council members will be held in May or November 2012. Both options are on the table as the sole items posted for action in the Friday meeting scheduled to begin at 1:30pm.

Council proponents of the May 2012 election were ready to vote on second reading at today’s work session and third and final reading at Thursday’s regular meeting.

But discussion today reminded council members that the rules they adopted March 2 preclude taking action during a work session. That triggered the posting of a special-called meeting on Friday.

Assuming none of the four council members who previously voted for a May 12 council election changes their position (Sheryl Cole, Laura Morrison, Bill Spelman and Kathie Tovo), the Friday meeting will give final approval for that date.

An item on Thursday’s council agenda would authorize $500,464 for Travis County to purchase electronic voting machines to support the May election.

Mayor Lee Leffingwell asked County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir and City Clerk Shirley Gentry to provide the council with the total estimated cost to be incurred in holding a May 2012 election. He noted that whatever that cost is, it will be in addition to the cost of a November 2012 election that is likely to be held to vote on other matters.

While the next election for a mayor and three council members may be seven months away, a host of factors affecting the outcome of that election are very much in play, including a possible petition drive for a charter amendment to change the way council members are elected. 

Petition could force May charter election

Coming soon a petition drive for council districts

Posted Wednesday, August 24, 2011 4:15pm
Coalition Nearing Petition Launch
for Grass-roots Council District Plan

Council-Appointed Charter Revision
Committee’s Plan Due January 31

by Ken Martin
© The Austin Bulldog 2011

A petition drive to trigger a City Charter election for council districts will soon be launched by a growing coalition of individuals and organizations that want to promote their own grass-roots plan instead of backing whatever the City Council may put on the ballot.

Austinites for Geographic Representation voted unanimously Monday night to support a plan that would allow election of 10 council members from geographic districts. Only the mayor would continue to be elected at-large if the plan this group advocates gains voter approval.

Meanwhile the city council has initiated a process to formulate its own plan for some form of geographic representation in council elections.

The City Council passed a resolution August 4 that established a 2012 Charter Revision Committee of 15 members to be appointed by August 25. The mayor will appoint three members and each council member will appoint two members.

The resolution directs the Committee to consider the proposed maps that were presented to the council June 9 and meet at least once to consider maps submitted by the public and at least once to discuss its recommendations to the council. The Committee is also directed to seek public input.

Lee LeffingwellMayor Lee Leffingwell has long advocated a new system in which six council members would be elected from districts, and two council members and the mayor would be elected at-large. The council resolution, however, gives the Committee leeway to recommend a map that includes any combination of at-large and geographic representation. The Committee will dissolve after submitting its recommendations due by January 31.

If the petition drive for a City Charter amendment succeeds in garnering the signatures from at least 20,000 of the city’s qualified voters, as required by Local Government Code Section 9.004(a), the plan backed by Austinites for Geographic Representation and the city council’s plan may wind up on the same ballot for voters to decide.

Any election is not likely to occur before November 2012, due to the changes mandated by Senate Bill 100 that preclude holding a city council election in May.

SB 100 authorizes the City of Austin to move its next election to November 6, 2012, and adjust the terms of office to conform to the new election date. Further, SB 100 allows the City of Austin to opt for election of all council members at the same election, superseding City Charter requirements for council elections to be conducted in May and terms to be staggered.

Citizen plan minimizes politics

City Council’s Stealth Pay Raises

Posted Friday, July 22, 2011 10:00am
Austin City Council’s Pay Raises
Fly Under the Public Radar

County Commissioners Court Raises
Require Published Notice, Signed Approval

by Ken Martin
© The Austin Bulldog

The Austin City Council of 2006The Austin City Charter (Article 1, Section 2) establishes the city council as the city’s policy making body. But when it comes to giving themselves a pay raise, the mayor and city council members are just part of the rank and file.

When city employees get a raise, so do council members—automatically, without any public disclosure required.

The mayor and council members have obtained three such raises in the last four years. While the cumulative amount of these recent raises has been relatively small, the process is far from transparent.

From 2000 to 2010, the mayor’s salary has increased 124 percent, council members’ 109 percent.

Adding to the lack of transparency, salaries for the mayor and council members are not posted anywhere on the city’s website, a fact confirmed by the city’s public information office. Council payroll documents for the past five years were obtained by The Austin Bulldog through submission of an open records request and payment of $127 in fees to retrieve and search boxes of older records. Because of the city’s inadequate initial response to the request, incomplete records, and the city’s changing methodology for documenting council pay changes, clarity was achieved only after submitting numerous follow-up e-mails to city officials to obtain answers.

The city’s current system of pay raises for the mayor and council members was established November 16, 2006, when the council led by Mayor Will Wynn voted unanimously to pass Ordinance 20061116-081. This ordinance grants future raises to the mayor and council members “...equal to the base percentage amount established for ‘meets expectations’ compensation adjustments for non-Civil Service employees.” (Only police and firefighters are civil service employees and their pay is determined by contracts. The rest of the city’s 12,000 workers are not civil service employees.)

Tom SmithTom “Smitty” Smith is director of Public Citizen Texas, a nonprofit group that addresses a broad range of public policy issues, including what it calls "clean government” by working to hold public officials accountable.

“I think Austin City Council members should be well paid, comparable to the other 20 large metropolitan cities in the United States,” Smith says, “because it’s more than a full-time job.

“But council members pay raises should not be done through subterfuge,” Smith says.

Smith says the Texas Legislature is an example of more extreme subterfuge. When our low-paid lawmakers vote to raise judicial salaries they are actually voting to raise their own retirement pay, because their retirement pay is pegged to judicial salaries.

The preferred way to address salaries for council members, Smith says, is for the city auditor or some other disinterested official to establish a citizens committee removed from council influence that would study compensation issues and make recommendations for the council to adopt.

While the City of Austin’s methodology is opaque, this below-the-radar procedure is permitted by Local Government Code Section 141.004, which states, “The governing body of a home-rule municipality may set the amount of compensation for each officer of the municipality.”

County commissioners are much more closely regulated. In fact, Local Government Code Section 152.013 requires newspaper publication of a notice of any salaries, expenses, or allowances that are proposed to be increased for all elected county or precinct officers—including the amount of proposed increases—more than 10 days before the commissioners court meets for a budget hearing and adopts the budget. To view the ad published for the current fiscal year click here.

County commissioners must publicly vote on these proposed pay increases. Then, each member of the commissioners court must personally sign the order setting salaries for elected officials, including their own. To see the order for the current fiscal year click here.

Council raises 2000 to 2010


Proposed City Charter Amendments

Posted Wednesday April 27, 2011 10:38pm
City Council to Consider Proposal
to Create Geographic Representation

Election Dates, Term Lengths, Redistricting
and Other Charter Changes in Council Resolution

by Ken Martin
© The Austin Bulldog 2011

Geographic representation for the citizens of Austin is being driven from the top down and the bottom up. The Austin City Council is squeezed in the middle and trotting out its own proposal at today’s council meeting.

The pressure from the top comes from bills pending in the Texas Legislature that would force the city to form at least six single-member districts for the May 2012 election, when the mayor and three council members will be up for reelection.

The bottom-up pressure comes from the possible petition drive that if successful could result in a citizen-driven plan for geographic representation of council members to be put on the ballot this November or the following May.

Barring interference from the legislation or an earlier election forced by a successful petition drive, the city’s proposal is geared to be on the ballot in November 2012.

The Austin City Council is scheduled to vote today on a resolution that would direct the city manager to prepare draft City Charter amendments to accomplish a range of reforms. Among these are adding geographic representation to the council, consisting of six members elected from districts, with the mayor and two members elected at-large.

The resolution further directs: moving municipal elections from May to be held in November of odd-numbered years; increasing the term of office from three years to four years; and eliminating staggered terms, so that all council members would be elected once every four years (except for special elections for unexpired terms).

Charter changes for geographic representation on the council have been on the ballot six times and failed six times.

Broad support for council districts


Council reforming e-mail policies

Posted Friday, April 15, 2011 5:23pm
Austin City Council Adopts Policy to Improve
Compliance With Texas Public Information Act

Policy Does Not Cover All City Employees
or All City Board and Commission Members

by Ken Martin
© The Austin Bulldog 2011

The Austin City Council voted 7-0 on April 7 to institute an e-mail policy that establishes city accounts as the primary means of communicating about city business. If circumstances require communicating about city business on a non-city account, that communication is to be promptly forwarded to a city account.

When complied with, local government records created or received on personal communications devices or personal accounts will be collected, assembled, and maintained to be available upon request under the Texas Public Information Act. Release of these communications, like any other public record, will be subject to the exceptions provided for in the Act.

The policy would also bring the city’s deficient procedures of the past into compliance with laws that have been on the books for decades, including the Local Government Records Act and the city’s own Local Government Records Control Schedules (see report of April 6, 2011).

This policy would also satisfy some of the concerns laid out in The Austin Bulldog v. Mayor Lee Leffingwell et al lawsuit filed March 1, as well as The Austin Bulldog’s civil complaint filed March 23 with County Attorney David Escamilla.

As originally written, the Draft Resolution would have applied the policy to all city officials and employees.

The Adopted Resolution, however, applies the policy only to the mayor, city council members and the city employees directly appointed by the city council: the city manager, city clerk, city auditor, chief judge of the municipal court, and municipal court clerk. The policy applies to all communications occurring immediately after the adoption of the resolution.

Karen KennardThe council backed off the original draft resolution after a discussion that lasted nearly an hour and a half involving the council members, City Attorney Karen Kennard, and attorney James E. “Jim” Cousar of Thompson & Knight LLP.

Lee LeffingwellMayor Lee Leffingwell asked Kennard if the council could legally apply this policy to employees over which the council has no direct supervisory authority.

Kennard answered: “The City Council under the (City) Charter does not have the authority to apply personnel policies to city employees. That authority is given exclusively to the city manager. And so in looking at the policy we would have to have some language that recognizes that the charter gives that exclusive authority to the city manager and not the council.”

The mayor said the city manager also could set a policy that applied to the employees in council offices—implying that council members cannot order employees in their council offices to comply with the new policy.

“That’s correct,” Kennard said. “Including the council aides, under our charter, those employees are subject to the exclusive direction of the city manager.”

That statement is at odds with the way that council offices actually function. In practice, council members hire the people who work in their offices, said former City Council Member Beverly Griffith, who served on the council from 1996 to 2002. Council staff members work under the day-to-day supervision of the council members and their performance ratings are completed by the council members, Griffith said. Council aides interviewed said these procedures are still in effect.

Toward the end of the discussion Council Member Bill Spelman revised the draft resolution to conform to Kennard’s legal advice.

The adopted resolution directs City Manager Marc Ott to “develop a policy regarding the conduct of city business on personal communication devices by all other city employees and report progress to the council within 30 days.”

A resolution is an expression of the City Council’s position, not an ordinance. The adopted resolution provides no means of enforcement and no penalty for violating the policy it establishes.

City council can’t establish policies?