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Charter proposal would discourage grassroots democracy

Proposed Charter Review Commission will be tasked with recommending an increase in the number of signatures required to get initiative on the ballot

HomeCity of AustinCity CouncilCharter proposal would discourage grassroots democracy
Ryan Joseph Alter

Council Member Ryan Alter has proposed appointing a 2024 Charter Review Commission to study the signature threshold to get something on the ballot by petition.

Alter’s draft resolution tasks the commission to consider, among other things, the “use of a durable signature threshold that utilizes a percentage of the total number of registered voters in the City” when bringing a petition to get something on the ballot.

Local Government Code Section 9.004(a) requires that the council submit a proposed charter amendment to voters if supported by a petition signed by at least 5 percent of the city’s registered voters or 20,000, whichever number is smaller. The City for many years has utilized the threshold of 20,000 signatures for a number of other initiative petitions that put propositions on the ballot.

If the Charter Review Commission recommends that a percentage of registered voters be required to get something on the ballot, the council puts it on the ballot, and voters approve it, then petitioners will need to gather a whole lot more signatures to put the proposition before voters.

When voters went to the polls November 8, 2022, there were 660,116 registered voters. Requiring 5 percent of that number to sign a petition would mean getting 33,005 valid signatures. That’s 13,000 more than state law requires—a 65 percent increase.

Asked why he wanted to require more signatures to get something on the ballot, Alter replied via text message, “This would only apply to citizen initiatives. Right now, 20,000 is a shrinking sliver of our residents that only grows less representative as we grow. By requiring a percentage, we ensure that citizen initiatives meet a threshold that is a fair representation of the public in order to get on the ballot.”

In other words, the council member wants to require a lot more signatures for a petition drive to succeed.

Alter’s resolution also states, “conducting off-cycle elections has considerable costs for the City, and deciding significant policy questions during low-participation elections risks unrepresentative governance.”

Most petition drives in recent years sought to halt or reverse policies adopted by the City Council. For example, a 2019 measure sought to hamper plans to expand the Convention Center. A 2020 petition initiative sought to reverse a council policy on public camping.

Alter’s resolution has four cosponsors: Mayor Kirk Watson and Council Members Paige Ellis, Alison Alter (no relation to Ryan Alter), and Natasha Harper-Madison. In addition, Council Member Leslie Pool told the Bulldog she will vote for it as well. In other words there are six votes in favor and the resolution will pass regardless of what the other five council members do.

Leslie Pool

As far as how many signatures should be required for a successful petition, Pool told the Bulldog the current number sets a “really low bar. That really needs to be reviewed and in fact needs to be higher.”

It should be noted that in the election of November 6, 2012, Proposition 7  netted more than 54 percent approval “to reduce the number of signatures needed for a citizen initiated ordinance or referendum.”

Now a different City Council wants to undo what voters approved in 2012.

What do petitioners say?

Attorney Bill Bunch is executive director of the Save Our Springs Alliance and someone who has been deeply involved in petition drives stretching back to 1991, when the Save Our Springs Coalition brought forward the Save Our Springs Ordinance through a petition. Once put on the ballot in August 1992, the ordinance won 64 percent voter approval to protect environmentally sensitive land over the aquifer. In addition, the ordinance was successfully defended all the way to the Texas Supreme Court.

In July 2019, Bunch filed 30,000 petition signatures with the City Clerk’s office on behalf of the Unconventional Austin group. That was an initiative to redistribute hotel occupancy tax revenue by capping Austin Convention Center expenditures and directing significant portions to support cultural arts and historic preservation. Proposition B failed with 54 percent opposed.

Win or lose, Bunch is opposed to requiring petitioners to gather more signatures to get something on the ballot.

“For anyone who thinks getting 20,000 signatures and then running a campaign to pass the initiated ordinance is too easy, they have never done one,” Bunch said in an email.

Is the council smarter than the people?

Petition drives in Austin have generally set the bar for successful petition drives at 20,000 signatures, as allowed by state law.

That was the number needed by Austinites for Geographic Representation, which gathered an estimated 22,435 signatures to force the 2012 election to create 10 geographic council districts. That proposition was approved by 60 percent of voters.

There were 495,735 registered voters in that election. Had petitioners needed 5 percent of that number, 24,786, their petition would have failed.

Councils had long wanted to achieve geographic representation and had put various plans before voters six times over a period of 29 years, stretching from 1973 through 2002. Voters rejected every one of them.

It was only when a grassroots petition drive was started by Austinites for Geographic Representation and a coalition of some 30 community organizations got behind it and campaigned for voter approval that it finally won.

So it seems possible that the Austin City Council might be suffering from “Not Invented Here Syndrome,” which has been defined as “a decision-making error where we tend to value our own ideas above those conceived by people outside of our group.”

Put simply—and this is nothing new—Austin City Councils have downplayed any idea that didn’t come from within its own ranks. That is self-evident, in fact, as an instance cannot be recalled in which the council exercised its option to enact a measure brought to it as a result of a successful initiative petition drive. Once forced, councils invariably have put measures on the ballot.

Austin City Councils have actively opposed some measures arising from grassroots petition drives. The most notable example occurred when the Save Our Springs Coalition succeeded in getting some 26,000 signatures to put the Save Our Springs Ordinance on the May 1992 ballot. The council majority defied a court order and delayed the election from the spring until August. That same council also put on the ballot its watered-down alternative, which netted only 35 percent voter approval.

Two decades later in 2012, Austinites for Geographic Representation delivered a successful petition to create 10 geographic districts from which council members would be elected. In its wisdom the City Council put up its alternative on the ballot so voters could choose between a 10-1 form of government where only the mayor would be elected at-large, or an 8-2-1 hybrid in which the mayor and two council members would be elected at-large, meaning all eligible voters could cast ballots for them. The 10-1 plan garnered 60 percent approval, the alternative 51 percent. Both passed but 10-1 had a higher approval and was enacted.

Charter Review Commission details

Under Alter’s resolution, the commission would consist of 11 voting members appointed by the mayor and each council member.

To qualify for appointment a person must reside within the city, not be a lobbyist, and not have submitted a petition for an initiative and referendum election to the City Clerk in the last five years.

The resolution gives those appointed exactly one year to finish the work and make its recommendations to the City Council. Alter told the Bulldog the one-year clock starts when the resolution passes. He thinks the members could all be appointed within 30 days.

Meeting that deadline would give the council sufficient time to mull the recommendations and select which items to place on the November 2024 ballot. That being the date of the next presidential election means that voter turnout would likely be much higher than at any other time.

The last Charter Review Commission was not established until June 22, 2017. By the time that commission delivered its recommendations May 7, 2018, the City Council found itself unable to deal with the far-ranging proposals. It would up putting the two least important of the commission’s nine recommendations on the November 2018 ballot. That was a bitter disappointment to the members of the commission.

If the 2024 commission meets its deadline that will give the City Council about three-plus months more time than the 2018 council had to consider the recommendations.

“We’re doing it early,” Alter told the Bulldog in a phone interview. “They are tasked to do the job within one year and not have some rush at the end. So we will have time to look at recommendations, have a discussion, and make an informed decision about what to put on the ballot” in November 2024.

Mackenzie Kelly

Council Member Mackenzie Kelly, the only Republican on the council, said she is talking to stakeholders before deciding how to vote on the resolution, but added, “I don’t think a bad idea to form this as long as all voices are involved in the discussion. I would hate it if there is a lopsided discussion because that would be a detriment to the people who want to bring these petitions forward. We have to have a robust discussion to come to an informed decision.”

She does want the commission to look at a lot more than the few items specified in the resolution.

“If it passes, I look forward to appointing my person to reflect my beliefs” in the commission’s work.

Bill Aleshire
Bill Aleshire

Attorney Bill Aleshire fired off a letter to the mayor and council members Tuesday to criticize the proposal to require more voter signatures on petitions. (Disclosure: Aleshire represents The Austin Bulldog in matters concerning open records requests.)

“Several Democrats on the Austin City Council, rightfully, criticize Republicans for undermining the ability of voters to control their government. Then, these Democrats turn right around, with unabashed hypocrisy, and do the same damned thing. Supporting an anti-democracy Austin City Charter amendment to make it even harder for voters to propose ordinances by initiative petition is an example of that hypocrisy.”

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

Related documents:

2018 Charter Review Commission Report to City Council, May 7, 2018 (93 pages)

Bill Aleshire’s letter to the mayor and council, March 7, 2023 (1 page)

Council Member Ryan Alter’s draft resolution to establish a Charter Review Commission for council meeting of March 9, 2023 (5 pages)

Related Bulldog coverage:

Charter revisions flushed down the drain, June 28, 2018

Nine Charter Revisions Recommended: Public financing for mayor and council elections, an Independent Ethics Commission with teeth, more, May 8, 2018

City Charter Changes: Who Cares? Commission’s public hearings in northwest, southeast and central Austin draw total of only three speakers, April 9, 2018

Big Charter Changes Up for Scrutiny: Charter Review Commission schedules public hearings to gather citizen input before finalizing recommendations, March 8, 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

Tax dollars for council campaigns? Charter Review Commission considering public financing to boost voter participation and reduce advantages of personal wealth, January 10, 2018

Your guide to proposed City Charter amendments, August 30, 2012

8-2-1 Certain to Go on Ballot: City Council Votes on Second Reading to Put Competing Election Plan on Ballot, July 31, 2012

10-1 Plan Qualifies for November Ballot: Consultant Estimates That 22,435 Signatures Are Valid; Austinites for Geographic Representation Readies for Battle, July 26, 2012

Petition Completed for 10-1 Council Districts: Austinites for Geographic Representation Claims 33,000 Signatures, of Which About 22,800 Are Considered Valid, July 16, 2012

Charter changes to enhance accountability, December 14, 2011

Council sets charter election date, November 3, 2011

4 COMMENTS

  1. I support Councilman Alter’s proposal to make the number of signatures on a petition proportionate to the current number of the registered voters in the City. That makes crystal clear sense to me. If a proposed initiative makes any sense at all, it shouldn’t be too hard to get a representative number of signatures on a petition to put the initiative before the electorate.

  2. Thanks for covering this.

    Just want to make sure your readers are aware that Austinites have been denied the right to petition for a referendum — the chance to revoke a Council decision. It’s a quirk that was left in the city charter in 2012 when voters passed 10-1 and the reforms in the petitions. The initiative petitions were reformed, but not referenda petitions.

    Referendum — a straight up or down vote by the voters — on controversial trough-feeding projects (we’re talking billions of dollars for unnecessary or bad projects) is the comeuppance so needed in municipal governance. Austin is but one city that loves to give away money to corporate (esp. real estate) interests, while homelessness mounts, people can’t get affordable housing and basic city services gets the shaft.

  3. Linda thanks for your note. The problem is that the City Charter provides a method for citizens to repeal an ordinance. That right was nullified when City Councils began to pass ordinances for immediate implementation.

    The 2018 Charter Review Commission attempted to close that loophole. Its report (linked above) in Recommendation No. 4 stated: “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 eight (8) or more of the council members. Within 180 days of passage of an ordinance upon third reading, a petition signed by qualified voters of the city equal in number to the number of signatures required by state law to initiate an amendment to this Charter may be filed with the city clerk requesting that any such ordinance be submitted to a vote of the people for repeal or approval. A notice of intent to circulate such a petition shall be filed with the city clerk prior to doing so.”

  4. In the election of May 7,1994, voters approved Proposition 22 that rolled back the benefits for unmarried domestic partners that the city council had previously enacted, and defined the term “spouse” in the city’s Personnel Policies as the husband or wife of an employee. Prop 22 got on the ballot through citizens petition brought by conservatives who called these benefits “shack-up insurance” that would help not only unmarried heterosexuals but city employees involved in gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered partnerships. Prop 22 passed with 62 percent voter approval.

Congratulations. It looks like you’re the type of person who reads to the end of articles. Now that you’re informed on this topic we want your feedback.

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