Home City of Austin City Charter Council election date to be set Friday

Council election date to be set Friday

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

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

Austinites for Geographic Representation, a broad coalition of community organizations that has been meeting since late February, met September 26 to further refine the draft language for a petition drive to get its 10-1 council districting plan on the ballot. The plan, if approved by voters, would require establishment of a nonpartisan Independent Citizen Redistricting Commission to draw 10 geographic council districts that the council would have no choice but to adopt. The Austin Bulldog’s August 24 report listed the organizations involved in Austinites for Geographic Representation.

The group’s goal is to replace the current at-large system of electing council members that results in many parts of Austin not being represented, or being grossly underrepresented. These inequities were laid bare by The Austin Bulldog’s August 4 report that mapped 40 years of election history.

Austinites for Geographic Representation must submit its petition to City Clerk Shirley Gentry by mid-January. This is necessary to allow time for validating the petition and preparing documents for council action to put the measure on the May 12 ballot, Gentry said in an October 3 e-mail.

Local Government Code Section 9.004(a) requires a charter-amendment petition to have the valid signatures of at least 20,000 of the city’s qualified voters to get on the ballot. That’s a tall order to be accomplished in just three months. But Linda Curtis, who is coordinating efforts for Austinites for Geographic Representation, has previously led four successful petition drives in Austin that were decided on the following election dates:

October 1995—The Save Austin From Extravagance petition drive was led by Curtis and former Austin City Council Member Bob Larson. SAFE forced an election that stalled the city council’s intention to issue $10 million in bonds without voter approval to build the baseball Park on the Colorado. If successful, the Triple A Phoenix Firebirds were to move here and become the Austin Swing. The measure hit a home run, with 63 percent of voters nixing the bonds for a baseball stadium.

November 1997—Curtis led the Austinites for a Little Less Corruption petition drive for a charter amendment to regulate political fundraising and expenditures (approved by 72 percent of voters).

May 2002—Curtis led a petition drive for a charter amendment to create a public financing system for city council campaigns (opposed by 74 percent of voters); and to allow Council Member Beverly Griffith to exceed term limits and get on the ballot for a third term (Griffith got on the ballot but lost the election).

November 2008—Curtis led the Stop Domain Subsidies petition drive for a charter amendment to prohibit the city from entering into future agreements to provide financial incentives for retail uses and to stop such incentives under existing agreements (defeated by 52 percent of voters).

Austin Neighborhoods Council action

The politically powerful Austin Neighborhoods Council has been working on reviewing a number of council districting plans of its own. Several draft plans were presented to scores of ANC members at the September 28 meeting by committee chair Lorraine Atherton. These will be debated and voted on at the ANC meeting in November, ANC President Steve Aleman said.

Several participants in Austinites for Geographic Representation—Lupe Sosa, an elected member of Austin Community College’s Board of Trustees; Roger Borgelt, attorney and vice president of the Travis County Republican Party; and Mary Rudig, president of the North Austin Coalition of Neighborhoods—made presentations to the Austin Neighborhoods Council.

The 10-1 plan that Austinites for Geographic Representation is pushing could be offered by any ANC member organization for ANC’s adoption, Aleman said. Once the ANC adopts a position, it will be presented to the council-appointed 2012 Charter Revision Committee for consideration.

2012 Charter Revision Committee

The 15-member Charter Revision Committee held its second meeting September 29 and listened to comments from 10 participants in the Austinites for Geographic Representation coalition. The committee faces a January 31 deadline for making recommendations to the city council about a council districting plan and many other possible charter changes.

The Charter Review Committee has acknowledged that its most important job is to devise a plan for some form of geographic representation on the city council. But, as required by various council resolutions, a subcommittee has been studying dozens of proposals that have nothing to do with geographic representation. Subcommittee Chair Ted Siff said not all of these would require a charter amendment, but added, “I’m concerned that if any of these are put on the ballot it might affect the outcome of the vote on geographic representation.” (Click here to see the list.)

The subcommittee will continue working and bring back a more refined report at the next committee meeting, scheduled for October 13. (To see the meeting schedule and other information about the Charter Revision Committee’s work, click here.)

Doug Matthews, the city’s chief communications director, made a presentation to the Charter Revision Committee about a wide variety of options that might be used to engage citizens in the charter revision process. (Click here to see the 12-page presentation.) The committee unanimously agreed to vote on an outreach plan at its next meeting.

Related stories:

Coalition Nearing Petition Launch for Grass-roots Council District Plan, August 24, 2011

Maps Prove a Select Few Govern Austin: Forty Years of Election History Expose Extent of Disparities, August 4, 2011

City Council to Consider Proposal to Create Geographic Representation: Election Dates, Term Lengths, Redistricting and Other Charter Changes in Council Resolution, April 27, 2011

Petition Launch Imminent to Force Election for Geographic Representation in City Elections, March 7, 2011

This report was made possible by contributions to The Austin Bulldog, which operates as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit to provide investigative reporting in the public interest. You can help to sustain The Austin Bulldog’s reporting by making a tax-deductible contribution.