Efficiency Audit Headed to Ballot

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Citizens for Accountable Austin PAC claims more than 21,000 signatures were validated

 

Don Zimmerman (l) and Fred Lewis (r) watch as Council Member Ellen Troxclair signs petition next to Michael Searle
Don Zimmerman (l) and Fred Lewis (r) watch as Council Member Ellen Troxclair signs petition next to Michael Searle

More than 33,000 signatures were filed with the City Clerk this morning by the political action committee that launched a petition drive in mid-May. Given that signatures were validated along the way, it’s highly likely this petition will force a November 6, 2018, election calling for an efficiency audit of the City of Austin.

Michael Searle, treasurer for the Citizens for Accountable Austin PAC, said that more than 21,000 of the petition signatures filed had been validated to be sure they were registered Austin voters, which exceeds the 20,000 minimum required.

Searle wasn’t able to say how much money was spent to gather the signatures, but he said, “Whatever we spent on this will be a bargain compared to what it’s going to save the city.”

He said if volunteers were included, “close to a hundred” people had been out gathering signatures. “It was a lot of people.” He said former city employees were calling and asking for copies of the petition so they could get their friends to sign.

Supporters on hand

The Citizens for Accountable Austin PAC is overseen by Accountable Austin Action whose board members, in addition to Searle, are attorney Fred Lewis and Ed English.

Lewis drafted the CodeNEXT petition and is currently representing it, along with Save Our Springs Alliance attorney Bill Bunch, in district court, seeking a court order to overrule the City Council vote to keep it off the ballot.

“I support this because I think whether you want government bigger or you want it smaller, you want the money to be spent well and for the purposes its intended. Austinites like me wonder, in times like this, why we can’t seem to afford basic services such as parks, swimming pools, and roads.

“I want to know where the money’s going, see whether the priorities are right, and give the people on the council an opportunity to have a discussion about where we might wish to spend our money differently,” he said.

Ed English
Ed English

Ed English is the guy who dreamed up the idea of an independent audit of the city way back in early 2015, right after the first 10-1 council was sworn in to represent geographic districts. That’s when he formed a loose-knit organization called Audit Austin. The idea laid dormant for several years until Searle started pushing in early spring.

“I’m very supportive of this effort because the city is under increasing pressure year over year to find the resources to deal with the expenses of a hyper-growth city,” English said.

“If significant savings are found, I think that’s quite likely, we can use those resources that are currently not available, and perhaps even keep the tax-rate increase to a far lower level than we’ve seen.”

Rebecca Melancon
Rebecca Melancon

Also supporting the audit measure at the press conference was Rebecca Melançon, executive director of the Austin Independent Business Alliance. She said, “I’m supporting this because it’s just good government. Who doesn’t want a more efficient, well-run government?

“The benefit is, we might even find money available to do things that we don’t have money for now,” she said.

(Disclosure: Rebecca Melançon is Ken Martin’s wife.)

Dark money fueled this effort

Aside from the merits or demerits of the idea of requiring an audit of city finances, voters want to know who’s pushing for it and who paid to get this petition drive finished so quickly.

As reported by The Austin Bulldog May 25, 2018, just after the petition drive launched, the work of signature gathering was paid for by Accountable Austin Action, a 501(c)(4) nonprofit whose donors coughed up $100,000. The IRS calls (c)(4)’s “social welfare” organizations. Contributions to such organizations are not tax-deductible and donors’ names do not have to be disclosed.

On the other hand there is no legal bar to disclosing names of donors.

Nevertheless, Searle told The Austin Bulldog, “They gave on the assumption they would not be named.”

So, is this a Trojan horse that looks like a gift or a nefarious plan to achieve some other purpose? For example, just last month The New York Times exposed how the Koch brothers, through Americans for Prosperity, have put big money into financing efforts to kill public transit projects. Door knockers asked voters, “Do you agree that raising the sales tax to the highest rate in the nation must be stopped? Can we count on you to vote ‘no’ on the transit plan?”

Former Council Member Don Zimmerman, was present for the press conference and supports the initiative to audit city finances. As a strong conservative and a leader of the Travis County Taxpayers Association, he told The Austin Bulldog “I understand the reluctance of donors to be identified for fear of political retaliation. They don’t want to be shouted down in restaurants,” as many in the Trump administration have been of late.

“I think 501(c)(4)s work in both political directions,” he said. “There’s dark money on both sides.”

Lickety split signature gathering

Completing the petition drive took only a third of the six months allowed to gather at least 20,000 signatures of registered voters, the minimum required to get something on the ballot.

The reason?

“It was so well received,” Searle said. “Everybody wants to know their tax dollars are being spent efficiently, liberals and conservatives.

“Look at the crowd around us,” he said, pointing to Fred Lewis on his left, one of the attorneys who filed suit to get the CodeNEXT petition on the ballot, and former Council Member Don Zimmerman on his right, an outspoken conservative.

“Given the current national political climate where we’re so divided in this country, where can we find issues for liberals and conservatives to work together on the local level and where we can really impact our community in significant ways?

Searle said third-party efficiency studies have been done across the country to great success to be sure that governments are being good stewards of taxpayers money. He claims broad support for this initiative from across the political spectrum “because it promotes transparency, good government, and fiscal responsibility.”

The former aide to Council Member Ellen Troxclair said the City Council needs the kind of information that could come out of an efficiency audit to make good budget decisions.

Petition review process

Michael Searle files petitions with City Clerk Jannette Goodall
Michael Searle files petitions with City Clerk Jannette Goodall

City Clerk Jannette Goodall will be responsible for reviewing the petitions and verifying that the number of signatures meets the required threshold.

Goodall laid out the steps involved for The Austin Bulldog.

First, her clerks will number each page containing signatures and write the total number of signatures on that page. Each page number and the number of signatures on that page will be entered into a spreadsheet. The spreadsheet will be tallied to produce the total number of signatures that were filed.

Thomas Sager
Thomas Sager

That total number will then be sent to Thomas Sager, PhD, a professor in the McCombs School of Business at the University of Texas. Sager will then run a program that produces a statistically random sample.

In accordance with the Election Code, Goodall said the statistical sample must be at least 25 percent of the total number of signatures filed. Searle said that more than 33,000 signatures were on the petitions, so the sample would have to include at least 8,250 signatures.

Sager’s random sample will then be used by the clerk’s office to check the designated petition pages and the lines on those pages, e.g., Page 4, fifth signature, and so on.

Following those instructions, the clerks will visually check each designated signature against a database of registered Austin voters recently obtained from the Travis County Voter Registrar.

After the verification work is completed, if the number of valid signatures are found to be sufficient, the clerk would notify the City Council, which would have two options: (1) Enact the petition ordinance as written, or (2) put the measure on the November 6 ballot for voters to decide.

Would council just adopt it?

Searle said he hopes the City Council will see the benefits of conducting an efficiency audit and “will just adopt it.”

Council Member Ellen Troxclair, who was Searle’s boss when he served as a council aide, was the last person to sign a petition at City Hall this morning. She told The Austin Bulldog that she will make a motion for the Council to enact the petition ordinance instead of putting it on the ballot—a highly unusual action, given that it seems unprecedented to adopt a petition ordinance.

Peck Young
Peck Young

Peck Young has been deep into Austin politics since 1969 when he was political aide to Les Gage, who ran for City Council and won with 81 percent of the votes. Just shy of a half-century as a political consultant, Young said he can’t ever remember a petition ordinance being adopted in lieu of putting it on the ballot.

“The majority of the council is normally opposed to whatever the petition is doing,” he said. “If have to do to one of these petitions it’s because the council isn’t giving you the relief you’re asking for. I don’t think the council will sign off on this.”

In essence this petition might be viewed as an assertion that the City Council is wasting money, he said. “Do you think the council will agree with that? Will they want to pass an ordinance that says they’re a bunch of spendthrifts?”

“I’m not sure an audit is a bad thing, but it doesn’t strike me the council will jump up and say, ‘Yippee’ about it.”

What might be possible, however, is that the council could put on the ballot a different version of something similar, as they did in putting an alternative to the Save Our Springs Ordinance on the ballot in 1992, and putting an alternative to the 10-1 method of geographic representation in 2012, offering up the hybrid 8-2-1 plan which would have created eight geographic districts and the mayor and two council members would be elected at-large.

“The councils have put things on the ballot to try to confuse voters,” Young said. “It’s bait and switch.”

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Links:

Austin Efficiency Audit Petition including Proposed Efficiency Study Ordinance  (2 pages)

Government Efficiency Reviews, Alvarez & Marsal Public Sector Services  (4 pages)

Texas Ethics Commission, Appointment of a Campaign Treasurer by a Specific-Purpose Committee (12 pages)

Related Bulldog coverage:

Petition Seeks Austin Efficiency Audit: People are already hustling signatures to get this measure on the November 6 ballot, May 25, 2018

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].

Who funds this work? This report was made possible by contributions to The Austin Bulldog, which operates as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit for investigative reporting in the public interest. You can help support this independent coverage by making a tax-deductible contribution.

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