Fighting Eviction: Will term limits force a vanishing act for three Austin council members?

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Photography by Barton Wilder Custom Images


The three most experienced members of the Austin City Council want another term, but voters will not get the chance to reelect them—or toss them out in favor of other candidates—unless the trio can gather enough signatures to win a place on the ballot. Their predicament stems from the imposition of term limits by voters in 1994, in the form of an amendment to the Austin City Charter.

Term limits got on the ballot almost without discussion. The Austin American-Statesman reported March 4, 1994, that three speakers at a council meeting opposed amending the charter to include term limits. One was Frances McIntyre, president of the League of Women Voters, who said, “Term limits interfere with my right and yours to choose who we want in office.”

Save for that minimal opposition, consideration of the implications of limiting how long a council member could serve was lost among twenty-one other propositions on the ballot, some of which were seen as vastly more important at the time. Proposition 1, if approved, would have established single-member districts for the future election of council members. Proposition 22 was the highly charged campaign over whether to repeal insurance benefits for the unmarried domestic partners of city employees, a measure put on the ballot through the petition drive of conservative Christians who banded together under the name Concerned Texans. The so-called “shack-up insurance” was a hot-button issue that lit up the phone lines on talk radio and triggered the formation of a more liberal Mainstream Austin Coalition of churches to try to defeat the amendment. Noting the significance of Proposition 22, on election day the Statesman reported, “It has taken on national importance as a test of support for gay rights and the power of religious groups to influence political decisions.”

The election of a mayor and three council members was on the same cluttered ballot, and Daryl Slusher, who had built a following as politics editor of The Austin Chronicle, managed to make it into a runoff for mayor with incumbent Bruce Todd. Slusher lost that race by just 1,339 votes.

The fervor for term limits was sweeping the country, and Austin was not immune. Fifty-nine percent of the voters approved Proposition 2, with 46,222 voting yes, 31,489 voting no. Ronney Reynolds, who was on the city council at the time and supported term limits, told the Statesman after the election that the vote was a criticism of the council: “There’s a natural distrust of politicians, and people feel like with term limits there will be turnover without the incumbent having the advantage in every election.”

Passage of Proposition 2 meant that, beginning with elections after 1994, anyone elected for two terms can get on the ballot again only by submitting a petition signed by at least five percent of the city’s registered voters.

Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman was first elected in 1993; her first three-year term on the council did not count for the purposes of term limits. Her reelection in 1996 and 1999 did count. So it’s two strikes and she’s out unless she can raise the signatures.

Council Members Beverly Griffith and Daryl Slusher were first elected in 1996 and then reelected in 1999. They, too, must petition or step down.

A mountain to climb

The number of signatures needed to equal five percent varies from time to time, as people are added to or deleted from the voter registration rolls, but the latest estimate is that 21,109 valid signatures will be needed to get on the ballot for the May 4 election. The number is a moving target, however, and it could go up if significant numbers of people decide to register before the petitions are submitted, which is likely given the upcoming March 12 party primary elections that include numerous statewide races.

To put this figure into perspective, it should be noted that only one of these incumbents garnered that many votes when they were reelected the last time in 1999. All three were reelected without a runoff. Goodman got 21,747 votes to thump her only challenger. Slusher got 18,721 votes to defeat five opponents. And Griffith garnered 17,085 to beat eight challengers (earning a footnote in history, as it marked the first time since council seats were designated by places in 1953 that an incumbent who faced so many challengers did not need a runoff to secure reelection).

Getting the number of signatures they need is not impossible—but it is difficult. The fact that these three council members are willing to even try to corral so many signatures says something in itself. Why do they want so badly to hang onto a council seat that pays $45,000 a year (raised from $30,000 effective July 2, 2000) and comes with a built-in supply of people to criticize anything they do, or fail to do? Each of the incumbents answered that question differently:

Goodman: “Why am I doing this? To be perfectly honest it’s because I’m competitive. But the larger picture is that an awful lot of good, caring people wanted me to run again…It’s hard to tell those folks that someone else will do what I do, because I’m not sure that’s true. I’m not sure someone else will have the focus and understanding and commitment that I have and will always have.”

Griffith: “It’s in the public interest that folks who have the experience and corporate memory are there to serve.” Noting that Austin has a new mayor and new general manager for the electric utility, and soon will have a new city manager, Griffith says, “What citizens are telling me is that we absolutely cannot afford the loss of the three senior, most experienced, most knowledgeable council members at the same time. It could be very high risk…We must have people with business experience, neighborhood credentials, and a strong environmental record at the helm or there’s a lot of uncertainty, which people are telling me they don’t want right now.”

Slusher: “I have real mixed feelings about going for another term. I feel like there’s more work to do. It’s a critical time for the city. Finances are a particularly serious challenge. We need stability at City Hall. This is what I got from many people, leading up to deciding whether to run again.”

Scrambling for signatures

So far, the petition drives that will determine whether the three council members make it onto the ballot again are getting mixed results. Griffith said January 16 she had “north of 13,000” signatures. Weekly meetings and pep rallies with petitioners are keeping the process on track, she says.

Griffith’s petition drive was shot out of a cannon the first day, as paid petitioners were at the polls during the November 6 presidential election and netted some 2,000 signatures, she says. Griffith’s petition drive is headed up by Linda Curtis, who has completed numerous successful petition drives, including the effort by Austinites for a Little Less Corruption that got campaign-finance reform on the ballot and approved by Austin voters in 1997. She also was a driving force in the petition of Clean Campaigns for Austin last year, which was responsible for getting the Austin Fair Elections Act on the ballot this May to repeal and replace the Little Less Corruption reforms.

Slusher declines to say how many signatures he has gathered but concedes he is worried. “I’m working hard on it and I think it’s possible, but it’s a very difficult task and not certain. I’m more confident of getting reelected if I get on the ballot than I am of getting the signatures.”

Goodman says she has not had time to count the signatures gathered so far, as many petitions are being circulated by volunteers. She indicated that even Slusher’s petition drive was organized well before hers. Asked if she’d get enough signatures, Goodman said, “I don’t know.”

Goodman and Slusher at first relied mainly on volunteers. In December they jointly hired veteran political campaigner Pat Crow to lash together a renewed effort to collect signatures. But they said that except for the booth at the Armadillo Christmas Bazaar, where petitions for all three candidates were available to sign December 13 through December 24, not much got done during the holidays.

The cold weather hasn’t helped. Because of frigid temperatures, howling winds, and no protected space where she could pitch an appeal to people coming and going, Linda Curtis said she wouldn’t even try to get signatures from the crowds flocking to a weekend automobile show at Palmer Auditorium.

Slusher said he and Goodman were hoping to fire up more enthusiasm with a “good old-fashioned Musical Sign-Along” January 27 at Antone’s, featuring Joe Ely, Toni Price and a long list of other musicians providing the attraction of star power to build political power. The admission of ten bucks was to be waived for anyone bringing in petitions with ten valid signatures for each of the council member hosts.

While Slusher and Goodman try to boost their petition drives through traditional grass-roots methods, complete with rally-round-the-flag gatherings, Griffith pushes ahead with a team of seasoned signature snaggers.

Mike Blizzard of Grassroots Solutions is a political consultant to the Griffith campaign and has helped to formulate strategy for the petition drive. “My prediction is that Beverly’s will succeed,” he says. “If she keeps up the rate she’s going she will turn in 26,000 signatures.” The last big push will be made at the March 12 party primary election, where every signature gathered is certain to be a valid, registered city voter.

The absolute deadline for submitting petitions is March 20—the last day of the filing period for a candidate to apply for a place on the May 4 ballot.

Pushing the petitioners to produce results includes paying bonuses for anyone on Griffith’s team who gathers 2,000 signatures, Blizzard says. “The key is sustained effort. You have to have people doing it on a daily basis or you will not succeed,” he says. To make the deadline, he said, the team of petitioners must consistently average 1,500 signatures a week.

While Griffith seems to be the only sure bet to finish her petition drive successfully, some people criticize her tactics.

Ginny Agnew, chair of the city’s Ethics Review Commission, says, “Beverly Griffith may be the poster child on the issue, because the thing you’re trying to do is limit the power of the incumbency and the power of the pocketbook, and there she is buying signatures to overcome the rule of term limits. She makes herself impervious to attack because she has money to put into her campaign and the power of the incumbency.”

But, given term limits, and given the restriction that only incumbents who can demonstrate broad public support through a petition drive can get on the ballot, Griffith appears to be following the rules.

Blizzard says that Griffith has put only $5,000 of her own money into the campaign and has demonstrated phenomenal community support in gathering another $30,000, in spite of the $100 contribution limits. “Raising money that way, you have to be tenacious and organized,” he said.

Slusher says he had intended to launch his petition drive at the annual Diez y Seis celebration where, traditionally, thousands of people gather to celebrate Mexico’s independence from Spain.

But that event, scheduled for September 15, was canceled out of respect for the victims of the September 11 terrorist attacks. Slusher delayed his petitioning for a month and started in October, he says, mostly with volunteers gathering signatures. “I announced I would do it October 11. But it was hard to get geared up because I couldn’t raise money till November 6,” he says, alluding to City Charter restrictions that prohibit raising money more than 180 days before an election. “I had to go make copies and pay out of personal funds, and I don’t have all that much personal funds. It got started in earnest on November 6.”

Goodman says she started her petition drive November 9. “For me, it was a one-person campaign for some time. When I had a minute, I’d run make copies.”

While the three council members are all facing the same formidable challenge, they are not exactly the Three Musketeers, all for one and one for all. It’s not that they don’t wish each other well, and want all the petitions to succeed, but ultimately each incumbent is responsible for gaining a place on the ballot.

Will they exploit loophole?

The one way the three incumbents could help each other—in the event one or more petitions fail to pass muster—is to swap council seats. That’s a loophole in the charter. Term limits only apply to a given place seat. While political backlash is possible from voters angered by an end-run around term limits, the strategy is technically possible.

Slusher says he doesn’t plan to slip through that loophole.

“A lot of people are trying to get me to switch seats and not go through this ordeal of getting the signatures, but I don’t like that option,” Slusher says. “I just can’t get past the fact I don’t think that was the intent of the voters. I call on people to follow the intent of the voters, like the SOS Ordinance, where I call on developers to follow the will of the voters.”

Goodman is more ambivalent, saying, “It’s an option. I don’t know if it’s one I would take. I’d have to think about that. This (petition drive) is logistically almost an overwhelming task. It takes your total energy and commitment, so knowing there’s another option is not something I’m spending any time thinking about right now.”

Griffith, who at this point seems the least likely to need to think about switching seats, says she is reviewing the situation.

While the three incumbents are galloping toward the wire in the petition drives—and facing a moral dilemma about changing seats if the signatures fall short—the circumstances are conspiring to create a scenario for the May 4, 2002, election that is eerily reminiscent of 1994.

In early 1994 the Austin City Council was reeling from problems at Brackenridge Hospital, including a $21 million deficit. Today, Brackenridge Hospital is once again a serious problem, as Catholic doctrine imposed on Seton, operator of the city-owned Brackenridge Hospital, threatens to interfere with women’s reproductive healthcare at the facility.

In early 1994 City Manager Camille Barnett was forced to resign because of the Brackenridge situation and Jesus Garza was hired as city manager to fix the mess. Today, Garza has submitted his resignation to take a job with the Lower Colorado River Authority, and the council is mulling the promotion of Deputy City Manager Toby Futrell to succeed Garza.

In 1994 voters were called on—for the fifth time—to decide whether to elect future City Council members from geographic districts instead of at-large. Today, the Charter Revision Committee has recommended that the City Council put single-member districts back on the ballot again.

One major difference in this year’s election is that nothing on the ballot is likely to draw the massive numbers of conservative voters that flocked to the polls in 1994, when Concerned Texans successfully petitioned to get Proposition 22 on the ballot to repeal insurance benefits for domestic partners of unmarried city employees. But, since this year’s ballot items won’t be set until around mid-March, this could change.

In 1994 voters approved the term limits that are plaguing the three incumbents. Today, if the Charter Revision Committee’s recommendations are followed by the council, voters will get a chance to repeal term limits.

But that won’t save the council careers of three officeholders whose terms are up. They’re going to have to do that for themselves.

The good news for Goodman, Griffith, and Slusher is that if they do succeed in gathering enough signatures to get on the ballot, they’re not going to be evicted—not by term limits and not by a challenger.

In the first place, all three clobbered opponents to win reelection in 1997 without even a runoff. And this time each of them will have in hand the petitions that identify some 25,000 supporters who can be targeted and herded to the polls. No challenger can ever hope to have that kind of information. They will be untouchable.

Ken Martin is editor of The Good Life. He agrees with the title of a book written by Henry B. Fox of Circleville: Dirty Politics is Fun. For the journalist, anyway.

Historical footnote: All three council members succeeded in getting on the ballot through successful petition drives. But our prediction about being untouchable proved wrong, in one case. A summary of the election results, obtained from the City of Austin’s Election History page for the May 4, 2002, election, is as follows:

Daryl Slusher: Reelected to the Place 1 council seat with 54.79% of the vote.

Jackie Goodman: Reelected to the Place 3 counci seat with 59.89% of the vote.

Beverly Griffith: Placed second to Betty Dunkerley, with 29.03% of the votes compared to Dunkerley’s 41.75%. Griffith then opted not to continue to campaign for the seat in a runoff election to which she was entitled.

Round 2 for Campaign Finance Reform

Will voters decide to pony up?

“Politics is a place of humble hopes and strangely modest requirements, where all are good who are not criminal and all are wise who are not ridiculously otherwise.”

—Frank Moore Colby (1865-1925)

Somebody’s got to pay for election campaigns and the theory of a group of local reformers, Clean Campaigns for Austin, is that’s it better to help with public money than to have politicians obligated to private interests. To understand why, one only has to think of the national scandal currently unfolding, as politicians richly endowed with contributions from bankrupt energy trader Enron Corporation must now be expected to lead the investigation into how investors and employees were bilked.

The most vivid local example of how political contributions taint the public’s interest was reported by the Austin American-Statesman January 24: Texas Attorney General John Cornyn, a Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate, has recused himself from the investigation of the Enron matter that cost Texas state agencies $68.5 million. The reason? He collected $193,000 in campaign contributions from Enron interests between September 1997 and June 2001.

When Austin voters go to the polls May 4 to elect three council members, they will also get to decide whether to approve the Austin Fair Elections Act. The Act would provide an initial grant for qualifying candidates who agree to abide by voluntary restrictions and it would subsequently match amounts the candidates raise, up to the maximum allowed.

To qualify for public funding, a City Council candidate would have to get signatures from 500 registered city voters (or an eighth of one percent of the registered voters, whichever is greater) and a five-dollar contribution from each signer. Mayoral candidates must get 1,000 signatures (or a fourth of one percent of registered voters, whichever is greater) and contributions of five dollars each.

Some fear these thresholds are too low and would allow marginal candidates—such as Austin perennials Leslie Cochran and Jennifer Gale, who offer little more than comic relief—to qualify. Clean Campaigns proponents say experience in other jurisdictions with public campaign financing indicates fringe candidates rarely qualify for public funding. Think of it this way: It’s one thing to sign a petition that costs you nothing; it’s another to fork over five bucks when you sign; and it’s harder still if you realize that a candidate who qualifies is going to receive public funding. That’s enough to sober up any taxpaying citizen.

Candidates are allowed to raise seed money in contributions of up to $200 per donor to pay the expense of qualifying for public funding. Council candidates may spend up to $10,000 in seed money, mayoral candidates $20,000.

Qualifying candidates for City Council would receive initial grants of $16,666. Qualifying mayoral candidates would receive initial grants of $33,333. Thereafter, candidates could accept contributions of up to $200 per donor; these would be matched by public funds, with two dollars provided from public funds for each one dollar raised privately. Council campaigns could spend no more than $100,000 in the general election and $100,000 in the runoff. Mayoral candidates could spend $200,000 in the general election and $200,000 in the runoff.

A participating candidate’s spending limits would be adjusted upward to match the amount spent by any opponent who exceeds the voluntary spending limit, whether from personal funds or contributions. This provision addresses situations like the 1997 council campaign, in which millionaire Manuel Zuniga poured more than $92,000 of his own money into the general election and runoff he lost to Bill Spelman.

A participating candidate’s spending limits would be adjusted upward to match any independent expenditures opposing the candidate or supporting an opponent if the independent expenditures exceed $25,000 in a council race or $50,000 in a mayoral race. This provision addresses situations like the 2000 council elections, in which lottery winner Thomas “Hollywood” Henderson and the Austin Police Association made independent expenditures that boosted the candidacy of Austin Police Officer Danny Thomas, who defeated incumbent Willie Lewis.

Reform by citizen initiative

The Austin Fair Elections Act will be on the ballot as a result of a petition drive by Clean Campaigns for Austin to amend the Austin City Charter. If voters approve it, the Austin Fair Elections Act would repeal and replace the campaign finance reforms approved by more than seventy-two percent of voters on November 4, 1997. That reform reduced the amount of money candidates could accept from political action committees. It also limited individual contributions to $100. That limit has been viewed in hindsight as too low, even by members of Austinites for a Little Less Corruption, who got the initiative on the ballot through a petition drive.

The Austin Fair Elections Act was written by attorney Fred Lewis. He is founder and president of Campaigns for People, whose mission is to promote workable reforms that restrain the influence of money on state government and create an ethical climate that builds public confidence in the state’s democratic institutions. Lewis says his initial draft of the Austin Fair Elections Act ran thirty pages. The Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law, an organization involved in litigation and reforms for campaign financing, edited the draft down to nine pages, he says.

Lewis also wrote a twenty-one page fiscal analysis of the cost of implementing the Austin Fair Elections Act. Based on the experience of publicly funded campaigns in Arizona, Maine, New York City, and Los Angeles, Lewis estimated the cost of Austin’s partial public funding at $806,000 for 2003, when the mayor and three council positions will be up for election; nothing in 2004, when there are no elections scheduled; $716,000 in 2005, when three council positions will be up for election; and $1.3 million in 2006, when the mayor and three council positions will again be on the ballot. The analysis assumes that with each election the candidates will grow more familiar with how the Austin Fair Elections Act works, and over time more candidates will choose to participate in the voluntary system that provides matching funds.

The money to pay for the partial system of public funding would come mainly from the city’s general fund. The Austin Fair Elections Act limits funding to a maximum of one-quarter percent of the city’s annual budget. The city calculates that’s about $4 million. But, the Act requires the Ethics Review Commission to make a written estimate of the amount needed for an election cycle and submit it to the City Council for appropriation. At least five percent of the amount appropriated must be used to administer the Act.

The Act requires a voluntary check-off system be made part of the city’s utility billing system; ratepayers would be able to contribute to the Fair Elections Fund, just as they do now for the Plus 1 Program, which helps poor people pay utility bills, and the Tree Planting Program. Qualifying candidates would be required to deposit into the Fair Elections Fund all qualifying contributions and any surplus seed money collected.

Fiscal conservatives may be philosophically opposed to using public funds to pay for campaigns. Others figure it’s cheaper for citizens to buy candidates than let private money taint the public interest.

Mike Blizzard of Grassroots Solutions, a strategy consultant for Clean Campaigns for Austin, says it’s a matter of cost and benefits. “The issue here is whether people will accept paying for better democracy,” he says.

Blizzard notes the estimated cost of the Austin Fair Elections Act is in the general range of the annual funding given to the Austin Music Network, $775,000. “If it’s a priority to have better democracy in our local elections, more candidates, better competition, and more access to voters, that seems a small price to pay,” he says.

Some critics of the Austin Fair Elections Act say that it represents an ineffective way of bringing about reforms, and contend an ordinance would be preferable to amending the City Charter.

Craig McDonald is executive director of Texans for Public Justice, a nonprofit group organized in 1997 to take on political corruption and corporate abuses in Texas. Texans for Public Justice is one of the groups that endorses the Austin Fair Elections Act. McDonald says, “I’ve done a lot of petitions and I agree it’s not always the prettiest approach to making legislation, but sometimes it’s the only approach you have.”

Blizzard is unapologetic. “We believe a petition is exactly the right way to bring about reform, because people elected under a system are loathe to change it,” he says.

An ordinance could have been initiated through petitioning, but that would require the signatures of ten percent of the qualified voters of the city. A charter amendment requires the signatures of five percent or 20,000, whichever is smaller. In late January, there were 422,194 voters registered in the City of Austin, within Travis and Williamson counties. An ordinance petition would require 42,219 valid signatures; a petition would probably need 50,000 to 60,000 signatures to survive the verification process.

Lewis says the petition drive to get the Austin Fair Elections Act on the ballot was initiated only after representatives of Clean Campaigns for Austin had met with council members and concluded that there was no interest in setting up a public process to initiate campaign finance reforms.

Petition drives are invariably difficult and this one was no exception. Petitioners were barred from soliciting signatures in the federal post office. HEB Grocery tried to bar petitioners from property in front of the store at Hancock Center. To maintain access, Clean Campaigns filed a lawsuit last June against H.E. Butt Grocery Company, the state’s largest private company and the top food retailer in South and Central Texas. Ultimately Clean Campaigns succeeded in persuading the court not to issue the temporary restraining order sought by the company, and continued to solicit signatures at HEB.

Regarding the HEB lawsuit, Lewis, attorney for Clean Campaigns, told The Austin Chronicle, “How do you reach people in a society like we have where people congregate in malls and shopping centers, where you don’t have community events where people congregate?”

Linda Curtis, the main sparkplug in gathering signatures for Clean Campaigns, as well as for the successful petition drive by Austinites for a Little Less Corruption, told The Austin Chronicle, “If we don’t have public access, I don’t see how they can require signatures. The problem is not getting people to sign, it’s getting to them.”

Late last August, Clean Campaigns submitted to City Clerk Shirley Brown petitions containing a reported 28,341 signatures. By mid-September, after verification of a random sample of a fourth of the signatures, Brown says she had concluded that the number of valid signatures was 20,186. That met the threshold of five percent of the city’s registered voters.

Thus the Austin City Council had no choice but to call an election. It had one option: put the Austin Fair Elections Act on the ballot in the November 2001 general election, which was also a presidential election, or wait until the May 4, 2002. The council chose the latter.

Obstacles to passage

The Austin Fair Elections Act is not going to have an unimpeded shot at getting the attention of voters. In addition to the election to fill three council seats in the May 4 election, the ballot is also likely to have on it the consideration of single-member districts and, in all likelihood, a number of other items. (See accompanying story, below, “Austin’s future riding on City Charter amendments.”)

It’s also possible the City Council will put on the ballot an alternative proposal that would directly compete against the Austin Fair Elections Act. Council Member Daryl Slusher says he publicly announced the idea. “I had said at one meeting that I’d consider that, but I decided to wait and see what the Charter Revision Committee recommends, and not get out in front of them. I think it’s possible. Or we might just let it go (to the voters) up or down,” he says. “There has not been a lot of discussion.”

The idea that a council member—especially one elected in part because of strong support from environmentalists—would even consider putting an alternative to the Austin Fair Elections Act on the ballot is rich in irony. In 1992, the Austin City Council put on the ballot an alternative to the Save Our Springs Ordinance, which was brought by initiative petition. This enraged environmentalists. After a bitterly fought campaign, the SOS Ordinance passed by a margin of nearly two to one and the council’s alternative was soundly defeated.

Ultimately, after lengthy discussion at its meeting January 23, the Charter Revision Committee voted 5-1 to recommend that the City Council not place an alternative campaign finance proposal on the ballot. The dissenting vote was cast by Ricky Bird, who criticized the Austin Fair Elections Act at length. The motion was made by Martha Cotera, who noted the complexity of the matter. “We don’t have the time or the expertise to work out the details,” she said. “If we put an alternative on the ballot, it would only muck up the waters more.”

The city’s Ethics Review Commission also has studied the Austin Fair Elections Act. Chair Ginny Agnew says, “We have decided it’s inappropriate for us to take a position on it. But we have spent a good deal of time studying it and meeting with the drafters, hoping to get them to make some changes in it, because there will be problems of enforcement.”

Agnew says despite early conversations with Lewis, when the Austin Fair Elections Act was being drafted, no attempt was made to reconcile the language of the Act with existing city ordinances. As a result, she says, the Act “makes no effort to say one way or the other if it will preempt the Fair Campaign Fund.”

The Fair Campaign Fund was created by ordinance in 1994. The fund is the financial account into which lobbyist registration fees are deposited, and from which qualifying candidates who sign and comply with voluntary restrictions may receive funds in a runoff election. Daryl Slusher was the first candidate to qualify to receive funds and was entitled to get $21,662 for his 1996 runoff against Jeff Hart. Slusher declined to take it, amid a heated council debate over whether to appropriate the funds. His reluctance stemmed from the fear of political backlash if he accepted public funds while running a “basics, not boondoggles” campaign. Bill Spelman and Willie Lewis each got $18,402 in the 1997 runoffs and won election to the council. In the 2000 runoff election, Raul Alvarez and Rafael Quintanilla were competing for the Place 5 seat vacated by Gus Garcia. Each got $29,124 from the Fair Campaign Fund.

Fred Lewis concedes the Austin Fair Elections Act does not address what would become of the Fair Campaign Fund, but predicts the City Council will repeal it once the new Act is in place.

If approved by voters, the Austin Fair Elections Act would radically transform the Ethics Review Commission from a body that has played virtually no role in the outcome of past elections, despite numerous formal complaints lodged with the commission during the campaigns, and make it—on paper at least—a strong watchdog agency that would draft rules and regulations to carry out the Act, and enforce them.

Ethics Review Commission Chair Agnew, an attorney but not one familiar with criminal law, says the Austin Fair Elections Act lacks enforcement powers needed for the Ethics Review Commission to mete out punishment for violations. The Act does specify penalties, however, including fines and—for knowing and willful violation of the Act by an incumbent officeholder or officeholder-elect—forfeiture of office.

Lewis says the Act does contain the necessary powers of enforcement. It states the Ethics Review Commission would be empowered to monitor election activity, conduct audits of campaign financial reports, subpoena witnesses, compel their attendance and testimony, administer oaths, take evidence, and require by subpoena the production of any books, records or other materials.

These powers are appropriate, Lewis says. “One rumor goes around the bowels of the bureaucracy that the Ethics Review Commission would be too powerful an entity, and the other rumor is it has no power. I think we got it just about right.

Strong support for passage

In a perfect world citizens would not have to take into their own hands the reforms needed to reduce the influence of private money on public policy, but things aren’t perfect. Round Two of Austin’s reforms promises to be a winner at the polls. The reason is simple: First, Clean Campaigns for Austin has the signatures of more than 28,000 people who signed the petition. The signers will be viewed as supporters who can be motivated to vote for the proposition.

Secondly, a broad base of support has been lined up behind the proposition. Clean Campaigns for Austin claims the endorsements of Austin Area Interreligious Ministries (formerly Austin Metropolitan Ministries), Austin Democracy Coalition, Austin Neighborhoods Council, Campaigns for People, Common Cause of Texas, Democracy Matters-UT Chapter, Gray Panthers, League of Women Voters-Austin, NAACP-Austin Chapter, National Organization for Women-Austin Chapter, People Organized in Defense of Earth and Her Resources, Public Citizen, Save Barton Creek Association, Save Our Springs Alliance, Sierra Club-Austin Chapter, Travis County Democratic Women, Travis County Green Party, and Texans for Public Justice.

Political consultant Blizzard says, “Clearly there is going to need to be an organized campaign, and that’s already moving forward.”

Lewis says the campaign to pass the Austin Fair Elections Act will be up and running in February and supporters will be reaching out, explaining the Act, and asking for support. “We’ll have the money for a grass-roots campaign,” he says. “Don’t expect to see us on TV.”

Lewis says the reforms approved by voters in 1997 were intended to stop corruption by ending the unrestricted contributions to mayoral and council campaigns, and that goal was achieved. But the reforms failed to provide the support needed for bona fide candidates to get their messages to voters. The Austin Fair Elections Act will fix that problem, Lewis says.

“This is recognition that Austin is a big city and it takes substantial amounts of money to get your message out.”

Editor Ken Martin believes Austin citizens deserve the best elected officials money can buy.

Historical footnote: Despite the broad coalition of organizations supporting theAustin Fair Elections Act (Proposition 1 on the May 4, 2002, ballot), the measure was soundly defeated. Proposition 1 garnered just 26% of the yes votes, while 74% voted no—a thumping margin of three to one.

Austin’s future rides on City Charter changes

We’re fast approaching the mid-March deadline for the Austin City Council to decide what will—and what won’t—be put on the ballot for voters to decide on Saturday, May 4.

All that’s known for certain is that three council seats will be up for grabs and we will be deciding the fate of at least one amendment to the Austin City Charter.

The Charter election was triggered by the successful petition drive led by Clean Campaigns For Austin, whose petitions were validated by the city clerk last September. The City Council had the option of putting the measure on the ballot in last November’s general election (which was also a presidential election) or waiting until May 4, and opted for the latter. The measure, known as the Austin Fair Elections Act, if approved by voters would establish a system of partial public financing for mayoral and city council elections (see separate story, above, “Round 2 for Campaign Finance Reform.”)

Because state law prohibits changing the City Charter sooner than two years after it was last amended, the Clean Campaigns initiative has generated a rush to consider other amendments as well. Many of the items that may be put before voters to amend the City Charter are of crucial importance. Since the City Council will soon be debating what to put on the ballot, citizens need to be aware of what’s bubbling up while there is still time to influence the ballot decisions.

Charter changes under consideration have been funneled to the Charter Revision Committee, which was appointed by the Austin City Council last August to provide advice on proposed amendments. The committee has already forwarded one major recommendation and is actively reviewing numerous other items, with the intention of making a final report to the City Council by Feb. 7.

While numerous housekeeping items have been proposed by city staff, others being debated could radically affect the future of the city. These are some of the major ones:

Redistribute political power—On Nov. 26, the Charter Revision Commission voted 4-1, with Ricky Bird opposed, to recommend to the council that voters be asked to consider approving the establishment of geographic districts for the election of council members. Under the plan recommended, the mayor would be elected at-large and ten council members would be elected from geographic districts in which they live. Further, when the population increases by 25,000 above the population determined in the 2000 federal census, the number of districts would be increased to twelve. The commission also recommended the mayor be elected to a term of four years, instead of the current three. All these recommendations are identical to the ones made by the previous Charter Revision Committee January 15, 2000, but were never put on the ballot. Voters have previously defeated on five separate occasions the various ballot measures that would have set up council districts. The City Council has scheduled three public hearings on this proposal. The first was Jan. 17, and only two people spoke. One of them was Bird, who said he opposes single-member districts because the minority population is increasingly scattered across the city, according to census data. As a result, there is no assurance that ethnic diversity on the council would be achieved, particularly with respect to African Americans and Asian Americans. (Two more public hearings were scheduled for Jan. 31 and Feb. 7, after press deadlines for this story.) Historical footnote: Proposition 3 on the May 4, 2002, election ballot netted 42% of the votes cast, while 58% voted no—the sixth defeat for single-member district representation on the Austin City Council.

Solidify political power—On Jan. 7, the Charter Revision Committee voted 7-0 to recommend that the City Council place on the May 4 ballot a proposition to repeal the provision in the charter approved by voters in 1994, which established term limits. Committee Chair Bobbie Barker said that through discussion of single-member districts and campaign finance, the group arrived at a consensus that the best way to limit someone’s term is to know who’s representing you and decide if you want them to represent you or not. “We believe single-member districts will increase participation (in the electoral process) and limits on the term will be defined by those who vote,” Barker said. She said the recommendation on term limits and any other recommendations would be taken to the council Feb. 7. “I’m hopeful the City Council will hold additional public hearings on any other issues we take to them, including term limits. Hopefully, they’ll put that on the ballot, also.” Historical footnote: Proposition 4 on the May 4, 2002, election ballot failed, with 45% voting yes to repealing term limits, while 55% voted no.

Close the loophole—The City Charter requires that council members be elected from the city at-large, with each council member elected to occupy a place on the council numbered and designated one through six and mayor. City Clerk Shirley Brown has recommended that the Charter Review Committee consider that the system of designating council seats by places be abolished. This would eliminate the loophole that currently exists, by which a council member could sidestep term limits by switching places and running for another council seat. (This recommendation would be moot if voters approved single-member districts.) No council member has yet taken advantage of this loophole to avoid term limits. In 1997, then-Council Member Gus Garcia switched from Place Five to Place Two to run for reelection, but he could have run for another term in Place Five without restriction. His goal was to step out of what had traditionally been the Hispanic council seat, to represent the whole city in another seat, and to get a second Hispanic elected to the council. Garcia was reelected but Bill Spelman defeated Manuel Zuniga, thwarting the election of a second Hispanic. Historical footnote: No measure was put on the May 4, 2002, ballot to address this loophole.

Get serious with electric utility—Austin Energy generates profits that are transferred into the general fund and keep property tax rates among the lowest of any major metropolitan area in Texas. While the city-owned utility is not required to enter competition unless the City Council opts to do so, the specter of competition has long been a major concern for the utility. Millions of dollars have been spent on studies and consultants to whip the utility into fighting trim and make rates competitive. In May 1996 the council-appointed Electric Utility Commission (EUC) hosted meetings of a high-profile focus group that met in public to debate the merits of establishing an independent board to govern the day-to-day operations of the city-owned electric utility. The group included Kirk Watson representing the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce (this was a year before he was elected mayor); former State Senator Charles F. Herring Sr., who is also a former general manager of the Lower Colorado River Authority; former Council Members Charles Urdy and Robert Barnstone; Jim Marston of Environmental Defense; Tom “Smitty” Smith of Public Citizen; former Texas Public Utility Commissioner Al Erwin; Ed Adams, external affairs manager for IBM Austin, representing the Austin Federation of Industrial Ratepayers; Len Riley, Austin site manager for Texas Instruments; and former EUC member Manuel Zuniga. The group reached consensus that to prepare for competition the electric utility should be managed by an independent board. The EUC subsequently recommended that the City Council put the measure on the ballot, as did the director of the electric utility, John Moore. In December 1996, the council passed a resolution that promised bond-rating agencies that a charter election would likely be held to establish an independent board, but the matter was never put on the ballot. On September 14, 1999, the City Council passed a resolution to, in part, “initiate a public education and input process that may culminate in a City Charter amendment election to consider governance options for its electric utility, including establishing a…governing board using the San Antonio model.” Once again, however, the election was not called. If a proposition to create an independent board were put on the ballot for the May 4 election, and approved by voters, establishment of the board would still have to be approved by the utility’s bondholders, says Assistant City Attorney Bob Kahn. “Generally, bondholders look on boards favorably,” Kahn told The Good Life, “but they would look at how it was formed and what the powers are.” Under state law, the board would have five members, one of which must be the mayor. The City Council would retain the power to issue debt, set electric rates, and condemn property. The foremost model for this system of governance is the City Public Service Board of San Antonio, which manages both the electric and gas systems for the Alamo City. City Public Service has for years had the lowest electric rates in the state, setting the standard that Austin Energy uses as its benchmark. The Charter Revision Committee has heard a presentation by EUC members, who recommend the governing board, and was scheduled to discuss the matter at the January 28 meeting, after press deadlines.Historical footnote: No measure was put on the May 4, 2002, ballot to address governance of the electric utility.

Power to the people—The Save Our Springs Alliance has requested consideration of a proposal that would make it easier to use the power of citizen initiative to enact ordinances. At present, to get an ordinance on the ballot requires a petition signed by ten percent of the registered voters. The SOS Alliance has recommended that the bar for ordinances be lowered to ten percent of the voters who voted in the last municipal election. In the special election last November in which Gus Garcia was elected mayor, a total of 59,794 votes were cast. Thus, an initiative petition submitted per the SOS Alliance recommendation would need the signatures of 5,794 registered voters to force the council to either adopt the ordinance or put it on the ballot for voters to decide. (In the 2000 election in which Kirk Watson was reelected mayor, 38,166 votes were cast.) Council Member Beverly Griffith says a formula similar to what the SOS Alliance recommended should also be applied to petitions for a council member to get on the ballot when otherwise prevented from running for reelection by term limits. “Five percent of the voters registered in our jurisdiction is quite challenging. But five percent of those who went to the polls in the last mayoral election is more reasonable…You don’t want to be in a position to have more people sign a petition than voted in the last election,” Griffith says.Historical footnote: No measure was put on the May 4, 2002, ballot to address the number of signatures required to get an ordinance on the ballot.

Power to the bureaucrats—The City Charter provides, “Except for the refunding of bonds previously issued, any proposition to borrow money and to issue such bonds shall first be approved by a majority of the qualified voters voting at an election called for the purpose of authorizing the issuance of such indebtedness.” City Manager Jesus Garza has asked the Charter Review Committee to “delete obsolete language that is in conflict with state law prohibiting the issue of non-voter approved debt.” State law permits issuance of revenue bonds and does not require a local election. While the City Charter does require voter approval of debt, the council has on at least three occasions voted to issue bonds without voter approval: (1) Under an agreement with Houston Lighting and Power to build the South Texas Nuclear Project, the city was obligated to pay a share of the expense, including cost overruns. In the early nineteen-eighties, there were huge overruns and the council under leadership of Mayor Lee Cooke voted unanimously to issue bonds without voter approval to pay for those costs. (2) In April 1997, the city council led by Mayor Bruce Todd voted unanimously to use certificates of obligation without voter approval to buy One Texas Center at a cost of $18.4 million. (3) In October 1999, the council led by Mayor Kirk Watson voted unanimously to pay $72.7 million of the $100 million cost of a long-term water supply agreement with the Lower Colorado River Authority by issuing debt without voter approval.Historical footnote: No measure was put on the May 4, 2002, ballot to address the fact that state law permits what the City Charter prohibits with respect to borrowing money.

Power to the council—Council Member Danny Thomas requested the Charter Revision Committee consider recommending a City Charter amendment be put on the ballot that would allow the City Council to appoint the police monitor. Voters in the City of San Jose, California, passed a charter amendment in November 1996 that authorized the council to appoint the police auditor (a different title but the same job). Council appointment of Austin’s police monitor was recommended by the council-appointed Police Oversight Focus Group that met weekly for six months, brought in national experts, held public hearings, and made trips to Kansas City and the Bay Area of California to find out how police monitors were performing elsewhere. When the recommendations were put through the Meet and Confer process of negotiating with the Austin Police Association, however, the appointment power was given to the city manager. On January 15, City Manager Jesus Garza announced the appointment of former Austin City Attorney Iris Jones to the new position. Jones’ appointment was criticized for perceived conflicts of interest, because as Austin’s city attorney she had represented the Austin Police Department. The Charter Revision Committee had not debated this matter, and was scheduled to take it up at the January 28 meeting, after press deadlines.Historical footnote: No measure was put on the May 4, 2002, ballot to address how the police monitor is appointed.

These articles were originally published in The Good Life magazine in February 2002

Historical footnote: More detailed information about the results of these proposed charter amendments—and other charter amendments that were also put on the ballot—may be obtained from the City of Austin’s Election History page for the May 4, 2002, election.

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