Grassroots group organizing to get measures on the May 5, 2018 ballot
Activists calling themselves IndyAustin formed a specific-purpose political action committee last month and they’re pushing to get 20,000 signatures on not one, not two, but three separate petitions.
They want to get several measures on the ballot that if approved by voters would bring about what they say are badly needed reforms.
Their overarching mission is to reinvigorate grassroots democracy and provide a mechanism to allow citizens of Austin to vote on matters of major importance.
Specifically they want to give voters the opportunity to:
• Approve sweeping revisions to the Land Development Code known as CodeNEXT—which may have far-reaching effects on private property rights throughout the city.
• Update the power of referendum bestowed by the Austin City Charter so that citizens once again have the ability to reverse City Council approval of ill-advised ordinances.
• Approve a new ordinance concerning regulation of billboards.
Push to head off boondoggles
The key players in IndyAustin have a strong track record of getting measures on the ballot. So it seems likely that voters will get the opportunity to decide the fate of some or all of these three propositions in May or November 2018.
IndyAustin organizers say the Austin City Council has made several egregious mistakes that could have been prevented if citizens had been given the opportunity to vote, including:
Domain Shopping Subsidies—In 2003 the council fast-tracked approval of sales-tax rebates and property tax breaks for Endeavor Real Estate Group to build the Domain, a high-end shopping center. The deal cost the City an estimated $57 million to $65 million over two decades. Civic activist Brian Rodgers sued the City and Endeavor over that deal and in 2004 reached a settlement that stated the Domain incentives were strictly voluntary, not obligatory. The City Council nevertheless decided to continue honoring the original agreement. The Austin American-Statesman reported yesterday that Council Member Leslie Pool as asking the Council to reconsider.
Biomass Energy Plant—In 2008 the council approved a contract to authorize payment of up to $2.3 billion for the capacity and electricity to be purchased from the plant, which went commercial in June 2012. The plant produced 80,192 megawatt hours of electricity in the most recent fiscal year, from October 2016 to September 2017. The plant is brought online to produce electricity only when market prices are expected to be high enough to sell the electric power at a financial gain, Austin Energy spokesman Robert Cullick told The Austin Bulldog. “The market has been so low, it is rarely called into use,” he said. Nevertheless ratepayers are being charged at least $54 million a year for the plant. The contract is confidential so Cullick could not confirm the actual figure.
Water Treatment Plant 4—The push to authorize construction of the facility garnered major opposition but managed—in part through illegal quorum communications among council members, in violation of the Texas Open Meetings Act—to get final approval on several 4-3 votes. The project reportedly carried a total construction cost of $528 million. The facility opened December 19, 2014.
The City Council could have let citizens vote on each of these measures. That didn’t happen. Citizens had no opportunity to overturn those decisions because of council actions that undercut the City Charter.
Right to initiate referendums
Ordinances of major public interest—and possible huge taxpayer expense—are routinely made effective immediately. At present there is nothing citizens can do about it.
The IndyAustin petition proposes to amend Article IV Section 2 of the City Charter concerning the Power of Referendum and would require:
Supermajority emergency approval—Ordinances “enacted for the immediate preservation of the public peace, health or safety, which contains a statement of urgency” must be approved by the favorable votes of eight or more of the council members.
File objection intention—A group of at least five registered voters of the City of Austin may make application to the City Clerk within 30 days of enactment and file an intention to circulate a petition requesting that any ordinance be either repealed or submitted to voters.
Effect of petition—If within a period of 180 days a petition containing the signatures of at least 20,000 registered voters is submitted to and certified by the City Clerk as sufficient, the ordinance shall not go into effect or, if it has gone into effect then further action under the ordinance shall be suspended, until and unless approved by voters.
Repeal or call election—Once a petition is certified, the City Council has two choices: It may cancel the ordinance or it may call an election for voters on the next available uniform election date, in May or November, per the Election Code.
Voters will decide—If the City Council chooses not to repeal the ordinance then the matter must be put on the ballot for voters to either approve or rescind the ordinance.
Win or lose when a referendum goes to the ballot box, the fact that citizens would regain the right to reject ill-advised ordinances might give elected officials reason to pause, reflect, and be certain before they vote to pass what may be widely viewed as highly controversial ordinances.
Doesn’t Austin already have referendum rights?
Well, yes and no. Technically the right is already enshrined in the City Charter.
But the City Clerk’s website readily admits that the right of referendum for all practical purposes no longer exists. It states:
“The charter requires that a referendum petition must be submitted ‘prior to the effective date of any ordinance which is subject to referendum.’ Because most ordinances that are passed by the City Council have an immediate effective date, this requirement can generally not be met.”
The City Council didn’t always adhere to the practice of making ordinances effective immediately.
Maybe that started because City Council members didn’t much like it when voters rose up and smacked down their intention to fork over $10 million to help build a baseball stadium so that a Triple A Phoenix Firebirds could move here and become the Austin Swing.
On October 7, 1995, the proposition to issue $10 million in bonds for the baseball stadium was defeated with 63 percent of voters shouting like an umpire: “You’re out!”
That was the day voters got up to bat, spit in their hands, and hit a home run at the ballot box. The City Council at some point decided that democracy was a nuisance and it would no longer be tolerated. Hence most ordinances have been put into effect immediately and the power of referendum was rendered null and void.
The Firebirds move was extinguished by a group that rounded up 20,000 signatures to force an election and then pushed for voter support. The group at first called themselves Save Austin From Extravagance, then changed their name to Priorities First!
Attorney Fred Lewis explained the need to put a brake on the sweeping revision of the City’s land development code. He was addressing more than two dozen people in a meeting of IndyAustin supporters September 5, 2017.
“It will affect everyone in the room, everything about your life,” Lewis said of CodeNEXT. “It is going to affect your neighborhood, your community, your land values, your home—the biggest investment most people have—and your emotional energy.”
He said the changes will “up-zone” single-family zoning and possibly allow businesses or apartments with 18 units. “I’m not saying that’s good or bad, but you may want to have a say before you end up with a bar in your neighborhood.
“If there’s a buck to be made someone will try to do it whether it affects you or not,” Lewis said.
As to the petition, if approved by voters this proposition would require both a waiting period and voter approval before CodeNEXT or any subsequent comprehensive revisions of the City’s land development laws becomes legally effective.
In addition, no land development entitlements would be granted or vested under such new laws until June 1st following the next regularly scheduled council elections after the City Council adopts CodeNEXT or the comprehensive revisions.
Council members serve four-year staggered terms, and council elections are held every two years in November.
The purpose of the waiting period is to ensure that voters have the opportunity to learn about the proposed changes and elect council members who then have sufficient time to amend or reject the prior council’s adopted changes before they go into effect.
After the waiting period, the changes would not go into effect until Austin voters approve the laws at the next available municipal election.
Should voters not approve the new laws then the existing land development laws would remain in effect.
As to the waiting period and then a public vote, Lewis likened the strategy to wearing both a belt and suspenders. By holding implementation till after the next council election, Lewis said, “If the City Council members do a good job then they can defend it. If not, they won’t be reelected.”
At the moment there appears be a groundswell of interest in requiring a public vote on CodeNEXT. The Austin Monitor reported yesterday that at a meeting in East Austin on Saturday, residents and activists called for a halt and a vote on it. That forum was organized by Community Not Commodity, a separate project also led by Fred Lewis.
The IndyAustin starting team
Linda Curtis was one of the key activists that caused the baseball stadium to strike out. In following years she sparkplugged several petition drives that triggered elections to:
Reform campaign finance—A proposition to limit contributions in city elections was approved by 72 percent of voters November 4, 1997.
Stop retail subsidies—A proposition to prohibit entering future agreements to provide financial incentives for retail developments and to end existing incentives for such developments was squarely aimed at ending the Domain subsidies. On November 4, 2008, the measure was defeated 48-52 percent.
Implement geographic representation—A proposition brought to the ballot by Austinites for Geographic Representation proposed 10 geographic districts from which council members would be elected. District boundaries would be established by an independent citizens redistricting commission. The proposition was approved by 60 percent of voters November 6, 2012. Council members were elected under this system in 2014 and took office January 2015. Making this achievement all the more notable, Austin voters had previously rejected six previous proposals to achieve geographic representation.
Many of those now involved in IndyAustin were core supporters of the 10-1 plan for geographic representation on the Austin City Council, including veteran political consultant Peck Young. He was instrumental in steering 10-1 to victory—and despite the last-minute maneuver by the Austin City Council to put an alternative 8-2-1 plan on the same ballot.
Attorney Lewis was a key player in the 10-1 movement where he tweaked the proposed City Charter amendment—originally drafted by attorney Steve Bickerstaff based on the California model for operation of an Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission.
Attorney Bill Bunch, executive director of the Save Our Springs Alliance is also instrumental in the IndyAustin coalition. He briefed attendees on how Hotel Occupancy Tax money is being used. He drafted an ordinance that would require voter approval of the commitment of public funds to support the expansion of the Austin Convention Center. But for now IndyAustin has opted not to launch a fourth petition drive to that end.
Curtis, Young, Lewis, and Bunch were with two dozen others last Tuesday evening to go over the IndyAustin petitions, lay initial plans for a campaign, take suggestions, and call for volunteers and donations.
Among those in attendance were Austin Neighborhoods Council (ANC) leaders including President Mary Ingle and ANC sector representatives Brad Parsons and Chip Harris.
Petition drives aiming high
What’s radically different about the latest push for petition signatures is that the 10-1 coalition organized by Austinites for Geographic Representation started meeting in February 2011 and took a slow and methodical approach. By election day some 20 months later the coalition had gathered support of some 30 community organizations, ranging from the Austin Neighborhoods Council, LULAC, and the NAACP, to the Gray Panthers, League of Women Voters, and Travis County Republican Party.
The IndyAustin coalition will be trying to get not one measure on the ballot next May but three—and it’s shooting to do all that the lickety split period of gathering 20,000 valid signatures for each petition in as few as five months to hit the May election target. Meaning they would like to submit petitions for review by the City Clerk by mid-January. If petitioning falls short of that target then they intend to adjust their sights and aim for a November election. Either way, to be counted as valid, the signatures must be gathered within a single period of six months.
This moon shot of an effort will depend in part on sending direct mail and copies of the petitions to the 22,435 people whose valid signatures appeared on the 10-1 petition certified by the Austin City Clerk July 26, 2012. In addition, direct mail may be sent to those who signed other successful petitions in the past:
• Campaign contribution limits in 1997
• Stop Domain Subsidies 1998
• Kinky Friedman or Carole Strayhorn for Governor, 1998
• Uber (Transportation Networking Companies) 2016
This ambitious and costly direct-mail campaign will depend greatly on successful fundraising.
Because the petitions will not have to be notarized, anyone who wants to see that these measures get on the ballot can just sign and mail the petitions back to the organizers.
The Referendum and Sign Ordinance petitions are available on the website to download, print, sign, and mail, and the CodeNEXT petition soon will be there as well. Texas does not accept online petitions, hence the requirement to sign and submit a printed copy.
Volunteers on the street will be soliciting signatures at just about any event big enough to draw a crowd around town. To add visibility to petitioning efforts IndyAustin will be positioning its mobile Petition Wagon where possible. The wagon made its first appearances last Saturday at the Community Not Commodity event in East Austin and at Little Woodrow’s 10th Anniversary Celebration at Southpark Meadows.
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.
Related Bulldog coverage:
IndyAustin Facebook page
In Fact newsletter, October 4, 1995 (1 page), Priorties First! blasts ‘Statesman’ coverage: Firebirds outspending opposition by nearly 6-1 for Oct. 7 election
In Fact newsletter, September 13, 1995 (1 page), Austin Swing strikes out with a number of political organizers: High-dollar campaign to steal new home base batting zero with new coalition
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