Nine Charter Revisions Recommended

HomeCity of AustinCity CharterNine Charter Revisions Recommended

Public financing for mayor and council candidates, an Independent Ethics Commission with teeth, more

Updated Wednesday May 9, 2018 9:30am (Charter Review Commission–not Charter Revision Commission)
Updated Monday May 14, 2018 9:22am to link the final verison of the 2018 Charter Review Commission Report to the City Council)
Updated Monday May 14, 2018 3:23pm to remove Terrell Blodgett as an endorser of the Democracy Dollars Vouchers plan)

The 2018 Charter Revision Review Commission was mighty happy to finish its seven months of work last night as it put the final touches on nine recommended Charter changes.

Jannette Goodall
Jannette Goodall

City Clerk Jannette Goodall, Assistant City Attorney Lynn Carter, and Assistant City Clerk Myrna Rios were relieved of the considerable workload they have carried through the process. Goodall even brought brownies for an informal celebration once the commission adjourned.

Matt Hersh
Matt Hersh

The final report was adopted on a vote of 9-1 with Commission Matt Hersh opposed and Commissioner Joy Arthur absent.

Now the recommendations will go to the City Council for a decision about which of these, if any, you will see on the November 6, 2018, ballot.

Among the high-profile recommendations are public financing for mayoral and city council campaigns, establishment of an Independent Ethics Commission, hiring a Budget and Efficiency Officer to advise the City Council on finance and other issues, allowing the City Council to hire the City Attorney instead of the City Manager, and requiring public hearings and/or voter approval of major new revenue bonds and spending for electric and water projects. (A complete list and details are provided below.)

The Commission met 15 times starting November 6, 2017. Most of the heavy lifting in research and formulating recommendations was done in working groups that brought their work back to the Commission for discussion, refinement, and a vote. Two of the recommendations came from concerned citizens who brought ideas the Commission ultimately adopted.

The Commission scheduled five public hearings, two of which were cancelled due to lack of a quorum. The three hearings actually held—at Anderson High School, Dove Springs Recreation Center, and City Hall—drew a total of just three speakers.

Final report packed with details

The Commission’s 59 93-page 2018 Charter Review Commission Report to City Council, May 7, 2018, reflects the final few votes taken last night. Some of the recommendations were approved at earlier meetings.

Each of the recommendations lists the background and policy reasons, the substance of proposed changes, the impact of the changes on existing regulations, and the proposed ballot language.

Jessica Palvino
Jessica Palvino

The Report linked here is still incomplete because a couple of the appendices are still being finalized by Commission Chair Jessica Palvino. The link will be updated when those changes have been made.

This article provides a short overview of each recommendation. For complete information please refer to the full report.

Recommendation 1: Democracy Dollars—“Shall the city charter be amended to provide a voluntary campaign finance system, with voters contributing small publicly funded contribution vouchers to candidates for mayor and city council who have demonstrated grassroots support?”

The recommendation calls for providing eligible Austin residents up to four $25 Democracy Dollar Vouchers per election cycle, which may be donated to a resident’s district council candidate or mayoral candidate. By extension that means that vouchers may not be contributed to council candidates outside a resident’s own district.

The Commission estimated the Democracy Dollars program will cost $1.55 million annually after an initial one-time set-up expense of $400,000.

The working group recommended a system of public financing modeled on the program that took effect in Seattle with that city’s 2017 elections.

Two experts in the Seattle system made presentations and answered questions for the commissioners January 8, 2018: Paul Seamus Ryan, the Common Cause national vice president for policy and litigation, who helped draft the Seattle measure, and Wayne Barnett, executive director of the Seattle Ethics and Election Commission, who implemented it. (See The Austin Bulldog’s report “Tax Dollars for Council Campaigns?” published January 10, 2018.)

In addition, Seattle Council Member Teresa Mosqueda, who was elected in 2017 using that city’s Democracy Vouchers, made two presentations in Austin and answered questions about the system. She made her first presentation of 80 minutes to some 20 citizens at the Manchaca Branch Library February 18, 2018. She made her second presentation of about 45 minutes to six of the Charter Revision Review Commission members February 19, 2018, in the Mueller HEB grocery store’s community room. (See The Austin Bulldog’s report “Council Campaigns Funded by Tax Dollars?” published February 23, 2018.)

The Democracy Dollars recommendation garnered a letter of endorsements signed by representatives of six organizations: Clean Elections Texas, Common Cause Texas, Common Ground for Texans, League of Women Voters—Austin, Public Citizen Texas, and Texans for Public Justice (linked at bottom of this story).

The letter states the program offers two major advantages: (1) it allows non-wealthy Austinites to contribute to candidates of their choosing and (2) it allows non-wealthy candidates with strong community support to run competitively.

In addition, seven six other organizations or high-profile individuals endorsed the recommendation in public comments or written testimony: the Austin La Raza Roundtable; Liliana Beverido of Amiga Hispania; Professor Terrell Blodgett, the Mike Hogg professor emeritus in urban management, LBJ School of Public Affairs; Linda Del Toro, LULAC Council 4246; Professor Joseph Fishkin, the Marrs McLean Professor in Law at the University of Texas; Lauren Ross, PhD, Glenrose Engineering Inc.; and longtime political consultant Peck Young.

Roger Borgelt
Roger Borgelt
Jeff Smith
Jeff Smith

After debating this program at numerous Commission meetings, the recommendation passed by a margin of 7-3 with Commissioners Roger Borgelt, Matt Hersh, and Jeff Smith opposed and Joy Arthur absent. Borgelt is an attorney and former vice chair of the Travis County Republican Party; Hersh is a political consultant; and Smith is president of the political polling firm Opinion Analysts Inc., which he started in 1980.

Recommendation 2: Independent Ethics Commission—“Shall the city charter be amended to establish an Independent Ethics Commission consisting of 7 citizen members?”

This recommendation states the new commission will “impartially and effectively administer and enforce all city laws relating to campaign finance, campaign disclosures, conflicts of interest, financial statement disclosure, lobbyist regulations, revolving door, disqualification of members of city boards, certain conflict of interest, ethics laws, and other responsibilities.”

The Charter Revision Review Commission was charged with reviewing the current Ethics Review Commission, which oversees complaints about campaign finance, ethics, and financial disclosure. The Ethics Review Commission expressed concerns about it being abolished in favor of the new body, including qualifications to serve, the selection process, and the conduct of hearings for employees not covered by the Municipal Civil Service Commission. Changes were made in the recommendation to accommodate some of those concerns.

At present, Austin has four different entities involved in ethics matters: the City Clerk, City Attorney, City Auditor, and Ethics Review Commission. These officials provide no advice to candidates, citizens, and political committees. There have been no thorough investigations and no strong enforcement or fines levied.

The Charter Review Commission estimates there would be little or no additional cost to establish this new office because the current personnel and responsibilities of the clerk, attorney, auditor and Ethics Review Commission would be transferred to the new body. Selecting the commissioners would cost about $92,000.

Fred Lewis
Fred Lewis

If established as recommended, the Independent Ethics Commission would have sharp teeth—real enforcement powers that are completely lacking at present—evidenced by the City’s response to Commissioner Fred Lewis’ public information request received late yesterday, which indicated, in his words, “It appears that there are no records of any ethics/campaign finance etc. referrals, investigations, or prosecutions from 1998 to the present.”

This recommendation calls for enforcement personnel, including lawyers and investigators, to work for the independent commission—not the city attorney. The executive director and staff would have authority to investigate including subpoena power and the right to take witness statements before hearings. Its board would hear matters and set fines and reprimands and issue cease-and-desist orders. Appeals would go to a court of competent jurisdiction.

After some minor amendments the Commission voted 9-0 last night to adopt the recommendation to establish the Independent Ethics Commission.

Recommendation 3: City Budget and Efficiency Officer—“Shall the City Charter of the City of Austin be amended to require that a City Council Budget and Efficiency Office be created with a Council Budget and Efficiency Officer to be appointed by and report directly to the City Council?”

Frank Rodriguez
Frank Rodriguez

This recommendation originated with Frank Rodriguez, who early this year resigned from Mayor Steve Adler’s staff, where his duties included advising the mayor on city budgets. He served as the City of Austin’s budget director from 1978 to 1984, way back when Carole Keeton McClellan and Ron Mullen were Austin mayors.

The officer would advise the council on budgetary matters, appropriations, efficiency, cost savings, and proposed ordinances with fiscal implications. The officer would also advise regarding estimated revenue and such other information or analyses as requested.

The estimated cost for the officer and four other full-time staff originally was estimated at $800,000 per year. But the Commission ultimately decided the fiscal impact would be “none to minimal” because personnel would come from the City’s current Budget Office. However if those personnel are not transferred then the $800,000 cost would stand.

The Commission had at a previous meeting voted 7-0 to approve this recommendation.

Recommendation 4: Citizen-initiated Petitions and Initiatives—“Shall the Charter be amended to allow submission of a petition to approve or reject an ordinance up to 180 days after its passage at third reading?”

If enacted this recommendation would amend Article IV, Section 2 of the City Charter, which provides—except for ordinances adopted for the immediate preservation of public peace, health or safety, contains a statement of its urgency, and is adopted by a supermajority of the council—people with the power to approve or reject at the polls any legislation enacted by the council.

However, petitions to do so must be filed with the city clerk “prior to the effective date” of the ordinance. That deadline worked properly before the City Council began to routinely make all ordinances effective immediately, thus blocking any possibility of causing a referendum to overturn an ordinance.

In effect the change would expand the length of time granted to collect signatures, including, potentially, a finishing date after the ordinance has gone into effect. Petitioners would have to file a letter of intent with the City Clerk.

The Commission found there is no fiscal impact for this recommendation.

The Commission had at a previous meeting voted 7-0 to approve this recommendation.

Recommendation 5: Recall of a Mayor or Council Member—“Shall the Charter be amended to increase the percentage of voters required to petition to recall a council member from 10 percent to 20 percent of the voters in the district, and to require grounds be sworn to for any recall election?”

The threshold for petitions to recall council members was 10 percent when they were elected at-large but the higher percentage is deemed appropriate given the relatively small population of council districts. The threshold for signatures to recall the mayor, who is the only official still elected at-large, would remain unchanged at 10 percent.

“The petition shall be signed and verified in the manner required for an initiative petition, shall contain one of the following grounds for which the removal is sought:

• Incompetency (gross ignorance of official duties, gross carelessness in the discharge of official duties, or inability or unfitness to promptly and properly discharge official duties because of a serious mental or physical defect that did not exist at the time of election);

• Official misconduct (intentional unlawful behavior relating to official duties including an intentional or corrupt failure, refusal, or neglect of an officer to perform a duty imposed on the officer by law);

• Habitual intoxication; or

• Conviction for any felony or misdemeanor involving official misconduct.

The Commission had at a previous meeting voted 8-0 to approve this recommendation.

Recommendation 6: City Attorney—“Shall the City Charter be amended to provide that the City Council appoint the City Attorney?”

This is identical to the language put before voters on November 6, 2012, as Proposition 6. In that election, where 238,637 ballots were cast on Prop 6, by a margin of just 3,015 votes the measure failed. The City’s portion of that long presidential election ballot contained 18 propositions.

The 2012 Charter Revision Review Commission had voted 14-1 to put Proposition 6 on the ballot.

The 2018 Charter Revision Review Commission’s working group recommendation was presented to the Commission as a whole February 8, 2018, and was adopted by a vote of 11-0.

The rationale is that the City of Austin is an outlier, in that the most recent survey conducted by the Texas Municipal League in 2010 indicated that 73 percent of home-rule cities authorize the city council to directly appoint the city attorney. The working group also stated that approval would “ensure accountability of the city attorney’s office to the City Council.”

There is no anticipated fiscal impact if this change is approved by voters.

Recommendation 7: Planning and Zoning Commission—“Shall the charter be amended to clarify that the timing of the Planning and Zoning Commission appointments will be determined by ordinance?”

If enacted this recommendation would amend Article X Section 2 of the Charter to change one sentence as follows (in italics):

“The members of said commission shall be appointed by the council for a term of up to two (2) years, with the timing of the appointment determined by ordinance.

The change was proposed by City Clerk Goodall and Jerikay Gayle of the City’s Law Department, who provided a brief history of the issue at the Commission’s March 5, 2018, meeting.

The problem is that at present the charter does not provide a means to remove members of the Planning and Zoning Commission when the council members who appointed them are no longer in office. That bars the incoming council members from making their own appointments. The result, Gayle said, is that the new “council member will have someone else’s appointment for a two-year term.”

Further, when the first 10-1 council took office in January 2015 the 11-member council all made two-year appointments, so there was “no way to get the stagger back,” Gayle said.

Goodall said, “The two-year term would get everyone on a staggered term without a council member having a permanent appointee serving after leaving the council.”

Commissioner Lewis, an attorney, said that in effect the staff was contending, “Even if commissioners are ineligible you can’t remove them.” He was referring to a related matter in Article X Section 2 that states, “…a minimum of two-thirds of the members who shall be lay members not directly or indirectly connected with real estate and land development,” a requirement not being met today because of the makeup of the current Commission.

After discussion again at the meeting of April 16, 2018, and deciding to modify the recommended language, the Commission voted 9-0 to adopt this recommendation.

Recommendation 8: Revenue Bonds—“Shall the Charter be amended to require voter approval for all revenue bonds whose total cost exceeds $100 million and all electricity and water purchases whose total cost exceeds $200 million?”

The 2012 Charter Revision Review Commission made a similar recommendation but set a far lower threshold of $50 million for revenue bonds, plus a cost of living adjustment. The City Council did not place that proposition on the ballot.

This time, the recommendation started with testimony and a proposal by longtime utility activist Paul Robbins at the March 12, 2018, meeting. He proposed requiring voter approval of revenue bonds for city projects with a total cost of $25 million or more, and that all power and water purchases that exceed $50 million be approved by voters.

The Charter Revision Review Commission liked the concept but raised both those amounts by a factor of four. That amended recommendation passed by a vote of 7-1-1 with Commissioner Jessica Palvino voting no and Ingrid Weigand abstaining.

The Commission did not foresee an immediate fiscal impact from this recommendation, although in discussion last night it was recognized that if an election is held in May the city must pay the election-related expenses.

Recommendation 9: Routine Harmonization—No ballot language was supplied in the draft report, but the 38 pages of material consist primarily of minor cleanups, including large numbers of changes of uppercase letters for City, Commission, Constitution, and Council to lower case city, commission, constitution, and council.

A substantive change was made in Article II, Section 4, which addressed only how the transition from a council of seven members elected at-large to a mayor at-large and 10 council members from geographic districts. That one-time transition has been accomplished so this section can be deleted.

In a more substantive change, Article IV, Section 2 will the revised to reflect that a supermajority of council members voting for an ordinance will increase from five members to eight.

The entire 38 pages of Hormonization changes are linked below.

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

Campaign Finance and Ethics Organizations Endorse the Democracy Dollars Proposal, undated (1 page)

City Charter Changes for Routine Harmonization (38 pages). As recommended by City Staff. Almost none of the changes are substantive.

Resolution No. 20170622-040, establishment of 2018 Charter Revision ReviewCommission (4 pages)

Related Bulldog coverage:

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

Big Charter Changes Up for Scrutiny: Charter Revision 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 Revision Commission, February 23, 2018

Tax Dollars for Council Campaigns? Charter Revision Review Commission considering public financing to boost voter participation and reduce advantage of personal wealth, January 10, 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].

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