Change from council-manager to mayor-council form of government puts a constitutional question to a distracted city
An election May 1 will give Austinites the chance to decide on the municipal equivalent of a constitutional amendment. Proposition F would fundamentally alter the system of government in Austin, giving the mayor the power to veto council decisions and directly manage the administrative affairs of the city.
Opponents of the proposal are warning that it would make the mayor too powerful. Supporters contend that it would make government more accountable by stripping power from the city’s unelected city manager and giving it to an elected mayor instead.
An analogous debate took place in 1787-88 during the writing and ratification of the U.S. Constitution, pitting the Constitution’s supporters, known as Federalists, against a faction known as the Anti-Federalists. The latter warned that the document would give too much power to the federal government, and to the president in particular.
Anti-Federalists strongly objected to the president’s veto power. “The ten miles square, which is to become the seat of government, will [become]…the court of a president possessing the powers of a monarch,” warned the pseudonymous Anti-Federalist author Cato in the New York Journal November 8, 1787. (Pseudonymous writing was common at the time, and done even by famous persons such as Alexander Hamilton, who wrote dozens of the Federalist Papers under the name Publius).
Referring to the president’s proposed four-year term, Cato cautioned, “If the president is possessed of ambition, he has power and time sufficient to ruin his country.”
Critics of Proposition F have invoked similar rhetoric about the possibility of a strongman. “The manager form of government evolved as a reaction to excesses of the strong mayor. And we’ve seen recently what an aspiring autocrat can do to forms of government. I just don’t want to open that door,” said Arnold Garcia, retired editorial page editor of the Austin-American Statesman, in a campaign video by a group opposing Proposition F.
On the other hand, Austinites for Progressive Reform, the campaign group behind Proposition F, has sought to allay fears of an over-powerful mayor by pointing to differences between the Austin proposal and the strong-mayor system in Houston. That’s the only other big Texas city to use a mayor-council system rather than a council-manager system. Under Proposition F, for example, the mayor would not have a seat on the city council, as he does now, and would not preside over council meetings.
“From the beginning of our work, we have focused on not mimicking Houston’s form of government, which places extraordinary power in the office of the mayor,” the group said in a position paper.
Supporters also point out that the council would be able to override the mayor’s veto by a two-thirds vote. “I believe in this system, which is (the same as) the federal system, you’re going to have a balance of power,” said Austin NAACP President Nelson Linder, during a recent panel discussion moderated by the Austin Chronicle.
Linder also contended that the strong-mayor system would bring about reforms more quickly, and allow for faster executive action. He said, “In times of emergencies (in Austin) people stutter instead of reacting because they don’t know what to do, because of leadership. We need a person who’s elected as the chief executive in the city so that we can make quick, responsible decisions in times of emergencies.”
Under Proposition F, the mayor would have more direct control over city personnel and departments. He would be “the chief administrative and executive officer of the city…with sole authority to hire and fire most department heads and direct staff,” according to the ballot language. That’s similar to the sort of appointment power that’s vested in the U.S. president, and it differs from the city’s current system in which the city manager makes personnel decisions.
Austin For All People, a group campaigning against Proposition F, contends that this would open the door to more corporate cronyism or nepotism. “Historically (strong mayors) are more subject to corruption and fraud than the council-manager system, and the reason for that is that they can bestow favors and create obligations of people to them,” said Kenneth Ashworth, former vice chancellor of the University of Texas, in a video released by the group.
Illustrating that same concern, a group of labor unions February 9th set up a huge, cigar-smoking inflatable cat at City Hall, holding a money bag in its paw.
Like today’s Proposition F opponents, Anti-Federalists opposed giving the executive extensive powers to hire and fire. In the New York Journal, Cato (whom some have speculated to be New York Governor George Clinton) portrayed a king-like figure attended by toadies: “The deposit of vast trusts in the hands of a single magistrate enables him in their exercise to create a numerous train of dependents…his eminent magisterial situation will attach many adherents to him, and he will be surrounded by expectants and courtiers.”
In the end, the Anti-Federalists didn’t get their way—the U.S. presidency today is among the strongest in the world. But their efforts led to the addition of a Bill of Rights to the Constitution in 1789, as a measure of compromise. Moreover, the Anti-Federalist critique arguably helped promote stability of the U.S. system in the long term by alerting Americans to its potential pitfalls and forcing the framers to hone and defend its built-in checks and balances. The Federalist Papers, which were written in response to Anti-Federalist attacks, today are still studied and cited by judges and lawyers.
The significance of Proposition F might ultimately be similar—not in the outcome of the ballot measure itself, which looks unlikely to succeed—but in the debate that it stirs up. Even if it fails, it is drawing attention to the various upsides and downsides of the current council-manager system.
The Proposition F campaign might also provide a blueprint for future efforts to restructure the city government by petition. Whereas the current 10-1 council-mayor system was adopted by voters in 2014 after nearly two years of coalition-building led by Austinites for Geographic Representation and numerous public meetings of the Charter Revision Committee, this proposal was drafted behind closed doors, and put on the ballot in an off-year election. That’s a cause for concern for critics who see the approach taken by the petitioners as surreptitious.
“Have you voted in a May election? Almost nobody does,” said Jeremiah Bentley, a board member of several civic groups, including the Austin Chamber of Commerce, in a campaign video. “And that really makes me question why we need to do this now. If we’re trying to be progressive and trying to represent democracy, why are we putting it on such a low turnout election?”
Likewise, Council Member Vanessa Fuentes questioned the timing of the initiative. Speaking at a virtual press conference hosted by Austin for All People, she said, “We are in the midst of a pandemic and just a month out from the winter storm disaster. This is not a time for us to shift the dynamic.”
Fuentes also pointed out that the city already changed its system of government fairly recently. “With just a little over six years under our belt in the 10-1 system, which provided us with more minority voices at the table, why would we want to suddenly change the configuration of the table and move away from our current form of government? This would dilute the power of district-level representatives,” she said.
Team Adler pushes ‘strong-mayor’ system
Mayor Steve Adler has mostly stayed mum on Proposition F, but his political team is playing a central role in running the campaign.
Austinites for Progressive Reform, the group behind the petition drive and ballot campaign for Proposition F, debuted in July last year, claiming to be “community-led at every step,” according to its website. But the Founding Team listed on the same website includes Adler’s two-time campaign manager Jim Wick, Adler’s two-time deputy campaign manager Laura Hernandez Holmes, and Adler’s long-time senior advisor and two-time campaign treasurer, Eugene Sepulveda.
Those operatives are now serving in virtually the same capacities for the PAC. Wick is campaign manager, Holmes is deputy campaign manager and finance director, and Sepulveda is senior advisor.
In other words, the Proposition F campaign team is Adler’s campaign team.
Moreover, Austinites for Progressive Reform is paying several political consultants who have worked on Adler campaigns, including Mykle Tomlinson and David Butts.
Political allies of the mayor also played a direct role in formulating the strong-mayor charter amendment. Austinites for Progressive Reform says that the proposal came out of a drafting process that took place in the summer and fall of 2020, carried out by a 15-member Steering Committee (scroll down). That committee included senior Adler advisor Sepulveda; engineering executive Ali Khataw, an Adler donor and appointee to a mayoral task force; and MariBen Ramsey, another campaign donor and appointee to the Visitor Impact Task Force, which Adler formed to promote his Downtown Puzzle initiative. However, the Steering Committee also included a variety of community voices.
The PAC has raised money from several Austin tech executives, including Silicon Labs CEO Tyson Tuttle (an Adler campaign donor) and Silicon Labs Chairman Nav Sooch, who together gave $50,000. Another top donor is Jonathan Soros, CEO of JS Capital Management LLC and son of billionaire George Soros, who gave $25,000.
Tech CEO in the lead
Despite appearances, PAC Chair Andrew Allison says that Adler has had no role in the campaign for Proposition F, and it wasn’t his idea. “I approached Jim Wick with the idea for the campaign,” he told the Bulldog. Allison, the co-founder and co-CEO of Main Street Hub, hadn’t previously worked in Austin politics or government, though he had some experience in political organizing and he worked on the speechwriting team for John Kerry’s 2004 presidential campaign.
Allison explained, “The idea for the campaign, and my belief in its necessity, came from two experiences: my experience as a resident and voter in Austin—watching our city fail to address the many urgent challenges that we are facing and noticing that our election and governance structures excluded many voters—and our collective experience watching democracy itself under threat in these last few years.”
Allison says that he had met Adler only once prior to launching the campaign, though he knew Adler’s campaign manager socially. The two of them then approached the rest of the Adler political team in the spring of 2020. “Jim and I then approached Laura Hernandez Holmes, who also has a long record of success and involvement in local Democratic politics, and the three of us approached Eugene (Sepulveda), who has decades of experience in local Austin politics and deep ties in the community.”
“I had never met Eugene prior to approaching him in spring 2020 about this campaign. And the first time I spoke with Mayor Adler about this campaign was in August 2020, one month after the campaign began. Prior to speaking with Mayor Adler in August 2020, I had only met him once before, years ago, and I have never had any involvement with either of his campaigns…Former members of his team are involved because they care about the future of this city and our democracy, and because of their long record of success in advancing progressive causes and candidates.”
In other words, Allison sought to emphasize that Proposition F is not about Steve Adler.
Adler himself has tried to send the same message by saying very little publicly about the proposition. He told The Austin Independent last year that he supported it, but added that if it passed, “I will not run for re-election or undertake a petition drive.”
However, that was eight months ago, and Adler doesn’t seem to have publicly reiterated the commitment elsewhere. It was also prior to “Cabogate,” Adler’s muck-up involving a trip to Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, which jeopardized his chances of getting a job in the Biden Administration. If Proposition F is approved, the strong-mayor system would take effect in January 2023, according to the ballot ordinance. That would be the start of Adler’s third term, if he were to run for a third term and win.
Because of a term-limit clause in the city charter, Adler would only be able to run for reelection if he first submitted a petition signed by at least five percent of qualified voters of the city. Petitions to overcome term limits were used in 2018 by current City Council Member Kathie Tovo and in 2002 by Council Members Jackie Goodman, Beverly Griffith, and Daryl Slusher. All but Griffith won reelection.
Proposition F has divided Austin liberals, while galvanizing opposition across the rest of the political spectrum, from Republicans to the local chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America. Nine of ten council members—eight of them Democrats—appeared in a livestream hosted by a newly formed PAC, Austin For All People, opposing the measure. Co-chairs of that PAC are Reverend Joseph Parker, pastor of David Chapel Missionary Baptist Church in East Austin; Kerbey Lane Cafe CEO Mason Ayer; and former Austin city manager Jesús Garza.
Another political action committee, Restore Leadership ATX, is financed principally by local developers and business executives, including auto group owner Bryan Hardeman and Texas Monthly founder Mike Levy. The treasurer is Ellen Wood, CEO of a financial consulting firm.
The PAC received nearly $20,000 in in-kind assistance from the International City/County Managers Association, according to a campaign finance report. That organization’s executive director is former Austin City Manager Marc Ott.
“Proposition F will make the mayor, rather than the professional City Manager, the CEO of Austin’s $4.2 billion budget,” says a mailer sent out by the group. “The mayor, unlike the City Manager, is not required to have management or operations training or experience.”
Separately, a coalition of labor unions, criminal justice reform groups, and the Workers Defense Project—the group that set up the inflatable Fat Cat at city hall—are also opposing the effort. This coalition calls itself By the People ATX and has built a website to drum up opposition.
Austin DSA released a statement April 2 saying, “Investing this much power in a single position is fundamentally anti-democratic and is meant to stifle the progress of working-class demands…Strong-mayor cities like Los Angeles and Chicago have already seen the detrimental effects of neoliberal mayors being given carte blanche to carry out their austerity agendas.”
Split on the left
On the left, the debate over the strong-mayor proposal reflects an historical divide over the role of concentrated executive power. On the one hand, many 20th century Democrats favored strong federal and executive authority—think FDR or LBJ—as a way of pushing top-down change on recalcitrant state and local governments on matters like desegregation, antitrust, and environmental regulation. President Joe Biden appears to be moving in that direction too, in areas like voting access and the response to the COVID-19 disaster.
On the other hand, 21st century Progressives increasingly have turned their attention to bottom-up approaches and grown skeptical of executive authority and non-democratic elements of the U.S. political system, such as the Electoral College and the Senate.
In Austin, this dynamic is seen in the anti-Prop F rhetoric around democracy and accountability. Austin for All People argues on its website, “A switch in the governance system would transfer even more power from the people of Austin into the hands of the politically connected.” Likewise, By the People ATX argues, “This controversial proposal is undemocratic, and a Trojan horse that will give the wealthy and well-connected more power.”
Supporters appeal to a similar line of argument, insofar as they criticize the city manager position as an undemocratic, unelected institution. But they are also implicitly drawing on the older tradition, which views concentrated power more favorably, by suggesting that a strong mayor system would be more effective in governing and enacting reforms over the objections of a slower-moving, more conservative council.
In a position paper, Austinites for Progressive Reform lays out a scenario where a newly elected mayor faced opposition to his agenda from six council members. As a strong mayor, he would still be able to enact change through executive action and management decisions, while blocking conservative legislation: “The veto is therefore critical to preserving progressive and equitable government in the event of a council majority that is more conservative than the city as a whole.”
“Without a veto, the council will have the power, without constraint, to dictate how the executive branch is managed. If the mayor has campaigned on implementing more progressive public safety policies than six of the council members, those six members can stop the mayor’s reforms. If the mayor has promised to implement a more progressive approach to labor policy, six members of the council can stand in the way….”
“The result of such a system would be an elected mayor without the ability to do what the voters have empowered the mayor to do. And if voters routinely elect progressive mayors, but those mayors are not able to check encroachments on their executive authority, then Austin voters will grow disillusioned, turnout will drop, and progressive momentum will stall.”
In other words, Austinites for Progressive Reform isn’t gunning for a strong-mayor system just for the sake of having a strong-mayor system; it supports the idea of a populist, progressive strong mayor.
Precisely this scenario scares some opponents of Proposition F. It’s no secret that Council Member Greg Casar harbors aspirations for higher office. He was the youngest person ever elected to the City Council in 2014 at age 25, yet last year he very publicly considered running for the state senate seat vacated by Kirk Watson.
On social media, the Travis County GOP warned of a possible mayoral candidacy by “Comrade Casar,” perhaps the city’s farthest left council member. In that respect they need only to point to Casar’s former role leading the Workers Defense Project. As a council member he rammed through a paid sick leave policy detrimental to small businesses and stopped by courts. Perhaps worst of all he trumpeted via Twitter that the “Austin City Council had just reduced” the Austin Police Department’s “budget by over $100 million….” significantly exaggerating an August 2020 budget cut. Republicans quickly latched onto his boast—including Texas Governor Greg Abbott, who threatened to take control of APD—and used it to hamper the election of Democrats near and far.
Similarly, centrist Democrat Adam Loewy, a lawyer and major political donor in Austin, commented on a recent podcast, “I personally think strong mayor is a better form of government…(but) there’s an enormous fear that someone like Greg Casar becomes the strong mayor, and I think that will drive the right out to oppose Proposition F. And then funny enough, I talked to one of Adler’s main advisors, and he said that the progressives—the far-left progressives—don’t want it because they don’t think Casar could become the strong mayor. Because there would be so much fear. So everything really revolves around Casar in many ways. Casar has gotten himself such a high profile that it’s very easy to say, ‘Look, do you want to have this guy making all the decisions?’”
If he’s right about that, then the outcome of Proposition F will hinge largely on Casar’s popularity, and that of Adler himself, since each could potentially because the first strong mayor. While the mayor won reelection handily 2018 with an historically wide 40-point margin of victory over former City Council Member Laura Morrison, he’s governed very differently during his second term than he did during his first. Loewy, who formerly supported Adler but since has become a fierce critic, thinks that the mayor’s favorability has plummeted. A Recall Adler petition drive was quickly gaining steam last year before pandemic precautions put the brakes on in-person signature gathering.
So while Proposition F is in principle about a structural matter, the outcome of the May 1 election is worth watching closely for another reason, too: it could be an indication of how Steve Adler would fare in 2022, should he reverse course and petition to run again. A lopsided defeat of Proposition F would bode ill for him. A closer result, or a favorable one for strong-mayor, would suggest satisfaction with Adler’s job performance.
Trust indicators: Bulldog reporter Daniel Van Oudenaren is a journalist with 12 years experience in local, state, and international reporting.
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