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Austin City Council orders May 1 special election for camping ban, strong mayor petitions

Austin voters will determine the fate of three citizen-led petitions during a May 1 special election.

City Council voted to order the election on Tuesday after City Clerk Jannette Goodall verified the petitions earlier this year. They propose to:

  • Reinstate a ban on public camping
  • Make a series of amendments to the city charter, including a shift to a strong-mayor form of government and the creation of an 11th council district, in an effort to expand voter turnout
  • Make another amendment to the charter, adding an arbitration clause regarding the city's contract with the local firefighters union, similar to the one that exists for police contracts

Although included as part of the same petition, the second bullet, the proposed voter turnout amendments will be included on the ballot as five individual propositions, meaning that Austin voters could hypothetically approve some and not others.

In addition to these citizen-led petitions, Austin voters will also consider a proposed charter amendment put forward by Council Member Greg Casar. If approved, it would move the city's office of police oversight from the control of the city manager's office to that of council. "In the end, this is all about continuing to strengthen the police oversight function that we've worked on for years," he wrote on the council message board Friday.

Overall, Austin voters will find eight propositions—A through H—on their ballot this May.

The camping ban

Local nonprofit Save Austin Now successfully submitted a petition to reinstate the city's ban on public camping last month after an earlier attempt was ruled invalid by the city clerk due to duplicate signatures and other issues.

Council repealed the camping ban in 2019 after advocates said it criminalized homelessness. Austin Mayor Steve Adler told the Austin American-Statesman last month that the approach "is not working" but added that going back to the previous ban wouldn't address the city's homelessness crisis.

Council members will consider a separate plan to partially reinstate the camping ban in four areas around the city next month.

The voter turnout package

Local political action committee Austinites for Progressive Reform also submitted a petition last month, which proposes a series of charter amendments intended to increase voter turnout. The changes would:

  • Move mayoral elections to presidential election years
  • Institute ranked-choice voting when allowed under state law to eliminate runoff elections
  • Implement a public campaign funding program that would give voters $25 vouchers to support the local candidates of their choice
  • Create an 11th council district
  • Shift from a strong-manager form of city government to a strong-mayor one

That last amendment has drawn the most pushback. If voters approve it, the city would shift from a strong-manager form of government to a strong-mayor one. Under such a system, the city manager position would be eliminated and replaced by the mayor, who would not be able to vote on items brought to council but could veto legislation approved by its members.

Proponents say Austin voters should be able to vote for the person who runs the city and point to the origins of the strong-manager form of government: a 1924 charter revision campaign led by Monroe Shipe, the developer of Hyde Park, which was advertised as a white-only neighborhood.

But some community leaders and a citizens group formed in opposition to the amendment, Austin For All People, say a strong-mayor form of government will undercut the gains of the 10-1 system, which was enacted in 2014 after a successful citizen-led petition, and consolidate power in the mayor's office.

Petition power

In Austin, a group of citizens can submit such a petition if they collect at least 20,000 verified signatures from eligible city voters. If the group meets this threshold, council members may either vote to adopt the petition or call an election for voters to decide.

Other major Texas cities have stronger requirements for such efforts, as reported by Community Impact Newspaper. In Houston, for example, petitioners need to collect signatures equal to 15% of voters cast in the most recent mayoral election. More than 241,000 Houston residents voted in the 2019 general mayoral election, which means more than 36,000 signatures would be required for a petition to be considered in that city.

Although there have been successful petitions, in recent years most have failed to gain a majority of Austin voters' support. Since 2006, seven petitions have failed and only one—which proposed electing council members from geographical districts rather than at-large—passed.


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