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(Ken Martin / The Austin Bulldog)

Austin voters will find five propositions on the May 1 ballot that stem from a citizen-led petition organized by Austinites for Progressive Reform, a political action committee. The quintet is intended to increase voter turnout, according to the group, and includes four mostly uncontroversial proposals. Proposition F, however, prompted swift pushback from an odd bedfellows coalition that includes local unions, business interests and most council members. The proposal? To change the city of Austin's government from a strong-manager system to a strong-mayor one.

Austin currently operates like a business, according to Terrell Blodgett, a professor emeritus at the LBJ School of Public Affairs and a proponent of the current system. An elected board of directors, the City Council, is led by a chairperson, the mayor, who works together to set policies. The city manager, whom they appoint, functions like a CEO, implementing those policies and managing staff. Under a strong-mayor system, the city manager position would be eliminated and replaced by the mayor, who would not vote on items brought to council but could veto legislation approved by its members.

APR and Prop F supporters say the switch would empower voters, correct the Jim Crow-era origins of the city's strong-manager system and better position the city to address critical issues such as policing and homelessness. Opponents argue that a strong mayor would wield too much power, erode the gains of the 10-1 system and minimize the role of council.

Strong mayor, strong policy

Nelson Linder, APR co-chair and NAACP president, sees the five propositions as working in tandem to empower voters at a moment when voter suppression efforts are resurgent in Texas and around the country. "If we're going to be democratic, then let the voters decide (who runs this city)," he told Austonia.

In addition to possibly driving up turnout, Linder believes a strong-mayor system will be better suited to address the city's intractable issues. Opponents worry that a strong mayor will emerge as a "semi-dictator," but he thinks the role's increased authority will enable sweeping policy change and encourage consensus-building on council so as to preempt a veto. "I don't have any fear about somebody being out of control," he said, but rather city leadership not doing enough and then pointing fingers.

APR also stresses the Jim Crow-era origins of the city's strong-manager system, which was the result of a 1924 campaign led by Monroe Shipe, who developed Hyde Park as a whites-only neighborhood. This switch to a council-manager form of government reduced the influence of Black, Latino and low-income white Austinites "by building a wall between the voters and decision-makers," according to the PAC's website. Opponents say this is disingenuous, but Linder pushes back. "The origins of the council-management form of government, even today, are anti-democratic," he said.

If it ain't broke…

Jesús Garza, co-chair of the anti-Prop F organization Austin for All People and former city manager, believes a strong-manager system encourages collaboration. Under a strong mayor, council members may not bring up policy ideas that the mayor disagrees with for fear that they will be a non-starter and city management staff may refrain from making recommendations that are politically unpopular, but necessary, like an airport expansion, for the same reasons.

Garza disputes APR's claims that a strong mayor will increase accountability to voters. Under a strong-manager system, the city manager reports directly to council. If voters approve Prop F, a strong mayor could slow-roll the implementation of or veto policy approved by council members, who would have little recourse. "For me, that's lack of accountability," he said.

Selena Xie, president of the Austin EMS Association, participated in APR's steering committee efforts because she supports ranked-choice voting and a public campaign finance program. But she opposes Prop F, fearing it will make a gatekeeper of the mayor and flood future mayoral races with so much money that unions like hers will be priced out. "It's just scary for everybody," she said.

David Foster, Texas Director of Clean Water Action, worries that the city could elect a strong mayor in the future who opposes environmental protections and walks them back once in office. "This is our constitution," he said. "So this isn't something that we should only be thinking about in terms of what happens in 2022 or 2024. We need to think about 2032 and 2042."

In addition to labor and environmental organizations, A4AP has recruited a diverse mix of Prop F opponents who rarely find themselves on the same side of political issues, including eight council members, local CEOs, the Austin Chamber, Austin Young Republicans, Liberal Austin Democrats, the Real Estate Council of Austin and criminal justice reform advocates. Garza sees this is a testament to the efficacy of a strong-manager system: "You can't argue with the success that Austin has had under this system."


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