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Austin PAC submits signatures in favor of city charter changes including a shift to a strong mayor system
A new political action committee submitted more than 24,000 signatures in support of four city charter amendments to the Austin City Clerk on Monday morning. If validated, the petition will be placed on the May 1 ballot for Austin voters to decide.
Austinites for Progressive Reform aims to increase voter turnout by:
- Moving mayoral elections to presidential election years
- Instituting ranked-choice voting when allowed under state law to eliminate runoff elections
- Implementing a public campaign funding program that would give voters $25 vouchers to support the local candidates of their choice
- Shifting from a strong city manager form of government to a strong mayor form
"We all share a common commitment to ensuring as many voices are heard as possible," co-founder Jim Wick told Austonia.
The PAC formed in July and convened a 15-member, policy-making steering committee to draft the amendments over three months. The group then conducted a five-week community engagement process, hearing from nearly 200 Austinites at 17 meetings.
The amendment to make Austin a strong-mayor city has drawn the most pushback.
Currently, Austin operates like a business: an elected board of directors (City Council) is led by a chairperson (the mayor) who work together to set policies. The city manager, whom they appoint, functions like a CEO, directing the implementation of those policies and managing city staff.
Under the proposed amendment, Austin would shift to a strong mayor 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.
"We just possess a fundamental belief that Austinites should be able to vote for the person who runs the city," Wick said, pointing to a 2009 study from the Center for Public Policy and Political Studies that found lower voter turnout in strong-manager cities.
The PAC also pointed to the origins of Austin's 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.
"Austin must come to terms with how its current form of government came about during the Jim Crow era," Austin NAACP President and ARP co-chair Nelson Linder said in a statement Monday.
Not everyone supports this proposal.
Fifteen community members—including labor union representatives, criminal justice reform advocates and one former steering committee member—wrote a letter to ARP Chair Andrew Allison on Dec. 15 opposing the strong mayor amendment, which they argue will undercut the gains achieved under the 10-1 system.
"If passed, your amendment would reward these efforts and hard-earned results by hollowing out the Council's power and transferring it to a single, unknown person in 2022," they wrote.
Carol Guthrie, a representative for the AFSCME Local 1624 union, which represents the city of Austin and Travis County employees, said the current system is preferable because of the demands of the job, which include overseeing the city's airport, convention center and utilities. "We need a highly qualified person for that job," she told Austonia.
Guthrie also worries that a strong mayor system would corrode the existing checks and balances in place. "Right now, there's a lot of turmoil in Austin," she said. "But if, at the end of the day, the City Council does not like how the city manager is performing, they can fire him. That's the accountability piece right there. If we elect a mayor for four years and we don't like the job that that person's doing, they could do a lot of damage."
Last summer, seven council members called on Austin Police Department Chief Brian Manley to resign in the wake of mass protests against police violence. Police chiefs cannot be fired, under state law, but City Manager Spencer Cronk could have demoted him. Manley remains chief. Under a strong mayor system, the mayor would hire and manage city department heads, such as the police chief, rather than the city manager.
Additionally, the citizens group Austin For All People announced its formation in opposition to the strong mayor amendment on Monday. Its leadership includes Kerbey Lane Cafe CEO Mason Ayer, retired Seton Healthcare Family CEO Jesus Garza and Enoch Kever member Catherine Morse.
What is a council-manager form of government? #A4AP #Austin https://t.co/6XVHEqI4Rm— Austin for All People (@Austin for All People)1610376306.0
AF4P argues that a strong mayor system would transfer power "to the politically connected members of society" and criticized ARP for rushing to change the city government "in the middle of a global pandemic."
Wick is not surprised by the opposition.
"Any time that you discuss as a community changing the power structure of the municipal government, there's going to be some objections," he said. "Particularly some objections from groups that find the status quo acceptable for their causes."
The other amendments
The first three amendments are progressive agenda items intended to drive voter turnout and reform campaign finance.
Mid-term and runoff electorates are typically much smaller—and tend to skew older and more conservative—than the general electorate during presidential years. For example, 35,550 people voted in the District 6 Austin City Council race during the Nov. 3 general election, compared to 15,256 during the Dec. 15 runoff, which saw conservative candidate Mackenzie Kelly oust incumbent Democrat Jimmy Flannigan.
Ranked choice voting, while favored by progressives because it would eliminate low turnout runoffs altogether, is currently prohibited under state law. A city charter amendment, even if passed, would not be implemented unless state lawmakers make the same change.
A "Democracy Dollars" program would use city funds to issue vouchers to voters to donate to the City Council and mayoral candidate of their choice, who could then redeem them for cash. Such a program is already in place in Seattle, where it has driven turnout and increased donor diversity. It also led to a lawsuit from two local property owners, who argued the program violated their right to free speech by forcing them to support candidates they didn't like with their tax dollars.
The city of Austin requires 20,000 valid signatures for a petition to make it on the upcoming ballot. Typically, it takes around two weeks from the date the petition is received for it to be analyzed by the city clerk. If validated, the petition will be included on the local ballot for the May 1 uniform general election, ahead of the 2022 mayoral race.
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After reaching Stage 4 last week of Austin Public Health's risk-based guidelines, Austin-Travis County is now at the Stage 5 threshold with a seven-day average of 50 hospitalizations and dwindling ICU capacity.
While unenforceable under Gov. Greg's Abbott order against local mandates, vaccinated individuals are asked to choose drive-through and curbside options, outdoor activities, social interactions with limited group sizes, as well as social distance and wearing masks indoors. Partially or unvaccinated individuals are asked to avoid gatherings, travel, dining and shopping, choose curbside and delivery options, as well as wear a mask on essential trips.
Flashing back to early-pandemic times, hospitals are at critical capacity—the 11 county Trauma Service Region of 2.3 million people is fluctuating at 16 staffed beds, according to APH.
In a statement on behalf of Ascension Seton, Baylor Scott & White Health and St. David's Healthcare, a spokesperson said that hospitals are asking residents to "help us and each other" by getting vaccinated and continuing to utilize safety practices to slow the spread of the virus.
According to the statement, a "longstanding" nurse staffing challenge combined with the recent COVID-19 spike is putting "extraordinary pressure" on hospital systems.
Along with the unmitigated spread of the virus in unvaccinated, the more contagious Delta variant is also to blame for the spike in cases. The seven-day moving average of COVID hospitalizations in the Austin area reached the Stage 5 threshold of 50 on Friday, triggering local health officials to ask residents to take action.
Local hospitals have a "surge plan" that includes utilization of "all available patient care space and employees within our hospitals and in other settings" that will go into effect when capacity is hit, according to the statement.
The hospitals are working on sourcing supplemental staff and emphasized that emergency care will still be available but it may involve patient transfers "in order to provide the most appropriate care."
Healthcare systems have hit this threshold previously during the pandemic: the city held an alternate care site at the Austin Convention Center from January to March of this year.
"Our responsibility during this pandemic continues to be balancing our readiness to care for patients with COVID-19, while making sure patients who depend on our hospitals receive needed and timely care," the statement said. "We do not want to see necessary non-COVID care delayed as it was during the early stages of the pandemic."
This story has been updated to after publication to include that Austin has reached the Stage 5 threshold.
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Austin legend Willie Nelson will perform at the Texas Capitol today, his first large performance since the pandemic began, closing out a four-day long march across Central Texas to build support for federal voting protections.
Organized by The Poor People's Campaign, the march began in Georgetown on Wednesday and will end with a 10 a.m. rally at the Capitol featuring appearances from former U.S. Congressman Beto O'Rourke and Rev. Dr. William Barber.
Willie Nelson (with Charlie Sexton & friends) will play a free concert at the Poor People's Campaign march for democracy & justice in Austin this Saturday! https://t.co/zZSA0BpbWA
Sign up to join us and see Willie at 10am Saturday: https://t.co/KrDPIFIvST
— Beto O'Rourke (@BetoORourke) July 29, 2021
The rally calls on Congress to "stop attacks on democracy" by ending the filibuster, pass all provisions of the For the People Act, restore the 1965 Voting Rights Act, raise the federal minimum wage to $15 per hour and pass permanent protections for all 11 million undocumented immigrants.
Nelson denounced election law proposals gaining traction in red states, such as Senate Bill 1 and House Bill 3 in Texas, which 55 House Democrats foiled by fleeing to Washington, D.C., on July 12.
The bills would require additional ID verifications for mail-in ballots, allow partisan poll watchers "free movement" and prohibit elections officials from sending absentee ballot applications to voters who didn't request one.
"Laws making it more difficult for people to vote are unAmerican and are intended to punish people of color, the elderly and disabled," Nelson said. "If you can't win by playing the rules, then it's you and your platform–not everyone else's ability to vote."
The march is in the spirit of the Selma to Montgomery March of 1965, led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., which protested the blocking of Black Americans' right to vote by Jim Crow laws.