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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The Food and Drug Administration will consider Pfizer's COVID-19 vaccine application for emergency use authorization in 5-to-11-year-olds on Tuesday. The vaccine will likely be available to kids starting next week.
With 2.9 million Texas children in this age group, state health officials say this is a "big factor" in reducing the virality of COVID. At a Monday press conference, the Texas Department of State Health Services released info on the rollout efforts of the vaccine for children.
Here are some of the answers to your questions.
When and where will it be available?St. David's Healthcare staff unpack the first few shipments of its initial supply of the COVID-19 vaccine on Thursday.(St. David's Healthcare)
Assuming the FDA approves this version of the Pfizer vaccine this week, vaccines will start shipping out almost immediately with the first vaccines for children likely available next week.
DSHS has already put in an order of vaccines under the federal government's "pre-order prior to launch" program.
COVID vaccine providers will begin receiving those first shipments 1-5 days after the approval. After Monday night, DSHS will have put in three different orders for vaccines. The second shipment will arrive 3-7 days after approval and the third shipment will take place 5-9 days after the approval.
The Center for Disease Control and Prevention will meet on Nov. 2 and Nov. 3 to discuss best practices for administration, allowing for the first shots to be administered after.
The state will be allocated 1.3 million doses across 814 providers in 120 counties. Individual county allocations have not been released but each county got to send a request for how many doses they may need. Federal retail pharmacies, such as H-E-B and Walgreens, are getting their own shipments.
The health department advises using its vaccine finder tool to find the nearest vaccine provider near you.
How is this version of the vaccine different than the first one?Abbott says COVID vaccine to be available to other groups by end of March
The COVID vaccine for 5-11-year-olds is one-third of the dosage of the current vaccine available to those 12 years of age and older.
It is being identified as the orange cap vaccine, unlike the current purple cap. The purple cap vaccine cannot be administered to younger kids, according to the state health department.
And like the current vaccine, it is 95% effective. The first and second doses are the same and will be advised to be taken 21 days apart.
What are the side effects for children?
During clinical trials, it was reported that some kids in this age group felt pain at the injection site, fatigue and headaches.
The data submitted to the FDA shows no serious complications, such as cases of myocarditis inflammation of the heart muscle, or pericarditis, inflammation of the outer lining of the heart—rare complications that have been reported among young boys and men receiving the vaccine in other trials.
How will this affect herd immunity?
With so many children across the state, DSHS said "we need to have as many people vaccinated as possible."
State health officials said the herd immunity threshold is still being looked into, but with 3 million children soon to be able to get the vaccine, it will be a big factor in reducing the viral load in the state.
"Until we're able to add all the children, we'll see a bigger wave in stamping down the pandemic," DSHS' Imelda Garcia said during the conference.
Of those 12 and older, 72% are fully vaccinated in Travis County as of Monday.
I'm not sure if my child needs this vaccine. Why should I have them get it?
DSHS says this vaccine is important for young kids because it will protect the older population and others around them as well as themselves. The department says to ask experts and doctors questions if you are hesitant so you can be confident with your decision.
Tesla is officially in with the big guns.
After Hertz Global Holdings Inc. placed an order of 100,000 Teslas—the biggest single electric car purchase ever—Tesla officially hit the $1 trillion market cap for the first time.
The trillion-dollar club has some big names, including Apple, Facebook and Amazon. With the purchase, Tesla's stock shot up to more than $1,045 a share by midday Monday, a new record after topping $900 a share just a day earlier.
The $4.2 billion deal is the biggest purchase of electric vehicles to date. Hertz said it will use the Teslas to round out their fleet of electric rental cars by 2022 just months after filing for bankruptcy protection.
The news came just days after Tesla followed its leader, CEO Elon Musk, and relocated its headquarters to Austin. Austin's Giga Texas plant, which is currently finishing construction, is set to begin producing Cybertruck models at the end of 2022 and will begin "volume production" by 2023, Musk said in the meeting.
Musk celebrated the stock market victory on Twitter.
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) October 25, 2021
Shortly after moving to Austin, Tesla saw its best quarter yet with Q3 revenue coming in at $13.76 billion—up from $8.77 billion this time last year. It was the electric car companies' ninth straight profitable quarter.
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They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, right?
While Northwest Arkansas isn't exactly looking to be a breakfast taco-loving, live music-having tech hub, it is branding itself as the Austin of yesteryear. And who better to come to the quickly-growing paradise than Austinites themselves?
OZ Brands is the latest NW Arkansas organization to entice Austin residents to pack up and make the move. The company, which is named after the area's Ozark Mountains, promotes travel, trails and art within the region and is owned by Runway, a NW Arkansas business investment group. Runway is headed by Walmart founder Sam Walton's grandsons, Steuart and Tom Walton.
OZ is targeting Austinites with the "One Way Out" giveaway, a program that will give at least 10 Austinites a one-way Allegiant ticket from Austin to the Northwest Arkansas National Airport.
"Fall is the perfect time to visit and explore the natural beauty of the Ozarks," the program's website reads. "Why just one way, because once you're here, you won't want to leave!"
Why swap cosmopolitan Austin for NW Arkansas' forest-filled hideaway? Just like other local programs including the Greater Bentonville Chamber of Commerce and the NW Arkansas Council, OZ Brands is looking to capitalize on priced-out Austinites who may not be pleased with the region's unprecedented growth.
"It's okay, Austin, we get it. You're tired of the tourists, the traffic, the hassle," the website says, escalating to an all-caps message reading, "YOU NEED A BREAK, AND WE ARE HERE TO GIVE IT TO YOU."
OZ is far from the first program to offer financial incentives to move to the area. Ads for Greater Bentonville began cropping up on the feeds of Austinites weeks ago as they promoted their annual tech summit, while the NW Arkansas Council rolled out similar ads. Instead of "Austin City Limits," the organizations promised "Bentonville City Limitless." If you "wish you'd bought in Austin 10 years ago," the Council promises that the area is perfect for you.
The Greater Bentonville Chamber of Commerce and NW Arkansas Council have both made moves to bring Austinites to the region. (Greater Bentonville)
Like similar programs in the past, One Way Out "is an opportunity for Austinites who no longer feel at home in their own city to see for themselves the value and qualities of Northwest Arkansas ... It's for those living in the Texas city who feel the growing pains of Austin expanding beyond its limits," the company said in a press release.
The region has recently experienced substantial growth, moving to fourth on the U.S. News and World Report's list of 150 Best Places to Live in the U.S. in 2021-2022 and enjoying an influx of businesses, tech workers and startups tired of the West Coast's crowds and priciness. And with a great arts and culture scene, a lower cost of living and even a financial incentive to move to the area, talents like film producer Kristin Mann decided it was time to swap Austin for sunnier skies in Arkansas.
"I love (Austin) how it is now, don't get me wrong, but I've always fantasized about what it might have been like before it really exploded," Mann said. "And I feel like that's similar here...There's something really unique about this town, and it feels like there's something really exciting happening here."
The contest ends Oct. 29 and is open to anyone 18 and older that lives within 50 miles of Austin. Winners must book their trip within four months of the competition and finish the trip by May 1, 2022.
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