Austin City Clerk validates petition in favor of city charter changes, including a shift to a strong-mayor system
Austin City Clerk Jannette Goodall verified a petition to make four amendments to the city charter, including a shift to a strong-mayor form of government, moving it one step closer to the May 1 ballot.
The local political action committee Austinites for Progressive Reform submitted more than 24,000 signatures in support of the petition on Jan. 11 and learned it had been certified on Tuesday.
Next up, the Austin City Council must vote to call an election and determine the ballot language for the proposed amendments. "State law allows the Council to choose the date of the election," a city spokesperson wrote in an email to Austonia. "Council may either order the election to be held (in May 2021 or in November 2022."
The amendments proposed by APR are intended to increase voter turnout and 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
- Shift the strong-manager form of city government to a strong-mayor one
"At their core, these four amendments are about ensuring all of us can vote and have a say in choosing our leaders," APR Leadership Committee Co-Chair and former Dell executive Tom Meredith said in a statement.
A strong-mayor city?
The amendment to make Austin a strong-mayor city has drawn the most pushback.
Currently, Austin operates like a business, according to Terrell Blodgett, a professor emeritus at the LBJ School of Public Affairs. 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, directly the implementation of those policies and managing city staff.
Under the proposed amendment, Austin would shift from a strong-manager system to a strong-mayor one; 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," APR co-founder Jim Wick told Austonia earlier this month, pointing to a 2009 study from Austin Community College's 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 APR co-chair Nelson Linder said in a statement.
Not everyone supports this proposal, however.
Fifteen community members—including labor union representatives, criminal justice reform advocates and one former steering committee member—wrote a letter to APR Chair Andrew Allison on Dec. 15 opposing the strong mayor amendment, which they argue will undercut the gains achieved under the 10-1 system, enacted in 2014.
"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.
More recently, the citizens group Austin For All People announced its formation in opposition to the strong mayor amendment earlier this month. Its leadership includes Kerbey Lane CEO Mason Ayer, retired Seton Healthcare FAmily CEO Jesus Garza and Enoch Kever member Catherine Morse.
AFAP argues that a strong mayor system would transfer power "to the politically connected members of society" and criticized APR for rushing to change the city government "in the middle of a pandemic."
The other amendments
The first three amendments are progressive agenda items intended to drive voter turnout and reform campaign finance.
Mid-term and runoff election turnout is typically much lower—and their electorates tend to skew older and more conservative—than in general elections during presidential years.
Ranked choice voting, which is favored by progressives because it would eliminate runoffs altogether, is prohibited under state law. A city charter amendment, even if passed, would not be implemented unless state lawmakers enact the same change.
A "Democracy Dollars" program would use city funds to issue vouches to voters to donate to the City Council and mayoral candidates of their choice, who could then redeem them for cash.
In addition to this petition, the city clerk also validated a second petition that, if approved by voters, would amend the city charter to add a binding arbitration clause regarding the city's contract with the local firefighters union, similar to the one that exists for police contracts. A third petition to reinstate the city's public camping ban is still under review.
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After months of speculation, a new report says political personality Beto O'Rourke is mulling a run for Texas governor that he will announce later this year.
Sources tell Axios the former congressman is preparing his campaign for the 2022 election, where he will likely vie for the position against incumbent Gov. Greg Abbott. The only other candidate that has announced he will take on Abbott for governor is former Texas GOP Chairman Allen West—no Democrats have announced they are running as of yet.
"No decision has been made," Axios reports David Wysong, O'Rourke's former House chief of staff and a longtime adviser, said. "He has been making and receiving calls with people from all over the state."
A new poll from The Dallas Morning News and University of Texas at Tyler shows O'Rourke is narrowing the gap between himself and Abbott's prospects for governor. In the poll, 37% said they'd vote for O'Rourke over Abbott, while 42% said they'd vote for Abbott.
Abbott has been in the hot seat due to his handling of COVID-19 and the signing of landmark legislation into law, including new abortion and voting rights laws; 54% of poll respondents voted they think the state is headed in the "wrong direction." Still, Texas hasn't had a Democrat as governor since the 90s.
O'Rourke's people-focused approach to the 2018 Senator race, which he lost to Sen. Ted Cruz, gave him a widespread following and many hoped he'd throw his hat into the ring since he said he was considering it earlier this year.
"We hope that he's going to run," Gilberto Hinojosa, the state chair of the Democratic Party, told Axios. "We think he'll be our strongest candidate. We think he can beat Abbott because he's vulnerable."
Austin rapper Jordi Esparza may not have won the 2021 Red Bull Batalla, the world's largest Spanish freestyle rap competition, but for a spirited two rounds, the 22-year old Mexican native looked like he had every right to.
On Saturday evening in Los Angeles, the event itself looked like Cobra Kai meets Star Search with graphics adding a very Batman Beyond aesthetic. Over a dozen rappers hoping to represent the U.S. in the international round of the competition took to the stage with in-your-face jabs at accents, sexual orientation and odors, among other things.
This was Esparza's second rodeo; he had placed third at the 2020 National Finals, automatically securing him a spot this year.
However, things were different this year. He was not nervous about the contest. Unlike in 2020, when he made his Red Bull Batalla debut, the anxiety of the event led him to "feeling so bad."
Affecting a casual calm, the locally-based landscaper said he just felt "so relaxed, so happy" and primarily wanted to "enjoy everything."
Choosing his first-round opponent, Esparza, whose stage name is Jordi, elected to go against LA-based Boss.
Esparza freestyled an attack on his opponent's weight and cholo style of dress.
Boss—bracketing his Latin freestyle with English appeals to the crowd—mocked Jordi's lack of education, made fun of how clean Jordi's shoes looked and suggested that Jordi just came back from a Footlocker.
That first round went to Jordi.
But his next opponent Eckonn would prove to be his undoing.
Eckonn compared Jordi to Hannah Montana, while Jordi soulfully explained that he had learned from the best.
Esparza's verbal dexterity is matched by a rattling rhythm and a game face that is as mawkish as it is mockish. The overall effect is that of an underdog with bite.
Eckonn beat Esparza in that round with the overall championship going to Palm Beach-based rapper Reverse.
However, Esparza was just happy to be there. He recently told Austonia going to the finals again was a dream come true—a pinnacle that he said he won't know how to top.
With his nimble jabs and sneaky prowess, honed from pop culture and the swagger of a young working man hungry to be more, Jordi Esparza is just getting started.