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Austin City Clerk validates petition in favor of city charter changes, including a shift to a strong-mayor system
(Bob Daemmrich)

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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