A coalition of more than 80 local organizations launched a campaign Thursday to defeat the Save Austin Now-backed Proposition A, which calls for adding hundreds of city police officers and other measures to the Austin Police Department.
At a gathering at the entrance to Barton Springs, speakers included two members of City Council, Vanessa Fuentes and Alison Alter, and Carol Guthrie, business manager of the American Federation of State, County, Municipal Employees, Local 1624, a union representing the city of Austin and Travis County employees.
Proposition A, put on the ballot after gaining petition signatures, seeks to:
- Require minimum staffing of two officers per 1,000 residents
- Require a minimum standard of 35% community response time
- Add 40 hours of training
- Require city council members, Mayor Steve Adler and other city staff to enroll in the Citizens Police Academy
- Facilitate minority officer hiring through foreign language proficiency metrics
The proposition comes just more than a year after Austin City Council voted to cut its police budget by a third in the wake of protests against police brutality after the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police and killing of Michael Ramos in Austin.
"Prop A is a total reversal of the shift that Austin went through during and after the protests of the summer of 2020," said Chas Moore, founder of the Austin Justice Coalition. "We need every Austinite who posted a black square last summer, every Austinite who marched with us down Congress Avenue, every resident who called into council… to vote no way on Prop A."
Members of the coalition to defeat Prop A raise their fists. (Abe Asher/Austonia)
They are facing a strong political organization. Save Austin Now launched the proposition following their successful spring campaign to criminalize houseless camping in the city, which overwhelmingly. This proposition would install minimum police staffing levels for APD and add training requirements for officers among other initiatives.
"Our city can afford the same number of police officers that the city authorized just two years ago. City Hall may not support law enforcement, but city residents do," Save Austin Now co-founders Matt Mackowiak and Cleo Petricek said in a statement.
If passed, the city's budget office has estimated that it could cost as much as $120 million each year for the next five years.
Barring a tax increase, that money might come out of other areas of the city's budget, mentioned by attendees. The Barton Springs setting was no coincidence. Some held signs that read "PROTECT AUSTIN PARKS & LIBRARIES!"
"If Prop A passes, all of these services will be on the chopping block," City Council Member Vanessa Fuentes, who represents southeast Austin, said. "We're talking about neighborhood public libraries, neighborhood swimming pools, mental health services, and many other services that would no longer be accessible."
Anti-Prop A signs were distributed at the event. (Abe Asher/Austonia)
Democrats in the area are overwhelmingly opposed to the plan. Katie Naranjo, chair of the Travis County Democratic Party, painted Save Austin Now as deceptive in a message similar to one propagated by Adler last month.
"They call themselves by another name," Naranjo said of Save Austin Now. "They're a wolf in sheep's clothing. If you signed the Republican Party's petition and you're a Democrat, you're not a bad person. You were lied to."
Save Austin Now has bipartisan leadership, though members of its board are affiliated with the Travis County Republican Party and Austin Police Association.
Attendees listen to AFSCME Local 1624's Carol Guthrie address the event. (Abe Asher/Austonia)
Prop A backers argue that increased crime in Austin since the outbreak of the pandemic means that the city needs to employ more police officers. Austin has seen a spike in murders in 2021 in line with a national increase, even as the rate of violent crime nationally has remained steady.
"This is a straight attack on Black, Brown and Indigenous folks that have been saying for years that we need to change the way we do things," Moore said. "The way we do policing now does not make us feel safe. We don't need more cops, we need more resources."
Early voting begins on Oct. 19.
Eanes ISD incumbent board members beat well-funded opponents, who challenged diversity, equity and inclusion initiative
After a contentious and expensive election, which saw candidates face off over a new diversity, equity and inclusion initiative, two Eanes ISD school board members have defended their seats.
Place 4 incumbent James Spradley beat Nigel Stout, with 55.47% of the vote, and Place 5 incumbent Jennifer Champagne beat Jen Stevens, with 54.45% of the vote. Both Spradley and Champagne were board members last summer, when the initiative was created in the wake of George Floyd's murder, and have expressed support for the effort, which included hiring an outside consultant to review the district's practices.
In Travis County, 171,243 ballots were cast, by 22.55% of registered voters. More than 10,000 people voted in each of the Eanes ISD school board races.
In addition to being ideologically fraught, the races were also well funded. Stevens led the pack with $129,409.50 in political contributions, according to her latest campaign finance report, filed on April 23. Despite nearly quadrupling Champagne's funds, which stood at $33,767.85, Stevens lost. Similarly, Stout outraised Spradley, $32,128.05 to $11,224.45.
Stout told the Austin American-Statesman that the diversity, equity and inclusion initiative raised concerns among some parents "that there's politics in the classroom that is getting in the way of core curriculum." He has also said he wishes to increase the board's ideological diversity. "The current 'go along to get along' attitude of the board is not fostering excellence in our district," he told Community Impact Newspaper.
Stevens raised similar concerns—and drew criticism from her opponent and Eanes ISD parents, about her behavior. During an April 18 candidates forum hosted by the Westlake Chinese American Parents Group, Steven was asked about a July Facebook post in which she referred to COVID-19 as "some stupid China-made virus," as reported by the Statesman.
Despite pushback from some corners about the district's ongoing diversity, equity and inclusion efforts, there is support for the initiative. Last June, a group of students, alumni and families formed Chaps for an Anti-Racist Eanes, sending a letter with more than 800 signatures to the school board and district administrators.
The group's organizers cited the @racismatwestlake Instagram account, which formed in the wake of Floyd's death and details anonymous reports of racism at Eanes ISD. (Similar accounts have emerged at school districts, private schools and colleges around the country.)
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Austin voters have decided: The city will reinstate a ban on sitting, lying, camping and panhandling in certain areas of downtown, near East Austin and West Campus.
Proposition B, which proposed reinstating the ban and criminalizing the activities it prohibits, passed with 57.7% of the vote. Across Travis, Williamson and Hays counties, all of which include portions of the city of Austin, 220,420 ballots were cast, accounting for around 18.1% of registered voters.
Now that Prop B has passed, it will take effect—likely in the next couple of days—once the results have been certified.
The proposition stemmed from a citizen-led petition organized by the local political action committee Save Austin Now, which was co-founded by Travis County GOP Chairperson Matt Mackowiak and local Democratic advocate Cleo Petricek. The group's supporters argued that Austin City Council's 2019 decision to overturn the ban has led to an increasingly visible homeless population, with tent cities along Lady Bird Lake and the Riverside median that pose public health and safety concerns.
PREDICTION: Prop B (reinstating the public camping ban) will pass 60%-40% tonight in Austin.
— Matt Mackowiak (@MattMackowiak) May 1, 2021
Prop B's passage is "a massive win for every Austinite who simply wants to live in a safe and clean city," Mackowiak tweeted Saturday evening after the early voting numbers were released.
Opponents, some of whom successfully advocated council two years ago to overturn the ban, argue that it does nothing to address homelessness or provide housing and instead leads to criminal citations, which can further disadvantage homeless residents in their search for housing, employment and other resources.
Prop B is inhumane and will lock up unhoused Austinites instead of helping them. Prop B offers no solutions to homelessness and we must now act to protect our unhoused neighbors and offer housing solutions to this crisis. Austin can do better.
— Workers Defense 💪🏽 (@WDActionFund) May 2, 2021
District 4 Council Member Greg Casar, who led the charge on council to overturn the ban in 2019, does not believe the city is as divided on homelessness policy as the Prop B results may suggest. "We all want to get people out of tents and into homes," he said in an Election Night statement. "Our community must come together after this election and house 3,000 more people because we can only solve homelessness with homes, not handcuffs."
Between 2019 and 2020, the city's homeless population grew around 11%, according to the point-in-time count, an annual census conducted in January by the Ending Community Homelessness Coalition, a local nonprofit. The 2021 count was canceled due to the pandemic.
Although the rate of homelessness in Austin is greater than in other big Texas cities, this growth is in keeping with slight increases across the state in the last few years, Texas Homeless Network President and CEO Eric Samuels recently told Austonia. "We know that people are living behind our greenbelts, people are living in encampments," he said. "Now those people are just more visible, and I think that has caused a lot of the public in Austin to think that homelessness has exploded, when in reality it hasn't. It's just their recognition of homelessness has exploded."
The election period was contentious one.
Mayor Steve Adler urged residents to vote against Prop B on Monday, noting that the early voting turnout thus far had skewed older and more conservative than the city's overall population. Some Prop B supporters took issue with this, arguing that he was being dismissive of certain voters or politicizing Prop B, which Save Austin Now's cofounders have stressed is a bipartisan effort.
The vote count should be representative of the community. So far, those early voting are not. They're much, much older and much, much more Republican. Vote tonight, tomorrow or Saturday. Vote No on Prop B! pic.twitter.com/UnxbWavdUt
— Mayor Adler | 😷wear a mask. (@MayorAdler) April 26, 2021
State lawmakers are considering a statewide camping ban in response to Austin's changing policy.
Ongoing city efforts to provide housing, including to homeless people living in four designated camps, will continue, city officials have said.
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If passed, Proposition B would reinstate a ban on public camping that Austin City Council lifted in 2019 and Proposition F would shift the city government from a strong-manager system to a strong-mayor one. The other six propositions also have far-reaching implications for how the city is run, from police oversight to campaign finance reform.
Check Austonia.com tonight for election results.
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Races to watch
Proposition A: Charter amendment regarding binding arbitration in firefighters' labor contract(Austin Fire Department/Twitter)
If passed, this proposition would require an arbitrator to intervene in cases where the city and the Austin Firefighters Association, a union representing Austin Fire Department employees, reach a stalemate during labor contract negotiations. The arbitrator would hear presentations from both parties and make a binding ruling, like a judge.
AFA President Bob Nicks led a petition process to get this proposition on the ballot and argues that it would help avoid future prolonged arguments, which have occurred in three of the union's last six bargaining cycles—at significant cost. "Rather than getting to impasse at the table, you're more likely to look at each other's interests and come to an agreement at the table if you know that—if you don't—it'll go to an arbitrator," he told Austonia.
Proposition B: City Code amendment to reinstate restrictions on public camping
(Charlie L. Harper III)
This proposition resulted from a successful petition effort by the local political action committee Save Austin Now, which is campaigning to reinstate the city's ban on public camping—along with other activities, such as sitting or lying down on a public sidewalk or aggressive panhandling, in certain areas—after council overturned in 2019.
SAN argues that the decision to repeal the ban has adversely impacted public safety, residents and businesses and left homeless people to live in unsafe conditions. Although the group's opponents generally agree that the city's homeless situation is untenable, they argue that reinstating the ban will do nothing to address the root causes of homelessness and instead lead to citations and tickets that make it harder for homeless people to access housing, work and other resources.
Proposition C: Charter amendment regarding office of police oversight
Office of Police Oversight Director Farah Muscadin, second from right, at a local policing symposium in 2019. (Office of Police Oversight/Twitter)
This proposition stems from an ordinance put forward by Council Member Greg Casar. If approved, it would move the city's office of police oversight from the control of the city manager's office to that of council. City Manager Spencer Cronk faced criticism from council members and residents for his handling of the Black Lives Matter protests last summer.
Margo Fraiser, vice president of the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement and former Travis County Sheriff and city of Austin police monitor, said such a shift is only half of the battle as an independent oversight office is only as strong as its ability to access and report on data from the police department. "It's hard to predict whether (this proposition alone) would improve civilian oversight or not," she said.
Proposition D: Charter amendment to move mayoral elections to presidential years
Travis County saw record turnout during the Nov. 3 general election. (Bob Daemmrich)
Local political action committee Austinites for Progressive Reform successfully submitted a petition in January that proposed a series of amendments to the city charter in an effort to increase voter turnout. Propositions D through H stem from this initiative.
This proposition would move mayoral elections from gubernatorial election years to presidential election years in an effort to ensure higher voter turnout. The mayor elected in 2022 will serve a two-year term, and the next election will take place during the general election in November 2024.
Proposition E: Charter amendment to create ranked choice voting for city elections
Also stemming from the citizen-led petition organized by APR, this proposition would amend the city charter to provide for ranked choice voting in city elections if permitted by state law. The intention of this proposition is to eliminate runoffs, which typically have much lower turnout than general elections and participating voters tend to skew older and more conservative.
Ranked-choice voting, however, is certainly prohibited under state law. A city charter amendment, even if passed, would not be implemented unless state lawmakers make the same change.
Proposition F: Charter amendment to change to a strong mayor form of government
(Charlie L. Harper III)
The most controversial of APR's proposed amendments, this proposition would fundamentally change how the city government operates, shifting it from a strong-manager form to a strong-mayor form. Under the latter form, 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.
Proponents say it will give voters more control over the person who actually runs the city—an elected mayor rather than an appointed city manager—and point to the Jim Crow-era origins of Austin's current strong-manager system. A broad coalition of opponents, which includes local unions, most council members and business leaders, say it will consolidate power in one office and undermine the gains of the 10-1 council system enacted in 2014.
Proposition G: Charter amendment to add an 11th council district
Because Proposition F entails the mayor no longer serving as a council member, APR proposed creating an 11th council district to prevent tie votes and expand district representation in keeping with the city's population growth.
Council decided to separate the initiatives on the ballot, creating the possibility that one will be approved and not the other, leaving council with an even number of voting members—and a higher chance of tie votes and legislative gridlock.
Proposition H: Charter amendment to adopt a public campaign finance program
This proposition would implement a public campaign funding program, called Democracy Dollars, to give voters $25 vouchers to support the local council candidate—and, in presidential election years, mayoral candidate—of their choice in an attempt to offset the influence of wealthy donors.
Such a program is already in place in Seattle, where it has driven turnout and increased donor diversity. APR has faced criticism locally for deviating from Seattle's model; as proposed, its Democracy Dollars program would exclude those unable to vote due to immigration status or criminal history.
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