Tue. Jul 16th, 2024

City Council Prepares to Send Charter Amendments to Voters: Petition Election Changes Will Go to Your Ballot – News

By meerna Jul11,2024
City Council Prepares to Send Charter Amendments to Voters: Petition Election Changes Will Go to Your Ballot – News

The City Charter Is Like Austin’s Constitution (Illustration by Zeke Barbaro/Getty Images)

Austin voters can expect a long ballot in the upcoming November election, the final section of which will include a number of important amendments to the City Charter that cannot be missed.

The most significant amendments involve the city’s petition initiative process—when groups or individuals gather enough signatures from Austin voters to place proposed ordinance changes on the ballot in city elections. The petition initiative is a significant part of Austin’s political history; in 1992, the Save Our Springs coalition campaigned for an ordinance of the same name that defined Austin politics for a generation—both for the environmental protections it established and for the community leaders and political coalitions the movement spawned.

But the initiative process has become far more controversial in recent years because, critics say, petitions are being used in ways that result in less democratic policymaking. (Namely, because few signatures are needed to get a ballot proposal on the ballot, and off-season elections have incredibly low turnout.) Several charter amendments that Austin voters are likely to face on the Nov. 5 ballot aim to change that by making the petition process more transparent and the elections they trigger subject to approval by Austin’s broader, more diverse electorate.

“We saw the flaws in our current system in this election, and that’s what we’re trying to fix,” said council member Ryan Alter, who authored the resolution that initiated the charter review process. “We want these campaigns to be more representative of Austin’s diverse electorate, and these changes help achieve that.”

The Charter is essentially the city’s constitution – i.e., the basic legal document that sets out various rules and procedures for city government. Ordinances passed by the City Council layer on the Charter to create other policies and laws.

Like the U.S. Constitution, Austin’s charter can be amended. The Texas Constitution requires voters to approve changes to the charters of home rule cities (like Austin). But first, proposed changes must be put on the ballot. This is done either by a Council vote or by petition. So the Council will vote next week at its July 18 meeting to place about six City Charter amendments on the ballot for the November 5 election.

These charter amendments have been a long time in the making. Councilmember Ryan Alter introduced a resolution in March to establish a new Charter Review Commission (CRC). They have been working on amendments to improve the city’s petition initiative and other city government functions.

After 13 public meetings, two public houses and a survey that ran from September to March, CRC 2024 formally recommended nine amendments to the City Charter that would change the petition initiative and recall processes for elected officials. Another change would task the Council with hiring the city attorney (the highest-ranking official in the Law Department, who is currently hired at the sole discretion of the city manager). City staff, through its own process that ran parallel to CRC, is also proposing a set of amendments to the Charter that are less substantive, such as changes that clean up the text or bring the Charter into line with recently adopted state law.

“We saw the flaws in our current system through this election, and that’s what we’re trying to fix.” – Council Member Ryan Alter

Currently, groups petitioning for an initiative resolution must collect signatures from 5% of the city’s eligible voters or 20,000 voters, whichever is less. Given our rapidly growing population, the latter is less, so 20,000 signatures is the actual threshold petitioners must meet. The CRC recommendation would clean up the mess by changing the requirement to 3.5% of eligible voters (which translates to about 20,000 signatures for our current population). Since the CRC proposal is based solely on percentages, the signature threshold would increase with Austin’s population. The CRC also recommends increasing the signature threshold for recalling Council members (from 10% to 15%); charter amendment petitions, which are controlled by the Texas Constitution, would remain at 5% or 20,000 eligible voters.

Another key recommendation from the CRC would be for petition elections to be held only in even-numbered November elections—that is, in midterm or presidential election years, when voter turnout is much higher. In elections outside the May-November cycle over the past decade, turnout has averaged about 15%, but in even-numbered November elections, it has averaged 57%.

Finally, the CRC recommended creating notice of intent requirements for petition initiative campaigns. These rules would require petitions to include the identification of five eligible voters supporting the campaign, a one-sentence description of the initiative, contact information for the petitioners, and proposed ordinance language for the initiative—all accompanied by a notarized affidavit from one of the petitioners. The hope is that these recommendations will deter the kind of deceptive tactics used by the Austin Police Association in support of their failed police oversight ordinance in 2023.

The problem with charter changes is their durability: State law limits how often a city can change its charter, while voter-approved ordinances can be overturned by the Council with a supermajority.

With that in mind, the Law Department recommends that four of the CRC’s proposals be implemented by regulation rather than by statute amendments. The Notice of Intent amendment is one of them, but Alter wants the Council to vote on it as a statute amendment, Because sees these reforms as critical to transparency and believes they should be codified in the charter. Three other proposed charter amendments reported by the Law Department are likely to be put on the back burner (they would change the labels of ballot proposals, conflicting petition initiatives, and more).

By meerna

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