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Voters To Decide On Changes To How Austin's Government Works

Gabriel C. Pérez

Austin voters will be asked to decide on a slew of changes to how local politicians are elected and what power they have in governing after the city clerk validated a petition Tuesday.

Earlier this month, Austinites for Progressive Reform, a local political action committee, turned in a petition with more than 20,000 signatures, the amount required to put something like this to an election.

The group is asking that residents vote to make several changes to the city’s charter. Much like the Constitution, the charter dictates how Austin’s government functions. The changes are:

  • Moving mayoral elections to the same year as presidential elections. Currently, Austin elects a new mayor the same year as midterm elections.
  • Using ranked-choice voting for local elections. Instead of voting for one person, voters would rank candidates.
  • Changing from a "weak mayor" form of government to a "strong mayor" form of government. Currently, Austin has a city manager who oversees the executive branch of the city. This would put the mayor in that role and grant the mayor veto power over the council’s votes, an ability the city manager does not currently have. At the same time, the group is proposing to add an 11th council district.
  • Offering a $25 voucher to each voter to be used as contributions to local campaigns.

A spokesperson for the PAC said he believes these changes will be presented as four separate items on a ballot, meaning voters would vote on them individually and not as a package.

In a letter signed last month, a group of union leaders and criminal justice advocates raised concerns about the "strong mayor" provision of the petition, saying that it would consolidate too much power within the mayor’s office. This, they argue, would make it harder for council members representing underserved parts of the city to have their policy changes heard.

“We are unconvinced that a strong mayor, armed with newly gained powers over the Council, is somehow better positioned to be sensitive and responsive to the nuanced challenges faced by residents in individual districts than the current system affords …” the letter reads.

It’s not yet clear when voters would be asked to decide on these changes. The City Council still needs to agree to put them on the ballot, a vote which is typically ceremonial. According to state law, the council would have the option of either putting this on a May 2021 or November 2022 ballot.

Got a tip? Email Audrey McGlinchy at Follow her on Twitter @AKMcGlinchy.

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Audrey McGlinchy is KUT's housing reporter. She focuses on affordable housing solutions, renters’ rights and the battles over zoning. Got a tip? Email her at Follow her on Twitter @AKMcGlinchy.
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