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Should Austin Have A 'Strong Mayor' Government? Here Are 7 Things To Know About Prop F.

Austin City Hall
Callie Hernandez for KUT

Lee esta historia en español.

A "strong mayor" system of government has little (read: nothing) to do with how much weight a bureaucrat can bench.

Ha.

Instead, it has to do with how much power he or she has. This is what voters will be asked to consider on May 1 (and during early voting) via ballot propositions that, if passed, could change how we elect local politicians and how our government functions.

One of these propositions, Prop F, has garnered a lot of attention. Here are seven things you should know about the current government system and how it could change if it passes:

1. Austin currently has what’s called a "council-manager" form of government.

Let’s start with the council part of this system.

The Austin City Council is made up of council members and a mayor, all of whom are elected by the public and have equal voting power. You can think of the City Council as a legislative body: Members pass local laws and policy directives.

Then, there’s the city manager.

The city manager is the person in charge of the city’s executive branch, or most of the departments that implement policies council passes. This person is not elected by the public, but appointed by the City Council.

The city manager has the power to hire and fire department heads and is responsible for drafting the city budget every year.

2. Under a "strong mayor" system, the city manager goes bye-bye.

A "strong mayor" system is one iteration of what’s called a "mayor-council" form of government; it does away with the city manager role. (With a "mayor-council" government you can also have a "weak mayor" system, but that’s not what we’re voting on.)

With a city manager out of the picture, the mayor takes over much of this job — including the ability to hire and fire department heads. The big difference is that this person has now been elected instead of appointed.

3. A "strong mayor" system would mean the mayor no longer votes on council. But the mayor gains veto power.

If Austin voters decide they want to adopt a "strong mayor" system, the mayor loses one of his or her current powers: the vote as part of the City Council.

But the mayor gains the right to veto any law the council passes. The council would, in turn, have the ability to nix this veto, but members would need a "supermajority" vote, or a vote in favor from two-thirds of the council members.

It’s unclear how often mayors serving in these types of governments exercise that veto power. New York City has a "strong mayor" system, but as of early 2020, Mayor Bill DeBlasio had not vetoed one bill passed by the City Council, according to Politico.

4. Some of the country’s largest cities have a "strong mayor" system. But it's not popular in Texas.

Philadelphia, San Diego and Chicago all have variations of "strong mayor" systems. But among the largest cities in Texas, Houston is the only one that functions under this form of government; San Antonio, Dallas and Fort Worth all have a "council-manager" setup like Austin.

According to a 2018 survey by the International City/County Management Association, municipalities in the U.S. don’t tend to favor one system of government over the other. Forty percent of the cities and counties that responded had a council-manager system, while 38 percent had a mayor-council system. (The data is limited, though, especially among very large municipalities; only three cities with a population of more than 1 million responded).

5. Why would a "strong mayor" system be better than our current system?

Let’s ask the people who got us this proposition.

Earlier this year, the political action committee Austinites for Progressive Reform submitted a successful petition to put Proposition F, among other initiatives, to a public vote.

People working for the campaign say the person whose job it is to see that city staff implement policy should be elected, because if the public is not happy with the work, they can vote this person out.

“We, in this organization, believe that we will make better decisions for Austin, decisions that fit with the values of Austin and who we want to be, if we can ensure the person at the head of that government is accountable to the voters,” Andrew Allison, co-founder of the campaign, told KUT.

6. Why would a "strong mayor" system be worse than our current system?

Opponents of Proposition F include a group of local union leaders and criminal justice advocates.

They are concerned consolidating more power within the mayor’s office — for example, by giving this person veto power over council decisions — could make our local government less representative.

“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,” opponents wrote in a letter last December.

7. OK, I understand Prop F now. What’s up with the one that comes below it on the ballot, Prop G?

Prop G was originally part of Prop F, but council members voted to split them up. Doing so may not have been a great idea. Here’s why.

Prop G proposes to add an 11th City Council district. (Austin currently has 10. To find out your district, type your address in here.) The original idea was that if voters approved a "strong mayor" system, stripping the mayor of a vote on the council, we would be down to an even number of votes. That would open us up to the possibility of more tie votes — and a tie vote means a measure fails.

Let’s consider the options: If Prop F fails, but Prop G passes, we could have a 12-member council with the mayor in his current role and 11 council members. (Again, that creates the possibility of tie or null votes.) If Prop F passes, but Prop G fails, we have 10 voting members and the issue of tie votes, again.

If both props pass or fail, this issue would be avoided.

Ya good?

Now, here’s what you’ll see on the ballot for Prop F:

Shall the City Charter be amended to change the form of city government from 'council-manager' to 'strong mayor-council', which will eliminate the position of professional city manager and designate an elected mayor as the chief administrative and executive officer of the city with veto power over all legislation which includes the budget; and with sole authority to hire and fire most department heads and direct staff; and with no articulated or stated charter authority to require the mayor to implement Council decisions?

And for Prop G:

Shall the City Charter be amended to provide for an additional geographic council district which will result in 11 council members elected from single member districts?

Now go out and vote. Early voting starts April 19 and runs through April 27. Election Day is May 1.

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