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Group Behind Police Staffing Petition Sues City Of Austin Over Ballot Language

The backs of three Austin police officers
Gabriel C. Pérez

Save Austin Now has sued the City of Austin in the Texas Supreme Court over what the political action committee claims is ballot language that will mislead voters in an upcoming election.

“This is an important lawsuit that stands up for all Austin voters and their right to petition for new ordinances,” Bill Aleshire, a lawyer for the PAC, said in an emailed statement.

On Nov. 2, Austin voters will decide whether to support new rules about police staffing and training brought forward in a petition from Save Austin Now. The initiative, which will appear on voters’ ballots as Proposition A, asks whether the city should be required to maintain two police officers per every 1,000 residents; currently the Austin Police Department has about 1.7 officers per every 1,000 residents.

It also asks whether police should undergo an additional 40 hours of training and be required to spend a certain portion of their time on patrol or doing community engagement.

The issue at hand is how this question will be presented to voters in November.

In its lawsuit, Save Austin Now argues the city charter compels the city to use the ballot language the group wrote. In a vote to put the petition on the ballot last week, council members endorsed different wording.

“The City Council took action and fulfilled its duty to place the citizen-initiated ordinance on the ballot," a spokesperson for the City of Austin wrote in an email. "We believe the ballot language complies with state law in that it identifies the key features of the ordinance in a way that gives factual information to the voters.”

Here’s what council members voted to put on the ballot:

“Shall an ordinance be approved that, at an estimated cost of $271.5 million - $598.8 million over five years, requires the City to employ at least 2 police officers per 1,000 residents at all times; requires at least 35% of patrol officer time be uncommitted time, otherwise known as community engagement time; requires additional financial incentives for certain officers; requires specific kinds of training for officers and certain public officials and their staffs; and requires there be at least three full-term cadet classes for the department until staffing levels reach a specific level?”

And here’s the language Save Austin Now wrote:

“A petitioned ordinance to enhance public safety and police oversight, transparency and accountability by adding a new chapter 2-16 to establish minimum standards for the police department to ensure effective public safety and protect residents and visitors to Austin, and prescribing minimal requirements for achieving the same.”

Austin Mayor Steve Adler argued last week that state law does not obligate the council to adopt the language written by petitioners. He also argued that what Save Austin Now wrote leaves out “key features” of what the petition would do if passed, including how much hiring hundreds more police officers and mandating more training could cost the city.

Austin’s budget office estimated that over five years these additional requirements could cost the city up to $598.8 million. Save Austin Now refutes this estimate, arguing its petition does not force the city to spend any money.

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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