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Texas Supreme Court Orders Austin City Council To Change Ballot Language For Police Staffing Measure

An Austin police officer next to some police cruisers
Gabriel C. Pérez
/
KUT

The Texas Supreme Court is ordering the Austin City Council to rewrite the ballot language for a proposition about police staffing brought forth by Save Austin Now.

The political action committee sued the city in the state’s highest court last month over the city-approved language, arguing it would mislead voters. The court ruled the city was correct in modifying the language to include the measure's potential financial impact but that the rest of the revisions were not called for.

Save Austin Now gathered signatures to get the measure on November's ballot. It would require the city to have two police officers for every 1,000 residents, mandate officers spend 35% of their time on patrols or in communities, and require officers to undergo 40 more hours of training. (Currently, the Austin Police Department has 1.7 officers for every 1,000 residents.)

The Austin City Council voted in August to put the following language for the measure 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?”

It differs from 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.”

Save Austin Now argued the city charter compels the city to use the ballot language written by the group that brings forth a measure. But the city argued the changes it made complied with state law by giving factual information to voters.

In its ruling, the Texas Supreme Court said the city should have used Save Austin Now's language word-for-word because it complied with state law. However, the court said, omission of the financial impact did violate state law, so it was acceptable to add.

“We agree with the City that the omission of any cost information can be misleading,” the court opinion reads, “and we cannot say that including the City’s cost estimate in the ballot language affirmatively misrepresents the ordinance’s character and purpose or its chief features so as to make it potentially misleading.”

The rest of the revisions the city made “were not necessary,” it said.

The court directed the City Council to put Save Austin Now’s exact language on the ballot with the estimated cost — $271.5 million-$598.8 million over five years — added to the end.

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