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Politics

Homelessness, 'Strong-Mayor' System And Police Oversight Will Be On The Ballot This May

A 14-foot inflatable cat was set up in front of City Hall ahead of City Council's vote to finalize May's citywide ballot.
Gabriel C. Pérez
/
KUT
A 14-foot inflatable cat was set up in front of City Hall on Tuesday in opposition to a ballot initiative that would enshrine future mayors with veto power over any item up for debate at council.

It's official: Austin voters will decide the fate of the city's homelessness policies, the independence of its police oversight office, a plan to allow firefighters to bargain directly with the city in civil service contract negotiations, and charter amendments that would fundamentally change city government and how officials are elected this May.

Council members Tuesday approved ballot language for seven petition-driven items – and a last-minute ordinance from Council Member Greg Casar – for a citywide election on May 1.

Propositions D, E, F and G are the result of last year's petition from Austinites for Progressive Reform which sought to move mayoral elections to presidential years, use ranked-voting in city elections – and adopt a so-called strong-mayor system. Those proposals in that petition were divvied up into separate propositions.

  • Proposition D would shift mayoral elections to coincide with presidential elections.
  • Proposition E would shift city elections from a winner-take-all format to a ranked-choice format.
  • Proposition F would do away with the office of the city manager. It would strip any future Austin mayor from voting on items, but would give them the power to veto measures put forth by Council.
  • Proposition G would establish another City Council district.
  • Proposition H would set up a city system for campaign finance that would give vouchers to registered voters to support the candidate of their choice.

Proposition B would reinstate criminal penalties related to homelessness in Austin. The group Save Austin Now petitioned to reinstate Austin's rules prior to July 2019, which banned camping in public, prohibited sitting or lying down within downtown and West Campus and prohibited panhandling in certain areas – banning it outright between 7 p.m. and 7 a.m.

On top of that, there's a city charter amendment that would tweak how the Austin Fire Department's union and the city negotiate labor contracts and a last-minute measure from Casar that would move the city's Office of Police Oversight from under the city's administrative purview in an effort to give the office more independence in its duties.

Below is a breakdown of every proposition up for a vote on May 1 – and the language you'll see on the ballot.

Proposition A

At the top of the ballot is Proposition A, which would require the city and the Austin Fire Department's local union to enter into arbitration if they can't hammer out an agreement over labor contracts.

Here's what you'll see on the ballot:

Shall the City Charter be amended to give the Austin Firefighters Association, Local 975 of the International Association of Fire Fighters, the authority to require the City to participate in binding arbitration of all issues in dispute with the Association if the City and the Association reach impasse in collective bargaining negotiations?

Proposition B

Proposition B stems from Save Austin Now's petition to revert to the city's former rules surrounding homelessness.

Those rules banned camping in public without a permit, restricted sitting or lying down in public downtown and in West Campus, and prohibited where and when people can panhandle. The group, helmed by Travis County GOP Chair Matt Mackowiak, has been an ardent opponent to the city's general tack in addressing homelessness since Council effectively allowed public encampments back in June 2019.

This successful petition isn't Save Austin Now's first. It tried last summer to get the issue on the ballot last November, but failed to garner enough signatures, according to the city clerk's office. The group sued the city over its certification process, and Mackowiak said Tuesday he would file a lawsuit "within one hour" if City Council approved language that is "unfair and misstates the original intent and the language within the petition."

Austin's approach to homelessness has been a lightning rod since it amended its polices in June of 2019. Supporters of Council's current rules say it decriminalized homelessness and cut down on tickets that could serve as obstacles to Austinites trying to transition out of homelessness. Save Austin Now, Gov. Greg Abbott and other detractors say the policies led to increased public health and safety issues as camps have cropped up throughout Austin.

Here's what you'll see on the ballot:

Shall an ordinance be adopted that would create a criminal offense and a penalty for anyone sitting or lying down on a public sidewalk or sleeping outdoors in and near the Downtown area and the area around the University of Texas campus; create a criminal offense and penalty for solicitation, defined as requesting money or another thing of value, at specific hours and locations or for solicitation in a public area that is deemed aggressive in manner; create a criminal offense and penalty for anyone camping in any public area not designated by the Parks and Recreation Department?

Proposition C

Council Member Greg Casar late last week proposed an amendment that would extricate the Office of Police Oversight from the city's managerial structure. Casar argues it would give the office more latitude to hold the city more accountable, like the City Auditor's Office currently does. The proposition wouldn't immediately do so, however. If approved, the proposition would set up a framework for the independent office led by an appointed director.

Here's what you'll see on the ballot:

Shall the city charter be amended to allow for a Director of Police Oversight to be appointed or removed in a manner established by City Council ordinance, with duties that include the responsibility to ensure transparency and accountability as it relates to policing?

Proposition D

Council members OK'd the ballot language which would ask voters if they want to move mayoral elections to coincide with presidential elections starting in 2024. So, whomever is elected after Mayor Steve Adler's term expires in 2022 would serve a two-year term, and then another election would be held in 2024, if the proposition passes.

Here's what you'll see on the ballot:

Shall the City Charter be amended to transition the election for mayor from gubernatorial election years to presidential election years, providing that the mayor elected in 2022 will serve a 2-year term and then mayoral elections will occur on the same date as presidential elections starting in 2024?

Proposition E

Council members OK'd ballot language for a proposition that would shift city elections from winner-take-all to a ranked-choice system, where voters rank the candidates rather than choosing just one.

Here's what you'll see on the ballot:

Shall the City Charter be amended to provide for the use of ranked choice voting in city elections, if such voting is permitted by state law?

Proposition F

Austinites for Progressive Reform's petition centered largely on whether the city should rely on Austin's current system of political power-sharing – one in which the city manager is the highest executive in city government, but isn't ultimately accountable to voters, the PAC has argued.

Proposition F would remove that position entirely and consolidate that power within the mayor's office. The mayor would be a non-voting member, but could veto Council decisions. Eight council members could override any veto.

Adler opposed language that ultimately passed. He initially posed different language, which was voted down, then he tried to amend the language to strike the reference to the city charter's authority, which he said was "inaccurate and misleading to voters." Adler's language included that the Council could override a potential veto with a two-thirds vote.

Ballot language adopted for Proposition F reads as follows:

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.

Proposition G

Part of APR's proposal would also establish another Council district in an effort to offset a potential loss of a vote under a strong-mayor system.

Council Member Ann Kitchen proposed separating the district-creation into its own proposition, which was approved by the slimmest margin – 6 to 5 – with council members Leslie Pool, Kathie Tovo, Vanessa Fuentes, Sabino "Pio" Renteria, Mackenzie Kelly and Kitchen supporting it as a standalone proposition.

Adler, along with Mayor Pro Tem Natasha Harper-Madison and Council Member Greg Casar pointed out that it could lead to "too many alternatives." For example, if the strong-mayor proposition failed, that could mean the Council could have an even balance, which could result in stalemates. If the strong-mayor proposition succeeded and the creation of a new district failed, it would give council members fewer votes to override a possible veto.

Here's what you'll see on the ballot:

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?

Proposition H

Proposition H would establish what ARP calls Democracy Dollars – a program that, ideally, the PAC hopes will facilitate more in-district campaign contributions in city races. It would provide up to two $25 vouchers that any registered voter in Austin could then apply to a candidate of their choice.

Here's what you'll see on the ballot:

Shall the City Charter be amended to adopt a public campaign finance program, which requires the city clerk to provide up to two $25 vouchers to every registered voter who may contribute them to candidates for city office who meet the program requirements?

Got a tip? Email Andrew Weber at aweber@kut.org. Follow him on Twitter @England_Weber.

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