The Austin Chronicle

Props & Bonds: Mixed, but Definitely Dramatic

By Michael King, November 9, 2012, News

There were no dramatic changes from morning until night on Election Day regarding the city of Austin's charter propositions and bond packages. The big proposition winners – both early vote and E-Day – were the election changes, 10-1 geographic districts, and civil service rights for city employees. A few days later, the truly dramatic question becomes: What did we just do?

Props. 1 and 2, which will move city elections from May to November and change council terms and term limits to correspond to that change, won overwhelmingly (essentially 3 to 1). The heavily contested props. 3 and 4 -- geographic districting in two versions -- both won, but the 10-1 plus "independent commission" garnered 60% and the 8-2-1 "hybrid" only 51% – which means 10-1 is victorious, and over the next two years, we'll move toward an all-district system, with only the mayor elected at-large.

The big civil service propositions that grant important hiring, disciplinary, and firing protections to city employees (Prop. 10) and EMS staff specifically (Prop. 11) won handily (58% and 70%, respectively). It's worth noting those victories were despite fairly hysterical opposition from the Austin American-Statesman's editors, who persisted in using enormously exaggerated cost estimates long after the city administration had abandoned those numbers.

Of the 11 proposed city charter amendments, only two went down – the city manager (and not Council) will go right on hiring the city attorney (Prop. 6), and there will be no additional month for council candidates to retire campaign debt (Prop. 8).

Early in the evening, the Chronicle asked Mayor Lee Leffingwell for his reaction to the early vote results – which turned out (as we didn't know yet) to approximate the final numbers. "If the result holds," Leffingwell said, "it shows again that Austin is a progressive city that believes in the future. All the bonds are passing – except the housing is a little bit below 50%. The medical school [Central Health Prop. 1] is passing, and we're all really gratified to hear that."

Leffingwell acknowledged his disappointment that 10-1 outpaced 8-2-1, but welcomed the change to districts. "I think it clearly shows that Austin was ready for geographic representation. I guess I will take a little pride in that, in that I began this effort two years ago – proposing the 6-2-1 plan, which quickly disappeared. I think it marks a transition of the city of Austin from a small town to a big city." He credited the electoral reversal on districting, after six previous defeats, primarily to a first-ever November ballot, with its "much broader electorate. That, plus the fact that in the past, it's always been the case that East Austin wanted geographic representation, but the rest of the city did not. But now, with the growing suburbs, Southwest ... there were single-member district signs all over Circle C. Southwest and North­west, I think, made the big difference."

In the end, all the bonds indeed passed except Prop. 15 – an affordable housing measure, including repairs for homes of elderly residents. That outcome was somewhat mysterious, as Austin voters have supported similar bonds before and the rest of the bond proposals passed easily. Was it sudden resistance to affordable housing in a town that never stops demanding "affordability"? Tax resistance among voters who handily endorsed a tax increase for health care? Confusing ballot language? Call it the night's local headscratcher.

There will be lot more to say about all of this, but most dramatically, as a couple of Driskill return watchers remarked almost in tandem after Austin voters reversed six previous elections against geographic districts: "We're in a whole new universe" for city of Austin elections and governance. Over the next two years, we'll begin to discover exactly what that means.

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