Leffingwell Proposes Rail/Comp Bond Vote in 2012

Change to city attorney's office, single-member districts also

We were warned … 
We were warned …

The question posed this week by the announcement of transportation bond projects – what does this mean for future bond packages on urban rail and a comprehensive bond election? – got an answer this afternoon: Lee Leffingwell is calling for a combined rail and comp bond vote in 2012.

Mayor Leffingwell’s aide Mark Nathan posted a blog entry today explaining the move, and calling for another major initiative: a charter vote that would make the city attorney report to the city council instead of the city manager (something which the Hustle’s waxed about previously). Nathan also hints at other potential items for a 2012 charter election, including another stab at single-member districts, and moving council elections to November, which historically see higher voter turnout than council's springtime contest.

The combined changes, Nathan writes, “could make the November 2012 election one of the most significant in Austin’s recent history.”

Pasted below, Nathan’s remarks.

November 2012: A game-changing election for Austin's future … ?

By Mark on 6/16/2010

Mayor Lee Leffingwell said today that he will co-sponsor two resolutions at the June 24th Austin City Council meeting that could make the November 2012 election one of the most significant in Austin’s recent history.

The first of the two resolutions, co-sponsored by Council Members Sheryl Cole and Laura Morrison, will ask the City Council to support holding a future urban rail referendum in conjunction with the city’s next comprehensive bond election, and to schedule that bond election – currently planned for November 2013 – for November 2012.  The resolution also directs the City Manager to present the City Council with the possible tax rate impacts of a 2012 comprehensive bond election.

Earlier this year, Leffingwell and the City Council supported postponing a planned November 2010 urban rail vote until at least 2011 to allow city transportation leaders more time to develop a complete rail proposal.  Today Leffingwell said he believes the best plan is to include urban rail as part of the city’s next comprehensive bond package, and to move that bond election up from its planned November 2013 date to the November 2012 general election date.

"After numerous discussions with Council members and community leaders, it is plain that holding the city's next comprehensive bond election in November 2012, and including urban rail in that bond package, accomplishes several critical objectives," said Leffingwell.  "First, it gives the city sufficient time to create a fully-developed urban rail proposal.  Second, it gives Austin voters sufficient time to ask questions and understand the proposal.  Third, it ensures that the largest possible group of voters - general election voters - will participate in Austin's urban rail election, as well as our next comprehensive bond election."

Leffingwell also said that holding the urban rail election in conjunction with the city's next comprehensive bond proposal in November 2012 would allow important citywide planning efforts, including the "Imagine Austin" Comprehensive Plan and the Austin Strategic Mobility Plan, to be completed in advance of the vote.

Council Member Cole, chair of the Council’s Audit and Finance Committee, said her top priority is ensuring that Austin citizens have adequate information about the budget and tax impacts of any future bond elections. “I want to be certain that the fiscal implications of all our bond proposals are crystal clear,” said Cole. “The Council and the public need to know how these proposed investments in transportation and other infrastructure, both this year and in 2012, would impact our bottom line. Our resolution will ask city staff to present the Council with a financial analysis based on various bond scenarios, so we can proceed based on clear, reliable information."

The city's last comprehensive bond election was held in November 2006, when Austin voters overwhelmingly approved seven bond propositions totaling $567 million in investments in transportation, parks, libraries, open space, affordable housing, public safety facilities, and more.

Leffingwell said that he continues to strongly support the city transportation bond election being planned for November of this year, which, while not including urban rail, could include up to $85 million in near-term investments in roads, sidewalks, bike lanes and trails throughout Austin.  Leffingwell said that voter approval of an $85 million transportation bond proposal this November would require no tax increase, would deliver some immediate congestion relief, would move many priority projects to “shovel ready” status  and would allow the city to take advantage of favorable construction prices.

"While we plan for a rail vote and comprehensive bond package in 2012, I don't know of any good reason to wait on making some priority investments to help address the traffic congestion that is crippling parts of Austin right now," said Leffingwell.  "We not only need the immediate congestion relief that this bond proposal will help deliver, but taxpayers will also benefit from the savings in construction prices we have seen recently as a result of the economic recession."  Leffingwell said that the city's various public works construction projects over the last year have been completed at an average cost of 36% less than original estimates.

The second resolution for June 24th, co-sponsored by Mayor Pro Tem Mike Martinez and Council Member Sheryl Cole, will ask the City Council to direct the City Manager to prepare a proposed city charter amendment changing the reporting structure for the City Attorney – a proposal that would also potentially go before Austin voters in November of 2012.

Currently the Austin City Attorney is a direct report to the City Manager; the proposed city charter amendment would make the City Attorney a direct report to the City Council. The proposal would also create a fixed appointment term of five years for the City Attorney, and require a super-majority vote of the Council to terminate the City Attorney at any time during that term – the same structure that Austin voters supported adding to the city charter in 2008 for the City Auditor.

The city charter, Austin's constitution, can only be amended by a majority vote of Austin citizens, and under Texas state law, charter amendment elections can only be held every two years.  The last Austin city charter amendment election was held in November 2008, when voters narrowly rejected a proposed amendment to repeal a city economic development agreement with the Domain mixed-use development; the next charter election cannot legally be held until May 2011, or after.

Mayor Pro Tem Martinez said the proposed charter amendment regarding the City Attorney is meant to invest the city's elected officials with more authority over city legal issues.  "We believe it makes sense for the City Attorney to report directly to the people's elected representatives, in the same way that the City Manager, the City Auditor, the City Clerk, and the Municipal Judges do.  We believe this change will help improve the conduct of city business, and help improve transparency at City Hall."

"In most of Austin's peer cities, the reporting structure we're proposing for the City Attorney is the norm," said Leffingwell, noting that in 14 of the 19 largest cities in America with a Council-Manager form of government, the City Attorney reports to City Council rather than the City Manager.

Leffingwell and Martinez said they expect the Austin City Council to subsequently propose or consider a number of additional city charter amendment proposals for November 2012, potentially including a change from the City Council's current at-large representation system to a form of district representation, and campaign finance reform. Leffingwell said another possible charter amendment he would like to consider for November 2012 could move City Council elections from May to November.

"Our next charter amendment election clearly has the potential to create dramatic change for Austin city government," said Leffingwell.  "The proposals likely to be advanced could re-invent our system of representation, engage significantly more people in our electoral process, and meaningfully change the Council's authority and role. As with the urban rail vote and comprehensive bond election, I think it's appropriate to hold our next charter amendment election when we can expect to see the highest turnout rate among Austin voters.  That will be during the November 2012 general election.

Leffingwell noted that Austin citizens could petition to place other proposed city charter amendments on the ballot in November 2012, or some time earlier.  Austin citizens can place proposed charter amendments on the ballot by collecting valid petition signatures from 5 percent of the city's qualified voters; once certified, proposed charter amendments brought by petition must be placed on the ballot on the next uniform election date.

"While there is always the possibility that a citizen petition could place a charter amendment election before November 2012, my hope is that we will have the opportunity to pose a range of important questions about local governance alongside a range of important questions about future investments in transportation and other critical infrastructure, and do it all at once, when we know the most people will be participating,” said Leffingwell. “Depending on what develops over the next 18 months, it seems clear that November 2012 could be a game-changing election for Austin's future."

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City Council, Lee Leffingwell, Bond Election, Urban Rail, 2012

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