Cole Springs Defense of May Election

Supports turnout, but not at "expense of violating the Charter”

Cole: Spring's the thing.
Cole: Spring's the thing. (Photo by John Anderson)

This week, we delved pretty deep into the question of moving municipal elections to November. It's a prospect the Hustle found welcome, but not one shared by the majority of the City Council. Today, Sheryl Cole shares with us her reasoning behind her vote to keep council elections in May.

Mayor Pro Tem Cole forwarded us a letter she’s sent constituents dissatisfied with her vote to keep spring elections. While she voices qualms about unilaterally extending her own term, her chief objection is reflected in the following statement: “Our great city should absolutely encourage voter participation, but not at the expense of violating the Charter.”

Thank you for letting me know your concerns regarding this very critical issue. This matter lies at the heart of our great city and our democracy so it is one of the most important we can consider as a council. In response to your e-mail, let me present my thoughts about my vote regarding the May versus November election dates.

The wording of my oath of office requires that I, to the best of my ability, must protect, preserve, and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States. Those laws include Austin’s governing document, the City Charter. I chose to uphold my oath of office by voting to hold the regular election for the Mayor and City Council Members on the May 2012 date as required by the City Charter and approved by the voters. The issue of whether to move the non-partisan local city election from May to November would impact not just this election but all subsequent ones. Just as I would feel uncomfortable permanently extending any Council Member’s terms from 3 years to 4 years without voter authorization, I would feel even more uncomfortable extending my council term for six months without voter authorization.

An issue of such significance should rightfully be decided by the citizens of Austin, as a home rule city, through a charter amendment election. We must preserve the voters’ right to choose whether to have their future council races in May or November and not dictate a November election based on what applicable state law authorized, but does not mandate.

Our great city should absolutely encourage voter participation, but not at the expense of violating the Charter. When the legislature passes a law which authorizes, but does not mandate, that city leaders take an action inconsistent with Charter language, that law does not by itself trump the Charter. The legislature recently passed a bill, known as Senate Bill 100, which authorizes, but does not mandate, city leaders to voluntarily change by resolution:

1) The regular election of the Mayor and Council Members from May to November;

2) Council terms from an odd number of years to terms with an even number of years (e.g. from 3 to 4 year terms); and

3) The staggered council terms to concurrent terms where the Mayor and Council Members are all elected at once.

The additional authority granted in items 2) and 3) above are currently being considered by the Charter Review Committee and are expected to be voted on in November. A city council vote to preserve the May date, in accordance with the charter, allows voters to choose in November 2012 whether to change municipal elections from May to November.

There are many decisions that fall within Council Member purview; however, the ones delineated under our charter as reserved for voters should be decided by those voters to promote democracy and good government. No one wants to disenfranchise a single voter and by preserving the authority of the citizens of Austin to make this decision, I believe that Council has appropriately addressed this concern. I also look forward to a continued, healthy debate on this important issue.

In her email, Cole also attaches a spreadsheet showing a rough difference of $60,000 between a May election (in partnership with other entities) and a November election (also shared with other entities.) But with, as News editor Michael King wrote, “an undeniable, structural crisis” in May turnout numbers, Cole’s reasoning may prove cold comfort for November advocates.

Got something to say on the subject? Send a letter to the editor.

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