The Austin Chronicle

Austin's Petition Tradition Is Up for Review

By Austin Sanders, March 14, 2023, 11:15am, Newsdesk

When you ask what has made (and kept) Austin weird, part of the answer must be this city’s penchant for self-governance.

Austin voters can write their own city ordinance, get a fraction of the electorate to sign a petition supporting it, and put it on the ballot for a yes/no vote. That’s how the famed Save Our Springs Ordinance came to be law in 1992, creating some of the environmental safeguards that have helped define Austin culturally and politically for a generation – for better and for worse.

Since 1992, the petition initiative process has resulted in bans on smoking (in 2005) and public camping (in 2021, effectively criminalizing homelessness). But it’s unclear how much these ordinances actually represent the will of Austin’s electorate. That’s why Council Member Ryan Alter authored a resolution to reexamine the process, which Council adopted March 9 on a 10-1 vote, with CM Mackenzie Kelly against.

There are a few problems with the current system: an Austin voter has to stay on their toes with sometimes multiple elections taking place in one year – including those with one issue on the ballot. Turn out for these ballot measure elections tends to be much lower, especially when they take place off-cycle. Meanwhile, the number of signatures needed to get an ordinance on the ballot has not changed in a decade, while the city’s population has boomed. In 2012, Austin voters approved an amendment to the City Charter that lowered the signature threshold from 10% of “qualified voters” (which is a count of all voters with an Austin address) to just 5% of qualified voters or 20,000, whichever number is smaller.

“Our current threshold for these initiatives is increasingly less representative of the public,” Alter said. “If we're going to spend valuable city resources on an election, that petition should stem from a representative cross-section of the public, not an ever shrinking sliver.”

A 2019 report by the City Auditor found that peer cities in Texas require many more signatures. Houston, Dallas, San Antonio, and Fort Worth require somewhere between 10%-20% of registered voters to sign onto a petition initiative, which equates to double or triple the number of signatures required in Austin. According to Austin City Clerk Myrna Rios, given that Austin had 682,206 qualified voters in 2022, signatures from 20,000 people would account for only about 3% of voters. In 1992, SOS campaigners collected 30,000 signatures – or about 11% of eligible Austin voters for that 1992 election.

Austin’s petition initiative campaigns have not always been run honestly. They cost voters serious money, too. According to Rios, the city will spend about $575,000 to administer the May 6 election, which will place only the two Austin Police Oversight Act (APOA) initiatives on the ballot. Equity Action’s “real” APOA will be Prop A and the “imposter” APOA, supported by the Austin Police Association, will be Prop B.

Also costing money? Rios and her staff must follow a time-consuming nine-step process to validate a petition, which involves counting signatures line-by-line and compiling spreadsheets for a statistician to generate a random sample. All told, the clerk’s office spent 901 hours, at a cost of nearly $49,707, to process Equity Action’s petition and 1,511 hours, at a cost of $83,250, to process the petition for the faux-APOA, submitted by the police union-backed Voters for Police Oversight and Accountability. Rios explained that her staff received hundreds of signature removal requests from people who signed the VOPA petition after media reports revealed that the organization misled petition signers. That may be a rare case, but Rios says it typically takes the clerk at least 30 days to process a petition containing 20,000 or more signatures.

Alter’s resolution could change the petition initiative process for the first time in a decade. It establishes a 2024 Charter Review Commission to explore potential changes to the City Charter for the Nov. 5, 2024, election. The resolution allows the commission to explore any charter amendment it wants – like transitioning the city to a Strong Mayor system of government, which voters soundly rejected in May 2021, but possibly because there was nothing like a robust charter review process that preceded it. The only change the commission is directed to explore is the usage of a “durable,” percentage-based signature threshold for initiatives, instead of the arbitrary 20,000 number.

Bill Bunch, executive director of the Save Our Springs Alliance and one of the people who gathered signatures for the ’92 SOS Ordinance, warned Council against establishing the commission. Increasing the signature threshold by tying it to a percentage, “would be a poke in the eye” to voters, Bunch said. Collecting 20,000 signatures is no easy task, Bunch continued. The Chronicle has found that recent petition campaigns needed to spend around $150,000 to meet the signature threshold (Equity Action spent about $182,000 to gather signatures for Prop A and VOPA spent about $289,000 on signature gathering for Prop B). That’s a lot of money to you and me, but not so much if you’ve got rich friends or know how to run a political fundraising operation.

* Editor's note Wednesday, March 15, 12:40pm: This story has been updated to clarify a statement from Myrna Rios. While our reporting found the VOPA campaign to be very misleading, Rios did not characterize the VOPA campaign.

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