Voter Backlash Rehashed

A Whole Lotta Trouble for a Little Less Corruption

Prepare yourself, here we go again. First, the council ignored citizens who had supported the S.O.S. ordinance. They did it again when they tried to sneak a $10 million baseball stadium proposal into existence. Both times they suffered backlash from the voters.

Now, the stage is set for another of those legendary showdowns that have marked Austin's political landscape and shaken many a councilmember to their knees. Like S.O.S., another citizens' petition is in question. This time it has the whimsical title "Austinites for a Little Less Corruption," (ALLC) and with it, those ever-vigilant watchdogs at Priorities First! -- a group originally formed to combat the baseball stadium -- hope to diminish the influence of monetary grease on the local political machine.

Last week, the City Clerk's office rendered the group's petition for campaign finance reform invalid. The petition calls for limiting contributions to candidates to $100, and to PACs to $25 per individual donor. City Clerk employees toiled 'round the clock over the past month to determine if the 29,231 signatures made the grade. By the time the work whistle blew last Monday, City Clerk Elden Aldridge had negated more than half -- 14,873 -- of the signatures, because, says Aldridge, they were not valid. The long and short: the petitioners lack 1,606 names. They need 15, 964 signatures -- 5% of Austin's registered voters -- to get the petition on the ballot for a vote this January.

But Linda Curtis and the rest of the Priorities First! gang have staked out grocery store entryways and public gathering places every weeknight and weekend over the past year, and damned if they'll fade quietly into obscurity. Curtis claims that Elden has erred, and not accidently either. She's tossing about hard-hitting but vague accusations of conspiracy, essentially charging the long-time clerk with marching to the beat of unnamed councilmembers beholden to disproportionate benevolence from the well-moneyed.

Just two days ago, Curtis announced that Brent White, the council activist who initiated the petition, had reviewed about 6% of the so-called ineligible signatures and found that "well over 100 people had been disqualified for no good reason. They had listed (their) addresses and names that were on the (voter registration) rolls. Extrapolated, that's 1,600 voters."

Some of the reasons why signatures were stricken from the petition do seem awfully nit-picky. Take Craig Smith's, for example. According to Mike Blizzard, who is a strategist for the ALLC campaign, Smith, who is president of the Save Barton Creek Association, was dropped off the list when the City Clerk's office found that he didn't sign his name precisely the way it appears on his voter registration card: Courtney Craig Smith.

Signatory Roxanne Evans, on the other hand, says she can't imagine why her signature was determined by the city clerk to be invalid. She hasn't moved in years and she doesn't have an alias, though one could have come in handy when she served on the Statesman's editorial board a few years back, she quips. Evans adds that she hasn't missed a local election in more than a decade. "This is disconcerting," she complains. "To me, being a voter means more than just being able to vote for mayor. It means having some say in city affairs. It kinds of makes me uneasy about how the system works if qualified voters are disqualified."

Curtis vows to sue. "This is clearly malicious intent, and we're going to court."

Assistant City Clerk Betty Brown explains that incorrect addresses weren't a nullifying factor if the voter included a valid voter registration number. The petitioners did not require voter registration numbers, however, and they accompanied few signatures. And when only an address was included -- one that differed from what was on the voters' rolls -- without the registration number, the clerk could not certify whether that was the same Susan Smith who had signed the petition. As for disqualifying voters because they used their unofficial name, contrary to ALLC claims, the clerk's office contends it did no such thing.

Still, according to Blizzard, the clerk's office could have done a more thorough review of the disqualified voters by calling them to verify if they'd signed the petition. But City Clerk Aldridge responds that even if each disqualified voter had been called, there would have been no way to verify that the person on the other end of the line had actually signed the petition.

What about checking the petitioners' voter registration histories to see if the addresses they had listed were also listed on past rolls? Assistant City Clerk Brown confirmed that the office never considered doing that.

What is particularly disturbing to Curtis is the negation of those voters who filled out everything exactly as listed on the voters' rolls, she says. In retaliation, last Thursday, Curtis and the ALLC gang pumped out a smarmy news release regarding the clerk's scheduled raise at the council meeting. "And why shouldn't [Aldridge get a raise]? After all, it's not easy to invalidate 12,000 signatures [more than 2,000 are undisputed -- their registration had expired] and give democracy a big kick in the pants all at the same time."

The council never followed through with Aldridge's raise, though his performance was discussed in executive session. At the dais, the council did receive input from both the public and the clerk, compliments of an item posted by Daryl Slusher. The council, especially Gus Garcia, emceeing in the mayor's absence, spent much of the hearing defending the clerk and his staff. During the lively back-and-forth, Curtis said she didn't want to argue with Garcia any more, and Garcia protested that they were merely having a "discussion, like around the dinner table." Garcia seemed far more interested in shutting the meeting down by the 10pm whistle than in listening to the complaints of Priorities First! and other speakers. Neither Garcia nor Curtis would concede an inch, with Curtis finally telling Garcia, "Let's go to dinner, then."

But the dinner Curtis serves up may not appeal to the councilmembers' tastes. She is planning a lawsuit for the main course. Three recent court rulings, including one in 1994 in which Curtis was a plaintiff, held that petitions need not include registration numbers as a standard for validity. The clerk's office didn't require that, but requiring that voters list their addresses on the rolls even though they no longer live at that particular residence is even more burdensome on voters, says Jay Jacobson, state executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union. The ACLU may file the case on Curtis' behalf, Jacobson says, and the outlook is "hopeful." He says that "you can make a... case that the next step [should have been to double-check] those disqualified voters."

When Curtis took the council to dinner last year, the main dish was crow. She led the petition drive that forced the council to undo their decision to spend $10 million without voter approval, and to instead place the baseball stadium proposal on the ballot. Of course, voters shamefaced the council by soundly rejecting it.

The council also suffered the wrath of the public back in 1992 after they ignored voters' wishes by delaying the vote on the S.O.S. ordinance by 90 days, allowing developers to apply under the weaker development ordinance then on the books. In the next election, voters quickly forced the council majority responsible for the delay -- the infamous RULE council -- out of office. Only Ronny Reynolds remains (Charles Urdy retired).

Will the council go down those troubled roads anew? Who knows, but it certainly doesn't look promising. "The whole thing is an insult to voters, once again," says Curtis.

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The council also took testimony from a slew of neighborhood activists opposed to widening the Lamar Bridge to increase traffic flows. Key to the discussion was printed and videotaped evidence presented by Beverly Griffith showing that council had requested that the contractor studying the expansion, HDR Engineering, Inc., also study alternative routes. A subcontractor for HDR claims to have done that, though the only studies that ever went public dealt with widening the bridge. The council cut off the hearing mid-way, to get the meeting done on time, and will continue it at tonight's meeting at 6:30pm.

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