How to Read a Charter Amendment

Ballot language too confusing? Let us translate!

SOS Version
SOS Version (Illustration By Doug Potter)

As readers may be aware, there's a sizable handful of proposed city charter amendments heading for the May municipal ballot, and none have aroused more controversy than the two "Clean Water/Clean Government" amendments submitted via petitions by the Save Our Springs Alliance, the ACLU, and a coalition of other local environmental and public activist organizations. In each instance, the amendment proponents have their own notions about what their proposals might do, and the City Council has offered an entirely different perspective.

We think much of the disagreement is semantic. That is, one citizen's Green Dream is another citizen's Scorched Earth; one citizen's Era of Public Democracy is another's Extremely Expensive Exercise in Busybody Nannyism.

In a spirit of public information and popular democracy, this week we offer the Chronicle's Handy Instant Translations of Proposed Charter Amendments. Below, on the one hand, are the versions offered by SOS and other supporters; on the other, are the versions currently drafted by the Austin City Council.


SOS Version

Shall the city charter be amended to add the citizen-initiated "Save Our Springs" amendment for the purpose of protecting the Barton Springs Edwards Aquifer, including provisions that require the city to take actions that encourage new development away from the Barton Springs watershed and that discourage or prohibit certain development within the Barton Springs watershed, including major employment centers, major highway and other infrastructure expansions, and development that does not meet current water quality standards?

Instant Chronicle translation:

City Council Version
City Council Version (Illustration By Doug Potter)

If you vote for this amendment, Austin will become a green oasis of peace and harmony; transnational corporations, toll roads, and everybody else's sports-utility vehicle (but not your own) will melt away like gossamer in the sun; the Edwards Aquifer and Barton Springs will flow like the untouched waters of heaven forever; and little baby salamanders will dance and sing your praises, for all the generations.

City Council Version

Shall the City Charter be amended to: (a) limit investment in roads, utilities, water quality infrastructure, drainage infrastructure, and other infrastructure extensions and capacity expansions in the Barton Springs Zone, which includes a large portion of southwest Austin and Travis County, including neighborhoods such as Oak Hill, Barton Hills, Zilker, Circle C, Travis Country, Village at Western Oaks, and Westcreek; (b) limit the City's ability to influence development in proposed utility and special districts in the extraterritorial jurisdiction; (c) limit the City's ability to enter into agreements that may subsidize private development in the Barton Springs Zone, such as solar energy rebates, SMART Housing incentives, and other rebates or subsidies; (d) make all 'grandfathering' decisions in the Barton Springs Zone under state law subject to city council approval; (e) disqualify certain individuals from exercising certain property rights under state law in the Barton Springs Zone; (f) severely limit the City's ability to enter into economic development agreements city-wide; and (g) prohibit the City from participating in or supporting certain road projects?

Instant Chronicle translation:

If you vote for this amendment, your crops will fail, your women will bear no children, your most prosperous villages will be put to the sword; the waters of Barton Springs will turn black as night; and from the waters will emerge a great and terrible Beast, and the name of this Beast is Economic Devastation; and the Beast will go out among you, devouring new homes and job opportunities, trampling live musicians underfoot, and generally just giving you a hard time; and its breath will smell of Lawsuits, of Eminent Domain, and of State Legislators Mucking About Ruthlessly in Your Municipal Business.


SOS Version

Shall the city charter be amended to add the citizen-initiated "Open Government Online" amendment for the purpose of assuring open government, including provisions that require the city to use its state law discretion in favor of public access, conduct significant business online and accessible to the public through the Internet, produce information and conduct negotiations on economic development agreements in public, archive e-mail correspondence with city officials, and post calendar entries and phone logs of top city officials relating to city business online while protecting individual privacy?

Instant Chronicle translation:

If you vote for this amendment, the dastardly and hidden deceits of men and governments will become transparent as air; the stupendous and mysterious glories of the Internet will save you from darkness and malefaction; no one will be able to do or say anything without everyone else instantly knowing; nor will any evil corporation extort concessions from your stores of grain in return for present employment; and goodness, mercy, honesty, and community will follow you all of the days of your life.

City Council Version

Shall the City Charter be amended: (a) to require that all private citizens' emails to any public official be placed on the City website in "real time," including emails or electronic communications between private citizens and public officials in all City departments, including the Library Department, Police Department, City health clinics, and City departments handling utility bills and code enforcement, and limit the ability of citizens to keep private the details of these communications; (b) to require that the heads of all City departments, including the Police Department, Parks Department, Library Department, all city manager's staff and all city council members and their staff post online in real time information about all meetings and phone calls with private citizens; (c) to prohibit the City from exercising state law protection for information that could expose the City and taxpayers to greater financial and legal liability and risk; (d) to require the City to create at taxpayer expense an online electronic data system for most City communications and documents, which for the most part are already available to the public; and (e) to install and permanently operate such a system at an estimated cost of approximately $36 million initially and $12 million annually thereafter if fully implemented, which could require a tax increase equivalent to three cents per $100 valuation or a reduction in City services?

Instant Chronicle translation:

If you vote for the amendment, Big Brother will set up a permanent electronic outpost in your brain; the voices in your head will be broadcast from the top of City Hall; every elected and appointed city official will become an instant reality TV show webcast to your home; the city funding for everything but Tasers will be sacrificed to pay for Austin Web Central; your home will be confiscated for unpaid and unpayable property taxes; and the world will come to an end.

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for almost 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

More by Michael King
Eddie Rodriguez Concedes Senate Race to Sarah Eckhardt
Eddie Rodriguez Concedes Senate Race to Sarah Eckhardt
Longtime House rep foregoes run-off, emphasizes Dem party unity

July 31, 2020

Eddie Rodriguez Ends Senate Campaign
Rodriguez Ends Campaign
"I have decided to forego the run-off for Senate …"

July 27, 2020


Austin City CouncilAustin city charter, SOS Alliance, ACLU, Clean Water, Clean Government, charter amendments, city council

One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Can't keep up with happenings around town? We can help.

Austin's queerest news and events

New recipes and food news delivered Mondays

All questions answered (satisfaction not guaranteed)

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle