Pondering the Props

The ballot language of the proposed charter amendments, with Chronicle translations

The City Council has adopted ballot order and language for seven charter amendment propositions in all, to be considered by voters in the May 13 municipal election. The following proposals will appear on the ballot; we've added a few preliminary notes for voters' consideration.

Prop. 1: 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 Dept., Police Dept., 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 Dept., Parks Dept., Library Dept., 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?

AC notes: This is the "Clean Government" amendment submitted via petition by the ACLU, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Save Our Springs Alliance, and other groups, although it has been given ballot language by the City Council that emphasizes what the city considers the potential negative effects. Supporters say the amendment will make all city business, especially major incentive deals and police disciplinary matters, readily available to the public in a timely fashion and online. Opponents (as this language suggests) believe that the change is a burdensome and expensive imposition on city officials and invades the privacy of citizens (e.g., whistle-blowers) who may want to communicate information to officials with the expectation of privacy.

Prop. 2: 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?

AC notes: This is the "Clean Water" amendment proposed by the SOS Alliance, the Save Barton Creek Association, and other groups, although it has also been given ballot language by the City Council that emphasizes the potential negative effects. Supporters say it is necessary to establish permanently into Austin law the environmental principles embodied in the 1992 Save Our Springs Ordinance, intended to protect the Edwards Aquifer and Barton Springs watershed but too often undermined by "grandfathered" major land transactions like the Southwest Parkway facility currently planned for Advanced Micro Devices, and to prevent major (toll) highway expansion over the watershed. Opponents say the proposal would rigidly restrict economic development throughout Austin, restrict infrastructure improvements throughout the Barton Springs zone and especially in the listed neighborhoods, and would in fact degrade water quality by making it more difficult for the city to improve sewage and water lines, or expand road service.

Prop. 3: Shall the City Charter be amended to change the initial date of the term served by the mayor and council members to comply with a change in state election law?

AC notes: This is essentially a clean-up provision responding to a recent change in state law that moved the uniform election date to the second Saturday in May and made the timing difficult for Austin city elections, especially if there are run-offs – terms currently begin on June 15. The amendment would fix the base date in the charter but also allow flexibility by ordinance in the future, should the state calendar change again.

Prop. 4: Shall the City Charter be amended to allow a council member or mayor first elected after April 30, 2006, to serve for three terms?

AC notes: Term limits (two three-year terms) were first applied to the City Council in 1997, after a successful petition effort; council members can only seek re-election for additional terms by a fairly daunting petition process. Proponents of this amendment say two terms are insufficient for a council member to both learn the job and gain experience and influence in the city bureaucracy; opponents say two terms and the petition exception are plenty.

Prop. 5: Shall the City Charter be amended to limit contributions from individuals outside the Austin city limits, increase and adjust for inflation the aggregate contribution amount that a council member may collect and the maximum individual contribution to a candidate for city council, allow a person elected to city council to fund an account to pay officeholder expenses, and allow fundraising by unsuccessful candidates and retired council members to retire campaign debt?

AC notes: This is an attempt to refine (and index to inflation) the campaign contribution limits imposed by the voters in 1997; contribution limits would be raised to $300 per person (from the current $100), overall limits would also be raised, and the regulations governing "in-city" contributions would be simplified by using ZIP codes rather than the literal city boundary. While there is much support for adjusting the limits, campaign finance reform groups say they'll withhold support for this proposition if the council does not first act (by ordinance prior to the election) to place similar contribution limits on political action committees, which in recent years have become major independent players in city elections.

Prop. 6: Shall the City Charter be amended to restore a city employee's ability to purchase additional benefit coverage, by repealing Article IX, Section 4 (Employee Benefits) of the City Charter?

AC notes: This is the broader version of the "domestic partner" benefit that would repeal that part of the charter, approved by the voters in 1994, that forbids city employees from purchasing health coverage for an additional household adult. Here's the charter language that would be repealed if Prop. 6 passes:

City Charter, Article IX, Section 4: Employee Benefits

City employee benefits shall be as provided in the approved "Personnel Policies"; provided such City employee benefits shall in no case be extended to any persons other than an employee's parents, spouse, children (including step-children, children for whom a court-ordered guardianship or conservatorship has been assigned, qualified children placed pending adoption, and eligible grandchildren), sisters, brothers, grandparents, and the parents and grandparents of an employee's spouse; except as otherwise required by state or federal law. The term spouse as defined in the "Personnel Policies" shall mean the husband or wife of the employee.

Prop. 7: Shall the City Charter be amended to increase the term served by a municipal court judge from two years to four years?

AC notes: The municipal court handles parking and traffic violations, violations of city ordinances, and other misdemeanor offenses. Supporters of this amendment point out that an appointed judge has barely begun her term before she must begin the reapplication process, and that most municipal courts in Texas use four-year terms. At this writing, there is no significant opposition to the amendment.

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