The Austin Chronicle

An Honest Ballot

A look at what you're actually going to be voting on

By Michael King, April 21, 2006, News

The Prop. 1 and 2 charter amendment campaigns have generated much heat and little light in the ballot language, as it was first drafted by the City Council, rejected in part by a court, and then revised by council just under the pre-election deadline. Amendment proponents charge that the current language is still misleading or even literally dishonest, and they've offered alternative versions that simply describe the amendments as defending "open government" and "clean water," with little further detail as to how the amendments, once enacted into law, are actually supposed to work.

The central problem is that each proposed amendment is lengthy, complex, and self-referential and is essentially impossible to summarize adequately in comprehensible ballot form. (Prop. 1 is about 2,000 words, 42 paragraphs; Prop. 2 is about 1,250 words and 18 paragraphs. Indeed, the proponents' own summary of Prop. 1, available online at – which does include the amendments in full – is 10 pages long.) Moreover, the amendments complement one another, and the potential interactions therefore complicate the voting process.

As a consequence, the official ballot language is highly abstract and reductive and emphasizes (with some exceptions) those numerous aspects of the amendments that the council found most troubling. But the language may still not tell a voter precisely what she is voting for or against.

What follows is a Chronicle summary of the actual amendments, listing as clearly as possible the specific policies or provisions that will be in force should the amendments be approved by the voters and added to the city charter. The full text of Props. 1 and 2, as well as Props. 3 through 7, can be found at the City Clerk's election Web site:

What's on the Ballot

Proposition 1

Shall the City Charter be amended:

a) to provide online access to public information, which for the most part is alreadyavailable, by creating an online electronic data system for most City communication and documents at taxpayer expense;

b) to require that private citizens' e-mails to public officials be placed on the city Web site in "real time," including e-mails or electronic communications between private citizens and public officials in all city departments, and limit the ability of private citizens to keep private the details of these communications, unless legal exceptions apply;

c) require that the heads of all city departments, all city manager's staff and all city council members and their staffs post online in "real time" information about meetings and phone calls with private citizens; and

d) 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?

Proposition 2

Shall the City Charter be amended to:

a) limit investments in roads, utilities, water quality infrastructure, drainage infrastructure, and other infrastructure extensions and capacity extensions in the Barton Springs Zone, which includes a large portion of southwest Austin and Travis County, including neighborhoods such as Oak Hill, Barton Hills, part of 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;

d) make all "grandfathering" decisions in the Barton Springs Zone under state law subject to City Council approval;

e) disqualify certain individuals from certain exercising 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;

g) prohibit the City from participating in or supporting certain road projects; and

h) add an environmental policy statement?

Prop. 1: Amendment summary

1) The stated purpose of the amendment is "to assure open government," and Austin law "shall always be liberally construed to favor openness," although not to violate "constitutional or common-law rights to privacy" (which rights are quite limited in scope).

2) "The City must, as expeditiously as possible and to the greatest extent practical, make all public information available online in real time and accessible to the public [and] carry out city business online" (the cost of initiating this system is yet to be determined, but was initially estimated at $36 million by the city, with continuing costs undetermined).

3) All contract applications to the city must be in electronic format; any substantial development/incentive package must be monitored publicly online, in "real time."

4) Within six months, calendars and phone logs of council members and staff, and major city officials – accounting for all formal or informal discussions, of any kind, of city business – must be available to public online "in real time."

5) All e-mails to and from council members and staff, and to and from major city officials are public information (see No. 2 above), which must be electronically archived and available on demand to the public; these officials are forbidden to have any private discussion whatsoever of city business at any time, without reporting it.

6) All information concerning city business not restricted for legal reasons must be available online, indexed, and searchable for easy public access (cost yet to be determined).

7) Public information must be as broadly defined as possible under existing law.

8) Civil litigation information must be as public as possible under existing law.

9) Any person or company "seeking to engage" in economic development negotiations with the city must waive all rights to privacy concerning those negotiations.

10) Only direct attorney work product is considered private – "advice, opinion, and recommendations," broadly defined, must be public.

11) All police personnel files must be public, and not subject to union negotiation.

12) All e-mails to or from a public official concerning city business are public information (see 2 above).

13) Any litigation settlements are subject to a public hearing before final approval.

14) All substantial economic development agreements must be negotiated in public.

15) All police officer meet-and-confer negotiations must be negotiated in public, and this provision is not subject to negotiation.

16) All minutes and records of public meetings (including mandatory video recordings of executive sessions) must be preserved forever.

17) All public information must be retained for a minimum of 10 years.

18) All electronic information must be preserved and accessible "in open formats" (undefined) indefinitely.

19) Any fees for information retrieval do not apply to "individuals" (undefined), nonprofits, or neighborhood organizations.

20) Any knowing violation of any part of this amendment carries a $500 civil penalty.

21) If any provision is ruled unconstitutional or otherwise void, the rest remains valid.

Prop. 2: Amendment summary

1) This stated purpose of this amendment is to "reaffirm and extend" existing policy on Barton Springs Edwards Aquifer watershed.

2) Impervious cover in the watershed must be restricted to levels that sustain existing water quality.

3) The city objects to state law on grandfathering of development and will minimize and eliminate grandfathering wherever possible.

4) The city must "prioritize" (undefined) investment in infrastructure outside the BS/EA watershed, and within the watershed must prioritize watershed protection, not transportation capacity expansion.

5) All substantial infrastructure extensions or expansions proposed within the BS/EA zone must be subject to an economic, social, and environmental-impact analysis with proposed alternatives.

6) The city cannot support any toll-road project "located in or leading to" the Barton Springs watershed that relies on financial projections based on traffic increases.

7) The city requests that major employers, and specifically AMD, locate away from the watershed and in the desired development zone.

8) No development subsidies of any kind are allowed within the BS/EA zone.

9) Any company must repay received incentives for any development anywhere in the city if any related or formerly related company locates a major development in the BS/EA zone.

10) The city cannot grant incentives for any major employment center in BS/EA zone (already current policy) – only incentives to move off zone.

11) City can encourage only "rural-scale, conservation-oriented" development in BS/EZ zone.

12) Validity of any existing grandfathering claim can only be approved by a two-thirds council vote.

13) No grandfathering claim can be granted to any entity when any applicant or permit holder if the development history has ever filed for bankruptcy under federal law.

14) Any new or grandfathered development cannot increase annual stormwater runoff.

15) Amendment should "guide or inspire" other actions as necessary to protect the BS/EA.

16) If any provision is ruled unconstitutional or void, the rest remains valid.

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