It's May in a Landslide!

Council votes 4-3 – three times – to keep spring election

Bill Spelman and Laura Morrison listen as a speaker addresses City Council prior to the final vote on the election date.
Bill Spelman and Laura Morrison listen as a speaker addresses City Council prior to the final vote on the election date. (Photo by Jana Birchum)

In a third and final vote Friday, Oct. 7, a split City Council took the final step to preserve a May council election in 2012, instead of moving the contest to the higher-turnout month of November.

The series of votes was necessary because the initial vote to confirm a May election (at the Sept. 22 meeting) was only 4-3, and a supermajority is required to allow simultaneous passage on all three readings. Council Members Bill Spelman and Laura Morrison posted an action item for a second vote as a late Friday addition to council's Tuesday work session – prompting some complaints about its last-minute appearance – and on Tuesday, Mayor Lee Leffingwell initially ruled the item out of order, as violating work-session rules. The item was withdrawn and put to a second vote at council's regular Thursday meeting, followed by an additional meeting (specially called for Friday) for final approval.

On Thursday, council members in support of preserving the May vote alternately invoked legalese concerning the City Charter (specifying May elections) and Senate Bill 100 (the state law allowing a shift to November) or engaged in soaring rhetoric about voters and the rule of law. Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole did both, arguing that unilateral council action changing the date would not be "fully consistent with our charter, our oath of office, and the Texas Constitution." She cited court challenges to the recently passed ultrasound-before-abortion law as indicating "there are limitations on government power." (That analogy soon proved dubious when she lambasted as insufficiently germane November advocates' argument that council, as authorized by state law, routinely ignores charter language requiring public votes for revenue bonds.) Cole concluded with a Barbara Jordan flourish: "The constitution is real, it is alive, it is whole, and it is complete." Spelman took a more historical approach, arguing that the 1920s-era model city charter used as Austin's blueprint selected May for a reason, and he quoted model charter language that advocated "separating the city from state elections to allow a clear focus on local issues."

Leffingwell reiterated his position that a move to November has two major advantages: much higher voter turnout and lower cost to the city than a May election. (Austin Commun­ity College, which normally shares election costs with the city, recently announced it would move to November, and this week, Austin ISD followed suit, jointly increasing the city's projected expenses from $454,000 to nearly $2 million. The Eanes and Del Valle school districts, which each include parts of Austin, are considering a similar move.) Yet it was apparent that positions on both sides had calcified, and on Thursday, Cole, Morrison, Spelman, and Kathie Tovo again voted aye over nays from Leffingwell, Mike Martinez, and Chris Riley.

Since council members had largely exhausted the issue in their first two sessions, at the next day's special-called Friday meeting, citizens did most of the talking. In the strange-political-bedfellow division, Carole Keeton Strayhorn, representing her newest concern, Austinites for Action, advocated November and was echoed by political veteran and former state Rep. Glen Maxey, who steadily read through a hastily gathered list of some 250 November endorsers. Later, Save Our Springs Alliance's Bill Bunch (defending a May date) charged that the unacknowledged issue is Leffingwell and Martinez hoping to insulate themselves from a May defeat. Bunch described Maxey's earlier litany as a "Randi Shade donor list" – a characterization likely to be disputed by the Tovo supporters and many others appearing on it – thereby indirectly offering a likely strategy preview for the May contests. (The mayoral chair and three council seats – Cole's, Martinez's, and Spelman's – will be in play.) Despite her departure from the dais, defeated Place 3 incumbent Shade apparently still serves as a handy partisan foil.

Former political consultant Mike Bliz­zard, who's worked on many a bond issue, raised the day's most interesting point – despite the talk about preserving May in fidelity to the charter, he said that argument's a nonstarter. He cited a "get-out-of-election-dates-free card" in a 1994 charter amendment that voters passed overwhelmingly, as essentially a cleanup measure meant to avoid potential conflicts between city and state election dates. He argued that voters had already given council the discretion to change dates. As he put it in more direct terms to the four ayes, "Stop hiding behind the charter."

Council gadflies Gus Peña and Gavino Fernandez also spoke briefly in support of the May date, inspiring Leffingwell to note indirectly that earlier in the week, a coalition of the city's major Hispanic organizations had endorsed a move to November.

Once the speakers had concluded, without additional comment, Spelman moved, seconded by Morrison, to approve May elections on third reading. The final vote matched the previous 4-3 lines.

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City Council, 2012 election

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