City Hall Hustle: Next Act, Major Drama

Mayor anticipates a year of living dangerously for City Hall

This hasn't exactly been Mayor Lee Leffingwell's best year.

He kicked things off on a high note, in February, offering a wide-ranging State of the City address celebrating recent, high-profile employers like Facebook and LegalZoom arriving in Austin, alongside the growth of local business; calling for expanded service and volunteerism; and culminating with a call for an omnibus election in November 2012, including a transportation/rail bond vote and city charter election to bring geographic representation to the dais.

But Leffingwell's celebratory moment came before the Open Meetings Act investigation/distraction came to City Hall, the fallout from which led directly to the defeat of Place 3 Council Member Randi Shade – a key vote siding with Leffingwell on several hot-button issues, including Water Treat­ment Plant No. 4 – and indirectly to the departure of Chief of Staff Mark Nathan, whose name popped up in several emails released in an open records fishing expedition.

Since then, the new-look council has spent considerable time on several issues Leffingwell likely thought were settled, including an assessment of potential shutdown costs for WTP4, and the intense Sturm und Drang surrounding the Formula One racetrack and its assorted funding mechanisms. More recently, his preference for moving council and mayoral elections from May to November 2012 narrowly failed, with the deciding four "ayes" including three potential mayoral challengers in the spring, when his term expires. And with signatures currently being gathered to put an 11-seat single-member district scenario to voters, Leffingwell's proposed nine-seat hybrid system will likely be tested as well (see "SMD: Seventh Time's the Charm?").

Nevertheless, Leffingwell looked to reframe the conversation Wednesday in the politically loaded context of an address to the Real Estate Coun­cil of Austin. Despite the talk's title – "November 2012: A Game Changing Elec­tion for Austin's Future" – Leffingwell also sounded off on the recent council vote to maintain May elections, potential dueling SMD scenarios, and the "dangerous" nature of Austin's perennially low voter turnout.

Citing the turnout in the May 2011 council races, Leffingwell said: "Now, if you think that 7.4 percent of registered voters sounds bad, remember that only half of us are even registered to vote. That means that 92 percent* of Austin citizens – 92 percent! – chose not to participate in the most recent City Council election. ... So let me say it very plainly, I believe, very strongly, that this level of disinterest in city elections is dangerous for Austin. If the process by which we elect our representatives reflects the opinion of just 4 percent of us – or even just 2 percent of us, if we're talking winners and losers – then there's really very little reason to believe that the process by which we make city policy would be any more inclusive."

On policy making, Leffingwell warned that citizen input "also tends to come from a relatively small group of people – and not surprisingly, from many of the same people who exercise a whole lot of influence in our elections process." Accordingly, he reiterated his support of the same "major structural reforms" he proposed earlier this year: his 6-2-1 single-member district scenario; moving city elections from May to November of odd-numbered years; increasing council terms from three to four years; eliminating staggered terms; and increasing campaign contribution limits for candidates who run citywide. Together, he argues, the changes should increase voter turnout and reduce the barriers to entry at City Hall, while guarding against "ward politics" that could emerge from a SMD system.

Returning to that recent 4-3 vote to maintain May elections, Leffingwell lamented that decision "has opened the door for a citizen petition drive that aims to put a different plan for geographic representation on the May ballot next year," the 10-1 scenario floated by the activist group Austinites for Geographic Repre­senta­tion. Leffingwell endorsed instead a Novem­ber charter vote, saying, "I, and others, simply don't believe that a majority of regular May voters – who currently enjoy enormous influence over city elections and policy – are going to give up that influence by voting for a new system that transfers power and influence to others." As evidence, he points to the six previous SMD defeats at the ballot box, all of which happened in May. "Let me be clear that I don't support this 10-1 proposal, and I don't support having our next charter election in May rather than November." Afterward, Leffingwell seemed exasperated that AFGR – who also claim to support a November vote – point to election date uncertainty as cause for their petition drive, when council has already passed resolutions in support of November. (A new item from council is expected, possibly as soon as their next meeting, further expressing council's desire for a November charter vote.)

So en route to November, Leffingwell speculated, "We're headed in the direction of some major drama in the spring."

Tweet off: @CityHallHustle.

*Corrected; originally read 96 percent

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Lee Leffingwell, open records, single-member districts, Water Treatment Plant No. 4

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