Austin: City of Petitions

New Linda Curtis-fronted PAC has agendas for days

Last week I reported on various online petitions circulating concerning CodeNEXT, arguing that the land use code rewrite is either going too far, or not far enough, in revising Austin's zoning regulations ("Dueling Petitions on CodeNEXT," Sept. 12). Now the petition wars are about to get serious: A newly formed political action committee, "IndyAustin," is circulating three referendum petitions calling not just for council action, but for Austin elections. The first would require a public vote before CodeNEXT replaces the city's current land use regulations; the second would revise the City Charter to enable a referendum-initiated public vote before most City Council-enacted ordinances become effective; and the third ... would revise the city's ordinance on digital billboards more to the liking of the billboard industry.

IndyAustin is the latest vehicle of longtime petition activist Linda Curtis, also director of IndyTexans, a general-purpose political action committee of "independents" that weighs in regularly on growth issues, water rights, candidate campaigns, and related matters. IndyAustin is a specific-purpose PAC created to drive the three-petition campaign, in alliance with anti-CodeNEXT group Community Not Commodity (a project of Save Our City Austin), Austin Neighborhoods Council, and others. Organizers say Austin's current rules (under which most ordinances become effective immediately) make it too difficult for citizens to undo an ordinance by petition; the groups also oppose CodeNEXT (for a litany of reasons), and would delay any enactment of the revised code beyond a lengthy waiting period (following the next Council election) and voter approval.

Speaking to the Chronicle, Curtis pointed to her (mixed) success on previous petition drives as providing useful experience for this latest effort, and blamed former Austin mayor (and current state senator) Kirk Watson for the Charter revision (approved by voters) that enabled immediate ordinance effective dates (although it hasn't prevented Curtis and her allies from mounting persistent petition campaigns).

Yet in 2016, Austin voters endured and defeated a $10 million-plus petition-referendum campaign underwritten by corporate giants Uber and Lyft. Is Curtis not concerned that by opening the door on virtually every ordinance, she would be inviting corporations to buy new laws via petition? "Uber had deep pockets," Curtis said, "and all those drivers to carry those signatures. They were challenging the ordinance [after enactment], and our petitions would be citizen-driven and prior to enactment." She dismissed worries that overturning city ordinances might become a new corporate cottage industry.

As to that third petition: What's the relation between CodeNEXT, Charter revision, and a new billboard ordinance? "The billboard petition has nothing to do with the others," Curtis answered. "It just creates efficiencies and reduces costs. ... I don't usually do business petitions," she continued, "but I decided I would take advantage of Reagan's money [Reagan Outdoor Advertising] to help our other petitions." Earlier this year, Reagan (which had successfully sued the city over the billboard ordinance) paid Curtis $5,000 for "consultant services," and she testified before Council in favor of looser regulations on digital billboards. The subsequently revised ordinance still didn't satisfy Reagan, which is now backing Curtis' petition campaign to rewrite the ordinance, in detail, to the company's satisfaction. Although the PAC will presumably have to segregate funding to support each petition, Curtis says, "[Billy] Reagan's funding of his drive is going to support these other campaigns."

Curtis, who lives in Bastrop, has her own petition-wagon trailer she calls "The Papoose," painted in a cowgirl theme. On the roundup trail, she and her cohorts need roughly 20,000 voter signatures in a 180-day collection period, to force one or three elections, in May or November of 2018. Should they succeed on their triple-barreled campaign, the Papoose petition business should certainly be booming.

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Linda Curtis, IndyAustin, CodeNEXT, Kirk Watson, Uber, Lyft, Reagan Outdoor Advertising

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