Strong-Mayor Proposal Likely Headed to May Ballot
Austinites for Progressive Reform submits 24,000 signatures
On Monday, Jan. 11, Austinites for Progressive Reform submitted its petition, with 24,000 signatures, for a May election on four amendments to the Austin city charter – the biggest being a switch from council-manager government to the strong-mayor model used in many big U.S. cities, including Houston, but not in most Texas cities. City Clerk Janette Goodall will test a random sample of those signatures, as state law allows, to verify that APR met the 20,000-name threshold for the ballot. (Save Austin Now failed this test when it submitted its petition to restore Austin's ban on public camping, which it is challenging in court.)
City Hall insiders have mulled strong-mayor proposals for years, moreso back when (before 2014) the whole Council was elected at large. The issue came into focus for regular Austinites last summer, as City Manager Spencer Cronk resisted calls from Council and the public to remove Brian Manley as Austin's police chief, which only the manager has the power to do.
The resulting anger was a wake-up call for many voters and a spark for APR, which rolled out its reform package in July. In addition to strong-mayor, it includes a public financing program for Council candidates ("Democracy Dollars"), moving the mayoral election to presidential years, and ranked choice voting to replace low-turnout run-off elections. As proposed by APR, the strong mayor would hire, fire, and manage city department heads and would have a veto over Council decisions that could be overridden with a supermajority of eight votes. (The proposal adds an 11th council district to leave the size of Council unchanged.)
Many Austin progressives agree with those three ideas, which are expected to each be separate propositions, though Council has not discussed ballot language yet. Backers argue that the whole package would deliver a mayor and council that are accountable to the widest possible number of voters, removing outsized power from the unelected manager. "These efforts – as a package – will increase voter turnout, and that's good for democracy," says Jehmu Greene, co-chair of the leadership committee for APR.
But in December, an open letter from prominent activists and labor unions voiced concerns about power being transferred "to a single, unknown person in 2022" who could undo the progressive reforms made by the 10-1 Council. Chris Harris, director for Texas Appleseed's Criminal Justice Project, who signed the letter, says he supports "a mayor running the bureaucracy" but not "the ability to veto anything that doesn't have the support of eight council members." Harris supports the other proposals, but notes that state law would need to be changed to allow for ranked choice voting.
APR replied, in its own letter, that its plan transfers many powers to Council and removes many from the mayor. "Our amendments strengthen 10-1," APR wrote, as "the mayor will forfeit ... the power to introduce legislation or place items on the council agenda," or to participate in Council personnel decisions such as hiring the city auditor and city clerk or appointing members to boards and commissions.
A different set of objections has been raised by Austin for All People, formed Jan. 11 and representing the business community. Mason Ayer, CEO of Kerbey Lane Cafe, says his main concern is that the city requires a professional executive to manage "a $4 billion budget with almost 14,000 employees. We could potentially have a situation where a mayor who has zero executive experience is placed in charge of this giant business, for lack of better term, and just doesn't have the experience to run it effectively."