Election Time Again! Council Sets Propositions for May 1 Ballot

Local propositions to include strong mayor proposal and a reinstatement of the public camping ban

A coalition of labor unions, Workers Defense Action Fund, criminal justice reform advocates, and others organized an action outside of City Hall on Feb. 9 in opposition to the "strong-mayor" proposition (Photo by John Anderson)

Austin voters will be asked to consider eight – and possibly nine – local propositions at the May 1 election, as City Coun­cil set the ballot language for Propositions A through H on Tuesday, Feb. 9, and may consider Proposition I at a special ­called meeting Friday evening.

These measures will include Save Austin Now's citizen initiative for an ordinance to reinstate criminal consequences for homelessness, including a partial ban on public camping, along with multiple proposed amendments to the city charter: giving more permanence and independence to the Office of Police Oversight; allowing the Austin firefighters union, which won the power of collective bargaining in a previous election, to force the city into binding arbitration; and the four proposed by Austinites for Progressive Reform, including a transition to strong-mayor government.

That's seven ballot items. Council also voted 6-5 to spin off an element of APR's strong-mayor plan into a separate item. As drafted by APR, if voters approve its plan, the (strong) mayor would no longer be a member of Council, and thus an 11th single-member district would be created to maintain Council's size and avoid potential 5-5 deadlocks. The motion by Council Member Ann Kitchen (backed by CMs Leslie Pool, Kathie Tovo, Pio Renteria, Vanessa Fuentes, and Mackenzie Kelly) makes the vote to create an 11th district into a separate proposition. Should that pass but strong-­mayor not, this would create a 12-member Council with no way to break ties. To avoid that, the potential special called meeting this Friday, Feb. 12, would look to add another ballot measure that would trigger the creation of a new district only if Council ends up at an even number of members, and then hope that voters will be convinced to pass that as well. It's an issue because the charter can only be revised every two years, which is a long time to weather potential 6-6 gridlock.

The other three APR items remain as proposed: instituting ranked choice voting in city elections, once allowed by state law; transitioning mayoral elections from midterm years to presidential years, and truncating the term of the mayor elected in 2022 to two years; and adopting a new "Democracy Dollars" public campaign finance program that would allocate $50 in vouchers for any city resident to contribute to candidates for city office.

The Save Austin Now ordinance, which qualified for the ballot on the group's second attempt, would prohibit anyone from sitting, lying down, or sleeping outside near Downtown and UT, and make panhandling illegal at certain times and locations. It's separate from Council's current consideration of reinstating the camping ban with the pilot HEAL program (see above). The SAN initiative is supported by the Austin Police Association and Kelly; on the other side of the public safety debate, Kelly was the lone vote against the proposed OPO charter amendment, which does not directly make the OPO director a Coun­cil appointee (like the city clerk and city auditor) but gives Council the power to determine how the role is filled, as opposed to its current status as a direct report to the city man­ager (or maybe a future strong mayor.)

May 1 is a uniform state election date, so contests and propositions from other jurisdictions will also be on the ballot. Among these: Travis County commissioners voted unanimously Tuesday to do what Pflugerville City Council would not and put on the ballot the creation of a new Emergency Services District to fund the growing suburb's fire services. If approved, ESD No. 17 would provide ambulance and emergency medical services to residents living in the extraterritorial jurisdictions of Austin, Manor, and Taylor who are currently covered by the Pflugerville Fire Department. Last week, Pflugerville City Council voted against putting the proposal before Pflug­er­ville voters, saying it wanted time to explore other options. The county commissioners, however, cited the 4,700 supporters who signed a pro-ESD No. 17 petition created by the Pflugerville Professional Firefighter Association. PfPFA and the city fire department have called for creation of a new ESD since last fall amid concerns about long-term funding sustainability. Pflugerville, Hutto, and Round Rock won't be a part of the ESD No. 17 vote, which means those cities wouldn't receive the district's services unless they decide to enter a contract with the ESD at a later date.

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