The upcoming May 1 special election provides Austinites with an opportunity to fundamentally change the structure of city government. To some, these changes are revolutionary advances toward a more robust local democracy; to others, they threaten to cause a catastrophic collapse of Austin's current progressive consensus. Either way, a very big deal.
Five of the eight city propositions on the May 1 ballot – Propositions D through H – are charter amendments that began life last July in the mind of Andrew Allison, a local entrepreneur with previous lives as an attorney and political speechwriter. That was at the peak of public outcry against Austin police Chief Brian Manley for (among a slew of other missteps) the Austin Police Department's gross mishandling of the May 31 Black Lives Matter protests against police brutality, sparked by the killings of George Floyd in Minneapolis and, a month earlier, Mike Ramos here in Austin.
Those events led many Austinites to learn, and then to deplore, the fact that bureaucratic civil service protections in Texas state law make it impossible to simply fire the police chief. Instead, Manley could only be demoted to his prior position (he was chief of staff to his predecessor Art Acevedo, so No. 2 in the department). That action could only be taken by City Manager Spencer Cronk, who refused to demote Manley despite a unanimous City Council vote expressing "no confidence" in APD leadership. This led to calls for Council to fire Cronk, which it likewise refused to do.
The anger and frustration felt by Austinites seeking change found a ready outlet in the charter amendment package proposed by Allison's group, a political action committee known as Austinites for Progressive Reform. The campaign's four proposals – which turned into five propositions on the ballot – were positioned as all serving a common goal: making Austin "the most pro-democracy city in the country." Implementing public campaign financing, eliminating run-offs by adopting ranked choice voting, and shifting the mayor's term to coincide with presidential rather than midterm elections are all conceived as ways to ensure the choice of the city's elected leadership is being made by as many people as possible.
It's APR's fourth proposal that has gripped the fevered interest of local politicos: creating a "strong mayor" with many of the executive duties, such as hiring and firing the police chief, that now belong to the city manager. Most cities in Texas, and many throughout the U.S., are "council-manager" cities, structured as corporations in which the council is the board of directors, the mayor is the chairperson of that board, and the city manager is the chief executive.
But most large cities in the U.S., including Houston in Texas, have a "mayor-council" form of government that mirrors those of the states and nation: The (strong) mayor is the chief executive like the governor or president, and the city's department heads are members of the cabinet whom the mayor can hire and fire, while the city council is the local legislature. (The third main form of local government in the U.S. is the "commission" style – as is used by all of Texas' 254 counties – in which the elected officials are both the legislature and the executive branch.)
Austin started as strong-mayor when incorporated in 1839, then went to a commission in 1908, then went to council-manager in 1924, an arc traveled by a lot of cities, including Houston before it abruptly changed back to strong-mayor in 1947. Doing the same thing in Austin has been cocktail party fodder within local political circles for ages, but has never been put before the voters until now. (Dallas has voted it down twice since 2000. El Paso in 2004 went the other way and became a council-manager city.)
Most Austin progressive groups express no qualms about the other APR reform proposals, but strong-mayor – now Prop F – has provoked intense opposition that may be beyond what Allison's earnest good-government backers anticipated. Moving a lot of power away from Council – now, finally, representative of all of Austin since the overwhelming vote in 2012 to create the 10-1 district system – into the hands of a strong mayor could take away the Eastern Crescent's hard-fought seat at the table. Some progressive leaders who originally participated in the APR steering committee that wrote the amendments have since switched sides, now backing the election campaign against them.
The most simple and elegant reform in APR's package is moving the mayoral election to presidential years (Prop D) in an endeavor to allow the largest possible electorate to choose the city's leader. While few progressives object to this, some have little faith that just moving the date will do much to transform the politics of mayoral elections, citing the money it takes to run citywide.
It is, at a minimum, ironic that this question will be decided in an off-cycle special election that will likely see a small fraction of the voters who turned out last November. "I think it's pretty disingenuous, when you have a group of people saying they want to move the mayor's race ... but they're doing this in a May ballot during a pandemic," says Jeremy Hendricks with the Laborers' International Union of North America 1095.
However, APR would not have been able to mount its campaign last year, as state law requires cities to wait two full years between charter amendments. And since APR proposed creating an 11th council district to replace the mayor's vote – which Council split off as its own ballot measure, Prop G – it seemed timely to aim for now, when the Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission is assembling to redraw the council districts, a process also created by the 10-1 charter amendment in 2012. (Like the state, though, the ICRC is being held up by the greatly delayed delivery of data from the 2020 census.) State law requires Austin to use each year's designated dates in May or November for its local elections.
Over a five-week period in September and October 2020, APR held 17 public meetings via Zoom, gathering input for its steering committee to use when drafting the amendment language that was in turn used to gather signatures from the 20,000-plus Austin voters needed to put it on the ballot. This campaign outreach, while extensive, is not enough to convince progressive advocates that APR's package has buy-in from the community. Chas Moore of Austin Justice Coalition, an original member of the steering committee, released a statement Feb. 11 saying that though he personally believes in many aspects of the reforms, "I received a message from the community loud and clear: Austinites for Progressive Reform has not built the trust required to push forward transformative structural changes to our city charter with the kind of robust community support we need to see."
As APR backers see it, the package empowers the citizenry that gets to elect both the mayor and Council, each of which would gain more power over a City Hall that's now led by staffers answerable only to Cronk. The mayor would appoint, and Council would confirm, the city attorney; Council would continue to hire and supervise the city clerk, city auditor, and municipal court clerk and judges. Other department heads – including the police chief – would serve at the mayor's discretion. The mayor would develop the annual budget and present it for Council approval.
To supporters, this will result in more power to take action. "In Austin right now, we need more committed leadership to address some of these issues like homelessness, police issues – to lead the way," says Nelson Linder, co-chair of the leadership committee of APR and president of the local NAACP chapter. "Even if our mayor now can address that, he doesn't have the authority to address it in terms of policy. There's still gonna be a balance, but here the mayor will be in a position to [be] a chief executive. It's really the constitutional model ... with the proper checks and balances."
Advocates on both sides insist on the importance of those checks and balances, using our closest strong-mayor neighbor Houston as a cautionary tale. During the community engagement process, participants highlighted Mayor Sylvester Turner's ongoing battle with the city's firefighter union (there, as here, a much more progressive political force than its police counterpart) and his unwillingness to institute a grace period on residential evictions early in the pandemic. In response to these concerns, APR crafted and has championed multiple differences between its model and that of Houston. Here, Council would continue to make appointments to city boards and commissions, including ones with sovereign authority like the Planning Commission, as well as the Civil Service Commission, responsible for hearing city employees' labor concerns.
Perhaps most importantly, the mayor – who would not be a member of the council at all – can't set the council agenda like Turner can in Houston. The current mayor pro tem position would become that of council president, chairing the meetings, and Council would control all lawmaking; once it approves an ordinance, the mayor would have 10 days to sign or veto it. That veto has become the most contentious aspect of the entire proposal.
In a report on its website, APR explains that "a majority of council districts are wealthier and less diverse than the city as a whole. The veto is therefore critical to preserving progressive and equitable government in the event of a council majority that is more conservative than the city as a whole." (That is, assuming that the mayor is more progressive than Council.) Council can override the veto with 8 out of 11 votes (assuming passage of Prop G), which is not enough of a check on executive power for advocates from the labor community, among others.
On Feb. 9, a coalition of labor unions gathered to protest outside City Hall with a 14-foot inflatable fat cat ("your next mayor") in tow, holding a bag of money in one paw and a "veto" stamp in the other. Bo Delp, an organizer with UNITE HERE Local 23 who works in strong-mayor Southern cities (Houston, Atlanta, New Orleans) as well as Austin, led the event, joined by members of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 520, Laborers' International Union of North America 1095, and Workers Defense Action Fund, among others.
Kathy Mitchell of Just Liberty, a member of the city's Reimagining Public Safety Task Force along with Moore, told the Chronicle at the rally that she was there in a personal capacity: "The veto is a non-starter for me." She said the move to 10-1 strengthened the voice of the Eastern Crescent and made it easier for "controversial" ideas like police reform to be seriously considered. "I believe that will always be controversial. And therefore we need to have a system that allows new ideas. But when you give the veto to the mayor, it means that a majority of members of Council can want a thing, and we don't get to have that thing."
Other high-profile criminal justice advocates like Moore and Chris Harris of Texas Appleseed, both originally public supporters of APR, subsequently came out in opposition as it became clear that the group had enough signatures to put its reforms on the ballot. Harris told the Chronicle in January that he supported the other three proposals, but that strong-mayor was just too much consolidation of power in the hands of one individual. "The overwhelming experience that the city has had with citywide elections is that they require a lot of money. And ultimately, that empowers people with money to have a lot of sway. It's ultimately too big of a risk to invest the power of a veto that requires eight council members to override it in the hands of a single citywide elected official."
Selena Xie, president of the Austin Emergency Medical Services Association, was a participant in APR's steering committee efforts but also spoke at the labor rally. She told the Chronicle she broke with APR after she raised concerns from labor groups that it never addressed. Other strong-mayor cities scare her because "when you go into a council member's office and try to voice your concerns, the first thing that council member will ask is, 'Where's the mayor on it?' And so you have to get the mayor's buy-in to move forward. Here, I've never been asked that question."
Xie also worries about the mayor's power to make department head appointments. "Here, we have a lot of [fire, police] chiefs that have been here a long time. And I think it's important that you don't have this constant turnover and you do have people that are chosen for their expertise, not because they were political supporters ... There is benefit in having people appointed by somebody who is apolitical."
Opposition to APR is also coalescing under the banner of Austin for All People, a very different coalition of interests than the labor unions. Its volunteer co-chairs include the Rev. Joseph Parker, pastor of David Chapel Missionary Baptist Church; Mason Ayer, CEO of Kerbey Lane Cafe; and Jesus Garza, himself a former Austin city manager who went on to be a top executive at what is now Ascension Seton. Ayer told the Chronicle earlier this year that he was concerned that an inexperienced politician wouldn't be able to do the job of a professional city manager. In a January press release, Garza said the council-manager model had delivered results: "Over the past two decades, the people of Austin helped the city emerge as a global destination for job creation while maintaining its roots ... All of this was accomplished under a council-manager system of government, and while imperfect, it is a system that works."
Parker told the Chronicle in February, "My understanding is that, except for the cycle of elections, there's not much accountability on the one person who will occupy the place of mayor." And in the event of a strong mayor Austin doesn't like, "although in theory there can be a recall, we've never seen that happen ... and the damage that could be done over the time period of a mayor's term could be significant."
Ultimately, the strong-mayor arguments hinge on a fundamental question that's unanswerable on or before May 1: Will the mayor be good or bad? Opponents fear the worst: a Trumpian tyrant who stonewalls progressive causes and is only receptive to those who will reelect them. APR hopes for the best: a democratically accountable elected leader with the power to make big decisions that Austinites want made. "10-1 was not meant to be a final system," says Linder. "We have to evolve to address the continuing issues that plague this city."
Ranked choice voting (Prop E) would do something a lot of people can agree on – eliminating the run-off elections, featuring abysmally low turnout, currently required when no Council candidate earns more than 50% of the vote. Under RCV, instead of selecting one candidate, voters will rank all the options; on election night, working from the last-place finisher up, each contender's first-choice votes are reallocated according to these preferences until one gets to 50%. As APR describes it on its website, RCV "enables the same electorate to participate in each round, makes sure winning candidates have broad support, lowers administrative costs, and disincentivizes negative campaigning (because successful candidates need to be ranked highly by their rivals' supporters)."
State election law does not explicitly prohibit RCV, but when Austin considered adopting a similar proposal back in 2001, the idea was rejected in an opinion by then-secretary of state and now U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar. In this year's 87th Texas Legislature, there are three bills (Senate Bill 537 and House Bills 117 and 740) filed to authorize RCV in local elections; the ballot language of Prop E says it'll only take effect if allowed by state law, but APR says passing it now would smooth its path to adoption in the future.
As noted above, Council decided to split the proposed 11th Council district off from Prop F as a stand-alone ballot measure. To APR, creating the 11th district was a means to replace the strong mayor's vote and avoid a deadlocked 5-5 Council in the future. Now, City Hall faces the prospect, should either Prop F or Prop G pass and the other fail, of not being able to break ties on the dais (either 5-5 or 6-6) making it more difficult for the majority to legislate. Any such stalemate would be in effect for at least two years before the city could once again amend its charter to resolve it. However, APR says there are reasons to vote for Prop G even if one doesn't want to strengthen the mayor. As Austin has grown, more council districts could create an opportunity to elect more people of color, such as with an Asian American opportunity district in North and West Austin.
Then too, candidates in those future council districts might be able to make use of so-called "Democracy Dollars." The public financing program proposed by APR (Prop H) is modeled on an existing system in Seattle; it would give each registered voter two $25 vouchers to donate to a candidate of their choice. In a Medium article laying out his opposition to the APR package from Jan. 18, UNITE HERE's Delp points out that the Seattle program, which is open to all residents and not just registered voters, includes parallel limits on campaign spending that the Austin one does not. He writes that "public money could subsidize an independently wealthy candidate's campaign, even a billionaire's campaign, and could help exacerbate our city's existing inequality."
Being open only to registered voters means that those unable to register – such as noncitizens or those formerly incarcerated – could not participate in the public financing system, although they're able to make actual campaign contributions. While APR says the "Democracy Dollars" proposal was drafted to pass initial legal scrutiny by Texas courts and could be expanded once it's adopted, not everyone thinks that's enough. "I was a legal permanent resident, and it took me five years to become a citizen," Monserrat Garibay, secretary-treasurer of the Texas AFL-CIO – formerly an official with Education Austin, and now headed to D.C. to work in the Biden administration – told the Chronicle at the labor event in February. "I feel that if our communities live here, if they buy products here, if they pay rent here, they should have a voice in what happens in City Council. Because those things are going to have a big effect in their life every single day."
Delp takes issue with the eligibility requirement as well. "When this PAC tells everybody that they want to expand democracy, and the first thing they do is create a system that excludes immigrants who hold green cards or people who have been incarcerated – I think they ought to take a hard look in the mirror."
Copyright © 2021 Austin Chronicle Corporation. All rights reserved.