Chronicle Endorsements for the May 1 City of Austin Special Election

Our picks for the eight propositions you'll see on your ballot


Austin no longer elects its City Council in May elections (other area cities still do, including Round Rock, Georgetown, Lakeway, and Cedar Park), but city voters have eight propositions to consider. Seven of these (all but Prop B) are proposed amendments to the city charter, which can only be done at two-year intervals; seven are also (all but Prop C) citizen initiatives whose backers gathered signatures to place them on the ballot. The Chronicle Editorial Board makes these recommendations.

Propositions At a Glance

Proposition A (Firefighters): FOR

Proposition B (Camping Ban): AGAINST

Proposition C (Police Oversight): FOR

Proposition D (Mayoral Election Date): FOR

Proposition E (Ranked-Choice Voting): FOR

Proposition F (Strong Mayor): AGAINST

Proposition G (New Council District): AGAINST

Proposition H ("Democracy Dollars"): FOR


Proposition A (Firefighters): FOR

Back in 2004, the Austin Firefighters Association (IAFF Local 975), then led by future City Council Member Mike Martinez, won voter approval to exercise the collective bargaining rights available to police and fire unions under Texas law. For more than a decade thereafter, the AFA's political influence continued to grow, as a more progressive force than its police counterpart – but it still was often stymied in labor negotiations with City Hall. Three of the last six rounds of contract talks ended in impasse, with the city denying the union's request for arbitration; the current contract, approved in 2017, still leaves major long-term compensation and hiring issues unresolved. The AFA then gathered the 20,000 signatures needed for this charter amendment to allow either side – rather than requiring both sides – to agree to binding arbitration as allowed under state law. The ballot language drafted by city lawyers implies that only the union could force arbitration if Prop A is adopted, which is not the case although it is more likely a move the AFA would make. As it should; the union has been clear for years about its goals and should have a real chance to achieve them. Rather than resorting to behind-the-­dais dealmaking or running to the Legislature like the city's petulant cop lobby, the AFA has taken the harder path of again asking the voters, which we think is commendable and well-deserved.

Proposition B (Camping Ban): AGAINST

It's been nearly two years since Council voted to decriminalize the experience of homelessness – camping, sitting and lying in the streets, panhandling. Since then, as a political matter, everything has gone wrong and gotten worse for City Hall. Its high-profile multimillion-dollar homelessness strategies have belly-flopped. Its political enemies, led by Gov. Greg Abbott, have manufactured dissent to Own the Libs with incessant lies and tasteless exploitation of the struggles of Austin's unsheltered poor. COVID-19 and, later, Winter Storm Uri exposed how unresilient and threadbare Austin's safety net remains. So Save Austin Now's long-gestating effort to reverse some of Council's 2019 moves has acquired a lot of political momentum (and raised a lot of money) beyond its origins as a GOP messaging scheme.

But while SAN has been able to dump nearly $250,000 of its small-dollar donations into sketchy, out-of-state GOP consulting firms, it hasn't lifted a finger to build consensus around a genuine alternative path toward ending homelessness, or even to abate the camp conditions it points to with alarm and says are someone else's job to fix. Reinstat­ing criminal penalties does not do that. It only could do that if, as too many SAN supporters still appear to believe, living in tents under bridges or sleeping on sidewalks or asking passersby for money were lifestyle preferences that only criminals would choose.

In real life, lots of people need and receive help from others to live stable and independent lives. You know many of them; you probably are related to some; you may be one. Some of those people even have drug problems and mental illnesses and have been in trouble with the law! But they have means and resources and people in their lives who can provide help before they no longer have a place to live. It's only the ones who don't – that is, the poor, who will always be with us, just like Jesus said – that SAN, despite its claims of empathy, is asking us to again treat as criminals by default, thus increasing the burden and stigma they need to overcome to prove themselves worthy of housing, or jobs, or health care. Outside Texas, courts have already decided this is "cruel and unusual punishment" under the Eighth Amendment; Council agreed in 2019, and it still does, and so do we. Going backward now would not change our minds; a vote for Prop B just prolongs an empty, ugly, fruitless shouting match that improves the lives of no one.

Proposition C (Police Oversight): FOR

The Office of Police Oversight is itself overseen by the same city manager who hires and fires the chief of police. That creates a conflict of interest when OPO and the Austin Police Department disagree on policy recommendations or decisions regarding officer discipline, as independent oversight will inevitably entail. The current structure improves upon the former Police Monitor, which had to operate under rules agreed to by the police union, but if Council could appoint the OPO director as it does the city clerk, city auditor, and municipal court officials, that would be better. Or, to go further, Council could appoint citizens to organize and govern the OPO themselves. This charter amendment gives Council the power to decide how to structure the OPO and makes those enhancements possible, and it deserves your support.

Prop D (Mayoral Election Date): FOR

This is the simplest of the proposals brought forward by Austinites for Progressive Reform, which make up the remainder of the city ballot; it moves the mayoral election date from the midterm cycle to the presidential cycle, thus guaranteeing the maximum possible turnout to choose the only official elected citywide. We see little reason not to do this.

Prop E (Ranked Choice Voting): FOR

The end here – getting rid of run-off elections in City Council races – is what justifies the means, whatever they end up being. Austin voters' overwhelming approval in 2012 of both November elections and the 10-1 district system changed the dynamics of Council run-offs, which formerly saw steady or increased turnout as voters became more engaged in hotly contested races. Now, if a Council race isn't decided in November, it's punted into a dismal, yet still costly, pre-holiday hell of burned-out candidates and irritated voters, with a fraction of the turnout that's dwindled in each of the four run-offs held under 10-1 (in 2014, the drop-off was 26%; in 2020, it was 59%). So anything would help, including ranked choice voting, which may or may not be legal in Texas – the ballot language presumes it's not, but state Election Code is silent on alternative vote systems that produce an "instant run-off." The mechanism of RCV, which is just what it sounds like (voters could, but wouldn't have to, rank up to five candidates under APR's proposal), saves time and money and allows literally all voters to take part in the "run-off" should they choose, without itself creating election outcomes that would predictably differ from the status quo. It's getting a very high-profile test in New York City's primary elections this spring, so backers will have evidence to bring to the Lege, maybe even in a special session this year, before the next election. We think it's worth your vote to advance a reform that, however it's achieved, is worthwhile.

Proposition F (Strong Mayor): AGAINST

The other charter amendments brought forward by Austinites for Progressive Reform are but bonbons compared to this one, which (post-10-1) is the biggest conceivable change that could be made to the city's constitution. The few months of attention APR's proposal has gotten – much of it largely driven by its own spending and claims of support that have since been walked back – is not nearly enough time or anywhere close to a sufficiently open process for Austin to consider such a fundamental reconstruction of its own governance.

Austin has very high standards for what it considers legitimate citizen engagement and buy-in for big changes. It has very high expectations for what those with power – let alone those who want power that now resides with the city's people – should do to gain public support. That's why things like a rail transit system, or moving the airport and building an innovative neighborhood in its place, or moving to 10-1 itself from the old at-large system have taken decades to accomplish and multiple trips to the ballot box. As frustrating as that has been for advocates of these ideas, this is not a bug; it is a feature.

"Strong mayor" has been a topic of many a City Hall coffee break and happy hour for most of that time. New mayors and their teams and their big boosters feel the letdown upon realizing what power the job doesn't have. They muse about how a real mayor, like in New York or Chicago, could Get Things Done. Every city manager hears these musings and finds them upsetting, but life goes on. Only this past fall, when Spencer Cronk withstood heavy, heavy pressure from Council and the community to fire the police chief, did we even have a good example of a bad situation that a strong mayor might have handled better.

The haste with which the APR brain trust converted the pain caused to many Austin­ites by police violence into a way to increase the clout of future City Hall insiders may not be unethical or even that unseemly, but it is fundamentally unserious and insufficient. If this is such a good idea, it can survive a proper charter review, such as Austin has done many times, and be weighed as carefully as Austin has weighed such big changes in the past.

Prop G (New Council District): AGAINST

If Proposition F's path to the ballot box was a bit muddy, Prop G's journey was even sloppier. Originally, the two propositions were one; if Austin opted to make the mayor a strong executive rather than first among equals on Council, Austinites for Progressive Reform proposed a new Council district be created to keep that body's membership at 11. Council separated this out as its own ballot measure, for reasons that still aren't clear and without any public call to do so. Much has been made of the potential for gridlock on an even-numbered Council, which will be the result if Propositions F and G are not both approved or both rejected. We think that danger is overblown; Council decisions are rarely that closely divided, and requiring a 6-4 or 7-5 vote to pass something is just not that big a burden. Prop G backers (including APR, which still supports it) say more districts would be a general good and may be necessary to sustain Black or restore Asian representation on Council. But City Hall has not only a charter review process that could consider this question, but a charter-established redistricting process that could handle it even better if given the proper opportunity.

Prop H ("Democracy Dollars"): FOR

Public campaign financing automatically conjures images of the most eccentric, low-quality fringe candidates you've ever seen on a ballot getting your tax money to compete, which for many somehow feels more outrageous than a status quo that's filled with abuses and inequities. That was the main argument against public financing back in 2002, when Austin voters roundly rejected a "Clean Campaigns" plan; the "Democracy Dollars" concept put forth by Austinites for Progressive Reform is more modest than that one was. Based on a model now used in Seattle, residents would get two $25 vouchers to donate to candidates of their choice who meet thresholds for public support (citizen signatures, donations from others). It's not a lot of money, but it's a start.

The current Fair Campaign Ordinance, which directs lobbyist-registration fee revenue to candidates who agree to its spending limits (which most don't), is obscure in its mechanics and effects and isn't at all a reflection of public support. So this would be better, and yet better still if, as Council Mem­ber Greg Casar has proposed with APR's assent, the city extends the program to residents who aren't yet citizens or voters but who can legally donate to campaigns, and limits self-funding by DemDollar recipients.


Visit austinchronicle.com/elections for more information on the contests and on how – and when – you need to voice your choice.

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for almost 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

READ MORE
More by The Chronicle Editorial Board
November 3 General Election Endorsements (Condensed)
November 3 General Election Endorsements (Condensed)
All our endorsements collected on one easy-to-print page

Oct. 1, 2020

<i>Chronicle</i> Endorsements
Chronicle Endorsements
July 14 Primary Run-off Election and Senate District 14 Special Election

June 26, 2020

KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

May 2021 Special Election

MORE IN THE ARCHIVES
NEWSLETTERS
One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Can't keep up with happenings around town? We can help.

Austin's queerest news and events

New recipes and food news delivered Mondays

Eric Goodman's Austin FC column, other soccer news

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle