Austin
12:35 pm
Thu August 9, 2012

The 11 (or 12 or 13) Ballot Proposals That Could Change Austin for Decades (Updated)

Update: The city has  finalized the fall 2012 ballot since this post was originally written. For a look at the City of Austin's ballot propositions, read "The 18 Propositions Before Austin Voters This November." 

Original post: While a potential 10-district scenario for electing Austin City Council members – and the council’s controversial decision to put a competing “hybrid” plan on the same ballot – may be getting the most attention when it comes to November’s city charter election, those aren’t the only items Austin voters will face.

Not by a long shot.

By KUT News’ estimation, 11 items are in the bag already, set to be put before Austin voters. And two other potential changes to the city charter – Austin’s governing document – are still a distinct possibility.

Some are small housekeeping measures. Others could impact how the city runs for decades to come. But as a charter election can only be held once every two years, when voters head to the polls  they’ll face a dozen or so proposed charter changes.  Here, we run them all down.

1. Shall the city charter be amended to permit the members of the city council and the city council’s appointees to hire and manage their own staffs? Ord. No. 20120412-020

A “clean-up” item in government parlance, this proposal would allow council members to directly hire their own staff. That’s basically the case right now, but technically, such appointments are formally made by the city manager.

2. Shall the city charter be amended to move the City’s general election date from May to November? 20120426-068

An item sponsored by Mayor Lee Leffingwell, and council members Mike Martinez and Chris Riley, this item does what it says – shift municipal elections from May to November. Last year, a bitterly divided council narrowly defeated a motion to make the change itself; opponents of the change suggested the decision should be put to voters, which this item does.

3. Shall the city charter be amended to provide that the city council appoint the city attorney? 20120426-069

Another proposal from council (Leffingwell, Martinez and Laura Morrison) this item takes the city attorney’s appointment out of the City Manager’s hands and puts it in the council’s.

4. Shall the city charter be amended to reduce the number of signatures needed for a citizen initiated ordinance or referendum? 20120628-089

A detail of the petition Austinites for Geographic Representation circulated to put its 10-1 plan on the ballot.
Credit Wells Dunbar, KUT News

Sponsored by Morrison, Riley and Martinez, this proposal would lower the number of signatures required for an ordinance (rule change) or referendum (public vote) from its current requirement, which is 10 percent of qualified voters. Instead, it would call for five percent or 20,000, of the city’s qualified voters (whichever one is lower) to pass an ordinance or get a referendum on the ballot. 

Paradoxically, that five percent/20,000 voters requirement is what’s currently required to initiate a vote on revising the city charter, which is arguably more impactful than an ordinance. 20,000 signatures was what Austinites for Geographic Representation needed in its recent petition drive getting its 10-1 plan on this November’s charter election ballot. (See No. 7.)

5. Shall the city charter be amended to allow council members to raise political funds for 30 days after an election in which the council member was elected? 20120628-090

One of the recommendations from the 2012 Charter Revision Committee (where several of these initiatives originated), this proposal would grant candidates an extra month after city elections to raise funds in order to retire campaign debt.

6. Shall the city charter be amended to move the City’s general election date from May to November, to provide that council members serve four-year staggered terms, to provide that council elections occur in even-numbered years, and to limit the mayor and council members to two terms? 20120628-091

Similar to an No. 2 above, this proposal calls for a change to Austin’s election date. But moreover, this item from lead sponsor Leffingwell incorporates a host of other changes the mayor has previously called for in an attempt to bolster voter turnout, like pegging elections to even-numbered years, which coincide with presidential and congressional elections. (Should both date changes get over 50 percent, the one with the most votes would win.)

7. Shall the city charter be amended to provide for the election of council members from 10 geographical single-member districts, with the mayor to be elected from the city at large, and to provide for an independent citizens redistricting commission?20120802-015

With their signatures verified, citizens group Austinites for Geographic Representation has its proposal for geographic representation on the ballot – 10 council members representing single-member districts (to be drawn by an independent citizen districting panel), with only the mayor running at-large.  

8. Shall the city charter be amended to permit the city council to lease parkland to an independent school district for a purpose that the council has found, by a two-thirds majority, is a park purpose? 20120802-030

After several alterations from council, this proposal was passed allowing the lease of park space to the school district. Amendments to the measure include the supermajority (two-thirds) threshold required for council to take action. 

9. Shall the city charter be amended to provide a civil service system for most city employees who are not already covered by a state civil service statute? 20120802-073

Passed last week, KUT News reported at the time that this item asks voters to give city staff job protections and standards similar to those enjoyed by Austin public safety responders – such as not being fired or disciplined without “just cause,” and strengthening an arbitration process for hiring/firing disputes.

10. Adoption of the emergency medical services personnel civil service law. 20120628-016

While Austin’s police and firefighters enjoy civil service protections including collective bargaining and job protections, the city’s EMS providers do not. This item must be ratified by voters to give them the similar powers and protections to their public safety brethren, like stronger contract negotiations.

11. Shall the city charter be amended to provide for the election of council members from eight geographical single-member districts, with the mayor and two additional council members to be elected from the city at large?20120807-B003

Over protest from proponents of the 10-1 districting plan, the city council voted to add a second option on the November ballot for changing how council members are elected. The so-called “8-2-1” plan would see eight council members elected from specific regions of the city, with the mayor and two additional council members elected at-large. 10-1 supporters claim a competing measure on the ballot may split the vote, and lessen the chance of any change to city elections, which are currently all at-large. (Should both district plans pass, the one with the most votes wins.) 

So what’s left? Here ‘s a couple items that aren’t finalized yet, but may be a part of the charter election.

12. Discussion and action on an ordinance placing a charter amendment on the November 2012 ballot to authorize city council to create an independent board to oversee city owned utilities. 20120807-B004

A council work session setting Austin Energy policy. One possible charter proposal would take that responsibility out of council's hands.
Credit Erika Aguilar, KUT News

A late addition to the charter revision sweepstakes, the call to give Austin Energy an independent board – instead of the City Council, which currently makes policy decisions – was bolstered by the controversy surrounding the council-led redesign of AE rates. And with charter elections limited to one every two years, proponents fell the time to act is now.  However, owing to the sudden nature of the proposal, council members postponed action on approving the initiative in their work session this week, postponing it indefinitely. They’ll have to work quickly, as the charter ballot must be set by August 20.

13. A charter amendment on the November 2012 ballot to provide conditions under which the city council may sell or lease a utility facility. 20120802-030

The school district parkland item (No. 8) was originally bundled with language that would create conditions under which the city could sell a utility facility – like the city’s controversial stake in the Fayette coal plant, for instance. That passed on first and second reading at the council’s August 2 meeting, but a third and final vote is still required.