A Look Back at Austin's Lesser-Known Petitions

Jan 27, 2016

Petitions are having a moment right now.

But, despite their recent resurgence into the municipal zeitgeist, they’ve shaped the city in ways a lot of Austinites may or may not realize. There are well-known ones like the Save Our Springs ordinance or the 10-1 council reorganization petition, but what about the other times a petition's helped change Austin?

Fair Housing

In the wake of the Fair Housing Act of 1968, Austin was poised to become the first city to codify protections against housing-based discrimination. It did, but the ordinance didn’t last.

The Austin Apartment Association and the Austin Board of Realtors opposed the measure, along with plenty of Austinites.

Speaking during public input prior to the ordinance’s final reading, one Austinite, a Mrs. T.C. Whitworth, said that the ordinance was a Communist plot and that anyone “who promoted, knowingly or unknowingly, the legislation under consideration was helping to destroy his own country.”

A petition received over 26,000 signatures, forcing an October vote on the ordinance. Just over 27 percent of registered Austinites turned out to the polls to cast their votes. Still, 57 percent of voters panned the ordinance. Then-Mayor Harry Akin lamented the scheduling of the Saturday vote – the Longhorns played at Memorial Stadium that day, upsetting their Southwestern Conference and No.9-ranked Arkansas Razorbacks in a 39-29 upset.

“If there had been half as much interest in the election as there has been in the football game, we would have had a fairer measure of the will of the people,” Akin told The Statesman.

The ordinance later passed, but another petition-initiated referendum in 1982, which would've amended the ordinance to allow housing discrimination based on sexual preference, made it onto the ballot in Austin, but was voted down.

Bars Closing at 2 a.m.

In 1971, the State of Texas allowed the extension of drinking hours past midnight — the previous cap on boozing hours — to 2 a.m. in cities with more than 300,000 inhabitants.

In 1970, however, Austin only had a little over 250,000 residents – just under the extension’s population cutoff. While some estimated (correctly) that the city had a population of over 300,000 within the city limits, the law specified that only census measurements would qualify. So, the Austin City Council put it to a vote – nine times.

The ordinance passed and went into effect on May 19, 1975, but was suspended in July, after a group called the Committee for a Safer Austin circulated a petition that garnered 16,889 of the 16,291 signatures, or 10 percent of the population, to force a vote on the ordinance. It passed by 101 votes. 

45-degree angle parking

While this one was petitioned, it never made it to a public vote. Still, 31,123 people signed a petition to support back-in parking along Congress Avenue, though only 19,596 were eligible to vote. The group didn’t agree with council’s initial proposal to install parallel parking spots along Congress.

There were, of course, other provisions addressed in the petition. But, given that the ordinance would ultimately fund a revitalization of Congress Avenue, the guarantee of 45-degree angle parking was a big sticking point. Though the Public Works and the Urban Transportation Departments supported the proposal for parallel parking, the Austin City Council decided ultimately to forego a referendum and sided with the petitioners, later installing the 45-degree angle spots and “peninsulas” that separated them to allow for wider sidewalks.

“I think we are an ostrich if we do not consider the fact that cars will get smaller and that more and more people are going to have to use mass transportation,” Council Member Lee Cooke said of the plan. “If we design all parking spaces for the 1960 Cadillac then we in fact probably will lose seven spaces per block."