City Council Prepares to Send Charter Amendments to Voters: Changes to petition elections coming to your ballot – News | #citycouncil

The City Charter is like the constitution of Austin (art by Zeke Barbaro / Getty Images)

Austin voters can expect to encounter a lengthy ballot for the upcoming November election, the bottom of which will contain a number of important amendments to the City Charter that should not be overlooked.

The most prominent amendments deal with the city’s petition initiative process – that’s when groups or individuals collect enough signatures from Austin voters to put proposed ordinance changes on the ballot of a citywide election. The petition initiative is a vital piece of Austin’s political history; in 1992, the Save Our Springs Coalition campaigned in support of an eponymous ordinance that defined Austin politics for a generation – both because of the environmental protections the ordinance made law and because of the community leaders and political coalitions the movement spawned.

But in more recent years, the initiative process has been much more controversial because, critics argue, petitions are deployed in ways that result in less democratic policymaking. (Namely, because it takes few signatures to present a ballot proposition, and off-season elections see incredibly low turnout.) Several of the charter amendments Austin voters are likely to encounter on their Nov. 5 ballot are intended to change that by making the petition process more transparent and the elections they trigger subject to approval from a broader, more diverse Austin electorate.

“We saw the flaws in our current system through those elections, and that’s what we’re trying to fix,” said Council Member Ryan Alter, who authored the resolution that initiated the charter review process. “We want these campaigns to be more representative of Austin’s diverse electorate, and these changes help accomplish that.”

The charter is basically the city’s constitution – i.e., the foundational lawmaking document that outlines various rules and procedures around city government. Ordinances adopted by City Council overlay the charter to create other policies and laws.

Like the U.S. Constitution, Austin’s charter can be amended. The Texas Constitution requires that voters approve changes to the charters of home-rule cities (such as Austin). But first, you have to get the proposed changes on the ballot. That happens either through a Council vote or through a petition process. So, Council will vote next week at their July 18 meeting to place somewhere around six amendments to the City Charter on the ballot for the Nov. 5 election.

These charter amendments have been long in the making. Council Member Ryan Alter brought forth a resolution to establish a new Charter Review Commission (CRC) in March. They’ve been working on amendments to improve the city’s petition initiative and other city government functions.

After 13 public meetings, two open houses, and a survey that stretched from September to March, the 2024 CRC formally recommended nine amendments to the City Charter that would change the petition initiative and elected official recall processes. Another change would make it Council’s job to hire the city attorney (the highest ranking official in the Law Department, who is currently hired under the sole discretion of the city manager). City staffers, through their own process that ran concurrently with the CRC, are also proposing a suite of charter amendments that are less substantive, like changes that clean up text or bring the charter in line with recently adopted state law.

“We saw the flaws in our current system through those elections, and that’s what we’re trying to fix.” – Council Member Ryan Alter

Currently, groups petitioning for an initiative ordinance only need to gather signatures from 5% of the city’s qualified voters or 20,000 voters, whichever is smaller. Given our booming population, the latter is smaller, so 20,000 signatures is the real threshold petitioners have to clear. The CRC recommendation would clean that up by changing the requirement to 3.5% of qualified voters (which translates to about 20,000 signatures with our current population). Because the CRC proposal is solely percentage-based, the signature threshold would grow along with Austin’s population. The CRC is also recommending an increase to the signature threshold for recalling Council members (from 10% to 15%); charter amendment petitions, which are controlled by the Texas Constitution, will remain at the 5% or 20,000 qualified voter threshold.

Another key CRC recommendation would require petition elections be held only on even-yeared November elections – that is, in midterm or presidential election years when voter turnout is significantly higher. In off-cycle May and November elections throughout the past decade, turnout averaged about 15%, but in even-yeared November elections, it averaged 57%.

Finally, the CRC recommended creating Notice of Intent requirements for petition initiative campaigns. These rules would require petitions to include identifying information for five qualified voters supporting the campaign, a one-sentence description of the initiative, contact information for petitioners, and proposed ordinance language for the initiative – all accompanied by a notarized sworn statement from one of the petitioners. The hope is that these recommendations will stave off the kind of deceptive tactics deployed by the Austin Police Association in support of their failed police oversight ordinance in 2023.

The problem with charter amendments is their permanence: state law limits how often a city can change its charter, while voter-approved ordinances can be overridden by a supermajority vote on Council.

With that in mind, the Law Department recommends four CRC proposals be accomplished by ordinance instead of charter amendments. The Notice of Intent change is one of them, but Alter wants to see Council vote on it as a charter amendment, because he views these reforms as critical to transparency and thinks they should be codified in the charter. The three other proposed charter amendments the Law Department flagged will probably go to the back burner (they would change ballot proposition labels, conflicting petition initiatives, and more.)

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