Austin could be headed to court over ballot language


Highlights

Supporters of independent audit of City Hall complain that ballot question on the matter is biased.

Organizer behind CodeNext petition ordinance also thinks ballot language will unfairly influence voters.

The city of Austin likely will be sued in the Texas Supreme Court over ballot language adopted early Friday related to a petition ordinance calling for an outside efficiency audit of City Hall.

The proposition will appear on November’s general election ballot. However, organizers behind the petition are crying foul over language they believe will bias voters against approving an audit.

“I am really surprised, having already lost in court once over not having CodeNext on the ballot at all, that (the Austin City Council) would put in improper prejudicial language on the ballot,” said former Travis County judge Bill Aleshire. “It doesn’t show that much respect for the citizens who reserve the right to petition.”

Aleshire told the American-Statesman on Friday that he will sue the city of Austin in the Texas Supreme Court instead of a local District Court to avoid any appeals, which could cause a final ruling to be made after the Sept. 7 deadline for finalizing ballot language.

At issue to audit supporters is the inclusion in the ballot language of a cost estimate for the audit, described as being between $1 million to $5 million. Petition organizers also view as biased language that states that neither the city auditor’s office nor the city’s contracted outside financial auditor may conduct the audit.

“It only represents one side of the story,” said Michael Searle, a former aide to City Council Member Ellen Troxclair who led the petition effort. “It does not talk about the benefit of doing the audit, which would be the possible savings associated. If you’re going to estimate the costs, it would only be fair to estimate the savings that we’ve seen in other cities.”

The efficiency audit was one of 11 propositions the council voted to place on the ballot for Nov. 6 election. Others included $925 million in bond propositions.

Meanwhile, the attorney who created the CodeNext petition ordinance also is contemplating suing the city over that proposition’s ballot language. The language the council adopted dropped any mention of CodeNext — the recently abandoned comprehensive rewrite of Austin’s land-use rules — and stated that any rewrite of the land development code would be subject to a waiting period of up to three years.

“The council and the mayor cannot build community trust, as they say they want, and at the same time put illegal and unfair language before the voters,” said Fred Lewis, a lawyer who helped develop the CodeNext petition ordinance. “And so putting up the ballot language … at the last minute, and trying to obviously put their thumb on the scale, that is why they have little trust in the community.”

The final vote on the ballot language was taken at 12:44 a.m. Friday and was 9-1, with Troxclair against and Council Member Ora Houston off the dais.

The city already has lost one lawsuit related to November’s election after the council voted in May to keep the CodeNext petition ordinance off the ballot. That ballot initiative calls for voter approval of any comprehensive revisions to the city’s land use code and a waiting period for adoption that stretches past the next scheduled City Council election.



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