Charter amendments could bring significant shifts in Austin governance


Highlights

Commission proposes eight changes to city charter that could land on November ballot.

One proposed amendment recommends creating a ‘democracy dollars’ system for financing City Council elections.

After months of weighing what needs to change in Austin’s governing structure, a Charter Review Commission has answers. The commission will recommend eight major changes to the city charter that City Council members could add to the general election ballot in November.

The proposals range from creating a new public finance system for City Council candidates to revamping the ways Austinites can overturn government actions:

1) Create a “democracy dollars” voucher-based public finance system.

This amendment, modeled after a first-of-its-kind program in Seattle, would mail up to $100 in vouchers to each registered voter within the city. Voters could redeem the vouchers to donate $50 to a candidate for City Council in their districts and $50 to a candidate for mayor. To be eligible for the vouchers, candidates would have to demonstrate grass-roots support by first collecting signatures from 400 people who already had donated $10 or more to their campaigns.

With the total amount of donations from vouchers capped at $75,000 for council candidates and $300,000 for mayoral candidates, the program is expected to cost $1.55 million annually, plus an initial $400,000 in startup costs. The commission previously suggested funding “democracy dollars” from resident electricity bills, but updated its recommendation to propose drawing from the communications and public information budget.

Seattle’s first test of a similar program last year found that it increased political donations from low-income households, young people and people of color. However, the petition requirements tied to receiving the vouchers led one former Seattle council candidate to say he didn’t have time to raise funds and another to be accused of faking donations with her own money. The city faced a lawsuit from homeowners who argued the program forced them to fund political campaigns they didn’t support, but a judge upheld the system.

2) Replace the Ethics Review Commission with an independent board.

A seven-member board, without any ties to elected officials, would replace an 11-member, City Council-appointed panel that responds to city ethics complaints. Charter review commissioners said an independent ethics board will be needed to administer the “democracy dollars” program, but the board is being proposed as a stand-alone amendment.

The new board would have its own staff, at an undetermined cost. Charter review commissioners disagreed about how to handle the selection of board members, narrowly recommending the auditor’s office oversee it. The proposal for an independent body comes after a year in which the Ethics Review Commission has tussled with city auditors over its subpoena power and how severe policy violations need to be to warrant sanctions.

3) Hire an independent budget officer, who would report directly to the City Council.

A new budget and efficiency officer would report directly to the City Council instead of to the city manager, as the city’s various budget officers and analysts do. This amendment stems from a lengthy February proposal from former mayoral aide Frank Rodriguez, who argued that budget staff responsive to council members would help elected officials be more involved in the budget process.

An American-Statesman investigation last year highlighted budgetary conflicts of interest between Rodriguez and a charity he co-founded. After Rodriguez resigned from Mayor Steve Adler’s staff in September, citing health reasons, Adler proposed naming him to the Charter Review Commission, but he withdrew the nomination because Rodriguez does not live in Austin.

4) Allow city residents to circulate referendum petitions up to 180 days after an ordinance is passed.

The change would replace a current charter provision that states that a referendum to overturn a city ordinance must be filed before the ordinance’s effective date, something that’s usually difficult since ordinances often become effective immediately.

The amendment also requires petitioners to notify the city clerk that they intend to seek a referendum, putting the city on notice that the ordinance could be overturned.

5) Require that people circulating recall petitions state why the recall is sought, notify the city clerk before collecting signatures and get signatures of at least 20 percent of qualified voters in a council district or 10 percent citywide for a mayoral recall.

This change would raise the threshold to recall a City Council member from 10 percent of qualified voters in a district, a figure the Charter Review Commission wrote “makes it easy for special-interest or single-issue groups, organizations or businesses to threaten a council member with a recall should said council member take, or fail to take, desired action.” Petitioners also would be subject to campaign finance rules.

The proposal comes two years after a secretive political action committee tried to oust Council Member Ann Kitchen, who had led a controversial effort to require fingerprint-based background checks of drivers for ride-hailing services such as Uber or Lyft. The city clerk rejected the petition for not being properly notarized.

6) Make the city attorney a City Council-appointed position.

Most Texas cities have a city attorney report directly to the council, not the city manager. Austin tried to pass a charter amendment in 2012 to make the city attorney a council-appointed post, but 51 percent of voters rejected it.

Charter review commissioners voted unanimously to try again in 2018.

7) Clarify the timing of Planning Commission appointments.

The change would note that appointments to the land-use board would be determined by ordinance. The proposal comes amid a broader debate over the panel’s appointments and makeup. Activists have said the board contains too many land developers. Staff may recommend additional charter amendment language concerning the removal of commissioners.

8) Require voter approval for all revenue bonds with a cost of more than $100 million and electricity or water purchases with total costs of more than $200 million.

The requirement would add public hearings and elections for high-dollar bond issuances or utility purchases. In 2012, a Charter Review Commission recommended a similar requirement, with only a $50 million threshold, but was unable to agree on what its impact might be on city operations. In the end, the proposal did not appear on a ballot.

This story has been updated to correct outdated information regarding the Charter Review Commission’s proposed source of funding for democracy dollars.



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