Kitchen defended as group claims enough signatures for recall election

With a group poised to turn in petition signatures that could force a recall election of Austin City Council Member Ann Kitchen, constituents and council colleagues Monday gave a full-throated defense of Kitchen and condemned the recall effort as an undemocratic response to disagreements over policy.

The recall effort, Mayor Steve Adler said, “is a direct attack against good governance in Austin.” He and several council members, gathering at midday at the plaza in front of City Hall, pledged to go door-to-door in Kitchen’s South Austin District 5 if the petition drive leads to an election.

Increasingly, it looks as if that will be the case. But the timing of the election, and even the identity and motives of the group behind the recall, remain murky.

Tori Moreland and Rachel Kania, the co-directors of Austin4All, the political action committee listed on the petitions, said in a news release Monday that they have enough signatures to force an election on Kitchen’s continued service on the council. The recall, they said, is based primarily on Kitchen’s leading role in the council’s tightening of regulations on ride-hailing companies such as Uber, Lyft and Get Me. Neither Moreland nor Kania lives in District 5.

The group said it will present its petitions to the Austin city clerk’s office. However, that submission did not occur Monday, according to city spokesman Bryce Bencivengo.

The signatures of 4,811 registered voters who live in District 5 (10 percent of the qualified voters) would be required. If the clerk validates such a petition before Feb. 19, the election would probably occur May 7.

Supporters rally around Kitchen

About 20 constituents gathered Monday morning at Strange Brew, a Manchaca Road coffeehouse, in a show of bipartisan support for Kitchen, a former Democratic member of the Texas House who has served on the council just over a year.

“This petulant attempt by unknown yet well-funded individuals to unseat (Kitchen) is childish at best, and a major distraction at worst,” said Kathy Pillmore, a former president of the Onion Creek Homeowners Association board. Pillmore has been active for years in Republican politics in Travis County. “I challenge those cowards behind this effort to unmask themselves for all to see who and what they are.”

Tom Nuckols of the Barton Hills Neighborhood Association said the recall effort is not coming from Kitchen’s constituents.

“If there was a big groundswell against Ann Kitchen in District 5, the people in this room would know about it,” Nuckols said. He added that some canvassers told his neighbors that the recall was about Kitchen’s supposed efforts to regulate barbecue joints — an idea that actually came from Council Member Sabino “Pio” Renteria and was rejected by two council committees last year. Kitchen doesn’t sit on either committee.

The petition itself was more vague, saying that Kitchen “has purposefully hurt businesses that employ citizens of Austin.”

Officials with Uber and Lyft said they had nothing to do with the Kitchen recall effort, and Moreland echoed this in an email Monday to the Statesman. But Uber and Lyft did support a separate petition drive seeking to overturn the new rules the council approved in December for ride-hailing services. That measure, promoted by Kitchen, called for fingerprint-based background checks.

About noon Monday, eight of Kitchen’s 10 council colleagues blasted the recall effort and pledged their help to Kitchen.

“I’ve already found my block-walking shoes and dusted them off,” Council Member Greg Casar said. “You’ve been working so hard, and we’re ready to work for you.”

Council Members Ellen Troxclair and Don Zimmerman, who have opposed Kitchen’s push to require ride-hailing drivers to be fingerprinted for background checks, were invited to the noontime event but did not attend.

Where are PAC’s filings?

If District 5 voters oust Kitchen, the post would probably sit vacant for several months. Bencivengo said the City Charter does not provide for a special election to fill the slot, nor does it grant appointment power to the mayor or anyone else. District 5’s succeeding council member would be chosen at the next “uniform” election date in May or November, depending on when the recall election takes place.

Mike Blizzard, a former Democratic political consultant who lives in Southern Oaks in Kitchen’s district, said that Austin4All, which has not registered with the city or state as a political action committee, is defying state law. According to the Texas Ethics Commission’s website, any Texas political action committee must file a document listing its campaign treasurer once $500 has been spent or raised through contributions.

Moreland asserted Monday that Austin4All is “100 percent compliant (with state campaign law) and will continue to be.”

Kitchen supporters shared copies of a Craigslist want ad, posted at least nine days earlier, that sought 30 people to circulate petitions in South Austin “to help keep Uber and other small businesses flourishing in Austin.” The pay: $16.50 an hour.

Robin Rather, a 20-year resident of District 5 and longtime environmental activist, said a canvasser who came to her door Friday said the petition was being circulated on behalf of C3 Strategies, an Austin company whose chief executive officer, Joseph Basel, was associated with a conservative nonprofit’s secret videotaping of Texas legislators during the 2015 session. (The company has no relation to the concert promoter behind such events as the Austin City Limits Music Festival.)

The phone number listed for C3 Strategies is disconnected. As with Austin4All, the address listed for C3 Strategies on its Facebook page and website leads to a UPS mail store, this one two blocks west of the Capitol.

Asked if C3 Strategies is funding the effort, Moreland said, “The majority of our donors are Austin residents investing their time and energy to collect signatures.”

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