Commentary: Citizens have right to petition for vote on CodeNext


When the people of Austin voted to give all parts of Austin a voice in city government for the first time in over 100 years, we did not vote to give up our right to require petition for a public vote on critical city issues.

We were the spokespersons for Austin’s 10-1 geographic district representation — and members of the first independent citizens’ redistricting commission in Texas to draw the lines. We respectfully request that the mayor and those council members who argue that the petition for the right to vote on CodeNext — the greatest change in land-use law in Austin history — somehow diminishes the 10-1 system to withdraw this claim.

EDITORIAL BOARD: With no good options, City Council faces dilemma over CodeNext.

We never intended for 10-1 to be used against petitioners exercising their U.S. constitutional rights — or those under Texas law to petition for a public vote. Under our city charter, the right to petition for a public vote — aka “voter referendum” — has not been removed. In fact, citizens had to petition for the right to vote on the 10-1 system when the council failed to put it on the ballot.

The right to petition is part of every American’s right to free speech. It is enshrined in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution as something that Congress cannot make any laws prohibiting.

In Texas, petitions for public votes — otherwise known as initiative and referendum, or I&R — are allowed at the municipal level. This wonderful citizens’ tool to check government grew out of the agrarian-based populist movement that swept the West, which pushed for economic and political reforms. Texas failed to pass a statewide initiative and referendum — but in 1912, municipal I&R was included in the Texas constitutional amendment for home rule.

We urge the Austin community to join us to protect the people’s checks-and-balance system, regardless of where you stand on CodeNext. We have differing concerns about CodeNext — but we are in full agreement that Austin residents should have the right to vote on it.

RELATED: With petition certified, CodeNext one step closer to the ballot.

There are also those who point to historical petitions with outcomes that by today’s standards are objectionable. Our response is that the exercise of any kind of free speech by our fellow citizens — just like the exercise of a free ballot by the voters — does not guarantee anyone that they will hear what they like any more than they will get the election outcome they want.

The point in a free society is not that you are always comfortable with what others say, but that you are informed and that all of us are heard — not just those who we elected and the powerful unelected, or even just those who can get tens of thousands of people to sign a petition to put a proposal up for a public vote.

Petitioners have submitted over 30,000 signatures of our fellow citizens calling for a vote on CodeNext. The response has been continued interference from the mayor and majority City Council. The mayor allowed the city legal department to request a legal opinion on this petition even before the CodeNext petitions were filed.

At the council’s meeting at 2 a.m. on April 27, six council members — including the mayor — voted to close off one of three options the council has to place the measure on the ballot. There are two options still on the table, so stay tuned.

VOTE TRACKER: The Statesman is logging the City Council’s votes on high-interest issues.

As spokesmen for 10-1, we are simply urging denial of any claims that 10-1 was designed to replace the rights of hundreds of thousands of Austin voters with the votes of just the mayor and 10 council members. Moreover, the claim that a public vote on CodeNext disenfranchises residents because some areas of the city participate less in municipal elections is untrue. We fully intend to mobilize voters all over the city to vote on CodeNext — and we believe they will, including especially the disenfranchised.

We expect better and more statesmanlike leadership from the first 10-1 City Council.

Barrientos is a former member of the Texas House and Senate. Linder is president of the NAACP Austin chapter. Borgelt is an Austin attorney and activist.



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