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City asks for legal advice on

Tuesday, September 11, 2001 by

Incumbent re-election rules

Slusher, Griffith and Goodman all up next year

An attorney for the city has asked the Texas Secretary of State to resolve an apparent conflict between the Austin City Charter and state law. Depending on the outcome, Council Members Daryl Slusher and Beverly Griffith and Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman could be required to collect either 178 signatures or more than17,000 signatures each from city voters in order to place their names on the ballot next year.

Austin’s city charter contains a provision that says incumbent Council Members who have served two terms may qualify to run for the seat they currently hold if his or her application is accompanied by a petition signed by five percent of the city’s registered voters. Under state law, “the minimum number of signatures that must appear” on a petition of a candidate is “one-half of one percent of the total vote received in the territory from which the office is elected by all candidates for mayor in the most recent mayoral general election.”

Figuring according to state law, the number required would be 178, based on the total number of those casting ballots in the May 2000 election. The City Clerk’s Office says 35,438 voters participated in that election, about nine percent of the registered voters at that time. Even assuming that double that number show up to vote in the Nov. 6 election to replace Mayor Kirk Watson, those seeking a third term would still only need 354 signatures.

However, the City Clerk’s Office reported that there are now 359,220 registered voters in Austin, and more could sign up before next spring. Five percent of that number is 17,961. Assistant City Attorney John Steiner says incumbents, like other City Council candidates, would have 180 days in which to gather signatures, regardless of the number required. That timeframe is set forth in state law. When the petitions are filed, the clerk counts back 180 days and counts only valid signatures gathered during that time period, Steiner said.

On Aug. 21, Steiner sent a letter to Ann McGeehan, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Elections, since her boss is the state’s chief elections officer and has the last word outside the courthouse on interpretation of election laws.

In the letter, Steiner observes that a term-limited incumbent might file a petition that satisfies the requirements of state law but fails to meet the more onerous requirements of the city ordinance. Should that happen, he notes, “we will have to advise the City Clerk whether to place the candidate’s name on the ballot.” Referring to Art. 11 of the Texas Constitution, Steiner agrees that in case of a conflict, state law always trumps a city ordinance or charter provision. The lawyer told In Fact Daily Monday the charter provision could be interpreted as being in conflict with state law. To be certain, he said, he asked for the Secretary of State’s interpretation.

Political consultant Mike Blizzard, who has worked for both Griffith and Slusher in the past, opines, “Conventional wisdom says a candidate faces a lot more opposition” in gathering signatures than does an issue such as campaign finance reform. “So, you’d have to have a strong base of grassroots support and you’d have to focus on that.” Blizzard said if state law prevails in this case, “that would in effect throw out the entire term limits” section of the charter. “Maybe we should revise the charter,” he said. The City Council recently appointed a charter revision commission, which may begin meeting as soon as next week.

Austin voters approved the term limits amendment to the charter in 1994. State law specifically allows a different rule for “a home-rule city with a population of more than one million that holds non-partisan elections for its offices (and) requires both a petition and a $50 fee be filed for a candidate’s name to be placed on the ballot.” Neither Austin, nor Dallas, nor Houston, nor San Antonio fit into that definition, according to the city charter each displays on its web site.

However, assuming that state law prevails, each of the three incumbents must consider what risk they may run by gathering only the signatures required by law.

Griffith declines to run;

Garcia to announce today

Candidates in short supply this time

Gus Garcia, former Mayor Pro Tem and former president of the AISD Board of Trustees, will officially announce his candidacy for Mayor at noon today near the Gazebo on Auditorium Shores. Garcia will talk about the experience he can bring to the office and explain his ideas and plans for the future of Austin.

Council Member Beverly Griffith announced Monday that she would not be a candidate for Mayor this year. Griffith has spent the last several weeks talking to supporters and friends, weighing her options. She all but anointed Garcia with that announcement since no other strong contenders appear to be considering the race.

As a Council Member, Griffith is prohibited from endorsing a candidate for Mayor, but issued a press release that stressed her willingness to work with “whomever the next Mayor may be on the issues that are important to Austin. ‘I have my list of priorities and I am ready to work with the next Mayor on every single one of them,’ she said.”

Garcia said, “I’ve always worked well with Council Member Griffith,” noting that the two had “a nice visit” on Sunday. Garcia said he was not surprised by the quick passage of next year’s budget. “It’s a tight budget. There won’t be any money to be passing around,” he concluded.

Garcia does not intend to comply with Austin’s Fair Campaign Ordinance, according to his press release.

Also Monday, candidate Jennifer Gale said she had received notification from the City Clerk’s Office that she had collected enough signatures to have her name placed on the ballot for Mayor. Deputy City Clerk Betty Brown said another would-be candidate, John McPherson, had failed to provide the requisite number of signatures.

Council approves budget,

Secrecy for utility information

Council to vote today on cultural funding

The City Council nearly completed the fiscal 2001-02 budget Monday. Council members moved quickly through the business of the one-hour meeting, in contrast to the extended negotiations of last year’s budget process in which the Council searched for ways to spend extra revenue.

Most of the budget for the upcoming fiscal year, which begins October 1st, had been laid out in the past few weeks. The $1.88 billion package sets a property tax rate of 46 cents per $100 of property value. With the slow-down in growth of the Austin economy, council members had few opportunities to promote their pet projects. “Last year we had almost $3 million on the table,” said City Manager Jesus Garza. “We only had $500 thousand this year.” Garza’s office came up with nearly $1 million in supplemental funding late last week (see In Fact Daily, September 7, 2001), but the Council voted to place approximately $500,000 in a reserve fund.

The remaining $500,00 was divided between funding for the Health and Human Services Department, the Parks and Recreation Department and the Austin Library. Council Member Beverly Griffith was happy to be able to restore some of the funding for the Parks and Recreation Department’s Roving Leader program, which is a youth outreach effort to help students in lower-income families. “It’s mentoring, it’s crime prevention, it’s dropout prevention,” Griffith said. “It’s one of the most important things in terms of the future that the city is doing right now.” The Council also approved money for technology upgrades for the Austin Library, money for a truancy-prevention program and the MHMR Access Program. There were also some items requested by the Council that didn’t get funding, including Griffith’s pet sobriety center project.

The Council meets again today at 10:00 am to dispose of $165,500 available for cultural arts services. Council Member Raul Alvarez is proposing allocating $90,000 to the Austin Music Network for production of three special programs, with the remaining $75,500 being placed in a contingency fund. Under the Alvarez proposal, one program would focus on Latino Music, one on African American music and one on South by Southwest. “The music network is a community service on which the Council has historically placed a great deal of value,” Alvarez said. “It is undeniable that the production quality and the variety of programming has dramatically increased since the recent change in management at the station.” Council Member Danny Thomas said he would like to see some of the money Alvarez proposed for a contingency fund used instead for an African-American technical center.

Austin Energy must compete in wholesale market

After more than a year of community debate, the Council passed measures allowing Austin Energy to keep some matters out of public view as the city assesses the competitive utility market. Under the deregulation mandated by Texas law, Austin has the ability to enter the competitive power market when it takes effect statewide at the beginning of 2002. The city can also choose not to compete against privately held companies by “opting out.” This is what the Council chose to do. “Once you opt in, you cannot take it back,” said Mayor Kirk Watson. “This is a very critical decision,” agreed Council Member Daryl Slusher.

Austin Energy General Manager Chuck Manning provided a brief overview of how the competitive market would affect Austin, despite the city’s decision to opt out of competition. “We have no option but to participate in the wholesale level. The things that will happen in ERCOT, we will be subject to those,” Manning said, in reference to the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, a corporation set up to administer the state’s power grid. According to Manning, none of the state’s city-owned utilities have elected to enter competition at the retail level.

The Council voted 7-0 to support the secrecy provisions. “Because of the competition at the wholesale level, Austin will still have to play in that market as part of generating electricity,” Slusher said. “We’ve all been vigilant at protecting the citizens’ interest in the utility. But we have to balance the citizens’ right to know information with the citizens’ investment and interest in the public utility.” Slusher said the confidentiality provision for competitive matters had been modified since it was brought up for Council consideration in March, when it was indefinitely postponed.

2001 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved.

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