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Law governing candidate petitions differs from law on Charter amendments Both City Clerk Shirley Brown and three incumbent City Council members got some encouraging news yesterday. Assistant City Attorney John Steiner noticed a story in Tuesday’s In Fact Daily outlining Brown’s concern that she might not have sufficient time to validate the 20,000 or more signatures each of the incumbents must file in order to run for an additional term. Steiner quickly wrote an email to Brown, explaining, “Candidate petitions differ from other petitions in that they are required to have an affidavit of the circulator. The affidavit allows you to treat as valid each signature to which the affidavit applies, without further verification. So verification of these petitions shouldn’t be an issue.”

Wednesday, January 16, 2002 by

Brown told In Fact Daily she had not realized that different laws applied to Charter amendment petitions and candidate petitions. “All the clerk’s office has to do is count, and if they’re all there, that is it,” for candidate petitions, she said.

Brown’s first experience with petitions in Austin was when she had to validate signatures on petitions for a proposed City Charter amendment providing for city financing of campaigns for qualifying candidates. Organizers of the petition drive, known as the Clean Campaigns for Austin, spent six months gathering signatures. Brown said in order to validate the signatures, she had to have her staff enter each name in the computer and number it. A computer then selected 25 percent of those names, at random, to be verified. That group gathered more than 28,000 signatures in order to be sure that it would have enough that could be verified. At the beginning of that campaign, organizers thought they would need 20,000 signatures, but a purge of voter rolls meant only about 18,000 signatures were required. (See In Fact Daily, Sept. 12, 2001.)

The process of verifying those signatures took Brown and her staff about three weeks. It is easy to see why she was worried about being unable to verify three times that many signatures in March. “We were gearing up for the worst possible scenario,” she said. That worst-case scenario would have meant all three petitions were filed at or near the filing deadline in mid-March. She said she had planned to run her workers in three shifts, but that the new information would “save the city thousands and thousands of dollars.” She declared Steiner’s memo to be “wonderful news.”

Council Member Beverly Griffith began collecting signatures in November and Council Members Daryl Slusher and Jackie Goodman began in December. Griffith had already announced that she would attempt to collect 25,000 signatures—about 5,000 more than the five percent of registered Austin voters needed to allow her to run for a third term. She celebrated the benchmark in her re-election bid with about 20 supporters Tuesday afternoon. Campaign workers and volunteers have gathered about 13,000 signatures of the 20,000 required by the city’s term-limits Charter amendment. Supporters at the gathering included SOS Executive Director Bill Bunch, bicycle and pedestrian activist Robin Stallings and campaign-reform advocate Linda Curtis, who is working for Griffith.

Griffith made a brief speech outside of Book People at 603 N. Lamar to thank those who have been gathering the signatures and the businesses that have allowed those volunteers on their property. Since Griffith needs approximately 7,000 more signatures, she encouraged supporters to continue their efforts over the next few weeks. In addition to finding more businesses with pedestrian traffic that would allow volunteers on-site, Griffith said volunteers should seek signatures outside polling locations during the upcoming February 2 AISD bond election.

Griffith also took a few moments to stress her qualifications for a third term in office. “We have had turnover in the Mayor’s office (with the recent election of Gus Garcia), the City Manager’s office and at the electric utility. What I’m being told is that this is no time, in this period of uncertainty, to lose the corporate memory and the experience of our three senior people on the City Council,” Griffith said.

Goodman told In Fact Daily, “It’s a positive thing.” She noted that she and others would not know for another month exactly how many signatures are needed, because that is when the City Clerk’s Office will request data from the county. In view of that fact, she said, “it’s nice to have some positive news.” Pat Crow, who is coordinating signature-gathering activities for both Goodman and Slusher, said she was delighted to hear the news.

County Judge Sam Biscoe won his fight Tuesday to redistribute the workload from Precinct 5 Constable Bruce Elfant—located at the County Courthouse—among the other Travis County constables, but it did not appear to be a victory he relished much.

Right now, constables in Precinct 5 handle almost two-thirds of the civil process papers that are filed in the county. The Precinct 5 office operates on a $2.5 million budget—more than the other four constable offices combined. The four other offices’ budgets average $500,000 apiece. The proposal will redistribute the papers to the areas of the county where they are to be served.

The Justice of Peace and Constable Association of Texas named Elfant “Constable of the Year” in 2000. He ran unopposed for his position two years ago.

A worn Biscoe, who was working out final details of the oft-delayed proposal as late as Tuesday morning, told the court the compromise he reached with Elfant’s office did not fully please either side. The move will mean four civil deputies will be reassigned to other precincts or face termination.

Biscoe told the court he made the redistribution recommendation in the name of efficiency and effectiveness and held to a standard he would apply to any department.

“I try to make sure the county is making a wise investment. It would bother me if we don’t take some action,” Biscoe told the court. “I’ve done the best I can. Either way, I will sleep peacefully tonight.”

When it came down to the vote, Biscoe won in a 3-2 split that put new commissioner Margaret Moore on the side of Biscoe and constable-turned-commissioner Margaret Gomez. Commissioners Ron Davis and Karen Sonleitner voted against the proposal. The court has been discussing the constable workload since last October.

Sonleitner told her colleagues the civil process function of the constable offices was centralized 20 years ago for a reason. No group, judge or bar association had called on the county dismantle the service, she said. The move, in fact, was being met with consternation. She also questioned the wisdom of redistributing manpower right before the lines for the constable districts are shifted under redistricting.

For his part, Davis said the county needed to be further down the road on technology before he could make a final decision on the redistribution of work among the constable offices. Aspects of the county’s ongoing technology plan, such as the computer network between county offices and the integration of the court system’s technology, as well as the proposed video magistration have yet to be implemented.

“How that would reduce the problem of staffing or the reassignment of staffing in this particular arena is still not clear,” said Davis, who added that any decision of such magnitude needed to be based on “the big picture for Travis County.”

Gomez acknowledged that Davis’ point was well taken, but said it was more important to move forward with the proposal, even if it meant approving only one small piece at a time. Biscoe added that the information that Davis wanted might be years in the future—though Davis maintained it would only be months.

Under the proposal, Precinct 5 will continue to distribute certain types of civil papers, such as protective orders, child support, CPS cases, probate, child attachment and restraining orders. They also will continue to work cases where an attorney has requested a specific deputy from Precinct 5.

Other types of civil process—private and county-issued citations—will be redistributed to the precinct will deliver the papers. The total number of civil process items has been estimated at 14,425.

Precinct 5 will sort and distribute paperwork not designated for a particular constable. The office will also continue to enter the paperwork into the computer system and process the attorney fees that arrive at the Precinct 5 offices. Constable offices, rather than the county clerk, would be responsible for processing fees.

Based on the projected workload shift, four civil deputies will be reassigned to other precincts, with one deputy allocated to each precinct. Deputies are expected to transfer by Jan. 22. The deadline to shift paperwork will be March 15. Biscoe asked for a progress report on the changes in July.

According to a chart Biscoe presented to commissioners court, the impact of shifting the workload will lighten the Precinct 5 budget by $230,158 annually. The most extreme option considered—to shift two officers and a clerk to each of the other four precincts—could have redirected $584,396 away from Precinct 5 each year.

Former Austin City Attorney Iris Jones has been named as the city’s Police Monitor. Jones and her staff, along with the civilian Police Oversight Panel, will review citizen complaints against the police department. Members of the Police Oversight Focus Group had asked for the Police Monitor to report directly to the City Council, but the agreement negotiated with the police officer’s union calls for the person in the post to report to the City Manager . In addition, there is nothing in the City Charter allowing the monitor to report directly to the Council.

Jones was one of two finalists for the position. The other was Dallas Assistant City Attorney Chris Whittmayer. City Manager Jesus Garza asked Jones to apply for the job, but local civil-rights groups criticized her selection as a finalist. (See In Fact Daily, Nov. 26, 2001.) Both candidates met with citizens and community groups at the beginning of December.

Jones served as City Attorney for Austin from February of 1990 to January of 1992, and previously spent several years in the city legal department and served as the director of the city’s Human Resources Department. She spent time in private practice and also served as the City Attorney for Prairie View, Texas. She starts her new job with the city on February 11th. She has been licensed to practice since 1978.

East Austin has been turned down for designation as an “Empowerment Zone” by the U.S. Housing and Urban Development agency. There were 35 applications for the federal program. Seven communities were selected for the designation: Pulaski County, Arkansas; Fresno, California; Jacksonville, Florida; Syracuse/Yonkers, New York; Oklahoma City, Oklahoma; and San Antonio, Texas.

HUD officials made their decision based on several factors, including the area’s unemployment rate and poverty level. Designation as an “Empowerment Zone” allows businesses and residents in the area to qualify for tax incentives and federal grant programs designed to stimulate the local economy. (For more information about the program, go to http://www.hud.gov/offices/cpd/ezec/index.cfm)

The city and Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce held a series of public meetings last year in an attempt to drum up local support for the “Empowerment Zone” application. (See In Fact Daily, September 14, 2001, September 18, 2000.) But the meetings quickly turned into contentious gatherings as eastside activists claimed they had been left out of the process.

This is the second time Austin has applied for designation as an “Empowerment Zone.” The city was previously rejected in 1994.

Monday holiday . . . Next Monday city offices will be closed in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. The Charter Revision Committee, which normally meets on Monday, will meet on Wednesday instead. In Fact Daily will also be closed. . . ZAP short and sweet . . . The Zoning and Platting Commission did not hear any contested cases last night. The group approved a short consent agenda and a few postponements and left the building in record time.

© 2001 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved.

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