About Us

Make a Donation
Fully-Local • Non-Partisan • Public-Service Journalism

Council sets ballot wording in stormy session

Tuesday, April 4, 2006 by

Charter Amendments' supporters still say Council-crafted language unfair

Following three hours of contentious debate, the Austin City Council voted Monday in a special called meeting to revise the ballot language on two controversial citizen-initiated charter amendments that will go to voters on May 13. Mayor Pro Tem Danny Thomas, who is running against Mayor Will Wynn on the May 13 ballot, voted against a motion to approve the ballot language.

Under a court order to rewrite the text describing the Open Government and Save Our Springs amendments, Council Members eliminated a number of specific words and phrases that District Judge Stephen Yelenosky listed as problematic in last week’s ruling. (See In Fact Daily, March 31, 2006) However, much to the displeasure of the amendment’s backers, they did not make wholesale changes in the way the rest of the items were worded.

The Open Government amendment would require the city to make all documents and other materials produced in conducting city business that are public information available online. The Save Our Spring amendment requires the city to limit development in the Barton Springs zone of the Edwards Aquifer.

The atmosphere in Council Chambers was at times loud and raucous, with catcalls of “Shame!” and “Liar!” made by amendment supporter in response to some Council Members comments during the debate. The backers were particularly critical of Council Member Brewster McCracken, who was the principal author of the ballot language overturned by the court. At one point, when Wynn's efforts to quiet the crowd were insufficient, Council Member Lee Leffingwell made a plea to the audience for civility. The audience seemed chastened by his comments.

Those supporting the amendments claimed the Council did not fulfill the spirit of the judge’s ruling

“I came away with the feeling that they were trying to fiddle around the edges and do as little as possible not to be called into contempt,” said former State Rep. Glen Maxey, one of the plaintiffs in the suit against the city and the chief organizer of the petition campaign. “If they wanted to go back to the first section of this, (the judge said) said you must adequately explain the chief features of the proposition. They failed miserably on that.”

The plaintiffs told In Fact Daily that they were unsure whether they would protest this version of the ballot language, but added that they had likely run out of time to have any further changes be reflected on the May 13 ballot. The 6-1 Council vote came around 2pm, three hours before a 5pm Monday deadline set by the court.Thomas was the only dissenting vote, saying he was not comfortable with the new wording that was proposed.

“I asked both sides, ‘Do you think we complied with what the judge’s asking us to do?’” Thomas said. “There were certain things he ( City Attorney David Smith) couldn’t answer. Then I asked the other side. I just don’t see us continuing. If we end up in court again, it’s just a waste of money. I think we should have been a little bit more on the fair side.”

Saying they were following the advice of the city’s legal staff, Council Members eliminated several words and phrases specifically mentioned by Yelenosky in both his verbal ruling and written order. They eliminated references to specific city programs that might have been affected by the SOS amendment, removed the words “any” and “all” from a phrase where there were exceptions in the amendment, and deleted a reference to the city’s cost estimate of implementing the amendment.

Council Member Jennifer Kim brokered one of the few changes in the language for the SOS proposition, convincing other Council Members to add the phrase noting that information was public subject to legal exceptions related to privacy concerns.

The plaintiffs clearly wanted the Council to go much farther in rewriting the language.

“There are still major levels of omission of the positive things about these amendments,” said Maxey. “As someone who’s been involved in government and public service for 35 years, I was appalled by this. Understanding that today we’re under a court order, the first city government who’s ever done something at this level. It’s embarrassing. It’s an embarrassing situation.”

After Monday’s meeting, Council Member Betty Dunkerley said that even though the Council had been prohibited from using its $36 million cost estimate, she still wanted the public to know about that price tag.

“If this passes, it’s probably going to be even more expensive in the implementation because we need to put it online and in real time but still protect privacy. How are we going to do that? (We can’t but) We’ll have to set up some office to screen all the 30,000 or so emails we get per month…Those kinds of costs, those kinds of workarounds are going to result in even higher costs when we get to the implementation,” Dunkerley said.

Despite the lack of a called public hearing, Council Members did allow members of the public to address them on the issue before they debated. SOS Executive Director Bill Bunch appealed to the Council Members’ sense of fairness.

“Nowhere in your ballot language does it mention that the overriding purpose, subject matter, and chief feature of the amendment is protecting the Barton Springs watershed,” he said.” This has to be in there for it to be fair, for it to be accurate, and not misleading as the judge has told you it must not be. And to be fair to the voters.”

Scott Henson with the ACLU urged Council Members to take the judge’s order to heart.

“He said that what you did was not fair. He said it was wrong. He said that you were trying to mislead the voters and it wasn’t the right thing to do, and he wants you to correct it and we want you to correct it,” Henson said. “And you haven’t done it, you just haven’t. And I don’t know how you can look anyone in the eye and say that you have if you pass the ballot language that city legal has proposed.”

But Mayor Will Wynn said he was using the judge’s order as a guideline for the changes.

“My concern is that this has been before a judge, and the judge has sent us a specific order, and staff has tried to address the handful of specific items in the judge’s order, taking the existing language, like it or not, and then taking out the problematic words or phrases,” he said. “Obviously I’m very comfortable doing that, doing what the specific orders the judge gave, essentially. I’m not comfortable inserting language that wasn’t in front of the judge, that wasn’t in the proposed ballot language in front of the judge.”

McCracken resisted efforts by some on the Council to reword the ballots, and several of his comments drew angry shouts from the amendments’ supporters.

“The privacy protections contained in the so-called on-line government one are that the on-line government one would protect the rights to family, marriage, motherhood, procreation, and child rearing,” he said. “OK, good, that’s wonderful. But it doesn’t protect personal information, personal financial information, library books, none of that. Will all this be revealed? I don’t know. The court has already ruled on this, and has ruled that the language is accurate and can stay in.” Several audience members shouted that he was lying. Another comment also drew catcalls.

“There’s been a lot of discussion about the statement in the ballot language about private citizen e-mails being placed on-line in real time,” McCracken said. “On page 10 of the court record, Judge Yelenosky specifically addressed this and stated that that language was correct and this issue about whether private citizen e-mails would be placed on-line in real time under this charter item.” He then directly addressed the audience members. “That was litigated and you all lost. The court ruled.”

It is unlikely that any appeal of the Council’s actions by the plaintiff would result in any further changes in the ballot language. Travis County Clerk Dana DeBouvier, testifying last Thursday during the court hearing, said she had deliberately delayed completing the ballots in order to get the court’s ruling in the case. She said that if she had the ballot language by Monday or Tuesday, she could move forward, but as a practical matter, could not wait any longer.

SOS’s Bunch said the plaintiffs and their attorneys would meet Monday and decide if they would pursue it further.

“I don’t think we can do anything to change the ballot language beyond this,” he said. “But we might want to go forward with an appeal to make a point that we are right. We’ll have to see what everyone wants to do.”

Report says DeLay to resign Congressional seat

Former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, whose very public legal problems stretch from Travis County to Washington, DC, told Time Magazine yesterday that he would step down from Congress and move to the nation’s capitol in order to give another Republican a chance to run for his seat.

According to Time and other media sources, DeLay made his decision after learning that he had only a 50-50 chance of winning re-election in the staunchly Republican district that includes Sugarland. It’s up to the Texas Secretary of State to decide whether DeLay’s decision—and predicted move to Virginia—would give Gov. Rick Perry the option of calling a special election to replace him.

One Democratic insider, Matt Angle, former chief of US Rep. Martin Frost, said DeLay has decimated the Texas delegation. Angle now runs the Lone Star Project, which has been heavily involved in Democratic opposition research, particularly related to DeLay. See

“Tom DeLay has managed to remove every single leader in the Texas delegation, including himself,” Angle said. “He’s removed three ranking members, a key whip and now the majority leader of the House.” Those members include Frost.

In Washington, there has been some speculation whether DeLay can remove himself from the ballot in Congressional District 22 at all, post-primary. Typically, under Texas law, the only way a candidate would be taken off the ballot is either to lie or to move out of state. The question, legally, is whether the ballot has been certified, and whether this timing – between the primary and run-off – is a loophole that gives the Republican Party a chance to offer up another candidate in Congressional District 22.

DeLay, 58, easily swept the Republican primary in a safe Republican seat. Democrats speculate, however, that losing a third of the core Republican voters – added to the Democrat and independent voters in the general election – might have been enough to give DeLay pause when it comes to November.

DeLay is facing a charge of money-laundering in Travis County. Two former staff members have recently pleaded guilty to federal criminal offenses during their time in his office but DeLay has not been implicated on federal charges. The state charges against him relate to an alleged scheme to funnel money from corporate donors to Texans for a Republican Majority Political Action Committee.

©2006 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved.

McCracken wants property tax protection for homeowners . . . Council Member Brewster McCracken announced via email yesterday that he has a plan to lower the cap on property tax appraisal increases. Basically, McCracken says, the increased “density in the right places . . . means more revenue from re-development.” Because of such growth, the tax base is growing and the city can give homeowners a break. As he points out, it is the Legislature that sets appraisal caps on local property taxes. “With your support, I'll lead the effort to bring fairness to our tax system,” McCracken concludes . . . More election workers needed . . . Travis County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir announced Monday that her office still needs workers to work on Election Day for the April 11 primary runoff election. Early voting for the runoff began yesterday and runs through Friday . . . It’s almost that time . . . City Council candidates began taping their Channel 6 statements yesterday. In a big city with campaign finance laws limiting candidates’ ability to raise funds, that free airtime can be worth quite a lot. Each candidate gets an hour of Channel 6’s time to come up with the perfect 10-minute segment. . . . Meetings . . . The Zoning and Platting Commission meets at 6pm in Council Chambers at City Hall . . . The Arts Commission meets in a special called meeting at 5:30pm in Room 2017 at City Hall . . . The Travis County Commissioners Court meets at 9am in Commission Chambers at 314 W. 11th St. . . . The Williamson County Commissioners Court meets at 9:30am in Pct. 3 JP Courtroom on Inner Loop Drive in Georgetown. . . . Fill the boot . . . Austin Mayor Will Wynn, the Austin Firefighters Association, the Austin Fire Department and Muscular Dystrophy Association will kick-off the Firefighters annual Fill-the-Boot Drive at 11am on Wednesday. The kick-off ceremony will take place on the front steps of Austin City Hall. Speakers will include the Mayor, Austin Firefighters President Mike Martinez, Austin Firefighter Chris Donohue and MDA Clients Danny Dandignac and Scott Bennett. Scott and his 9 year old daughter, Courtney, are both clients of MDA and played a significant role in passing the bill to allow firefighters to continue collecting on street corners during the fill-the-boot drive . . . Sheriff’s Office Outreach . . . The Travis County Sheriffs Office Community Out Reach Unit will be at the Chick-Fil-A from 5 to 8pm today at 12901 North IH 35 Tech Ridge Center for Chick-Fil-A Family Night. The Sheriff’s Office will provide static displays including K-9, SWAT, and Traffic Enforcement Motorcycles. There will also be booths set up with and crime prevention brochures, Child ID, and Tyke Tags. Flap Jack the Clown will be on hand and there will be face painting and goodie bags provided for the kids. . . . Clerk named to court panel . . . Williamson County District Clerk Bonnie Wolbrueck has been appointed by the Supreme Court of Texas to serve on the Supreme Court Rules Advisory Committee. Wolbrueck has been a member of the committee since 1992 and was the first and only District Clerk to serve on the committee. Although she will be retiring at the end of the calendar year, she was asked to once again serve in order to provide the court with input on some issues that would be discussed this year. The Supreme Court Rules Advisory Committee assists the Supreme Court in the continuing study, review and development of rules and procedures for the courts of Texas.

Join Your Friends and Neighbors

We're a nonprofit news organization, and we put our service to you above all else. That will never change. But public-service journalism requires community support from readers like you. Will you join your friends and neighbors to support our work and mission?

Back to Top