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In Fact Daily questions hopefuls on term limits, contributions

Wednesday, April 5, 2006 by

While City Council for Place 2 and Place 6 candidates had pretty much the same opinion of the $100 limit on individual contributions to Council candidates—it is uniformly scorned—they did have different points of view on the question of relaxing the current term limits. In Fact Daily recently questioned the candidates regarding their stance on Propositions 4 and 5 on the May 13 charter amendment election.

Proposition 4 would change the current term limits portion of the charter so that City Council incumbents could run for re-election twice, instead of just once, before collecting the required number of signatures. It does not change the length of the Council term. To read the current charter language, click here: http://www.amlegal.com/austin_nxt/gateway.dll?f=templates&fn=default.htm&vid=amlegal:austin_tx

Proposition 5 would allow individuals to contribute up to $300 to City Council candidates, replacing the current $100 limit. This section of the charter was enacted by voter referendum in 1997. It also allows candidates to collect campaign funds only during the 180 days immediately preceding an election. To read the current charter language, click here: http://www.amlegal.com/austin_nxt/gateway.dll?f=templates&fn=default.htm&vid=amlegal:austin_tx

Voters adopted a charter amendment specifying three-year City Council terms in 1985 during one of the many elections on single-member districts (SMDs). Voters rejected the SMDs but adopted the idea of three-year terms. Perhaps they were weary of voting for Council offices every two years. In May, 1994, voters approved another amendment which limited the Council to two terms in office unless the candidate’s application is accompanied by a petition signed by a minimum of 5 per cent of the qualified voters.

The interaction between the term limit amendment, which has been in effect for 12 years, and the contribution limit, which has been on the books for nine years, has made it even more difficult for incumbents to stay in office more than six years. That’s because much of the money raised before the filing deadline will likely be spent gathering signatures. That leaves a successful incumbent to spend his or her own money on the race or hope for endorsement and uncoordinated assistance from political action committees.

As former Council Member Bill Spelman observes, “The combination is not working for anybody.”

Place 6 candidate DeWayne Lofton said, “I support changing the term limits to three three-year terms. This would allow those council members who are obviously doing a good job for the city to continue to remain in office. If for some reason, a Council member is not fulfilling the desires of the general public, the voter has the ultimate term limit authority—simply vote them out.”

Lofton said he would vote for raising the individual contribution limit from $100 to $300.” It is very hard to run a city wide campaign on $100 limits without receiving any PAC money. Increasing the limits will make it a little easier for grass roots candidates much like myself to be able to mount a successful campaign,” Lofton wrote in email.

Sheryl Cole, who is also vying for the seat being vacated by Mayor Pro Tem Danny Thomas, remarked, “To really make a lot of policy initiatives, you can often see how Council Members really need six years. The first term you're really learning a lot about the process. The second term they’re actually accomplishing something.” She agreed with Cole on the idea that voters can always say no. So can incumbents, she said. “You don’t have to serve three terms. It’s just an option.”

But the third candidate in the race, Darrell Pierce, had a different take on the incumbency question, as did Place 2 candidate Eliza May. Pierce said, “This amendment is better than the current structure, but is not the best strategy for improving a council member’s ability to serve. A two-term four-year concept would place council members in a position to serve more effectively.” Pierce also said the contribution limit should be raised. “The current process favors incumbents, candidates with support from PACs or a candidate with wealth,” he said. “For a city the size of Austin, the limits should be raised to $500 per donor.”

May also voiced support for four-year terms but rejected the idea that the proposed change is better than the current situation. She said, ““I think by extending to a third term all you’re doing is perpetuating the problem.” Voters want Council members “who have a lot of institutional knowledge and information on the process,” she said, so they’re not as reliant on staff to help them jump through the hoops. “You’re using the first year to learn,” May said, but, “the second year you’re already thinking about running again so you're already thinking about how you're voting . . . The third year you’re running, so you have perpetual motion—so you're really not doing in my opinion a real good service to your constituents because you’re already thinking about running again.”

Council Members who serve a four-year term it would “learn how to do things independently,” and be less concerned about the political impact of individual votes, May said. “Two terms is enough.”

Place 2 candidate Mike Martinez agrees, saying, “Under the current system I think the $100 limit has had severe unintended consequences . . . “For folks like myself who aren't connected to wealth, it makes it more difficult. You have to go out there and seek PAC fund donations or PAC support or group support.

“Like myself, I'm not wealthy, I'm not a lawyer, I'm not connected to wealth, I'm not connected to businesses. So it makes it very difficult for rank and file city employees, average citizens to get elected in this town,” he concluded.

Martinez said he also supports the idea of making it easier for incumbents to run for a third term.

May agreed that the $100 limit is burdensome, noting that the price of television and print advertising and the cost of hiring a campaign consultant have all gone up since voters approved the limit nine years ago. If a candidate has to spend all of her time raising money, May said, she can’t spend enough time “with our citizens groups listening to their issues. To me that is equally as valuable, because people these are the people you are going to be representing.”

The third candidate in the Place 2 race, Wes Benedict, said he would support raising the contribution limit. “I think it will take some of the power away from the municipal unions and give just individuals more of an even playing field. Mainly it’s the police and fire (union PACs) that have too much of an advantage. They’re able to mobilize and bundle all that money; candidates ought to be able to raise more.”

Benedict is opposed to making it easier for incumbents to serve three terms. “In general I favor term limits so I'm against that. If people get in office and get too many connections it makes it too easy for them to stay in office forever. And really the 20,000 signatures is tough,” but not impossible, he noted, “As three candidates proved four years ago.” Council Members Daryl, Jackie Goodman and Beverly Griffith all collected the required number of signatures. Goodman and Slusher were re-elected.

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

Leffingwell working on environmental and public information ordinances . . . This week’s City Council agenda includes a resolution sponsored by Council Member Lee Leffingwell to direct the City Manager to process an ordinance “relating to development affecting the Barton Springs Zone” and bring it to the Council within the next 30 days. Leffingwell also wants review and comment by the Planning Commission and Environmental Board before the Council considers such an ordinance. Leffingwell said he also expects to convene a group of stakeholders to look at ordinance related to opening up more information to the public within the next two weeks . . . Parks group opposes charter amendments . . . While a large number of local groups have endorsed the Open Government and SOS charter amendments, some are taking a stand against the proposals. The Austin Parks Foundation voted last week to oppose the amendments. The group’s statement says: "While we all support clean water and open government, these amendments are poorly written and have a number of unintended consequences, including a steep cost that will preclude the City from addressing other pressing needs, such as acquiring water quality protection lands, addressing the backlog in parks maintenance and providing affordable housing" . . . Forum tonight . . . Democracy for Texas will meet at 7pm tonight at Mother Egan’s to hear from candidates for Place 2, 5 and 6. The group provided a platform for Mayor Will Wynn and Mayor Pro Tem Danny Thomas to discuss their views last month . . . Housing forum this week . . . HousingWorks Action is hosting a City Council candidates' forum at 6pm Friday to learn more about candidates' views on affordable housing. The forum will be held at 2907 Gem Circle, 78704 (turn at El Gallo Restaurant on South Congress). According to the group, “Austin is at a critical juncture in terms of how we grow as a city and whether this growth will include all members of our community. November's bond election, downtown affordability, and affordability at the transit-oriented areas are all issues that will play a formative role in deciding what Austin will become” . . . The Mueller Neighborhoods Coalition will meet at 10am Saturday to hear from Council candidates . . . Meetings . . . The Environmental Board meets at 6pm in Council Chambers at City Hall . . . The Water and Wastewater Commission meets at 6pm in room 104 at Waller Creek Plaza . . . The Austin Commission for Women meets at 6:30pm in the Boards and Commissions Room at City Hall. . . . Impact of Rail . . . Envision Central Texas is planning a seminar entitled The Impact of Regional Rail: A Seminar for Central Texas. Keynote speaker will be Cal Marsella, director of the Denver Regional Transportation District. The seminar will also feature a panel discussion featuring local and regional experts, including Capital Metro Board Chair Lee Walker and Texas House Transportation chair Mike Krusee. The half-day evening is planned for 8:30 to 11:30am on Tuesday, April 25 at the Austin Convention Center.

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