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Stop Domain charter election OK’d for November

Wednesday, February 20, 2008 by Mark Richardson

Almost as quickly as they began celebrating having their signatures being certified Tuesday, the folks behind the Stop Domain Subsidies (SDS) charter amendment drive ran into an unexpected brick wall: the election cannot be held until November.


According to the Texas Secretary of State’s office, a city charter can be amended only every two years. Austin held its most recent charter amendment election on May 13, 2006, making the May 10 election date a couple of days too early. The next available election date is Nov. 4, 2008. 


Apparently, no one from either the city or SDS was aware of the problem until Tuesday.


“I don’t think the city saw this coming,” said the group’s consultant Jeff Heckler. “I feel so silly and stupid about it but we talked to a lot of people. I know it was not a nefarious plot. We were feeling really good about May, and it’s gone. We had some good momentum, good organization and we were bringing kids in with a lot of energy. And boom, it’s gone. I’m just still reeling from it.”


Council Member Mike Martinez, who has endorsed an amendment backing single-member districts — which he had planned to have on the May ballot — reacted angrily to the news.


“Someone on staff and in the City Attorney’s Office should have known and informed the citizens and charter revision committee,” he said. “We called for a charter election on the city auditor’s office. Why did this happen and how did this happen and how do we prevent it from happening again? I think this is one of those experiences that you can rest assured will never happen again.” The Council had already approved calling an election on a set term for the City Auditor. That will also have to be put off until November.


Martinez said he was actually relieved to have the extra time to work on clarifying some of the issues around the single-member district proposal, saying he will be calling for a series of town hall meetings to discuss both the policy change and demonstration maps for Council consideration. 


However, he clearly felt someone was asleep at the switch for not keeping Council and staff members appraised. City Attorney David Smith issued a memo dated Tuesday that outlined the reasons why charter amendments would have to wait until November for a vote.


“It was brought to my attention this morning that under the Texas Constitution any proposals for amending our City Charter will have to be scheduled for the November general election, and cannot be legally held on May 10, 2008,” Smith wrote. “This applies to the Stop Domain Subsidies citizen initiative, as well as any Council initiated proposals.”


Smith added that the problem could not be remedied by calling a special election, noting that according to the Texas Local Government Code, a charter amendment election must be held only on uniform general election dates.


SDS turned in more than 20,000 signatures, or five percent of registered voters, late last week in order to gets its charter amendment on the May ballot. The charter amendment would block the city from providing  financial incentives in connection with the development or redevelopment of any property that includes retail uses. It would also stop the city from paying the owner of the Domain shopping center sales and property tax rebates from a 2003 agreement.


Heckler said that despite the setback, he still believes they will prevail.


“I still think this will win one way or the other,” he said. “I’m not sure if it’s good, bad or indifferent. There’s going to be a whole lot of new voters to reach, a whole new paradigm. We’ve been busting our butts. We had a plan up to March 4 and a plan after that. The pieces were all falling into place. We’re going to have to reconsider everything.”

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