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Split Council says Austin should keep May elections rather than November

Friday, September 23, 2011 by Elizabeth Pagano

Voicing their philosophical differences, members of the Austin City Council voted 4-3 on Thursday to continue holding Council elections in May—at least until voters decide otherwise. An important factor in their decision was the revelation that maintaining May elections would be much less costly than initially thought.

 

Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole and Council members Bill Spelman, Laura Morrison and Kathie Tovo voted in favor of the May election date, with Mayor Lee Leffingwell and Council members Mike Martinez and Chris Riley against.

 

“I just wanted to be clear that it’s not free in November, it’s not free in May, but it’s maybe $100,000—well not even that much difference between the two—if you take the election contest issue off the table. That has never happened,” said Cole.

 

The cost of the May election is not known, but in a memo sent on Sept. 20, Travis County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir asked that Council disregard the estimate of $4,872,000 for a May 2012 election (with runoff) that was given by attorney Sidney Falk of Bickerstaff, Heath, Delgado Acosta LLP as the worst-case scenario.

 

The estimate was based, in part, on an incorrect time frame for a runoff election. The law actually allows for more time between a municipal election and a runoff than DeBeauvoir had assumed, and would necessitate the purchase of fewer machines.

 

“He was giving a worst-case scenario, sort of a disaster situation. I had to say something because I did not think that was realistic. He was painting a scenario that was just a little bit too far out there,” said DeBeauvoir.

 

DeBeauvoir told In Fact Daily that the election cost, should the city hold it completely alone, would probably be “in the neighborhood of $1 million.”

 

That number will be refined after this Monday’s meeting, where other jurisdictions in the area will discuss their preferred election date in light of the city’s decision. It should establish whether the city would have any partners in the May election to share the cost.

 

“I do think the lay of the land is easier for voters to navigate in November. But once I’ve given my professional opinion and the governing body has made its decision, it’s time for me to do everything in my power to make their election smooth,” said DeBeauvoir.

 

Senate Bill 100, approved by the Legislature this spring, has thrown voting schedules across the state into disarray, and has given Austin the option of holding its City Council election in May—which runs the risk of the city shouldering the entire cost—or November, which would extend all sitting members’ terms six months.

 

Complicating matters are the yet-unknown costs of the May date, and a wide range of opinions as to what date better serves voters in the area. Based on past elections, the May date promises a much lower turnout than November, but there is some doubt that a jam-packed national and local ballot lends itself to well-informed voters.

 

“For me, the overall factor is really about people,” said Martinez. “It’s disheartening to see what is taking place over this issue in terms of using terminology that was used during the debates over the Fifteenth and Nineteenth Amendments giving African-Americans and women the right to vote. Things like “uninformed,” things like “they won’t know what they’ll be deciding upon.”

 

“We’re going to increase our citizen participation. If we just use historical numbers, it will increase by 900 percent,” said Martinez. “I don’t see how I can argue against that.”

 

Those who did, in fact, argue about the change to November primarily took the tack that changing the date (and extending their terms) is something that should be decided by the voters.

 

SB100 has a provision to allow the extension of terms. While the extension would not be considered a legal violation of the charter, those who voted in favor of the May election expressed their reluctance to violate the charter nonetheless.

 

It seems inappropriate for the seven of us to stand in for the public and make that decision on behalf of the public,” said Spelman to In Fact Daily. “If we’ve got a covenant with the voters, the voters ought to be the people who make the decision whether to change it or not.” He and others said Council did not learn until Tuesday, during executive session, that changing the 2012 election from May to November would automatically mean that future elections would also be in November absent a charter amendment.

 

Spelman said that the best option would be to hold the elections on odd-numbered years in November when voters are not distracted by partisan elections and federal and state issues, which demand much more media attention and have much greater financial resources than local elections.

 

The 4-3 vote means Council will have to consider the election question again. If one of the three on the losing side joins with the four voting for May, then it will only take one more vote to finally set the election date. Council’s next meeting is Oct. 6. If the vote is still 4-3, they will have to vote again on Oct. 20 or at a specially called meeting.

 

If the May date holds, candidates will be able to start their campaigns on Nov.14.

 

In a written statement after the meeting, Leffingwell reiterated his support for the change to November. He also expressed a hope that Council would support putting on the November ballot an amendment to the charter that would permanently change City Council elections to November.

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