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Council will decide election date at special Friday meeting

Wednesday, October 5, 2011 by Josh Rosenblatt

The contentious debate over whether or not to move elections from May to November next year won’t be resolved before Friday, when Council will hold a special called meeting to give the item a third and final reading. Council was scheduled to consider the move on second reading at their work session yesterday, but a long discussion over procedure led to the suggestion that a special called meeting might be the best thing.

At their last meeting two weeks ago, Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole and Council members Laura Morrison, Kathie Tovo, and Bill Spelman voted to keep the election in May. However, the item requires a supermajority vote to pass without three readings. Morrison and Spelman, who placed the item on yesterday’s agenda, were hoping the work session would count as the second reading and Thursday’s Council meeting would count as the third.

“We are under a tight deadline about making a decision,” Morrison told her colleagues yesterday, noting that the city will have to purchase supplemental voting machines by no later than October 15 in order to be ready for a May election.

The issue of moving Election Day has been hotly contested ever since the Texas Legislature passed SB 100, which lengthens the run-off for state primary elections to the end of May. At yesterday’s work session, Mayor Lee Leffingwell, who has been vocal in his support of the November move, tried to derail the fast-track three-reading plan by citing work session rules.

Leffingwell pointed out that one of the eight rules established by Council back in March states that “Action, for instance votes, will not be taken on items posted on the Thursday agenda.”

“It is my duty and responsibility as chair of this body to enforce the rules,” Leffingwell said. “Therefore, I am declaring this item out of order,”

Thus began a lengthy debate about parliamentary procedure that saw some Council members attempting to waive certain rules that didn’t appeal to them and all the Council members scrambling to assure everyone else that they wanted to hear the voice of the citizens on the matter, even if work session rules prohibit citizen participation.

“I would much prefer to have the special meeting on Friday if only for the reason that No. 1, we would not have to waive our rules, which I don’t think is a good idea,” said Leffingwell. “And second, it would give more notice to people who might want to make comments on it. This item really came in under the radar. We found out about it late Friday afternoon. … And I think it would be much more fair to the public to respect the process aspect of this a lot more than going ahead and trying to deal with it today. “

Spelman, who has been one of the most outspoken critics of the proposed November move, pressed the mayor to clarify his position.

“Would you prefer to hear the citizens who are here to speak on this item,” Spelman asked, “or would you prefer to just bag the whole thing and take it up on Thursday?”

Leffingwell replied that he would like to hear from the citizens who were there but not take any action.

“I would prefer to act on the item on Friday to give more people adequate notice that we’re going to be considering this. And I don’t think the way we’re proceeding right now respects that process,” Leffingwell said.

Eventually Spelman made the motion to waive the rule preventing citizen communication but to delay any action on the item until Thursday. Four citizens spoke, including a former state legislator and a representative from the Chamber of Commerce. Three of the four spoke in favor of the November move. All of the speakers, it should be noted, were more than 50 years old, part of the largest bloc of citizens who regularly vote in municipal elections.

Council members took the opportunity to reiterate their positions on the proposed move. Morrison said that she supports moving the election to November but not by Council fiat. “The voters should decide when and how we hold our elections,” said Morrison. “I’ve heard comments that my intent is voter suppression and self-interest, and let me just say that is dead wrong,” she said.

Council Member Chris Riley took issue with Morrison’s characterization that Council members would be acting outside their authority by voting to move the election (and therefore extend their own terms by six months)

“The legislature dealt with this explicitly and determined we don’t need to take this to the voters,” said Riley. “State law supersedes out local charter requirements. In light of SB100 … the charter provision no longer controls this issue; the legislature has explicitly given us the authority to move this election.”

On Tuesday night the Austin Community College Board of Trustees voted to move their election to next November. Without ACC sharing the cost of equipping the necessary 190 precincts, a May election would cost the city $671,614. Should the AISD board vote to move to November as well, that May number will jump to nearly $1.25 million.

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