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Split Council backs May election on second reading; final vote today

Friday, October 7, 2011 by Elizabeth Pagano

On Thursday, a bitterly divided Austin City Council once again argued, debated and heard testimony on whether to hold elections in May or November 2012, once again voting 4-3 for the traditional May date.


Council will hold a specially-called session at 1:30pm today to vote on a third reading of the election issue. If it passes, the election will be scheduled for May.


As they did two weeks ago, Mayor Lee Leffingwell and Council Members Chris Riley and Mike Martinez cast dissenting votes.


Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole and Council Members Laura Morrison, Kathie Tovo and Bill Spelman all emphasized their support of a November election at some point in the future, but thought it should be left up to voters to decide the matter. Those who wanted to change the election to November stressed that voters would still have a chance to change the election date back to May, if it was their will.


“What we are deciding today is to move election one time, from this May to next November. It is not a permanent change, as repeatedly has been said. It is a one-time grant by the legislature,” said Martinez. “It will go to the voters next November, and it will arguably be the highest voter-turnout in the history of Austin that will decide.”


In fact, with a host of proposed charter amendments already in the works, it remains unclear when voters will decide on charter amendments. Attorney Sidney Falk, of Bickerstaff, Heath, Delgado Acosta LLP, explained to In Fact Daily that the statute that governs scheduling requires initiatives be placed on the ballot of the first uniform election date, or the first general city election held after a valid petition is received.


Activists are currently preparing a petition related to single-member districts even as a city committee is looking at the same question, among others.


This means that if the city decides to hold its election in May, and a valid petition is received in advance of that election, voters will vote on that charter amendment in May.


Additionally, because charter amendments cannot be made more often than every two years, all of the proposed 20-plus charter changes would need to appear on the May 2012 ballot, or put off until 2014—assuming that any of the propositions wins voter approval.


While the discussion leading up to the vote took several hours, the questions and tone left little doubt that the Council Members were firmly entrenched in their positions. Those in favor of the May date thought it was a violation of the charter, and such an important decision should be in the hands of voters.


Though she expressed appreciation for the “really spirited debate,” Morrison said, “I think it is absolutely inappropriate for the seven of us to exercise the power to extend our own terms… It is our voters’ right to chose and to set forth exactly how we should move to November.”


“I look forward to a charter amendment. I hope that it is carefully laid out. I hope it is resoundingly adopted, and that should be in November 2012,” said Morrison.


Those that wished for a move to November said that the larger turnout and lower cost of a November election made it the clear choice.


“I’m keenly aware and mindful of the needs that we have in this city and our difficulty in meeting those needs, so it’s difficult for me to justify spending an extra million dollars, or however much it’s going to be, just to have a fraction of the voters participate in our democracy next year. I just can’t justify it,” said Riley.


City Clerk Shirley Gentry prepared an operating budget for a May election prior to the meeting, adding to a growing list of estimates given to Council.


The already approved budget for 2012 election costs is $791,000. AISD has yet to decide on their election date, but if they choose to partner with the city in May, the unbudgeted expenses, with a runoff, will be about half a million more than that, at $1,245,415, according to Gentry’s memo.


If the city ends up staging the election alone, costs are anticipated to be over a million dollars more than originally budgeted, at $1,821,255. This figure also factors in a runoff.


City Manager Marc Ott told Council that the funds would most likely come from the Stabilization Reserve that is currently about $36.2 million.


The debate reignited when the next item, which authorized money for election voting equipment, came up. Council voted to approve the funding 4-3, in a split mirroring the previous vote.


More than a dozen people spoke, restating now familiar arguments about?the democratic process and the sanctity of the charter. The vast?majority favored a shift to November, at about two to one.

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