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City Clerk verifies enough petition signatures to put 10-1 plan on ballot

Friday, July 27, 2012 by Josh Rosenblatt

It’s official: City Clerk Shirley Gentry has validated more than 20,000 signatures from petitions gathered by Austinites for Geographic Representation (AGR), clearing the way for the group’s 10-1 single-member district plan to be on the ballot this November.

Gentry sent a memo Thursday afternoon to the City Council notifying them that the petition turned in to her on July 16 is valid, meaning at least the required 20,000 of those who signed are registered to vote in Austin.

Council Member Mike Martinez, who sponsored a resolution placing the exact same language as AGR’s petition on the November ballot, told In Fact Daily Thursday night that he plans to offer a motion to rescind the earlier resolution. That will not happen at City Council’s next meeting on Aug. 2, he said, “but I assume sometime within the next few meetings.” If their petition gets on the ballot there’s no reason for our item to be on the ballot as well.”

Despite Martinez’s resolution, AGR representatives wanted to go forward with the validation process of its petition drive to ensure that no changes could be made by Council before the November ballot is locked in.

If Austin voters approve the 10-1 plan this November, the city will be represented by 10 Council members elected by individual geographic districts and one at-large mayor. Council now consists of six members and a mayor – all elected citywide. In addition, the city will use an independent citizens’ redistricting commission to draw the map of those districts.

Council is also scheduled to vote on putting a competing hybrid plan on the ballot. That plan would also expand the Council, but include eight district representatives, two at-large Council members and one at-large mayor. At their last meeting, on June 28, Council approved putting that plan on the ballot on first reading only. Passage on two more readings is required. Supporters on both sides of the debate have expressed concern that if both proposals are on the ballot they will cancel each other out and the city will be stuck with the at-large system it currently has.

Under state law, for a charter amendment to get on a ballot, a petition with the signatures of 20,000 voters (or 5 percent of the number of voters, whichever is less) must be validated by the city. The AGR petition contained 23,007 signatures. Using a random statistical sample method of validation, staff and an outside statistician verified 25 percent of those signatures against the voter registration databases of Travis and Williamson Counties. They estimate that there are 22,435 valid signatures on the AGR petition. Staff checked 5,752 signatures and determined that 113 of them were invalid, either because they were duplicates or because they were the signatures of people not on the Austin voter list.

Gentry said there is no way to verify that those signing the petition actually read the proposal, which is four pages long. She said she doubted that many people standing out in the heat would have read it, but that is not actually a requirement for collecting a signature.

Staff has placed an item on the Aug. 2 Council agenda to hear advice from the Law Department concerning issues related to the election and putting the plan on the ballot. All told, Gentry said the validation process took approximately 370 staff hours. A cost-analysis has not been done yet, but last week Gentry estimated the cost to the city will be about $15,000.  

AGR spokesperson Jessica Ellison told In Fact Daily that her group is excited about the news but that they now have to get to work on an educational campaign to convince voters to vote for the 10-1 plan in November.

“When you only have 6 or 7 percent of the population voting, that means a lot of people don’t even know this argument is going on,” Ellison said. “So we are currently organizing our 28 endorsing bodies to push the grassroots organizing and to go out into their neighborhoods and talk to their neighbors about the 10-1 plan, the people’s plan.”

AGR representatives will also attend next Thursday’s Council meeting, Ellison said, to try and convince Council members to “listen to the people and not put anything else on the ballot.”

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