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Wednesday, November 4, 2015 by Caleb Pritchard
Travis County voters reject civil courthouse bonds
It was a tight match all night long, but in the end, Travis County’s $287 million Civil & Family Courts Complex bond fell with a stiff punch in the gut.
After several tense hours that at one extended point saw support for the bond proposal holding a tenuous but growing lead, the final, unofficial count showed that it went down by just over a thousand votes.
In the end, 75,174 ballots were cast, according to the Travis County clerk. That’s 11.66 percent of registered voters in a county whose population tops over 1.1 million residents. The abysmal turnout notwithstanding, opponents were delighted with the results.
“You don’t see David and Goliath victories every day,” Austin City Council Member Don Zimmerman told the Austin Monitor late Tuesday night. Zimmerman rallied late opposition to the courthouse plan through the Travis County Taxpayers Union, the political action committee he formed in 2012 to oppose Central Health’s tax rate increase in support of the Dell Medical School and other operations.
medical school bonds. He said that the Union played the David to the Austin Bar Association’s Goliath.
“We spent $3,000 while the pros spent $300,000,” he explained, though that second number may be exaggerated. According to the most recent campaign finance disclosures, the ABA-funded Community for Civil and Family Courthouse PAC had spent just over $231,000 as of Oct. 25.
Zimmerman also credited the proposal’s defeat to last-minute intervention from the Real Estate Council of Austin. RECA’s board approved a resolution in late October denouncing the plan to build a courthouse at West Fourth and Guadalupe Streets as a waste of prime downtown real estate.
“We wouldn’t have won without RECA’s opposition,” Zimmerman declared emphatically. “RECA provided the margin of victory.”
Dozens of supporters of the proposal gathered to watch the returns Tuesday evening at an ABA-sponsored party in downtown Austin. Among the attendees were County Judge Sarah Eckhardt, Commissioner Brigid Shea and Commissioner Gerald Daugherty.
The mood was largely festive even after the initial returns showed that the majority of early voters rejected the bonds. As Election Day vote counts – coming in at a tantalizingly slow pace – showed the bonds taking the lead, spirits picked up. Then, just after 10 p.m., the final results came in and showed a devastatingly close defeat.
In a fiery concession speech, Eckhardt thanked county staff members who have been working to replace the 84-year-old Heman Marion Sweatt Courthouse for more than a decade. She also defiantly pledged that this defeat was only a temporary setback engendered by low voter turnout.
“Losing a bond election? Big deal,” Eckhardt said defiantly. “The bigger deal is that not enough of our community is sufficiently engaged in one of the basic tenets of our democracy, which is providing justice to all segments of our community.”
Eckhardt pledged to move forward with new plans to build a new courthouse. Under state law, the county cannot bring another bond question related to the project before voters for three years. After everyone had left Tuesday night’s party, Eckhardt remained behind and told reporters that there are other, more expensive options that could be cooked up. She disclosed that she is prepared to stake her political career on that kind of drastic action.
“We need this badly enough for me to take the hit,” Eckhardt said. “We need it that badly.”
Photograph courtesy of Dan Keshet
This story has been corrected to reflect the fact that the 2012 medical school election was not a bond, but a tax rate increase.
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Key Players & Topics In This Article
Don Zimmerman: Austin City Council member for District 6.
Judge Sarah Eckhardt: Eckhardt was elected Travis County Judge in November 2014, after previously serving as the Precinct 2 County Commissioner.
Travis County Civil and Family Courthouse: The Civil and Family Courthouse is currently planned for a redesign with a bond proposal for a 14-story, 511,000-square-foot building with 28 courtrooms.