Should Austin prepare for the age of the petition?
Thursday, January 28, 2016 by Audrey McGlinchy, KUT
Austin is riddled with petition fever, or so it seems lately. Last week, local group Ridesharing Works for Austin – a political action committee funded by Uber and Lyft – handed 23,000 petition signatures over to the Office of the City Clerk, making it highly likely that its ordinance will go in front of City Council, if not in front of the public for a city-wide vote.
Ridesharing Works for Austin member Mark Nathan signaled the call that day. “All right, folks, we’re going to take our petition signatures into the city clerk right now,” he shouted to petitioners and press milling outside the city clerk’s office.
Then came news that a petition from an “Austin4All” PAC to recall Council Member Ann Kitchen was making its way through Kitchen’s District 5. (A recall petition requires signatures from 10 percent of the voters in that district.) The PAC’s funders remain anonymous.
In the meantime, two more petitions have cropped up: one from Bike Austin encouraging the city to fully fund the Bicycle Master Plan, and another (this one online) from a group calling itself Austin Home Sharing Works that opposes Council’s revisions to short-term rental regulations.
To be fair, it’s likely that only one of these efforts will result in some definitive action from the dais. (If at least 20,000 signatures are certified, the Uber- and Lyft-funded petition will go to Council.) But a former Council might have predicted this era of fervent petitioning – well, if not predicted, at least opened the doors for it by making it easier for ordinances backed by petitions to have their day on the dais.
In 2012, residents voted to reduce the number of signatures required to bring forth an initiative (or ballot) for a referendum, lowering it from 10 percent of registered voters (which would be roughly 50,000 signatures today) to 20,000 signatures – the number required to amend the city’s charter, as set by Texas law.
At a meeting on Oct. 13, 2011, members of the Charter Revision Committee discussed the potential change. “For some strange reason, as I understand it, you can change the city charter with fewer signatures than you can make an ordinance with,” said member David Butts. “And this would bring the two in line with each other.”
Committee member Susan Moffat said the result had been unnecessary amendments to the city’s charter.
“It is the belief of many that one of the reasons our charter is such a mess is because it’s actually easier to amend the charter right now than it is to petition for a simple ordinance,” Moffat told her fellow committee members. “And things, because of that, have ended up in the charter that really shouldn’t be in the charter.”
Former Council Member Mike Martinez told the Austin Monitor that one such example was an item on the November 2008 ballot that would have prohibited the city from offering incentives to developers bringing retail to Austin. That was brought forth as a charter amendment (requiring 20,000 signatures) – not an ordinance – meaning that it required roughly 30,000 fewer signatures than 10 percent of registered voters at the time of that election (466,854, according to election documents). That ballot initiative failed.
“If the citizens wanted to overturn that policy, we felt that it would have been much more appropriate to get an ordinance and not a charter amendment,” said Martinez. Stressing the sanctity of a city’s charter, he added, “A charter is your governing body’s constitution.”
And so, by the voice of the people, the number of signatures required for an ordinance was changed in 2012.
The ordinance in the Ridesharing Works for Austin petition would most likely still be valid without this change – the group has said it gathered 65,103 signatures. But Peck Young, director of the Center for Public Policy and Political Studies at Austin Community College, told the Monitor that the change in 2012 made it easier not only for citizens to bring forth ordinances, but for corporations to do the same.
“People can use their corporate funds to pay for petition drives, and you end up with the system being perverted by people who want to use petition drives as a weapon,” Young said.
Kitchen told the Monitor that she expects the Ridesharing Works for Austin petition to come before Council at either its Feb. 4 or Feb. 11 meeting.
This story was produced as part of our reporting partnership with KUT.
Update: Audio from McGlinchy’s KUT report is embedded below.
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