When word first broke that a local political action committee calling itself Austin4All had enough signatures to recall City Council Member Ann Kitchen, most of her colleagues came out in force to show their support for her. Standing outside City Hall on Feb. 1, some Council members joked they would be next.
But now that the threat of recall is more real (5,289 signatures were turned in to the city clerk on Friday; 4,848 were needed), some Council members have begun to further reflect on what they have said is a misuse of the recall process.
“I think it’s laughable that frankly a group … think(s) that they can basically hijack our Council because of the way Council Member Kitchen voted on one issue,” said Council Member Delia Garza.
But Tori Moreland and Rachel Kania, co-directors of Austin4All, said their recall effort goes beyond Kitchen’s support of stricter regulations for transportation network companies (fingerprint-based background checks for all TNC drivers being the most headline-grabbing of these).
“I just want to emphasize this is more than about Uber and Lyft,” said Moreland, in one of the first sit-down interviews the co-directors have granted the media. “That was just a symptom, so you could say, of the greater problem, and that is that disconnect between the decisions being made at City Hall and the wants and desires of Austinites.”
Moreland said the campaign to recall Kitchen represents a long-standing division between the will of residents and those who represent them at City Hall.
“What we wanted to do, especially with Austin4All, as its first landmark operation, is to go for the root of the problem,” said Moreland. “Cut the snake off at its head. Go straight in for it and address the real issue, and that is this out-of-touch, elitist, corporate-funded, backwards-thinking mindset at City Hall.”
Moreland said the 10-1 Council system, arguably designed to hand the reins of local government over to those with fewer financial resources and a more low-key political status, has not done what it set out to do.
But some Council members have said that the PAC is the one removed from the needs of locals. Council Member Leslie Pool pointed to the contributors listed on the first financial report the PAC submitted Friday along with its recall petition.
“The challenge is coming from people from outside of Austin,” said Pool.
Five of the 11 contributors listed addresses outside of Austin (including Kyle, Hutto and Longview). None of the contributors is from Kitchen’s District 5.
Kania said those details do not indicate a lack of district-wide support for the Council member’s recall.
“How can you call it lack of support when there’s 7,000 people who signed a petition?” she said. While the group handed in 5,289 signatures, it says it collected roughly 2,000 more than that. “I think that’s a good amount of support there,” said Kania.
When campaigning, Council members are subject to a cap ($36,000) on the amount of money they may receive from non-Austin donors, but there do not appear to be any residency regulations when it comes to donors on a recall petition. In the recent Ridesharing Works for Austin petition to submit new ride-hailing rules to the city, companies Uber and Lyft (neither of which is headquartered in Austin) provided almost the entire funding for the effort.
Mayor Steve Adler considered the question of district-specific donors.
“I would suspect that if Ann Kitchen was raising money to defend against a recall effort, she would probably seek for contributions that are outside her district,” he said. “And I’m not sure as I sit here that I would want to deny her the ability.”
But he did say the now-lower threshold of signatures needed to initiate a recall is an issue he might consider bringing to constituents. (Under the new 10-1 system, 10 percent of a district’s active voters must sign a recall petition. Because prior Council members did not represent a specific district, a recall petition needed 10 percent of the entire city’s registered voters.)
“I’ve had some people raise the question as to whether or not we should revisit the threshold for a recall election,” said Adler. “And that might be a good conversation to have in the community.”
No Council members said that this petition instilled fear or concern – especially when it came to casting future votes on issues so contentious as TNC regulations.
“I think, if anything, this recall effort – it gives me resolve to vote the way that I believe is right for my constituents,” said Garza.
Update: Audio from McGlinchy’s KUT story is below.
This article is the result of a partnership with KUT.
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Ann Kitchen: Austin City Council member for District 5, first elected to Council in 2014. Kitchen also represented southwest Austin from 2000 to 2002 as a member of the Texas House.
Austin City Council: The Austin City Council is the body with legislative purview over the City of Austin. It offers policy direction, while the office of the City Manager implements administrative actions based on those policies. Until 2015, the body contained seven members, including the city's Mayor, all elected at-large. In 2012, City of Austin residents voted to change that system and as of 2015, 10 members of the Council are elected based on geographic districts. The Mayor continues to be elected at-large.
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