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Post Prop 1, city begins community conversations about citizen petitions

Tuesday, June 14, 2016 by Audrey McGlinchy, KUT

In a dark room usually reserved for musical performances in South Austin’s Strange Brew coffee shop, four Austin residents met on Monday to talk about the process of citizen petitions — the most recent of which resulted in Proposition 1 — and the debate over local regulations for ride-hailing companies.

“(City) Council is considering this process,” said Marion Martin, who was facilitating the discussion. “On the one hand, (citizen petitions are) a great way for citizens’ voices to be heard. But putting on an election is an expensive and cumbersome process.”

These four people, however, are not policymakers. Rather, they are residents showing up as part of the city’s Conversation Corps, which began officially in April 2015. Each month, the city picks a topic and hosts community conversations. This month, the focus is a timely issue: citizen petitions.

While some Council members have characterized recent petitions as an abuse of the process — Council Member Delia Garza called a failed petition to recall Council Member Ann Kitchen “laughable” — it’s not yet clear that any Council member intends to suggest changes to the city’s citizen petition process.

(Kitchen and Garza were not readily available Monday afternoon. Council members attended a retreat for most of the day.)

While the state sets rules regarding city charter amendments, local lawmakers can tinker with the framework for initiative, referendum and recall petitions, including changing the number of signatures required to make these valid. But because these rules are part of the city’s charter — or constitution, if you will — altering petition procedures would have to go to a public vote.

In the meantime, the city will hold community conversations about them. Those who attended Monday’s meeting did not have strong opinions on citizen petitions. But all agreed that there needs to be more ways for citizens to communicate concerns with the city, including more internet- and phone-based ways of chiming in.

Council Member Don Zimmerman said that these community conversations reflect the interests of city government — and not of citizens.

Speaking about his district, Zimmerman said, “Not one person has expressed any interest in having a conversation about the petition process.”

Changes to this process came as recently as four years ago. In 2012, voters supported lowering the number of signatures required to bring forth an initiative (or ballot) for a public vote, decreasing 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.

The community conversations about citizen petitions continue through the month of June. You can find a complete list of times and locations here:

This story is the result of a partnership between the Austin Monitor and KUT News.

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