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Monday, January 22, 2018 by Caleb Pritchard
CodeNEXT critics postpone petition deadline, averting a May election
The political action committee hoping to put CodeNEXT to the voters has announced that it’s changing course and will aim for a referendum in November rather than May.
The group had originally pledged to submit the petition to the Office of the City Clerk by January, a deadline that could have triggered a May election. The revised timeline would put the question of whether to have a subsequent up or down vote on CodeNEXT on the November ballot, should the clerk certify the petition as valid.
IndyAustin’s lead organizer, longtime activist Linda Curtis, told the Austin Monitor that a recent bout with the flu had sidelined her operations during the first part of the year. She also cited the six-figure price tag that taxpayers would have to pick up exclusively for her referendum if the vote were held in May. Curtis, who moved from Austin to Bastrop in 2002, suggested that staging the election would cost $800,000, though the Bulldog reported that City Clerk Jannette Goodall said it would be closer to $700,000.
The petition is one of three that IndyAustin is currently circulating. It calls for a waiting period for CodeNEXT to take effect should City Council approve the revised Land Development Code later this year, as well as another election that would give voters the chance to override Council and keep the existing code. The waiting period would last “until the June 1st following the next regularly scheduled council elections after Council adopts CodeNEXT,” according to the petition.
Of the other two petitions, one would allow voters to decide whether to simplify the process by which to overturn Council decisions by popular referendum. The third petition would place on the ballot an ordinance allowing digital billboards.
Curtis told the Monitor that the decision to delay the CodeNEXT petition doesn’t alter plans for the other two since she had always intended to put both of those questions on the November ballot.
Coinciding the vote with the midterm elections when congressional, statewide and City Council offices will be up for grabs will guarantee a much larger turnout compared to a May election. That enhanced pool of voters could include thousands of people who might not be intimately familiar with the complex intricacies of a Land Development Code that tops 1,000 pages.
Curtis said she’s not concerned about that larger slice of the electorate.
“I love November, though it’s a financial stretch to reach large numbers. But, I believe after many hours petitioning myself that lower income and younger people (renters) are ready to move with us IF we can reach them,” she wrote in an email. “The messaging from the other side is deceptive (as usual) and could backfire on them. But they will have a TON of money!”
In its Jan. 15 filings, IndyAustin reported that it had pulled in $45,000 between mid-August and the end of 2017. Reagan Outdoor Advertising, which would benefit from an ordinance allowing digital billboards, contributed $5,000 of that, and lobbying firm Texas Solutions Group – which counts Reagan as one of its clients – chipped in an additional $17,000 along with a $5,000 loan.
Curtis told the Monitor that TSG’s founder, Jeff Heckler, is an old friend who also helped her put a controversial minor league baseball stadium proposal on the ballot in the 1990s.
Nonetheless, the urbanist group AURA slammed the PAC’s connection to Reagan and its lobbyist.
“IndyAustin’s sheer intellectual dishonesty is breathtaking,” AURA Board Member Josiah Stevenson said. “IndyAustin postures about their outrage over homebuilders making profits, while receiving funding from the profiteering billboard industry. The billboarders’ goal is to keep cars on the highways and drivers distracted.”
IndyAustin also brought in $4,632 from the Let Us Vote Austin political action committee, which is operated by attorney Fred Lewis. Lewis, who also heads the anti-CodeNEXT group Community Not Commodity, also personally loaned Curtis’ group an additional $5,500.
While IndyAustin lists among its expenditures more than $18,000 for paid petitioners and petition managers, Curtis said volunteers are also helping to gather signatures on behalf of her PAC as well as Let Us Vote.
“It’s more ‘unorganized’ too,” she added. “That is, people are picking them up on the internet and just doing them and we get them in the mail.”
Curtis declined to reveal how many signatures have been collected so far.
When asked why she’s so involved with issues in a city she doesn’t live in, Curtis replied, “Half of Austin lives outside now, so there is great interest by those who were forced out economically, like I was.”
Photo of Linda Curtis by Kate Groetzinger.
Curious about how we got here? Check out the Austin Monitor’s CodeNEXT Timeline.
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