Photo by John Flynn
Tuesday, July 21, 2020 by Chad Swiatecki

Push for 2021 charter amendments could make Austin a ‘strong mayor’ city

A new group of community activists and political insiders intends to push for amendments to the city charter that could bring about a change to a “strong mayor” form of government, along with other changes focused on increasing voter turnout and impact on city operations.

Austinites for Progressive Reform, which has formed as a specific-purpose political action committee, will work through the fall and winter to put the proposed amendments on the May 2021 ballot.

The nonpartisan group’s 16-member steering committee has identified four impacts it hopes to achieve via the amendments. Including the switch to a mayor-council government model that would eliminate the role of a city manager, possible changes include moving mayoral elections to presidential election years, implementing ranked-choice voting for city offices as soon as state law allows, and implementing a “democracy dollars” campaign finance system that would create public funding for city races.

There are different configurations in U.S. cities for how a mayor-council or strong-mayor structure works, but generally it places the mayor as a city’s top executive instead of a city manager, with City Council still responsible for approving changes to laws and policies. In Houston the strong mayor handles the appointment of a chief administrator and department heads, prepares the city budget and oversees the work of city departments.

Andrew Allison, the group’s chair, said its primary goal is increasing voter involvement in local elections. A public engagement process slated to begin in August and continue through the fall will determine the exact scope and finer details of the amendments, which he said will be drafted and administered by the steering committee.

“We’ve done the research on how these reforms have worked and are working in other cities, and there is excellent and reliable data around how each of these reforms has increased turnout, increased participation, increased diversity among voters and elected representatives,” he said.

“The value of having an elected official as the head of our executive branch is that every four years we get to decide what kind of city we want to be, what our values are and reaffirm them, or decide to go in a different direction. We can decide on how we want our day-to-day life in the city to be administered and what we want our vision as a city to be.”

If implemented, one scenario for the mayor-council form of government is that the mayoral election scheduled for 2022 might be for a two-year term, with the next four-year term decided in 2024’s November election.

That could also remove the mayor as a voting member of Council. This would likely require the creation of an 11th Council district and impact the work of the city’s Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission, which is set to convene next year to redraw Council districts based on new census data.

Of Texas’ major cities, only Houston currently has a strong-mayor form of government.

In 2016 Terrell Blodgett, a professor emeritus at the University of Texas Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs, performed an analysis of local forms of government and found that Austin’s current council-manager structure was more efficient and a better fit than a strong-mayor system.

Noting that Houston’s bond rating at the time was two levels below that of Austin and other council-manager adherents, the analysis read in part, “In Austin this system has worked for 90 years. It is to the (city manager’s) advantage to make the Council look good. It is to the Council’s advantage to give the (city manager) the professional latitude to advise the best way forward, including working out the details of accomplishing everyone’s overall objectives for a great City of Austin.”

Jim Wick, a former staff member of Mayor Steve Adler and longtime Austin campaign manager who is joining the PAC as campaign manager, said City Council would likely become more nimble and effective by governing via creating and amending ordinances rather than directing city staff to implement policy and becoming removed from the process.

“Congress doesn’t pass a resolution asking the president to come back with a bill,” he said. “They write the bill themselves. It’s a much purer form of democratic representation … and it’s also a way to guarantee that the will of the Council is enacted through the law.”

While the group’s intent is to increase voter participation, Wick said a combination of factors including a wait of more than two years for 2018’s charter amendments make it likely that the charter amendments will be decided in the mid-year election of an odd-numbered year, which typically have low participation rates.

“It’s really a timing issue of lining up with the mayoral election and redistricting,” he said. “While I would much prefer to have the largest electorate possible weigh in on these, and I believe that would increase the chances of passage, I feel pretty confident that even in a smaller turnout election these reforms will be popular with Austinites.”

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