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Austin says group doesn’t have signatures to put homelessness ordinances on the ballot in November

Thursday, August 6, 2020 by Andrew Weber, KUT

Austin’s city clerk says a group seeking to reinstate the city’s bans on sitting, camping or lying down in public doesn’t have the requisite 20,000 signatures to force a referendum on Election Day.

Save Austin Now, led by Travis County GOP Chair Matt Mackowiak, submitted its petition with 24,201 signatures late last month. After a review, the city estimated the likelihood that 20,000 of the signatures are valid is statistically near impossible. In a memo announcing the review, City Clerk Jannette Goodall said the odds that the petition has enough valid signatures are “less than 3 in one billion.”

The clerk’s decision effectively scuttles Save Austin Now’s goal of holding a referendum in November over the city’s controversial revamp of laws related to homelessness.

In a joint statement, Mackowiak and Save Austin Now co-founder Cleo Petricek disputed the clerk’s count, going as far as accusing the clerk of “throwing out hundreds of signed petitions.”

“We are exploring several options available to us, including possible legal action,” the statement read. “This fight is not over.”

Chris Harris, who helped lead the Housing Not Handcuffs campaign that spurred Council to change the ordinances last year, said the old rules relied too heavily on law enforcement.

“We are ecstatic, but unsurprised that Save Austin Now failed to gain meaningful support for a petition seeking to punish poverty and re-establish policing as our primary approach to homelessness,” he said in a statement Wednesday.

City Council revised its ordinances in June 2019 and then again in October after the rules were targeted by Gov. Greg Abbott. While Council said its goal was to reduce burdensome fines and fees associated with living outdoors, opponents argued the revised laws made the city less safe and created public health and safety hazards.

Save Austin Now started gathering signatures for the petition back in February. Save Austin Now started gathering signatures for the petition back in February, and submitted its signatures in July. The legal deadline to finalize the November ballot is in mid-August.

A statistical review is standard for petitions with more than 1,000 signatures. The clerk’s office randomly selects a quarter of signatures to check, then extrapolates the likelihood enough signatures are valid. The review found the number of valid signatures was between 18,887 and 19,356; it put the official estimate at 19,122.

This story has been corrected. An earlier version of this story said Save Austin Now had until October for a second attempt to get the ordinances on the ballot. The deadline is actually mid-August.

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