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Coalition publishes draft amendments for modified local democracy

Thursday, September 10, 2020 by Ryan Thornton

In a city where an appointed city manager administers policy, midterm mayoral elections are decided by a wealthier and whiter electorate, costly runoff elections draw a fraction of eligible voters, and nearly 70 percent of all City Council campaign contributions trace back to three Council districts, a political coalition is seeking structural changes it claims will make local government more representative, responsive and accountable.

On Wednesday, Austinites for Progressive Reform announced the publication of four draft charter amendments aimed at removing barriers to political participation and making elected city leaders directly accountable to voters.

The campaign seeks to transfer duties of the city manager to the mayor under a mayor-council, or “strong-mayor” style of government. The other amendments include holding mayoral elections in presidential election years to boost turnout, establishing ranked-choice voting to eliminate separate runoff elections and funding a “democracy dollars” plan to put political campaign dollars in the hands of more voters.

“These proposed charter amendments are focused on increasing participation in our political process and making sure we hear every voice,” said Andrew Allison, chair of the group.

The coalition announced the campaign in July and posted a statement on its website declaring a broader context for the amendments: “This is about honoring our values and helping us meet the real challenges that we face as a community, like the rising cost of living, long commutes, declining air and water quality, inequitable health outcomes, and the unequal application of the law to our people.”

The campaign proposes the city address all of these issues by making the elected mayor the city’s chief executive, charged with signing or vetoing draft ordinances from Council and administering city departments in place of the existing city manager. Under the mayor-council government, Council would oversee the mayor’s administration of city policy and both the mayor and Council would be held accountable to voters.

While increasing the mayor’s executive power, the campaign also proposes aligning mayoral elections with presidential election years to increase turnout. Historically, 30 percent of Austin residents who vote in presidential elections don’t show up for midterm elections and those who do are generally wealthier, older and whiter than the presidential-year electorate. The coalition aims to remedy this by electing a mayor for a two-year term in 2022. Mayoral terms would then coincide with four-year presidential election cycles beginning in 2024.

The campaign also includes a switch to ranked-choice voting in time for the 2022 midterm election. The proposed election model would avoid expensive, low-turnout December runoff elections that currently take place when no mayor or Council candidate gets a majority of votes in a November election. Instead, voters would rank candidates in a series of voting “rounds,” eliminating the least popular candidate until someone has a majority. Austinites for Progressive Reform says ranked-choice offers higher turnout and lower city costs compared to runoff elections, but the city may also need to request a change in state law to adopt the system.

Following Seattle’s lead, the campaign seeks to rebalance the campaign process by offering $25 vouchers to registered voters for each of their Council and mayoral races in a given election year, for an annual cost of less than $850,000. Voters could use the democracy dollars only for Council races in their voting districts and mayoral races. Results from Seattle show that almost half of city government candidates decided to run in recent elections because of the democracy voucher program.

APR is launching a monthlong community engagement effort to get feedback on the draft amendments before finalizing the language. Public meetings will be held over Zoom on Sept. 19, Sept. 26 and Oct. 3, facilitated by community leaders Shuronda Robinson and Bobbie Garza-Hernandez. Participants can register on the group’s website.

“We want to involve community members from every Council district in Austin to shape these proposed charter amendments,” said Allison. “Our community engagement process is focused on those goals too. We are asking the community to participate by sharing their experiences and providing their input. Together, we can make Austin the most pro-democracy city in the nation.”

Once finalized, APR will begin efforts to place the charter amendments on the ballot in May 2021.

In order to keep an odd number of members on Council and prevent tie votes, APR says the city would need to create a new single-member Council district if the mayor’s role is moved into an executive position. The group sees this as an opportunity to reduce the number of residents per district, ensuring city government “remains accessible to grassroots voices and grassroots campaign budgets” while creating an opportunity for the 2021 Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission to “strengthen our Black opportunity district and draw Austin’s first Asian-American opportunity district.”

Photo made available through a Creative Commons license.

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