Thursday, December 17, 2020 by Jo Clifton

Unions line up to oppose ‘strong mayor’ plan

Fifteen community leaders, including nine representing labor unions, have written to Andrew Allison, the chair of a political action committee behind a suite of proposed charter amendments that would remake Austin city government, asking him to end his campaign to institute a so-called strong mayor form of government. The PAC is called Austinites for Progressive Reform.

Signers of the letter include Carol Guthrie, business manager for AFSCME local 1624; Emily Timm, co-executive director of the Workers Defense Action Fund; Selena Xie, president of the Austin EMS Association; environmentalist Robin Schneider; criminal justice advocates Chris Harris, Kathy Mitchell, Emily Gerrick and Amanda Woog; and representatives of construction and building trade unions, plumbers and pipe-fitters.

The letter, which was sent Tuesday night, says, “(A)fter carefully reviewing your proposal it is clear that the ‘strong mayor’ component of your proposed charter amendment would dismantle the 10-1 system and result in an unrepresentative and unhealthy consolidation of power within the Office of the Mayor at the direct expense of democratically elected members of Austin City Council who represent distinct districts.”

Political consultant Jim Wick, the campaign leader for Austinites for Progressive Reform, told the Austin Monitor Wednesday that the group has gathered about 24,000 signatures to place five charter amendments on the May ballot. He expects the group to present those signatures to the city clerk in early January.

Allison, who sold his social media marketing company, Main Street Hub, to GoDaddy in 2018, told the Monitor that he was surprised by the unions’ letter. “My understanding is that the individuals who signed the letter are asking us to shelve the campaign. This is a campaign that’s been operating in public for six months with a steering committee of community leaders who drafted the reforms … More than 20,000 Austinites want to see these reforms on the ballot.”

Allison described the current system as one that leads to lower-turnout elections with participants being “disproportionately white, wealthy and old.” He said Austinites should have a say in who leads the executive branch of the city. Under the current system, all 10 members of Council, plus the mayor, participate in selecting the city manager.

Under a strong mayor form of government, the mayor would act as city manager, but would not vote on items brought before Council. Under the proposed charter amendment, however, a strong mayor would be able to veto the legislation approved by City Council as a whole. It would take a two-thirds vote or a three-fourths vote of the members of Council to override a mayoral veto. There would also be 11 Council members instead of the current 10.

Other provisions include moving mayoral elections to coincide with presidential elections, and providing a $25 voucher to each registered voter to donate to a mayoral candidate and their chosen district candidate.

Guthrie and others who oppose the amendment expressed strong opposition to switching to a strong mayor form of government. Guthrie said, “I don’t understand why people are rushing to make this change. I do believe that directors (of departments) do need to be held accountable, but when you give all the power to one person, that sets up a very different system than what we have right now. Right now, the City Council can hold the manager accountable, and if we had a strong mayor form, (that would not be the case). At least the way it’s structured now, it has its checks and balances.”

She believes the 10-1 system has led to more, not less, voter participation. “And the mayor and Council have always been able to manage the city manager …. So, why would you want to give one person all the power to run a multibillion corporation, basically, and you never know who’s going to be elected.”

Political consultant David Butts said he is in favor of the amendment and has given the committee some advice. He said, “Anytime you have a Council that’s regionalized … you’re going to run the risk of it being fragmented – we’re going to look after our interests at the expense of the minority groups … I raised that issue back in 2012 when I opposed an all-district Council.”

Xie, who represents the EMS union, said Wednesday that she served on the steering committee that put together the proposed amendments but she is now opposing the amendments. Xie said because they had to gather the signatures quickly, “there just wasn’t enough attention on this campaign.”

Jacob Aronowitz, who leads the United Professional Organizers, which also signed the letter, said his group actually collected signatures for the petition. They were especially interested in a charter provision that would provide for ranked choice voting, which would eliminate runoffs. He said the group was also interested in the provision that would give each voter $25 to donate to candidates in their district. That provision, plus the ranked choice voting, were the most important parts of the proposal for his union, he said.

Aronowitz said he felt they had been misled and perhaps unintentionally passed on false information because they did not understand that ranked choice voting is currently illegal under Texas law. His group voted last week to oppose the charter amendment because of that fatal flaw.

Read the full text of the letter below:

Download (PDF, 31KB)

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Key Players & Topics In This Article

AFSCME: This is the union for municipal workers. Locally, Austin regional chapter 1624, dates to 1969.

Austin City Council: The Austin City Council is the body with legislative purview over the City of Austin. It offers policy direction, while the office of the City Manager implements administrative actions based on those policies. Until 2012, the body contained seven members, including the city's Mayor, all elected at-large. In 2012, City of Austin residents voted to change that system and now 10 members of the Council are elected based on geographic districts. The Mayor continues to be elected at-large.

Austin/Travis County EMS Association: The employee association for those who work for Austin/Travis County EMS.

Office of the Austin City Clerk: This city department provides access to city documents, ensuring compliance with records-retention laws, and facilitating City Council's legislative process.

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