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Tuesday, January 12, 2021 by Jo Clifton

Groups ready to battle over strong mayor

The group Austinites for Progressive Reform, which wants to replace Austin’s council-manager form of government with a strong mayor form of governance, submitted 24,000 signatures to City Clerk Jannette Goodall on Monday in an effort to place four charter amendments on the May 1 ballot. Shortly after the announcement about the signatures, a second group, Austin for All People, released a statement opposing “the proposed charter amendment that would radically change the city of Austin’s governance system.”

Austinites for Progressive Reform, which was founded by Andrew Allison, has been working since last summer to gather enough signatures to make other changes to the city’s election process. In addition to replacing the current system with a strong mayor form of government, the amendments propose moving mayoral elections to coincide with presidential elections, putting in place a campaign finance system that would give city funds to citizens to donate to candidates, and instituting ranked-choice voting once it is allowed under state law.

Local unions have already expressed opposition to changing to the strong mayor form of government.

Among those supporting the strong mayor system and the other proposed ordinance changes are businessman Tom Meredith, NAACP leader Nelson Linder, Robbie Ausley, Jehmu Greene and Ali Khataw. In addition to Allison, the group’s founders include political consultants Jim Wick and Laura Hernandez as well as civic activist Eugene Sepulveda. Wick will be managing the campaign along with Hernandez.

Adopting the strong mayor form of government would eliminate the city manager position and make the mayor the most powerful person in City Hall. Supporters of the plan say this would make City Hall directly accountable to the voters. The amendment would require adding an 11th City Council district. The city is starting to put together a group of citizens to work on redistricting under the current system.

Leaders of the group opposing the strong mayor form of government include former City Manager Jesús Garza, attorney Catherine Morse, Kerbey Lane Cafe CEO Mason Ayer, and civil rights activist Nico Ramsey.

Garza, who served as Austin city manager from 1994-2002 and later became deputy general manager of the Lower Colorado River Authority and finally CEO of Seton Healthcare Family, expressed strong feelings about retaining the council-manager form of government. He told the Austin Monitor that he and the other co-chairs of Austin for All People had started the group to talk about why it would be a bad idea to change systems so soon after the city had instituted the 10-1 system in 2015.

In a prepared statement, Garza said, “Over the past two decades, the people of Austin helped the city emerge as a global destination for job creation while maintaining its roots as a community known for live music, art and culture. All of this was accomplished under a Council-manager system of government, and while imperfect, it is a system that works. The proposed change to the strong mayor system would result in less citizen participation within our local government.”

Garza pointed out that under the proposal, the strong mayor would operate independently from Council and would have vast spending authority on personal initiatives and veto power over Council decisions.

Morse said the International City/County Management Association has helped the group’s cause by hiring Elizabeth Christian Public Relations to assist with communications. Former Austin City Manager Marc Ott is executive director of the ICMA.

Terrell Blodgett, a former Austin assistant city manager and professor emeritus at the LBJ School of Public Affairs, is not part of the opposition group; however, he does oppose the strong mayor system. He said cities that have strong mayors, such as Chicago, have lower bond ratings than city manager-run cities. As a result, when cities managed by strong mayors go to issue bonds, it costs more than for cities managed by city managers. Although Houston has a strong mayor, other large cities in Texas do not.

Austinites for Progressive Reform has linked the adoption of the council-manager form of government to the Jim Crow era. The NAACP’s Linder is quoted as saying, “The 1928 Master Plan,” which relegated people of color to East Austin, “came as a direct result of the installation of the strong manager government in 1926. The time has come for change.”

In response to a question about how her staff would count signatures while staying safe from Covid-19, City Clerk Jannette Goodall told the Monitor via email that staffers will be spread out as much as possible on the first and the third floor of the offices to allow for social distancing. In addition, “staff will wear masks at all times, hand sanitizer will be at every desk and in general areas, face shields (are) also available if staff want them. At this point, I am not sure how long the process will take until we start verifying the names.”

Ali Khataw is on the board of the Capital of Texas Media Foundation, which is the parent nonprofit of the Austin Monitor.

The Austin Monitor’s work is made possible by donations from the community. Though our reporting covers donors from time to time, we are careful to keep business and editorial efforts separate while maintaining transparency. A complete list of donors is available here, and our code of ethics is explained here.

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Key Players & Topics In This Article

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.

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