Photo by Gabriel C. Pérez/KUT
Wednesday, January 27, 2021 by Audrey McGlinchy

Voters to decide on changes to how Austin’s government works

Austin voters will be asked to decide on a slew of changes to the way local politicians are elected and what power they have in governing after the city clerk validated a petition Tuesday.

Earlier this month, Austinites for Progressive Reform, a local political action committee, turned in a petition with more than 20,000 signatures, the amount required to put something like this to an election.

The PAC is asking that residents vote to make several changes to the city’s charter. Much like the Constitution, the charter dictates how Austin’s government functions. The changes are:

  • Move mayoral elections to the same year as presidential elections. Austin currently elects a new mayor the same year as midterm elections.
  • Use ranked-choice voting for local elections. Instead of voting for one person, voters would rank candidates.
  • Change from a “weak-mayor” form of government to a “strong-mayor” system. Austin currently has a city manager who oversees the executive branch of the city. The change would put the mayor in that role and grant the mayor veto power over the Council’s votes, an ability the city manager does not currently have. At the same time, the group is proposing to add an 11th Council district.
  • Offer a $25 voucher to each voter to be used as a contribution to local campaigns.

A spokesperson for the PAC said he believes these changes will be presented as four separate items on a ballot, meaning voters would vote on them individually and not as a package.

In a letter signed last month, a group of union leaders and criminal justice advocates raised concerns about the strong-mayor provision of the petition, saying it would consolidate too much power within the mayor’s office. This, they argue, would make it harder for Council members representing underserved parts of the city to have their policy changes heard.

“We are unconvinced that a strong mayor, armed with newly gained powers over the Council, is somehow better positioned to be sensitive and responsive to the nuanced challenges faced by residents in individual districts than the current system affords,” the letter reads.

It’s not yet clear when voters would be asked to decide on these changes. City Council still needs to agree to put them on the ballot, a vote which is typically ceremonial. According to state law, Council would have the option of including this initiative on a May 2021 or November 2022 ballot.

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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.

Council-Manager government: Austin has a council-manager form of government. Under this system the elected city council is responsible for the legislative portion of our government. The city council-appointed city manager carries hires staff and is responsible for implementation of city ordinances.

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