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Council rejects meeting to consider adding ballot measure

Friday, February 12, 2021 by Jo Clifton

After a majority of Council members told City Attorney Anne Morgan they did not believe a special called meeting on Friday night was necessary, Morgan advised Mayor Steve Adler that the mayor would not have a quorum to consider the hastily written charter proposal to add another Council member to the dais.

Adler pulled the plug on the late-night meeting Thursday afternoon.

Council Member Vanessa Fuentes, who joined Council in January, had suggested that the group should give voters the option of adding an extra Council member. Fuentes noted that there would be an even number of Council members on the dais in 2025 if the public approves adoption of the strong-mayor proposal from Austinites for Progressive Reform yet did not add another member, or vice versa.

In response, Adler set the late-night meeting, as Council only has until midnight Friday to submit additional ballot proposals for the May 1 ballot and he was required to give 72 hours notice.

This did not sit well with Council members Alison Alter, Ann Kitchen, Leslie Pool and Kathie Tovo. Alter, Kitchen and Pool posted a joint response on the City Council Message Board outlining their objections to the proposed meeting. They wrote: “At every step this year’s charter amendment process has been frustrating, coming as it is amidst a pandemic with proposals that have far-reaching and significant consequences for city governance.”

The three added, “We believe democracy works best in the light of day and with the oxygen of public participation. With 72 hours notice, at 9:45 p.m. on a Friday evening, with a midnight deadline and under conditions of emergency passage, we are being asked to convene a special called meeting to adopt additional new ballot language. While we appreciate our colleagues’ interest in discussing these latest ideas, we believe such a meeting and course of action would further undermine public confidence in how we make decisions as a Council.”

Council Member Kathie Tovo also voiced objections on the message board, saying she would attend such a meeting if it were held though she did not expect to support the proposed measure. “While I always welcome Council discussion, the measure appears unlikely to pass. Given that circumstance, I would suggest we not hold a meeting as doing so would require the City Clerk’s office and other city staff to support us from onsite at a late hour with little notice.”

Tovo added, “I understand the interest in considering this and potentially other issues, and I support convening a City Charter Commission soon after the May election to discuss any proposed charter amendments as a community.”

On the other side, Council Member Paige Ellis and Mayor Pro Tem Natasha Harper-Madison seemed willing to attend the meeting. Harper-Madison said via email, “I agree with Council Member Fuentes that an even number of Council votes could create gridlock on the dais. Given the countless problems that need to be urgently addressed in Austin, I’m surprised my colleagues didn’t want to consider the issue and its implications a little more closely. That said, the question is now up to the voters, who now have less than three months to consider complex changes to our local government that will have lasting consequences for generations to come.”

Council Member Paige Ellis agreed with Fuentes and Harper-Madison, saying via text message, “Council should at the very least have the opportunity to discuss whether our voting body should have an odd number or even number of representatives. It’s the least we can do to honor 10-1. This last ballot item could allow for 13 voting members, the most representation our city has ever seen. Otherwise we may see stalemates on important issues. Council needs to put this on the ballot so voters have a say.”

Council members Mackenzie Kelly and Pio Renteria also did not favor the Friday night meeting. Kelly’s aide wrote on her behalf, “I support what has been said here about the work ideally being done in a deliberate way that allows for discussion among us that is respectful and informed. Our work must be slowed sometimes to be inclusive of our residents and their diverse viewpoints. We are enriched when we have time to hear those varied views, and impoverished when only one strong voice speaks.”

Renteria wrote that he shared the concerns of his colleagues who opposed the late-night meeting and that he agreed with Tovo and would support the idea of convening a new charter commission.

Council Member Greg Casar wrote on the message board that he was willing to attend the Friday night meeting, but he did not immediately respond to a request from the Austin Monitor to comment.

Even before the mayor’s colleagues posted their messages, it was clear that there would not be a sufficient number of Council members to convene a meeting, so Adler indicated he would cancel it.

As any seasoned Council member can recall, an even number of Council members can agree to table an item until someone changes their mind or the proposal is changed to be more palatable – or the proposal dies.

Although they may argue otherwise, by dividing up the strong-mayor amendment and the addition of a Council district, Council members introduced the element of uncertainty they now face. According to APR leader Andrew Allison and attorney Jim Cousar, both were intended to take effect at the same time – after the election in 2022.

Allison told the Monitor via email: “These changes would not be staggered; they would be simultaneous. This section says that the Council will have 11 members after the November 2022 election, and the mayor-Council form of government would also begin at that same time. So, on the same day, the mayor would move off the Council and the 11th Council member would be seated.”

Cousar said if the proposition adding the new Council member passes in May, “This year’s redistricting commission would have to shift gears and start designing an 11-member Council.

“So if voters add a member but reject the strong-mayor idea, or vice versa,” he continued, “Council will have to deal with an even number of members until they can add another district. But if voters approve any of the charter amendments in May, the city will not be able to have another charter election until May 2023.”

Editor’s Note: This story previously contained an inaccurate scenario of what would happen if voters approved the strong-mayor ballot proposal. That information has been corrected. 

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