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Court rejects bid to overturn ballot language

Thursday, February 25, 2021 by Jo Clifton

Today’s City Council agenda contains resolutions and emergency ordinances waiving fees and regulations to help Austinites deal with the aftermath of prolonged freezing temperatures and the loss of power and water. The final item on the agenda is entirely different.

Item 7 would allow Council to rewrite ballot language on the May 1 ballot for the Save Austin Now Proposition B, which asks voters to consider reinstating anti-camping provisions and ordinances related to solicitation and sitting, lying or sleeping in public areas.

But Council will probably decline to revise the language, because on Wednesday night the 3rd Court of Appeals rejected a writ of mandamus that would have required the city to change the wording. Attorney Bill Aleshire, who represents three Austinites who signed the Save Austin Now petition seeking to reinstate the city’s previous ordinances, told the Austin Monitor via email that his clients would appeal to the Supreme Court.

Linda Durnin, Eric Krohn and Michael Lovins allege in their suit that the language adopted by City Council is “unfair, prejudicial and distorts the actual petition language in an attempt to intentionally bias voters” against the camping ban. More importantly, they say the city charter requires Council to use the language in the caption of the petition, which Council did not do.

In its response to the suit, the city says it is not required to use the caption language – that’s the crux of the argument. But the response goes on to dissect the petition to show it lacks the safeguards of the previous city ordinance. In their rebuttal, Durnin, Krohn and Lovins say the city is misinterpreting their petition. As campaigns rev up both for and against the camping ban, it is likely that the two sides will argue about the meaning of Proposition B on similar grounds.

Renea Hicks, the city’s outside counsel, pointed out in his filing that the city includes parts of three counties, Travis, Hays and Williamson. Of the three, Travis has the earliest filing deadline. Although today, Feb. 25, was the deadline, Travis County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir confirmed that the new deadline is March 3.

DeBeauvoir told the Monitor, “What we’re going to do is we’re going to move forward as far as we can” with programming and testing and wait to see what happens with the lawsuit. She stressed that it was important to get everything done that could be done without having the exact ballot language this week. She noted that the May 1 election is not a federal election, so Travis County has a little more time to get ready. However, it is important to get things done in time to send out mail ballots.

DeBeauvoir concluded, “We want to make sure we don’t have to repeat the testing and the printing, but we need to do as much in advance as soon as we can.”

If the city ultimately loses the case, Council would be required to hold another special called meeting to change the language.

Photo made available through a Creative Commons license.

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