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Mayors, environmental groups oppose strong-mayor plan

Thursday, April 1, 2021 by Jo Clifton

Three former Austin mayors and six local environmental organizations have announced their opposition to Proposition F, the charter amendment that would change Austin’s Council-manager form of government to a system that would eliminate the city manager and give the mayor the power to hire, fire and supervise department directors, including the city attorney.

Former mayors Lee Leffingwell, Lee Cooke and Ron Mullen, who collectively served as both Council members and mayors between 1977 and 2015, released a letter Wednesday calling Prop F “devastatingly dangerous.” Their announcement puts them in the camp with nine current Austin Council members who declared their opposition to the strong-mayor plan last week.

In a separate news release, Clean Water Action, People Organized in Defense of Earth and Her Resources (PODER), the Sierra Club’s Austin Group, the Save Our Springs Alliance, Save Barton Creek Association and the Austin Environmental Democrats all announced their opposition to Proposition F.

The strong-mayor proposal is part of the package put together by Austinites for Progressive Reform, whose leader is Andrew Allison. APR led a successful effort to put four propositions on the May 1 ballot: the strong-mayor proposal; changing the date of mayoral elections to coincide with presidential elections; ranked-choice voting; and a city-funded system to help candidates finance their campaigns.

If Prop F is adopted, the mayor elected in 2022 would serve for two years under the current system. However, the mayor elected in 2024 would take over the duties currently done by the city manager and would have veto power over ordinances approved by Council. Council would be able to override the veto within 45 days with a supermajority.

According to the letter from the mayors, “Most people who have served as mayors of any city would admit, if pressed, that they would have loved to have had more power while in office. The lure of autocracy is strong! Fortunately, our city charter ensures that that can’t happen. The Council-manager form of government is the most representative, democratic and accountable system imaginable. Numerous checks and balances are built into it, and tremendous access for the public is guaranteed.”

Further, they warned that “a switch to strong mayor would mean one person holds all the cards in municipal government.” Such a situation would be “ripe for cronyism and backroom dealing.”

Angela Richter, executive director of the Save Barton Creek Association, offered the following assessment: “Austin is a city with a strong environmental ethic, and we typically have several Council members who understand the benefits of clean air and water, parks, and natural areas to current and future residents.” She added, “We can’t predict who will be elected mayor in the future and we shouldn’t take the chance that this person could dismantle generations of work to make Austin a livable environmental city.”

Susana Almanza, director of PODER, said, “Our government should represent the experiences of all residents in all parts of town, not just the viewpoints of one person elected at large. Putting so much power in the hands of the mayor will diminish the voices of people of color.”

David Foster, state director of Clean Water Action, also warned that a strong-mayor system would concentrate too much power in the hands of one person. “This would be a jarring departure from the way Austin is governed now, and no one can say for certain that some future mayor won’t choose to undermine our city’s long-standing commitments to water conservation, clean energy, watershed protection and more by appointing department heads who are indifferent or hostile to these values. The Council would not be in a position to prevent this.”

Bob Hendricks, chair of the local Sierra Club group, said such a change would increase the influence of special interest money in mayoral elections. “Council elections would lose some of their importance, and even more developer and big-tech money would pour into expensive citywide mayoral campaigns. This would very much be to the detriment of ordinary Austinites and our environment.”

Bill Bunch, executive director of the SOS Alliance, said he was particularly concerned about the possibility of a mayoral veto. “The mayoral veto would give one person the power to impede environmental progress during a time when we need urgent action to address the imminent impacts of climate change,” he said.

In a recent online ballot, 89 percent of voting members of the Austin Environmental Democrats voted in opposition to Prop F.

Photo made available through a Creative Commons license.

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