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Strong-mayor proposition fails spectacularly

Monday, May 3, 2021 by Jo Clifton

In the May 1 election, voters strongly rejected Proposition F, which proposed a radical change to Austin city governance from the Council-manager form of government to a strong mayor with veto powers over actions taken by City Council. Eighty-six percent of those casting ballots on the issue voted no. The proposition brought by Austinites for Progressive Reform lost as badly as any ballot proposal in recent memory.

Voters also rejected Proposition G, which would have added an extra seat on Council, although the margin was considerably smaller, with about 57 percent in Travis County and 58 percent in Williamson County voting against it.

The Austin Monitor asked Peck Young, a longtime political consultant who is currently advising the city’s redistricting committee, why Prop F lost so badly. He said, “Even though I philosophically believe in strong mayor … that has got to be the most badly worded, badly written and badly planned version of strong mayor … I’ve ever studied or read in my entire life.”

Referring to the infamous Boss Tweed, the strongman who reigned over New York in the post-Civil War era, Young said even Tweed did not have the authority to veto actions by Council. He concluded, “This is the silliest version (of strong mayor) you could imagine.”

Young also criticized the way APR went about putting together the proposition, saying that the advisory group was handpicked and met for only one month during Covid.

“In a city that values input, they managed to get as little as they could. So I’m not surprised it was massacred because it was a good idea that was done as badly as you could do it in Austin.”

“G was just an add-on that shouldn’t have passed without F,” Young said. If G had passed but F had failed, “you’d end up with 12 Council members with a potential for permanent deadlock.”

A clearly elated Nico Ramsey, spokesman for Austin for All People, the umbrella group that worked to defeat the strong-mayor proposition, said, “The voters decided. … It was a clear rebuke of APR’s Prop F and we’re pretty happy here.” Asked if the results matched their polling, Ramsey said, “We don’t do polling, but we feel that we did our best to educate” the voters. “We weren’t expecting this, but we were happy to see the outcomes of our efforts.”

Political consultant David Butts, who worked for Austinites for Progressive Reform, said the outcome for Prop F was worse than he expected, adding it was “pretty clear early on it was not going to be that serious a contest.” So the group concentrated more on other propositions, particularly Prop H, called Democracy Dollars, which would have given every citizen $25 to donate to a Council candidate. That proposition also failed.

Seeking to explain the lopsided loss, Butts said he thought part of the reason was, “the side that was pushing it really didn’t want to try to burn down the city politically. So unless you’re willing to go in there and use a lot of acrimony and fire, you’re not going to make much headway … they looked at their polling … it never really had a lot of support.”

Butts also noted the unusual coalition of opponents, from labor to business to environmental groups, that frequently disagree on such matters.

The International City/County Management Association, led by former Austin City Manager Marc Ott, also contributed expertise and hired the Elizabeth Christian Public Relations firm to help Austin for All People.

Ott said Sunday that when he first heard about the strong-mayor effort, opposition was at “a very low level, quiet, very different from the proponents. So to get to this point where Austin for All People was able to bring together such a diverse coalition of people and organizations was pretty amazing.”

Ott, who served as city manager for eight and a half years, feels strongly about the city manager form of government in Austin. “Why would anyone want to mess up a winning formula?” he asked, especially since Austin has been seen as a top local government, not just nationally but internationally.

Jason Grant, director of advocacy for ICMA, said, “When it comes to accountability, the manager can be fired at any moment, so they’re able to hold him accountable every day …. a lot of that seemed to resonate with people just the way that it functions.”

Asked to name other cities that have had a similar election experience in recent years, Grant said Sacramento “is probably the most apples to apples.” The California capital had a Council-manager form of government, and in a 2020 referendum voters rejected a change to the strong-mayor system, with 57 percent opposed.

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