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Council OKs new ballot language for Prop A

Friday, September 3, 2021 by Jo Clifton

As directed by the Texas Supreme Court, City Council on Thursday approved new language for Proposition A, the ordinance that would increase Austin’s police force to two officers per every 1,000 residents.

Although the political action committee Save Austin Now claimed victory in the court ruling, the city also emerged victorious because the state’s highest court recognized the necessity of adding the cost of the ordinance to the ballot language. With a price tag estimated at between $271.5 million and $598.8 million over five years, voters who might otherwise have voted yes may decide the price is too high.

Council unanimously adopted the language proposed by the court. Council Member Alison Alter was absent.

Voters will now be asked to answer this question: “Shall a petitioned ordinance be approved to enhance public safety and police oversight, transparency and accountability by adding new chapter 2-16 to establish minimum standards for the police department to ensure effective public safety and protect residents and visitors to Austin, and prescribing minimal requirements for achieving the same, at an estimated cost of $271.5 million – $598.8 million over five years?”

The language tracks the wording of the caption of the petition that was used to get the item on the November ballot – with the addition of the phrase about the cost.

Council Member Greg Casar told his colleagues on the dais he appreciated the fact that the Supreme Court recognized the importance of including the cost in the ballot language. He added, “I am troubled that some of the language being ordered on the ballot in my view is misleading.” Even though the language in the caption of the proposed ordinance refers to enhanced police accountability, there is nothing within the ordinance itself that increases accountability, he said. Opponents of the ordinance will simply have to work harder to help voters understand what the ordinance actually says.

Mayor Steve Adler pointed out, as he has previously, that the most important feature of the ballot language is its fiscal impact. “The Supreme Court agreed and said that the omission of that language was misleading and inadequate under the law.” He added that he had “some reservations,” about the rest of the language required by the court. In the future, the mayor said, Council might consider how to make people more aware of what they are signing when presented with a petition.

Outside City Hall, Casar told the Austin Monitor, “This ballot item isn’t about public safety, it’s about politics. The fiscal impact of potentially spending $600 million over five years sounds absurd because it is. It is so irresponsible and would force a cut in services or an increase in taxes – or both – without any real public safety benefit.”

Matt Mackowiak, the chairman of the Travis County Republican Party, leads Save Austin Now along with his colleague Cleo Petricek, a Democrat. Petricek’s presence has not been sufficient to convince the group’s opponents that SAN is not simply a Republican Party tool.

Following Wednesday’s court ruling, Travis County Democratic Party Chair Katie Naranjo released a statement calling Save Austin Now a “Republican front group.” Her press release said, in part, “Prop A would devastate city services and force Austin to lay off firefighters, medics and other staff only to spend tens of millions more on the police department without any accountability. During the ongoing pandemic, Prop A is even more dangerous to the health and wellbeing of our city. We’re committed to fighting this irresponsible ballot measure this November, because Austin should fund all of our first responders and services.”

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