The homeless camping issue is so controversial, visible and seemingly intractable that the proposed rollback of the Austin City Council’s June 2019 repeal of the City’s camping ban long ago became the marquee item on the upcoming May 1 City Charter amendment ballot. It has somewhat overshadowed another item with fundamental significance for Austin’s future. That is whether to change our form of City government, from the current Council-Manager form of government to a strong mayor system. The Independent will publish a series of articles on the issue leading up to the beginning of early voting on Monday April 19. That goes through April 27 with election day on May 1. You can also read our previous coverage of the issue here as well as our coverage of issues related to local homelessness and the camping ban.
Currently the basic structure and principle of City government is that the Council sets policy and the City Manager is charged with carrying out those policies and overseeing the every day operations of City government. The City Manager has hiring, firing and chain of command authority over all City employees except the City Auditor, the City Clerk and the Municipal Judges. The Council as a whole appoints those officials and they manage the employees in their offices. Under Austin’s Council-Manager system the Mayor is a member of the Council with the same voting power as other members and not much additional power beyond that, except for the authority of presiding at Council meetings.
Under the proposed change in form of government, the powers of the City Manager would be switched to the Mayor. The Mayor would become the top City executive with hiring and firing authority over all City staff except the few specifically placed under Council by the City Charter, as noted above. The Mayor would also assume ultimate operating authority over all City departments except, once again, those otherwise noted. That includes, among other functions, public safety, streets, parks, libraries, waste and recycling collection, electric and water utilities, and an airport. The Council would be the “legislative” body/branch. The amendment does not make totally clear if this would be an exact replica of the Council’s current policy setting power. Whatever the case the Council’s power would be diluted, compared to now, because the Mayor would have veto power over any action of the Council. Overriding the veto would require a two-thirds majority.
The proposed change is on the ballot due to a petition drive by a group titled Austinites for Progressive Reform (APR). APR also succeeded in getting several other less sweeping propositions on the ballot:
- a “Democracy Dollars” program in which City funds would be set aside for partial public funding of campaigns, with each citizen able to direct funds $25 of public funds to a candidate of her or his choice;
- ranked choice voting which would eliminate runoffs by having candidates list their second and third choice, providing for an instant runoff (this one would require changes in state law to actually go into effect); and
- move the mayoral election to the same year as presidential elections in order to have the highest turnout.
A fifth item directly accompanies the strong mayor proposal by adding a Council seat so that the body would still have an uneven number. A strong mayor would not be required to attend Council meetings.
APR’s core arguments for strong mayor are that it is more democratic to elect the City’s top executive and that more large cities have strong mayor than Mayor-Council. They also repeatedly slam City Managers present and past for exercising an “unaccountable administrative veto” when, as they see it, the Manager disagrees with Council policy direction.
Roots in the Adler Camp
From the start APR featured several prominent political operatives with close ties to Mayor Steve Adler — including a former campaign manager and mayoral staffer, a deputy campaign manager, a political consultant and the Mayor’s campaign treasurer. The campaign chairman and spokesperson is Andrew Allison, a young high tech multimillionaire with a passion for governance and politics. Allison was also a leading figure supporting Code Next and the City’s currently derailed attempts to rewrite the Land Development Code.
Adler is term limited, but Austin’s term limit provision allows office holders to seek additional terms if they conduct a petition drive to get on the ballot and obtain the signatures of five percent of the electorate they represent. So Adler could potentially run for a third term and become Austin’s first strong mayor. In July he responded to inquiries from the Independent by emailing, ““I’m not associated with the initiative, but I support it. I will not run for re-election or undertake a petition drive.”
Adler has tried to increase the Mayor’s power ever since he took office. Actually it started even before he took office when he invited the entire Council to his house for a charm offensive a few days before inauguration — meaning the Open Meetings Act was not yet in effect. Soon after that Adler announced a plan to roughly double the size of his office staff and to establish a Political Action Committee that would raise funds to cover part of the cost. Most of that was ultimately shot down by a Council majority led by Delia Garza and Kathie Tovo.
The Coalition of Strong Mayor Opponents
The strong mayor proposal has drawn opposition from one of the more wide ranging coalitions in Austin history. The opposition is organized under the banners of a group titled Austin for All People and a Political Action Committee (PAC) named Restore Leadership ATX. The opposition is also getting help from the International City/County Management Association (ICMA), which is headed by former Austin City Manager Marc Ott. That comes through ICMA funding of a contract with Elizabeth Christian Public Relations (ECPR). Walter Zaykowski of ECPR explained that arrangement to the Independent, “ICMA has a contract with ECPR to conduct public relations for Austin for All People – a grassroots/volunteer led organization. ICMA is donating ECPR’s services in-kind to the Restore Leadership ATX PAC.” He added that Austin for All People is not a PAC.
The fundamental objection of opponents is that the proposed strong mayor system concentrates far too much power in one individual. They say that the more diffused allocation of power in the Council-Manager system has worked well for Austin and argue that a switch to strong mayor will derail or weaken the 10-1 single member districts system which is only six years old. They also maintain that if the Manager is failing to implement Council policy then the Council should hold the Manager accountable — instead of the electorate changing the form of government.
On its website, Austin for All People lists a far ranging coalition of activists, business people, union leaders, social justice advocates, critics of the police department, and advocates of the police department. Campaign leaders often comment on having lined up labor and management on the same side. For instance both the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce and the Central Labor Council (a coalition of local unions) oppose the switch to strong mayor. While noteworthy, this is not exactly a coalition of labor and their managers in the same industry or endeavor. Rather the coalition is more private business people and public sector unions —specifically AFSCME Local 1624, which represents thousands of City and County employees, and the Austin EMS Association.
So, yes, the coalition of labor and business united against the strong mayor proposal is noteworthy. The more jarring alliance to this author, however, is how several people who usually strongly disagree on public safety issues find themselves in the same camp on this one. For instance Mike Levy, former publisher of Texas Monthly and a long time advocate for more cops, and Chris Harris, a young social justice advocate and APD critic, both oppose strong mayor. ((Levy contributed $25,000 to Restore Leadership ATX, the anti-strong mayor PAC.) Ironically, Levy was one of the original members of the Council appointed Public Safety Commission and Harris was a member until recently. That Commission has veered rather sharply leftward since Levy left and Harris was a leader in that shift.
If lasting alliances or deeper understanding of each other were to emerge from these alliances that would be a positive, but that should not be expected. These folks will likely continue to disagree. Their point of agreement is that they would like to continue their disagreements from within the Council-Manager system, with its diffusion of power among many, rather than risk power concentrating in one person — who might be on the other ideological side.
Levy for instance says, as first reported in the Austin Monitor and later reiterated to the Independent, that he has heard people from “across the political spectrum say they’re against it (strong mayor) because they’re afraid (Council Member) Greg Casar would be the first strong mayor.” All other Council Members except Casar and Paige Ellis have announced opposition to the strong mayor proposal. The Austin American-Statesman reported that Casar opposes the proposition, but he does not appear on Austin for All People’s list of those who oppose the initiative. The Independent contacted Casar to confirm his position, but did not hear back by press time.
Austin for All People has also united many Democrats and Republicans in opposition to the strong mayor proposal. For instance the Liberal Austin Democrats and the Austin Young Republicans are both opposed. Joining the Liberal Austin Democrats are the Circle C Democrats, NXNW Dems, and the Austin Environmental Democrats. Among the eight Austin Council Members in opposition is Mackenzie Kelly, the Council’s only Republican.
Another unlikely set of allies is RECA (the Real Estate Council of Austin) and the Save Our Springs Alliance. These two groups have battled intensely for decades, but both are listed as opponents of switching to strong mayor. They would evidently prefer to continue those battles within the Council-Manager system. On top of that, Austin for All People is so committed to their name and to building coalitions against the strong mayor initiative, that they are even publicizing the support of affable, but notorious City Hall lobbyist Richard Suttle. Over the decades Suttle has represented a number of, let’s say, controversial clients and he led the way in getting anti-environmental legislation passed at the state level; specifically the grandfathering bill which says that a development stays under the same water quality regulations in place at the time it was first filed, regardless of how much is learned from science in the meantime or how much public opinion changes. Suttle’s clients over the decades have included the would be developers of the Barton Creek PUD — Freeport McMoRan and their late CEO Jim Bob Moffett; the Hyde Park Baptist Church; the Terrace development behind Zilker Park; and many, many more. Suttle even appears in a video for the anti-strong mayor campaign.
Also opposing the strong mayor effort is the dean of Texas City Managers, 97-year-old LBJ School Professor Emeritus in Urban Management, Terrell Blodgett. Earlier in his life Blodgett served as City Manager of both Garland and Waco. He was also an Assistant City Manager in Austin from 1955 to 1960. Blodgett published an oped in the Austin Business Journal in which he wrote, “Many of the arguments for switching to strong mayor make some sense on first reading, but Austinites should beware: This is a Trojan Horse and would bring numerous unintended and destructive consequences to our city if it passes.”
The pro-strong mayor group, Austinites for Progressive Reform, also cuts across some political lines in its support. Their supporter list includes business heavy hitters like Tom Meredith, formerly of Dell and Ali Khataw, head and founder of a successful local engineering firm. Perhaps APR’s most compelling advocate is local NAACP head Nelson Linder (who we will hear more from in an upcoming installment).
At first look it appeared that APR had also pulled off an astounding coalition in regard to land development code issues, like their opponents did on public safety. As noted earlier, APR chairman Andrew Allison was also a leading figure in the push for CodeNext. Several other ardent CodeNext supporters are listed as strong mayor backers. Also listed as a strong mayor supporter was former Austin Planning Department Director Jim Duncan. He was a leading opponent of CodeNext. Duncan, however, told the Independent that he is not for strong mayor, but does support APR’s proposals for ranked choice voting, Democracy Dollars, and moving mayoral elections to the same year as presidential elections. He said he made that clear to the APR campaign.
Allison told the Independent that the campaign was not aware that Duncan opposed strong mayor and removed his name from the list of people that it says support all their initiatives.
The groups will battle it out in the days ahead with early voting starting on Monday April 19.
Coming next: The Austin Independent takes a deeper dive into the arguments for and against strong mayor, with interviews of leaders on each side.
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