This story marks the Austin Independent’s final pre-early voting coverage of the strong mayor proposal. Early voting starts Monday April 19 and ends Tuesday April 27. Election day is Saturday May 1. To review, in earlier coverage we laid out the principle that changing the form of government is such a fundamental and gravely important undertaking that the burden is on the proposers to make the case and address all questions and objections. This article continues that approach through interviews with representatives of Austinites for Progressive Reform (APR), the group proposing the change, and representatives of Austin for All People, an umbrella group of those opposing the change.
Members of the two groups answer questions from the Independent and we also report on a forum sponsored by the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce. The Independent’s questions are based on the principles outlined in a July article. Those include:
- changing the form of government is an extremely consequential and far-reaching endeavor and those seeking the change have an obligation to make their case in a factual and thoughtful way;
- those advocating the change have an obligation to citizens to be thorough, transparent, and to address all questions which arise; and
- a change in government should not take place because of frustrations with individual policies, individual actions, or individuals.
Let’s start with the virtual forum sponsored and hosted by the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce and its new President and CEO Laura Huffman. The moderator was Quita Culpepper of KVUE News. Andrew Allison, chair of APR represented the pro-strong mayor side. The antis were represented by former Austin City Manager Jesus Garza of Austin for All People.
Culpepper’s first question was whether the strong mayor system would weaken the City Council. Garza went first. He said yes, and laid out three ways he thought that would be likely to occur. First, said Garza, “The flow of information, which is essential to the development of policy, would be potentially restricted.” That, he explained, is because the flow of information would be controlled by the Mayor. Garza pointed out that providing information to the Council is a fundamental part of a Manager’s responsibility and the Council has the power to take actions up to firing the Manager if they refuse to provide adequate information. There would be no such option with a Mayor, said Garza, and thus it would be easier to withhold information.
Next, he continued, the veto would render Council Members less able to “influence policy” unless they are aligned with the Mayor. “So this does reduce the power of Council Members.”
Third, said Garza, the 10-1 single member district system has brought new people to the table, who have never been there before, and strong mayor, in his view, risks reversing that.
Allison retorted that a lot of people who supported 10-1 also support the strong mayor proposal. He said while 10-1 has “increased democracy” it has also “exposed flaws in the City Manager system.” Specifically he said that the Manager(s) has “thwarted” Council initiatives.
Allison also pushed back on Garza’s claim about the flow of information while also addressing broader concerns that a Mayor might refuse to carry out Council policies. “In the new system, if eleven Council Members agreed to pass something, or ten, or nine or eight then it wouldn’t be a recommendation to the Mayor. It would be the law. The Mayor would need to follow it regardless of what they believe. That’s a big improvement over the unaccountable administrative veto that we have today.” For examples of such a veto in action Allison referred people to the APR website for a list.
Allison said the core question is whether the “most powerful person in City Hall” is elected by the people.
Allison also maintained that “because of our history of racial and economic segregation we have a City Council where a majority of City Council Members come from districts that are majority white. [One reason for that is that district lines were drawn (just prior to 10-1 taking effect in 2015) to lump Hispanics and African Americans together in order to provide minority opportunity districts.] Thus, Allison said, the Mayor’s citywide district would be one of the most diverse districts compared to Council districts. “So,” he concluded, “the choice we have is which is the better way of picking the executive. Is it 11 people not fully representative of the City as a whole or directly having voters — hundreds of thousands, nearly a million people, fully representative of the City — being able to choose their leader?”
Allison also echoed the APR website saying the strong mayor amendment “would let voters and not politicians choose the person who leads our City” — thus slamming Council Members with the pejorative use of “politicians,” but seeming to forget that the Mayor is a politician too.
Garza, who has held the Austin City Manager job, disputed Allison’s assertion the City Manager is the most powerful person at City Hall. He pointed out that the Manager answers to the Mayor and Council. Garza added that if a Manager is defying Council direction then the Council has ready recourse; firing the manager. A City Manager that decides to thwart Council direction, explained Garza, “can be voted out pretty quickly. You can be gone from one week to the next.”
The Independent followed up with Allison regarding the list of where the Manager has allegedly not implemented Council policy. The headline on that list seemed not quite as strong as the phrase “unaccountable administrative veto.” It read, “Supermajority-Supported Initiatives Slowed or Otherwise Not Implemented by City Management.” Some of the list appears to fall into the less intentional categories or even not totally the City Manager’s responsibility. Allison said that there are “degrees of neglect,” which is why APR included the categories of “slowed implementation,” “less than hoped for implementation,” and “outright refusal to implement,” I ask for one that falls into “refusal to implement,” or “unaccountable administrative veto.” He cited last summer when Council voted unanimously that they didn’t have confidence in police leadership and several Council Members said they thought Chief Brian Manley should resign. “That resulted in no leadership changes at the department.”
But, does Allison acknowledge that this issue featured complications in that the Charter grants the City Manager, and only the City Manager, the authority to remove the Police Chief; and that the Charter says that Council Members cannot call for the resignation of department heads? Does he acknowledge that the Council’s actions put the Manager, who is entrusted with obeying the Charter, in a position of having to defend the Charter?
“Our point,” replied Allison, “would not be that the current system of government or the current charter was not followed in that situation. Our point is that the current system of government is flawed because it works that way.” He explained further, “Our elected representatives said they had no confidence in police leadership and in many cases were implying that they would like to have a change in personnel. And, the Manager did not make that change. That is an example of a lack of democratic accountability over executive action.”
So is he saying that this is an example of an “unaccountable administrative veto?”
Allison responded, “I’m saying it is because essentially the Council passed a resolution, which is the way that the Council acts today. And their resolution was not implemented by the Manager. And, what else should we call that but a veto? A veto that cannot be overridden by the Council. After all they passed that resolution eleven to nothing. You couldn’t pass that resolution any more overwhelmingly than that and it was not enacted by the City Manager.” [Here, voters might also want to consider the principle laid out by the Independent that a change in the form of government “should not take place because of frustrations with individual policies, individual actions, or individuals.”]
This leads to back to the question of Council powers in the proposed strong mayor system. While opponents of strong mayor claims that it weakens the Council, APR claims that in some instances it strengthens Council power. The APR website maintains, “Today, the council cannot give direct instruction to executive appointees. Our amendment provides the council with more authority to oversee and hold accountable those appointees.”
The Independent asked Allison whether by appointees he means department heads and what additional powers the strong mayor system would give Council Members over such “appointees,” i.e. hiring and firing, giving direction? He said they did mean department heads and responded that the Mayor would have hiring and firing authority and the power to give direction to City employees — not the Council or individual Council Members. “The voters,” however, continued Allison, would have more say in the hiring and firing decisions through their ability to elect the Mayor. “So that’s one half of the answer,” said Allison. But, the question regarded not increased power for voters, but the APR website’s contention that the strong mayor amendment would give the Council “more authority to oversee and hold accountable those appointees.” What is an example of that?
The only place Allison could cite increased Council power over department heads was with one single department head, the City Attorney. Currently the City Manager has sole authority to hire and fire the City Attorney. Under the strong mayor proposal the Council would be granted the power to confirm or reject City Attorney nominees. And, both the Mayor and Council would have the power to fire the city attorney.
So that increases the Council power over one department head, but the APR website claims that the strong mayor amendment gives the Council “more authority to oversee and hold accountable those appointees” i.e. department heads.
Allison added that the amendment would remove the Charter language saying that Council Members cannot call for the removal of department heads, titled “Non-Interference in Personnel Matters.” Thus, says Allison, the Council could “express opinions about the executive function.”
Born of Jim Crow
Back at the Chamber forum Quita Culpepper’s second question was addressed to Allison of APR. “It sounds like you have some concerns with the origins of the City Manager system here in Austin. What are those concerns? Culpepper was referring to APR’s contention that the Austin City Manager system was “Born of Jim Crow.”
“That’s right. We do have concerns about the origins of the system,” began Allison. He explained that the system was created in 1924 at the urging of “Austin’s elite businessmen at the time.”
“One of those people,” he continued, “was Monroe Shipe, who was the developer of Hyde Park, a whites only suburb at the time.” Shipe, said Allison, was not only instrumental in bringing Austin the City Manager form of government, but also “the at-large City Council system that we lived with for 100 years and that we all agree we are glad to be beyond now.”
Allison maintained that Shipe and associates “believed that the City wasn’t acting efficiently,” meaning “that the City wasn’t prioritizing the stuff that they cared about. So they built a wall between the voters and the decision makers in City Hall, and a wall that they knew that they could climb because of their access and status and money and influence, because they were closer to City Hall than the voters were.”
Allison continued, “One of first things that the first City Manager did was authorize the 1928 Master Plan which as we know coercively relocated Austin’s Black population to the East Side, while investing tax dollars in priorities of Austin’s business community at the time. And, we think that’s an example of what can happen when you separate voters from decision makers in City Hall, when you separate voters from the people who are in charge of their democracy, you leave space for insiders to exert more influence.”
He added, “We do need to be examining where our systems come from, especially now, especially these days, we need to look at what are the origins of our systems, where did they come from, and if the origins are questionable, then we need to question whether it is worth keeping these systems.”
In rebuttal Jesus Garza said, “First of all, let me be clear. A vote against Proposition F doesn’t mean, it doesn’t mean for a minute, that you do not have progressive views about equality or justice.” He then stressed the “broad based coalition” his group has assembled against the strong mayor proposal. “All those individuals are supporting this system (Council-Manager) because they know it has worked for Austin.”
Garza then charged that APR was introducing unnecessary divisiveness into the campaign. “We realize that there were periods in our history that were wrong and I as an Hispanic understand it from my own experience in South Texas. But, I do believe that to think in those terms is simply wrong, and not appropriate, and I think we ought be debating the issues of what we think will happen if we change this form of government.”
The Independent also discussed the “Born of Jim Crow” claim in separate interviews with representatives of both campaigns. Allison and Nelson Linder, head of the local NAACP represented APR in the interview. Our question on the “Born of Jim Crow” contention, was slightly different that Culpepper’s question at the Chamber forum. The Independent asked, “Accepting all that (what they wrote in “Born of Jim Crow” on their website, which Allison explained at the Chamber forum), how does it follow that we should today, almost 100 years later, switch to strong mayor? Help me with the thought process there.”
Allison let Linder field the question in the Independent interview. Linder did not try to make as direct a connection as Allison did at the Chamber interview or as APR does on its website. He began, “There were things being said about this proposal (strong mayor) being in fact racist and so it was important to give you the whole history of how this system evolved. Here’s the larger point in my opinion about how the system evolved. If you’ve got an unelected official in a certain position, a power broker from the outside can put in force immense pressure and change that person’s point of view. In that process the voters have no say so.”
The Shipe example, said Linder, offers “a perfect example of why the voters should be able to elect a person who has executive power. It doesn’t get any clearer than that. Because if you’ve got an employee in that position, let’s face it, it’s a lot easier for a person with extraordinary power to apply pressure through all kinds of means to change that person’s opinion, and the voters are sitting on the sidelines. On the other hand if it’s an elected process you are going to be aware of what is being proposed and you can either vote it down or vote it in. So I use that example to clarify why the voters should have ultimate power in any kind of political management system, not an appointed employee.”
The Independent then asked, wouldn’t wealthy business people have a similar possibility of having a lot of influence over a Mayor who has to raise money for campaigns. Allison tagged back in at that point, “Right now if you are a wealthy campaign contributor you can donate to all eleven Council Members. . . You can start PACs for them and send them more money that way, but all of us only get a chance to vote for two of those people.”
He continued, “The votes don’t cross district lines, but the money does. So you can have a lot of influence right now certainly if you have money and power in Austin politics, especially over influencing a majority of the Council. But, the vote is where power for everybody else comes from. It’s not going to be the case that everyday Austinites are going to match big donors dollar for dollar, but if we have the vote then we can overcome that money in the selection of our executives, in the decision about what policies get prioritized.”
At this point the discussion had moved beyond the original question of how, if the City Manager system was “born of Jim Crow” in the 1920s, it follows today that Austin should switch to a strong mayor form of government. Before moving on in the article, however, let’s hear from everyone interviewed. Nico Ramsey, Garza’s fellow spokesperson for Austin for All People, had strong words on that issue.
Ramsey said the introduction of the Jim Crow issue was one thing that caused him to get involved in the campaign, “That was another part of this issue that got me energized,” said Ramsey. “I don’t know if you’ve seen my picture, but I’m also Black, and it did not sit well with me, to say the least. Because what they are saying is that something that came about during a certain era is inherently racist and this is the exact issue that we, in the Black community, see time and time again; with people using things that are not racist to try and speak for the Black experience.” Ramsey continued, “What happens is when amendments like this that tie on to things that are systematically rooted in our City and they come up with, ‘oh, by changing this government we will solve racism.’ It is just a slap in the face of people who are Black, who do this work for anti-racism and people who we have lost, because we know, common sense tells us, that no form of government is what will change racism.” Ramsey added, “Personally what it looks like is they are glomming on to what happened past summer in an effort to drive this amendment.”
Ramsey’s overall summary was, “Proposition F is just bad for Austin because it consolidates power into one person, including having veto power. . . They (APR) cover it up under this false pretense by saying it makes Austin more democratic.”
The Independent also asked both groups how the fact that Austin has had two Hispanic City Managers, an African American City Manager and two women affects their views. We also discussed the fact that Austin has diversity in other management positions as well.
Linder of APR pointed out that pressure for diversity came “from the outside.” That’s accurate, but he did not dispute that it also resulted from initiatives by decades of Council Members working within the City Manager system.
Allison interjected that diversity at City Hall is “important and necessary,” but said he prefers to focus on what’s happening outside of City Hall. He went on to blame “a system where the executive is unaccountable” for “high poverty rates;” an “exponential affordability crisis;” people moving to Hays County, Pflugerville, and Bastrop; and an “exacerbated crisis of exclusion and unaffordability” as well as “poverty and lack of access to opportunity.”
Ramsey again had a different take, pointing out, “There’s more representation in our City Manager than in our mayors.” Indeed Austin has had one Hispanic Mayor and has never had an African American or Asian American Mayor.
Linder said the core of his support for strong mayor lies in his belief that no system has yet “moved the needle” on “big ticket items” such as “housing, gentrification, displacement, more economic success for all people, black and brown people.” Linder believes those issues have a better change of being addressed with a strong executive and said that was at the core of his support for strong mayor. Linder also praised the commitment of Mayor Steve Adler to addressing issues affecting the Black community, but said that Adler does not get enough support from the rest of the Council.
We will close this segment with a reminder of the Independent’s principles for evaluating a proposal to change the form of government. First, in our view, the burden is on those making the proposal. They are to be factual, transparent, and address all questions which arise. Also, a change in government should not be undertaken because of frustrations with individual policies, individual actions, or individuals. The Independent offers these principles for readers to utilize, if they see fit, in coming to their decision on the fundamentally important decision of whether Austin should switch to a strong mayor system.
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