Monday April 19 marks the beginning of early voting in the City of Austin’s May 1 election. Early voting ends Tuesday, April 27, 2021. Election Day is of course, May 1.
The two marquee items are the proposed rollback of the Council’s June 2019 repeal of the homeless camping ban and a proposed switch to a strong mayor form of government. The voter guide below discusses the propositions that have not gotten as much notice.
Proposition A. Binding Arbitration for Firefighter Union negotiations. This item made it to the ballot through a petition drive led by the union for Austin firefighters. It would amend the Charter, as summarized in the ballot language, “to give the Austin Firefighters Association, Local 975 of the International Association of Fire Fighters, the authority to require the City to participate in binding arbitration of all issues in dispute with the Association if the City and the Association reach impasse in collective bargaining negotiations?”
This proposal is popular in many quarters because firefighters are popular, and has not gotten much examination. It is worth noting that it would give the firefighters union the power, within the City Charter, to push negotiations to arbitration — negotiations that now have to be resolved through negotiations between the union and City management. City management could also call for an arbitrator, although Management has opposed this approach in the past.
Both the Statesman and the Chronicle endorsed this one. The Statesman called it a “sensible” approach that can keep negotiations from dragging on for years. Nonetheless, voters might keep in mind that this item takes the side of one party in negotiations, the firefighters union, while the other party, City Management, is not allowed to take sides in the election.
As far as unions go, this does not follow the traditional solidarity forever model. The firefighters, police and other city employees all have separate unions and draw their salaries from the same City budget. Increases in expenses for firefighters, as with numerous other budget decisions, would necessitate a choice between raising taxes to cover the expenses or cutting expenses elsewhere.
Negotiations with firefighter unions have been very contentious in Houston, San Antonio and Corpus Christi among others, as well as in Austin. Contract disputes sometimes deadlock for years. By passing this proposal Austin voters would allow the firefighters union to force disputes into binding arbitration. This can be read as keeping disputes from going on for years and/or as tilting the playing field toward the union side. Austin voters get to decide.
Proposition B. Reversal of Camping Ban Repeal. (Links above to some previous articles). While the rest of the propositions are City Charter amendments, this one falls under the Charter provision that allows citizens to conduct petition drives that force elections on whether to reverse, or maintain, ordinances passed by the Council.
Proposition C. Enabling Legislation on Police Oversight Chain of Command. This one concerns whether the Office of Police Oversight will report to the City Manager or be changed to report to the Council. This proposition, however, does not decide one way or the other. Instead it is an “enabling” amendment which would empower the City Council to decide the matter later. The leader in getting this amendment on the ballot was Council Member Greg Casar.
Proposition D. Move Mayoral Election to Presidential Election Years. This one moves the mayoral election to the same year as presidential elections because more people vote in presidential elections. It is one of five amendments put forward by Austinites for Progressive Reform (APR), a group whose founders and leaders have been closely associated with Mayor Steve Adler throughout his political career. Their most far reaching amendment is Proposition F, which would change the City’s form of government from Council-Manager to a strong mayor system.
Currently the Mayor is elected the same year as the Governor, owing to the year when the 10-1 charter amendment was approved. It is meant to accompany the strong mayor proposition, but also stands alone. If it passes the Mayor elected in 2022 will win only a two year term and mayors after that will serve four year terms — unless of course the rules are changed by a future Charter amendment.
Proposition E. Ranked Choice Voting. This is another of the proposed Charter amendments from Austinites for Progressive Reform. The intent is to eliminate runoff elections by having voters rank their choices rather than simply picking one candidate. The core idea is to eliminate low turnout runoff elections, which are also expensive. The caveat to this proposal is that it requires a change in state law to go into effect. APR representatives have been reticent in mentioning this to voters. For instance APR Chair Andrew Allison, appearing on the KAZI show ATX Now In Color, said that there would have to be some “clarifications” in state law for it to go into effect. He volunteered assurances that representatives are already lined up to take care of that. Of course, saying Austin wants something is not exactly the most guaranteed way of getting something through the Texas Legislature. So stay tuned for more clarifications.
Proposition F. The Strong Mayor proposal.
Proposition G. Add a Council Seat. This one also accompanies the strong mayor initiative by adding a Council District to keep an odd number of Council Members in the event that the strong mayor amendment passes and the Mayor is no longer a member of the Council. The idea is to protect against tie votes. It is possible that this amendment might pass while the strong mayor item fails. In that case the Council would have an even number and this amendment would create what it intends to prevent. On the other hand, strong mayor might pass and voters decide they don’t want another Council Member. In that case there would be a strong mayor and a Council with an even numbered of votes, meaning potential ties, and even more chaos. No matter how this proposition turns out it will do its part to Keep Austin Weird.
Proposition H. Democracy Dollars. This is another of APR’s proposals. It would establish a measure of public funding in municipal elections by requiring the City to establish a fund from which any citizen could allocate $25 to a Council candidate of their choosing, in their district. This one has support beyond any coalition APR has been able to build on the strong mayor initiative. For instance long time progressive and Democratic campaign fundraiser Alfred Stanley supports it as does Fred Lewis, a veteran supporter of campaign finance reform, a leader in the campaign to bring 10-1, and a leader of Community Not Commodity — the lead group in opposing CodeNext and the Land Development Code rewrite.
Others backing Prop H include, among others: Nelson Linder, head of the local NAACP; Anthony Gutierrez, Executive Director of Common Cause Texas; Susana Almanza, longtime head of PODER; Southeast Austin community activist and LDC opponent Frances Acuña; longtime East Austin activists Gilbert and Jane Rivera; Mary Ingle, long-time neighborhood and community activist and former President of the Austin Neighborhood Council; and Bobby Levinski of the Save Our Springs Alliance.
To view the City’s ballot language click here.
To get more details on early voting click here.
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