AUSTIN (KXAN) — In the future, Austinites who want to get a petition on the ballot may need more than the now required 20,000 signatures to get it done. It’s one of the city rules some council members want to get a citizen group to look at.
Next week, Austin City Council could ask the city manager to create a charter review commission. It’s goal would be to look at City Charter and recommend changes, including possible changes to petition requirements.
The resolution comes shortly after council voted to put two opposing petitions — both of which address police oversight — with the same name on the May ballot. In accordance with the law, when a determined number of signatures is reached, and then verified by the City Clerk, council’s only options are to adopt the petition outright or to send it to voters.
In Austin, the magic number is 20,000 signatures, or 5% of voters, whichever is less. It’s been that way in Austin’s charter since 2012, according to council documents.
“A piece of what we’re asking them to look at are our citizen initiated items and figuring out where the threshold is appropriate and representative of the community,” Council Member Ryan Alter, who brought the resolution forward, said. “They are going to take a look at that issue and decide ‘is 20,000 people an appropriate number? Should it be a percentage of the population?'”
Matt Mackowiak, the cofounder of Save Austin Now — a group that has put forward several petitions that have ended up on ballots — including the camping ban, which was approved by voters, and the minimum police staffing initiative, which was voted down — is against threshold changes.
“The process of putting an ordinance or a charter amendment on the ballot and letting voters weigh in is a cherished right in our city,” responded Mackowiak. “When an issue is important enough and has broad enough support that at least 20,000 registered voters in city limits say they want it on the ballot, it shows that city leaders aren’t listening.”
Alter’s resolution also asks that the commission take a look at additional transparency measures, so voters know who’s behind the petitions, and moving elections to November and to the same years as presidential elections, which have greater turnout and would already be accounted for in the city’s budget.
A review of citizen initiatives done by the Office of the City Auditor in 2019 looked at the five initiative petitions that made it to elections in the five years prior. The office said in 2016, a petition that failed cost the city $645,000. In 2018, two more were filed. Those also failed and cost the city nearly $550,000.
When the audit was done in 2019, two petitions on the ballot had not been voted on yet, but the city estimated that election would also cost the city roughly $500,000.
“That is an expensive thing that we have to do that we could be serving the public with those dollars otherwise,” Alter said.
Though the commission would be asked to bring recommendations back to council, no changes can be made to City Charter without being put before voters. Alter hopes to get any possible changes to voters in 2024.
“Is what we’re doing appropriate or not? I think that’s a value in and of itself,” Alter said. “But ultimately I do trust that they’re going to come forward with some recommendations that we will ultimately put on the ballot.
“It’s hard to look at this in any other way than to conclude that they want to make it harder for citizens to put things on the ballot that the council doesn’t like,” Mackowiak said.
Mayor Kirk Watson, Mayor Pro Tem Paige Ellis and Council Members Alison Alter and Natasha Harper-Madison have cosponsored the resolution which is expected to be voted on during Thursday’s Austin City Council meeting.
How does Austin compare to other cities?
In that same Office of the City Auditor review — requested by then-Mayor Steve Adler and Council Member Natasha Harper-Madison — the department found that Austin requires less signatures for initiative petitions than any other major Texas city with the exception of El Paso.
According to that review, Dallas, which at the time of the 2019 study had a population of roughly 1.3 million, required more than 65,000 signatures. San Antonio required more than 78,000 and Houston more than 40,000.
“Although El Paso requires fewer signatures, petitioners need to complete an extra step to place a proposal on the ballot. El Paso’s City Council has 30 days after validation of an initiative petition to place the proposed ordinance on its agenda. If El Paso’s City Council chooses not to pass the ordinance as written, petitioners must collect the minimum required signatures again to put the ordinance to a citywide vote,” the office noted.