City certifies group’s petition to put Austin camping ban on May ballot

Austin

AUSTIN (KXAN) — A group’s petition to reinstate Austin’s camping ban will appear on the May ballot after the city clerk certified enough signatures.

The Office of the City Clerk confirmed Thursday the petition submitted by Save Austin Now met the minimum requirement of 20,000 verified signatures to put it before voters.

This is the second time Save Austin Now has attempted to bring this issue to the ballot. The first time the group gathered signatures during the summer of 2020, the city’s analysis indicated the group did not gather enough valid signatures to do so.

A city spokesperson told KXAN Austin City Council will now have to decide whether to adopt the ordinance changes as written in the petition or call an election for May 1. The council has until Feb. 12 to make this decision, and there is expected to be a special meeting to discuss these issues on Feb. 9.

Up to this point, Save Austin Now has identified as an educational nonprofit and is led by Matt Mackowiak, the chair of the Republican Party for Travis County, and Cleo Petricek, who has been vocal about her opposition to the city’s recent policies related to homelessness.

The Save Austin Now website notes its leadership includes Austin Police Association President Ken Casaday, president of University of Texas safety group SafeHorns Joell McNew and former Austin City Council Member Ora Houston. Now that this measure will be going before voters, Save Austin Now will have to register as a political action committee with the city to handle activities for the election.

“What we are going to be doing now is using that PAC to raise money. We’ve set a minimum goal of $500,000 to win this campaign, and we will be disclosing our donors, which the law requires, and we will be disclosing our expenditures,” Mackowiak said.

Back in 2019 in an effort to decriminalize homelessness, Austin City Council voted to repeal a previous city ban on camping, sitting and lying down in most public spaces. This petition from Save Austin Now aimed to reverse the council’s action from last year by barring camping downtown and near the University of Texas campus, placing a citywide ban on panhandling at night and restoring the ban on sitting or lying down in public.

While Save Austin Now believes these changes will make the community safer, groups like Austin’s Ending Community Homelessness Coalition (ECHO), which coordinates Austin’s homelessness response, believe reinstating the camping ban is a bad idea that would hide people experiencing homelessness without addressing the root cause of their homelessness.

Local groups like Planning Our Communities and advocacy groups for people experiencing homelessness are holding a series of solutions-based conversations starting next week. The focus is finding ways to decriminalize homelessness and addressing affordability, displacement and equity.

“Focusing on permanent supportive housing and rapid rehousing, so ensuring folks have the kind of housing they need instantly. Also focusing on diversion programs to ensure that folks who might be on the pathway to housing instability have the stability they need,” said Awais Azhar of Planning Our Communities.

Save Austin Now posted a celebratory message Thursday morning about this development on Facebook. It stated, “The ordinance reinstates the ban on homeless camping citywide, restores the sit/lie ordinance to downtown and extends it to the UT campus and surrounding area, and bans panhandling at night citywide from 7pm-7am.”

According to the Facebook post, Mackowiak said, “Today’s news is a welcome development for Austinites who only want to live in a safe and clean city. Our army of volunteers and supporters worked incredibly hard to collect more than 26,000 validated signed petitions in just 50 days during the holidays.”

The post also included a statement from Ken Casaday, president of the Austin Police Association. He wrote, “We believe it’s time for the community to have a say in an ordinance that drastically affects Austinites and our tourism industry.”

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