AUSTIN (KXAN) — A new Austin Political Action Committee is calling for several reforms to Austin elections and government which they hope to put forward in a petition effort and bring to a referendum vote on the May 2021 ballot. The PAC, Austinites for Progressive Reform, filed to appoint a PAC treasurer Monday, stating to the city that its goal is to amend the city’s charter “to make city government more representative, diverse, and responsive. “

The PAC identifies itself as “progressive” and “nonpartisan.”

While the specifics of these charter amendments won’t get finalized until the public has had a chance to weigh in, the PAC has four changes it seeks to accomplish in Austin:

  • Having the mayor, rather than the city manager (who is unelected) oversee city government
  • Moving mayoral elections to the same year as the presidential election to increase turnout
  • Creating “democracy dollars” which would send vouchers to every voter so they could donate to the candidate of their choice for every mayoral and council election
  • Eliminating runoff elections and explore other options for candidate decisions such as ranked-choice voting to ensure candidates are being decided when the largest numbers of voters are showing up

“All of these things together strengthen the power of the voter, they allow us to make sure that all of us have a say and they allow us to hold our leaders accountable on a regular basis at the ballot box,” said Andrew Allison, the chair of Austinites for Progressive Reform.

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Austin City Hall. KXAN Photo.

Allison and his colleagues on this effort say the problems in the current system can be seen in the way that certain city council districts tend to dominate the totals when it comes to political contributions. Additionally, they say the need for change is also highlighted by the significantly lower voter turnout seen in Travis County during runoff elections as opposed to the local elections.

In the November 6, 2018 election in Travis County, 61% of voters took part, compared to December 11 runoff election that same year, only 5% of voters participated. Despite the lower turnout, these runoff elections determine the selection of a candidate, for example, the December 11 runoff in 2018 was where Natasha Harper-Madison won the District 1 Council seat.

On that November ballot, Austin Mayor Steve Adler won re-election. While the turnout for that election in Travis County was far higher than the December 2018 runoff election, the 2016 presidential election still brought more Travis County voters out to the polls at 65% of the electorate.

Presently, Austin’s mayor is elected by all of the city and leads council deliberations over policies, which are then assigned to city staff (who are led by the city manager) to carry out. Austin currently has what is referred to as a city manager-council government.

(Left to right) Council Member Alison Alter, Mayor Steve Adler, Austin Interim Health Authority Dr. Mark Escott, Austin Public Health Director Stephanie Hayden, and Austin City Manager Spencer Cronk. KXAN Photo Alyssa Goard March 4.

Allison noted that Austin does not currently have “an elected leader who leads the police department, who oversees the transportation department, who oversees the budget process.”

“These are really critical tasks that affect the day-to-day life of everyone in Austin and it is critical that person at the head of those agencies be somebody who is accountable to the voters on a regular basis,” he said.

He also pointed out that under Austin’s current system, the city manager’s employment status is not determined by voters. While Austin voters have a method where they can decide the mayor shouldn’t have the job anymore (elections and recall efforts) there is not a similar process for the city manager.

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Austin Mayor Steve Adler speaks at a council meeting in October 2019. KXAN Photo.

Allison explained that of the cities that have a mayor-council form of government or “strong-mayor” format, there are different ways that the distribution of powers can happen. Allison said that community discussions led by his PAC will help craft the exact type of arrangement the PAC will propose for Austin.

In Houston, for example, the mayor serves on the council and also has control over all the administrative work of the city government. In New York City, the mayor is the chief administrator of the city who appoints department heads, but the city council is separate from the mayor’s administration.

“We need to choose which structure is the right one for Austin,” Allison said.

Who is involved with the PAC

Allison explained the group behind this PAC came together over a course of conversations the past few weeks.

A “steering committee” of sixteen community members has been selected to meet over the coming months and talk about how these policies should play out. Steering committee members include a wide cross-section of people involved in Austin politics including attorney and former District 8 Austin City Council candidate Bobby Levinski, NAACP Austin President Nelson Linder, Austin Justice Coalition Executive Director Chas Moore, Austin Planning Commissioner Carmen Llanes Pulido, and Austin EMS Association President Selena Xie.

The PAC plans to hold public forums this summer and fall to get feedback on what Austin residents want to see when it comes to these areas of reforms.

The political team for this charter amendment campaign includes an assortment of heavyweights when it comes to Austin political strategy: Jim Wick, Laura Hernandez, and Eugene Sepulveda (who have all worked on campaigns for Austin Mayor Steve Adler), Mykle Tomlinson who was a campaign consultant for Delia Garza who recently won the Democratic runoff election in the Travis County Attorney race, political consultant Mark Littlefield who worked on the effort to opposing Proposition A in 2019, and political consultant David Butts who, as the Austin American Statesman noted back in 2014, has worked with a significant number of past and present members of Austin’s council.

Petition efforts have become increasingly popular as a political strategy in Austin, but Austinites for Progressive Reform is hoping to distinguish itself from other petition efforts by announcing they will not accept contributions from corporate PACs or “dark money groups.”

“What we hope is distinctive about our process is that it will be very broad and very accessible, we will try to engage all of Austin in this effort,” Allison said Monday.

What does a strong-mayor government look like?

Sherri Greenberg, Professor of Practice and Graduate Adviser at UT Austin’s LBJ School of Public Affairs, explained that for the City of Austin’s government right now, “what you have is a situation here the mayor is elected citywide and the city manager functions as the CEO of the city of government.”

Sherri Greenberg, Clinical Professor, Fellow of Max Sherman Chair in State and Local Government, and Graduate Adviser with UT Austin’s LBJ School of Public Affairs. Photo Courtesy UT Austin.

Greenberg has worked both as a city staff member with the city of Austin and as an unpaid advisor to Mayor Steve Adler at the start of his time in office, so she has first-hand experience with how this city manager- council format works in practice.

She explained that, in contrast, under a strong-mayor government format, the mayor would be the one serving as the CEO. 

“It gets down to: do you want more direct representation as far as you vote for the mayor and that person also is the CEO or do you want the mayor to remain the policymaker along with the council and you want to have a non-elected CEO?” she summarized. 

Many older and larger cities, such as Los Angeles , San Francisco, Philadelphia, Boston, have a strong-mayor form of government, Greenberg pointed out.

Greenberg noted that the city of Phoenix, for example, has a council-manager form of government where the city manager is the chief administrator for the city and is tasked with implementing policies the council comes up with. Many other cities also have this council-manager format, including Fort Worth, San Antonio, Dallas, and El Paso.

Under a strong-mayor government format, Greenberg noted that the mayor would have the ultimate authority of hiring and firing within the city as well as implementing policy. 

Under Austin’s present policy, the city manager has the ultimate hiring authority and is the only one who can, for example, make decisions about the status of the police chief.

“The manager-council form of government was really a reform movement that was at the turn of the century in this country, so it’s an interesting question to ask,” Greenberg said. “Because what is reform at one point in time in one person’s eyes is different at another point in time.”

She noted that in 1912 Sumter, South Carolina was the first city in the country to move to a council-manager form of government. The Municipal Association of South Carolina noted that the change in Sumter came from reformers who wanted to “to create a more ‘business-like’ approach to city governance” to make city politics “more efficient, visible and responsible to the people rather than just a few party leaders.”

Greenberg estimates that among Austin residents’ daily priorities, the exact format of their local government probably doesn’t rank the highest. 

“How many residents could be expected to know the in-the-weeds of what specific type of municipal government we have? That’s a pretty obtuse thing,” she said. 

However, Greenberg noted the form of local government in a city does make a difference in terms of the type of control and accountability there.

She added that the current movement, in Austin and across the country, pushing for racial justice and police reform “has brought those important questions of accountability and control to the forefront.”

“This question of accountability is a very important one,” Greenberg emphasized.”What kind of accountability are you looking for and from whom?”