Not enough valid petition signatures to put reinstating camping ban on ballot, city says

Austin

Austin (KXAN) — KXAN obtained a letter signed Wednesday from Austin City Clerk Jannette Gooddall which states the petition effort to place reinstating Austin’s public camping ban on the November ballot was “insufficient.” The city’s analysis indicates the petition effort did not gather the total, legally-required number of signatures to bring the measure to a vote.

More than a year ago, 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 local group 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,

Save Austin Now identifies 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 UT safety group SafeHorns Joell McNew, and former Austin City Council Member Ora Houston.

A photo of the letter sent out by Save Austin Now in June in an effort to gather more signatures for their petition effort. (KXAN Photo/ Alyssa Goard).

Save Austin now launched a mailer campaign during the pandemic, mailing letters to many Austin households and asking them to mail back in their signatures.

Save Austin Now delivered the petition signatures they gathered to the city on July 20 for the city to count and determine the validity of the signatures. Mackowiak said three-quarters of the signatures Save Austin Now collected on this petition effort came to them by mail.

He also said Save Austin Now was notified by the city clerk’s office of this decision Wednesday and has requested more information on why the clerk reached the conclusions she did.

“I simply do not believe that of the 24 thousand or so [signatures] that we turned in that five thousand of them are invalid,” Mackowiak said. “I just do not believe it, I reject it entirely.”

He explained that Save Austin Now did not even turn in petitions to the clerk that were not properly signed or that were from people who didn’t live within the city of Austin. Mackowiak said his group removed hundreds of petitions that did not have all the required information.

With approaching deadlines to get language finalized for Austin’s November ballot, Mackowiak said his group will have to act quickly, hoping to speak through some of their concerns with the clerk’s office first and then take legal action if necessary.

“This fight is not over,” Mackowiak said.

Matt Mollica, the executive director of Austin’s Ending Community Homelessness Coalition (ECHO) released a statement indicating that ECHO believes reinstating the camping ban would have interfered with ECHO’s goal to end homelessness in Austin.

“We know that housing ends homelessness, and access to quality affordable housing and healthcare are the cornerstones of a safe and equitable community,” Mollica said Wednesday. “While we build partnerships to work toward those basic human rights, we need to honor the inherent dignity of all community members by not criminalizing basic acts of daily living, and we must continue to work alongside our unsheltered community members to demand they have access to resources that most of us take for granted. If we start by embracing the dignity of all Austinites, we can end homelessness in our community.”

In the letter sent Wednesday, the city clerk’s office said the raw count of total signatures on the filed petition from Save Austin Now was 24,201.

As is allowed by the Texas Election Code, the Austin City Clerk’s office used a random sampling method to verify this petition, using a sample size of 6,051 signatures.

In Austin, the minimum number of signatures required to place a petition measure on the ballot is 20,000. The clerk’s office wrote that based on the random sample results, the petition did not meet the required amount of signatures from valid voters. Of the 6,051 signatures, the clerk said that 1,147 were disqualified for signing more than once and another 1,106 were disqualified for other reasons, leaving 4,904 unique signatures from qualified voters in the sample.

The city estimates that there are 19,122 valid signatures on the petition and is 95% confident that the true numbers of valid signatures on the petition exceeds 18,887 and is less than 19,356.

The clerk noted that the probability that checking all 24,201 submitted signatures would find 20,000 valid signatures is less than three in one billion.

At the time Save Austin Now filed this petition, the clerk’s office said it had 24,598 signatures and spanned 11,198 pages. The clerk received requests from 60 people who signed the petition to have their names withdrawn. Save Austin Now also provided a list of 85 additional names of people who wanted to have their names withdrawn, the city said. Of those 145 people, the clerk was able to find 96 of those signatures, those 96 were not counted in the total number of signatures.

When city staff reviewed this petition, they found it had two different versions with different wording for the language of the proposed ordinance. The pages of signatures that had different wording than the original petition were then removed by the clerk’s office from the total count, which means that these 397 signatures were not included in the total count or in the random sample.

What happens next

Mackowiack said there are several areas where Save Austin Now believes the clerk’s office made mistakes in evaluating these signatures and will try to get the clerk to understand their reasoning.

While the clerk’s office claimed that there were different versions of wording on some of the petitions, Mackowiak said he was not aware of that at all.

“I’m the only person who ever created the documents that had the petition on them and we never touched the petition language,” he said, explaining that the only things Save Austin Now changed on the petition were the fields where people fill out their information, making those areas larger or easier to read.

He doesn’t believe that any of the changes Save Austin Now made to the petition would have made a difference in the substance of what people were signing. Save Austin Now has asked the clerk’s office to provide proof that the language was different in certain petitions.

Mackowiak said after the petition was created by two lawyers, Donna Davidson and Barry McBee, Save Austin Now didn’t alter it at all “because there’s no point to touching it.” Davidson is the former General Counsel for the Republican Party of Texas and worked as General Counsel for former Texas Governor Rick Perry as well as Assistant General Counsel to former Texas Governor George W. Bush. McBee was formerly a special assistant to the chancellor of the UT System and prior to that, he worked as the First Assistant Attorney General to then-Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott.

“We want to make sure that everyone who signed who is a registered voter in the city of Austin did not have their right to petition the government infringed upon,” Mackowiak said. “If we believe [the city’s] process has been inappropriately applied to any individual person who signed a petition, we are going to fight on that basis in every way we possibly can.”

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