Some Austin leaders concerned May propositions could lead to council stalemates

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Austin City Council meeting on February 2, 2021.

Austin (KXAN) — After Austin City Council approved eight propositions Tuesday to go before voters on the May ballot, some Austin city council members are trying to organize a last-minute meeting to add yet another ballot measure to counteract potential impacts if voters approve some of these propositions and not others.

The concerned council members, who include Vanessa Fuentes, Greg Casar, Paige Ellis, Mayor Pro Tem Natasha Harper-Madison, and Mayor Steve Adler, worry that if voters approve the strong mayor proposition (Prop F) but not the proposition to create an additional city council district (Proposition G) or vice versa, the council would be left with an even number of members, and consequentially more stalemate votes.

As of Thursday evening, the possibility of the council approving this additional measure in time for the May ballot looks unlikely. Council Members Ann Kitchen, Alison Alter, and Leslie Pool indicated on the council message board they believe this meeting “would further undermine public confidence in how we make decisions as a Council.” Additionally, Council Member Kathie Tovo saying while she would be open to meeting, she does not expect to vote in favor of the item. Council Member Mackenzie Kelly did not say directly whether she would attend the meeting or vote for the item, but suggested “our work must be slowed sometimes.”

Mayor Adler posted wording for this new council-initiated charter amendment proposal on Tuesday night. This new ballot measure, if added to the ballot, would be Proposition I. If voters pass the other propositions in a way that would leave the council with an even number of members, this new proposition from the council members (if passes) would automatically add another council member to create an odd number of members.

Currently, the city has posted a special called meeting agenda to vote on this charter amendment Friday at 9:45 p.m., which is not a day nor an hour typical for council meetings. But as Adler referenced in his message board post, it has to be the will of the council to have this meeting, and he is awaiting responses from other council members about whether they want to have this meeting or not.

The city tells KXAN there will need to be a quorum of six council members present for this meeting.

Update from the city on February 11, 2020: Because this is being taken as an emergency item in order to meet the midnight deadline, the city charter dictates that eight council votes would be needed to pass this emergency ordinance.

A city spokesperson explained that the meeting is being held at 9:45 p.m. on Friday because that allows for 72 hours notice following the mayor’s post on the council message board Tuesday night. There isn’t much time left for the council to act, the city tells KXAN that in order to bring any new charter amendments to the May ballot, the council would need to take action by 11:59 p.m. on Friday.

Depending on how these political scenarios play out, Austin could be left with a council that has as few as ten members or as many as thirteen members.

Why does having an odd number of members matter?

The council right now operates under a 10-1 system with eleven voting members and one mayor. Austin Mayor Steve Adler often refers to this as “the balance of the dais” because it allows one person’s vote to be the tie-breaker if there is a 6-5 split.

The city’s municipal code says the council’s actions cannot be effective or enforceable unless those actions are adopted with approval from a majority of the whole council (presently six votes). Under the current structure, there is no possibility of a tie vote unless someone is absent or recusing themselves from the vote. If the new council structure voters approve has an even number of council members, there is a far greater possibility for results to wind up in a tie, leading to fewer effective council actions.

But what does this have to do with a strong mayor?

With the propositions council approved Tuesday now headed for the May ballot, there are two possible outcomes that could lead to an even number of council members.

If voters approve the proposition, which would move the city to a strong-mayor form of government (Prop F), but do not approve the creation of the 11th Single Member Council District (Prop G), the council would lose the mayor as a voting member and the council would be left with only ten voting members.

If voters approve the addition of an 11th Single Member Council District but do not approve the strong mayor proposition, the mayor would remain as a voting member on the council and a new voting council member would be added, bringing the total number of voting council members up to twelve.

Originally, the strong mayor effort and the creation of the 11th Single Member Council District were slated to be part of the same proposition. But a majority of the council decided on Tuesday to separate out the creation of the 11th Council District into an entirely separate proposition.

What happens if new council member(s) are added?

A city spokesperson explained to KXAN that adding city council member districts would “inevitably impact existing districts to some extent.” The redistricting process would be handled by an independent citizens redistricting commission, the spokesperson explained.

A backup document for the original proposal that this ordinance stemmed from said this redistricting would take effect when the Austin mayor elected on November 2022 takes office.

What does the number of members on the council mean?

Council Member Vanessa Fuentes kicked off the string of posts on the council message board suggesting a special called meeting about this ninth ballot proposal.

“As an effort to avoid the unintended consequence of gridlock on policy issues moving forward, I ultimately think it’s worth the conversation of adding an additional council district to maintain the majority vote on council,” Fuentes wrote Tuesday night. “This would also serve well for increased representation in our city.”

Council Member Paige Ellis replied to Fuentes, saying she appreciated her line of thinking and that, “I am interested in taking this topic up this week, or as soon as possible.”

UT Austin LBJ School of Public Affairs Professor Bill Spelman, who served on Austin City Council from 1997 to 2000 and from 2009 to 2015, explained that at least in recent memory Austin has not had experience with a council featuring an even number of voting members.

Spelman noted that many municipalities across the country have an even number of members, citing data from the National League of Cities which indicates the national average size for a city council is six members. NLC states that the size of a council ranges across the country from 5 to 51,

“It’s been seen before in a lot of communities around the country and people have adapted to it,” Spelman said of an even-numbered voting body.

He doesn’t believe having an even number of council members would lead to gridlock, saying “if it’s an important issue, if it’s a 6-6 tie, one of those groups will look across the aisle and find a way to make it work.”

Though he noted, if council does wind up with an even number of members, it would need to clarify the rules for how majorities and supermajorities would be determined.

“I think what you really want to do when you are choosing the council districts is make sure you can adequately and accurately represent all the districts in the city,” he said, adding that he can see advantages for the council in being strategic with choosing the right number of council districts to best represent subpopulations in the city.

The idea of creating an 11th council district came as part of the strong mayor system proposal from the political action committee Austinites For Progressive Reform. Jim Wick, the campaign manager for that PAC, said the group certainly would have preferred for the council to have kept the strong mayor item and the 11th Council Member District item in the same proposition as the PAC had intended.

However, Wick noted, it was council’s prerogative to separate those items.

“I hope that council takes action to ensure that we have a functioning district representation system,” Wick said, adding that he believes having an even number of representatives on council “would be bad for the city as a whole.”

Wick is no stranger to city politics, he is Mayor a former campaign manager for Mayor Adler and has worked on numerous other local campaigns.

While he would prefer for the strong mayor proposal to pass, even if that proposal does not pass Wick believes there would be value to adding an additional council member as the group of council members are proposing.

Having more council districts, Wick said, would allow the council to be “more representative of the people who live in them.”

KXAN will be updating this developing story as we get more details.

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