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Feisty Debate Over How to Elect Council

One panelist argues for no change to the
at-large system for City Council elections

by Ken Martin
© The Austin Bulldog 2012
Posted Thursday, October 4, 2012 6:40pm

The University of Texas Law School provided the venue for a fourth public debate over the question of whether—or even if—the Austin City Charter should be amended to allow for some form of geographic representation on the Austin City Council.

Sherri GreenbergSherri GreenbergThe September 28 debate was emceed by Sherri Greenberg, a former state representative who is director of UT’s Center for Politics and Governance at the LBJ School of Public Affairs.

All five panelists were members of the 2012 Charter Revision Committee that voted by a narrow 8-7 majority to recommend that 10 council members be elected from geographic districts and only the mayor continue to be elected at-large, that is by all voters.

Ken RigsbeeKen RigsbeeKen Rigsbee, an independent oil and energy professional, voted to recommend the 10-1 plan and explained why. “It looked to me like the Charter Revision Committee would have a tie vote, after six months of arguing and debating,” he said. “I voted for 10-1. That doesn’t mean I wanted it—I just wanted to stop the meetings.”

Rigsbee said he told Mayor Lee Leffingwell, who nominated him to serve on the Charter Revision Committee, “I said, ‘Lee, what is it about ‘no’ you don’t understand?’

He was referring to the fact that the voters of Austin had six opportunities between 1973 and 2002 to adopt geographic representation and the majority had always voted no.

“Is it worth spending $2 million for 11 council members vice seven, to force political horse-trading between council members?” Rigsbee asked. “Is it really imperative we do that? My answer is no.” (The city’s assessment of fiscal impact for the four additional council members and their staffs under Propositions 3 or 4 calls for $888,350 for construction and build-out for the additional offices, and an additional ongoing annual cost of $1,396,000 a year.)

The other panelists all agree that the at-large system in use since 1953 must be changed, but disagree on how to do that.

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Propositions 3 and 4 Proponents Rev Campaigns

Raising money, organizing troops, and pushing plans
for geographic representation on Austin City Council

by Ken Martin
© The Austin Bulldog 2012
Posted Friday, September 28, 2012 2:39pm

The proponents of Proposition 3—Austinites for Geographic Representation (AGR)—got a huge head start in a grassroots campaign to win voter approval for geographic representation on the Austin City Council. They started meeting in February last year, waged a successful petition drive to get on the ballot, and have built a broad coalition of supporters, including 29 organizations and numerous community leaders. (For a list of endorsements, click here.)

The advocates for Proposition 4—Austin Community for Change (AC4C)—are pushing a different plan for geographic representation. They are running from behind and hoping to raise enough money to convince voters they have the best plan. They have rapidly built a list of 19 community organizations supporting their plan as well as individual community supporters. (For a list of endorsements, click here.)

Both AGR and AC4C have websites loaded with information touting their respective plans but there's a striking visual difference.

The banner atop the AGR pages contains a montage of nine photos taken at various Austin events.

The AC4C page headers show a photo purchased from titled “Diverse group casually dressed people looking up.”

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Redistricting Need Not Be a
Quintessentially Political Process

Independent redistricting commissions for U.S. states and cities

by Steve Bickerstaff
Posted Monday, October September 24, 2012 6:05pm

Editor's introduction: Over the past 36 years attorney Steve Bickerstaff, adjunct professor at the University Of Texas School Of Law, has represented more than 100 jurisdictions on redistricting matters, including during the redistricting process, or before the U.S. Department of Justice, or in state or federal courts. These jurisdictions include the State of Texas (in three different decades) and various local governments (cities, counties, school districts, community colleges and special districts) in Texas and elsewhere. The electoral systems of these jurisdictions have included wholly at-large, wholly single-member, and hybrid or mixed (partially at-large) election structures.

He is author of Lines in the Sand (2007), a book about the controversial 2003 congressional redistricting in Texas; co-author of International Election Principles (2009); and author of 25 law journal articles dealing primarily with election law and telecommunications regulation.

Bickerstaff wrote the initial draft for the nonpartisan Citizens Independent Redistricting Commission. The Commission is an integral part of Proposition 3, which was put on the ballot through a petition drive conducted by Austinites for Geographic Representation. Bickerstaff’s draft was based on the Voters First Act, which through initiative and referendum established a system of independent redistricting in the State of California.

It is important that Austin voters have a thorough understanding of the Citizens Independent Redistricting Commission before casting ballots in the November 6 election. To that end, The Austin Bulldog is publishing Bickerstaff’s scholarly study of the strengths and weaknesses of various systems used for redistricting throughout the nation.

Steve BickestaffSteve Bickestaff  Much has been written about the use of redistricting commissions for redrawing state legislative and congressional district lines. Twenty- two states now have some form of commission. However, the nature, jurisdiction and importance of these commissions vary greatly. By contrast, virtually nothing has been written about the use of redistricting commissions at the local level of government. This is particularly surprising because virtually all large and middle-size U.S. cities use at least some election districts that must be redrawn every 10 years, and because most of these cities are home-rule jurisdictions that generally have broad legal authority to adopt their own process for drawing local election district boundaries.[1] A purpose of this article is to provide government officials, public interest activists, and attorneys with a means for assessing the value of a municipal redistricting commission and for designing such commission to take self-interest and bias out of a process in which they have no legitimate role.[2]  

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Barrientos Lampoons Prop 4 With a Fable
Other proponents of alternative plans for
geographic representation push their points
by Ken Martin
© The Austin Bulldog 2012
Posted Friday, September 14, 2012 3:07pm

Gonzalo Barrientos at a previous rally for Proposition 3Gonzalo Barrientos at a previous rally for Proposition 3The passion and political experience of retired State Senator Gonzalo Barrientos (D-Austin) lifted the crowd of some 40 interested citizens who had come to hear a debate about what system should govern how Austin City Council members are elected.

Scene: A debate forum hosted by Southwest Key’s VOTA! Campaign at the organization’s headquarters in far East Austin.
Enter Barrientos: arriving 20 minutes after the program started and a bit flustered from being stuck in traffic.
When his turn to speak came, the former lawmaker drew on his storytelling ability to attack the council’s action to put the 8-2-1 plan (Proposition 4) on the same ballot with the citizens’ 10-1 initiative (Proposition 3).
“In the time of Christ,” he said, “there were two stores on the opposite side of a street. The owners didn’t like each other.
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Proposition 3 Advocates Falsely Accuse RECA

Group alleges ‘rumor’ of $100,000 pledge by Real Estate
Council to defeat Proposition 3, but RECA says not so

by Ken Martin
© The Austin Bulldog 2012
Posted Wednesday, September 12, 2012 10:25pm

An e-mail received early this morning from Austinites for Geographic Representation (AGR), that was titled "A Very Stinky Rumor" turned out to be stinky indeed—as in false.

Or so says the Real Estate Council of Austin.

The AGR e-mail stated, "Rumors are flying that large real estate investors at the Real Estate Council of Austin (RECA) just pledged $100,000 to stop Prop 3—the people's plan for geographic representation—by running a confusion game with Prop 4."

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No-Change Option Surfaces in Ballot Debate

Former Council Member Bob Binder opposes both
options on the ballot for geographic representation

by Ken Martin
© The Austin Bulldog 2012
Posted Tuesday, September 11, 2012 2:41pm

Monday's lunchtime debate drew about 40 people to hear arguments for not just Propositions 3 and 4 on the November 6 ballot, but reasons why voters should once again turn thumbs down to both plans for geographic representation in City Council elections.

Chuck HerringChuck HerringThe program was hosted by the Central Texas Democratic Forum, emceed by attorney Chuck Herring of Herring & Irwin LLP.

Until this debate, virtually all discussions about how council members should be elected have focused on the problems with the current all-at-large system and advocated for one of two proposed plans for change.

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The Election Wars Have Begun
Interest in how council members elected
running high, as face-off debates abound
by Ken Martin
©The Austin Bulldog 2012
Posted Sunday, September 9, 2012 9:01pm

If you're concerned with how your local city government officials get elected—and how any change in the election system might affect your interests—you will have numerous opportunities to hear a thorough airing of the issues.

Two propositions on the city’s November 6 ballot offer choices for getting away from the all-at-large system we've had since 1953, when the council had five places and the elected council members chose the mayor from among their ranks. The council was expanded to seven places beginning with the 1969 election but it wasn’t until 1971 that citizens could directly elect their mayor.

Today, there are some who advocate keeping the election system we’ve got. However, the two major factions striving for change both advocate a new system of electing council members.

How to change is where they differ.

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Your Guide to Proposed City Charter Amendments
What’s on the ballot, how much it will cost taxpayers, and
details provided in the ordinances for each proposition
by Ken Martin
© The Austin Bulldog
Posted Thursday August 30, 2012 8:20pm

The Austin City Council put 18 propositions before voters November 6The Austin City Council put 18 propositions before voters November 6When Austin voters go to the polls starting October 22 for the November 6 general election, they’ll be faced with a potentially bewildering 18 propositions on the City of Austin’s portion of the ballot.

And voters won’t see those propositions until they’ve finished wading through voting for federal, state and local candidates, and deciding whether to support Central Health’s proposed 5 cent tax hike to help fund a new medical school in Austin.

The Austin City Council and a number of citizens are really, really hoping voters don’t just vote a straight party ticket and go home. At stake are $385 million in seven bond propositions, 10 separate proposals to change the City Charter, and one proposition to allow emergency medical personnel to get the same civil service protections as police and firefighters.

Other down-ballot taxing jurisdictions on the ballot are also hoping to keep the voters attention long enough to mark the entire ballot, including Austin Independent School District, Austin Community College, and a bunch more.

In an effort to de-mystify the Austin portion of the ballot, The Austin Bulldog is providing the exact ballot language for each of the 10 propositions involving charter amendments and the emergency medical services proposition, and links to the ordinances that placed each of those on the ballot.

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City Manager Gets Pay Raise If Employees Do
As will the city clerk and city auditor; the
municipal court clerk gets 5 percent bump

by Ken Martin
© The Austin Bulldog 2012
Posted Friday August 24, 2012 3:57pm

Marc OttMarc OttAustin City Manager Marc Ott will get a pay raise after all—if the City Council gives the city’s non-civil service employees a raise when a 2012-2013 budget is adopted next month.

 The Austin Bulldog reported August 16 that the City Council reviewed Ott’s performance in executive session that day and dismissed the item in open session when Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole said, “... we look forward to his continued service.”

Resolutions passed at yesterday’s council meeting state that the city manager, city auditor, and city clerk all will get whatever percentage pay raise is granted to the city’s rank-and-file.

The city manager has proposed a 3 percent pay increase for non-civil service employees.

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Austin Board and Commissions Get E-mail Policy

Fifteen months after City Council ordered changes, board
and commission members to be assigned city e-mail accounts

by Ken Martin
© The Austin Bulldog 2012
Posted Thursday, August 23, 2012 7:50pm

It took the City of Austin 15 months to establish a formal procedure but, finally, the 368 members of the city’s 51 boards and commissions are going to be brought into the city’s e-mail system.

The action is needed to bring the city into compliance with the Texas Public Information Act by enabling the city to collect, assemble, and maintain e-mails about city business that board and commission members send or receive. This will allow the city to search the city’s server to find information responsive to public information requests and produce those records for inspection.

For many years the city’s website for each board and commission listed each member’s personal e-mail address.

Joseph LarsenJoseph Larsen“This is easily the most well thought-out policy addressing this issue, both from the private device/account and city server side, that I have seen,” said Joseph Larsen, special counsel to Sedgwick LLP. Larsen is an expert on open government laws and a volunteer attorney for the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas. “... overall I think this could serve as a template for policies for other City officers and employees and for other governmental bodies.

This is the third and final phase of improving the city’s handling of electronic communications in response to our lawsuit, The Austin Bulldog v. Mayor Lee Leffingwell et al filed March 1, 2012, and the county attorney’s ongoing investigation of the City Council’s violations of the Texas Open Meetings Act that The Austin Bulldog exposed January 25, 2011.

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Some Council Members’ Finances Change Significantly

Mayor carries campaign debt, Riley adds domestic partner,
Martinez adds investments, Cole reports spouse separately,
and Tovo pays off $528,000 in real estate loans

by Ken Martin
© The Austin Bulldog 2012
Posted Wednesday, August 22, 2012 10:05am

Chris RileyChris RileyCity Council Member Chris Riley, an attorney, initially failed to comply with the Austin City Code by not fully reporting the financial activity of his domestic partner in his latest Statement of Financial Information.

The Austin Bulldog’s June 2, 2011, report covered similar discrepancies in Riley’s annual financial statements for 2009 and 2010.

Riley’s mid-year Statement of Financial Information covering the first six months of 2012, filed July 27, indicates that his domestic partner, Denise Brady, is an “attorney/state employee.” The report contains no other information as to Brady's specific employer, her income, investments, real property interests, debts, or boards of directors on which she may be serving, as required by City Code Sections 2-2-72(A) and 2-7-2(10).

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No Raise, No Praise for City Manager Marc Ott

Twice-delayed performance evaluation delivered in closed-door
executive session, despite absence of Council Member Spelman

by Ken Martin
© The Austin Bulldog 2012
Posted Thursday, August 16, 2012 10:25pm

Marc OttMarc OttThe Austin City Council adjourned today for a closed-door executive session to tackle five posted agenda items—not the least of which was to evaluate the performance of and consider the compensation and benefits for City Manager Marc Ott.

Four hours and 20 minutes later the council reconvened in open session. After quickly disposing of two other agenda items, Mayor Lee Leffingwell called on Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole.

Sheryl ColeSheryl ColeCole said, “I just wanted to say that we did in executive session take up Item Number 70, with respect to the compensation and benefits of the city manager, and we look forward to his continued service.”

That was the entire discussion of Marc Ott’s performance evaluation. Cole’s statement lasted a mere 12 seconds.

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The Marc Ott-Fort Worth Connection

Ott’s hire as city manager recommended by subordinate
who Ott then hired as Austin assistant city manager
by Ken Martin
© The Austin Bulldog 2012
Posted Tuesday, August 14, 2012 2:37pm
Updated Tuesday, August 14, 2012 3:23pm
Corrected Tuesday August 14, 2012 4:59pm

In late 2007, as Austin City Manager Toby Futrell was getting ready to retire, the city hired Arcus, a consulting firm based in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, to find suitable candidates for a new city manager.

Marc OttMarc OttMarc Ott, one of two finalists, was named city manager by a vote of 6-0 January 17, 2008, with one abstention.

The undated 22-page Arcus report, which The Austin Bulldog obtained through an open records request, suggests that Ott, who was formerly an assistant city manager of the City of Fort Worth, and another Fort Worth executive essentially came as a package deal.

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Loud Rally Follows Final Council Vote For 8-2-1

AGR Cries Foul Over Work Session Votes for Hybrid;
Mayor Leffingwell Said Votes Driven by Ballot Deadline

by Ken Martin
© The Austin Bulldog 2012
Posted Tuesday, August 7, 2012 9:07pm

Bill Aleshire meets the press at a noon rally held by Austinites for Geographic RepresentationBill Aleshire meets the press at a noon rally held by Austinites for Geographic Representation

A high-noon rally by a loud crowd of Austinites for Geographic Representation (AGR) pulled no punches in criticizing the Austin City Council for casting a final vote today to put the 8-2-1 plan for electing council members on the same ballot as the 10-1 plan the group got on the ballot through petition.

AGR’s main complaints are that there was no groundswell of support for the 8-2-1 plan; that it goes against the recommendations of the council-appointed 2012 Charter Revision Committee, which recommended the 10-1 plan; and that it adds confusion and competition for voter approval of any form of geographic representation. Previous opportunities to enact some form of geographic representation have been voted down six times between 1973 and 2002.

A secondary issue for AGR is that only the first reading of the ordinance to put the 8-2-1 plan on the ballot was voted on in a regular City Council meeting, while the last two readings were voted on in council work sessions.

Two hours before the press conference, during the morning portion of today’s council work session, Mayor Lee Leffingwell announced that the votes taken in work session were driven by the deadline to approve measures to go on the ballot.

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Council Backers of 8-2-1 Plan Accused of Self-Interest

But Facts Don’t Seem to Substantiate Such a Claim, as
Related Actions May Bar Most Incumbents From Reelection

by Ken Martin
© The Austin Bulldog 2012
Posted Monday, August 6, 2012 9:15 pm

Lee LeffingwellLee LeffingwellAt the August 2 City Council meeting, what was expected to be a pro-forma exercise in putting on the November 6 ballot a proposition qualified by citizen petition drive was sidetracked by some heated words aimed at Mayor Lee Leffingwell.

But where there is heat there is sometimes also light.

The light was shed on the question of whether the five City Council members who favor the 8-2-1 plan (Mike Martinez and Bill Spelman opposed) are acting out of self-interest to increase their chances of staying in office.

The reality is that a separate proposed charter amendment—which the council already approved to go on the November ballot—if approved by voters would disqualify all but one incumbent from running for reelection (more about that later).

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City Manager’s Annual Review Postponed

Mark Ott’s Performance Review Now Set for August 16

by Ken Martin
© The Austin Bulldog 2012
Posted Thursday, August 2, 2012 8:43pm

Marc OttMarc OttAustin City Manager Marc Ott didn’t get his annual performance review today as scheduled.

Shortly after noon, Mayor Lee Leffingwell read the agenda items to be discussed in a closed-door executive session. The council meeting agenda was posted for the executive session to include Ott’s performance. But Leffingwell announced that Ott’s review was being postponed at the request of Council Member Bill Spelman.

Spelman had arrived in council chambers and took his seat on the dais shortly after 10:30am, about 20 minutes after the meeting started. And Spelman was present preceding the mayor’s announcement of the postponement.

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City Manager Faces Crucial Annual Review

Bulldog Background Investigation Comes as
Marc Ott’s Performance Gets Council Scrutiny

by Ken Martin and Rebecca LaFlure
© The Austin Bulldog 2012
Posted Wednesday August 1, 2012, 12:15am
Updated Thursday, August 9, 2012 1:11pm

Marc OttMarc Ott

Austin City Manager Marc Ott is scheduled to walk into a closed-door meeting on Thursday, August 2, with a City Council that can praise him, raise his pay, or invite him to find another job.

If he’s shown the door, Ott will walk away with a little more than $430,000, based on the compensation and benefits package council members approved last August.

However Ott fares in his annual job evaluation, there will never be a discoverable written record of it. The Austin Bulldog submitted an open records request for copies of Ott’s performance reviews conducted in previous years. The city of Austin responded that all evaluations are conducted verbally in closed session, and no written job evaluations exist.

Written job evaluations of public employees are often included in the employee’s personnel file, which is considered public record under the Texas Public Information Act.

Council Member Bill Spelman—as well as former Mayor Gus Garcia and former Council Member Brewster McCracken, who between the three of them served for more than two decades on the council—confirmed that city council members do not conduct written evaluations of any employees who report to the council.

So in order to educate the public on Marc Ott’s professional background and his more than four years as Austin’s top manager, The Austin Bulldog gathered available public records on Ott—including his written evaluations from previous jobs—and interviewed community leaders about their thoughts on his performance.

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8-2-1 Plan Near-Certain to Go on Ballot

City Council Votes on Second Reading
to Put Competing Election Plan on Ballot

by Ken Martin
© The Austin Bulldog 2012
Posted July 31, 2012 2:35pm

The Austin City Council in today’s work session voted 5-2 (Council Members Mike Martinez and Bill Spelman opposed) to put the 8-2-1 plan for electing council members on the November ballot.

Sheryl ColeSheryl ColeA five-vote majority is sufficient to pass any measure on the council’s agenda on all three readings for final approval, and dispense with further consideration. Today, at Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole’s request, the vote was limited to second reading only.

It now appears to be a foregone conclusion that at least four votes in favor of the 8-2-1 plan will be cast on third reading, which Mayor Lee Leffingwell said he anticipated would be scheduled for an August 7 work session.

That will set up head-to-head competition on the November ballot between the 8-2-1 plan and the 10-1 plan, which already garnered sufficient signatures to go on the ballot.

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10-1 Plan Qualifies for November Ballot

Consultant Estimates That 22,435 Signatures Are Valid;
Austinites for Geographic Representation Readies for Battle

by Ken Martin
© The Austin Bulldog 2012
Posted Thursday, July 26, 2012 11:35pm

Shirley GentryShirley GentryCity Clerk Shirley Gentry e-mailed a statement late this afternoon to announce that the plan petitioned for by Austinites for Geographic Representation is qualified to put the proposition before voters in November. The plan calls for election of council members from 10 districts, a mayor elected at-large, and an Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission to draw district boundaries the council would have no choice but to approve.

The City Council voted 5-2 on June 28 to put the same plan on the ballot but the petitioners chose to complete the work and get the measure on the ballot to make it the “people’s plan” and not something the council was offering.

When the petition approval was announced at tonight’s meeting of Austinites for Geographic Representation (AGR), the crowd of some 30 members broke out into a loud and sustained applause and cheers. As well they might after completing the petitioning that began last October and planning that started in February 2011.

But AGR is wasting no time and is gearing up for two immediate chores:

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Petition Drive Completed for 10-1 Council Districts

Austinites for Geographic Representation Claims 33,000
Signatures, of Which About 22,800 Are Considered Valid

by Ken Martin
© The Austin Bulldog 2012
Posted Monday, July 16, 2012 10:57pm
Updated August 7, 2012 2pm

City Clerk Shirley Gentry (right) accepts petitions from Linda CurtisCity Clerk Shirley Gentry (right) accepts petitions from Linda CurtisDuring the June 28 meeting in which the City Council voted to put more City Charter propositions on the ballot for voters to consider in November, Austinites for Geographic Representation (AGR) stacked up seven white boxes next to the podium when AGR volunteer political consultant Peck Young addressed the council.

After holding a press conference at City Hall today, AGR petition coordinator Linda Curtis presented two purple plastic boxes of signed petitions to City Clerk Shirley Gentry. At 3:32pm Gentry date-time-stamped a copy of the cover page of a petition and gave it to Curtis as a receipt.

Asked later to explain how the seven boxes shown to the City Council shrunk to two today, Young told The Austin Bulldog, “I’m a professional politician.” Were those seven boxes brimming full when shown to the City Council on June 28? “I didn’t say that,” Young replied.

Political showmanship aside, at today’s press conference AGR members held up placards indicating the group had collected 33,000 signatures.

After submitting the petitions to the City Clerk, Curtis told The Austin Bulldog that the petitions submitted to Gentry contain 22,800 some-odd signatures considered to be valid.

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