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 City Charter Changes: Who Cares?

Commission’s public hearings in northwest, southeast
and central Austin draw total of only three speakers

by Ken Martin
© The Austin Bulldog 2018
Posted Monday April 9, 2018 10:24am

The Asian American Resource Center, located at 8401 Cameron Road, is the site of the Charter Revision Commission’s final public hearing on proposed City Charter changes.The Asian American Resource Center, located at 8401 Cameron Road, is the site of the Charter Revision Commission’s final public hearing on proposed City Charter changes.If you were waiting for the last call to make comments about nine proposals to change the Austin City Charter, this is it: the Charter Revision Commission will hold its final public hearing April 12 at the Asian American Resource Center at 8401 Cameron Road in northeast Austin.

Many of the Commission’s recommendations being aired are of major importance. For example:

Should the City establish an Independent Ethics Commission that has the power to issue subpoenas, compel depositions and production of evidence, investigate and hold hearings, all under the oversight of a commission whose members are drawn from a pool of applicants and will be empowered to act without other oversight?

Should the City Council establish a Budget and Efficiency Officer with a small staff that would report directly to and advise the council on financial matters?

Should tax money be taken from the general fund to help fund election campaigns for mayoral and council candidates?

That's just a small taste of seven recommendations the Commission has already adopted to change the charter and it’s considering two other proposals.(More details about the recommendations are provided below.)

The purpose of the public hearings is to gather feedback before fine-tuning the recommendations and sending them to the City Council. The council will then decide whether to put all, some, or none of propositions on the November 6, 2018, ballot for voters to approve or reject.

An experienced critic

Terrell BlodgettTerrell BlodgettThe City Hall hearing Saturday April 7 drew testimony from just one person, Terrell Blodgett, the LBJ School of Public Affairs’ Mike Hogg Professor Emeritus in Urban Management. Blodgett was the only person to attend the hearing except for city staff and commissioners.

Blodgett strongly criticized the Commission’s recommendation that voters approve allowing the City Council to appoint the City Attorney instead of the City Manager. He also opposed appointment of a Budget and Efficiency Officer that would report to and advise the City Council on budgetary matters.

“I think this is a solution looking for a problem,” Blodgett said. “It sets up a perfect scenario for the City Council to shop around for answers when they don't like what they hear from the city manager.”

“I urge you to look at the level of supervision over the City Attorney, who needs to have the freedom to call it like it is on legal opinions,” he said.

Blodgett also knocked the proposal being considered by the Commission—but not yet adopted—that would require voter approval of (1) revenue bonds whose total cost exceeds $25 million and (2) all power and water purchases whose total price for each project exceeds $50 million.

He said, “$25 million for the electric utility would be like a cup of coffee,” considering it generates revenue of some $1 billion a year.

As to holding elections for revenue bond projects exceeding $50 million would be “tying the utility’s hands.” He said such financial outlays already go through extensive staff review.

After testifying, Blodgett, who served as city manager of Waco 1960-63 and Garland 1963-64 and, and before that was assistant city manager of Austin 1955-60, told The Austin Bulldog that Texas cities with a council-manager form of government (like Austin) have superior credit ratings.

Seven recommendations already adopted

A more detailed summary of these recommendations is linked at the bottom of this story.

(1) Council appoint attorney—The City Attorney would be appointed by the City Council instead of the City Manager. Voters considered and narrowly rejected the same proposal in the election of November 6, 2012. Proposition 6 drew yes votes from 49.37 percent of those who cast ballots and lost to 50.63 percent who voted no.

(2) Budget & efficiency officer—Create a City Budget and Efficiency Officer appointed by the City Council whose mission is to produce independent analyses of budgetary and fiscal issues to support the Council’s budget process by issuing reports and reviews of proposed and existing programs.

(3) Democracy Dollars Program—Establish a Democracy Dollars Program for public financing of campaigns to provide eligible Austin residents up to four $25 Democracy Dollar Vouchers per election cycle. The vouchers may be donated to a resident’s district council candidate or a mayoral candidate. The purpose of the Democracy Dollars program is to ensure that all people of Austin have equal opportunity to participate in political campaigns and are heard by candidates, to strengthen democracy, to fulfill the purposes of single-member districts, to enhance candidate competition, and prevent corruption.

(4) Independent Ethics Commission—Establish an Independent Ethics Review Commission to impartially and effectively administer and enforce all city laws relating to campaign finance, campaign disclosures, conflicts of interest, financial statement disclosure, lobbyist regulations, revolving door, disqualification of members of city boards, certain conflict of interest and ethics laws, and other responsibilities.

(5) Restore referendum rights—Require that a notice of intent to circulate a referendum petition be filed with the city clerk prior to collecting signatures and that the signed referendum petition be filed with the city clerk within 180 days of the passage of an ordinance. If such a petition were put on the ballot and approved by voters it would have the effect of rescinding the ordinance.

(6) Recall petition notice—Require that notice of intent to circulate a recall petition be filed with the city clerk prior to collecting signatures, that the recall petition contain the grounds on which the removal is sought, and that the recall petition be signed by at least 20 percent of the qualified voters of the district from which the council member is elected, or 10 percent citywide for the mayor.

(7) Fix clerical errors—Correction of clerical matters, routine harmonizing, and clarification of verbiage.

Two changes under consideration

(1) Planning Commission terms—Clarify that the timing and staggering of the Planning Commission terms are to be determined by ordinance.

(2) Voter bonds approval—Require a city election to approve major utility related revenue bonds over $25 million and to approve power and water purchases whose total price for each project exceeds $50 million.

Hearings ill attended so far

If the three past public hearings are an indicator then you will have no problem finding a seat when the April 12 meeting starts at 6:30pm.

Although these hearings have pretty much been ignored up to now that's unfortunate, as the City has tried to promote it by posting on its website and Next Door neighborhood sites, as well as on the City's Twitter account. The Austin American-Statesman published a “blurb” and the Austin Monitor “published a story” said Commission Chair Jessica Palvino. And this is The Austin Bulldog’s fourth story on the Commission’s work. The Charter Revision Commission has now held three public hearings that drew a total of just three speakers to provide feedback about the proposals to change the Austin City Charter, the closest thing the city has to a constitution.

The first hearing March 28 at Anderson High School attracted just two speakers: Tomas Rodriguez of the North Shoal Creek Neighborhood Association, and Joanne Richards of Common Ground for Texans.

The second public hearing held at the Dove Springs Recreation Center April 3 was a complete bust, with only one person in the audience, Tom Herrera, who said he came to listen but not speak. Myrna Rios showed up just as the commission meeting adjourned, but said she did not come to testify.

Links:

Article IV Initiative, Referendum and Recall, March 5, 2018

City Auditor's Proposal for Article IX, Section 1, of the City Charter

Campaign Finance Committee Recommended Draft, February 26, 2018

First Look: Seattle's Democracy Voucher Program, November 15, 2017  (7 pages)

Petition to amend the Austin City Charter concerning CodeNEXT  (1 page)

Petition for Reasonable Petition Requirements for Voter Referendum  (1 page)

Proposed Chapter 2-9 City Budget and Efficiency Officer (4 pages)

Recommendation Regarding Article V, Section 6 (City Attorney), February 12, 2018

Resolution No. 20170622-040, establishment of 2018 Charter Revision Commission (4 pages)

Staff Recommendation Regarding Article X, Section 2 (Planning Commission)

Summary of Recommendations Adopted by the 2018 Charter Review Commission, as of March 12, 2018 (25 pages)

Understanding the Role of Ethics Commissions, December 2007  (11 pages)

Related Bulldog coverage:

Big Charter Changes Up for Scrutiny: Charter Revision Commission schedules public hearings to gather citizen input before finalizing recommendations, March 8, 2018

Council Campaigns Funded by Tax Dollars? Seattle council member elected with Democracy Voucher funds briefed Austin residents and Charter Revision Commission, February 23, 2018

Tax Dollars for Council Campaigns? Charter Revision Commission considering public financing to boost voter participation and reduce advantage of personal wealth, January 10, 2018

Trust indicators:

Ken Martin has been covering local government and politics in the Austin area since 1981. See more on Ken on the About page. Email This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

Who funds this work? This report was made possible by contributions to The Austin Bulldog, which operates as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit for investigative reporting in the public interest. You can help support this independent coverage by making a tax-deductible contribution.

An alphabetic list of donors who have contributed to The Austin Bulldog since the organization was formed in 2009 and the cumulative amount each person has given through October 30, 2017, are listed on the Contribute page. (Ken is working on bringing that list up to date.)

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