Proposed charter changes may reach ballot

Published 6:48 am Thursday, January 28, 2010

With a unanimous vote from city council looking unlikely, the Austin Charter Commission on Wednesday officially decided to go forward with putting changes to the document on the ballot for November’s general election.

The next step for the commission will be to present council with a final draft of the new charter and outline its intention to have citizens vote on revisions. This can be done no earlier than six months before the election, meaning the commission could use the time between now and May to win over unanimous support from council and avoid going on the ballot altogether.

To date, council members Marian Clennon and John Martin — both from Ward 3 — have opposed changes to the charter.

Clennon has said she opposes the idea of having city job descriptions moved from the charter to various ordinances, which was proposed by the commission. The councilwoman said having them in the charter makes them harder to change, which she sees as a good thing.

Martin has said he simply doesn’t want the document touched, a position he said he’s maintained for three years.

“I said it back then,” the councilman said. “We should not be messing with this document. It’s a waste of time and disrespectful.”

Feeling they likely wouldn’t get both council members on board to form a unanimous vote soon — which is required by law if a city council is to change a charter — the commission instead decided to weigh other options Wednesday.

Commission members discussed the possibility of holding a special election simply for the charter issue, but they agreed holding such an election would be an unnecessary expenditure, possibly costing upwards of $25,000.

The commission is also faced with the task of educating the public about the changes to the charter in an effort to garner 51 percent of the vote.

City administrator Jim Hurm suggested the possibility of publishing information in the city’s regular newsletter, and several commissioners discussed potential media campaigns that could be started. City attorney David Hoversten said while not obligated to inform the public, it might be in the commission’s best interest.

“There has to be some salesmanship, some marketing with it,” he said.

How the commission will do that will be the subject of their next meeting, which was scheduled for Feb. 23.

One theme likely to come up at that meeting is simplification, which has ultimately been a main goal of the commission — the charter has been trimmed down substantially, and revisions have been made to make it more readable and “user-friendly.”

But some substantive changes have also been brought forward, including a recommendation that the term for mayor and councilmember at-large be bumped from two to four years. Commission members also want to allow the mayor to vote if the council reaches a tie vote, something the mayor can’t do currently.

The commission has stood behind what they feel is a very good draft, but members have shown frustration that they’ve come so far only to come up two votes short.

Sheriff Terese Amazi, a commission member, has been particularly critical of Martin and Clennon for not getting involved in the process sooner, when the commission could have seriously considered concerns.

“They’ve had two years,” the sheriff said.

However, if the public education campaign is successful, Martin and Clennon could be swayed to support charter changes before they are moved to the ballot in May. If that’s the case, the commission could always try to get a unanimous vote again.

“We’ve got some breathing room,” commissioner Woody Vereide said.