Commission aims to resolve charter dispute

Published 7:13 am Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Before proposed changes to Austin’s charter go on November’s ballot, a local commission will take one last shot at getting full city council support — a move that would get the document altered before the election.

The Austin Charter Commission has been pushing to change the city’s governing document for more than two years, which can be done either with unanimous council support or a ballot initiative. Going through council seemed most promising — and quickest — from the beginning, but a wrench has been thrown into that plan.

That’s because council members Marian Clennon and John Martin have steadfastly resisted changing the charter. Clennon has said she has a problem with a specific proposal that would remove job descriptions from the charter, while Martin has said the overall idea of touching the document is “disrespectful” to Austin’s forefathers.

Commission members had basically given up convincing the two and had begun plans to gather public support for the election, but a last-second decision Tuesday will put that on hold — for now.

Commission member Nitaya Jandragholica asked the rest of the group if anyone had really ever sat down with Martin and Clennon, in a small-group atmosphere, and tried to iron out differences.

After some discussion, the commission decided it hadn’t, and members agreed it would be worth a try.

“Can we work this out for the better of the city?” Jandragholica said. “It could show that the commission tried everything to not spend money (on an election).”

Resolving the dispute before the election would certainly lower the city’s costs. While publishing charter changes — which is required by law — would cost the same regardless of what happens, getting the issue resolved now would save costs that would go toward campaigning and toward printing ballots. That figure, while not exactly clear at this point, could be several thousand dollars.

But there’s no guarantee that both Martin and Clennon would be interested in sitting down, and even if they were, there’s no guarantee they’d change their minds.

Clennon said Tuesday that she probably wouldn’t want to sit down with commission members. She said they’ve had the last year to bring issues up publicly, and the council woman doesn’t see the good of doing so now in a more private setting.

“I would hesitate to be in a room, either by myself or with John (Martin), with two or three commission members,” Clennon said. “I don’t want to even put myself in that situation.”

Martin could not be reached Tuesday evening, but his opposition has been more broad than Clennon’s, making him seemingly an even more difficult target for the commission. The councilman said previously that he made it clear three years ago — before the process to change the charter began — that he didn’t like the idea.

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

The disagreement with the commission has caused some sparks. At one earlier meeting , sheriff Terese Amazi, a commission member, asked Martin if he wanted his city jail back — a reference to an archaic part of the charter and a reason for the proposed changes, the sheriff said.

However, Martin responded with criticisms regarding the jail and justice center being built downtown, setting off a round of heated discussion.

“He has no idea what he’s even opposing,” Amazi said a day later.

The sheriff added that it has been particularly frustrating to come up against Martin and Clennon when changes seemed so near.

“We’ve been at this for a year and a half,” Amazi said previously. “Where were they?”

If the commission’s final attempt to get unanimous council support fails, it will turn its attention to educating the public about why it supports the proposed changes.

To that end, commission members would likely first sit down with local service groups, like the Austin Noon Lions. Next, a series of TV advertisements could be put together.

Ultimately, the commission agreed that the message should be simple and reinforce the fact that the changes aren’t overly drastic.

“This message is a positive message,” commission member Chuck Moline said.

So what are these changes? Perhaps the broadest one has been to make the document more “user-friendly,” a process that has involved removing archaic language and cutting down on repetition. As a result, the commission has been able to trim a number of pages from the charter.

There have also been more substantive changes proposed. This includes a recommendation that the term for mayor and council member 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 next charter commission meeting has not been scheduled.