Ballot question could change mayor’s role

Published 7:41 am Friday, October 8, 2010

Austin residents will face more than the question of who will represent them locally and at the state level on the Nov. 2 ballot.

Residents will also decide if the mayor will have tie-breaking power when the City Council deadlocks, as well as whether the mayor and council member-at-large will serve four-year terms instead of two-year terms.

“The Charter Commission unanimously feels that (these changes) should be approved,” Austin Charter Commission Chair John O’Rourke said.

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The tie-breaking power and term changes were a part of several other changes proposed to Austin’s city charter and passed in June; however, City Council could not reach a decision on these three specific questions and decided instead to let the public decide.

Marian Clennon, council member and mayoral candidate, said she disagrees with the idea of the mayor holding a four-year term and possessing tie-breaking power.

“Personally, I would think we should keep (the mayor’s term limit) at two years,” Clennon said. “I just think that’s a high enough position that if the people are frustrated with who they have in there, they can change them in two years. At the same time if everybody likes the person, then they can be re-elected.”

Clennon said she doesn’t think the mayor needs tie-breaking power.

“Our charter is already worded to the affect that a majority vote is what passes something, so if there’s a tie vote it’s not a majority,” Clennon said. “It’s already covered. We don’t need someone to break the tie.”

Clennon said she can go either way when it comes to the council member-at-large term limits.

Mayor Tom Stiehm said he supports all three proposed changes to the charter.

“I think (the changes) are just common sense,” Stiehm said. “It’s rare to have a mayor with a two-year term. It seems like you’re always campaigning. It becomes pretty hectic.”

Stiehm said he thinks the tie-breaking aspect is “common sense.”

“I like that the mayor doesn’t vote on everything,” Stiehm said. “But the tie-breaking thing is common sense. If the mayor doesn’t vote and you have a tie, it doesnt pass, and if the mayor is doing a good job you don’t have to worry about it I guess.”

The charter commission has been working diligently to inform the public about the changes, the mayor said.

“I think the people have been pretty perceptive,” he said.

O’Rourke said the Charter Commission has had conversations with the Minnesota League of Cities and other communities and found that the majority of cities give the mayor the change to break a tie. The commission also found that most mayors have four-year terms, O’Rourke said.

“(The changes) all make sense,” he said. “All of the council is at four-year terms and we feel that it would be appropriate to get the mayor and council member-at-large up to four years as well.”

If the public votes to extend the term limits, the changes would go into effect for the mayor in the year 2012 and for the council member-at-large in 2014.

Other changes to the city charter were made in June, including removing gender-specific phrasing, archaic definitions and areas that do not comply with state law. O’Rourke said the charter was reduced from over 100 pages to 41 pages.

“I just basically want (voters) to decide if this is something that their council should do or not,” Clennon said. “That part is up to them.”