Petition to reinstate Austin's homeless camping ban ruled invalid by city clerk

A camp is set up by someone experiencing homelessness in August 2019. (Christopher Neely/Community Impact Newspaper)
A camp is set up by someone experiencing homelessness in August 2019. (Christopher Neely/Community Impact Newspaper)

A camp is set up by someone experiencing homelessness in August 2019. (Christopher Neely/Community Impact Newspaper)

A petition aimed at reinstating Austin's ban on homeless encampments, sitting and lying down and soliciting was ruled insufficient after Austin's city clerk determined it did not have the required 20,000 signatures to make its way onto the Nov. 3 ballot.

Local nonprofit Save Austin Now submitted the petition July 20 with what organizers said were 24,087 valid signatures. The petition asked signatories whether they support reinstating the ban on camping, prohibiting sitting and lying in the downtown area, and the criminalization of panhandling between 7 p.m. and 7 a.m. If the petition contained enough signatures, the language from the petition would make its way onto the Nov. 3 ballot as a referendum. Save Austin Now had been working on gathering signatures since February.

After a thorough analysis, City Clerk Janette Goodall determined she and the city were "virtually certain" the number of valid signatures fell below the 20,000 threshold set by local law. She estimated the petition contained only 19,122 valid signatures.

In a memo, Goodall said she discovered the petition contained two versions of the language, requiring her to remove 397 signatures. Then using the standard method, she took a sample of 6,501 signatures to analyze for validity. Goodall said she removed 41 duplicate signatures and 1,106 signatures for "other reasons." Goodall did not provide clarification of "other reasons," but a city spokesperson said the reasons for disqualifying signatures included absence from the registered voter rolls, missing signatures and missing dates.

Using the random sample, Goodall concluded she and the city were 95% confident there more than 18,887 valid signatures, but fewer than 19,356.

"The probability that checking all 24,201 submitted signatures would find a total of at least 20,000 valid signatures is less than 3 in one billion," Goodall wrote in her analysis. "The city is virtually certain that the true number of valid signatures is fewer than 20,000."

Matt Mackowiak, co-founder of Save Austin Now and Travis County GOP chairman, said the organization was reviewing its options, which he said could include legal action.

"I don't believe for one second that 1,100 out of 6,000 signatures were invalid," Mackowiak said. "I don't want to attack the integrity of the clerk because I believe she does have integrity. But based on what we were told, we believe there were some problems with the way all of this was conducted."

Mackowiak would not elaborate on specifics, but he said he does not believe signatures missing dates should be ruled invalid. He said there are other ways to determine whether a signature was collected within the last six months, as law requires.

"This fight is not over," Mackowiak said.

Chris Harris, project director for Homes Not Handcuffs, welcomed the news.

"We are ecstatic, but unsurprised that Save Austin Now failed to gain meaningful support for a petition seeking to punish poverty and re-establish policing as our primary approach to homelessness," Harris said in a statement. "It is clear that this community wants an Austin for all, not just an Austin for the privileged few.”

For more information on how the city's petition process works, check out Community Impact Newspaper's coverage from 2019.
By Christopher Neely
Christopher Neely is Community Impact's Austin City Hall reporter. A New Jersey native, Christopher moved to Austin in 2016 following years of community reporting along the Jersey Shore. His bylines have appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Baltimore Sun, USA Today and several other local outlets along the east coast.


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