Dramatically increasing the power of the mayor’s office, aligning the mayoral and presidential election cycles, eliminating runoff contests through ranked-choice voting and implementing a new campaign finance system could all be on the May 1 ballot if a political action committee-sponsored petition submitted to the city clerk Jan. 11 is deemed valid.

The clerk will now work over the next several days to ensure the more than 24,000 signatures the PAC, Austinites for Progressive Reform, said were attached to the petition are from registered Austin voters. According to local petition rules, the petition only needs 20,000 valid signatures to earn a place on the May 1 ballot.

Austinites for Progressive Reform was formed in July, but casual conversations around a push for increasing the power of the mayor's office have extended back to at least 2018 in local political circles. However, state law only allows city charter amendments to occur every two years. Majority support for Proposition 1 on the Nov. 6, 2018, ballot to make “non-substantive corrections” to the charter meant the earliest the next charter election could be held was May 2021, since the Nov. 3 general election fell three days shy of two years.

The petition poses four changes to the charter that would alter the local democratic process: switching from a council/manager form of a government to a strong-mayor form, moving mayoral elections to align with presidential elections, implementing ranked-choice voting to eliminate runoff elections and creating a Democracy Dollars program that would allow more people across the city to send money to a local candidate they support.

The prospect of a strong-mayor system in Austin, which has operated without one for nearly 100 years, has drawn objection from some groups; however, those supporting the measure said there are checks in place to keep the mayor from becoming a local autocrat.

Stronger but still weak

According to city documents, since 1924, Austin has operated under council/manager form of government, which makes the mayor the leader of the City Council but affords the position no additional voting or executive powers. The mayor and City Council hire the city manager, who presides as the executive over the city's bureaucracy. The city manager is the most powerful person within City Hall but is accountable to the mayor and City Council, who are accountable to the voters.

According to Austinites for Progressive Reform, the strong-mayor amendment would eliminate the city manager position and turn the mayor into the city's bureaucratic executive. The mayor would no longer sit on City Council, and and 11th City Council seat and district would be added to the dais.

Houston is the only other big Texas city to operate under a strong-mayor government; however, the mayor in Houston has much broader authority than a strong mayor would have in Austin. Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner is the city's top bureaucratic executive but is also wholly responsible for the City Council's agenda, which means City Council members can only approve or object to mayoral initiatives and cannot bring their own initiatives to the agenda. There is even a parallel push underway to decrease the Houston mayor's power to give City Council members more say over the agenda.

Jim Wick, co-founder of Austinites for Progressive Reform and former campaign manager for Austin Mayor Steve Adler, said the committee responsible for drafting the proposed strong-mayor charter amendments aimed to make Austin's system "the weakest strong mayor of any big city in the country."

Unlike Houston, the mayor in Austin would not have power to directly introduce legislation nor would the person preside over City Council—that would be up to a newly created City Council president. City Council would retain authority to make most board and commission appointments. Similar to Houston, the Austin mayor would appoint all department heads and the city attorney; however, Austin City Council would have the power to remove the city attorney, which Wick called a stark contrast to Houston.

Still too strong for some

As news broke Jan. 11 that the clerk received the petition, a new group announced its opposition campaign against the strong-mayor amendment. Austin For All People, led by Kerbey Lane CEO Mason Ayer; Jesus Garza, Seton Family Healthcare CEO and former Austin city manager; and attorney Catherine Q. Morse, claims the strong-mayor form of government would harm participation. The group said a strong-mayor system could turn key department head positions into political appointments and strip power away from the geographically representative City Council members.

“Those efforts to make the voiceless heard and to assure that neighborhoods across Austin are represented will be greatly diminished under a strong mayor system,” said Nico Ramsey, the group’s director of community engagement. “The power granted to those council members will be stripped away, relegating council members to nothing more than glorified ward representatives, and placed into the hands of one individual—the mayor.”

The other proposed mayoral move to align elections with presidential election cycles would have a significant implication for the next mayor, Wick said. Adler’s term is set to expire in 2022. If voters approve the change in May, Adler’s term would still expire as scheduled, and the city would hold an election for a two-year mayoral term and then hold another in 2024 for a four-year term. According to Wick, the two-year term would count as a full term for whoever wins in 2022. Should the same person win re-election in 2024, they would reach their two-term limit in 2028.