Austin Community College asks state Legislature to provide option to end trustee runoff elections

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On Dec. 11 voters across six counties will decide between candidates Stephanie Gharakhanian and Sarah Mills for the final seat on the Austin Community College District board of trustees.

Meanwhile ACC’s board has decided to ask the Texas state Legislature to provide the district with the option to make it the final ACC board of trustees runoff election.

ACC’s board voted Dec. 3 with an 8-0 vote—with trustee Julie Ann Nitsch abstaining—to include an item on its legislative agenda asking lawmakers to amend the state’s education code to provide the option for community college districts to hold plurality elections for their respective boards.

The current system of election by majority for ACC’s board of trustees mirrors elections for public officials in the city of Austin and Austin ISD. If no candidate for the ACC board of trustees receives 50 percent of the total vote a runoff election is held between the top two vote-getters.

Unlike public school districts within the state of Texas, the state’s education code does not give community college districts the ability to decide between the current majority system and a plurality election—in which the candidate with the highest total number of votes would receive the board of trustees seat without the need for a runoff election.

ACC argues that runoff elections impose an “unnecessary financial burden” on the district and burdens voters by making them return to the polls.

ACC’s board of trustees members serve six-year terms, and elections are held every two years. The 2018 election is the third consecutive ACC election to go to a runoff. The district said the cost to administer the runoff elections was $397,579 in 2014 and $445,692 in 2016.

“When you start spending a half million dollars on something like this, it doesn’t seem like the best use of our money,” said trustee Mark Williams.

In the 2017 legislative session a bill introduced by Rep. Justin Rodriguez, D-San Antonio, to allow community college districts to conduct plurality elections passed both the Texas House and Senate. However, Gov. Greg Abbott vetoed the bill.

In a 2017 statement Abbott said plurality elections would result in the selection of candidates who “received a small percentage of voter support.”

“These elections have important consequences for property owners and for junior colleges,” Abbott said in the 2017 statement. “They should not be treated like second-tier elections.”

Trustee Nan McRaven disagreed with the governor’s interpretation of the 2017 bill.

“This Is about our fiduciary responsibility. This about the cost to our communities and taxpayers. It’s really hard for me to understand how Governor Abbott could not be for those things,” McRaven said Dec. 3.

The Dec. 11 runoff election will be held in conjunction with the Austin City Council runoff elections in three districts of the city, as well as an election to decide one board of trustees seat for Austin ISD.

In those areas the other entities holding runoff elections will share election costs with ACC, according to Molly Beth Malcolm, ACC executive vice president of campus operations and public affairs. However, Malcolm said in the rest of the community college’s district area where there are no other runoff elections, ACC will absorb the full cost of administering the runoff election.

In the November election, Gharakhanian, an attorney for the Workers Defense Project, received 44.6 percent of the vote while Mills, director of public policy and government relations at the Texas Association for Home Care and Hospice, received 35.4 percent of the vote. With neither candidate reaching the 50 percent majority threshold, the runoff was called. A third candidate, Douglas Gibbins, received 19.9 percent of the vote.

This story has been update to correct a misstatement in the name of ACC’s executive vice president of campus operations and public affairs. She is Molly Beth Malcolm, not Mary Beth Malcolm. 

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Jack Flagler
Jack is the editor for Community Impact's Central Austin edition. He graduated in 2011 from Boston University and worked as a reporter and editor at newspapers in Maine, Massachusetts and North Carolina before moving to Austin in January of 2018.
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