Travis County judge orders Austin to place CodeNEXT petition question on November ballot

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Austinites will decide in November if they want voting power over CodeNEXT and all future rewrites of the land-development code following a ruling Monday from a Travis County district judge.

CodeNEXT, the city’s five-year, $8.5 million rewrite of its land-development code, was scheduled to undergo a final vote from City Council this fall. However, that will likely change after Judge Orlinda Naranjo ruled the city must honor the process of a petition submitted in March that asked council to adopt an ordinance allowing residents to vote on CodeNEXT and all future land code rewrites.

Since City Council refused to adopt the citizen-initiated ordinance, law mandates that voters decide the fate of the ordinance. Per the judge’s ruling, residents will vote this November on whether they agree that CodeNEXT, and all future code rewrites, should be left to a public vote.

After Austin City Council refused to place the question on the ballot, an anti-CodeNEXT group led by local attorney Fred Lewis sued the city, claiming the government had a duty to place the question on November’s ballot. City Council argued that since the proposed ordinance dealt with zoning, state law exempted the question from being left to public vote.

In her ruling, Naranjo said the city’s argument was “not ripe” and council had a, “ministerial duty to place the proposed initiative on the ballot for the [Nov. 6] election.”

City Council will now need to vote on the ballot language before the Aug. 20 filing deadline. Lewis said he expects City Council to honor the judge’s ruling.

Austin Mayor Steve Adler said the plan was always for City Council to see what the judge ruled since there was initial uncertainty whether law permitted the question to go on the ballot.

“I am going to support to putting it on the ballot,” Adler said.

District 7 Council Member Leslie Pool, who, with Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo and council members Alison Alter and Ora Houston, supported the petition, said she was “very pleased” with Naranjo’s decision.

“It is my hope that the City Council honors the decision and does not appeal the ruling,” Pool said in a statement. “Our next council meeting is Aug. 9, and it is my hope the council votes unanimously to give voters a say on any large-scale changes to the city’s land development code.”

Alter said the decision does not change the city’s goal of designing a code that the community would support.

“That is what they are ultimately asking us to do,” Alter said. “If we came up with a code that the community would support then they would approve it if it came up for a vote in the future.”

Tovo, and council members Ann Kitchen, Delia Garza and Greg Casar did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

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Editor’s Note: This story was updated to include a statement from District 7 Council Member Leslie Pool and comment from Mayor Steve Adler. 

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Christopher Neely
Christopher Neely is Community Impact's Austin City Hall reporter. A New Jersey native, Christopher moved to Austin in 2016 following two years of community reporting along the Jersey Shore. His bylines have appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Baltimore Sun and USA Today. He is a graduate of the University of Maryland's Philip Merrill College of Journalism.
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