Local NewsAustin City Council Sued Over ‘Deficient’ Ballot Language for Police Staffing Petition

The proposition language must be finalized by September 11 to begin printing ballots in time for the November 2 election.
August 16, 2021
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For the second time this year, the Austin City Council’s decision on a petition’s ballot language will be challenged in court. This time it pertains to an effort to set a minimum staffing level within the Austin Police Department (APD).

Advanced by Save Austin Now — the same group behind the city’s homeless camping ban reinstatement — the ballot initiative would institute a minimum staffing level of two officers per 1,000 residents if passed by voters this November. Currently, the city is operating around 1.2 officers per 1,000 residents.

Austin is currently 322 officers short of its budgeted amount from the 2020 Fiscal Year and has shed 15 to 20 officers per week in recent months. Austin tops the state’s big cities in homicide increases, having already eclipsed its entire 2020 total.

In total, the petition would:

  • Mandate a minimum staffing level of two officers per 1,000 residents
  • Establish a minimum 35 percent community response time standard
  • Require 40 additional hours of training
  • Oblige the mayor, city council, and city staff to enroll in the Citizens Police Academy
  • Facilitate minority officer hiring through foreign language proficiency metrics

Adopted last week, the city’s ballot language does not mirror the proposal on Save Austin Now’s circulated petitions.

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The group’s caption reads:

“A petitioned ordinance to enhance public safety and police oversight, transparency and accountability by adding new Chapter 2-16 to establish minimum standards for the police department to ensure effective public safety and protect residents and visitors to Austin, and prescribing minimal requirements for achieving the same.”

Meanwhile, the city’s adopted language reads:

“Shall an ordinance be approved that, at an estimated cost of $271.5 million -$598.8 million over five years, requires the City to employ at least 2 police officers per 1,000 residents at all times; requires at least 35% of patrol officer time be uncommitted time, otherwise known as community engagement time; requires additional financial incentives for certain officers; requires specific kinds of training for officers and certain public officials and their staffs; and requires there be at least three full-term cadet classes for the department until staffing levels reach a specific level?”

Save Austin Now is challenging not only to the accuracy of the city’s fiscal analysis and its inclusion in the caption, but also the omission of other specific aspects of the ordinance which are, on their face, more palatable to progressive attitudes.

A fiscal analysis of the initiative by the city pegged the cost of implementation between $271.5 million and $598.8 million over five years to add between 406 and 885 officers.

Annually, those costs are estimated to fall between $54.3 million and $119.8 million.

The group’s attorney, Bill Aleshire, a former Travis County judge, said, “I am really disappointed with tactics by the Mayor and City Council members (Mackenzie Kelly excepted) to mislead voters about the Petitioned Ordinance. No, it will not mandate $600 million in expenditures for the Austin Police Department, nor destroy the rest of City programs.”

Kelly, who upset former Councilman Jimmy Flannigan largely campaigning on public safety, motioned last week to adopt the group’s petition caption straight up, which failed for lack of a second on the 11-member body.

Austin’s adopted 2021-2022 budget nominally restored much of the $150 million cut from last year. It did so by placing things like the forensic lab and 911 call center back under the APD umbrella, but it remains $3 million below the 2019 level for neighborhood-based policing — or patrol units.

“For many years the Austin City Council has conspired to use their ballot language power to both ignore the City Charter requiring that captioned language be adopted and instead pass their own biased language to affect voters,” said Save Austin Now co-founders Matt Mackowiak and Cleo Petricek.

Even before the news that Save Austin Now had secured enough signatures to place the proposition on the ballot, Mayor Steve Adler initiated his opposition.

“Save Austin Now is lying about their petition. Their goal is to force Austin to pump tens of millions of dollars into the police department without any accountability. Join me in rejecting this misleading campaign and rejecting Save Austin Now,” he said tweeting a video showing petition circulators with the activist group allegedly “misleading” or misunderstanding their own petition.

The last time these two entities went head to head in court, Save Austin Now emerged victorious when the Texas Supreme Court required the council to slightly alter the homeless public camping and lying ban ballot language. The court did not, however, require the council’s language to mirror the group’s petition caption.

That proposition, which reinstated the pre-July 2019 ban on public homeless camping, received about 60 percent of the vote, passing overwhelmingly.

Save Austin Now is asking the court to require the city to adopt the petition’s caption as written or to correct the language’s “deficiencies” as identified within the brief. The language must be finalized by September 11.

An official with the Supreme Court told The Texan that the petition “ha[d] been struck for failure to conform to filing rules” and must be corrected and refiled. Since then, The Texan has received confirmation that the brief was refiled and accepted to correct the small issue concerning the filing’s exhibits.

Editor’s Note: This article has been updated from its original form to mention the filing error had been corrected.

Update: The 3rd Court of Appeals has accepted the case and asked the City of Austin to file its response by Monday, August 23.

2nd Update: The Supreme Court of Texas ruled partially in favor of Petricek and partially in favor of the city on September 1. It ruled that the city’s fiscal impact addition could stay while each of its other revisions must go. The city must now approve revised language by September 11 before ballot printing begins.

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Brad Johnson

Brad Johnson is an Ohio native who graduated from the University of Cincinnati in 2017. He is an avid sports fan who most enjoys watching his favorite teams continue their title drought throughout his cognizant lifetime. In his free time, you may find Brad quoting Monty Python productions and trying to calculate the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow.

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