Local NewsCity of Austin Sued for ‘Biased’ Homeless Camping Ban Ballot Language

Voters will get a say on the city's camping and laying policy on the May 1 ballot.
February 23, 2021
The Austin City Council has been accused of deceitfully manipulating language for the impending ballot question to reinstate the city’s homeless camping and laying ban and has been sued for it in court.

Save Austin Now, the group behind the petition effort, turned in over 26,000 valid signatures from Austin voters last month to place the question on the May ballot. They collected the petitions in 50 days and succeeded where they failed last fall.

This time around, there was no denying the proposition’s validity. Instead, petitioners say the city council has tipped the scales with their approved ballot language instead of adopting the language circulated on the petitions.

Co-founders of Save Austin Now PAC, Matt Mackowiak and Cleo Petricek, said in a release, “The city of Austin is outrageously playing games with the ballot language, as they always do.”

“Instead of passing clear and accurate ballot language and honoring the petitions signed by more than 26,000 Austin residents in a 50-day period, the Mayor and the Council colluded with radical groups to use their poll-tested, biased, inaccurate ballot language in a shameful attempt to steal an election victory they have not earned,” they continued.

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The ballot language must be approved by the city council by the February 25 deadline.

Language adopted by the council reads, “Shall an ordinance be adopted that would create a criminal offense and a penalty for anyone sitting or lying down on a public sidewalk or sleeping outdoors in and near the Downtown area and the area around the University of Texas campus; create a criminal offense and penalty for solicitation, defined as requesting money or another thing of value, at specific hours and locations or for solicitation in a public area that is deemed aggressive in manner; create a criminal offense and penalty for anyone camping in any public area not designated by the Parks and Recreation Department?”

Meanwhile, the petition language reads, “A petitioned ordinance amending City Code Section 9-4-11 related to prohibiting camping in public areas, Section 9-4-13 relating to prohibiting solicitation, and Section 9-4-14 relating to prohibiting sitting or lying down on public sidewalks or sleeping outdoors in the downtown Austin Community Court area; and creating offenses.”

Relators for the suit are three voters who signed the petitions: Linda Durnin, Eric Krohn, and Michael Lovins.

The lawsuit makes two contentions.

The first is that the council’s adopted language violates the city charter’s requirement that the ballot proposition mirrors the original ordinance’s language.

Back in June 2019, the city council’s ordinance removing prohibitions on camping and laying in code stated, “An ordinance amending city code sections 9-4-11 relating to prohibiting camping in public areas, 9-4-13 relating to prohibiting solicitation, and 9-4-14 relating to prohibiting sitting or lying down on public sidewalks or sleeping outdoors in the downtown Austin community court area; and creating offenses.”

The petition language and ordinance language are similar while the council’s ballot language is the odd man out.

“Rather than comply with the clear and unambiguous provisions of the City Charter, the City Council exercised discretion it does not have by law to politically manipulate the ballot language,” the court filing reads.

The second contention made by the lawsuit alleges that the council’s adopted language “fails the common-law test … mislead[ing] voters about the purpose, character, and chief features of the petitioned ordinance.”

The deceit, the brief states, comes in the city’s repeated emphasis on “create a criminal offense or penalty” rather than reflecting the petitioners’ desire to “to restore generally the provisions of the Austin City Code that were in effect on June 19, 2019, prior to the City Council’s action.”

“Creating criminal offenses or penalties is not the purpose, character, or chief feature of the petitioned ordinance, but you certainly would not know that by reading the Council’s ballot language,” the emergency petition reads further.

The court petition asks the court to require the city council to adopt the petition language as the ballot language, or change the city’s adopted language to better reflect the purposes and intentions of the effort.

The council approved the election with the adopted language in a unanimous vote earlier this month.

The city’s response has not yet been filed with the Texas 3rd District Court of Appeals. Read the full petition below.


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Brad Johnson

Brad Johnson is a senior reporter for The Texan and 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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