Criminal JusticeLocal NewsHomeless Camping Ban Petition Rejected by Austin City Clerk

Pending further challenge, voters will not be able to cast a ballot on a potential reinstatement of the homeless camping and lying ban on the November ballot.
August 7, 2020
In July, 24,000 signatures were turned in by petitioners for the effort to reinstate Austin’s homeless camping and lying ban. But that has been, at the moment, rejected by the Austin City Clerk Jannette Goodall for failure to meet the 20,000-valid signature requirement.

The ordinance was originally rescinded last year and went into effect on July 1. The petition effort was announced in February 2020 after months of mounting problems and consequences of the policy.

Austin officials have struggled to keep up with the growing homeless population and the corollaries of the policy which allowed homeless individuals to camp and lie on sidewalks and other public property.

The group Save Austin Now spearheaded the effort, led by Travis County Republican Party Chairman, Matt Mackowiak. In spite of the coronavirus, the group turned in 24,598 signatures to the clerk’s office for them to certify — nearly 500 of which were thrown out due to invalidity or inconsistent petition language.

It is normal for a portion of signatures to be legitimately invalid for various reasons.

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But rather than validate the remaining 24,201 signatures, the clerk’s office used random sampling to project the number of actual valid signatures.

Sec. 277.003. of the Texas Local Government Code allows for statistical sampling, stating, “If a petition contains more than 1,000 signatures, the city secretary or other authority responsible for verifying the signatures may use any reasonable statistical sampling method in determining whether the petition contains the required number of valid signatures.”

The only stipulation is that the sample may not be less than 25 percent of the “total number of signatures appearing on the petition.”

If the city includes the signatures it threw out initially (i.e. the total number Mackowiak submitted) the sample of 6,051 would amount to only 24.6 percent of the submission. But if the remaining number of 24,201 is the operative one, then the sample comes in just above 25 percent.

To hit the 20,000-mark, 83 percent of the remaining signatures had to be valid — a high, but not unachievable, rate of return for a petition effort.

Shortly after the rejection news came, Mayor Steve Adler said in a speech about the homelessness crisis, “For all of the discussion around [homelessness], no one wants this for our neighbors — absolutely no one. For too long, though, we were content to not think too hard about it because we didn’t see it.”

He further added, “The city is on the right path.”

The city’s 2020 homelessness survey found an 11 percent increase in the total homeless population from the previous year, with a 45 percent increase in unsheltered and 20 percent decrease in sheltered homeless.

That trend mirrors the policy which legalized camping on public land, providing an incentive not to focus on shelters. The city and community members have invested in housing projects to add sheltered spaces for the homeless population.

Mackowiak pushed back against the decision by Goodall, stating, “We do not believe there is any chance whatsoever that we submitted fewer than 20,000 petitions signed by registered voters in the city of Austin. After throwing out hundreds of signed petitions, they are now claiming that a 25 [percent] sample found 18.9 [percent] invalidity.”

He further added that three-quarters of the petitions came through the mail, which would likely yield a higher-than-average validity rate because their residency status is confirmable, especially compared with reaching passersby on the street. However, they still must be registered voters.

Mackowiak told The Texan, “We are exploring legal options and awaiting more information from the Clerk’s office.”


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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.