AUSTIN — “I joined this lawsuit to, once again, teach the Austin City Council that they cannot violate the law and the city charter.”

Austinite Bill Aleshire, a former Travis County judge and prominent local Democrat, joined citizens of the Save Austin Now group this week in announcing they are suing city hall for trying to distort the May election ballot and “mislead voters.”

At issue is the hotly contentious homeless camping referendum, which will show up as Proposition B on the ballot. The backstory: In 2019, the Democrat-run Austin City Council allowed homeless individuals to camp in nearly every public area in town, a decision that sparked a wildfire of health and safety problems and a storm of citizen outrage.

In 2021, hoping to restore the city public camping law that the council unraveled, Save Austin Now finally successfully submitted a petition with more than 26,000 signatures to city hall to force a public vote on the issue.

Now, after the council recently wrote the text that will appear on citizens’ May ballots, Save Austin Now argues the council illegally wordsmithed the language to sway voters to side with them on the issue.

“The City of Austin is outrageously playing games with the ballot language, as they always do,” said Save Austin Now PAC co-founders Matt Mackowiak and Cleo Petricek in a press release. “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. … Bullies only succeed when we let them, and we will not let them.”

Specifically, the lawsuit says the council violated the city charter by creating their own language instead of using the petition’s caption as the ballot description.

The caption, the wording citizens petitioned to see on the ballot, simply asked voters to restore the city’s own public camping law—in the same language as the law itself.

On the other hand, the council’s concocted language, according to the lawsuit, is “obviously intended to encourage voters to oppose the proposition.” The lawsuit claims the council’s wording “politically exaggerates” the punishment aspects of the law (they repeatedly emphasize the phrase “criminal offense”), “falsely tells voters” that anyone camping or simply sitting on a sidewalk could be penalized, and “grossly misleads voters” about what the petitioned law would do.

“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,” read the lawsuit. “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.”

“Due to the abuse by the City Council in the exercise of its discretion and the failure on the part of the Council to fulfill its solemn responsibility to safeguard integrity in the election, the Court should apply the safeguards of the common law and mandate that the City Council adopt different ballot language, preferably the caption of the petitioned Ordinance.”

“The council can’t make up their own ballot language, especially when it’s biased, unfair, deceitful, and directly violates the City Charter,” concluded former Judge Aleshire. “I detest it when the [Mayor Steve Adler and] council tricks Austin voters and tries to interfere in the people’s right of petition. I don’t want to see that happen on Proposition B.”

The city has not yet filed a response in the case, but it is expected to before Wednesday. Aleshire expects the Texas 3rd District Court of Appeals to issue a ruling later this week.

To view a side-by-side comparison of the ballot wording, click here. 

Jacob Asmussen

Jacob Asmussen is a Senior Journalist for Texas Scorecard. He attended the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor and in 2017 earned a double major in public relations and piano performance.

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