AUSTIN — As a homelessness disaster rages on the streets, a political fight is unfolding between citizens and city hall over the critical issue.

Save Austin Now, a group of citizens formed in the wake of the recent homelessness catastrophe, is taking the Democrat-run Austin City Council to the Texas Supreme Court for trying to distort and “mislead voters” about the homeless camping question on the May election ballot.

The backstory: In 2019, the 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.

Then recently, after the city council wrote the text that will appear on citizens’ May ballots, Save Austin Now sued the council, claiming they illegally wordsmithed the language to sway voters 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 said the council violated the city charter by creating their own language instead of using the petition’s caption as the ballot description.

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, was “obviously intended to encourage voters to oppose the proposition.” The lawsuit claimed the council’s wording “politically exaggerates” the punishment aspects of the law (they repeatedly emphasize the phrase “criminal offense and penalty”), “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.

This week, the Third Court of Appeals, composed of five Democrats and one Republican, denied Save Austin Now’s writ of mandamus to force the city council to reword the ballot text.

Now, the citizens are appealing to the state’s highest civil court.

“With the Amended Petition we are making the same argument we made to the Court of Appeals. I am just hopeful that the Supreme Court will agree with us and restrain the City Council from violating the City Charter and trying to prejudice the election results by tampering with the ballot language,” wrote Austin attorney Bill Aleshire, a former Travis County judge and prominent local Democrat involved in the case.

The city council has placed an item on next week’s meeting agenda “in case of an adverse ruling from the Texas Supreme Court,” according to a city spokesperson, but they still maintain their ballot language “correctly identifies” the question at hand.

“The council can’t make up their own ballot language, especially when it’s biased, unfair, deceitful, and directly violates the City Charter,” said Aleshire earlier this week. “I detest it when [Mayor Steve Adler and the] 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 homeless camping question].”

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.