AUSTIN — Citizens in Texas’ capital city are now more empowered when they petition their local elected officials.
On Wednesday, the Texas Supreme Court unanimously rebuked the Democrat-run Austin City Council for attempting to distort a citizen-proposed city law on the November election ballot.
The issue traces back to last year when the city council defunded the Austin Police Department by up to $150 million (one-third of their budget), leaving the department in a “dire situation” and sparking record violent crime and homicides on the streets.
In response, citizen group Save Austin Now organized a petition campaign to override the council’s decision, proposing to restore adequate officer staffing and other reforms to APD. Their proposed public safety law garnered more than 25,000 signatures and is now placed on the ballot for a citywide vote in the November election.
But when the city council wrote the text for that ballot question last month, Save Austin Now sued them and claimed they illegally word-smithed the language to manipulate voters against the proposal. Specifically, SAN said the city council is not allowed by city charter to concoct their own wording for a citizen-proposed law campaign, and they must use the text (called the “caption”) from the petition.
The Texas Supreme Court unanimously agreed.
In the Court’s opinion, authored by Justice Rebeca Huddle, they clarified that the city was allowed by applicable law to add a cost estimate to the ballot question in this particular case; however, the city did not have authority to write whatever they wanted.
“The City did not have carte blanche to rewrite the petitioned caption wholesale, and it abused its discretion by doing so,” Huddle wrote.
“Given the Austin City Charter’s express requirement that the caption of a petition-initiated ordinance be placed before the voters, the City has no discretion to adopt its own ballot language.”
Citizens celebrated the high court’s decision.
“This is a big win for every Austin citizen. City leaders have been playing political games with ballot language for many years, ignoring the City Charter and undermining the rights of petition signers who only wish to petition their government,” said Save Austin Now co-founders Matt Mackowiak and Cleo Petricek in a press release. “Mayor Steve Adler and Council Member Greg Casar rewrote our ordinance in poll-tested language intended to intentionally and negatively bias voters against our true aims. The Texas Supreme Court has fully and finally rebuked this action. Instead, now our petition language will be inserted before the city’s cost estimate. This sets an important precedent for the future in our city.”
“The Supreme Court’s opinion today will strengthen the rights of every Austin voter to be able to initiate ordinances without political interference by the City Council in manipulating the ballot language for the proposition,” said former Travis County Judge Bill Aleshire, lead counsel for the Save Austin Now PAC. “It is wonderful to see the Court enforce the Austin City Charter voter rights of the citizens of Austin.”
The proposed public safety law will appear on the November ballot as Proposition A.
To see a side-by-side comparison of the city’s vs. the citizens’ ballot wording, click here.