There are those who believe that using the citizen’s initiative petition tool to call for a public vote is simply an attempt to govern by mob rule. Austin Chronicle writer Michael King, who wrote against Prop 2 last November, tried to make the case that the initiative process is simply “government by petition” and therefore “folly”. (Remember, Prop 2, aimed at putting the brakes on the City’s use of retail subsidies, particularly for the Domain luxury mall, was placed on the ballot through a 27,000 signature petition drive, led by Brian Rodgers.)
What the citizen’s initiative detractors fail to mention is that our City Charter and our state constitution guarantee citizens the right to petition for a public vote to initiate a new law (initiative), to reverse a decision (referendum) and even to recall (vote them out) officials. Texans have this right only at the municipal level, whereas voters in 24 states enjoy initiative and referendum rights at the city, county and state level. Voters in 18 states enjoy statewide recall rights.
To be fair, King isn’t the only detractor of the citizen’s initiative in Austin. The Austin American-Statesman has long held an anti-initiative position that borders on hysteria. You can search their archives for a long list of anti-initiative editorials urging the legislature not to extend initiative rights to county and statewide issues. The Statesman has also editorialized against every citizen’s initiative in recent memory, at least since 1992.
Recent History of the Citizen’s Initiative in Austin
In 1992, when environmentalists petitioned for the SOS (Save Our Springs) initiative to curb development over the Edwards Aquifer watershed in order to protect Barton Springs, the Statesman railed against it. The Chronicle, apparently a different animal back then, supported the SOS initiative. SOS passed overwhelmingly. In 1995 citizens petitioned for a vote on a rushed City Council decision to use public dollars on a baseball stadium, without a required vote of the people. The Council claimed the stadium decision was an “emergency”, to get around a charter provision which required a public vote on all new debt! The Statesman, a corporate sponsor of the stadium, went ballistic on the referendum. The people won that one decisively too (2 to 1). In 1997 a citizens group with the tongue-in-cheek name, Austinites for a Little Less Corruption, petitioned for a vote for $100 limits on contributions to Council candidates, at a time when no limits existed and candidates could visit a handful of expectant law firm benefactors for their entire war chest. After the City Clerk (likely following then Mayor Bruce Todd’s direction) fraudulently crossed out 14,000 mostly perfectly valid petition signatures, and a harsh court order to place the measure on the ballot, it passed with little opposition. The measure had some problems, including that the limits were too low without Austin changing from having all citywide races, to single member districts. Two years later ALLC asked the Council to engage in discussions to correct the problems with campaign financing. This went nowhere. In 2001 Clean Campaigns began another petition drive to to raise the limits and to institute public financing. This one failed decisively, during an economic downturn as the Chamber of Commerce, the Real Estate Council and the Statesman worked together to defeat it.
In 2004, a petitioin drive was begun for a public vote to recall Mayor Will Wynn and Council members Brewster McCracken and Danny Thomas related to their votes on CAMPO (our region’s transportation planning group) for the controversial “double-tax” toll road conversion plan (see more under our “Toll Road War” section for details). The requirements for recall are very tough (and well they should be). The recall drive came up 5,000 short of the 36,000 signatures needed. Anti-tollers had made their point, however, as the recall helped to drive the debate on how we fund roads — a debate that continues today.
You can read more about the history of the initiative process itself here. It’s been around for about 100 years. Thomas Jefferson is its most famous supporter. Texas politicians and publications beware — the people will continue to defend and use this important check and balance on local government gone astray.