The Texas Supreme Court will not order the Austin City Council to change the language it approved for two November ballot issues, regarding a city-government-wide independent audit and the fate of a new land development code.
The court late Monday notified attorney Bill Aleshire, representing the parties on both issues, that it declined to issue writs of mandamus that would have obliged the council to reconsider language that citizen groups contend was misleading to voters.
The city clerk has until Sept. 4 to finalize the language that will appear on the Nov. 6 ballot. If approved, the first proposition would authorize the council to hire an outside company to do an efficiency review of all city departments, including the utilities. The other would give voters the authority to approve Austin’s first new land development code since 1985.
The court ruled 6-3 to reject Aleshire’s request, made on behalf of Ed English, an unpaid advisor for Citizens for an Accountable Austin, the political action committee organized to promote the audit.
The justices unanimously rejected the plea of Allan McMurtry, a signer of a petition asking that voters be given final approval for whatever land development code the city creates.
McMurtry had complained to the court that the city council deliberately removed the name CodeNext, the city’s term for the failed six-year effort to rewrite the current code, from the ballot question, potentially confusing voters.
The city issued a statement from an unnamed spokesperson on the court’s rulings:
“With this denial, the Texas Supreme Court has confirmed that our ballot language conforms to the legal requirements and represents the key features of both citizen-initiated petitions.”
English told The Texas Monitor Tuesday that while he remains dissatisfied with the wording of the audit question, he believes voters will support it in November.
Aleshire had sent a letter to the city threatening to sue over what English said was loaded language.
After an hours-long executive session, the council altered the wording of Proposition K to read: “Without using the existing internal city auditor or existing independent external auditor, shall the city code be amended to require an efficiency study of the city’s operational and fiscal performance performed by a third-party audit consultant, at an estimated cost of $1-$5 million.”
Supporters of the audit objected to the added language involving the two other auditors and a cost estimate, suggesting to voters an outside audit was unnecessary and costly. Citizens for an Accountable Austin estimated such an audit would cost $1 million to $2 million.
“We’re disappointed in the court’s decision, but three justices agreed with us,” English said. “There is no time to waste to begin educating people about why this audit is a good thing. We think anyone who’s open-minded, who pays property taxes in this town is going to support it.”
Near the bottom of the ballot, just above the audit question, voters will be asked to decide on Proposition J: “Shall a city ordinance be adopted to require both a waiting period and subsequent voter approval period, a total of up to three years, before future comprehensive revisions of the city’s land development code become effective?”
Hours before the city council signed off on Proposition J, it voted unanimously to have city staff and a contractor stop work on CodeNext. The city had spent more than $8 million, much of it covering cost overruns forced by several missed deadlines, to produce a 1,500-plus page draft that Mayor Steve Adler said was unacceptable.
The council agreed no work on the land development code should begin until 2019.
Adler contended that referring to any new work on the code as CodeNext would confuse voters. Opponents of CodeNext said eliminating the term that has come to define the work would confuse voters or might cause them to ignore the question altogether.
Aleshire said Tuesday he believed the court decided the land development code question on the narrow basis of whether the council was within the bounds of the city charter to craft a ballot question without the word CodeNext.
Mark Lisheron can be reached at [email protected].