Dogs to roads to human rights — Austin’s direct democracy decades

Photo by Element5 Digital on Unsplash
Photo by Element5 Digital on Unsplash

In early November, Austin voters nixed a proposal to rethink the Austin Convention Center and skirmishes at the ballot box are surely brewing for the next election over land use, school closures and the relentless roll-up of affordable places to build lives, families and businesses amid skyrocketing property taxes.

Is “direct democracy,” the thumbs up or down by voters on measures put on the ballot by petition or city council action, the answer? That’s a debate in and of itself and in fact Austin, like many other cities, is moving toward tougher requirements to get local measures on the ballot. Which comes after the city reduced the signature requirements from 10 to 5 percent of registered voters just in 2012. Why? A good question.

These are issues among the many we intend to explore here at Urbānitūs as we traverse the new political territory of ever more assertive cities and regions. What we call “geo-urbanism.” Toward that, co-founder Bryan Jones is introducing his new column that begins with thoughts on so-called “ranked choice voting,” or RCV. Used by more than 20 cities, most recently joined by New York, it’s invigorating local democracies in many places and now Maine is road testing this new means to broaden voter choice. Other states are expected to follow. 

There’s much to debate and consider. But before that, being a publication committed to pulling back the start dates of the civic history we’re examining, we decided to survey just where where Austin has been on this long march and evolution of direct democracy. Austin voters passed an ordinance in 1953 to enable local referenda and since then by our count there have been 381 ballot measures put to local voters. Most direct ballot measures, of course, are less than dramatic. The majority comprise the tedious but essential votes to approve bond funding for roads, bridges, storm water systems, parks, firehouses and more. Sometimes the city council is the initiator, asking the voters for a direct say for legal or political reasons. Often, it’s angry and animated citizens who decide to “fight City Hall” with signature drives that bring forth these exercises in civic expression.

Parsing which measures are routine bond financing as compared with those that deal with policy is a little tricky. Is a bond measure to build affordable housing as routine as a sewer bond, for example? But we tried to make the cut. And by our count, 264 of the measures over the last six decades asked voters to endorse bond financing that was largely routine, though sometimes significant. On 117 occasions, voters were asked to make their voices heard on policy: how to elect the council, whether to let street vendors work in front of the University of Texas or whether and how to develop the urban shoreline of the Colorado River bisecting the city.

Somewhat arbitrarily, we started our sift through the city records beginning with the vote in 1950, a typical year of measures for civic infrastructure. But what has ensued is far from mundane: land use measures to build what we now know as Town Lake, the Long Center for the Performing Arts; the  decision to abandon Austin’s old city airport and build Austin-Bergstrom International. These are just a few in the long series of direct citizen decisions. 

Turnout numbers will be as interesting to some readers as anything. Often they are pretty discouraging. But the tenacity of civic activists is inspiring. Citizen initiatives to end the practice of citywide council races, whereby for decades the city was run almost exclusively by leaders from Northwest Austin, is a case study in persistence. Activists demanding a more representative council gathered signatures to get measures to do so five times — in 1978, 1985, 1988, 1994 and 2002 — before finally succeeding in 2012.

And so we’ve compiled our own survey of this history, both as a reference and context for our work that lies ahead. We’re sure there are omissions and the sometimes ambiguous records may have caused us to overlook an important nuance or two. We’re sure readers will let us know where and what we need to amplify. And we will do so.

But before then, please take a look at our brief survey of Austin’s history of direct democracy.

Cool Timeline

November 5

November 5, 2019

2 measures, both handily defeated by voters. One measure would have required a supermajority of city council votes to approve the use of city-owned land for sports or entertainment facilities. It was defeated 64-36 percent. The second measure, effectively a referendum proposing to stall or delay the expansion of the Austin Convention Center reconstruction with a cap on its revenue from hotel taxes, was defeated 56-44 percent. Turnout was 15 percent.
November 8

November 8, 2018

11 measures. They included $250 million in bonds to provide affordable housing and facilitate affordable housing construction. It Passed 73-27 percent along with a $16 million for community health facility, 70-30. Voters rejected 52-48 a measure to require a waiting period of three years and voter approval of any revisions in land development code. A measure brought by initiative to require appointment of an external city auditor was defeated 58-42. Turnout was 60 percent.
November 8

November 8, 2016

1 measure, a $720 million bond issue to improve roads across Austin. It passed 59-41 with 65 percent turnout.
May 7

May 7, 2016

1 measure, a measure brought by ride sharing companies to overturn a ban on Uber and Lyft services unless the firms instituted the same background and fingerprinting policies applied to taxi cab firms. It was defeated 56-44 with a 17 percent turnout. Later, however, the same local provisions were overturned by the state legislature.
November 4

November 4, 2014

1 measure. A transit bond emphasizing rail and authorizing $600 million. It was defeated 57-42 percent with a 40 percent turnout.
November 5

November 5, 2013

1 measure, authorized $65 million in bonds to finance affordable housing. It passed 60-40 percent amid 14 percent turnout.
November 6

November 6, 2012

18 measures. Among them one to move city elections from May to November passed overwhelmingly. The city finally adopted district voting and embraced the current system of 10 districts plus an at-large mayor’s post. That passed 60-40. A similar measure to do the same but with two of the 10 seats to be at-large failed to win support. And an amendment passed 55-45 percent to reduce the number of signatures needed to initiate a citizen referendum. Another measure authorized $30 million in open space and watershed protection bonds, 56-44 percent. Turnout was 60 percent.
November 2

November 2, 2010

1 measure, issuing bonds for roads, signaling and bicycle paths. It passed 54-44 percent amid 38 percent turnout.
November 4

November 4, 2008

2 measures. One, to appoint an auditor passed 71-29.  The other to amend the city charter to limit financial incentives to developers was defeated 52-48. Turnout was 65 percent.
November 7

November 7, 2006

7 measures, of which six were routine bond measures for storm water drainage, parks construction and road works. All passed easily. The standout was a $55 million bond issue to construct affordable housing that passed 62-37 percent. Turnout was 40.
May 13

May 13, 2006

7 measures, including two handily defeated propositions. One, to limit city investment in infrastructure in Southwest Austin, the so-called “Barton Springs Zone,” was defeated 69-31 percent. Defeated 76-24 percent was a measure to create new online access and communications tools for the city to communicate with citizens. Three measures changing city election dates and limiting campaign contributions from outside of Austin passed overwhelmingly. Austin voters also expanded the terms of municipal court judges from two years to four by 64-36 percent. Turnout was 11 percent.
May 7

May 7, 2005

1 measure, a petition initiative to expand Austin’s existing bans on smoking to virtually all public places. It passed 51-48 percent with 16 percent turnout.
May 15

May 15, 2004

1 measure to allow firefighter collective bargaining but to prohibit strikes and lockouts and comport with state law. It passed 58-41. Turnout was 10 percent.
May 4

May 4, 2002

8 measures, all to amend the city charter. Defeated 74-26 percent was a measure to allow public financing of campaigns for council. Defeated 51-49 percent was a measure to repeal the 1997 amendments limiting campaign contributions to $100. Also defeated 55-45 percent was a measure to repeal term limits. And another measure to create district voting and expand the council was defeated 58-42 percent. Turnout was 9 percent.
November 7

November 7, 2000

3 measures, including two routine bond authorizations that were handily approved. More controversial was a bid defeated by less than 1 percent that would have leased 400 acres of parkland along the northeast side of the Walter E. Long Lake to Gagne Corp. to develop a hotel, conference center and golf course in East Austin. Turnout was 44 percent turnout.
November 3

November 3, 1998

12 measures. Mainly non-controversial bonds. Two stand out as interesting. One, a lease of 50 years to expand the Palmer Auditorium into what became the Long Performing Arts Center and create the Auditorium Shores park. The other authorized construction of the Town Lake Community Events Center, now the Palmer Events Center.  The two measures passed with means authorized by a temporary tax on rental cars of 5 percent. The performing arts center measure passed 63-37 percent; the events center measure passed 56-44 percent. Turnout was 35 percent.
May 2

May 2, 1998

3 measures. Routine utility bonds that passed easily but for one. This was the second vote on the convention center that enabled its remodeling. This one set a HOT tax at max 2 percent. It passed 58-42 percent. Turnout was 35 percent.
November 4

November 4, 1997

1 measure, amending the city charter. This was a hard-fought and controversial ballot measure brought by a petition drive that capped contributions to city political campaigns at $100 for individuals and PACs. It passed 72-28 percent with a 13 percent turnout.
May 3

May 3, 1997

6 measures, all routine fire, sewer, water and other civic bonds etc. All pass with approvals above 70 percent. Turnout was 16 percent.
October 7

October 7, 1995

1 measure, a $10 bond for a minor league baseball stadium. $10 million. It was defeated 63-35 percent amid turnout of 16 percent.
May 7

May 7, 1994

22 measures. Three interesting: Another run at increasing the council to nine members including a citywide mayoral post. It was defeated 52-48 percent. A measure imposing a two term limit on council members unless they submitted a petition of 5 percent of voters. It passed 59-41. And last, a separate measure to create district voting. It was defeated 60-40. All with a turnout of 24 percent.
May 1

May 1, 1993

2 measures, one to issue up to $400 million in bonds for construction of the Austin-Bergstrom International Airport which was to open in 1999. It passed 59-34. The other measure ratified a city ordinance strengthening employee grievance rights but not allowing job entitlement. It passed 51-37 percent. Turnout was 29 percent.
August 8

August 8, 1992

24 measures, including two ordinances. The main one initiated by petition was the now-famous Barton Springs petition to impose a building moratorium atop the Edwards Aquifer in west Austin. It passed 64-36 with a 28 percent turnout. Defeated was an alternative proposal placed by the council with more modest protections for the springs. It was defeated 65-35 percent. Almost the same proportions in the inverse. The other measures were routine.
July 29

July 29, 1989

1 measure, allowing the construction of Austin’s downtown convention center with 4.5 percent tax on hotel and motel rooms. With 18.5 percent turnout it passed 56-44 percent.
April 7

May 7, 1988

1 measure, again a run at district voting and expansion of the council to nine seats. It was defeated 57-43. Turnout was 27 percent.
November 3

November 3, 1987

2 measures. One authorized $728 million in bond financing for a new airport, also to secure funds from sale of the old Mueller airport. It passes 55-45 percent with 37 percent turnout. Defeated 88-12 is an alternative measure to maintain and fund expansion of Robert Mueller airport.
February 7

February 7, 1987

2 measures, both bonds to enable construction of low income housing and repair existing publicly owned facilities. Both were defeated 56-44 percent with 11 percent turnout.
December 14

December 14, 1985

16 measures, all bonds, all pass. They range from sewer and water to means for construction of a senior center. Turnout was 7.5 percent.
April 6

April 6, 1985

2 measures, including one leasing 130 acres of land for 50 years to the Aqua Festival. It passed 80-20 percent amid a turnout of 28 percent.
January 19

January 19, 1985

19 measures, including three interesting ones in a vote of just 7.5 percent turnout.

  • Relocation of city airport. Defeated 51-49 percent
  • Another attempt to increase the council to 9 seats and allow districts for eight with a citywide vote for mayor. It was defeated 57-43 percent.
  • A measure required Planning Commission to develop a comprehensive city plan. It passed 66-34 percent
September 8

September 8, 1984

28 measures, all bonds for fire, streets, swimming pools etc. All pass handily with 21 percent turnout.
October 22

October 22, 1983

6 measures, all bonds largely routine, including one for more hydro generation at the city’s Longhorn Dam which creates Lady Bird lake. The expansion of Longhorn Dam capacity succeeded Turnout was 16 percent.
April 2

April 2, 1983

1 measure, to lease 128 acres for 50 years within Walter E. Long Park to Travis County for what became today’s Expo Center. There was 80-20 percent approval with 39 percent turnout in a race that included mayoral and council seats.
January 15

January 15, 1983

1 measure, to come up with $97 million in bonds to protect Austin’s ability to sell without legal complications the city’s interest in the South Texas Nuclear Project. It passed 76-24 with an 11 percent turnout. The interest was not sold.
September 11

September 11, 1982

25 measures, all bonds for libraries, streets, parks, and extensive expansion of water utilities. All passed.
April 3

April 3, 1982

2 measures, placed by the council to issue bonds to extend MoPac to today’s proportions north and south. One passed 67-33 for the north portion while a measure for southern portion passed 61-39. Turnout was 29 percent.
January 16

January 16, 1982

1 measure, an initiative, that would have explicitly legalized anti-gay discrimination in housing. It was defeated 63-37. This was one among a series of local anti-gay initiatives launched in the era in Miami, King County, Washington and a statewide initiative in California to fire gay and lesbian teachers. The Austin turnout was 28 percent turnout.
November 3

November 3, 1981

1 measure, brought by petition, authorized the city council to sell Austin’s interest in the South Texas Nuclear Project. It Passed 58 percent to 42 percent with a 30 percent turnout. The council did not do so, however, and Austin Energy remains a 16 percent owner today.
February 23

February 23, 1980

11 measures, all bonds, including power, airport and police facilities. All passed.
April 7

April 7, 1979

4 measures, placed by council, including one to double down on the South Texas Nuclear Project with another $215 million in bonds; passed 53-47. Another measure to get out of the project was defeated 51-49 percent. And a third to use any money from the sale toward the financing of coal fired plants was defeated 77-23. The turnout was 34 percent. Notable that this vote place barely a week after the Three Mile Island nuclear accident in Pennsylvania that was ultimately to dramatically change public views on nuclear power.
January 20

January 20, 1979

14 measures, including one to sell Austin’s interest in the South Texas Nuclear Project beyond that which could be financed with an existing $161 million bond authority. Defeated 54-45 percent with a 25 percent turnout.
April 1

April 1, 1978

5 measures, including one to increase the city council to 8 members plus a mayor and implement electoral districts. It failed 72 -28 percent amid a 20 percent turnout.
November 20

November 20, 1976

2 measures, bonds for water and sewer projects. Passed routinely.
August 14

August 14, 1976

1 measure, placed on the ballot by the council, would have sold Austin’s interest in the South Texas Nuclear Project. It was defeated 75-25 percent amid a 19 percent turnout.
December 6

December 6, 1975

12 measures, all civic bonds, all successful. Amid a turnout of 24 percent.
October 4

October 4, 1975

1 measure, brought by initiative petitions and decisively backed by University of Texas students, extending hours permitting sale of beer or mixed beverages to 2 a.m. It passed 51-49. “Late drinking nips by,” was the next day’s lead Statesman headline.
November 17

November 17, 1973

2 measures, including issuance of bonds to participate up to 16 percent in the ownership in the South Texas Nuclear Power Project with San Antonio, Houston and Corpus Christi. The council had joined the feasibility study of the consortium building the plant near Bay City in 1971. This vote formally joined the city into the project. It passed 51-49 with 25 percent turnout.
April 7

April 7, 1973

3 measures, including one to regulate street vendors on the “drag” of Guadalupe Street near the University of Texas. Vendors had placed an initiative on the ballot through signatures to allow sales outside of a designated marketplace near the university. Other measures on the ballot

included one to increase council membership from seven to 11. It failed 63-37 percent. Another to pay each council member $100 per week failed 66-34. Turnout was 42 percent.

September 9

September 9, 1972

9 measures, one to issue $289 million in bonds to participate in unspecified “nuclear power generation” failed 52-48 percent. Other non-controversial bond measures, included one to finance newly authorized fluoridation of water. All passed amid 24 percent turnout.
April 3

April 3, 1971

1 measure, authorizing fluoridation of city water. It passed 73-28 percent with 57 percent turnout.
March 28

March 28, 1970

10 measures, all bonds, including water and civic center funding. All passed.
April 5

April 5, 1969

1 measure to directly elect the mayor beginning in 1971. It passed 85-15 percent with 44 percent turnout.
October 19

October 19, 1968

1 measure, placed on the ballot by the council and dubbed the “fair housing law,” it sought to cement a city ordinance to prevent discrimination in housing sale or rental. The referendum had been sought by the Austin Board of Realtors which campaigned heavily for defeat of the ordinance — in effect repealing the fair housing protections. That defeat was a success by 57-43 percent with a 27 percent turnout. It was heavily supported in East Austin, but the ordinance was overwhelming opposed in North Austin. Mayor Harry Akin, who supported the measure, complained that a football game on the same day as the election, a Saturday, contributed to the measure’s defeat and the end of Austin’s anti-discrimination law. Soon after, the issue was made moot by the passage of federal anti-discrimination law.
September 30

September 30, 1967

1 measure, sought by the council, to adopt a 1 percent city sales tax. It passed 67 percent to 33 percent with a voter turnout of 25 percent.
April 1

April 1, 1967

1 measure, placed by the council before voters to enlarge the council from five to seven members. Passed 76 percent to 24 percent with 46 percent turnout. The next day’s Statesman estimated it was the largest turnout ever for a strictly municipal election.
April 2

April 2, 1966

3 measures, all bonds for civic projects. All passed.
August 22

August 22, 1964

4 measures, all bonds for hospitals, parks and fire station improvements. All passed.
February 10

February 10, 1962

1 measure, a routine measure for sale of property. It passed.
September 16

September 16, 1961

5 measures, four of which were placed before voters by the city council as non-binding “opinion polls.” By a 2-1 margin voters rejected the one measure brought to the ballot through citizen petition. It would have raised the pay raise for firefighters to be equal to that of police. Voters additionally told the council they did not want to divest the money-losing Breckenridge Hospital but they did endorse 52-42 percent a plan to shut down or sell a city-owned slaughterhouse.
August 6

August 6, 1960

9 measures, all routine bonds for streets, libraries and other civic works. All passed.
December 5

December 5, 1959

1 measure, for “urban renewal.” Passed 51 to 49 percent with 12.5 percent turnout:

This measure, which passed by just 55 votes, was placed on the ballot by the council as the first step toward designating areas of East Austin as blighted to qualify for federal funds to tear down homes and build new subsidized residences. The day after the vote, Austin Mayor Tom Miller told the Austin Statesman: “We would never take a man’s home without first finding a better one for him.” Today it is regarded as a failure as most “urban renewal” projects of the era nationwide proved to be.

May 24

May 24, 1958

1 measure, a bond issue for upgrades to the city’s electricity system. It passed with 93 percent approval amid turnout of 7.3 percent – close to a record low.
August 4

August 4, 1956

1 measure, a further bond to build the municipal auditorium that was to open three years later.
May 12

May 12, 1956

10 measures, all bonds, all routine, all passed.
April 30

April 30, 1955

1 measure, divorcing Austin Independent School District from control of the city. The district was already effectively autonomous but the vote made this formal, and left El Paso as the only large city in Texas that retained council control over schools. It also equalized school taxes paid by those outside of the city limits and those within. Turnout was among the lightest in Austin history, just 9 percent.
April 2

April 2, 1955

3 measures, including regulation of dogs and fireworks. Austinites voted two-to-one to pen up dogs without leashes and voted three-to-one to ban fireworks in the city. The measure was placed on the ballot by the council.
January 30

Jan 30, 1954

8 measures, all bonds for power, lights, and a municipal auditorium which was to have its grand opening in January 1959.
January 31

Jan 31, 1953

32 measures. Most routine including bond issues. But this vote included Prop. 8 that amended the city charter to allow initiatives and referenda with signatures equal to 10 percent of voters in the city. It passed 59-41 percent.
November 6

Nov 6, 1950

8 measures. All routine and non-controversial bond issues for water, sewer and other municipal projects.

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