‘Strong mayor’ proposition on May ballot would be an obstacle to social justice

Scrapping Austin’s ‘mayor-council’ system would eliminate the role of a city manager charged with administering the city without regard to politics, giving Austin a mayor elected at-large with little accountability to diverse communities and the power to deny and overturn the will of the people

New York’s infamous ‘Boss Tweed’ characterized the back-room deals of 19th century city politics that professional city manager governance was designed to end
Image: Thomas Nast, for Harper’s Weekly

Editor’s note: This is one in an ongoing series of essays and analyses Urbānitūs will publish reflecting the diversity of perspectives on the future of Austin’s governance structure that voters will decide in a May 1 ballot referendum. The views here reflect the opinions of the authors who represent the advocacy organization Austin for All People.

Over the past few months, a group of political insiders has advocated to change our city’s form of government from a council-manager to a mayor-council, also known as “strong mayor.” They have also accused the council-manager form of government of being inherently racist due to the fact that racist policies were implemented under a council-manager system in Austin during the Segregation Era. Such a narrow understanding of racism in America fails to identify the real challenges and struggles that so many in our society face every day – especially people of color.

Even Nelson Linder, Austin NAACP president and a member of Austinites for Progressive Reform—the group working to change to a strong mayor form of government—refuted the notion that the system itself is inherently racist simply because of the time in history that it was implemented. Specifically, he argued on a FOX 7 segment, “let’s be real clear, during that point in time, Jim Crow was everywhere.”

We cannot become blind to the ways in which racism can be advanced under any form of government. What we must consider is how best to address issues of racism, social injustice and equity.

Systemic racism and the issues surrounding it are difficult to solve. However, social and racial equity will not be solved with a change in Austin’s form of government. Blindly assuming so is an offensive suggestion for those who live the Black experience, those who have dedicated their lives to anti-racism initiatives and those who we have lost during this fight for racial equality.

George Floyd was killed in Minneapolis, Minn; Breonna Taylor was killed in her home in Louisville, Ky; Freddie Gray died in custody in Baltimore, Md. These were all cities with a mayor-council (strong mayor) form of government. We saw social unrest in Seattle, Los Angeles, New York, Washington DC, all cities with mayor-council forms of government.

The change we are looking for cannot be dependent upon the assumptions that come with these proposed changes to our city’s charter. We must come together as a community, city, country and people to achieve true equality.

By design, the council-manager form under Austin’s 10-1 system assures that all communities, no matter the zip code, have an equal voice at the table. Austin’s system requires elected officials and professional administrators to work collaboratively to meet the needs of all people and provides the greatest opportunity to discover and implement a more just and equitable democratic government. More voices at the table means a better chance at equitable city legislation. 

Under a mayor-council system, Austin would be left with a mayor elected at-large with little accountability to the council or the diverse communities the council represents. Instead of a city manager serving as the chief executive officer obligated to administer government professionally without regard to politics, we will have an elected mayor with power to deny and overturn the will of the people. Only a supermajority of council, or the electorate every four years, could overturn harmful decisions.

Austinites for Progressive Reform’s tagline is “to make Austin the most pro-democracy city in the country.” To tout democracy and racial justice but rush charter amendments that will overhaul our city government—to be voted on in a May election that historically has the lowest turnout in Austin, with little to no community buy in, especially from marginalized communities—seems counterproductive to the stated goals.     

These are important issues. We can make substantive change without the unnecessary distractions of political actors seeking to increase power through a change in our city charter. We need a government that works for the people, and we are committed to making certain that we remain an Austin For All People.

Editor’s note: This article is co-authored by Pastor Joseph C. Parker, Jr., Esq., D. Min..

Pastor Joseph C. Parker, Jr., Esq., D. Min., a native of Birmingham, Alabama, is the Senior Pastor of David Chapel Missionary Baptist Church in Austin, Texas.

He has taught preaching at Baylor University’s George W. Truett Theological Seminary and Advanced Civil Litigation in Trial Advocacy at the University of Texas at Austin School of Law. He has served on several committees of the Baptist General Convention of Texas, and served on its Executive Board. He also served on the Baptist Standard newsmagazine board and serves as the President of the Ministers Conference of the National Missionary Baptist Convention of America. He has formerly served on the board of the Austin Anti-Defamation League and the Travis County Public Defender Office Organizational Committee.

Beginning in 1997, he led the development and implementation of the Chestnut Neighborhood Plan approved by the City of Austin, which focused on revitalizing the gentrifying Chestnut neighborhood in which David Chapel’s worship facilities are located. In 1998, he chaired the first Citizens Bond Advisory Committee for the City of Austin.

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