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 Austinites for Progressive Reform.
“We the People of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union….” Many of us remember reciting the Preamble to our Constitution in grade school and decades later now truly understand those powerful words.
We know too well that the critical balance of our American democracy is under attack by powerful people who want to keep others from voting. Within the last ten years, polling locations have closed, forcing voters to stand in line for more than seven hours to cast their ballots, and last fall our Postal Service was deliberately sabotaged to thwart mail-in ballots during the Covid-19 pandemic.
But these threats to our democracy well exceed voter suppression; they also come directly from systems of government that were designed to stand between voters and policymaking. The threat comes from filibusters, through which a small group of senators can obstruct common-sense legislation. It comes from the nature of the Senate itself, where a group that collectively represents 41 million fewer Americans has an equal number of seats as the majority party. And it comes from undemocratic systems that reside closer to home, like Austin’s “strong manager” system of government.
In Austin’s current “strong manager” system, voters do not elect the most powerful person in city hall, the city manager. The city manager is appointed to a position that oversees the entire city budget, manages all of our city services — including Austin Energy, Austin Water, and Austin Police Department — while never having to answer to Austin voters. Instead, the Austin city manager is insulated in their position from any accountability, with an indefinite term of office and a compensation plan worth more than $400,000 per year.
This current “strong manager” system is a relic from nearly 100 years ago, during the Jim Crow era, when powerful local businessmen conspired to replace Austin’s elected leadership with a system of government that separated the decision-makers in city hall from direct accountability to the voters. Real estate speculator and notorious segregationist Monroe Shipe, along with his influential friends, deliberately built a wall between Austin voters and city leadership. They knew that in a system where Austin’s leadership was not accountable to the voters, their money and status would be an advantage to ensuring that city policies favored them.
And Shipe and his associates were right. Shortly after adopting this new system, they benefited from the most infamous policy in Austin’s history — the 1928 Austin Master Plan, a development plan that relocated Austin’s Black community to the East Side while investing taxpayer-funded sums into projects that would benefit Shipe and his friends.
The problems with the “strong manager” system did not stop with the end of Jim Crow, however. They did not even stop with our landmark adoption of the 10-1 system of geographic council representation and the end of the so-called “gentlemen’s agreement,” which limited Asian, Black and Hispanic representation on the city council. In fact, the anti-democratic nature of our “strong manager” system has only become more clear since we made our council more representative.
In just the last six years, we have seen significant progressive actions by our council delayed, ignored, or otherwise thwarted by the “strong manager” system:
–In 2015, our council rallied around the “Spirit of East Austin” initiative to confront economic inequity in the city’s most neglected neighborhoods, which never received the promised attention in subsequent budgets.
–In 2016, we passed a landmark Fair Chance Hiring Ordinance, which we learned two years later was not being enforced.
–After years of backlogs and other failures, advocates in 2019 secured a unanimous vote for an outside audit of the APD’s sexual assault investigations — an audit that city management announced, nearly a year later, would take “years” before completion.
–In 2020, the police chief brazenly defied a unanimous council decision to decriminalize marijuana possession.
–And later last year, we learned that city management had failed to use $30 million that had been budgeted by the council to provide homelessness services, exacerbating our current crisis.
Whom do Austin citizens hold accountable when our unanimously approved public policies are not executed, or when community organizations and volunteers must fill wide gaps in the city government’s disaster response?
We do not vote for the city manager. Each of us only votes for 2 of the 11 people who select that person – our district council member and the mayor. And the last time we had such a hiring process, it happened in secret, culminating in a clandestine meeting at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport that city officials attempted to hide from local media.
What kind of democracy is this? On May 1, voters have the opportunity to adopt a “strong mayor-strong council” system that will help make Austin the most pro-democracy city in the country. This same system is used by most cities of our size, and it is a system where our votes will matter. By voting yes on Propositions F and G, we can make sure that voters, not politicians, will be able to choose the person who leads our city government.
Editor’s note: This article is co-authored by Mary Herr Tally.
Mary Herr Tally has been an Austin resident since 1993, working in the non-profit sector arts as a fundraising and marketing professional at Austin Opera, The Contemporary, The Laguna Gloria Renewal Project, LiveStrong Foundation, and the Long Center for the Performing Arts capital campaign. Since retirement she has served on numerous boards and raised funds for several arts, child, and animal welfare organizations.
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