Is the CodeNEXT petition big news?

The other day, Austin City Clerk Janette Goodall gave the thumbs up to the roughly 30,000 signatures submitted to put CodeNEXT on the ballot.


A few thoughts…

Opposition to CodeNEXT doesn’t really make sense…No matter what your view on what the city code should look like, I don’t see how you can already have a position on CodeNEXT. CodeNEXT is not a policy. It’s a process. As part of that process, a group of consultants, along with city staff, has made a number of proposals. In response to input from the public, the citizen land use commissions and City Council, they have produced three drafts, each one different in many ways than the previous one. In the end, it doesn’t matter what the consultants recommend, but rather what Council does. If you have a strong opinion about land use, the logical course of action would be to try to get the new code to reflect your preferences, rather than to simply oppose the idea of a new code. Of course, many of those involved in the anti-CodeNEXT effort could have reasonably calculated that, if they like the status quo, it’s better to block any avenue for change. Even if the latest proposal is not much different than current zoning.

There seems to be a really good chance that the petitions are moot. Fred Lewis, one of the main organizers of the petition drive, is a seasoned attorney with extensive experience when it comes to laws governing political processes (elections etc). He insists that his effort is legit. However, the legal experts the city has consulted feel differently. Eric Goff, the Papa Bear of AURA,  the urbanist group, provides his take on it to my colleague Jo Clifton:

“First of all, the biggest (problem) is how the petition says that it takes precedence over other city statutes, the charter or state law. You don’t have to be an attorney to know that it is crazy and illegal. State law does specifically address petitions related to zoning. And it very clearly says in the Local Government Code that the only time a petition process is valid is if it’s for the repeal of all zoning or for the initial application of zoning.”

He concluded, “It’s just a brazen attempt to score political points and was written specifically to be overturned. It’s obvious that their intention was just to declare the Council rejected the petition and hates democracy – when anyone that actually reads the language can see that it’s just a transparent farce.”

The petition campaign was led by a Bastrop resident and is largely funded by a billboard company. One very bizarre dynamic that deserves a lot more attention. As Jo notes:

For a response, we turned to the leader of the petition drive, Linda Curtis, who ironically can’t vote on the issue because she lives outside of Austin.

Curtis said via email, “The Council should tread lightly on putting themselves in-between a duly qualified citizen petition and very simply the right to vote to ratify or reject the Council’s decision on CodeNEXT.”

The petitions may not indicate that much public anger on the issue. I would bet an organ that a fair number of the young people I saw sign the petition on a Saturday afternoon at Radio Coffee & Beer had never thought about CodeNEXT before signing the petition and will never think about it again. The petition was presented innocuously enough –– let people have a vote on land use –– and the signature was the most pleasant way to make the guy with the petitions go away. I’ve seen this process play out with petitions before, most notably with the Uber & Lyft issue, in which more people signed pro-Uber petitions than ended up voting in favor of that position in the actual referendum (although that was a unique situation, since people were being solicited by Uber drivers).

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