I didn’t really know what to think about the “efficiency audit” supported by a curious coalition of Republicans and Old Austin anti-growth liberals. My instinct was that mandating a third-party audit of city programs –– as proposed by a petition that has garnered over 30k signatures –– sounded kind of gimmicky but was not inherently offensive.
It seems like at least some Council members don’t know what to think of it either. CM Leslie Pool initially signed on as a co-sponsor but then withdrew her support. Both moves make sense: Pool has strong ties to a few of the key backers of the petition (Fred Lewis, Bill Bunch) but she also has strong ties to AFSCME, the city employees’ union that has come out in strong opposition. Other CMs, whiffing Koch, have voiced skepticism and raised concerns about who is funding the mysterious group that funded the petition drive.
While Council declined the opportunity to approve the proposed ordinance themselves, they are legally required to put the referendum on the ballot since the group got the necessary number of signatures.
However, there is some leeway in how Council can phrase the question that voters see on the ballot. The language proposed by the petition-gatherers is the following: “Shall a city ordinance be adopted requiring a comprehensive, independent, third-party audit of all city operations and budget.”
And this is the language that city staff, on the advice of Council, has proposed: “In addition to having an internal City Auditor and 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 consultant, at an estimated cost of $4 million, the funding of which will require a reduction in services or an increase in the tax rate?”
Well-played! This is some straight-up Lyndon Johnson Master of the Senate shit.
Just a while ago I got a furious press release in my inbox from the folks backing the petition. Bill Bunch calls the ballot language “bogus and illegal.” And Bill Aleshire, another anti-CodeNEXTer, says that he plans to sue over it.
There are so many levels of irony to unravel here. For starters, it might be a little awkward for Pool and Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo, assuming they support the language staff has put forward. They only got a few moments to relish being on the winning side of a Fred Lewis/Bill Bunch lawsuit that accused the city of subverting democracy before becoming targets of such a suit themselves.
Second, it’s funny to see those pushing for more transparency in government spending object to language that gives voters more information about the potential costs of the program they’re being asked to approve.
Of course, those who will support appending the stern warning about tax hikes or budget cuts to the efficiency audit referendum would not like to see similar language next to things they want to see passed on this year’s ballot, notably the $250 million affordable housing bond. While the bond language does effectively tell voters that the program they’re approving may raise their taxes, the language is not quite as blunt. Here’s what it says:
“The issuance of $250,000,000 in tax supported general obligation bonds … and the levy of bonds and notes for constructing, renovating, improving, and equipping affordable housing facilities for low income and moderate income persons and families, and acquiring land and interests in land and property necessary to do so, funding loans and grants for affordable housing, and funding affordable housing programs, as may be permitted by law; and the levy of a tax sufficient to pay for the bonds and notes.”
Anyway, it will be interesting to see how it plays out. I predict the mayor and Ann Kitchen will say they aren’t against the efficiency audit but they just want to make sure the language is as “transparent” as possible.
Oh, one more thing: There will also be a debate about what the CodeNEXT referendum language should look like. One of the options floated by staff was short and sweet, and specifically referenced CodeNEXT: “Shall a city ordinance be adopted to require a waiting period and voter approval before CodeNEXT or subsequent comprehensive land development revisions become effective?”
The other was much more convoluted and didn’t include the polarizing term: “Shall the City Code be amended to include a requirement that there shall be both a waiting period, for up to three years, and subsequent voter approval by election before any future comprehensive revisions of the City’s land development laws, which include
environmental, transportation, utility, zoning, subdivision, site plan, and other city ordinances, may go into effect?”
It’s not the question you ask. It’s how you ask it.