It was nearing the end of 2018 and Françoise Luca had been wondering what was going on with the petition effort to possibly thwart a soccer stadium deal between the city of Austin and Austin FC owner Anthony Precourt.
So she made a phone call and set the stage for the city’s latest citizen-led ballot measure.
It’s one that fits into a growing trend that sees corporate interests, unions and citizen groups turning to the power of petitions to land pet issues on the ballot. In Austin, petitions resulted in two voter propositions being included on the November general election ballot. And if the soccer stadium petition is placed on the May 2019 ballot, the election will come nearly three years to the day since Austinites rejected Uber’s and Lyft’s efforts to overturn the city’s rules for ride-hailing services, a ballot measure that resulted from a petition.
In an unexpected twist, though, Austin’s growing propensity for direct democracy might hinder the latest petition effort, thanks to an obscure provision in the city’s charter. That remains an issue awaiting the City Council, which will resume its regular meetings Jan. 31.
As for Luca, she knew that Bobby Epstein, chairman of Circuit of the Americas and head of the fledgling United Soccer League team known as Austin Bold FC, had bankrolled the stadium petition effort initially, donating more than $128,000 to pay canvassers to gather signatures.
By Thanksgiving, those canvassers had pulled in the needed signatures, but the political action committee directing their efforts was undecided about the next step.
“We weren’t 100 percent sure how we were going to move forward,” said Nikelle Meade, the attorney representing Fair Play Austin PAC. “It wasn’t just our effort, it was more of a community effort.”
Fair Play Austin had picked up the petition effort — and Epstein’s financial support — after Epstein denounced its previous steward, IndyAustin, for using what some characterized as an anti-Semitic cartoon character in a campaign video. Fair Play Austin was created days after the controversy became public, and its organizers restarted the effort to gather signatures.
The newly formed PAC faced some pushback after a lobbyist working for Precourt secretly videotaped a paid canvasser giving out false information about the petition as he solicited signatures on the University of Texas campus in early November.
With the petition campaign appearing stagnant, Luca — the head of the Gracywoods Neighborhood Association — decided to contact Meade. Luca asked Meade what was for the plan for the signatures that had been gathered. When Meade told her there was no plan in place, Luca asked if she could take charge of the petition effort.
“There was a big concern from the community as to why all of our efforts were being stalled,” said Luca, whose North Austin neighborhood sits less than a mile from the McKalla Place stadium site. “So I asked them, ‘Why can’t I file (the petition)?’ So that’s what we decided to do.”
On Jan. 3, less than two weeks after City Manager Spencer Cronk signed a stadium lease and development agreement with Precourt Sports Ventures, a courier delivered a petition with more than 29,000 signatures to Austin City Hall, and the loosely organized Friends of McKalla group announced that they would push for an election in May. Among other items, the group’s petition calls for future elections concerning any deal that would allow the use of city-owned land for a sports stadium or a concert venue.
It’s unclear what will happen next with the petition. The city clerk’s office is still reviewing the signatures to verify that the necessary 20,000 registered Austin voters have signed.
If the petition’s determined to be valid, the City Council has two options. Within 10 days of the petition’s verification, the council can vote to approve the petition’s proposed ordinance outright or call a special election.
Petition supporters want a special election called for May 4. However, the city of Austin’s legal department believes the city cannot hold the election until November because of a provision in the City Charter. That provision states that special elections on initiatives of referenda can’t be held within six months of each other.
Because special items were on the ballot for the Nov. 6 midterm election, including the anti-CodeNext Proposition J, a May 4 election would violate the charter, according to city officials.
Former Travis County Judge Bill Aleshire disagrees with the city’s interpretation of the charter provision, and he wrote in a recent email that the city likely will be sued if council members don’t set a May election on the stadium question.
“The city charter prohibits ‘special’ elections within 6 months of each other, but the November election was a ‘general’ election,” Aleshire said in the email. “This Mayor and Council majority already lost one lawsuit thinking they could block such an election.”
The Texas secretary of state’s office defines a special election as any election in which a governing body ordered an election for items outside of regularly scheduled elections, such as those involving elected offices on the federal, state and municipal levels. Sam Taylor, a spokesman for the Texas secretary of state, said that while November’s election was a general election, the petition items, proposed city charter amendments and municipal bond proposals on the ballot created a concurrent special election because the City Council set those elections by approving ordinances that ordered them.
Pushing the election back to November likely would be a blow to those who want to blow up the stadium deal, which passed the council by a 7-4 vote in mid-August. Precourt Sports Ventures has said it intends to break ground on the 20,000-seat, privately financed stadium in September, meaning the facility could be partially built when the election takes place.
Precourt’s main lobbyist for the stadium deal, Richard Suttle, has said the petition will not affect it. Likewise, Mayor Steve Adler has said he believes that even if voters approved the stadium petition in November, the election’s result would not have any effect on the city’s contract with PSV.
“They are out of time,” Adler said.
This article was first published by the Austin American-Statesman, Texas, on Jan. 19, 2018.
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