Congratulations Danny ThomasCongratulations to Danny Thomas for being the only member of the Austin City Council willing to say the obvious: The ballot language approved by the council for the two citizen-initiated charter amendments did not meet the "fairness" standard laid out last Thursday by Judge Stephen Yelenosky in his judicial order. (See the Statesman's coverage.) Here's the new language:
Proposition 1:What do you think of it? I think it's still misleading, though better than before.
Shall the City Charter be amended: (a) to provide online access to public information, which for the most part is already available, by creating an online electronic data system for most city communications and documents at taxpayer expense; (b) to require that private citizens' emails to public officials be placed on the city website in "real time," including emails or electronic communications between private citizens and public officials in all city departments, and limit the ability of citizens to keep private the details of these communications, unless legal exceptions apply; (c) to require that the heads of all city departments, all city manager's staff and all City Council members and their staff post online in real time information about meetings and phone calls with private citizens; and (d) to prohibit the city from exercising state law protection for information that could expose the city and taxpayers to greater financial and legal liability and risk?
Judge Yelenosky criticized the City's original language for containing only negative examples and no postive ones. He said the problem could be solved by eliminating all examples, or by including positive ones. But the council merely edited the existing language, and added no counterbalancing positive statements about the amendments. As several speakers pointed out, that's not complying with the order in good faith.
Council also included language making mistaken claims about email that the judge said "is misleading." All of section (B) in the ballot language is just flat out false. Nothing in the amendment requires emails to go online except where the council determines it's "possible," "practical," not violative of privacy rights, and not exempted by other state or federal laws. The judge said those caveats should be included if putting emails online was discussed, but the council kept much of the old language in there.
Even the first section (A) is technically false - the amendment does not require creation of a system to put all city documents online. It requires certain, specified documents to go online in a specified timeframe, and tells the City in the future to put more records online when the council decides it's "possible," "practical" and doesn't violate anyone's privacy rights. What they're claiming here is much broader than what the amendment really does.
They did take out the City's bogus cost estimate after the judge pointed out in his order the city conceded no tax increase would be necessary. Section (C) is mostly accurate but skewed and incomplete. Section (D) is pure argument, not descriptive of the amendment at all.
Brewster McCracken continued his disingenuous, defiant stance, claiming openly from the dais that the judge approved portions of the ballot language as acceptable when in fact the judge expressly called those sections "misleading"! At least Councilmembers Thomas and Kim had the grace to be more contrite. The rest seemed angry, defiant, not in a mood to more than minimally comply with the order. As CleanAustin.org spokesperson Ann del Llano pointed out, this was the first time in Texas history a court has had to overturn ballot language and order a city council to make it more fair. Never in the history of this state has that happened before.
Bottom line, City Council still wants to play games. They like to make up impractical schemes where putting records online would create problems, then pretend the amendment "requires" them to implement whatever they just made up, no matter how stupid, ignoring what the amendment really says. That may be an effective campaign tactic, but the judge said they shouldn't do it on the ballot.
Even so, this is the language voters will see May 13. Mail ballots must go out soon and it's too late for the language to change again. Even if the judge rules the language is still unfair, the only remedy would be to overturn the election if we lose. So let's don't lose.