Texas Supreme Court orders city council to use Save Austin Now’s ballot language for police measure

Austin voters will decide a ballot measure related to police staffing, training requirements, and demographic representation in hiring on November 2, 2021. The Texas Supreme Court ruled on Thursday that the city council had to use the caption drafted by the measure’s sponsor, Save Austin Now, rather than the language approved by the city council for the ballot.

The court ruled that the sponsor’s language which appeared on circulating petitions complied with state law and did not need to be rewritten by the city council. However, the court agreed with the council’s addition of a fiscal impact statement saying, “We agree with the City that the omission of any cost information can be misleading and we cannot say that including the City’s cost estimate in the ballot language affirmatively misrepresents the ordinance’s character and purpose or its chief features so as to make it potentially misleading.”

Save Austin Now filed a lawsuit on August 16 arguing that the ballot language adopted by the city council was selective because it did not describe the initiative’s provisions related to diversity hiring and inventive guidelines or the 40 additional training hours for officers required by the measure. They also argued that the five-year cost estimate was exaggerated. 

The city council adopted the following ballot language: “Shall an ordinance be approved that, at an estimated cost of $271.5 million – $598.8 million over five years, requires the City to employ at least 2 police officers per 1,000 residents at all times; requires at least 35% of patrol officer time be uncommitted time, otherwise known as community engagement time; requires additional financial incentives for certain officers; requires specific kinds of training for officers and certain public officials and their staffs; and requires there be at least three full-term cadet classes for the department until staffing levels reach a specific level?”

The following language will be on the ballot according to the supreme court’s ruling: “A petitioned ordinance to enhance public safety and police oversight, transparency and accountability by adding a new chapter 2-16 to establish minimum standards for the police department to ensure effective public safety and protect residents and visitors to Austin, and prescribing minimal requirements for achieving the same at an estimated cost of $271.5 million – $598.8 million over five years.” This language, except the cost estimate, was circulated by Save Austin Now on signature petitions for the initiative.

The Austin City Charter states that ballot initiatives “shall state the caption of the ordinance” on the ballot.

The proposed ordinance would:

  1. establish minimum police staffing and require there to be at least 2 police officers for every 1,000 residents of Austin;
  2. add an additional 40 hours of police training each year on topics such as active shooter scenarios, critical thinking, and defensive tactics; and
  3. provide police with additional compensation for being proficient in non-English languages, enrolling in cadet mentoring programs, and being recognized for honorable conduct.

In Austin, initiative petitioners must gather 20,000 signatures to qualify an initiative for the ballot. The requirement is based on five percent of the qualified voters in the city or 20,000, whichever is smaller. The deadline to collect signatures to qualify for the 2021 ballot was July 22, 2021. If petitioners collect enough signatures, their initiative is sent to the city council, which must either approve the initiative or put it on the ballot for the next allowable election date. 

On July 19, Save Austin Now submitted 27,778 signatures. On August 3, 2021, the Austin City Clerk announced that a sampling of a quarter of the submitted signatures projected 25,786 valid signatures, 5,786 more than the minimum requirement. On August 11, the city council voted unanimously to put the initiative on the ballot instead of passing it outright.

In 2021, Ballotpedia is covering a selection of local police-related measures concerning police oversight, the powers and structure of oversight commissions, police practices, law enforcement department structure and administration, law enforcement budgets, law enforcement training requirements, law enforcement staffing requirements, and body and dashboard camera footage. Click here to read more.

Additional reading: