Austin City Council changes ‘convention center' ballot language after Court ruling

The president of the Austin chapter of the NAACP took legal action against the city of Austin over an issue related to expanding the convention center.

“Our job is to check the government,” chapter president Nelson Linder said. “We have to check the City Council, they don't check themselves.”

Linder said the decision to do so was because it was a “civil rights issue.”

“It's also a voting issue and it was anti-democratic which is what we do,” Linder said.

The suit stems from Unconventional Austin’s petition to demand a public vote on the billion-dollar-plus expansion Council is considering, as the group doesn't believe expanding the convention center is a good use of Austin's hotel occupancy tax. 

Council chose to put the group's ordinance on the ballot rather than just adopting it, but those behind the petition feel the ballot language the City came up with for Proposition B was misleading for a couple of reasons.

“They said that it would cost the City money to have an election on the convention center expansion, that's false,” said Austin attorney Fred Lewis. 

City council member Jimmy Flannigan disagrees.

“Putting more items on the ballot does change that cost factor,” Flannigan said. “But also if we were to put that item on a May or an off-cycle November then there would most certainly be a cost,” Flannigan said.

Linder sued, and the Court of Appeals ruled Council has to fix the language.

“Delete the omissions, put them back in and clarify the language,” Linder said. “They were told what to do here.”

During a special-called meeting Monday afternoon, Council shot down a motion to adopt the exact caption brought forward by the petitioners. Flannigan read language that added hotel tax percentages and deleted the “city must pay” reference.

Council passed the language unanimously. This isn't the first time Council has been accused of writing misleading ballot language for citizen-led ordinances.

“The Council is out of touch with the citizens which is why we're having initiatives,” Lewis said. “Second of all, they have no respect for the initiative process, and they try to put their thumbs on the scales of the language and the Court of Appeals told them to stop...and hopefully they listened."

Flannigan says state law instructs council to be accurate, and he says it's incumbent upon the Council to educate the community on the impacts.

“That's always going to be a push-pull between the people who want the ordinance who want it to be representative of the most favorable light they can come up with and the Council who wants to be truthful and accurate to the community about what will and won't happen if the item passes,” Flannigan said.

As far as a Court telling the City to fix its language, Lewis says it doesn’t happen very often.

“Frankly they should be embarrassed but whether they are or not you'll have to ask them,” Lewis said.

Flannigan said he’s not embarrassed for the City.

“I am not embarrassed for the City, I am embarrassed for the courts, and I am embarrassed for the people who sued the City over it,” Flannigan said. “There is not some moral high-ground to a court ruling.”

A group called Friends of Mckalla has also filed suit over language Council wrote for Proposition A, an ordinance that would let voters decide on using City-owned land for sports and entertainment venues, an issue that was brought on by Council's decision on building a Major League Soccer stadium.

Representatives for “Unconventional Austin” say Council should have just adopted the ordinance caption, but they are still reviewing the language approved at today’s meeting.