My Revisionist History of Austin’s Upcoming May Election

6 min readApr 12, 2021

I have made so many mistakes in my life, I wouldn’t have time for much else if I started to make a list. I’ve made mistakes about people, mistakes involving money, mistakes in business, mistakes in relationships, mistakes in elections, mistakes in things I’ve said, mistakes of all sorts.

I’m human. We’re all human. Mistakes are inevitable.

Yesterday, the Austin American-Statesman published an editorial board (sorry, there’s a paywall) piece that I believe is a mistake. In the editorial, the Statesman expressed opposition to Proposition F, which would transition Austin from a Manager-Council form of government, in which the city’s most powerful official is an unelected city manager, to the Mayor-Council structure, in which the mayor would retain the chief administrative duties for the city which is utilized in most major cities nationwide.

I have previously written about my support for Prop F (not to mention the other Propositions D-H which would make Austin the most pro-democracy city in America), but today I want to do something that speaks more directly to the undertones of opposition to Prop F I’m hearing.

I realized that the Statesman editorial was written from the perspective of the status quo. It’s very common, especially in longstanding institutions in which minority viewpoints are seldom represented at the highest levels, for the status quo to be used not as a metric of benevolence but a metric of tolerance. The status quo is why we still need federal voting rights legislation to protect against racial bias at state legislatures. The status quo is why we still don’t have equal pay. The status why maintains white supremacy and qualified immunity for police despite mounds of evidence of the need for legal reform and ramifications. The status quo explains why dozens of mass shootings have not brought about meaningful gun reform. This explains why Texas’ gerrymandered districts are paving the way for Texas’ voter-suppression legislation.

It’s not obstructionism preventing our government and other institutions from improving upon the status quo. It’s the pursuit of perfection to uproot the legacy of white supremacy that maintains the status quo. This is why we can all know that Austin’s city manager position was created as a means to maintain white landowner control during the Jim Crow era in the 1920s and propose a way to fix it and have the leading newspaper in Austin fail to embrace this much-needed change.

The status quo is a helluva drug.

In the Statesman’s editorial, the status quo is their main supporting point.

So in acknowledging the power in maintaining the status quo, I wanted to instead imagine if we could go back to the 1920s — Tarantino style — and create a revisionist history of Austin’s local politics. In my version of status quo, we always had a mayor-council form of government, and here in 2021 it’s not a group called Austinites for Progressive Reform putting forth pro-democracy propositions but a group called Austinites for Conservative Reform putting forth anti-democracy propositions including the introduction of an unelected city manager as the city’s most powerful official. (Sadly, the true history isn’t all that dissimilar.)

What I’m going to do today is re-write the Statesman’s editorial against the actual Prop F but instead of assuming the status quo is that we have an unelected city manager in the most powerful position in Austin government, I am going to imagine the opposite: we already have a strong mayor and council and Proposition F would be advocating for switching to a structure in which we have an unelected city manager and the Statesman endorses. Here goes:

Statesman endorsements: No on Props F and G on Austin’s May 1 ballot

At first blush, the idea sounds un-appealing: Voters should not be able to select the most powerful person at City Hall.

And so many complications rest beneath the surface of Proposition F, the measure on the May 1 ballot that would switch Austin to a city manager-led form of government. The proposal would consolidate a tremendous amount of power — oversight of a $4.2 billion budget and nearly 15,000 employees — in the hands of a single person. That person would not answer to voters but would be beholden to paid lobbyists and, as the highest paid city employee, long-term career thinking in ways that Austin’s mayor and city council is not. Just as worrisome, a city manager would undermine the political clout that communities of color and other minority voices have gained through their elected representatives in the 11-member council system.

No system of government is perfect. But the current mayor-council approach, with the elected mayor — guided by policy set forth by 11 district-based City Council members — running leadership of City Hall, strikes a better balance. We urge voters to reject the city manager proposal under Prop F.

Prop F is one of the five ballot initiatives from Austinites for Conservative Reform, a homogenous coalition seeking to minimize election participation and accountability at City Hall. The group’s intentions are not sincere and far from laudable. In offering Prop F, the group points to a problem that rankles wealthy white property and homeowners.

“We have seen since the addition of the 11th council seat a number of votes by the council — unanimous votes — that have been implemented by the mayor, or have implemented too swiftly, or have been otherwise supported in their implementation,” said Martin Shipe, the chair of Austinites for Conservative Reform. The concerted effort to alleviate homelessness, the meaningful efforts to address economic inequality and gentrification in East Austin, and the empathetic police response to the council directive to end low-level marijuana arrests all come to mind.

But there is nothing magical about a city manager. The council would still be looking to another person to implement its priorities, except in this case a city manager could refuse a council directive by ignoring it. A unanimous council vote could not even override the city manager’s slow-walk implementation. The council, which is elected as is the mayor, could hire, evaluate and fire the city manager although — since the city manager’s performance is largely unknown to the public — this laborious process would likely mean council elections may occur even before the replacement is hired.

As a practical matter, the support of the city manager — one person — would determine which city initiatives would be brought to life.

If the problem is stalled initiatives, the solution is not a city manager but an assertive council. Council members — who have legislative and budgetary authority — must dedicate the necessary resources to any initiative they approve and hold the mayor and department heads accountable for implementation.

If voters approve Prop F, the city manager would supplant the mayor as the strongest official in city government. The city manager would operate as a standalone executive, while the council would serve as a budgetary and legislative body.

In that scenario, the city manager’s arrival would diminish the mayor’s clout as the primary city-wide elected official and ensure only the mayor and 11-member council seats are vulnerable to the voters. Proposition G would remedy that by removing the 11th geographic district seat from the City Council.

Looking ahead to the redistricting from the 2020 Census, there are noteworthy arguments for Prop G. Splitting the city back into 10 districts could help ensure Austin keeps a district from better representing the African-American communities (who’ve been continuously gentrified out of Austin) while also preventing the creation of a district allowing Asian Americans to pick a candidate who represents them.

But if voters defeat Prop F, the math of Prop G doesn’t work. It would lead to a 11-person council — 11 district members minus the mayor — prone to better representing Austin demographically. Adding a 12th council seat through some future election could fix that problem by presenting the opportunity for ties, but Austin would have to undergo a whole new redistricting effort at that point, or wait until the districts are redrawn after the 2030 Census. Either option would be more democratic, if not logical.

The central matter here is whether Austin should move to a city manager-led form of government. Politically, it would consolidate power in the hands of one unelected official, reserving the hard-won gains in representative government under Austin’s mayor-council system. And from a practical standpoint, it may do little to improve city services. A study of IBM’s company history showed it’s heavily middle-aged white, male-led board of directors and executive team asserts it may not be an authority on equity and inclusion, but it knows a lot about efficiency. Those findings speak to the value of having an elected official — not an unelected careerist — running operations for one of America’s largest cities where nearly 50% of residents are non-white.

There’s always room for improvement at City Hall. But Austin would benefit from a stronger council, not a city manager. Voters on May 1 should keep the mayor-council system and reject Props F and G.




I believe. I have ideas and turn some into businesses. Sometimes I run long distances. Chris Nolan, ATCQ, Lake Como & Murakami are my favorites. @joahspearman