Opinion article featured in The Austin American Statesman Over the past few months, a group of political insiders has advocated to change our city’s form of government from a council-manager to a mayor-council, also known as “strong mayor.” They have also accused the council-manager form of government of being inherently racist because racist policies were implemented under a council-manager system in Austin during the segregation era. Such a narrow understanding of racism in America fails to identify the real struggles that so many in our society face every day — especially people of color.
Even Nelson Linder, Austin NAACP president and a member of Austinites for Progressive Reform — the group working to change to a strong mayor form of government — refuted the notion that the system itself is inherently racist. Specifically, he said recently, “let’s be real clear, during that point in time, Jim Crow was everywhere.” We cannot become blind to the ways in which racism can be advanced under any form of government. What we must consider is how best to address issues of racism, social injustice and equity.
Systemic racism and the issues surrounding it are difficult to solve. However, social and racial equity will not be solved with a change in Austin’s form of government. Blindly assuming so is an offensive suggestion for those who live the Black experience, those who have dedicated their lives to anti-racism initiatives and those whom we have lost during this fight for racial equality. George Floyd was killed in Minneapolis; Breonna Taylor was killed in her home in Louisville; Freddie Gray died in custody in Baltimore. These were all cities with a mayor-council (strong mayor) form of government. We saw social unrest in Seattle, Los Angeles, New York, DC, all cities with mayor-council forms of government.
The change we are looking for cannot be dependent upon the assumptions that come with these proposed changes to our city’s charter. We must come together as a community, city, country and people to achieve true equality. By design, the council-manager form under Austin’s 10-1 system assures that all communities, no matter the ZIP code, have an equal voice at the table. Austin’s system requires elected officials and professional administrators to work collaboratively to meet the needs of all people. It provides the greatest opportunity to discover and implement a more just and equitable democratic government. More voices at the table means a better chance at equitable city legislation. Under a mayor-council system, Austin would be left with a mayor elected at-large with little accountability to the council or the diverse communities the council represents. Instead of a city manager serving as the chief executive officer obligated to administer government professionally without regard to politics, we will have an elected mayor with power to deny and overturn the will of the people. Only a supermajority of council, or the electorate every four years, could overturn harmful decisions. Austinites for Progressive Reform’s tagline is “to make Austin the most pro-democracy city in the country.” To tout democracy and racial justice but rush charter amendments that will overhaul our city government — to be voted on in a May election that historically has the lowest turnout in Austin, with little to no community buy-in, especially from marginalized communities — seems counterproductive to the stated goals. These are important issues. We can make substantive change without the unnecessary distractions of political actors seeking to increase power through a change in our city charter. We need a government that works for the people, and we are committed to making certain that we remain an Austin for all people. Ramsey is the volunteer director of community engagement for Austin For All People – a volunteer-led organization – a corporate social responsibility professional and a civil rights activist. Parker is a volunteer co-chair for Austin For All People and the senior pastor at David Chapel Missionary Baptist Church.