General Information: Initiative, Referendum, and Recall
Initiative, referendum, and recall are inherent home rule powers that are reserved for exclusive use by local voters in order to provide direct remedies in unusual situations. There is no constitutional or statutory authority for initiative, referendum, or recall. These powers are unique to home rule cities (such as Austin), and they are not available to voters at any other level of government, including the state.
Initiative is a procedure under which local voters directly propose (initiate) legislation. Citizen lawmaking through the initiative process allows local voters to circumvent the city council by direct ballot box action on new ordinances that have some level of support in the community, but which the council declines to enact.
The initiative process begins with circulation of a petition setting forth the text of the desired ordinance. The petitioners must then obtain the number of voter signatures needed to compel the city council to submit the ordinance to the people at a citywide election. The city clerk must check the completed petition and certify it if it meets all charter requirements. If so, the city council has only two options: (1) adopt the proposed ordinance; or (2) call an election on the ordinance. If, at the election, the proposed ordinance passes by majority vote, the ordinance is put into effect.
Referendum is a procedure under which local voters can repeal existing ordinances that the council declines to rescind by its own action. The procedures for compelling the city council to call a referendum election are the same as for initiative elections: a petition calling for an election to repeal a certain ordinance is circulated, the petition is checked and certified if it is sufficient, and the city council must then either repeal the ordinance by its own action or call an election at which the people can vote to repeal it.
Austin’s city charter requires that a referendum petition must be submitted “prior to the effective date of any ordinance which is subject to referendum.” Typically, the effective date of most ordinances is 10 business days following adoption.
Recall is a process by which local voters can remove a mayor or members of the city council before the expiration of their terms. The procedures for compelling the city council to order a recall election are the same as for initiative and referendum elections: a petition calling for the recall of a named mayor or council member is circulated, the petition is checked and certified if it is sufficient, and the named mayor or council member must either resign within 5 days or the city council must order an election to be held in the named council member’s single-member district, or to be held citywide in the case of a mayor. If the majority vote is for recall, the mayor's or council member’s office is immediately declared vacant. If the majority vote is against recall, the mayor or council member continues in office.
General Information: Charter Amendment
In addition to initiative and referendum and recall, direct lawmaking by local voters can be accomplished through amendments to the charter document itself. Under Section 9.004 of the Texas Local Government Code, citizens can compel the city council to call an election on a proposed charter amendment. The process required is submission of a valid petition signed by 5% of the qualified voters of the city or 20,000, whichever number is less.
Requirements for Percentages/Numbers of Valid Signatures on Various Types of Petitions:
Each type of petition (initiative, referendum, recall, charter amendment) has a required percentage of qualified voters that must sign the petition (in a valid fashion) in order for it to be certified sufficient.