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By W. Gardner Selby March 13, 2011

Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell says four-year city council terms are norm for most cities like Austin

Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell, advocating changes in the city’s governing charter, says it doesn’t make sense for City Council members to have three-year terms. In his Feb. 25 State of the City address, Leffingwell said that four-year terms are "the norm in most cities of our size."

News to us.

Leffingwell, who hopes to seek voter approval of term changes in 2012, later told us the change would result in one council election every four years, sparing voters from facing two council elections every three years as they do now. Also, he said, "if you ask politicians who are serving two-year terms, they find themselves in constant campaign mode. Campaigns are very exhausting and very costly."

To back up the mayor’s claim, his office provided a spreadsheet listing 34 cities plus Austin and the length of each city’s council terms. Spokesman Matt Curtis said consultant Mark Littlefield looked at the nation’s 30 most populous cities drawing on city websites and U.S. Census 2007 population estimates.

According to the sheet, 29 of the cities have four-year council terms, five cities have two-year terms--and only Austin has three-year terms.

Four-year terms prevail in some of the country’s largest cities including New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Philadelphia; they’re also in place in San Diego, Denver, Oklahoma City and,  in Texas, El Paso. Four Texas cities--Houston, San Antonio, Dallas and Fort Worth--join Charlotte, N.C. in having two-year council terms, the mayor’s research says.

Wondering if the other listed cities are comparable to Austin, we compared their 2009 estimated populations as gauged by the U.S. Census Bureau. Austin’s estimated population that year was 786,386; the average population for the other cities was 30 percent greater, 1,019,849.

The 10 cities with populations closest to Austin’s size ranged from Boston, at 645,169, to Detroit, at 910,921. Among them, Boston, Charlotte and Fort Worth have two-year terms, and the other seven cities have four-year terms, according to our checks of city websites and interviews of respective city officials.

Twist: Leffingwell’s fact sheet shows Boston’s council members with four-year terms, but Ann Braga, the Boston council’s staff director, told us that’s true only for the mayor.

So, 70 percent of cities close in population to Austin are represented by council members elected to four-year terms. We rate the statement True.

Featured Fact-check

Our Sources

Albuquerque, web page, "Frequently Asked Questions" (accessed March 7, 2011)

Austin American-Statesman, news article, "Austin area population increases by nearly half million, 2010 census data show,"  Feb. 17, 2011

Charlotte City Council, web page, ", About Us," (accessed March 7, 2011)

Columbus City Council, web page, "How We Are Governed" (accessed March 7, 2011)

Detroit City Council, web page, "About City Council" (accessed March 7, 2011)

E-mails, response to PolitiFact Texas, Matt Curtis, communications director, Office of Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell, March 3, 2011

Fort Worth City Council, web page (accessed March 7, 2011)

Interview, Ann Braga, staff director, Boston City Council, March 7, 2011

Interview, Lee Leffingwell, Austin, March 8, 2011

Jacksonville (FL) City Council, web page, "Jacksonville City Council" (accessed March 7, 2011)

PolitiFact Texas, analysis of spreadsheet provided March 3, 2011 by Matt Curtis, Office of Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell, March 4, 2011

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More by W. Gardner Selby

Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell says four-year city council terms are norm for most cities like Austin

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