City Council Votes on Second Reading to Put Competing Election Plan on Ballot
The Austin City Council in today’s work session voted 5-2 (Council Members Mike Martinez and Bill Spelman opposed) to put the 8-2-1 plan for electing council members on the November ballot.
A five-vote majority is sufficient to pass any measure on the council’s agenda on all three readings for final approval, and dispense with further consideration. Today, at Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole’s request, the vote was limited to second reading only.
It now appears to be a foregone conclusion that at least four votes in favor of the 8-2-1 plan will be cast on third reading, which Mayor Lee Leffingwell said he anticipated would be scheduled for an August 7 work session.
That will set up head-to-head competition on the November ballot between the 8-2-1 plan and the 10-1 plan, which already garnered sufficient signatures to go on the ballot.
The 10-1 plan has gathered endorsements from 28 organizations and dozens of prominent individuals. The organizations include the Austin Police Association and Austin Firefighters Association, the Austin Neighborhoods Council, the council-appointed 2012 Charter Revision Committee and Human Rights Commission, Gray Panthers, Greater Austin Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, local chapters of the League of United Latin American Citizens, Travis County Green Party and Travis County Republican Party, University of Texas Student Government, and many others.
For a complete list, click here. (This link is no longer functional.)
An item on Thursday’s agenda will allow the council to formally place the 10-1 plan petitioned for by Austinites for Geographic Representation on the ballot.
Part of the petition for the 10-1 plan provides for an Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission to draw council district boundaries that the City Council would have no choice but to accept.
Assistant City Attorney John Steiner, who is involved in drafting the language for proposed City Charter changes, said no such independent commission has been incorporated into the 8-2-1 plan.
Steiner said the ordinance for that plan states, “The boundaries of geographical single-member council districts shall be drawn by ordinance from time to time.”
He added, “That does not preclude the council from by ordinance establishing a board that would have a great deal of independence, but ultimately the redistricting commission would have to be adopted by ordinance.”
This would place the final authority for approving council district boundaries in the hands of the council members—as some on the council have stated a preference for in public meetings.
Austinites for Geographic Representation contends that letting council members control council boundaries allows districts to be gerrymandered to favor incumbents—a fact readily apparent in the way that boundaries for state representatives, state senators, and U.S. congressional districts have been gerrymandered by the Texas Legislature.
Today’s council action, and anticipated final approval for the 8-2-1 plan, sets up a repeat of the scenario that played out in 1992. The citizens’ initiative petition for the Save Our Springs Ordinance had qualified for the ballot. A council majority, which opposed the SOS Ordinance, put on the ballot a competing and less restrictive plan for protecting the Barton Springs portion of the Edwards Aquifer.
A highly charged campaign ensued and at the August 8, 1992, election, 64 percent of voters approved the SOS Ordinance and the council’s alternative ordinance was defeated by 65 percent of voters.
Cole said her office had been “flooded by calls from African Americans on both sides of the issue,” hence her request to not give the 8-2-1 plan final approval today.
During discussion before the 8-2-1 plan votes were cast, Martinez said, “The citizen initiative should prevail over the council’s desire in this case. I hope we don’t put a competing item on the ballot because both would fail.”
Spelman said he agreed with Martinez. “I think both will fail,” he said, noting that plans for some form of geographic representation have previously failed six times. “We should have the citizens’ initiative go forward and be the only one on the ballot.”
Cole noted that the NAACP Austin supports the 10-1 plan “wholeheartedly” but went on to say the 8-2-1 plan’s two at-large seats for council members offer African Americans and Asian Americans a better chance to win a seat than the one opportunity district for African Americans that may result from the 10-1 plan.
“The discussion needs to be had by the entire community and we should give the community the choice” of plans, Cole said.
Leffingwell said while he respects the citizens’ petition, “the idea of a hybrid system was politically proposed to give citizens the opportunity to vote way before this one. Giving the community a choice is important.”
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