Strategy Is To Maintain Ownership of the 10-1 Plan with Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission
More than two dozen members of Austinites for Geographic Representation (AGR) attended a meeting Monday night and voted unanimously to continue the petition drive to get its plan on the ballot in November.
The plan calls for 10 council members to be elected from geographic districts, only the mayor to be elected at-large, and a nonpartisan Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission to draw a council districting plan that the council would have no choice but to accept.
Because Texas is one of the states subject to the Voting Rights Act of 1965, any districting plan would have to gain approval from the U.S. Department of Justice before implementation.
AGR has until July 16 to submit petitions with at least 20,000 valid signatures of registered City of Austin voters. At Monday night’s meeting, petition coordinator Linda Curtis said the group had about 20,600 valid signatures. Nearly every member volunteered to petition during the numerous 4th of July events scheduled around town, from neighborhood parades scheduled during the day to the big fireworks show in the evening.
Members vigorously discussed the issue of whether to proceed for 45 minutes before voting to finish the petition drive.
Although the City Council voted 5-2 early Friday morning to put the group’s plan on the November ballot, the AGR members took the position that the measure would fare far better in a campaign seeking voter approval if it were the people’s plan—and not on the ballot through the City Council’s largesse.
Peck Young, who was a political consultant for nearly four decades and involved in drawing boundaries for political jurisdictions in Texas and elsewhere during that time, briefed members on the things that might go wrong if the petition drive were not finished.
“What they have passed is a city ordinance that can be repealed by any four members. Only two council members (Mike Martinez and Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole) are committed to our position,” Young said. “Three are committed to the 8-2-1 plan,” he added, naming Council Members Kathie Tovo, Chris Riley, and Laura Morrison, who voted to put the AGR plan on the ballot but also voted to put the 8-2-1 plan on the ballot as well.
The 8-2-1 plan would have the mayor and two council members elected at-large and the other eight council members elected from geographic districts.
If the petition drive is not completed, Young said, the council majority could return from its July vacation and pull the AGR plan off the ballot. At that point it would be too late to submit the petitions and go through the City Clerk’s validation process to get the measure on the ballot.
Young said he had talked to a number of AGR coalition partners, including the Austin Police Association, Austin Firefighters Association, and retired State Senator Gonzalo Barrientos (D-Austin), who chaired the 2012 Charter Revision Committee that voted 8-7 to recommend the 10-1 plan and Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission be placed on the ballot.
“Every one of them thinks we would be simple-minded to think the City Council would not do us in,” Young said. “Mike (Martinez) would fight like a tiger, but he’s got only two votes.
“The truth is, our only weapon and leverage and credibility in the community is your petition,” Young told fellow AGR members.
Once the AGR plan gets on the ballot through a successful petition drive, the group will ask Martinez, the plan’s lead council sponsor, to reverse the council’s decision to put the 10-1 plan on the ballot.
“We will turn in our petitions and when they come back in August we will say, “Thanks but no thanks,” Young said.
AGR started meeting in February 2011 and in the last 16 months has built a strong grassroots movement that garnered endorsements from 27 community organizations and numerous community leaders. (
For a complete list of endorsements, click here.) (This link is no longer functional.)
The consensus arrived at through Monday’s discussion was that not completing the petition drive would handicap the group’s campaign to gain voter approval for geographic representation, something voters have shot down six times from 1973 to 2002.
The AGR plan calls for district boundaries to be drawn by a nonpartisan Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission, which would not be allowed to consider the residential addresses of incumbents.
The 8-2-1 plan favored by Mayor Lee Leffingwell and others does not include an Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission, although the council could choose to appoint one. Final approval of the districts, however, would most likely be subject to approval by the City Council. That’s according to the draft ordinance approved by a 4-3 majority early last Friday morning—on first reading only—to also put the 8-2-1 hybrid plan on the ballot. Two more readings will be necessary to assure the 8-2-1 a place on the ballot.
Should both the 10-1 and 8-2-1 plans wind up on the ballot, and if both should get more than 50 percent of the votes, the plan that garners the most votes would be the winner, Assistant City Attorney John Steiner told the council last Thursday.
Regardless of the method used to draw geographic district boundaries, by law, the drawing of council district boundaries must start at the voting precinct level, Young said, and that means at least two current council members would be pitted against each other if there are no at-large council seats.
Those two are Bill Spelman and Kathie Tovo, Young said.
However, The Austin Bulldog’s research indicates that Spelman and Tovo are not, in fact, in the same voting precinct. Spelman lives on Avenue F in Hyde Park and votes in Precinct 275, while Tovo lives on West 32nd Street and votes in Precinct 275 274 (corrected Friday, July 6, 2012 9:52pm). (To see Spelman’s voter registration record, click here. To see Tovo’s, click here.) As the grackle flies, the distance between their homes is 0.69 miles, according to our calculations using Google maps.
Notified of this Tuesday, Young said he had relied upon research done by others that indicated Spelman and Tovo were in the same voting precinct. He apologized for the misstatement and added, “I will still maintain that they live so close together it would be almost impossible to draw a district in which the two of them are not paired.”
Young said the same may be true of Council Members Laura Morrison and Chris Riley. Morrison lives on Baylor Street and votes in Precinct 250 and Riley lives on San Antonio Street and votes in Precinct 311. (To see Morrison’s voter registration record, click here. To see Riley’s click here.) The straight-line distance between their homes is 0.66 miles, according to our calculations using Google maps.
He said that one motivation for council members to put the 8-2-1 plan on the ballot is that the two at-large seats for council members would give the incumbents the option to run for a district seat or an at-large seat, and thus avoid having to either run against each other or move to another district to be eligible.
At City Council meetings, however, those who advocate the 8-2-1 plan said that widely dispersed minority populations would have a better chance of winning one of the at-large council seats. The Asian-American community has strongly argued for at-large council seats for that reason, while others have maintained that the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered community would have a better chance of gaining representation with the at-large council seats.
As proof they offer the cases of lesbian Randi Shade and Asian American Jennifer Kim, both of whom were elected under the current at-large system.
Peck Young maintains that districts do not preclude Asian American or LGBT communities from gaining seats under the district system. He points, for example, to the case of Glen Maxey, the first openly gay member of the Texas Legislature, who served from 1991 until 2003 while representing the heavily Latino district of southeast Travis County.
Others advocating the 8-2-1 hybrid plan argue that it offers a less radical change than going from the current all-at-large system to a pure district system under the 10-1 plan. The 8-2-1 plan would also give citizens the ability to vote for four members of the City Council instead of two under a pure district plan.
At Monday night’s AGR meeting, Curtis set a goal of gathering another 3,500 valid signatures before submitting the petitions for the City Clerk’s review. If that goal is met, the group would have about 24,000 valid signatures, or 4,000 more than required, in case some are ruled invalid by the City Clerk’s office. That would give AGR a 20 percent margin of safety.
In reality it’s unlikely the petitions will not be sufficient to get the measure on the ballot. That’s because of the extensive validation process being used to review the petitions. It should also be noted that Linda Curtis previously led four previous petition drives to get measures on the ballot in the City of Austin.
Last week, The Austin Bulldog visited the AGR office to observe the activity. Volunteers leaned over their computers. They were screening each and every petition to verify that each signature, address, and birthdate (or at least two out of the three elements) exactly matches the records of registered City of Austin voters purchased from the voter registrar’s office.
Volunteer Roger Baker said he’s been coming in each day and spending about five hours verifying signatures. “It’s like doing detective work because some signatures are so bad,” Baker said.
He said he collected about 150 signatures himself before retreating from the blistering heat to work in the office.
“This is a homegrown petition drive,” said Linda Curtis.
There is zero chance that the petitions turned into the City Clerk will not pass muster, Curtis said. “All the signatures you see will be good signatures—we will cross out bad signatures.”
AGR office manager Teresa Anderson assigns a number to each individual page containing petition signatures before the volunteers search for the signers in the voter database. Each signature found to be valid by the volunteers is noted in the master database with its individual page number. She uses that information to compile a running total of valid signatures.
City Clerk Shirley Gentry said that Curtis’ petitions are easier to process than most because they contain the signers’ voter registration number. “That’s not a required field on petitions but we really appreciate their volunteers including it.”
Gentry said the city hires a university professor to set up a statistically valid process for sampling 25 percent of petition signatures, as required by state law. Information from the petitions is put into a computer program that produces specific instructions for Gentry’s staff to use, including which signatures to check on which pages. “So if we get into a court of law and are asked about our random samples, he can testify that our procedures were accurate.”
That may seem like statistical overkill but a failure to properly validate one of Curtis’ petitions in 1997 led to the City Council to fire Gentry’s predecessor, Elden Aldridge.
As I wrote in the July 2, 1997, and September 17, 1997, editions of the In Fact newsletter, the petition that Curtis submitted for Austinites for a Little Less Corruption contained 27,000 signatures. Aldridge ruled the petition fell 1,471 short of the 15,964 registered voters needed at the time.
A federal lawsuit decided by U.S. District Court Judge Sam Sparks resulted in calling the election for November 4 of that year. The measure—which limited campaign contributions to $100 per election cycle—was approved by 72 percent of voters. (The City Charter was subsequently amended to increase the contribution limits.)
Sparks’ decision of September 12, 1997, was filled with scathing criticism of how Aldridge verified the petitions. The written decision called the verification procedures “Draconian.” Sparks also harshly criticized the City of Austin for spending taxpayer money to defend Aldridge’s actions in court.
Gentry substantiated a claim that Peck Young made at Monday night’s AGR meeting, that the law requires the petition validation process to give the petitioners the benefit of the doubt.
“We always err on the side of the petition signer,” Gentry said. “It’s not our job to invalidate the petition.”
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