But notes the challenges ahead with a City Council composed of district representatives
An extended standing ovation, completes with whoops and hollers, erupted Wednesday night when the League of Women Voters Austin Area’s Francis McIntyre announced to a crowd of some 125 people at the Green Pastures restaurant, “I present to you the first Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission in the history of Austin.”
The League’s State of the City 2014 dinner celebrated voter approval of Austin’s new form of city governance that will be launched following the first-ever election this coming November of council members from geographic districts that were drawn by the ICRC.
The Proposition 3 ballot measure to establish 10 council districts drew 146,496 votes in the November 6, 2012, election, besting by more than 24,000 votes the alternative plan put on the ballot by council members opposed to the 10-1 plan.
Featured speaker Steve Bickerstaff—the founder of the Bickerstaff Heath law firm and the attorney who drafted the initial plan that wound up as Proposition 3 on the ballot through the grass-roots petitioning of Austinites for Geographic Representation—called the victory “an extraordinary example of the ability of people to take control of government and an exercise in democracy.”
Bickerstaff praised Linda Curtis, the sparkplug campaign coordinator for Austinites for Geographic Representation; City Auditor Ken Mory, who was instrumental in implementing the application process for volunteers who wanted to serve on the ICRC; the CPAs who (during tax season) winnowed the 450 applications to form a pool of those best qualified to serve on the ICRC; and the ICRC members themselves for accomplishing the difficult task of holding together and drawing the boundaries of the 10 districts from which future council members will be elected.
“A lot of people thought it (the process) would crash and burn but the reality is, you did it,” Bickerstaff said. “The ICRC is extraordinary because the commissioners were willing to spend their own time and skills to make the process work.” He also noted that the ICRC’s mission was completed for less than $150,000.
While praising the ICRC’s accomplishments Bickerstaff also criticized the group for “failing to achieve transparency” in its final few weeks by not allowing oral comments and overusing closed executive sessions.
Bickerstaff noted the irony of his involvement in bringing about single-member districts, given his previous legal role in the 1980s to successfully defend in federal court the City of Austin’s at-large system of electing council members. He said he would have never endorsed the concept of single-member districts for Austin had the ballot measure not required that council districts be drawn by the ICRC—not the City Council.
“We have the distinct advantage of going to single-member districts through the elective process,” Bickerstaff said. “Most all cities move to single-member districts through the force of litigation or threatened litigation,” which creates resentment over being forced to change.
Challenges ahead in new system
But the future holds challenges for the new form of government under a 10-1 system in which only the mayor is elected by all citizens.
“A council member in a district can focus on the needs of the district,” he said, but a group of constituents may be able to elect a person of its choice and become so strong that the incumbent may not be responsive to the people of the district.
“A district could become a virtual fiefdom,” he warned.
An incumbent could also become more “accountable to the people who control the voter turnout” and that could “create extremism and lead to cronyism.” The result could be “gridlock and acrimony” Bickerstaff said.
“We can expect a tsunami of democracy and grass-roots efforts,” he said.
Bickerstaff said Austin’s system has the advantage of establishing term limits but the public should be wary of the possibility of an incumbent anointing a successor.
Another advantage that Austin has in going to single-member districts is that this city does not have the polarization that existed in other cities that went from at-large to district councils. “We have a reserve of good will and it’s important to keep that good will going forward.”
“This process will change what we expect from the mayor. It’s more important that the mayor has the ability to lead the council” and “create a consensus for decisions going forward.”
Groups that are looking to support mayoral candidates should keep these qualifications in mind, he said.
“There is no reason to underestimate the importance of what you have achieved,” Bickerstaff said. The chore of redrawing council districts again in 2021, after the next census, will be less difficult.
“The Austin model can and should be used all over the country,” he said, and Bickerstaff urged the League of Women Voters audience to make an effort to sell the idea of drawing council districts with an ICRC to other cities.
“We have the opportunity in Austin to move forward in a united way,” he said.
ICRC members honored
The ICRC members were: Magdalena Blanco, Catherine Cocco, TJ Costello, Mariano Diaz-Miranda, Rachel Farris, Stefan Haag, Harriet Harrow, William Hewitt, Henry W. Johnson, Carmen Llanes Pulido, Arthur Lopez, Ryan Rafols, Anna Saenz, and Maria Solis.
To see the final certified map of the 10 districts drawn by the ICRC, click here (warning: this document is extremely slow to load).
Related Bulldog coverage:This isThe Austin Bulldog’s 51st article covering issues and activities pertaining to proposed and/or voter-approved changes to the Austin City Charter.