Citizens Group To Make Final Petition Push

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Austinites for Geographic Representation Claims to Have 17,000 Signatures, and Shoots for 13,000 More

It’s been 15 months since Austinites for Geographic Representation held its first meeting in February 2011 at Huston-Tillotson University and the group has been steadily building a coalition of supporters and rounding up endorsements ever since.

The group’s proposal to have 10 council members elected from geographic districts and only the mayor elected at large, and to have geographic districts drawn by an Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission, has gotten a lot of traction—including endorsements from a range of groups including the League of Women Voters of the Austin Area, Austin Neighborhoods Council, the and the Travis County Republican Party. (To see the full list of organizations and individuals endorsing the plan, click here.) (This link is no longer functional.)

Even the council-appointed 2012 Charter Revision Committee backed the 10-1 plan with an Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission, though by a narrow 8-7 vote that triggered work by some on the losing end to continue lobbying for a hybrid plan that includes a couple of at-large council seats in addition to the mayor.

What the 10-1 plan has not gotten so far is broad public support from members of the Austin City Council. To date, only Council Member Mike Martinez has voiced unequivocal support for the plan.

Hence the grassroots effort by Austinites for Geographic Representation continues to gather the signatures of 20,000 registered city voters.

Austinites for Geographic Representation met tonight to assess progress and determine how to successfully wrap up the petition drive needed to get the measure on the November ballot. More than 40 people attended the meeting, including a number of former City Council candidates including Kris Bailey, Shaun Ireland, Laura Pressley, Eric Rangel, and John Rubine, as well as mayoral candidate Brigid Shea and county commissioner candidate Richard Franklin, president of Youth Unlimited.

Linda Curtis
Linda Curtis

Petition organizer Linda Curtis said the group has collected some 17,000 signatures. Because of the declining percentage of residents who are registered to vote, Curtis said to be safe the group needs to collect another 13,000 signatures. Only the signatures of qualified registered city voters will count toward the 20,000 valid signatures needed for the ballot.

Once the petitions are turned in, the City Clerk’s office has 30 days to determine whether the petition contains enough valid signatures to put the measure on the ballot, in accordance with Article IV, Section 4 of the Austin City Charter.

Longtime political consultant David Butts, who was on the 2012 Charter Revision Committee and strongly advocated for a hybrid plan that includes at-large council members, both in public meetings and in Democratic Party gatherings, last week told The Austin Bulldog that voters will not approve the 10-1 plan and if no compromise is reached to allow some at-large seats for council members the plan it will fail—just like it has six times in the past between 1973 and 2002.

Peck Young
Peck Young

Veteran political consultant Peck Young, who has been deeply involved in Austinites for Geographic Representation since its first meeting, introduced the idea of a compromise he said was proposed via e-mail by political consultant Mark Nathan, who until last August 1 was Mayor Lee Leffingwell’s chief of staff.

Young said Nathan’s offer asked that the group forego the 10-1 plan and instead opt for either 8-2-1 or 10-2-1 plan. Young said a federal court case some 20 years ago had decided the hybrid 8-2-1 plan would not pass muster under the federal Voting Rights Act, and then opened the topic for discussion.

Almost no one who took part in the lengthy discussion of the proposed compromise was in favor to the idea, although Steve Speir said “we should look at it.”

Fred Cantu, president of the Tejano Democrats, said some of the Democratic clubs that endorsed the 10-1 plan are “not keen on the 10-2-1 plan.”

Others said if those who proposed a compromise were serious they would show up at the meetings or provide a precise written proposal. Comments against the compromise also mentioned the amount of time the 10-1 plan and Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission has been worked on and that opting for a hybrid plan would require revisiting and convincing the dozens of groups and scores of prominent individuals who have already endorsed the 10-1 plan. “Going back and changing would be disingenious,” one member said. “That would create chaos in this group.”

Stacy Suits
Stacy Suits

Stacy Suits, who ran two unsuccessful campaigns seeking voter approval for geographic representation on the council in the 1980s, said, “the bottom line is if they want us to change course of action we’ve been on for a long time they should come up with $100,000 to pass this. Otherwise they’ve got no skin in the game.”

Roger Borgelt, vice president of the Travis County Republican Party, which long ago endorsed the 10-1 plan, said he didn’t believe he could get the party to go for at-large council seats.

Focus on petition drive

Young, a political consultant for four decades, summed up the discussion by saying it’s imperative to get the petitions to the city clerk by mid-June so that the petitions will have been verified and ruled sufficient to be on the November ballot when the City Council returns from its July vacation.

The result, Young said, would be that the council will “have to attack a citywide coalition to put an alternate on the ballot,” Young said.

Attorney Stefanie Collins warned that getting the measure passed once it’s on the ballot will be difficult due to the opposition of seasoned political consultants such as Butts and Nathan.

“Look at the election results and you’ll see these people are powerful,” Collins said of the opposing consultants. “This is going to be a fight and we’re going to have to work our butts off.”

To make the big push for the remaining petition signatures the group organized volunteers to do block walking in neighborhoods the next two weekends. Former City Council candidate Laura Pressley volunteered her list of registered voters to make the block walking more effective.

“We need to keep our eyes on the prize the next two weeks,” Curtis said.

Related Bulldog stories:

City Council Tackles Charter Amendments: Redistricting Expert, Charter Revision Committee Members, and Grass-roots Group Critical of Task Force Plan, April 26, 2012

Council District Backers Want Quick Ballot Decision: Big Press Conference, Big Pressure Promised, to Get Council Decision Before Council Elections, March 8, 2012

Hard Fought, Heartfelt Charter Decision: Charter Revision Committee Votes 8-7 to Back 10-1 Plan for Council Elections, February 3, 2012

New Restrictions Proposed for Lobbyist Fundraising, January 22, 2012

Committee Debates How to Elect Council: Charter Revision Committee Divided Over Pure Districts vs. Hybrid System, January 9, 2012

Thirteen Charter Changes and Counting: Charter Revision Committee’s Next Job: Tackle Plan for Geographic Representation, December 14, 2011

Council Confirms November 2012 Election Date for Charter Amendments, November 3, 2011

Coalition Launching Petition Drive to Get on the Ballot for May 2012 Election, October 18, 2011

Broad Community Interest Focusing on How Mayor and Council Members Elected, October 4, 2011

Coalition Nearing Petition Launch for Grass-roots Council District Plan, August 24, 2011

Maps Prove Select Few Govern Austin: Forty Years of Election History Expose Extent of Disparity, August 4, 2011

City Council to Consider Proposal to Create Geographic Representation: Election Dates, Term Lengths, Redistricting and Other Charter Changes in Council Resolution, April 27, 2011

Petition Launch Imminent to Force Election for Geographic Representation in City Elections, March 7, 2011

This report was made possible by contributions to The Austin Bulldog, which operates as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit to provide investigative reporting in the public interest. You can help to sustain The Austin Bulldog’s reporting by making a tax-deductible contribution.

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