City Council Tackles Charter Recommendations

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Sheryl Cole
Sheryl Cole

Redistricting Expert, Charter Revision Committee Members, and Grass-roots Group Critical of Task Force Plan

Although the City Council could wait until August to set the ballot for the City Charter revisions to be put before voters in November, action is already moving forward.

Seven items were on the April 26 council meeting agenda that dealt with recommendations offered by the 2012 Charter Revision Committee. Four were passed, two were postponed, and one was withdrawn in the face of strong opposition and advice from outside counsel.

The City Council voted 7-0 with no discussion to place two proposed City Charter revisions before voters in the November election:

Allow the City Council to appoint the city attorney, who currently reports to City Manager Marc Ott.

Move council elections from May to November. The latter proposal makes no mention of changing the length of terms from the current three years.

The City Council unanimously approved other ordinances to implement recommendations that need not be put in the City Charter:

Expand the jurisdiction of the Ethics Review Commission to include campaign finance violations.

Require enhanced reporting by bundlers of campaign contributions and put limits on the amounts of campaign contributions that may be bundled by lobbyists. Bundling is soliciting and obtaining campaign contributions on behalf of a candidate of $200 or more per person from five or more persons.

Two other ordinances were postponed until the May 24 council meeting to permit legal work to be completed:

Require special reporting of campaign contributions made in the last nine days before an election.

Require enhanced reporting of independent expenditures in city elections.

Advisory task force nixed

The seventh item was a controversial resolution to establish an advisory task force on drawing geographical districts for City Council elections and directing the city auditor to initiate a process of selection and appointment.

Sheryl Cole
Sheryl Cole

After lengthy discussion the lead sponsor of the item, Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole, withdrew that item in the face of strong opposition and legal advice that indicated the process would not mesh with the Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission, which is part of the petition being circulated by Austinites for Geographic Representation.

Critics turned out in force at a morning press conference to throw brickbats at Cole’s proposed resolution to appoint an advisory task force to advise the City Council on various options for designating council districts.

Steve Bickerstaff
Steve Bickerstaff

Attorney Steve Bickerstaff, founder of the Bickerstaff Heath law firm and a redistricting expert, said the council resolution was fatally flawed. He said that drawing districts that may be approved by voters would have to gain approval of the Department of Justice under the Voting Rights Act. If the DOJ should not approve the districts there would be no opportunity to redraw lines that voters had approved.

The plan being petitioned for by Austinites for Geographic Representation advocates that 10 council members be elected from geographic districts with only the mayor elected citywide.

The petition also requires appointment of a Citizens Independent Redistricting Commission to draw district boundaries after the election approving the 10-1 plan. Bickerstaff said this would allow the Commission to seek DOJ approval and make adjustments to district boundaries if necessary to gain what is termed “preclearance” to authorize elections be held under the proposed plan.

Bickerstaff noted the resolution makes no mention of the Voting Rights Act and said the resolution lacks key provisions that are incorporated in the proposed Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission.

For example, the Districting Advisory Task Force could only make recommendations to the City Council and the council would make final decisions on district boundaries, possibly to benefit their own re-election chances. The Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission would draw district maps the City Council would have no choice but to adopt.

Bickerstaff said, in going the route of an advisory commission, “Ultimately the determination of the districts is left to the people most affected—the City Council.”

In addition, the proposed council resolution would not bar people who serve on the Districting Advisory Task Force from running for city council in districts they participated in drawing.

“There is not a limitation (in the proposed resolution) on what he commission members can do after they serve,” Bickerstaff said. “What you do not want is a member of the commission who is profiting by virtue of serving on the commission, that they could draw a district they could be elected in.”

The process of drawing plans for council districts should be as independent and as free as possible of political influence, Bickerstaff said, noting that we have seen the result of such influence in splitting Travis County into five congressional districts.

“I urge, I urge, I urge the city council to look hard at the recommendations from the Charter Revision Committee to adopt an Independent Citizens Commission,” Bickerstaff said.

A six-minute excerpt from the press conference video was played for the City Council during the noon citizens communication, before the council considered the resolution.

Bickerstaff’s opposition, combined with the legal advice provided by Syd Falk of Bickerstaff Heath Delgado Acosta LLP during council discussions, combined to cause Cole to withdraw her resolution.

The net effect is that no attempt will apparently be made to draw maps for council districts until—and if—voters approve some form of geographic representation in the November election.

The City Council has given no formal indication of what plan for geographic representation it will put on the ballot. Thus far, only Council Member Mike Martinez has made an unequivocal commitment to support the 10-1 plan advocated by Austinites for Geographic Representation.

The City Council approved approved an ordinance in its Apirl 12 meeting to place an item on the November ballot for a City Charter change to seek voter approval to allow City Council members to hire their own staff members.

To date, the City Council has dealt with eight of the 19 recommendations made by the Charter Revision Committee.

Related Bulldog stories:

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

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