Auditor coordinating with proponents of 10-1 plan to begin what will be a lengthy transition process
Faced with a December 1 deadline to announce a call for volunteers to serve on the Citizens Independent Redistricting Commission (CIRC), and a panel of auditors to screen applications, the city auditor’s office has shifted into high gear.
The deadline was set by Proposition 3: Ordinance No. 20120802-015 to implement what was approved by 145,910 voters, or slightly more than 60 percent of those who cast ballots on this proposition November 6.
The CIRC will ultimately draw 10 council districts that the City Council will have no choice but to adopt for the November 2014 elections, subject to approval by the U.S. Department of Justice under the Voting Rights Act. Only the mayor will continue to be elected at-large.
The city’s Fiscal Impacts for Propositions 1-10 estimated that Proposition 3 includes a one-time cost of $888,000 for construction and build-out of new offices and additional ongoing costs of $1.4 million a year to operate the four additional council offices.
But the cost of the conducting the work necessary to draw council districts and get federal approval has not been determined.
Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole, who chairs the City Council’s Audit and Finance Committee, said that will be addressed during the committee’s discussion with the City Auditor at a meeting scheduled to begin at 2pm Monday, November 19, in City Council Chambers. (Audit & Finance Committee Agenda for Nov. 19, 2012.)
The committee’s discussion will focus on the auditor’s Strategic Audit Plan. “That’s when we will discuss his role and how much time it’s going to take and how that might impact the budget,” Cole said. (To access the Stratetic Audit Plan, click here.)
“In terms of the overall budget it’s going to be an ongoing process,” Cole added. “We’re all new at this. I don’t have any reason to think that it’s going to be some exorbitant amount of money. We’ll deal with it.”
City auditor bears responsibility
City Auditor Kenneth Mory has wasted no time in reaching out to legal experts who drafted the ordinance for Austinites for Geographic Representation (AGR).
Attorney Steve Bickerstaff, who wrote the initial draft of the plan for the Citizens Independent Redistricting Commission based on the system approved by California voters and used in the 2011 state redistricting, has already met with Mory and his staff.
So have attorney Fred Lewis, the AGR legal advisor who revised Bickerstaff’s initial draft of the Ordinance, and Peck Young, the campaign’s volunteer political consultant.
Interviewed individually, all said they are confident they Mory understands the requirements for implementation.
“The auditor was taking his responsibility very seriously,” Bickerstaff said. “They had looked carefully at Proposition 3 and had a number of questions.”
Bickerstaff said, “I think it’s important … to have a commission (Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission) selected by spring next year because it will take at least six months for the commission to go through its process once created.”
“I see no hurdle that can’t be cleared easily with the time available,” he said.
Asked how the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent decision to take a case on appeal involving the Voting Rights Act (Shelby County v. Holder, 12-96) might affect local action to implement council districts, Bickerstaff said the case involves a challenge to Section 5 of the Act. If the plaintiffs were successful in striking down that section, he said, it would mean the city would not have to request federal preclearance before implementation.
But, he added, “Section 2 of the Act is not being challenged. It imposes the requirement that no election practice may have the result of denying voting rights (to) protected minority groups. … you cannot draw districts that have the effect of discriminating.”
Lewis said, “I was impressed with the auditor. He understood what to do as independent entity and that the process is to be transparent, open and fair.
“He seemed to me to be professional and intending to act in good faith to implement the will of the voters,” Lewis said.
“Implementing anything requires judgment calls and discretion and he seems to take it very seriously, and understands it’s his job to implement the law as fairly as he can,” Lewis said.
Young said, “I’m confident in the integrity of the auditor, but there is a reason we created AGR advisory committee.” (More about that later.)
Young is wary of what the City Council—which put an alternative Proposition 4 (the 8-2-1 hybrid plan) on the ballot at the last minute—might do to undermine the work that lies ahead.
“I think we need to be watchful and participate in the process to be sure it operates like it should. We wrote it. We passed it. We should not sit back and think it’s going to work out for the best. We need to keep a role here,” Young said.
Or, as Lewis put it, “Trust but verify.”
City auditor’s work underway
Jason Hadavi, the city auditor’s chief of investigations, told The Austin Bulldog, “We’re actively working toward developing a process, collecting information, and working hard to meet the December 1 deadline (specified in the ordinance ) to initiate and widely publicize an application process for two different bodies: the Applicant Review Panel, and the Citizens Independent Redistricting Commission.”
It has not yet been decided whether the three independent auditors who will serve on the Applicant Review Panel will be paid for their work, Hadavi said.
Attorney Lewis said the members of the CIRC will not be paid for their service, although they may be reimbursed for actual expenses, such as mileage to attend meetings and conduct public hearings.
Hadavi said the auditor’s office has been getting inquiries about how to apply and at this point is directing people to the auditor’s website, which contains a link to the Ordinance.
Hadavi said the auditor’s office is evaluating its needs for outside consultants but for the moment is relying upon the city’s law department and public information office for assistance.
The application process shall remain open until February 1, 2013, the ordinance states. That gives anyone interested in serving two full months to contemplate getting involved.
Qualifications to serve
Although anyone can volunteer to serve on the CIRC, only those who meet the qualifications specified in the ordinance will pass the screening process.
The Ordinance states the Citizens Independent Redistricting Commission (CIRC) shall consist of 14 members who shall have been continuously registered in the City of Austin as a voter for five or more years and, except for the student member, shall have voted in at least three of the last five City of Austin general elections.
The student Commission member must be enrolled in a community college or university and be registered to vote in the city.
From those who qualify a pool of potential CIRC members will be formed. A public drawing will be held to pick the first eight members of what will become a 14-member Commission.
Those eight will select from the same pool another six members to balance the CIRC in terms of geography, race, sex, and ethnicity.
The Ordinance states that the Applicant Review Panel will consist of three qualified independent auditors currently licensed by the Texas Board of Public Accountancy and have been practicing as an independent auditor for at least five years prior to appointment to this panel.
Bars to serving
Applicants who wish to serve on the CIRC and auditors who serve on the Applicant Review Panel and their spouses must be free of conflicts of interest, as specified in the Ordinance.
Within five years immediately preceding the date of application, applicants and their spouses shall not have:
• Been appointed to, elected to, or have been a candidate for state or city office.
• Served as an officer, employee or paid consultant of a political party or of the campaign committee of a candidate for elective state, county or city office.
• Been a registered state or local lobbyist.
• Contributed or bundled $1,000 or more in aggregate to candidates for City of Austin elective office in the last City election (May 2012).
Within three years immediately preceding application a person may not have:
• Been a paid City of Austin employee.
• Performed paid services under a professional or political contract to the City of Austin, to the Austin City Council, or any member of the City Council, or any controlling person of any such consultant.
• Or a spouse of any of these.
AGR press conference
Austinites for Geographic Representation (AGR), the citizens coalition that petitioned and won voter approval for a new way of electing City Council members, held a celebratory press conference at City Hall Monday morning.
Their purpose was to announce that an AGR committee will stay involved by forming an advisory committee to monitor and assist the work needed to implement the system for electing 10 council members from geographic districts and only the mayor at-large
Retired State Senator Gonzalo Barents (D-Austin), who chaired the council-appointed 2012 Charter Revision Committee that recommended the 10-plan called for by Proposition 3, said a citizens committee would be formed to help ensure that the city’s 2014 elections are held as required by the Ordinance.
Barrientos noted that the Charter Revision Committee listened to testimony from hundreds of Austin citizens and heard their desire for direct representation at city hall.
Nelson Linder, president of NAACP Austin, said, “This is a historic occasion.”
Linder said his goal is to make sure the new system of elections “is put into place the right way” so that the citizens of Austin will receive “fair representation.”
Attorney Roger Borgelt, vice chairman of the Travis County Republican Party, said the citizens committee will help to make sure that the requirements of Proposition 3 are “implemented as painlessly as possible and it’s done at the least possible cost to taxpayers.”
AGR spokesperson Jessica Ellison said the purpose of the AGR citizens committee will be to carry out the wishes of the elect
“We voted for fair geographic representation,” Ellison said, “and we’re going to make sure we get it.”
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Related Bulldog coverage: This is The Austin Bulldog’s 39th article covering issues and activities pertaining to proposed changes to the Austin City Charter.