Coming soon a petition drive for council districts

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Lee Leffingwell
Lee Leffingwell

Coalition Nearing Petition Launch for Grass-roots Council District Plan, Council-Appointed Charter Revision Committee’s Plan Due January 31

 

A petition drive to trigger a City Charter election for council districts will soon be launched by a growing coalition of individuals and organizations that want to promote their own grass-roots plan instead of backing whatever the City Council may put on the ballot.

Austinites for Geographic Representation voted unanimously Monday night to support a plan that would allow election of 10 council members from geographic districts. Only the mayor would continue to be elected at-large if the plan this group advocates gains voter approval.

Meanwhile the city council has initiated a process to formulate its own plan for some form of geographic representation in council elections.

The City Council passed a resolution August 4 that established a 2012 Charter Revision Committee of 15 members to be appointed by August 25. The mayor will appoint three members and each council member will appoint two members.

The resolution directs the Committee to consider the proposed maps that were presented to the council June 9 and meet at least once to consider maps submitted by the public and at least once to discuss its recommendations to the council. The Committee is also directed to seek public input.

Lee LeffingwellMayor Lee Leffingwell has long advocated a new system in which six council members would be elected from districts, and two council members and the mayor would be elected at-large. The council resolution, however, gives the Committee leeway to recommend a map that includes any combination of at-large and geographic representation. The Committee will dissolve after submitting its recommendations due by January 31.

If the petition drive for a City Charter amendment succeeds in garnering the signatures from at least 20,000 of the city’s qualified voters, as required by Local Government Code Section 9.004(a), the plan backed by Austinites for Geographic Representation and the city council’s plan may wind up on the same ballot for voters to decide.

Any election is not likely to occur before November 2012, due to the changes mandated by Senate Bill 100 that preclude holding a city council election in May.

SB 100 authorizes the City of Austin to move its next election to November 6, 2012, and adjust the terms of office to conform to the new election date. Further, SB 100 allows the City of Austin to opt for election of all council members at the same election, superseding City Charter requirements for council elections to be conducted in May and terms to be staggered.

Citizen plan minimizes politics

Austinites for Geographic Representation wants to take the council out of the equation for drawing district boundaries and put that power in the hands of an Independent Citizen Redistricting Commission.

Steve Bickerstaff
Steve Bickerstaff

The procedures the Commission would follow were drafted by attorney Robert S. “Steve” Bickerstaff, modeled on the California Citizens Redistricting Commission that took over the responsibility for drawing the state’s 177 legislative, congressional, and Board of Equalization districts after voters amended the California Constitution in 2008.

Austinites for Geographic Representation intend to make the Independent Citizen Redistricting Commission part of its petition for changing the Austin City Charter.

If the petition drive succeeds in getting the measure on the ballot and voters approve, it would be the City Council’s responsibility to pass an ordinance to establish the Commission.

Advocates say creating an Independent Citizen Redistricting Commission to draw boundaries for council districts should increase the chances for success at the polls, where voters have failed to approve various plans for council districts at six previous elections between 1973 and 2002.

Growing grass-roots coalition

A diverse group of citizens held its first meeting February 26 at Huston-Tillotson University. The group, which adopted the name Austinites for Geographic Representation, also met July 19, August 9, and August 22.

On August 22, the group voted 20-0 to support a petition drive for 10 council districts with the mayor elected at-large. (This is a change from the group’s initial position taken in February, when it backed 10 council districts with the mayor and two council members elected at large.)

Leaders from each of these organizations were allowed one vote: The Travis County Republican and Green parties, Austin Tejano Democrats, LULAC District 7, LULAC District 12, Gray Panthers of Austin, University of Texas student government, Austin Community College, Del Valle ISD board of trustees, Del Valle Community Coalition, ChangeAustin.org, Texans for Accountable Government, Battle Bend Springs Home Owners Association, North Austin Coalition of Neighborhoods, and Responsible Growth for Northeast Austin.

The coalition also allowed some individuals to vote because of their ongoing commitment and/or expertise, including Peck Young of the Center for Public Policy and Political Studies, who has been involved in political consulting and redistricting issues for decades; Stacy Suits, who ran two campaigns for single-member districts in the 1980s; 2011 council candidate Kris Bailey; and Professor Michael Hirsch, PhD, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Huston-Tillotson University, who moderated several of the group’s meetings.

Other organizations that have participated in some or all of the group’s meetings but did not vote include the League of Women Voters of the Austin Area,  League of Women Voters of Texas, Austin Neighborhoods Council, Oak Hill Association of Neighborhoods, El Concilio, Austin Center for Peace and Justice, Better Austin Today Political Action Committee, Libertarian Party, Austin NAACP, as well as numerous unaffiliated individuals.

Peck Young
Peck Young

“Austin is unique because of the findings by two federal judges that Austin’s at-large system has resulted in African Americans and Latinos winning seats on the council,” Young said. That only reinforces the necessity for any map drawn for Austin council districts to be able to gain Department of Justice approval.

Young presented maps and a chart that he said prove it is not possible to draw a map with eight council districts that would provide an adequate opportunity for election of an African American council member, but 10 districts will do so. The same materials showed the likelihood of being able to elect three Latino council members. Having four minority seats on the 10-member council would equate to 40 percent of the council districts, and mirror the combined African American and Latino population of Austin (42.8 percent according to City of Austin Demographic Profile).

The map Young presented will not be made part of the petition drive but was persuasive in the group’s decision to back a 10-district plan.

The petition would seek voter approval for a charter change that would cause the City Council to establish the Independent Citizen Redistricting Commission. The Commission would draw the map.

Independent Citizen Redistricting Commission

Attorney Bickerstaff, who founded the Austin-based Bickerstaff Heath law firm in 1980, is retired from private practice and is currently an adjunct professor of law at the University of Texas where he teaches election law.He is author of Lines in the Sand (2007), a book about the controversial 2003 congressional redistricting in Texas; co-author of Election Principles (2009); and author of 25 law journal articles dealing primarily with election law and telecommunications regulation. His firm represented the city and school district on redistricting issues for 30 years.

On Monday night Bickerstaff briefed Austinites for Geographic Representation via audio hook-up, noting that districts are usually drawn by legislative bodies that are keenly interested in protecting incumbents. A key example of that phenomenon is how the Texas Legislature recently carved Travis County into multiple districts for representation in the U.S. Congress and the Texas Senate.

“The California Citizens Redistricting Commission was designed to prevent partisan or incumbent influence,” Bickerstaff said. Some 30,000 people applied to serve on that Commission. That number was screened and reduced to 50 and from that pool eight members were picked at random, he said. Those eight chose the remaining six who would serve.

The Commission held 34 public hearings and voted 13-1 to approve a redistricting plan, Bickerstaff said. The result was more competitive districts that preserved geographic areas of interest, he said. However, Republican Party officials and Latino rights organizations have criticized the maps, which could be stalled by a referendum or lawsuit under the Voting Rights Act, the Sacramento Bee reported August 15.

The Independent Citizen Redistricting Commission plan that Bickerstaff drafted for Austin would also have 14 members. To be qualified to serve an applicant must have been continuously registered to vote for five or more years and have voted in two of the last three general elections preceding appointment. Commission members would be ineligible to hold public elective office in the City of Austin for 10 years after being appointed to the commission, and for five years would be ineligible to serve as paid staff or consultant to the city.

The draft Commission plan includes the method to be used to establish the boundaries for council districts. The commission would certify the plan to the City Council. The council may not change the plan, which shall have the force and effect of law once it is approved by the U.S. Department of Justice.

Related stories:

Maps Prove a Select Few Govern Austin: Forty Years of Election History Expose Extent of Disparities, 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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