Council Backers of 8-2-1 Plan Accused of Self-Interest

HomeCity of AustinCity CouncilCouncil Backers of 8-2-1 Plan Accused of Self-Interest

But Facts Don’t Seem to Substantiate Such a Claim, as Related Actions May Bar Most Incumbents From Reelection

Lee Leffingwell
Lee Leffingwell

At the August 2 City Council meeting, what was expected to be a pro-forma exercise in putting on the November 6 ballot a proposition qualified by citizen petition drive was sidetracked by some heated words aimed at Mayor Lee Leffingwell.

But where there is heat there is sometimes also light.

The light was shed on the question of whether the five City Council members who favor the 8-2-1 plan (Mike Martinez and Bill Spelman opposed) are acting out of self-interest to increase their chances of staying in office.

The reality is that a separate proposed charter amendment—which the council already approved to go on the November ballot—if approved by voters would disqualify all but one incumbent from running for reelection (more about that later).

That is, unless a term-limited incumbent chooses to get on the ballot through a petition drive by gathering the signatures of at least five percent of registered voters. That’s how Council Members Jackie Goodman, Beverly Griffith, and Daryl Slusher all got on the ballot one last time in 2002.

Austinites for Geographic Representation’s successful petition drive made double-sure that the 10-1 plan—which includes an Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission to draw council districts the council would have no choice but to adopt—would go on the November ballot. (The council already voted to do that June 28, in recognition of the near-certainty that the petition drive launched last October would be successful in gathering enough signatures to get on the ballot.)

As expected, after listening to citizen comments last Thursday the council voted 7-0 to put AGR’s proposition on the ballot.

But some AGR backers made stinging remarks that Mayor Lee Leffingwell more than once tried to deflect by asking speakers to stick to the posted agenda item, the 10-1 AGR plan.

AGR has been waging a campaign to pressure the City Council to not put the 8-2-1 plan on the ballot. Some AGR members tried to criticize the 8-2-1 plan when addressing the council at last Thursday’s meeting. They were reeled in to some extent by Mayor Leffingwell, who wanted speakers to limit their comments to the posted agenda item for AGR’s plan.

Leslie Aisenman of the Austin Gray Panthers, and also an AGR volunteer, said, the “8-2-1 is a system that retains at-large seats and provides a continuing power base for the traditional power precincts of the central city and west side”—at which point Leffingwell interrupted and told him to confine his remarks to the posted agenda item.

Aisenman would not back off and told the mayor, “The despotic manner in which you try to control debate is in conflict with the basic elements of democracy.”

When Aisenman’s time was up, Leffingwell told him to step away from the podium, which drew another retort.

“You took my time—that’s despotic,” Aisenman said.

At which point Council Member Bill Spelman invited Aisenman to finish his remarks.

Which he did by saying, “The political godfather of 8-2-1, David Butts, stated before the City Council last month, placing both the 10-1 and 8-2-1 on the same ballot will result not in an up or down vote on either of them … but will probably condemn both—which is clearly the intent in retaining the system we have now.”

Nevertheless a final vote to put the 8-2-1 plan on the November 6 ballot is scheduled for tomorrow’s council work session that begins at 10am. Public comments will be allowed.

AGR has scheduled a noon press conference in front of City Hall tomorrow as well, to criticize the City Council for voting for the 8-2-1 plan twice during work sessions instead of at regularly scheduled Thursday council meetings.

AGR allegations of self-interest

AGR supporters have alleged that council backers of the 8-2-1 plan are, in effect, rigging the system to give themselves the option of running for reelection in either a geographic district or one of the two at-large seats.

That allegation springs from the fact that Council Members Laura Morrison and Chris Riley live about two-thirds of a mile from each other, as do Council Members Bill Spelman and Kathie Tovo.

So, the AGR contention goes, it would be difficult, maybe impossible without some gerrymandering, to draw boundaries for council districts that did not put Morrison and Riley in the same district and Spelman and Tovo in the same district.

Thus, the two at-large council member seats proposed by the 8-2-1 plan would give these incumbents—if they should wind up in the same districts—the option to run for one of the at-large seats instead of running against each other or moving to a different district.

Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole took exception to that claim. She asked Assistant City Attorney John Steiner to explain the effect of a separate city charter amendment that the council already voted to put on the ballot.

Term length, term limits changes everything

Steiner said that proposition, which the council approved June 28, would if approved by voters change the present system of three-year terms with a limit of three terms, to a system of four-year terms with a limit of two terms. It would also move elections from May to November of even-numbered years and provide for staggered council terms.

Because the mayor and all but one of the council members are now serving a second term (Laura Morrison, Bill Spelman) or a third term (Sheryl Cole, Mike Martinez), the effect of voters approving this proposition would be to bar all incumbents except Kathie Tovo, who was elected in 2011 and is serving her first term, and possibly Riley, from running for reelection.

The council members presumably realized that giving voters the option to limit council members to two terms could shorten their political careers, as there is no provision in Ordinance 20120628-091 to exempt current council members.

Which undercuts the AGR claim that 8-2-1 backers are acting out of self-interest.

That is, unless putting the 8-2-1 on the ballot is viewed as a cynical ploy to undermine the 10-1 plan, ensure both plans are defeated, and maintain the status quo.

Riley a special case

Riley’s political fate hinges on the interpretation of a provision in City Charter Article II, Section 3(B), which states:

“…a person who has held a position other than Mayor for more than two years of a term to which some other person was elected to the position may not be elected to a position other than Mayor more than twice in succession.”

Riley was first elected May 9, 2009 to serve out the unexpired term of Leffingwell in Place 1. Leffingwell, who was reelected to Place 1 in 2008, had two years left on his term when he ran for and was elected mayor in 2009.

Riley won Place 1 reelection May 14, 2011—two years and five days from his first election.

The council members who won election in 2009 were sworn in June 22, 2009 at a special-called meeting of the Austin City Council.

Council members who won election in 2011 were sworn in June 28, 2011 at a special-called meeting of the Austin City Council—two years and six days from Riley’s first swearing in.

Thus it appears that Riley will have served two terms and would be ineligible to run for reelection if voters approve the change to a limit of two terms.

The larger issue of self-interest

It can be argued that if the City Council members were only interested in their political futures they would never have advocated some form of geographic representation.

Mayor Leffingwell and Council Member Martinez, for example, have been advocating for geographic representation for years.

In appointing the 2012 Charter Revision Committee the council explicitly asked it to explore the question of geographic representation. That committee voted to recommend the 10-1 plan.

The bottom line is that this is a council that—like the grassroots AGR group—is pushing for geographic representation.

If voters should approve one of these two plans for geographic representation in November—a big if, given six defeats in the past—it will likely open the political process and diminish the influence of central city voters who have for the past four decades dominated the outcome of every mayoral election and most council elections.

If voters approve the proposition to move elections to November, implement four-year staggered terms, and limit service to two terms, it will effectively end the city political careers of all but one council member.

That doesn’t seem like a council bent on preserving self-interest.

The only caveat is that if the 8-2-1 plan should win voter approval and garner more votes than the 10-1 plan, the council will decide how council districts are drawn. And that will inevitably bring into play the possibility of gerrymandering lines to benefit incumbents.

But then, if voters limit council members to two terms, only one incumbent appears to be eligible to run again.

Related Bulldog coverage:

8-2-1 Near Certain to Go on Ballot: City Council Votes on Second Reading to Put Competition Election Plan on Ballot, July 31, 2012

10-1 Plan Qualifies for November Ballot: Consultant Estimates That 22,435 Signatures Are Valid; Austinites for Geographic Representation Readies for Battle, July 26, 2012

Petition Completed for 10-1 Council Districts: Austinites for Geographic Representation Claims 33,000 Signatures, of Which About 22,800 Are Considered Valid, July 16, 2012

Council Puts 10-1 Election Plan on November Ballot: Votes 5-2 on Three Readings to Adopt Petition Language, Votes 4-2 on First Reading to Also Put 8-2-1 on Ballot, June 29, 2012

Citizens Group to Make Final Petition Push Austinites for Geographic Representation Claims to Have 17,000 Signatures, and Shoots for 13,000 More, June 4, 2012

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: Lobbyists Can Only Give Candidates $25 But Can Collect Unlimited Contributions For Them, 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: Resolution Ensures Citizens Initiative Won’t Force May 2012 Charter Election, 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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