Council Puts 10-1 Plan on November Ballot

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Steve Bickerstaff
Steve Bickerstaff

Votes 5-2 on Three Readings to Adopt Petition Language, Votes 4-3 on First Reading to Also Put 8-2-1 on Ballot

 
Corrected Friday, June 29, 2012 11:34am
Corrected Friday, June 29, 2012 1:54pm

At 12:10am this morning, after taking nearly three hours of public testimony, the Austin City Council voted 5-2 (Mayor Lee Leffingwell and Council Member Bill Spelman opposed) to put on the ballot the exact plan long advocated by Austinites for Geographic Representation. The five votes in favor meant the motion made by Council Member Mike Martinez and seconded by Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole passed on all three readings.

The proposal calls for 10 council members to be elected from geographic districts, only the mayor to be elected at large, and an Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission to draw a council districtricting plan that the council would have no choice but to adopt.

At 12:17am the council voted 4-3 (Cole, Martinez and Spelman opposed) to also put on the ballot the 8-2-1 plan. But because the motion did not get five votes, it only passed on first reading and will have to come back to the council—which doesn’t meet again until August 2—for further consideration.

The 8-2-1 plan, sponsored by the mayor and Council Member Chris Riley, would have the mayor and two council members to be elected at-large and eight council members to be elected from geographic districts. This proposal does not include an Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission. Instead,according to the draft ordinance for this agenda item, “The boundaries of geographical single-member council districts shall be drawn by ordinance from time to time.”  Meaning the council districts could be drawn in such a way that the City Council would decide the boundaries.

Assistant City Attorney John Steiner advised the City Council that if two competing propositions are were placed on the ballot for determining how council members will be elected, if and both were to pass with approved by more than 50 percent of the voters, approving, then the one that gets plan with the most votes would prevail.

Austinites for Geographic Representation supporters pushed hard in public testimony to persuade the council to put its measure—and only its measure—on the ballotwithout having to complete its petition drive requiring 20,000 signatures of registered city voters.

But immediately after the votes were taken, campaign leaders including Peck Young, a longtime political consultant, and Linda Curtis, who coordinated the petition drive, said they and others would meet later to discuss whether to go ahead and complete the petition drive and turn in the signatures for validation by the Austin City Clerk.

“AGR needs to talk to itself,” Curtis told The Austin Bulldog.

“We will get together and decide,” Young said. “They may want to do it (finish the petition drive) for safety’s sake.”

The group brought five seven (corrected 11:34am Friday, June 29, 2012) big boxes filled with petitions and carried them into the council chambers during Young’s comments to the City Council to emphasize they were nearing completion of the petition process, to include validation of signatures.

Other ballot measures approved

In other action, the council voted to approve language that would put on the ballot measures to:

• Move the election from May to November (something previously approved for the ballot), provide for council members to serve four-year staggered terms, and to provide that council elections occur in even-numbered years. Council Member Laura Morrison moved to amend the motion to limit council members to two, four-year terms (rather than change the terms to four years and leave the current limit of three terms in effect). The net result is that if voters approve this ballot item, council members could serve a total of eight years, rather than 12. The motion passed on a vote of 5-2 with Morrison and Council Member Kathie Tovo voting no.

• Allow council members to solicit and accept political contributions until the 30th day after the date of the election for the purposes of paying unpaid expenses, reimbursing campaign expenditures from personal funds, and creating an officeholder account. This motion passed on a vote of 6-1 (Tovo opposed).

Council work session discussion

Discussion at the City Council’s work session on Tuesday indicated that Austinites for Geographic Representation has until July 16 to actually submit the petitions to the City Clerk, who has 30 days to rule on whether the petitions are sufficient to place the 10-1 plan and Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission on the ballot for the November 6 election.

Much of Tuesday’s discussion centered on the possible legal hurdles associated with the Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission. Consulting attorney Syd Falk of Bickerstaff Heath Delgado Acosta LLP raised a number of issues, including the Commission being empowered to hire staff, lawyers, and consultants, all of which the City of Austin would be obligated to pay.

“Litigation should be left in the hands of the council,” Falk said.

The Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission procedures include a mandate not to consider the residential addresses of incumbents, Falk noted. He said that might raise the issue of regression in violation of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act if districts are devised that place a minority incumbent out of his district.

Steve Bickerstaff
Steve Bickerstaff

Steve Bickerstaff, founding member of the Bickerstaff firm, a national redistricting expert, and for 20 years an adjunct professor at the University of Texas School of Law, discounted all of Falk’s issues.

He told The Austin Bulldog on Thursday that while Falk has some concerns, “There’s no statute in the State of Texas that prevents adoption of the Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission. None of the concerns that Syd expressed negates any part of the petition or the Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission.”

As an example of what can go wrong when redistricting is under the control of the incumbent council members, Bickerstaff pointed to a September 12, 2011, editorial in the Dallas Morning News, titled, “Dallas redistricting process tainted by politics, back-room dealing.”

“A map approved by the (redistricting) commission last week now awaits full City Council approval. It bears all the marks of a map gerrymandered with sprawling, snakelike boundaries aimed at keeping incumbents in place,” the editorial states.

The is the kind of problem that the proposed Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission is designed to prevent.

AGR press conference

Austinites for Geographic Representation held a press conference just after 4pm Thursday to once again advocate that only the 10-1 plan and Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission be put on the ballot.

The press conference was led by former State Senator Gonzalo Barrientos, who chaired the 2012 Charter Revision Committee that voted 8-7 to recommend the 10-1 plan and Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission.

“I’m here to present 30,000-plus signatures to the council,” Barrientos said, while standing behindfive seven (corrected 11:34am Friday, June 29, 2012) large boxes of petitions that were later shown to the City Council. Barrientos noted that the Austinites for Geographic Representation proposition has been endorsed by 27 organizations and a wide array of citizens.

Barrientos said that some 300 citizens had testified to the Charter Revision Committee during its months of public meetings, and said the overwhelming majority wanted the 10-1 plan.

Regarding the proposal to put an 8-2-1 proposal on the ballot, Barrientos said that plan was on the ballot in 2002 and “lost by 14 points.” (Actually, Proposition 3 on the May 4, 2002, ballot lost by 42 to 58 percent, a difference of 16 points. That was the sixth time that voters had failed to approve some form of geographic representation.)

Amelia Lopez, a board member of the Greater Austin Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, announced at the press conference that the organization also supports the 10-1 plan.

“We want the council to put just one option on the ballot,” Lopez said of the 10-1 plan.

More than two dozen supporters assembled for the press conference, including Nelson Linder, president of NAACP Austin; Roger Borgelt, vice chairman of the Travis County Republican Party; Gavino Fernandez of LULAC District 12; and Francis McIntyre of the League of Women Voters of Austin.

Austin’s two major public safety unions have also endorsed the 10-1 plan and Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission: the Austin Police Association and the Austin Firefighters Association. (For a complete list of endorsements, click here.) (This link is no longer functional.)

Related Bulldog coverage:

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, 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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