One panelist argues for no change to the at-large system for City Council elections
The University of Texas Law School provided the venue for a fourth public debate over the question of whether—or even if—the Austin City Charter should be amended to allow for some form of geographic representation on the Austin City Council.
The September 28 debate was emceed by Sherri Greenberg, a former state representative who is director of UT’s Center for Politics and Governance at the LBJ School of Public Affairs.
All five panelists were members of the 2012 Charter Revision Committee that voted by a narrow 8-7 majority to recommend that 10 council members be elected from geographic districts and only the mayor continue to be elected at-large, that is by all voters.
Ken Rigsbee, an independent oil and energy professional, voted to recommend the 10-1 plan and explained why. “It looked to me like the Charter Revision Committee would have a tie vote, after six months of arguing and debating,” he said. “I voted for 10-1. That doesn’t mean I wanted it—I just wanted to stop the meetings.”
Rigsbee said he told Mayor Lee Leffingwell, who nominated him to serve on the Charter Revision Committee, “I said, ‘Lee, what is it about ‘no’ you don’t understand?’
He was referring to the fact that the voters of Austin had six opportunities between 1973 and 2002 to adopt geographic representation and the majority had always voted no.
“Is it worth spending $2 million for 11 council members vice seven, to force political horse-trading between council members?” Rigsbee asked. “Is it really imperative we do that? My answer is no.” (The city’s assessment of fiscal impact for the four additional council members and their staffs under Propositions 3 or 4 calls for $888,350 for construction and build-out for the additional offices, and an additional ongoing annual cost of $1,396,000 a year.)
The other panelists all agree that the at-large system in use since 1953 must be changed, but disagree on how to do that.
Proposition 3—Attorney Fred Lewis, president of Texans Together, which focuses on building community through civic engagement, and NAACP Austin President Nelson Linder both voted for the 10-1 plan recommended by the Charter Revision Committee.
Proposition 3 includes a nonpartisan Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission that would draw council districts the City Council would have no choice but to adopt. Proposition 3 got on the ballot through a petition drive conducted by Austinites for Geographic Representation (AGR). See Ordinance No. 20120802-015.
Proposition 4—Attorney Richard Jung of Jung Ko PLLC and Fred McGhee, PhD, of Fred L. McGhee and Associates Inc. voted against the 10-1 plan and favor the hybrid 8-2-1 plan that was put on the ballot by the City Council.
Under this plan, council districts would be drawn as directed by an ordinance to be issued if this plan is implemented. The group advocating for Proposition 4 is Austin Community for Change (AC4C). See Ordinance No. 20120807-B003.
If both Proposition 3 and 4 win voter approval the one that garners the most votes will be implemented, subject to approval by the U.S. Department of Justice under the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Proposition 3 advocates
Linder said there is an east-west divide in Austin and the eastside suffers from poverty and lack of growth. These are issues that must be addressed and would be if people were elected from the neighborhoods familiar with the problems.
Under the current at-large system of electing council members, Linder said, “poverty is not even part of the conversation.”
“We’re calling for a system that is fair, balanced, equal, and allows all citizens to participate,” he said.
Lewis said that U.S. Congressional Districts currently represent about 700,000 people, while Austin’s at-large City Council members represent a population of 820,000.
“I say they represent nobody,” Lewis said. “The current system is broken. It was designed for a small town 50 years ago and it is based on racism.”
He was referring the City Charter change of 1953 that was designed to block the election of minorities, and did so for nearly two decades. It was implemented after NAACP President Arthur DeWitty ran for a council seat in 1951. He placed eighth at a time when all candidates ran in one group and the top five vote-getters were seated on the council.The first minority member, African American Berl Handcox, was not elected until 1971. The first Latino, John Trevino Jr., was elected in 1975.
Proposition 3 includes a Citizens Redistricting Commission, Lewis said, adding that the 8-2-1 plan put forth as Proposition 4 has “no plan” for drawing council districts, thus allowing the possibility of gerrymandering (“a practice that attempts to establish a political advantage for a particular party or group by manipulating geographic boundaries…”).
The Commission plan, which attorney Steve Bickerstaff drafted and which Lewis later revised, “worked well in California and the League of Women Voters (Austin) likes it,” he said. He said the 2012 Charter Review Committee voted 12-2 in favor of having a Commission draw council districts.
“Proposition 4 has no criteria, no process” (for drawing districts). “There’s no place in the United States where politicians have enacted fair districts,” he said. “If you like the current council, you may think they’ll do a great job. A later council may not be your friends.”
Proposition 4 advocates
“We’re here in an institution of higher learning,” McGhee said. “We can dispense with some of the demagoguery.”
He said the current at-large system is no longer workable or fair.
“We agree with the Proposition 3 proponents on the need for change,” he said. “We support the hybrid system, the best of both worlds.”
McGhee said the two at-large seats for council members in the 8-2-1 plan would provide better constituent service, and citizens would be able to vote for not just two council members (a mayor and a district representative) but four (a mayor, and three council members).
“We need as a community to come to judgment as to whether to do this and how.,” McGhee said.
Jung said he got involved in these issues after being appointed to the Charter Revision Committee to represent Asian Americans, going in as a “relative newbie” and learning the process.
“I realized that the Asian-American community, if it wanted representation sympathetic to its needs, it needs an at-large representative to go to.”
As for electing an Asian American, “We can pool our votes to affect the process,” he said.
Jung said the hybrid plan provides “checks and balances” as the city moves from the “antiquated at-large system.”
Greenberg asked the panelists to address the question of whether having council districts would boost voter participation.
Lewis said it would, because having fewer constituents would make it easier to run a grassroots campaign and make it easier to get to know one’s council member.
Rigsbee said people vote on the things they believe are important or that affects their business or finances. “That’s why we see higher voter turnout in West Austin,” where many are affluent or own a business. He said he didn’t believe that having council districts would increase turnout.
McGhee agreed, pointing to a study published on the AC4C website that indicates district design has a minimal effect on turnout. “Moving the election to November will change the turnout,” he said. (That option is on the ballot under Propositions 1 and 2.)
Greenberg asked if the panelists support moving elections from May to November.
Jung said moving the election would lower costs and increase participation. Like McGhee he said having council districts would not in itself raise voter participation rates.
Lewis said that AGR “took no position on Propositions 1 and 2 to move the elections.” He noted that the Charter Revision Committee also did not advocate to do so, but agreed voters should be allowed to decide.
“Right now, all the energy is spent on people in the central city, southwest, and northwest to get out the vote. Nobody works the other side of I-35,” he said. “If you spent time and cared whether they came out and voted, they will come out. But we spend very little time and money on them.”
Rigsbee said people had “just as much a right not to vote. Getting out the vote is not the answer to problems.”
Lewis replied that it’s unhealthy to have areas that do not participate in voting, calling it a “disaster for the community.” In Europe, there’s no difference in voting among races and classes, he said.
Q: There is some concern about having two plans for geographic representation on the same ballot. Should people should vote for both?
Proposition 3: “The only time the council gives a choice is when they want confusion,” Lewis said, as in 1992 when the council put on the ballot an ordinance as an alternative to the Save Our Springs Ordinance, which got on the ballot through a petition drive. (Voters approved the SOS ordinance, Proposition 1, by 64-36 percent and defeated the alternative Proposition 2 by 65-35 percent.)
Lewis noted the 10-1 plan was supported by 30 community organizations and “now we have another plan. The point is for voters to be confused.”
Proposition 4: Jung said that Lewis “has a certain view of the council and powers that be” that makes the 8-2-1 plan seem like some kind of “conspiracy.” He noted that it took the council three separate readings on three separate days to get the measure on the ballot. “We moved to 8-2-1 by lobbying,” Jung said.
Proposition 3: Linder injected “We have 33,000 signatures to be on the ballot—they didn’t.”
Proposition 4: To which McGhee replied, “You think because you worked hard you accomplished something.”
Q: Would you be happy with either plan?
Proposition 3: Linder said, “If 8-2-1 wins—and I think it won’t—we will go to court.” He said that hybrid systems have been found illegal in court cases.
Proposition 4: McGhee replied, “We’re at the law school. People are not impressed with the threat of a lawsuit.”
Jung said, “I disagree strongly with Nelson. Under Sections 2 or 5 of the Voting Rights Act, Austin will pass with an 8-2-1 system, because Austin managed—ironically through the gentlemen’s agreement—to elect minorities. … “Hybrids exist all around the country, and they are not struck down unless there is retrogression in the system you change to.”
Proposition 3: Lewis countered, saying there is a “serious problem with 8-2-1. We currently have two minorities. The two at-large council seats are not likely to be won by minorities. They are for the affluent who vote in greater rates.”
He said there would be no opportunity district for an African American with only eight geographic districts.
Q: How will the UT campus fit under either of the two plans? asked UT student John Lawler, who has been an AGR participant.
Proposition 4: Jung noted that the Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission provided that one of its members would be a student. He said that it was an “odd requirement for a student to be a commissioner” when no other group is afforded a seat.
Proposition 3: Lewis said the Commission plan was intended to provide a student member so that issues of interest to students could be addressed. “In an at-large system students are a small fish in a big pond.”
Q: Where did the 8-2-1 plan came from?
Proposition 4: Jung said AC4C is a grassroots organization that grew out of the Charter Revision Committee. AC4C does not like the other choices of staying with the all-at-large system or going to the “extreme 10-1 plan,” which may involve “NIMBYism” (not in my back yard) and “ward politics.”
Proposition 3: Lewis related the results of the Charter Revision Committee. He said the mayor’s proposal for a 6-2-1 plan got zero votes. The 10-1 plan got eight votes, a majority, while the minority seven votes favored the 10-2-1 plan. “The 8-2-1 plan came from the council and political consultants.”
Proposition 4: “Peck Young is a political consultant,” Jung said of an unpaid advisor the AGR group. “We’re citizens advocating for a plan—it’s not driven by consultants.”
McGhee noted that two people gave AGR two-thirds of its money. “That’s their grassroots,” he said.
Greenberg used McGhee’s remark to close the meeting, saying, “These are issues these people feel very strongly about.”
Related Bulldog coverage: This is The Austin Bulldog’s 28th article covering issues and activities pertaining to the proposed changes to the Austin City Charter.