Petition Imminent for Geographic Representation

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Lee Leffingwell
Lee Leffingwell

Petition Launch Imminent to Force Election for Geographic Representation in City Elections

Austinites for Fair Geographic Representation to Promote 10-2-1 Plan for Council Elections

Lee Leffingwell
Lee Leffingwell

Mayor Lee Leffingwell announced in his State of the City speech on February 25 that he wants to see a plan for increasing the size and geographic representation of the city council on the ballot in a November 2012 election.

The mayor’s proposal was only a day old when a group of Austin citizens—including liberals, conservatives and minorities—gathered at Huston-Tillotson University (HTU) to discuss forming a coalition to push its own plan through a petition drive that could get on the ballot this November.

Section 9.004 of the Texas Local Government Code sets the bar: the petition must be “signed by a number of qualified voters of the municipality equal to at least five percent of the number of qualified voters of the municipality or 20,000, whichever number is the smaller.”

A “test” petition drive is scheduled for this Saturday, March 12, from 12-2pm on the south steps of the State Capitol, during an expected big rally to protest the proposed budget cuts in state funding for education.

At the HTU meeting, the group adopted the name Austinites for Geographic Representation, and hopes to recruit volunteers to gather enough signatures to force the City Council to schedule the election.

If the proposition were to get on the ballot and be approved, it would change the electoral system specified in the City Charter. Article II, Section 1 of the Charter states:  The council shall be composed of seven council members who shall … be elected from the city at large.

Linda Curtis
Linda Curtis

The meeting at HTU was organized by Linda Curtis, co-founder of ChangeAustin.org. She has led numerous petition drives to get measures on the ballot.

The program was moderated by Professor Michael Hirsch, PhD, chair of Social and Behavioral Sciences in HTU’s College of Arts and Sciences.

Only about 15 people attended the Saturday meeting, something Curtis said was intentional, so those who attended “could have a conversation.”

Attendees included Peck Young, director of the Center for Public Policy and Political Studies at Austin Community College, and a former political consultant for some four decades; Steve Aleman, president of the Austin Neighborhoods Council, a coalition of neighborhood groups; Steve Speir, a longtime Democratic activist and board member of the Better Austin Today Political Action Committee; Stacy Suits, deputy constable for Travis County Precinct 3; Roger Borgelt, vice president of the Travis County Republican Party; Roscoe Overton, an African American citizen with longtime interest in civil rights; and two candidates for Austin City Council: Chris Nielsen, who is running for Place 3 against incumbent Randi Shade, and Josiah James Ingalls, who’s running for Place 1 against incumbent Chris Riley.

What was discussed

“I’m here to promote accountability and accessibility,” Overton said while recounting his own experiences to the audience.

The group talked about the strengths and shortcomings of the mayor’s proposal for changing the City Charter to accommodate six geographic districts, while having two council members and the mayor elected at-large. That proposal would add two seats to the current seven-member council, increase the elected terms to four years, and shift council elections to be on the ballot in November, when turnout is traditionally higher.

After much discussion, the group voted to petition for a change to the City Charter to have ten council members elected from geographic districts and the mayor and two council members elected at-large. This would add six seats to the City Council. This proposal would not change the length of terms or move the election date, Curtis said in a March 6 interview.

Discussions indicated the group believes a November 2011 referendum would draw more local attention than a November 2012 election that will involve a presidential race and many other federal, state and local offices.

Peck Young
Peck Young

Peck Young suggested the 10-2-1 configuration for the City Council. He said any change in the electoral system must pass muster under the federal Voting Rights Act with the U.S. Justice Department.

“We are obligated by law to make a good-faith effort to include minorities,” he said. That will be difficult because of the demographic shifts that show the African-American population has scattered from its former concentrations. At least 10 council districts would be needed to be accepted as a good-faith effort, he said.

“Quit calling it single-member districts,” Young emphasized. “It’s geographic representation.” He noted that the founding fathers instituted this system in federal offices and the same system applies to offices in the Texas Legislature. “It’s worked for 250 years,” Young said, in a slight exaggeration.

Young said that in an election in Sun City, Arizona, the backers of geographic representation put up posters of the founding fathers to campaign for passage and the measure passed with 81 percent of the voters approving. “Who ain’t going to vote for George Washington?”

Roscoe Overton said, “The current council members are interested in staying with council elections at-large. This initiative comes from local influence—not the council. It’s happening because the community wants change.”

In a February 27 e-mail, Roger Borgelt said the Travis County Republican Party has already stated its support for geographic representation. “We, and I, will be actively supporting the idea,” he said. “Increasing voter participation and interest is essential to creating a truly responsive and open government here.”

Council candidate Chris Nielsen on February 27 said he is “absolutely” in favor of the 10-2-1 plan. “I told people I was running for Place 3 on the council and they wanted to know where that was,” he said, illustrating a belief among some that we already have geographic representation on the council.

Steve Speir said in March 3 e-mail that he believes every member of the Better Austin Today Political Action Committee will support the proposed 10-2-1 form of geographic representation.

In a March 6 interview, Curtis said if voters approve the 10-2-1 proposition, current council members would be prohibited from drawing the boundaries for council districts. Instead, the proposition would require that a commission be appointed to draw them. Strict rules would apply so that anyone serving on the commission would have to agree not to run for mayor or council within a certain number of years, and no city employee could be on the commission, she said.

Past petition drives

Curtis led a petition drive to get a proposition on the ballot in November 1997 that garnered 72 percent voter approval to limit campaign contributions in mayoral and city council elections.

Another of her drives triggered a November 2008 election that resulted in a narrowly defeated proposition that would have prohibited the city from providing financial incentives for retail development, and would have stopped the city from paying any more subsidies to The Domain shopping center.

The Stop Domain Subsidies drive was conducted mainly by paid petitioners, Curtis said.

She thinks a more effective strategy to get the 10-2-1 plan on the ballot, and to get it passed, is to get volunteers from the neighborhood associations and other groups that would see the benefit of, and be likely to vote for, this new form of representation.

She said the petition drive conducted in 2004 and 2005 to recall Mayor Will Wynn netted 36,000 signatures gathered by volunteers. While that was insufficient to get the measure on the ballot (twice as many signatures are needed for a recall as for a charter change), it demonstrated the strong potential for volunteers to drum up the 20,000 valid signatures needed for this effort. “This has greater appeal,” she said. “In 2011 we should see a bigger, badder coalition of support.”

Seventh time a charm?

Austin voters have six times turned down the opportunity to afford geographic representation on the City Council, the last time being in 2002. Proposition 3 that year proposed election of eight council members from districts and two members and the mayor at-large—the same arrangement proposed by Austinites for Fair Geographic Representation. That measure failed 58 percent to 42 percent.

The City Charter may be amended only after two years have elapsed since the previous amendments were approved by voters. The last time voters approved amendments to the charter was in 2006, when Proposition 4, along with other amendments, passed to allow a mayor or council member to serve three terms.

“If you give me 50 volunteers for March 12 we can get this going,” Curtis told those attending the February 26 meeting, referring to the petition drive. “We need a hell of a lot of petitioners to cover the May council election.”

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 sustain this kind of reporting by making a tax-deductible contribution.