AGR Cries Foul Over Work Session Votes for Hybrid; Mayor Leffingwell Said Votes Driven by Ballot Deadline
A high-noon rally by a loud crowd of Austinites for Geographic Representation (AGR) pulled no punches in criticizing the Austin City Council for casting a final vote today to put the 8-2-1 plan for electing council members on the same ballot as the 10-1 plan the group got on the ballot through petition.
AGR’s main complaints are that there was no groundswell of support for the 8-2-1 plan; that it goes against the recommendations of the council-appointed 2012 Charter Revision Committee, which recommended the 10-1 plan; and that it adds confusion and competition for voter approval of any form of geographic representation. Previous opportunities to enact some form of geographic representation have been voted down six times between 1973 and 2002.
A secondary issue for AGR is that only the first reading of the ordinance to put the 8-2-1 plan on the ballot was voted on in a regular City Council meeting, while the last two readings were voted on in council work sessions.
Two hours before the press conference, during the morning portion of today’s council work session, Mayor Lee Leffingwell announced that the votes taken in work session were driven by the deadline to approve measures to go on the ballot.
“I know there’s been some discussion about a lack of transparency and the council trying to hide something by acting on second and third readings of this particular item. Let me assure you that has absolutely nothing to do with it,” Leffingwell said. … “In each and every case it was necessitated by the timelines that we’re facing to have all of this stuff wrapped up so that it can be finally approved at our August 16 meeting. That’s the sole reason for doing it this way.
“In addition we had tentatively planned for a special-called meeting on August 9 … but that was not possible because of the availability of a number of council members.”
The Texas Secretary of State’s 2012 Election Dates Calendar indicates the city’s last possible day to order a general election for November 6, 2012, is August 20. Anything the City Council wants on the November 6 ballot must meet that deadline.
The last Austin City Council meeting before that deadline is scheduled for August 16.
The final vote today approved putting the 8-2-1 plan on the November 6 ballot. The motion carried on a vote of 5-1-1. Council Member Mike Martinez voted no. Council Member Bill Spelman, who voted no on both previous readings, was absent.
10-1 plan supporters angry
Attorney Bill Aleshire of Riggs, Aleshire & Ray PC, a former Travis County judge and a vocal supporter of AGR’s 10-1 plan, was first to address reporters at the press conference. (Disclosure: Aleshire is The Austin Bulldog’s attorney in two open-records lawsuits against the City of Austin.)
Standing in the hot sun in front of a crowd of sign-carrying supporters, Aleshire said, “Today we begin the battle for democracy in Austin.
“In an unprecedented broad coalition, over 22,000 registered voters in Austin have joined this battle to make the city council represent all the people in Austin. …
“This is a battle to give every neighborhood representation on the council, instead of letting a little West-Austin fiefdom continue to dominate the council. The system we’ve had in Austin is purely an insiders’ game, dominated by campaign-money bundlers and perpetuation of the little West-Austin fiefdom’s control of council. …
“The mayor and council members from that little West-Austin fiefdom today placed their personal political interest above the cause of democracy. They voted for the insiders’ 8-2-1 plan to tip-toe up to the door of true democratic representation for all, but not go all the way there. That plan keeps the fiefdom’s dominance on the council,” Aleshire said. “8-2-1 is the insiders’ self-preservation plan.”
Next Aleshire took aim at the two council votes for the 8-2-1 plan that took place in work sessions.
“Ironically, the work sessions were set up last year in response to an ongoing criminal investigation of their private one-on-one and two-on-one meetings to discuss the weekly council agenda in secret. After this was exposed, when they took the step toward open government to have their discussions in public, they adopted rules telling the public that the work sessions would be held in the smaller Board and Commission Room (instead of council chambers) so they would not have public input but that they would not take action on items.”
“Work sessions were created just to give the public a chance to see and hear the discussions the council had been having in secret before they voted. So, taxpayers and media, beware, you will never know when this mayor and council will violate their own rules and vote on a matter during a work session. …
“By the sneaky way they adopted the 8-2-1 insiders’ self-preservation plan, they are thumbing their noses at the people and at open government,” Aleshire said.
Retired State Senator Gonzalo Barrientos (D-Austin) chaired the 2012 Charter Revision Committee and has been a staunch supporter of AGR’s 10-1 plan. He also spoke at the press conference.
“It is difficult to believe that, apparently, the 30,000 people who signed the petition are being ignored,” Barrientos said. “It is difficult to believe that the Charter Revision Committee that they appointed has been overlooked and put aside. And believe me the people who were on this committee didn’t do it for their health—they did it for the benefit of the people of Austin.
“It is difficult to believe further that organizations which have endorsed the 10-1 plan for fair representation across the board, groups like the Republicans, Democrats—together would you believe it, in Austin, Texas— the NAACP, LULAC, the League of Women Voters, and so many more wonderful Austin organizations (are being ignored).
“I am … disappointed. However, it is a democracy. They got their deal put on apparently, and the 10-1 plan is going to be voted on by all the people of Austin—and we shall prevail,” Barrientos said, drawing loud cheers from AGR supporters.
With both the 8-2-1 plan and the 10-1 plan set to go on the November 6 ballot, voters will have the opportunity to vote for or against each proposition.
If both plans are approved by more than 50 percent of voters, the one that nets the most votes will prevail.
The 10-1 plan would allow only the mayor to be elected at-large and 10 council members would be elected from geographic districts. In addition, the AGR’s plan would require districts to be drawn by a nonpartisan Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission. The residence address of incumbents could not be considered in drawing the district boundaries.
The 8-2-1 plan calls for the mayor and two council members to be elected at-large—all registered voters could cast ballots for these three positions—in addition to eight council members to be elected from geographic districts in which only district residents could vote. The 8-2-1 plan provides that council districts shall be drawn as directed by ordinance if this proposition prevails.
Although the council could direct by ordinance that an independent commission draw the boundaries of districts, previous council discussions indicate the City Council intends to maintain final approval authority. This gives rise the possibility of gerrymandering districts to protect incumbents, just as the Texas Legislature does.
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