Committee Debates How to Elect Council

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Lee Leffingwell
Lee Leffingwell

Charter Revision Committee Divided Over Pure Districts vs. Hybrid System

Correction posted Tuesday, January 10, 2012 6am
Lee Leffingwell
Lee Leffingwell

Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell was the first of many people to address the 15-member Charter Revision Committee last Thursday, calling for unity in getting behind whatever recommendation is made concerning some form of geographic representation in the election of City Council members.

“What is important is that all of us who support geographic representation be on the same page,” Leffingwell said. “Otherwise whatever we propose will not pass.”

Leffingwell urged the committee to strike a compromise for a unified proposal that everyone who supports geographic representation could get behind and support with great enthusiasm.

“We may not get a chance to do this again for a very long time if what we put on the table fails,” he said.

It’s been a decade since the May 2002 election in which voters last rejected a proposal. Proposition 3 on that ballot was the sixth attempt to gain voter approval for some form of electing council members from districts. Like many previous attempts, the plan offered would have created eight geographic districts. But this time the measure added two council member slots to be elected at-large, along with the mayor at-large. The proposition failed 42 percent to 58 percent.

Although nearly every member of the current Charter Revision Committee favors some form of geographic representation in council elections, the mayor’s lofty goal of  achieving unity in the committee’s recommendation appears difficult if not impossible to achieve.

At a three-plus-hour meeting January 5, individual committee members became more vocal than ever in taking a strong public stance about whether they favored the 10-1 proposal being petitioned for by Austinites for Geographic Representation or some hybrid plan that would allow citizens to cast ballots for some of the council members to be elected citywide in addition to establishing geographic districts.

The 10-1 plan petition includes a requirement to establish a nonpartisan Independent Citizen Redistricting Commission that would draw 10 council districts that the Austin City Council would have no choice but to adopt. Under this plan only the mayor would continue to be elected at-large.

Any other plan put on the ballot by the City Council may not have an independent districting commission. Committee Chair Gonzalo Barrientos, a former state senator, said the normal procedure is to appoint a commission that draws the lines with expert assistance from attorneys. Critics of that method say it allows the incumbents to draw boundaries that favor their reelection.

Ultimately the U.S. Department of Justice must approve any change in the election system for compliance with the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Advocates for the 10-1 plan

Committee members stated a variety of reasons for getting behind one option or the other. Latino advocates for the 10-1 plan, under which only the mayor would be elected by all citizens, were adamant and blunt.

The Latino population of Austin is 35.1 percent, according to the 2010 census, but there has never been more than one Latino on the council at a time, except from November 2001 to June 2003 when Mayor Gus Garcia was elected to serve out the unexpired term of Mayor Kirk Watson, who had resigned, and Raul Alvarez was a council member.

Kathleen Vale reminded committee members that it took 20 years for the Austin City Council get voter approval to construct the Emma S. Barrientos Mexican American Cultural Center—the facility in which they were meeting—and said she wanted to see the first Latina elected. “There were too many negotiations and settling for less than we deserve,” Vale said of getting the Center built. “That’s the past. We remain informed by it, not mired in it. I commit my total support for the 10-1 plan.”

Fred Cantu said the Charter Revision Committee was representative of the city while the current city council is not. He reminded others that legislative staff attorney Luis Figueroa of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund office in San Antonio has endorsed a plan for electing all council members from single-member (geographic) districts. Attorney David Richards of Richards Rogers & Skeith LLP of Austin, who for many decades has been involved in election district legalities, “heartily” endorses the concept of single-member district representation and the 10-1 plan. (To see the Figueroa endorsement letter, click here. To see the Richards endorsement letter, click here.)

“We’ve been fighting this fight for a long time and we deserve more representation on the council,” Cantu said. “If you don’t pay attention to us now we’ll see you in the courthouse.” That’s a reminder that the city’s at-large system has been challenged in federal court at least twice. Although both of those cases failed, another lawsuit would present a new complication.

Committee member Nelson Linder, president of Austin NAACP, raised issues that he said are not being adequately addressed by the current at-large system, including unemployment in East Austin and the lack of affordable housing that’s causing African Americans to move to places like Pflugerville. The 10-1 plan “addresses our issues equally and geographic representation would force a new conversation on the City Council,” he said.

Ken Rigsbee, a resident of southwest Austin, said there’s nothing discriminatory about the current at-large system. “Nothing prevents me from finding a candidate and getting him elected. We have demonstrated we are apathetic.” But if change is coming to the election system, he said, “The most fair solution would be the 10-1 system. I don’t like hybrid systems.”

Delores Lenzy-Jones said, “I am surprised at the polarization (of this committee). “I moved to support the 10-1 plan primarily on the merits presented by citizens and experts. The mayor said he would support 11 council members.”

Advocates for some at-large seats

Advocates for having some council members elected by all voters were passionate in their arguments, too.

Margaret Menicucci noted that a mixed system was not unprecedented locally, as Austin Community College trustees are elected with some from districts and some at-large. (Deleted incorrect information. See comment from ACC Trustee Guadalupe Sosa, below.) SheMargaret Menicucciaddressed a concern of those who oppose retention of at-large seats. “I challenge that,” she said. “The district plan will get more voter participation and distribute power around the city.”

Committee member David Butts, a longtime political consultant who has worked in many of the previous attempts to change how council members are elected, provided a note of caution about what’s put on the ballot. “Thirty-five percent will vote against any change. I believe we should go with the middle path and I think voters will support that,” he said.

Butts said past ballot measures to change the method of electing council members were ill funded, were opposed by the Austin American-Statesman and the Chamber of Commerce, and were voted down.

“We need some sort of compromise. If you want single-member districts you can get them. If we put two propositions on the ballot they will lose. If we put one on the ballot and unify we can win,” Butts said.

Butts was allluding to the fact that Austinites for Geographic Representation’s petition drivecurrently underwayfor a 10-1 plan with an Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission is very likely to wind up on the ballot in November 2012, given the history of successful petition drives led by coordinator Linda Curtis. If the City Council does not adopt that plan and puts its own on the ballot, then voters will get to decide which—or neither—plan to support.

Having two plans on the ballot could play out like a high-profile election 20 years ago. The August 8, 1992, election pitted the Save Our Springs Ordinance (Proposition 1)—which got on the ballot through a petition drive—against the plan backed by the council majority (Proposition 2). The Save Our Springs Ordinance won by a 64-36 percent margin while the council alternative failed by a 35-65 percent margin.

Committee member Susan Moffat said she has two gay sisters and believes at-large seats give gay and Asian American citizens—both of which are widely dispersed throughout the city and might not muster a strong presence in a geographic council district—the best chance for electing one of their own. Randi Shade, Austin’s first openly gay council member, was elected under the current at-large system in 2008 and served one term.

Moffat also touted at-large council seats as a relief valve, someone else to go to, if a citizen feels ill-served by their district’s elected council member.

Richard Jung, who has been a strong voice for Asian American representation throughout the committee’s work, said having some at-large seats as the best opportunity for an Asian American candidate to be elected again. Jennifer Kim, the first and only Asian American to win a council seat, was elected under the current at-large system in 2005 and served a single three-year term.

Committee Vice Chair Ann Kitchen, a former state representative, said, “The Asian community would like to see super (districts) or at-large districts and I don’t see how any harm to that from advocates of the 10-1 plan.”

Other at-large-seat backers have said that members elected at large would be responsible for taking a view of the city’s needs as a whole rather than narrowly focusing on just their district.

Ted Siff said that changing council elections from all at-large under the present system to all-districts under the 10-1 plan was an extreme change. “Who in a single-member district system would represent the whole community’s interest?”

This point of view drew strong rebuttals from two citizens who testified. Both are members of Austinites for Geographic Representation.

Debbie Russell, the District 2 trustee on the Del Valle ISD school board, said, “I represent the whole district with special interest in my district. … It’s insulting to say I don’t care about my entire (school) district.”

Peck Young, a longtime political consultant who for decades worked in drawing election district maps, was even more pungent: “The idea that if you are elected by 10 percent (of the voters) you are narrow-minded and if you’re elected by 50 percent you are broadminded is the stupidest idea I ever heard of.”

Siff, who has been involved in publishing for many years, summed up the committee’s divided positions like this: “If I was a reporter I could report this two different ways. I could say this committee is horribly split between two different plans. Another way is to report that 13 of 15 committee members have strongly advocated for change.”

Related stories:

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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