Proposed City Charter Amendments

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Linda Curtis
Linda Curtis

City Council to Consider Proposal to Create Geographic Representation

Election Dates, Term Lengths, Redistricting and Other Charter Changes in Council Resolution

Geographic representation for the citizens of Austin is being driven from the top down and the bottom up. The Austin City Council is squeezed in the middle and trotting out its own proposal at today’s council meeting.

The pressure from the top comes from bills pending in the Texas Legislature that would force the city to form at least six single-member districts for the May 2012 election, when the mayor and three council members will be up for reelection.

The bottom-up pressure comes from the possible petition drive that if successful could result in a citizen-driven plan for geographic representation of council members to be put on the ballot this November or the following May.

Barring interference from the legislation or an earlier election forced by a successful petition drive, the city’s proposal is geared to be on the ballot in November 2012.

The Austin City Council is scheduled to vote today on a resolution that would direct the city manager to prepare draft City Charter amendments to accomplish a range of reforms. Among these are adding geographic representation to the council, consisting of six members elected from districts, with the mayor and two members elected at-large.

The resolution further directs: moving municipal elections from May to be held in November of odd-numbered years; increasing the term of office from three years to four years; and eliminating staggered terms, so that all council members would be elected once every four years (except for special elections for unexpired terms).

Charter changes for geographic representation on the council have been on the ballot six times and failed six times.

Broad support for council districts

On March 7 The Austin Bulldog reported on the first meeting of Austinites for Fair Geographic Representation, which resolved to attract a coalition of organizations that would work on a petition drive to get a charter amendment on the ballot for 10 geographic council districts, with the mayor and two council members to be elected at-large. Groups represented at that meeting included ChangeAustin.org, the Austin Neighborhoods Council, the Better Austin Today Political Action Committee, and the Travis County Republican Party. Peck Young, director of the Center for Public Policy and Political Studies at Austin Community College, also participated.

Linda Curtis
Linda Curtis

“I’m not sure all the groups coming together want super districts,” Linda Curtis, co-founder of ChangeAustin.org, said Tuesday. Some think 10 council seats from districts are not enough. A lot of discussions are going on.” Consequently, no petition drive has been launched.

She said that putting council districts on the November 2012 ballot would doom passage, as the charter changes would be lost at the bottom of a very long ballot and drowned out by the publicity devoted to the high-profile partisan politics of a presidential election.

And if the plan did pass, Curtis said, it may not provide for districts small enough to achieve one of the main goals of geographic representation: making districts small enough to enable a viable low-cost election campaign.

The Austin population as of April 1 was 812,025, according to the City of Austin’s Demographics website. Six districts would require each council member to serve more than 135,000 citizens. Ten districts would lower than number of about 81,000 per council district.

Curtis has been doing historical research about council election systems and posting related articles on her organization’s website. One is titled, “The Sordid History of Fair Geographic Representation in Austin,” which details not only the history but the political and economic consequences of the current system. One of the overarching arguments in the article is that minority representation has been achieved, but the white majority has always determined which minority council members are elected.

Marcelo Tafoya
Marcelo Tafoya

Marcelo Tafoya is the immediate past director of LULAC District 12 in East Austin and has been a volunteer with the organization for 33 years. Of the city’s proposed system of six geographic districts, Tafoya said, “It will never work,” because there will be too few districts to assure minority representation.  “No matter what, the minority population must be represented.”

The decline in the African-American population and the dispersal of the remaining black population, makes drawing a district that could be won by an African American problematic. The fewer the districts, the more difficult it becomes.

Both LULAC, the League of United Latin American Citizens, and MALDEF, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, support geographic representation.

Luis Figueroa, an attorney with MALDEF’s San Antonio office, said, “It’s always been a struggle to get districts.” He said the bills pending the legislature to force the City of Austin to enact council districts face an uphill battle, because of the lack of support by local lawmakers.

“We think it’s the right thing to do. Austin is the only city that size without single-member districts,” Figueroa said. “We think efforts should be made to assure African American and Latino representation.”

Attorney Roger Borgelt of Borgelt Law, a solo practitioner and vice president of the Travis County Republican Party, said that organization supports geographic districts. He, too, is skeptical about the city council’s proposal to have six geographic council districts. “If they insist on six districts, I think it’s doomed,” he said.

Frances McIntyre is serving her third term as president of the Austin League of Women Voters and has been a member of the organization for 40 years.

“We have advocated for a combination of at-large and single-member districts,” McIntyre said. “We feel that’s the best representation for the city. We have advocated every time it’s come up to the council since the 1970s.”

McIntyre said the League has not evaluated any specific plan currently under consideration. “If a plan comes up with single-member districts and at-large seats, we will look at it and decide whether we can support it.”

Anita Privett handles advocacy for the Texas League of Women Voters. She, too, wants Austin to adopt geographic representation. “I don’t have a feeling for one plan over another, I just want single-member districts,” she said. “I want someone to call when I have a problem instead of having to call all the council members in hopes I’d find someone interested in my area.”

But who draws the map?

The City Council’s plan for implementing geographic districts calls for the council to appoint a seven-member Redistricting Commission. The city staff would deliver a proposed map of geographic districts and the Redistricting Commission would be vested with the authority to approve a final map. If the commission fails to approve a final map, that authority would transfer to a three-member Redistricting Review Board composed of the mayor, mayor pro tem, and the elected chair of the commission.

Linda Curtis of ChangeAustin.org thinks there’s a better and fairer way for council districts to be drawn. To that end, she enlisted the help of an someone with deep experience in these issues.

Steve Bickerstaff
Steve Bickerstaff

Attorney Steve Bickerstaff founded the law firm of Bickerstaff and Heath in 1980. He retired after 35 years to live in the mountains of West Texas but continues as an active member of the adjunct faculty of the University of Texas School of Law. He is author of Lines in the Sand (2007), a book about the controversial 2003 congressional redistricting in Texas; co-author of Election Principles (2009); and author of 25 law journal articles dealing primarily with election law and telecommunications regulation. His firm represented the city and school district on redistricting issues for 30 years, he said.

Bickerstaff successfully defended the City of Austin’s at-large election system three times in the 1980s, he said, adding the city had previously succeeded in defending the at-large system in the 1970s.

“I’m not interested in defending the at-large system now,” Bickerstaff said. “I don’t think there’s any question that the at-large system is lawful. It’s been challenged and it’s been upheld.”

Bickerstaff drafted an Ordinance Creating the Citizens Redistricting Commission and an accompanying Independent Citizen Redistricting Commission for the City of Austin. Both are modeled on California Proposition 11, also known as the Voters First Act. This amendment to the California Constitution took the responsibility for redrawing the boundaries of the state’s 120 legislative districts away from the legislature and created the California Citizens Redistricting Commission. Enacted in 2008, the current 2011 redistricting process will be the first time to employ this Commission.

Under Bickerstaff’s draft ordinance the Austin City Auditor would be responsible for overseeing a selection process that would result in an impartial way of establishing an applicant pool for the Citizens Redistricting Commission. It contains extensive rules that bar applicants who within the past 10 years, personally, or had an immediate family member who had, been a candidate or was elected or appointed to elective office; served as an employee or paid consultant of a political party or candidate; been a registered lobbyist; or contributed $1,000 or more to any candidate for Austin elective office in any of the previous five years.

An Applicant Review Panel consisting of three independent auditors drawn from a pool would screen applicants. This panel would select a pool of 50 of the most qualified applicants for the Citizens Redistricting Commission based on analytical skills, impartiality, residency in various parts of the city, and appreciation for the city’s diverse demographics and geography.

Each city council member would be allowed to strike any two of the applicants from the pool. Thereafter, the City Auditor would randomly draw eight names from the pool to serve on the Commission. Those eight would appoint six more from the pool to serve on the Commission.

Once constituted, the commission would conduct hearings and adopt a plan for the boundaries of the city council districts.

Any member appointed to the Citizens Redistricting Commission would be ineligible to hold elective office in the City of Austin for 10 years.

This is, obviously, a long and complicated process but one that seems nigh impossible to game to any politician’s advantage.

The same can’t be said of the current City Council plan to directly appoint seven members to a commission to adopt a map.

Matt Curtis (no relation to Linda Curtis) communications director for Mayor Lee Leffingwell, said, “It’s our intention with a charter election in 2012 that we would expect to appoint a Charter Commission leading up to that election.” As for directly appointing members of that commission, Curtis said, “There’s a precedent. That’s what’s been done in the past.”

“We’re not at that step yet,” Curtis added. “This resolution is just to get the city manager to initiate a process.”

Can city trump citizens initiative?

Lee Leffingwell
Lee Leffingwell

Mayor Leffingwell, in an April 22 article in the Austin American-Statesman, said if the petition effort succeeds in getting a measure on the ballot this November, he would want to put the city’s competing plan on the same ballot, in addition to other charter changes.

Putting a measure on the ballot specifically to compete with a citizen initiative may be problematic. The difficulty arises from placing two similar but competing measures on the same ballot is that, by law, each proposition must be worded so that voters can choose yes or no.

If, for example, a citizen initiative resulted in a proposed charter amendment for 10 geographic council districts, two at-large council districts, and the mayor at-large (10-2-1), and the city council put a competing measure on the ballot for six geographic districts, two at-large council districts and the mayor at-large (6-2-1), what would happen if voters approved both measures?

Monte Akers
Monte Akers

Attorney Monte Akers of Akers & Boulware-Wells LLP is former director of legal services for the Texas Municipal League. His law firm currently focuses on representing small and medium-sized cities. After reviewing the Austin City Charter, Akers said he found nothing that prohibits the council from placing competing measures on the same ballot.

Akers said the ballot language should be clear so that voters understand if they are voting for one of the competing propositions, they should not vote for the other. “You don’t want to wind up with them both adopted,” he said. That outcome can be avoided by carefully wording the ballot, he said.

Jerry Harris
Jerry Harris

Attorney Jerry Harris of Brown McCarroll LLP served as Austin City Attorney 1976-1981. Although it is theoretically possible for both of the competing charter amendments to pass—and there is apparently no means to reconcile such a result—Harris said that is unlikely to happen.

“I’ve never heard of it actually happening,” Harris said. “There is a very low risk that competing propositions would both pass. The voters are going to make a choice and vote for one and against the other. That’s what the campaign would be all about.”

Harris’ statement is consistent with what happened in the City of Austin election of August 1992. A petition drive led by the Save Our Springs Coalition (predecessor to the current Save Our Springs Alliance) resulted in a proposition for the Save Our Springs Ordinance that was put on the ballot as Proposition 1. The city council majority at that time did not favor the citizen-drafted ordinance and put an alternative on the ballot (Proposition 2). Proposition 1 passed 64-36 percent, and Proposition 2 failed 35-65 percent.

The Austin City Council meeting begins at 10am in council chambers in City Hall, 201 W. 2nd St. The resolution concerning amendments to the City Charter is Agenda Item 48.

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 to sustain The Austin Bulldog’s reporting by making a tax-deductible contribution.