Grass-roots democracy pushing petition

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Linda Curtis
Linda Curtis

Austinites for Geographic Representation Needs 20,000 Signatures by Mid-January

What we want? Council districts!

When do we want them? Now!

How will we get them? Petition!

When do we start? Now!

Such might be the chants of members of Austinites for Geographic Representation if they were to take to the streets like the protestors of Occupy Wall Street and Occupy Austin.

But you won’t be hearing chants from the members of this grass-roots citizens initiative to get on the ballot a proposition 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. The group’s plan calls for only the mayor to continue being elected at-large.

Austin is the most populous city in the United States to elect its entire city council at-large, and the only major metropolitan city in Texas to do so, according to a report produced last month by City Demographer Ryan Robinson. Austin voters, however, have voted down propositions for some form of council districts six times between 1973 and 2002.

Austinites for Geographic Representation has scheduled a press conference for noon tomorrow at City Hall and a campaign kickoff rally 3-5pm Saturday at Mexitas Restaurant, 1109 N. I-35. The group has leased an office at 7901 Cameron Road and formed a Specific Purpose Political Action Committee whose treasurer, Stacy Suits, ran two unsuccessful campaigns for geographic representation in 1985 and 1988.

Linda Curtis
Linda Curtis

The petition drive is being organized by Linda Curtis of ChangeAustin.org. Curtis has previously led four successful petition drives to get measures before Austin voters. This petition campaign is not employing paid signature gatherers but instead has formed a broad coalition of community organizations that will actively circulate petitions. This initiative has been endorsed by a number of organizations including ChangeAustin.org, Del Valle Community Coalition, El Concilio, Gray Panthers of Austin, LULAC District 7, LULAC District 12, NAACP Austin, Texans for Accountable Government, Travis County Green Party, and University of Texas at Austin Student Government.The League of Women Voters Austin Area is meeting tonight to consider endorsing the initiative, said chapter president Stewart Snider. The Austin Neighborhoods Council may consider an endorsement at its October 26 meeting. The petition drive has a Facebook page and will soon publish petition forms online.

The petition drive, if successful, would force the city council to put its own proposed charter amendmentson the May ballot as well.Article XI, Section 5 of the Texas Constitution states that “no city charter shall be altered, amended or repealed oftener than every two years.” To prepare for that possibility, the 2012 Charter Revision Committee has a January 31 deadline to submit its recommendations for council consideration.

Charter committee backs seven changes

The Charter Review Commission held its third meeting last Thursday at Austin Community College’s Highland Business Center and after lengthy discussion voted 14-1 (Delores Lenzy-Jones opposed) to approve subcommittee recommendations for seven charter changes, as follows:

Set election date, terms—Voters would be asked to decide whether council elections should continue to be held in May or moved to November. (This is consistent with what the city council majority decided on several 4-3 votes when setting the next council election for May 12, 2012). The charter committee voted to recommend preserving staggered three-year terms and continuing to limit service to three terms.

Prohibit switching places—Council members would be barred from switching council places to avoid term limits.

Balance petition requirements—Reduce the number of signatures for a citizen-initiated ordinance to be the same as a citizen initiated charter change (five percent of the registered voters or 20,000 signatures, whichever is smaller, per state law). At present, ordinances initiated by petition require the signatures of 10 percent of registered voters to get on the ballot.

Council supervises city attorney—The city attorney would report to the city council and the attorney would be given authority to appoint deputy city attorneys.

Council hires own staff—The elected city council members would directly appoint their staff members (technically, all city employees currently work for the city manager).

Clerk appoints deputies—The city clerk, who already works directly for the city council, would be given authority to appoint deputy clerks.

Auditor appoints deputies—The city auditor, who already works directly for the city council, would be given authority to appoint deputy auditors.

The committee will continue its work and may recommend other items be placed on the ballot. The committee is, for example, charged with making a recommendation about some form of council districts and reviewing a variety of maps that have been drawn for such districts.

Peck Young
Peck Young

Peck Young, a longtime Austin political consultant who is now volunteering with Austinites for Geographic Representation, spoke to the Charter Revision Committee. He said that over a period of 35 years he had personally drawn redistricting plans in three states that passed muster with the Justice Department, but always while working for and being paid by politicians who wanted to make sure they would stay in office. He now advocates a different way of creating council districts.

“Just because you have the right to draw maps (for city council districts) doesn’t mean you are obligated to draw maps. You could recommend that the city council use the citizens commission (which is part of the Austinites for Geographic Representation petition plan). “I’m not sure how many politicians will like it, but I guarantee it’s more democratic than anything we’ve had in this area most of my adult life.”

Ted Siff
Ted Siff

Even recommending the seven charter changes listed above was a concern to Ted Siff, who chaired the subcommittee that formulated these recommendations. He noted that the most important issue the committee faces is to decide on a recommendation for some form of council districts.

“Almost anything on the same ballot with geographic representation could affect the vote,” Siff said at the Thursday committee meeting. “So we could argue that we should not put anything on the same ballot, but we felt our charge is to come back with recommendations.”

Ultimately, the city council must decide which of these charter changes, if any, will go on the ballot.

Although a successful petition drive would force the city council to put Austinites for Geographic Representation’s proposition before voters, the council has the final authority on how the ballot language is worded. That has been a contentious issue in past citizen initiatives.

Charter committee member Fred Cantu, chairman of the Austin Tejano Democrats, addressed the problem, saying that in the past, “City councils have been inhospitable to ballot initiatives. The council has almost unlimited discretion on how to describe the ballot language. I think we should put in criteria to (require) a fair and neutral description (on the ballot) to promote faith in government.”

“Their ain’t a lot of faith right now,” quipped former State Senator Gonzalo Barrientos (D-Austin), who chairs the charter committee.

Related stories:

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 a Select Few Govern Austin: Forty Years of Election History Expose Extent of Disparities, 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

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.