KLRU-TV taping draws more than 200 people for multifaceted discussion of what future holds
It’s been six months since 60 percent of voters approved a change to the Austin City Charter that will result in creation of 10 geographic districts from which residents will be elected to the Austin City Council in November 2014.
At present we’re in a quiet period during the slow work of creating an Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission to actually draw the maps for council districts, but some are thinking ahead to how this city may be governed after that historic election ends the at-large system of electing council members that started 60 years ago this month, on April 4, 1953.
To keep the public focused on this fundamentally important change, a live taping of the fourth in a series of “Why Bother?” programs packed Studio 6-A at the KLRU-TV station the evening of April 23.These programs are designed to create an ongoing dialogue about civic engagement.
The program was moderated by Kevin Michael Foster, PhD, assistant professor in the Department of African and African Diaspora Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. His panelists were City of Austin demographer Ryan Robinson; Sherri Greenberg, director of the Center for Politics and Governance in the LBJ School of Public Affairs; and Carol Lee, president of the Austin Neighborhoods Council.
Robinson said that Austin’s current population is 845,000 and this city remains the largest in the country that has maintained an at-large system of electing council members. He said that 70 percent of those elected to the council come from areas of town where 35 percent of the population lives, and all council members live within three to four miles of each other.
“Ten-one will make changes that are profound,” Robinson said.
Greenberg, a former state representative, said geographic districts will likely increase demands on city staff to see how particular actions affect each part of the city.
Lee said the new 10-1 system “will enable change but how that change happens very much depends on who is elected, and whether they are beholden to special interests.”
Foster asked if at the end of the day citizens will be better represented.
“That remains to be seen,” Greenberg replied, but added, “Groups of citizens will have a council member accountable to them instead of at-large.”
Foster said he had received a message from someone who thought that 10-1 could bring an all-white council, an assertion that Robinson said was not possible given that council maps must be drawn to enable strong African American and Latino districts.
“I don’t think an all-white council is mathematically possible.”
10 citizens invited to speak
The conversation was enhanced by a separate group of 10 Austin residents from different parts of town, who were guided by Stephanie Nestlerode, founding partner of Omega Point International Inc.
These panelists were Jason Meeker (Northwest), Frances McIntrye (North Central), Celia Israel (Northeast), Dude Spellings (West), Roger Cauvin (Central), Monica Guzman (East), Pat Epstein (Southwest), Carl Webb (Southeast), David Foster (Far South Central), and Cory Walton (South Central).
Nestlerode asked several panelists to address how rising costs are affecting them and their neighborhoods.
McIntyre said her neighborhood was seeing increased property values and more interest in development, while Guzman lamented that East Austin (78702) is now prime real estate with pressure to push out long-term residents who lack the resources and cohesiveness to push back.
David Foster said his area (78745) was home to “economic refugees” who are facing rising property taxes and utility rates.
“How would expanding mass transit influence you,” Nestlerode asked several more panelists.
Walton was skeptical of the costs and who would pay for it.
Israel noted that her area of northeast Austin faces transit obstacles given the nature of the area sandwiched between North Lamar, which is going to get rapid transit service, and the Mueller redevelopment and industrial area near U.S. Highway 290.
Epstein, a resident of Travis Country, said there was no transit infrastructure there. There is room to build houses “but no way to get in and out.” She said effort would be made to elect someone from southwest Austin to look at these issues.
“How will neighborhood concerns be balanced against the interests of the city as a whole (under 10-1)?” Nestlerode asked.
Webb said that even if someone from southeast Austin, a minority and working class area, runs and wins, “Who’s going to remember the interests of where he came from?”
Meeker said a big challenge going forward is “How we will all work together.” “We hear on Monday or Tuesday about something to be voted on Thursday.” He said the media need to “step up” and people will have be more engaged.
Spellings said he hopes “10-1 allows us to cooperate better among communities.”
Cauvin, who lives downtown, said downtown can help by allowing people to walk instead of getting into cars.
Greenberg said balancing the needs of council districts with the needs of the city as a whole is a “real challenge and opportunity” that can be met through outreach, social media, and door-to-door.
Lee underlined the challenges, saying, “People put their fingers in their ears and don’t want to hear anything about the city.”
Kevin Foster asked Robinson to address how shifting elections from May to November, as required by the City Charter amendment, will affect turnout.
Robinson noted that the highest turnout in a city election was 1973 when Mayor Roy Butler was reelected. More people voted then than in the election of Mayor Lee Leffingwell—despite the fact the population has tripled in the last four decades.
All conceded that November elections will have a far higher turnout. (They will be held in even-numbered years when there is either a presidential or gubernatorial election on the same ballot.)
“More people will come out. More people will be voting for city council (candidates). Others fear that the city council will be lost on the ballot,” Greenberg said.
Kevin Foster asked what the role of neighborhoods would be under 10-1 and Lee responded by saying that, “Even with district representation you’re one of 80,000 people, so it’s not like you’re going to a personal relationship (with your council member). Those neighborhood associations provide a major conduit (for communication).”
Citizens final say
Nestlerode gave some of the citizens panel an opportunity to comment on what they had heard in the program.
Walton said that elections held in November will have a greater turnout with more down-ballot voters not educated about the issues and more susceptible to campaign sound bites. But he voiced optimism, too, saying, “Overall, as a resident of Austin, we have a lot more in common than we do in opposition.”
McIntyre said that the cost of campaigning in districts, though cheaper than running citywide, will continue to be an obstacle for people who don’t have a lot of money. She noted that having council districts drawn by an Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission will “take the politics out of redistricting.”
Meeker said that having council districts is an effort to “change the tone at City Hall. That will be a challenge in and of itself.” But his bigger fear is that holding elections in November will “introduce (political) parties and a whole new level of rancor” into what are supposed to be nonpartisan city elections.
Israel talked about the “psychological challenge to believe in ourselves” in a city “notorious for how we make decisions.”
Cauvin said the city has an opportunity to “improve our transit system,” and that would go a long way to make life necessities available to people.
Epstein said she appreciated this opportunity to “hear from people I don’t normally hear from” and learn about gentrification and displacement of populations and other issues confronting neighborhoods.
Webb mentioned that although Google fiber is slated to come to Austin, it will not serve the whole city, but will go where the greatest number of people sign up for it. “Bringing Google fiber here will be an advantage for those who already have.” (It’s not possible to sign up for Google fiber yet but you can sign up to be kept informed by listing your e-mail address and zip code at https://fiber.google.com/cities/austin/.)
Walton said he was looking forward to the implementation of 10-1 despite the possibility of ward politics. “Voters are smart enough to elect people who think about their district and the big picture.”
Panelists last words
Greenberg said it will “take a concerted effort of everyone pulling together” to address issues such as transparency, campaign finance, and equity among areas being served or underserved.
Robinson said the first election of November 2014 could result in an entirely new council. “I think we’ll have to go through a couple of cycles to figure out how this works. If nothing else it will be fun to watch.”
Kevin Foster asked what are the implications of having a large number of new council members.
Lee said she thinks the 10-1 system will increase the number of people who are interested in running for office, despite the fact that there is an economic reality regarding how much it costs to run a campaign, even in a district. “To run a grass-roots campaign not dependent on special interests—and win—is a challenge.”
Greenberg said it will be more expensive to run in some districts than others. “How campaigns are built and reach out to the grass roots is very important. It’s going to be a whole different dynamic and we will soon see how different it is.”
For his final question Foster asked for one element of promise and a challenge that must be overcome.
Lee said the change will have a big impact on city staff. “It will take us a couple of times before we know how to get it right, not to perfection, but to get it working.”
Greenberg said getting council members to look not only at their district but to look to the entire city will be a challenge.
Robinson urged everyone to keep in mind that redistricting will be done every 10 years. “We have a joke at the Planning Department that this is job security” that will require spreadsheets to show what proposed council actions will do for each council district.
Lee concluded the comments by saying that citizens can do five things to help the process going forward: join a neighborhood association; inform your neighbors; attend meetings of the Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission as it works to draw council districts; post feedback about the districting process at Speak Up Austin; and voice your views at City Council meetings.
Watch and listen to the program
The hour-long program will be televised on KLRU at 9pm Thursday May 16, simulcast on KUT-FM 90.5, and will be available online the day of the broadcast at klru.org/civicsummit.
This “Why Bother” event was co-sponsored by public radio NPR affiliate KUT-FM 90.5 and The Annette Strauss Institute for Civic Life, which was created in 2000 to respond to growing political cynicism and disaffection in the United States.
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 coverage by making a tax-deductible contribution.
Related Bulldog coverage : This is The Austin Bulldog’s 47th article covering issues and activities pertaining to proposed and/or voter-approved changes to the Austin City Charter.