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Neighborhoods group endorses single-member districts—sort of

Thursday, January 24, 2008 by Mark Richardson

Two Austin City Council Members gave opposing views on single-member districts last night during a forum at a meeting of the Austin Neighborhoods Council. And while Sheryl Cole and Mike Martinez had divergent opinions on the value of electing Council members to districts, ANC members were less definitive on the issue.


Martinez, the driving force behind the City Charter Revision Committee, spoke strongly in favor of electing some or all of the Council from geographic districts. Cole, who said that the city’s current “gentleman’s agreement” on minority Council seats has served its purpose, backed keeping the current at-large system.


The result of ANC’s vote to endorse single-member districts was both positive and negative. ANC members voted 18 in favor of districts, 4 against with 14 abstentions, meaning that while there is a base of support, there is an equally large number of neighborhood leaders taking a wait-and-see attitude.


Martinez reiterated his oft-stated position that despite earlier charter elections that turned down single-member districts, now is the time for the city to change its system.


“It’s a myth that African Americans or Hispanics need a majority in the district for it to make it an opportunity district,” he said. “It’s the voting age population that matters. People aren’t elected by the makeup of the district – they are elected by the voters that turn out on Election Day.”


Martinez said he would not support a system that dilutes anyone’s votes.


“We need to move to a system of geographic representation,” he said. “The number of districts doesn’t really matter. We could keep the Council the same size. Six properly drawn districts can serve everyone just as well as 13 or any other number.”


Cole said Austin needs a good government, not a bigger one.


“In the old days, after we got the vote, an African American or an Hispanic could run in Austin but they couldn’t get elected in an at-large system,” she said. “We have moved a long way away from those days … a sea-change, in fact. In recent years, we have elected a black Assessor-Collector, a black Sheriff, a black County Judge.”


She said single-member districts could reinforce Austin’s historic east-west divide down I-35.


“Districts are not what is best for Austin,” she said. “We have looked at what has happened in other cities with districts. In almost all cases, it has led to the Balkanization of voters. Not a very good thing. It will end up increasing the size of government.”


Cole also said that single-member districts would dilute the power of neighborhood associations, divvying up small groups of them to the area council member.


“Back when I was running for office, I had to drive across Interstate 35 to meet with your group,” she said. “I have gotten to know people from all around the city, rather than just those within my district. It would be different if I only met with my local constituents.”


Martinez said that would be a good thing, allowing neighborhood groups to be able to go to one official instead of seven to resolve their problems.


“Issues like Northcross Mall and the animal shelter are prime examples,” he said. “Geographic representation gives everyone a true voice on the dais. We can do better, and evolve as a city.”


Martinez also said what he called the current Council’s “heavy workload” could be spread among more people.


Cole also agued that single-member districts could increase the city budget, by making it an incentive for Council Members to push pet projects for their district at the expense of projects that are best for the entire city.


So far, proponents have the backing of the city’s Charter Revision Committee but the Council has not yet voted on putting the item on the May ballot.


Martinez expects proponents to study a number of configurations before deciding on what they want to put on the ballot. The final Council meeting for considering the May ballot is March 6.

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