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Two Charter panel members plan minority report

Monday, January 7, 2008 by Austin Monitor

Two members of Austin’s Charter Revision Committee—which unexpectedly voted on the issue in late December—plan to issue a minority report opposing putting the question of single-member districts on the May ballot. Committee member Betty Baker said Sunday that she and committee member Roxanne Evans were working on the dissenting report, which she expects to be ready this week.


The committee voted 4-2 at its final meeting on December 21 to recommend that the City Council place the proposal on the ballot and cancelled the two meetings scheduled for January. Baker said she was unable to attend that meeting and that she was not forewarned that the committee would vote on the issue that night. She would have voting against placing the item on the ballot, she said. Evans and members Chad Williams voted no.


At their final meeting, the committee reviewed the results of an on-line survey from the city’s web site. Just over 1,000 people had taken that survey at the time of the meeting, with nearly 65 percent of those responding saying that they believed single-member districts would provide better representation for them.


While that survey would seem to indicate support for single-member districts, some members of the committee were concerned about the relatively small response and the low turnout at committee meetings. “As gratified as I am to see a thousand people respond to the survey, that doesn’t give me a sense that it’s any kind of groundswell one way or the other,” said Evans. “I think there are a lot of people we have not heard from. Moving forward when we’ve heard from such a small group of people does give me pause for how successful it will be.”


Williams said, “Clearly, we have heard from people who aren’t satisfied with the way government works, at least on the City Council. But what’s been missing in that discussion…and I don’t mean to diminish anybody who’s been hear to talk about it…but we really haven’t heard from a lot of the community leaders on this. We’ve only actually had one organization come to us with a resolution passed by their body.”


“We had a total of 20 citizens,” attending the meetings, Baker said. “People don’t care,” she added, because the current at-large system is working. ”I have tried real hard to be quiet and listen and see if they could change my mind and they couldn’t,” Baker said. “We’re the envy of other cities,” she said, voicing the opinion that single-member districts puts too much power in the hands of individual Council members, particularly in the land use arena. If the Council Member opposes a development in his or her district, she said, others will not support it, she said. Baker is chair of the Zoning and Platting Commission.


The lack of broad-based community support, Williams said, did not bode well for the idea of single-member districts. “My concern is that this is being set up for failure once again. Until the citizens take over this issue and demand a fundamental change in the way they are represented by Council, I see this going down the same path it always has, which is it will probably fail for the seventh time,” he said. “That is my concern.”


But a majority of the Committee voted to recommend that the Council put a proposal to change the method of electing Council members up for a public vote. “Using this committee as a barometer, or as an indicator of whether people are interested, might be a little faulty,” said Committee Member Stephen Shang. “From the beginning, I think this was a very poorly publicized committee. Based on the comments I’ve read, I think that as people start to understand what we’re talking about here, there is some excitement that’s building. I think we should at least give the citizens a chance to make it happen.”


While much of the testimony heard by the committee over the past few months has concerned drawing districts that provide for equitable representation of minority groups, members of the committee said that was not the primary reason to support a new system for electing members of the Council. “The issue was not ethnic or racial representation, it was accountability,” said chair and former Mayor Gus Garcia. “People want to be able to call a Council member that they elected, bring him in and tell him what the issues are and then have that Council member then take that issue to the Council. Many of them are frustrated…at kind of being bounced around. This way, they will have somebody that they elected.”


The on-line survey will be available on the city’s web site through Jan. 23 at The Council has until March 6 to set the ballot for the May 10 municipal election.

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