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Council to proceed on single-member districts debate

Friday, February 22, 2008 by Austin Monitor

Two Council Members who sponsored a resolution calling for a public hearing next Thursday on the question of placing single-member districts on the May ballot said they intend to have that hearing next week even though the city cannot have a charter election until November.


Council Member Mike Martinez said, “Even though we may not be able to have a May election, we will continue with the work we’ve begun on the single-member district issue.”  City Attorney David Smith surprised the Council earlier this week when he advised them that state law would not allow for a charter election until November.


Co-sponsor Council Member Lee Leffingwell, said, “I think people ought be able to vote on the type of government they have,” adding that the city is “just too big” to continue with the current at-large system.


However, Leffingwell added, “I think if we increased the number of Council Members by more than two it would be a mistake. I don’t think the voters would approve it.” He said he might support either a six-district system with two at large members plus a Mayor or an eight-district system plus a Mayor. “Or you can have six districts and the Mayor.”


Council Members Sheryl Cole and Brewster McCracken, who have opposed a change to single-member districts, said they want to put forth criteria which must be met before the Council puts the question before voters again.


According to a draft resolution provided to In Fact Daily, the Council could not put any district item on the ballot until the Charter Revision Committee had held hearings and recommended a specific plan, which would then have to be submitted to the U.S. Justice Department.


In addition, the committee would have to recommend a Council redistricting plan as well as a transition plan and advise the Council on how that would affect current term limits and the staggered election system.


Cole said, “We want to insure that the voters have a clear picture of this major change to our charter. We also want to make sure that safeguards are put in place to hopefully guarantee public understanding of the process.”


McCracken said, “Given the major change involved and high risk that the plan would lead to total loss of African-American representation on the Austin City Council, and potential high cost of growing the size of the City Council, the sponsors believe there should be some criteria for deciding whether there’s even a plan that can responsibly be brought forward to the community.”


The resolution requires that the African-American Resource Advisory Committee review and make recommendations on any recommendations from the Charter Revision Committee before submission of the plan to the Justice Department.


Cole said Council Member Betty Dunkerley, who also opposes changing from the current at large system, would also co-sponsor the resolution. Dunkerley has said she does not want Austin to switch to a system “where one Council Member can block any change or any project or any program that some of their constituents want to bring forward just because he’s opposed to it.”


The resolution also would direct City Manager Marc Ott to prepare “a cost analysis detailing the cost to taxpayers of the proposed district system” including funding of redistricting, reconfiguring City Hall and relocating displaced city employees.


The city’s expert on single-member districts, attorney Gerald Hebert, is also scheduled to make a presentation to the Council next week. The city’s Public Information Officer Gene Acuña said as of Jan. 31 the city had paid $29,352 of a total contract for $34,000 to Herbert for appearances, drafting single-member district plans, research and meetings.

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