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Lengthy hearing, arguments fail to resolve single-member district issue

Friday, February 29, 2008 by Austin Monitor

On a midnight vote, City Council members decided Thursday to postpone until March 20 action on a resolution establishing criteria that must be met before Council considers a proposal to conduct a charter election on single-member districts. After three hours of presentations by the Charter Amendment Committee, a legal expert, public testimony and Council debate, the Council remained just as divided as it was when the day began 14 hours earlier.

 

At issue was a resolution, sponsored by Council Member Sheryl Cole and co-sponsored by Council Members Brewster McCracken and Betty Dunkerley, to establish certain criteria for any single-member district plan to be put before the voters. Any such  plans would go on a November ballot, so the Council seated after the May elections would have the final say on what goes on the ballot.

 

Realizing that the hour was late and that he was the swing vote on a divided Council, Mayor Will Wynn proposed that he and Council Members Cole and Mike Martinez work together to quantify the questions that had arisen during the evening’s public hearing as well as those posed in the resolution, and bring that information back to Council in March. Martinez and Council Member Lee Leffingwell had opposed Cole’s resolution. (See In Fact Daily, Feb. 28, 2008; Feb. 22, 2008.)

 

There were strong opinions on both sides of the dais.

 

“I can’t believe that we are looking at going to a system that has been proven to be so disastrous,” said McCracken. “Districts will divide us. Our current system demands that we look out for the broad interests and the common good.”

 

However, Martinez, an outspoken backer of a change to a single-member district system, said he just wants to get the issue in front of the voters.

 

“This hasn’t been easy,” he said. “It’s difficult to be accused of proposing something secretive; something designed to divide the community. However, I’m committed to seeing this through. This is not about incumbency; it is about accountability. The thing to do is let the voters choose for themselves.”

 

Earlier in the evening, Former Mayor Gus Garcia, who chaired the Charter Revision Committee, told the Council that the group was not eager to return to work as outlined in Council Member Cole’s resolution.

 

“The committee felt that what you told us to do, we did that,” he said. He also reminded the Council that seeking input on the proposal from the U.S. Department of Justice would likely not prove fruitful. “They don’t pre-clear you on that basis. You have to put an item on the ballot, the city has to approve it and then they’ll give you a pre-clearance,” he said. “It sounds a little bit backwards, but the pre-clearance means they’ll give you clearance to implement something that the voters passed. So, some of the things that are in the resolution that are proposed today do not comply with the way that things are done in this particular area.”

 

The consultant hired by the city, former Justice Department staffer Gerald Hebert, reiterated Garcia’s cautions about expecting help from the federal government on drawing district maps. “You can go and meet with them informally and talk with them about your plans of putting something on the ballot,” he said in response to questioning from Cole. “You can give them a map and they’ll probably take it, but they won’t give you any real feedback or opinion about it or its legality. And the reason for that is they want to hear from citizens and go through the entire pre-clearance process and do their own investigation.”

 

Hebert also said that in most communities that switch to single-member districts, the actual district lines are not generally part of the citywide vote. City Ethics Officer John Steiner confirmed that “the proposal would be to amend the city’s charter…how many members, what their terms would be, and how they would be staggered,” he said. “In the past the conventional wisdom has been politically that it was advisable to provide the voters with an idea of what the districts would look like. That would not be legally required, but it has been considered in the past to be a good way to do it. The first time you draw the districts will also be by ordinance, and one way you could accomplish it…you could adopt a district ordinance that was contingent upon passage of the charter amendment.”

 

Last night’s public input on the issue was strongly against single-member districts, with several community members says they feared that districts would divide Austin and rob it of its diversity. About a dozen people spoke.

 

“The elections that rejected it (single-member districts) reflect the feelings of the people of Austin,” said former State Rep. Wilhelmina Delco. “Under the current system, you have a responsibility to represent all of the people of Austin.  People who vote here say we like the diversity that is Austin, Texas. I want this council to represent all of Austin. We are different from the rest of the world.”

 

Jeffrey Richard, head of the Austin Urban League, said single-member districts are often used to solve racial problems in cities that do not exist in Austin.

 

“I have studied the ideas of districting,” he said. “Single-member districts are often designed towards ensuring better outcomes, to rectify past exclusions. But what would it prevent in Austin? We have had a system over the past 30 years that has been inclusive. In cities where I have seen districts used, the outcomes were not fair… they were abysmal outcomes. “

 

McCracken blasted the idea of putting the issue before the voters without specifics. “If we’re telling the voters not only do we have any maps, but we’re also going to keep it a secret from you how many districts this Council will be…a plan that disguises from the voters not only the maps but the number Council seats is really setting up for failure,” he said.

 

McCracken also questioned his colleagues on the dais about which map, if any, they supported. “It is my understanding from press reports that two of my colleagues are advocating this 6-2-1 plan that is not in our backup,” he said, referring to reports that Council Members Leffingwell and Martinez favored a plan of six single-member districts, two ‘super districts’, with the Mayor being elected at-large. That example was one of several reviewed by the Charter Revision Committee.

 

However, Martinez and Leffingwell took exception to McCracken’s characterization that they had proposed specific district lines. “I think it’s just factually incorrect,” Martinez said. “I haven’t made a proposal. I have said that one of the maps presented was the one that I prefer. It’s been on line since October; it’s still there if you want to look at it. The only reason Council Member McCracken doesn’t have a map is because he hasn’t gone on line to download the map that was presented to the charter revision committee.” Those maps are available on-line at http://www.ci.austin.tx.us/charter/cr_agenda.htm.

 

At the end of the debate, Martinez moved to table the Cole motion. Cole offered a substitute motion to postpone its consideration until March 20, so the Mayor could work his compromise with both sides to compile questions about districts and get them answered.

 

During discussion, Council Member Leffingwell questioned the idea of continuing the debate at all. “All this is going to be decided by a new Council,” he said. I see no point in acting on anything tonight.”

 

With that, the Council voted 6-0 to postpone the resolution until March 20. Leffingwell appeared to abstain from the vote.

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