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Single-member districts loom on today’s Council agenda

Thursday, February 28, 2008 by Austin Monitor

A mostly gray-haired audience of about two dozen members of the League of Women Voters and the ACLU showed overwhelming support Tuesday night for a proposal to move to a system of geographically based districts for Council members.


The proposal could go before voters in November.


The City Council will hear a briefing at 2pm and will also hold a public hearing at 6pm on single-member districts today. They may also consider a resolution from Council Members Sheryl Cole, Brewster McCracken, and Mayor Pro Tem Betty Dunkerley calling for setting certain criteria to be met before the Council puts the single-member district proposal up for a public vote.


The sponsors want the Charter Revision Committee to recommend a specific district plan, how often redistricting will take place, salaries for at-large Council Members and those elected from single-member districts, a plan for transitioning to single-member districts, and proposed ballot language. The resolution states that “a single member district runs the risk of eliminating African American representation on the City Council” and that “any district system would likely increase the size and cost of government”.

Council Member Mike Martinez, who has supported the move to single-member districts, told those at Tuesday night’s meeting he was not satisfied with the resolution put forth by his colleagues. “I don’t think there are bad questions in this resolution,” he said, referring to concerns over the potential cost of expanding the Council. “But I think there are some bad premises that lead to some of the language in the resolution. I think there appears to be an attempt to create a threshold that is very difficult to meet, and I think that is a concern.”


On Wednesday, McCracken said the ideas need more public discussion. Council Member Martinezstatement indicates that he agrees that the items in our resolution need to be addressed in a change in our form of government,” he said. “So the question is whether the voters of Austin have these items kept secret from themor not even planned in the advanceor whether they are told of the full impact of the district system that he is proposing. These are all things that will have to be done.


McCracken said there are a number of issues that Martinez and others have not considered. “For instance, the charter specifies when the elections are of the Council members,” he said. “You have to change an additional item in the charter relating to when members are elected in a staggered system. That’s not even an option but it hasn’t been considered. Also, how are we going to handle redistricting? We’ve seen how redistricting can be badly misused as a political tool at the state and federal level. But the voters of Austin need to have a clear picture of what redistricting scheme is envisioned by the sponsors of the district system.”


Thursday’s briefing and public hearing were originally scheduled when the Council believed the issue would likely be on the May 10 ballot. Since the issue will not go before the voters until November, Martinez said, “I would submit that the resolution is little premature. We have time to do another survey and hold more community meetings.”


Furthermore, Martinez said he would be requesting a commitment from the sponsors of the resolution. “I would still ask the question of those Council Members…if we answer these questions and we do it in this manner, will you then support single-member districts and put it on the ballot? And I think the answer to that still remains ‘no’. They’re creating this threshold that we have to meet, and if we happen to meet it they’re still going to vote to not put it on the ballot,” he said. “I think that’s something we can avoid, given the additional time that we have.”


Council Member Cole’s executive assistant, Beverly Wilson, attended Tuesday’s meeting for the Council Member and told the group that Cole would be opposed to any system that diluted African-American representation. Charter Revision Committee member Roxanne Evans, who was on the three-member panel leading the discussion, also told the group she had not been convinced the city needed to adopt the system. Evans was one of the members of the committee who submitted a minority report opposing single-member districts.


However, the other two members of the panel, Charter Revision Committee member Stephen Shang and Rudy Williams with the Organization for Central East Austin Neighborhoods (OCEAN), were firmly in support of single-member districts. Williams said he was upset at the language in the draft of the resolution being circulated at Tuesday night’s meeting. “It’s almost a poison pill in terms of getting the issue discussed,” he said. “We have a group of Council members who do not even want us to broach the topic.”


As for Council member’s concerns about maintaining minority representation, Williams said that in his opinion, “right now, representation does not exist at all. You can draw these districts where you have opportunity for a minority to win. For one, African American representation is non-existent right now. And I would say the same for Hispanic representation, not that I don’t respect Mike or Sheryl Cole, but they do not represent… you can’t tell what they represent,” he said. “They may represent the campaign money, they may represent the entire city, but we do not have minority representation.”

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