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Bill would change Austin Council to single-member districts without vote

Thursday, April 9, 2009 by Austin Monitor

The Austin City Council will hold a special meeting on Monday morning to discuss legislative issues—including a bill by Senator Jeff Wentworth (R-San Antonio) that would require Austin to change the way it elects the City Council.

 

Under SB 1618 all cities with more than 500,000 population would be required to have at least six single-member districts, although the bill would allow the city to add some at-large positions. The bill dictates that the city change its method of electing Council Members after results are in from the 2010 census.

 

Austin voters have rejected amending the city charter to require single-member districts six times. The most recent election on the matter was in 2002. Austin is the only large city in the state that elects its entire Council on an at-large basis.

 

“The Mayor’s staunchly opposed to it,” said Mayor Will Wynn’s Chief of Staff Rich Bailey. “We’ve got a couple of Council Members who are strongly for it. The Mayor is opposed to it on principle—the Legislature should not be telling cities how they can elect their elected officials.”

 

Council Member Mike Martinez, who advocates single-member districts on the Council, said he had nothing to do with Wentworth’s bill.

 

“Nope, I have not called him, nor has he tried to call me,” he said. However, he said he would support the bill. “It’s something I’ve been working on for some time,” he said.  “As long as it is not contrary to the things we’ve been working on that allows us to consider moving towards single-member districts with an at-large system, then I don’t see how it’s a bad thing.”

 

Mayor Pro Tem Brewster McCracken said it was a matter of fairness.

 

“I oppose the bill,” he said. “It would not even let Austinites vote on the issue. It would require us to institute a form of government that Senator Wentworth’s bill says we should have. I don’t think an elected official who doesn’t live in Austin should be dictating what form of government we should have.”

 

His opponent in the mayor’s race, Council Member Lee Leffingwell, said he wanted to get a look at the bill before taking a position.

 

“I don’t want to characterize my position right now,” he said. “I’m just hearing about it. Right now,  I’m undecided. I support single-member districts in a hybrid system, but on the other hand there is a problem with having the state government trying to tell us how to run our government. I want to take a close look at it and balance the concerns.”

 

An email to Carole Keeton Strayhorn’s campaign did not yield a response.

 

The city’s Government Relations Officer, John Hrncir, said he did not know where the idea for bill came from.

 

The bill has been filed and is in State Affairs committee,” he said. “I never predict what will happen to a bill. This is a step by the Legislature to control the city’s governance, which is the most basic aspect of city powers. I think the Council needs to discuss what they want to do about it.”

 

He said that in the past, the city has rejected legislative attempts to control its laws. Until the Council instructs him, he said, the city has no position on the bill.

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