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Council votes to oppose single-member district bill

Monday, April 13, 2009 by Austin Monitor

The City Council today voted unanimously to oppose a bill introduced in the state legislature by Senator Jeff Wentworth (R-San Antonio) that would force Austin to create single-member districts.


The introduction of the bill caught Council Members by surprise, and put some members in the awkward position of opposing something that they support in principle. But even Council Member Mike Martinez said this was not the way to achieve his long-held goal of creating single-member districts, because Austin voters should make that decision. “If we let this happen,” says Martinez, “then what’s next?”


Council member Lee Leffingwell agreed. “It’s tough for me to oppose this,” he said, “because I support single-member districts and, in many ways, this is a good bill. But this decision is about Austin’s self-determination.”


Wentworth, whose district extends into South Austin, said his constituents had asked him to introduce the bill. He did not contact the City Council first to seek their input. The bill would require all cities with populations over 500,000 to create single-member districts — but since every other major city in Texas already has single-member districts, as a practical matter it only applies to Austin.


The argument for single-member districts is that Austin is too big for each Council Member to thoroughly understand and fairly represent the entire city. The argument against single-member districts is that it would cause unnecessary divisions on the Council, and could cause African American Austinites to lose representation. African Americans and Hispanics are now saved two Council seats as part of the so-called “gentlemen’s agreement,” which would go away if single-member districts are created. The African-American population in Austin is dispersed across the city, and would likely not be the majority in any one particular district unless the city were divided up into very small districts.


Austin voters have had the chance to pass single-member districts six times, but the measure has always failed. The most recent attempt was in 2002, and would have created 8 single-member districts, plus 3 at-large members (including the mayor). It failed 58 percent to 42 percent. Mayor Will Wynn, who said he supports single-member districts, suggested that the city wait for the results of the 2010 census and then see if the new demographic numbers inspire Austin voters to embrace single-member districts.

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