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Single-member district bill gets friendly hearing

Tuesday, May 12, 2009 by Kimberly Reeves

Sen. Jeff Wentworth (R-San Antonio) certainly had the backing of his colleagues on the State Affairs Committee Monday as he laid out his bill requiring Austin to have single-member districts, although speakers who addressed the committee were mixed on the issue.

Part of Southwest Austin is in Wentworth’s district, and he told his colleagues he intended to file Senate Bill 1618 at the request of his constituents last session. He went to both Sen. Kirk Watson (D-Austin) and Mayor Will Wynn for their blessings. Both supported single-member districts, he said. Then he was referred to Council Member Mike Martinez, who asked him to hold off on the issue and allow the city to address it through its charter revision task force.

“Two years later, and the Austin City Council hasn’t done anything about single-member districts, and my constituents have come, once again, to ask me to file the bill,” Wentworth said. “I think it’s a good bill.” In fact, the Austin City Council recently voted unanimously to oppose Wentworth’s bill, saying Austinites should be asked to vote on the matter again.

Austin is the largest city in the country without single-member districts, which is frustrating to some – like LULAC – and less so to others – the NAACP. Maps drawn by experts for the task force indicated it was all but impossible to draw a majority-African-American district in Austin, and that was pre-2010 census.

Sen. Rodney Ellis (D-Houston), a former Houston Council member, said that an at-large system was a scheme of many southern towns to intentionally disenfranchise minority groups. 

So it was Yannis Banks’ duty to tell the State Affairs committee that NAACP opposed the Austin bill. He spoke about the gentrification of East Austin and the potential loss of representation on Council.

This sounded like inconsistency to Sen. Bob Deuell (R-Greenville), whose school board voluntarily moved to single-member districts in order to avoid litigation. LULAC, too, has threatened to file legal action against Austin to force the city to move to single-member districts, although Marcelo Tafoya said it was a last resort in a series of steps that LULAC intended to pursue.

Already, by the time Wentworth got to committee, he was ready to make a number of compromises on the bill. Instead of mandatory single-member districts, Wentworth said he was ready to simply require an election sometime after the census. Too often, the failing propositions in Austin have been bundled with other controversial issues such as council pay increases and campaign finance reform.

Wentworth, like Rudolph Williams of the Blackshear neighborhood, talks about single-member districts as representative of geographic areas even more than an equal representation of a particular minority group. Single-member districts make it easier for a Council member to know his district, and it also made it cheaper for a candidate on a shoestring budget to run for office, he said.

Wentworth sees a potential election as a positive. Sen. Robert Duncan (R-Lubbock), who chairs the committee, noted that single-member districts almost always are “forced by the courts and resisted by the government.”

Martinez spoke on behalf of Council, urging local control of the issue. He reacted more favorably to an option of an election.

The bill was left pending in committee.

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