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LULAC threatens suit over single-member districts

Wednesday, July 22, 2009 by Austin Monitor

Members of the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) have approved a resolution calling on the City of Austin to adopt single-member districts by the end of 2009 or face a federal lawsuit.


Mayor Lee Leffingwell received notice of the decision from local LULAC Director Marcelo Tafoya on Tuesday. According to Tafoya’s advisory, members of the national group approved a statement promising to fund the suit if their demand for single-member districts is not met by Dec. 31.


Meeting that deadline could prove difficult legally. Under the city charter, the city may only have charter elections once every two years. As Council Member Mike Martinez points out, the city had such an election in November 2008. At that time, a majority of the Council declined to place the item on the ballot even though both Martinez and Leffingwell said they supported some form of single-member districts.


During that election, voters approved a change to the charter related to the City Auditor’s term of office and rejected the Stop Domain Subsidies charter amendment, which was designed to block the city from making future tax rebate payments to the Domain.


Martinez said, “Obviously I support single-member districts but I don’t think the lawsuit is going to amount to very much . . . They’re going to have to demonstrate that there isn’t diversity or hasn’t historically been diversity.” Because of an agreement among city leaders nearly 40 years ago, the so-called “Gentlemen’s Agreement,” that’s “almost impossible,” Martinez said. “But they have a right to file that lawsuit and we’re going to follow it very closely.”


Although some activists believe that last week’s ruling by a federal judge that Irving’s at-large system violates the Voting Rights Act, Martinez said there is no real comparison.


He noted that Irving’s eight-member at-large Council contains no Hispanics even though that smaller city’s population is 40 percent Hispanic. Martinez said he hoped that LULAC would take part in a renewed community conversation about single-member districts that could result in a new election on the matter in 2011 or 2012, once Austin receives new census data.


Mayor Leffingwell said, “I’m sure that LULAC is suing because they feel that their percentage of the population should give them two seats on the Council.” He said he still supports single-member districts but “what I’ve said is my preference would be for a mixed system with single-member district augmented by some at-large members.”

Asked how many members he would like to see, Leffingwell said, “I’m sort of conflicted on that because I would also like to see the City Council kept relatively small so they could actually be more efficient and get things done.”

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