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Mayor’s single-member district proposal stirs political groups

Tuesday, January 25, 2011 by Jo Clifton

As media outlets reported Monday that Mayor Lee Leffingwell plans to submit the question of single-member districts to voters once again, this time in 2012, at least two unaffiliated groups jumped on the bandwagon.


The story, initially reported in the Austin American-Statesman, stated that Leffingwell plans to outline a proposal soon to change the makeup of the Council from its current at-large system to some form of single-member district representation, or a hybrid of districts and at-large seats.


This is not the first time the Mayor has floated the idea, having discussed the issue extensively during his campaign in 2009, and a number of times before and since. It would also not be the first time Austin’s voters have faced the issue; they have turned down plans for Council districts six times since 1973.


First to put out a message was, the group headed by political activists Brian Rodgers and Linda Curtis. is backing the single-member district plan, though they seemed to think the idea came to the Mayor recently.


Brian Rodgers, a leader of told In Fact Daily late Monday night that people in his group are excited about the possibility of having single-member districts. They do not want to wait for a 2012 election, he said. Asked how he personally felt about participating in another grueling petition-gathering effort like the one he mounted three years ago for the Stop Domain Subsidies drive, Rodgers said if the group decides to do the petition drive to put the issue on a November 2011 ballot, “I will help them.””  


Curtis also told In Fact Daily the group is anxious to have a charter election on the single-member district question this November. “Everybody’s been talking about it; if we have to petition we will. If we don’t get enough action out of (the City Council) fairly quickly, we will.”    


Change Austin and the group calling itself Vote Austin claimed that Leffingwell was acting in response to their activities and to the bill filed by Sen. Jeff Wentworth (R- San Antonio) that would require Austin to elect Council Members from single-member districts. Austin opposed a similar measure when Wentworth filed it in 2009. On Monday, John Hrncir, Austin’s governmental affairs officer, said he assumes that he will be opposing this year’s bill also, since Austin does not want the state legislature telling it what to do.


David Nalle from Vote Austin said the city’s current system disenfranchises a large number of its citizens, because it tends to elect Council members from a relatively small segment of the population.


According to Wikipedia, Nalle is chairman of the Republican Liberty Caucus, the Libertarian wing of the Republican Party. Nalle declined to name other members of his group, saying that he needed their permission to identify them.


“The only reason he (Leffingwell) is proposing it now is because of the pressure caused by Wentworth filing the bill,” Nalle said. 


However, Leffingwell has been a backer of more than one effort in recent years to bring a single-member district plan before the city’s voters. Last June, In Fact Daily reported that the Mayor, along with Mayor Pro Tem Mike Martinez, said they anticipated proposing City Charter amendments for both Council districts and moving the Council elections from May to November. In 2008, Leffingwell co-sponsored a measure along with Martinez to put the district issue on the May ballot that year. Council did not approve that measure.


Mark Nathan, Leffingwell’s Chief of Staff, told In Fact Daily that some of the interest groups were distorting the Mayor’s previous position on districts.


“Apparently some of the people who support adding geographic districts to the Council are very unhappy about the mayor’s plans to pursue exactly that,” he wrote in an email. “This strikes me as an unconventional approach to advocacy, but perhaps I’m missing something.


Nathan continued, “Anyone who has been paying attention knows that the mayor has favored adding geographic districts to the Council for many years. He voted in favor of putting the question before Austin voters in 2008, and he ran for mayor in 2009 saying that he would pursue the issue again. In fact, it was one of the major differences between him and his main opponent in that race.”


Leffingwell will likely outline his plans to seek a Charter Amendment on the 2012 ballot during his State of the City address set for Feb. 25.


It should be noted that any single-member district plan must win pre-approval from the U.S. Department of Justice, regardless of actions by either the City Council or the State Legislature. Such approval often takes six months or more.

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