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Mayor to formally endorse single-member Council districts

Thursday, February 24, 2011 by Jo Clifton

On Friday, as he gives his State of the City address, Mayor Lee Leffingwell will formally endorse preparations for what he says “could be the most pivotal election in a generation” in November 2012.


If Leffingwell can convince a majority of his colleagues to vote for the ballot measures he is proposing, city voters will have a chance to weigh in not only on a multitude of transportation proposals including an urban rail system, but also on single-member districts and a change to Council members’ terms.


A majority of the Council has endorsed the idea of single-member districts, but Leffingwell stresses that the ideas he would be espousing are his and his alone. He acknowledges the long path those proposals will have to take — including the drawing of specific maps, the appointment of a task force or committee of citizens, and a multitude of public meetings, as well as approval from the U.S. Justice Department.  


“What we’re going to propose is to add six geographic districts, two at large and Mayor at large for a total of nine members on the Council,” he told In Fact Daily Wednesday, adding that a Council larger than nine would be unwieldy.


One reason for his seeking the change to single-member districts, which Austin voters have rejected six times in the past, is the lack of citizen participation in City Council races. 


“The general objectives are to achieve more diversity for the Council, especially geographic diversity,” he said. Leffingwell noted that when he ran for mayor in 2009, the turnout was 13 percent, “one of the highest turnouts of any recent city election,” while only 5 percent of registered voters participated in the runoff election between Laura Morrison and Cid Galindo in 2008. To eliminate that problem, Leffingwell would like to see an “instant runoff,” with voters designating a second choice when there are more than two candidates or giving the highest vote getter the seat regardless of the number of votes he/she receives.


In addition, Leffingwell said he hopes to move regular City Council elections to November of odd-numbered years and give Council Members four-year terms. Currently, Council members’ terms are three years and are staggered. Leffingwell acknowledged that such a change could result in an all-new City Council at some point but said, “If that actually happened you would have to say that probably a clean sweep was needed, or something generated the cause for that.” 


Asked whether his election plan is predicated on his re-election next spring, Leffingwell replied, “Presumably that would be the case, and there’s no assurance of that at all. And I don’t see why someone else couldn’t pick up the banner and carry it through; it wouldn’t necessarily have to be me.”


The Council will not set the ballot for November 2012 until late summer of next year. Leffingwell said the current system has cost taxpayers $10 million over the past 12 years but the revised system would cost about $3 million.


In addition to the ballot items, Leffingwell will tell those attending Friday’s speech, “The state of our city is strong and it’s getting stronger every day. We’ve worked our way through this recession as well or better than any other city in America.”


Leffingwell added, “If there were a list of lists, I assume we would be on that list,” referring to the many times Austin has placed at our near the top of national lists of the best places to live and have a good time.


The State of the City address is scheduled for 8:30am Friday in City Council Chambers and will be hosted by the Downtown Austin Alliance.

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