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Council begins process to change charter, draw single-member districts

Friday, April 22, 2011 by Mark Richardson

Council members will vote next week on starting the process of placing several proposed city charter amendments on the November 2012 ballot that would ultimately transform the Council into geographic districts. 


Mayor Lee Leffingwell, Mayor Pro Tem Mike Martinez and Council Member Bill Spelman are sponsoring the item that would instruct the City Manager to prepare a set of charter amendments to accomplish their goals.


The city has held seven elections over the years, putting the question of single-member districts before the voters, but it has been rejected in each instance.


The main amendment would be to add geographic representation to the Council, consisting of six members elected from geographic districts, two members elected at large, and a mayor elected at large.


The item also seeks charter amendments that would have the City Attorney report directly to the City Council, and authorize the direct appointment of deputies and support staff by the City Clerk, the City Auditor, the City Attorney and the City Council. Council members were taken aback during recent discussions about email retention to learn that they did not have the authority to set policy on the matter for their own aides since every employee of the city not directly appointed by Council technically is under the city manager.


Other proposed charter amendments would move municipal elections from May to November in odd-numbered years, starting in 2013; change Council terms of office from 3 years to 4 years; eliminate staggered terms, with all City Council seats elected at once every 4 years; and maintain the current $350 individual campaign contribution limit for geographic seats, with a $700 limit for at-large seats.


Leffingwell, Martinez and Spelman said the proposed reforms are intended to improve Austin’s system of elections, representation and governance.


“Unfortunately, when it comes time for Austin citizens to choose their representatives at City Hall, they tend to stay away from the polls in droves,” said Leffingwell.  Our goal in advancing these reforms is to increase turnout in city elections, deliver better representation for more people, and save money by holding fewer elections.”


“These proposed charter amendments are about making Austin City Hall more accountable and more responsive,” said Martinez. “It’s time to ensure that we have representatives at City Hall who are from every part of the community, with an intimate knowledge of citizens concerns at the neighborhood level.”


“We can have the best of both worlds by adding geographic representatives to the Council while maintaining some at large representatives with a citywide perspective,” said Spelman. “I look forward to working with my Council colleagues and the community to fashion a strong proposal that ultimately earns broad support at the ballot box.”


Leffingwell, Martinez and Spelman expect to forward the proposed city charter amendments to a Council-appointed Charter Revision Commission for review and community input later this year, in anticipation of a November 2012 election.


The item directs the City Manager to prepare and present to the City Council within 90 days a proposed map consisting of six geographic Council districts to accompany the proposed city charter amendments. After that, there would be a redistricting process in which city staff delivers a proposed redistricting map to a seven-member citizen redistricting commission, vested with the authority to approve a final map.

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