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Workman bill would force single-member districts on Austin

Friday, April 15, 2011 by Kimberly Reeves

The idea of single-member districts might not have gained a lot of momentum since 2008 when a split City Council decided to put off another election on the matter, but Rep. Paul Workman (R-Austin) is ready to force the change. He presented his plan to the House Urban Affairs Committee this week.


In Texas, cities with a population of 1.1 million or greater are required to elect their Council members by single-member districts under state law. Workman’s bill, House Bill 1175, would lower the threshold to 500,000 to capture Austin, requiring the city to elect an at-large mayor and representatives from at least six single-member districts, plus any number of at-large members.


Such a system provides broader participation and representation in municipal government, Workman told the committee, chaired by Rep. Harold Dutton (D-Houston). Workman said without such districts distinct population centers end up without representation, adding that single-member districts guarantee that councils would represent the interests of the various communities within the city.


“Members in my district asked me about single-member districts, and this is the reason why we brought this forward,” Workman said.


Workman, who represents southwest Travis County, didn’t have to be the one to press the issue the hardest. James Vonwolske, a member of Central Texas Republican Liberty Caucus, told the committee on Wednesday night that voter disenfranchisement was the reason the bill was needed. Everything Council does is done by and for the downtown business district, Vonwolske said.


“The Red Line, which is the commuter rail line, goes out in Leander. Where does it dump off? In downtown. Does anybody ride it? No,” Vonwolkse said. “Meanwhile, we go deeper in debt, deeper in debt. It’s hundreds of millions of dollars going down the tubes.” Of course, the City Council does not run the Red Line. That belongs to the Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority.


Downtown interests can drum up voter turnout for their candidates, Vonwolske said. The rest of the city simply thinks, “What’s the point?” In the meantime, plenty of people have found it easier to live, and work, far from downtown. The paradigm shifts, but the representation does not, Vonwolske said.


Speakers like Luis Figueroa of Mexican-American Legal Defense and Education Fund, or MALDEF, argued single-member districts were long overdue and a strong policy model, with more responsiveness to the minority community.


Council Member Sheryl Cole, the sole person who testified against the bill on behalf of Council, noted the city’s charter prohibits Council from changing the city’s form of government, absent a voter election. That election, Cole said, would be called for next November.


“We certainly do appreciate Rep. Workman’s concerns about the areas of the city having adequate representation on a geographic basis,” said Cole, who has made a specific point of meeting with organizations in Oak Hill. “I am sure all of my colleagues have agreed to vote out a bill for single-member districts from the Council. So it’s not a situation that we’re against the concept. We’re just against the concept this way.”


Both Dutton and Rep. Barbara Mallory Caraway, a former Dallas Council member, questioned the speakers closely about past referendums. Cole confirmed that voters had rejected the proposal at the polls in 2002 and that it had failed at Council, most recently, on a vote of 4-3. Caraway, who is now married to the acting Dallas Mayor Dwaine Caraway, expressed her strong doubts about lawmakers overriding the wishes of the voters, regardless of what her own personal preferences might have been on the subject.


Roger Borgelt, vice chairman of the Travis County Republican Party, presented his party’s support for the concept. Borgelt argued that the long-standing gentleman’s agreement that provided seats for minority representation on Council – one seat for an African-American and another for a Hispanic – was now insufficient, given the city’s demographic trends.


Borgelt provided a map that showed where the mayor and all Council members lived, noting the heavy concentration in the central city.


“As you can see, we don’t have representation except for a two or three zip code area in the central part of Austin,” Borgelt told the committee. “With that situation going on, it’s very difficult to encourage people from other parts of the city to vote, to run, to participate.”


Single-member representation should increase the representation of both minorities and conservatives, Borgelt said.


“I think what we found in the past elections that we’ve had, and the most recent almost 10 years ago, is that the core group in control consistently turns out in these elections and votes against it,” he said. “I appreciate the lip service to giving us another election, but I don’t know if I can trust it to give us the representation we all deserve. I think that they’ll get their vote out and vote this down.”


Caraway said, for the record, she would trust the voters.


“I trust the voters,” Caraway said. “I may not always agree with their decision, but I trust the voters. We have to accept the voters’ decision.”


Borgelt said election trends showed a death spiral. Around 8 percent of Austin’s voters turn out to the polls in most elections, with the central city showing the strongest turnout. Those outside the city’s core, while growing in population, generally declined to participate in city races. The voting trend of 30 years ago is still the trend of today, Borgelt said. Committee members weren’t convinced.


“I’m not suggesting that voters can’t be influenced one way or the other,” Caraway said. “But the bottom is, 8 or 2 percent, it is what it is.”


The bill was left pending in the committee.

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