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Travis County Commissioners take no action during redistricting hearing

Wednesday, July 13, 2011 by Elizabeth Pagano

The Travis County Commissioner’s Court once again tackled its upcoming redistricting, centering on a battle to keep voting precincts 101 and 106 in Precinct One.

Commissioners Court was packed Tuesday with supporters of a map drawn by local political consultant Alfred Stanley and submitted by Pct 1. Commissioner Ron Davis, who attempted to call a vote to accept his proposed map about 10 minutes into the public hearing.

Davis later withdrew his request after being reminded that just last week he had asked the court to postpone discussing the matter in his absence, and it might be more gracious to offer the same consideration to Pct. 3 Commissioner Karen Huber, who was absent.

If I’m not mistaken, we told Ms. Huber we would not take action today except to conduct a public hearing,” said County Judge Sam Biscoe.Last week we left this off the agenda because you were not available and we had promised you if you were not there, we wouldn’t take action, in fact, we wouldn’t bring the issue up. So we left it off the agenda. In fairness to Commissioner Huber, we ought not to take action.”

Precincts 101 and 106, both located in East Austin, have traditionally been home to much of the African-American community in Austin. However, the relatively small districts have shifted demographically in recent years, and no longer have the black population that they once had.

The public testimony overwhelmingly concerned the retention of these precincts in Precinct One. Austin NAACP President Nelson Linder warned the Commissioners Court to “proceed in fairness” as they continue the process.

“Based on what I’ve seen thus far, in some of these plans it’s very clear there’s a certain kind of political manipulation occurring,” said Linder. “I can assure you, if there is any attempt to discriminate against the African-American population we’re going to sue.”

Commissioner Eckhardt was the most outspoken member of the court on this issue, despite the fact that most of the discussion took place about voting precincts that were decidedly not in her precinct.

“It’s not that I am invested in 106 or 101 per se, it’s that I am invested in having a holistic approach to redistricting that adheres to the highest spirit of the Voting Rights Act,” she told In Fact Daily.

“We’ve already managed what we can do in regards to my precinct. I am giving up one of my two municipalities to Precinct One so that the percentage of black population goes from 17 percent, roughly, to more than 20 percent.  Which is a big sacrifice on my part, but I’m certainly willing to do it because it’s in the higher spirit of the act,” said Eckhardt. “I’m a little resentful that we’ve come down to haggling over what simply needs to be done.”

Though she expressed an opinion that they should be incorporated into Precinct Four to help balance its population growth, in her conversation with In Fact Daily, Eckhardt acknowledged the historical importance of the controversial precincts, noting they were the site of both a freedmen’s colony as well as the interracial marriage of Dr. John Webber and Silvia Webber in the 1800s.

“I give that a considerable amount of weight. There is an exceedingly legitimate concern with regards to the history of precincts 106 and 101,” said Eckhardt. “What is not legitimate, and I think it’s because we have not done a good job communicating, there seems to be unwarranted fear in the African-American community that the movement of 106 and 101 is about diluting their voting strength, when that’s not at all what it’s about.”

“We’re not doing a good job of getting the message out that every single map, every single one of them increases the percentage of black voting strength,” said Eckhardt. “And the way it got increased was by me giving up Pflugerville.”

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