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Council to address election postponement and single-member districts

Thursday, August 4, 2011 by Josh Rosenblatt

Council will begin discussion today on two enormous proposed shifts in the way the city votes for its representatives. At Tuesday’s work session, Council members acknowledged the legal and political difficulties that could result from the city’s moving its election day from May to November in 2012 and placing a single-member-district charter amendment on that ballot.


Earlier this summer, the Texas Legislature passed SB 100, which pushes the date for potential federal primary runoffs to the fourth Tuesday in May. For Austin, which holds its City Council elections in May, moving those elections to November might be more convenient and less costly than asking the Travis County Clerk’s Office to hold three elections – a national primary, a possible runoff, and a City Council contest — in such a short period of time.


Travis County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir hasn’t made any statement regarding SB 100, so Council members Sheryl Cole and Laura Morrison placed an item on today’s agenda directing the city manager to identify options and related costs for the administration of both a May 2012 and a November 1012 election.


Actually, the resolution calls for looking into the viability of just the May option, but Cole told her colleagues Tuesday that she would be adding some “clarifying amendments” to the resolution to avoid the appearance of favoritism.


“I was concerned that in presenting this item we did not give the impression that we wanted the city manager to come back with information somehow suggesting one over another,” Cole said. “This resolution simply seeks to help us understand how we’re going to deal with various legal issues that have arisen.”


The main legal question facing Council will be the limits of Council members’ authority to extend their own, or their colleagues’, terms. If Council votes on pushing back elections to November, that will mean that the four Council members up for re-election in 2012 – Cole, Bill Spelman, Mike Martinez, and Mayor Lee Leffingwell – will be voting on extending their own terms for six months. Cole wondered whether such a vote is legal.


“Is it within our purview to vote for an extension of our terms?” she asked.


City Attorney Karen Kennard told Cole that the Law Department would be discussing that issue with Council in executive session today, but according to Leffingwell, “Senate Bill 100 does confer on Council the ability to extend terms in the case that the November date is selected.”


Of course, that does not address the question of whether there would be a public backlash against such a change.


Morrison, the resolution’s co-sponsor, said staff’s conclusions on the viability of those two election dates will help Council choose between two difficult options – holding costly elections without the county’s help and extending the terms of four Council members.


“My goal is to make sure we have all the information out there to make sure we have a very well-informed decision because it is an unusual situation,” said Morrison.


Whether the next election happens in May or November, voters would be asked—for a seventh time—whether they want to change City Council representation from the current at-large system to a single-member or hybrid system. Council will vote on a resolution today that would establish a Charter Revision Committee to “gather public input and provide Council with recommendations” regarding the change.


Mayor Lee Leffingwell has also said he wants those Council Members to serve four-year terms. It is not clear whether the changes would be lumped together or listed separately on the ballot. Leffingwell also wants to permanently change Council elections to November in even-numbered years.


The charter committee – which would be composed of 15 citizens, two picked by each Council member and three picked by the mayor – would make recommendations concerning charter-amendment language and provide proposed districting maps that could include “any combination of at-large and geographic representation” to Council by Jan. 31.


Two of the resolution’s co-sponsors, Cole and Morrison, said they would be pushing for “diversity and balance” on the committee, the better to take into account the opinions of the entire community. Cole in particular stressed the significance of hearing from all parts of the city, especially in light of the fact that a move to a single-member system could imperil the so-called “gentleman’s agreement” that has ensured the presence of an African-American on the Council.


“For me the largest challenge was dealing with the racial makeup of the committee and the alleged ‘gentlemen’s agreement,” Cole said. “So I have talked extensively with stakeholders in the African-American and Hispanic community.”


Cole said she is planning to appoint former State Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos and the NAACP‘s Nelson Linder to the committee. She mentioned that the NAACP “is actually the organization that would sue the city if it is found that the change in this type of system did not comply with the Voting Rights Act.”


Last night, Linder said the Austin chapter of the NAACP has been a supporter of a hybrid model of single-member districts. The question is not whether the NAACP supports single-member districts. Instead, it’s how to do it without diluting the African-American vote.


“We’ve been way out in front on supporting the idea of a hybrid system. Right now we’re still in the research process,” Linder said of drafting a plan. “We need a plan that can be presented to the Department of Justice and meet the requirements of the Voting Rights Act without marginalizing the representation of the African-American community. The plan we will be supporting, at this point, is a 10-seat system, and that’s what we’re working with right now.”

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