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Aquifer district board struggles with politics of redistricting

Tuesday, October 4, 2011 by Elizabeth Pagano

The Barton Springs/Edwards Aquifer Conservation District has some tough redistricting decisions ahead, and some lines have already been drawn.


Currently, board members Bob Larsen, Jack Goodman, and Craig Smith all live in Austin. State law dictates that only two board members come from the city. Either Larsen or Goodman must face the prospect of stepping down running against each other next year. Smith’s term ends in 2014.


Larsen lives in Onion Creek, which the city annexed in 2001. As a result, he is no longer eligible to serve as the representative of a rural district.


The board is most divided over the drawing of Precincts 4 and 5, the two precincts within the city.


“There are three of us in this room. And come next November, there will be only two standing,” said Larsen. “I don’t think anyone should be indemnified from not having to compete with one another. That being said, no one should be protected.”


Goodman is potentially most at risk, depending on which map is selected. Some scenarios have him living outside of his own precinct, and others would have him run against Smith, who is not up for re-election until 2014. Goodman, in that scenario, would effectively be ineligible to serve for at least two years.


“Under this plan, it wouldn’t be the voters who get to decide; it would be us in this room. I think that’s fundamentally unfair,” said Smith. “In effect, this board will have said that Jack Goodman can’t continue to serve as the director of Precinct 4 after next year because he will no longer live in Precinct 4. I think that is not a decision that should be within our power.”


The board ultimately voted against that map but retained several options that would radically shift the makeup of Precinct 4.


For the past 23 years, the two districts have been divided east/west with a line running south from Ladybird Lake. Larsen has advocated for the adoption of maps with a north/south split.


“I advise the board against trying to stratify the precincts into the old Austin hippies in the north and the new Austin suburbanites in the south,” said Smith.


“I think it would not serve the district well to have the two Austin precincts be completely of one stripe or another stripe,” said Smith. “I think having a mix of both old Austin and newer Austin in the same precinct has some moderating advantages.”


Larsen disagreed. He argued that the north/south division would better serve the mission of the district and his own interests, saying, “If you go status quo, and you keep that, I think you’re not reflecting neighborhoods, you’re not reflecting change. But by reflecting change, you’re changing the vote and the type of vote you are going to get.”


“I have a great deal more in common with the areas that are annexed or are going to be annexed than I do with the downtown area, and so if I am going to go north and south, the northern part of that district is just not something that I represent,” said Larsen. “If we stratify it north/south versus east/west, then I have a complex, diverse-type of a situation where I am not representing my constituents because I have two different constituencies.”


Larsen also endorsed maps that would retain the east/west split but exclude neighborhoods like Zilker and Bouldin Creek from Precinct 4. Goodman called the move “blatantly political.”


Despite the contentious tone of the negotiations, the board eventually voted 5-0 to accept three maps out of the initial nine that best illustrate each plan. They will hold a public hearing to discuss the three maps in the future.


“The process that we are going through right now, in my estimation, is not a good thing. What’s happening is that we are pitting board member against board member, and I think that’s something that is perverse in politics. I don’t like it at all,” said Larsen.

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