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Mayor pushes Council districts, announces run for re-election

Thursday, October 27, 2011 by Kimberly Reeves

Mayor Lee Leffingwell used a speech at the Real Estate Council of Austin on Wednesday to pitch his proposal for single-member districts, as well as four-year concurrent Council terms and a permanent move to November elections.


That pitch was only topped by Leffingwell’s acknowledgment to the crowd that, yes, he would be seeking a second term as mayor next May. Starting soon after he was elected in 2009, Leffingwell has not made a secret of his desire to serve a second term.


Leffingwell, who was on the losing side of the recent Council vote to move election dates, pegged his proposals on the fact that only 7.4 percent of Austinites participated in the last city election. Turnout in city elections has been on a steady decline for well over two decades, he said.


“If the process by which we elect our representatives reflects the opinion of just 4 percent of us or even just 2 percent of us, something has gone seriously wrong,” Leffingwell said. “There’s really very little reason to believe that the process by which we make city policy would be any more inclusive.”


To boost participation, Leffingwell wants a nine-member Council that includes six members from geographic districts, plus three at-large seats, including the mayor. If a citizen-led petition drive puts the 10-1 plan – all single-member districts plus the mayor – on the ballot next May before a planned proposal in November, it could “significantly muddy the waters,” Leffingwell said.


“The only thing perfectly clear to me is that we’re going to have some kind of major drama next spring,” Leffingwell told the crowd.


Leffingwell also would like to see Council terms extended from three to four years and end the staggering of terms as a cost-savings measure. Each election avoided is a million dollars saved by the city, he said.


Council elections should be moved from May to November in odd-numbered years, Leffingwell said. ”Taking that step alone will significantly increase the number of voters participating in every election,” he said.


Leffingwell also proposed raising campaign contribution limits for candidates who run city wide, noting that it takes upwards of $100,000 to run an effective city campaign. Geographic districts would lower the barrier to entry for others, he said.


“I do believe very strongly that it’s time for us to advance major structural reforms at City Hall to make it easier for more people – many, many more people – to participate,” Leffingwell said. “If we don’t, I fear that we risk losing some – or even a lot – of what makes Austin a great American city.”


The proposal to move elections from May to November got the biggest applause from the audience. During the question-and-answer session, former Council Member Ronnie Reynolds questioned whether all Council seats up at the same was a wise move given the potential turnover, and Leffingwell admitted he might be swayed to change his mind on that particular point. On points such as the election date, the mayor seemed more adamant.


“We can reverse course and significantly increase voter turnout in Austin. We can deliver better representation for more people. We can help more people participate in our elections and our policy-making, and we can make Austin City Hall more inclusive, more accountable, and more responsive,” Leffingwell said as he closed his speech. “It’s just going to take people like you choosing to be part of that effort.”


Asked about potential bonds on the ballot next November for urban rail, Leffingwell said city staff would be coming up with a needs assessment in the next couple of weeks, even as work groups continue to hash out the issue.


“We are not where we need to be to advance that item,” Leffingwell said.


Any final mobility package would be regional – downtown rail, urban rail, commuter rail, bus rapid transit and highway improvements – and likely cost in the billions, Leffingwell said. What would be taken to the voters next November would be the first phase of that proposal, one that would allow the city to participate in an initial phase of rail if funding can be matched by a federal New Starts grant.

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