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Lines drawn in battle over single-member districts

Monday, December 5, 2011 by Elizabeth Pagano

The Charter Revision Committee had a standing-room only crowd for its second public hearing at the Carver Library Thursday night. So many people signed up to speak that the meeting was cut short, with the overwhelming majority speaking in favor of single-member districts in some shape or form, but no clear favorite.


At the meeting there was support for a 10-1 system, with 10 geographically based City Council representatives and one at-large mayor; an 8-4-1 system, which would have four at-large City Council members; a 8-2-1 system; and the 6-2-1 system initially endorsed by Mayor Lee Leffingwell.


Attorney David Richards, who was invited to speak on the options currently on the table, advocated a switch to a pure single-member system, calling the hybrid options “partial dilution.”


“You are not altering the system one whit, in my opinion, if you start creating blended systems,” said Richards. “I am a total believer in single-member districts, and I’m also a total believer that the evil in our politics is money. I think anytime if you want to blend those two things, you come immediately to the conclusion that the only way you defeat excessive money in politics is through single-member districts. And the thought that Austin, at this point in time and size, is still electing at-large is a mockery.”


Speaking in favor of a hybrid system that would allow for some at-large members was former Council Member Jennifer Kim, who said she had “serious concerns” about the 10-1 plan. Her concerns were shared by President of the Network of Asian-American Associations Channy Soeur and Austin Asian American Chamber of Commerce Chairperson Ali Khataw, who also spoke in favor of retaining some number of at-large Council seats. All three argued that the Asian-American community would not be served well by a district system.


Committee Member Richard Jung echoed their concerns.


“In some ways, my community is just out of luck. We’re not large enough, we were stupid enough to live all across the city. We have no historical relevance to this conversation in a lot of ways,” said Jung. “I find that factually our community was able to elect an Asian-American to City Council in an at-large race. In some ways, it is very important for us to just have an Asian-American to address some issues.”


Texas NAACP President Gary Bledsoe did not take a position on any of the plans in particular but did speak to the history of the “gentleman’s agreement” that has dedicated City Council seats to minority representation over the years.


“One of the problems that we found with the at-large system is that, even though you have a gentleman’s agreement, the system lent itself to allowing people outside the minority community to make the selection of the minority in that spot,” said Bledsoe.


Jorge Guerra, who Chair Gonzalo Barrientos referred to as “The Mayor of East Austin,” advocated for geographical representation, which he feels would even out the attention different neighborhoods in the city receive or don’t receive. He expressed frustration at the resources available downtown as compared to East Austin. It was a frustration shared by many in attendance, who cheered his remarks.


Despite the tone of the room, it remains to be seen whether a majority of Austinites are ready to embrace single-member districts in any form. As Committee member Ken Rigsbee reminded the committee, in 1973, 1978, 1985, 1988, 1994, and 2002, Austinites rejected ballot initiatives for single-member districts. The Mayor and Council have indicated that they want another vote on the matter next November and have asked the committee to come up with ideas for that ballot.

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