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Charter panel debates redistricting under single-member plan

Wednesday, January 25, 2012 by Elizabeth Pagano

Poised to make its official recommendation to the Council at its next meeting, the Charter Revision Committee last week took time to delve into what promises to be the most complicated aspect of a shift to single-member districts: redistricting.


The proponents of a 10-1 plan (10 single-member districts and a Mayor) who have been most vocal, Austinites for Geographic Representation, are endorsing the formation of an independent commission to draw the new lines.


Both Attorney Steve Bickerstaff and long-time political operative Peck Young, with the Austinites for Geographic Representation, presented rough plans for how an independent redistricting commission would be formed and conducted.


Bickerstaff outlined a process where eligible members are chosen from a pool of qualified applicants, either by an auditor or a judge. Eligibility is determined by a number of factors, with applicants being disqualified for things such as previous candidacy for office, work as a political consultant or lobbyist, or a history of large financial contributions in the past, and prohibited from running for office for a set time period in the future.


When asked whether a degree of political involvement might be an asset, Bickerstaff answered, “In the city of Austin, there are many people who feel an obligation to serve the city, but who don’t run for election or serve as paid consultants. And those people, many of them in the audience who you have seen time and time again, are people who are very qualified. I really have no doubt that in the city of Austin there are that many qualified people who are unwilling to get involved in politics, but who would be very well qualified to draw districts.”


“The failure by this Charter Revision Commission or the City Council to give the public an opportunity to create such a commission may doom any chance of convincing voters to change from the current at-large system,” Bickerstaff wrote in a memo to the committee. 


Young also presented a plan, written by Austinites for Geographic Representation, which laid out similar criteria.


“Frankly, I was a skeptic at the beginning of this process and I’m, at this point, inclined favorably toward an independent commission,” said committee member Ted Siff.


Also expressing support for an independent commission was Anita Privett, who spoke on behalf of the League of Women Voters of Texas.


The committee’s working group, which is comprised of Vice Chair Ann Kitchen and Commissioners Siff, Fred Lewis, Margaret Menicucci, and Susan Moffat, will be studying the proposals for an independent redistricting commission.


The group will present a recommendation to the commission at the Feb. 2 meeting. The Charter Revision Commission is expected to vote on geographical district recommendations, including whether an independent commission should be formed, at that meeting.


Public comment will not be part of the commission’s next meeting.


“I think we’ve had an enormous amount of public input up until now. I don’t think that someone coming on next time is going to change our opinion. I think we really just need to decide on a recommendation to the City Council,” said committee member Delores Lenzy-Jones.


Committee member Fred McGhee stressed that he would like the working group to produce as close to a study as possible, in terms of examining other cities that have implemented such a commission.


“One of the general concerns that I have had with our committee’s overall work has been that we have a lot of feelings that have been expressed, but we don’t have enough facts. Facts are not feelings,” said McGhee.

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