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Elizabeth Pagano is the editor of the Austin Monitor.
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Split committee opts for 10-1 single-member district Council system
Friday, February 3, 2012 by Elizabeth Pagano
After a heated, sometimes emotional discussion, the Charter Revision Committee voted 8-7 Thursday on its recommendation on single-member districts, opting for a geographic- based system consisting of 10 districts and an at-large mayor.
An initial vote to change from the at-large system to geographic-based districts went quickly, with the committee voting for change 14-1. Committee Member Ken Rigsbee cast the lone dissenting vote.
What proved to be a sticking point was the proposed retention of two at-large Council seats. Vice Chair Ann Kitchen proposed a 10-2-1 model, in the hopes that a compromise might allow the committee to come to some sort of consensus.
“I think it is critical for our committee to bring forth consensus, and because I believe geographic representation is very important, I think 10 is an important number that we need to meet from a geographic representation standpoint. But I also believe that we heard compelling and very critical and important testimony from segments of the community that felt like it was important for them to have a larger representation than just geographic. And I do not see the interests of the communities as incompatible,” said Kitchen.
Most vocally, members of the Asian-American community have argued in favor of some at-large retention, given their lack of geographic concentration.
Though Kitchen asked that her amendment be adopted as friendly, the maker of the motion, Nelson Linder, did not accept it as friendly, and it was subsequently voted down 8-7.
Committee members seemed stuck in their original positions—either in favor of or steadfastly opposed to at-large representation. The split was 8-7 against at-large representation, with Chair Gonzalo Barrientos and Committee Members Fred Cantu, Delia Garza, Delores Lenzy-Jones, Fred Lewis, Nelson Linder, Kathleen Vale, and Ken Rigsbee finally prevailing.
Voting for the hybrid system were David Butts, Richard Jung, Margaret Menicucci, Susan Moffat, Ted Siff, Fred McGhee, and Kitchen.
“At large systems suppress and dilute minority voter impact,” said Cantu, who said he did not think an at-large minority Council member would ever be elected.
Garza objected to a hybrid system on the grounds that at-large Council Members would function as “mayors-in-waiting” and contribute to a power imbalance on the Council.
Despite his opposition to the change, Rigsbee voted in favor of the 10-1 system.
“Had I abstained, we would have had a hung jury,” Rigsbee told In Fact Daily. “And I thought we needed to get rid of the issue. We could have met four or five more times and really not resolved it.”
Rigsbee explained to In Fact Daily that he decided to favor the 10-1 system because of the increased cost and size of a 13-member City Council. “Where are we going to house them?” said Rigsbee.
Committee Member David Butts noted that it was likely that future City Council elections would be held in November, which is assumed will increase voter turnout considerably, and increase the cost of campaigns even with smaller districts.
“Who is going to provide that money for those single-member districts? Do not think that just because we have single-member districts that somehow we have inured ourselves to the evil of money. We have 150 districts up at the Reichstag (Capitol) up the street from here. And quite frankly, I would say lots of them are heavily under the influence of the money that runs the State of Texas,” said Butts.
“Don’t think there isn’t money to be made in this city. There is. And some people would love to see the system changed so they can start playing,” said Butts. “If you want to go to a large number of districts, the system is going to change dramatically. And it’s not all going to be for the good.”
Earlier, the committee voted to recommend the formation of an independent redistricting commission in a vote of 13-2, with Butts and Fred McGhee voting in opposition.
After a prolonged discussion of options, the committee also opted to meet one final time, on Feb. 16, in order to ensure that staff’s written record of its decision accurately represented the discussion and opinions of the committee.
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