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Council tackles Charter Revision Committee recommendations

Thursday, March 22, 2012 by Josh Rosenblatt

At Tuesday’s Council work session, Council members, city staff, and outside counsel started the heavy lifting on several proposals that would radically change the way the city is governed and how it holds elections. Though no votes were taken or decisions made, it was clear that any hopes of having these changes in place by the target date of November 2013 may turn out to be impossible.

The proposals, recommended for 2012 ballot consideration by the Charter Revision Commission, would, among other things, move city elections from May to November and change City Council from an at-large system to a 10-1 single-member-district system. The committee also voted to establish an independent citizens commission to draw the new districts.

The issue for the city and the Council going forward is about timing and federal guidelines. As part of the Voting Rights Act, Austin is required to pre-clear all changes to its voting practices with the Department of Justice. Because the city cannot move forward with any plans to revise its charter without that preclearance, trying to get everything done in time for a November 2013 election would make for what city lawyer Sabine Romero called a “very, very tight schedule.”

According to Syd Falk, an attorney with Bickerstaff Heath Delgado Acosta, a law firm the city has hired to help with the process, the Department of Justice gets 60 days to review any election changes, with the possibility of 60 more. That means up to 120 days to pre-clear the November 2012 election, up to 120 days to pre-clear the substance of the charter changes voted on, and up to 120 days to pre-clear the final plan.

Add to that the many weeks, even months, it could take the independent commission to come up with a plan concerning single-member districts and voting dates, and a process of public input, and Falk said he is doubtful the city will make the May 2013 time limit for when prospective candidates would have to file their first financial reports with the city.

“It’s a very tight schedule,” Falk told the Council, “and the victim of that schedule is going to be the redistricting process itself.” Falk said he was even skeptical the process would be over in time for the August deadline for candidates filing to run for particular seats.

That led Council Member Mike Martinez to one conclusion.

“Even on the most aggressive timelines, it looks like November 2014,” he said. “I foresee this being drawn out. The political reality is, in the redistricting process, once neighborhoods are split, once ZIP codes are split, I can see that public discussion going on for a lengthy amount of time.”

Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole took the opportunity to point out to her colleagues that they were there to make “some preliminary decisions to staff about what we want” in order to move the process forward.

“I would be in favor of only looking at a decision that contemplated as an initial step the majority recommendation of the (Charter Revision Committee) 10-1 district plan and the minority recommendation (a hybrid plan with 10 districts, two at-large Council members, and one at-large mayor) only and not any other scenario,” Cole said. On Council’s direction, staff could start putting together the outline of a plan based on that recommendation, she said.

But Mayor Lee Leffingwell said the original resolution from Council dictates their looking at six-member, eight-member, and 10-member systems.

“I think it’s time we start making some decisions to narrow down the possibilities for the public and that we give staff,” Cole responded. “We’re just not going to get to a decision point if we don’t.”

Council Member Laura Morrison said she had concerns about moving from an at-large system to single-member districts with all the seats being up for grabs at the same time, as some have suggested. Starting fresh, as it were. Council members currently serve staggered terms, with elections taking place two out of every three years. Morison believes keeping that system in place would be best.

”We do have that option,” she said. “Not all districts would be up for the first election cycle.”

Romero said one possibility would be – provided everything is ready in time for 2013 elections – to put only the new seats on that ballot. The seats of sitting Council members would remain staggered — places one, three, and four in 2014 and two, five, and six in 2015.

In the end, Council directed staff to bring back to them at their April 3 work session recommendations on how best to transition to both a 10-1 and a 10-2-1 system, an overview of what items from the revision committee can be done by ordinance and which would require a charter vote, and a suggestion on bundling certain items to make implementation easier and quicker.

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