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Deeply divided Charter panel briefs Council on districts plans

Friday, March 9, 2012 by Elizabeth Pagano

The Charter Revision Committee presented its recommendations to City Council in a briefing yesterday, and tension between those who voted for strict geographic representation and those who voted for a hybrid system was still palpable.


Ultimately, the committee voted in favor of a system with 10 districts and one at-large mayor. But it was a close vote, with the committee essentially divided 7-7. Committee Member Ken Rigsbee, who supports staying with the current at-large system, finally joined the 10-1 crowd, giving them the majority.


Since then, Rigsbee has been clear that he cast his vote to prevent a stalemate. And despite a meeting held solely to address just how majority and minority opinions would be presented to City Council, it appears that both sides still want their voices to be heard.


Committee Member Nelson Linder, who is president of the Austin NAACP, said that a hybrid system would create a system where some people had more power than others, and that he would reject that with “every breath that we have.” He called the hybrid plan a “last-ditch effort to keep this old system in place.”


“We will assure you that if you don’t employ our recommendation, which you asked for, not us… We are going to process. This is 2012. We’ve been in court before,” said Linder.


Committee Member Fred McGhee, another African-American member of the committee, spoke to Council as well, noting that the African-American community in Austin was divided on the issue of what type of system to put in place.


McGhee, and fellow committee members Richard Jung and Delores Lenzy-Jones were not originally scheduled to speak. Both McGhee and Jung had favored the hybrid system passionately in previous meetings.


When asked by Mayor Lee Leffingwell if he had any objection to them speaking, Chair Gonzalo Barrientos replied, “It’s a free country, and you are the government of our fair city. All I will say is that, that being the case, you may want to contact the rest of the members of the committee to see if they wanted to come before the Council.”


The committee also voted to establish an independent redistricting committee that would create the districts, and submitted guidelines for the formation of that committee in lieu of a map.


“It’s frankly more likely to pass,” said Committee Member Fred Lewis, who noted that 10 years ago Council decided to ignore a recommendation to have an independent redistricting committee, couldn’t agree on lines before the election, and failed to convince voters that drawing them after the election was a good idea.


“That was one of the worst defeats we’ve ever received on voting for geographic representation, and I think it’s clear that the citizens want a fair process in the drawing of lines, so that their representation is assured,” said Lewis.


Though Council Member Bill Spelman said that he was “in awe” of what Lewis termed, “a very elaborate process, with a lot of details,” he also had concerns.


“It all requires a large number of people who are willing to participate in this thing. You started with, I think, 60 people who have to get through that first screening by the city auditor. I’m not sure we have 60 people in town who are willing to beat their brains against the wall for several weeks in order to do this,” said Spelman.


“I know that up until a couple of years ago, we had a tremendous problem just getting people to fill up our boards and commissions, which only require, usually, seven people per board,” said Spelman.


In response to Spelman’s question about how the independent commissions have been received, Lewis said, “I think it’s fair to say that they have been well-received by the public. They have not been well-received by people who benefited by the drawing of gerrymandered lines… You will see complaints about the process, but it’s by people who did well in the prior redistricting system. Which usually, frankly, is incumbents, or whoever is in control of the process.”

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