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Council members clarify approach to charter revision process

Wednesday, April 4, 2012 by Josh Rosenblatt

Council Member Bill Spelman is pushing for a fast-tracked charter revision plan that would mean Council elections, and possibly a new approach to city elections in general, happening by November 2013. At their work session yesterday, Council members threw their support behind a plan that would get a citizen’s advisory redistricting commission working on the details immediately.

The issue with the redistricting commission is, as with many of the issues related to single-member districts and changes to the city’s voting practices, a matter of time and federal preclearance. Under the Voting Rights Act, any changes the city makes to its elections need to be pre-cleared by the Department of Justice.

Rather than cede to Assistant City Attorney John Steiner’s belief that such changes wouldn’t be ready in time for the November 2013 election (“It’s possible but the planets would have to line up just right, and planets don’t tend to line up just right,” Steiner said), Spelman pushed to make 2013 the city’s goal.

“It seems to me if we can’t find some way of getting started with the commission before November we will not be able to make our deadline for 2013,” said Spelman. All of this would not matter, of course, if voters reject single-member districts, as they have six times in the past.

With that in mind, Council directed staff to come up with a plan that would allow a redistricting advisory committee to get to work now, rather than wait for preclearance.  

“That way we might have time to appoint a commission, get them started, have them spit out some ideas which are not necessarily the final idea, maybe not finishing the public hearing process, but we would have a sense for what maps could be generated by that commission,” Spelman said to summarize Council’s direction. “Then we preclear the commission and whatever redistricting form we adopted in November. And find some instrument that would allow the advisory commission to transform into a formal commission with the authority of actually coming up with a map.”

Council members also approved several recommendations from staff designed to smooth the city’s way toward a charter election. Those recommendations distinguish between items from the Charter Revision Commission that can be decided by Council ordinance and those that require a popular vote, and they allow for the combining of certain items on the ballot.

Staff came up with seven of the commission’s 19 recommendations that can be approved via ordinance. The first mandates that the jurisdiction and enforcement powers of the Ethics Review Commission include violations of campaign finance law; the second regulates campaign contributions made within nine days of an election. The third enhances disclosure of independent campaign expenditures, the fourth creates a campaign finance database, and the fifth requires more information from so-called “bundlers.”

The sixth limits the amount a registered city lobbyist can bundle, and the seventh recommends the use of an independent redistricting commission. On Monday the working group of the Charter Revision Commission sent a letter to Council recommending that all but the last item be determined by ordinance.

Council also threw their support behind a plan to combine multiple items into individual measures on the ballot, the easier, staff believes, for voters to understand what they’re voting on come November. For example, four items related to various city officials’ authority to appoint their own deputies would count as one ballot item.

However, Council determined it need time in executive session this Thursday to discuss more thoroughly combining two items related to restrictions on officeholder accounts, and also combining the creation of the independent commission with the item changing the current at-large system to a 10-1 single-member-district form of government.

In addition, Council turned down staff’s recommendation to combine any other ballot items with the one that would move city elections to November.  

“You’re making a critical item, which is moving the election from May to November, sort of held hostage by approving the other things,” said Mayor Lee Leffingwell. “I would like to see that as a stand-alone item.”

It also looks like Council may push for a complete reset of the Council if a new single-member system is approved by voters, rather than a phased-in plan. Any phase-in, said Council Member Mike Martinez, would invite confusing situations whereby current, at-large Council members could end up temporarily representing districts they don’t live in.

“Those scenarios are never ending,” Martinez said. “The reset is the cleanest and clearest way.”

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