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Council members present first single-member plans

Wednesday, June 13, 2012 by Josh Rosenblatt

Mayor Lee Leffingwell and Council Member Mike Martinez presented proposals on Tuesday to change the city’s election system to adopt a geographic representation model.

During the City Council work session they said they plan to bring the competing proposals to Council for a vote on June 28, the last Council meeting before it goes on its July recess.

That Council meeting later this month should be where the fun really starts, as Council members attempt to make heads or tails out of the nearly infinite number of variations as they prepare for a November charter election.

Martinez’s plan is simple enough: 10 single-member-district Council members and one at-large mayor. Martinez has been pushing the 10-1 plan for months, and he made it a cornerstone of his recent re-election campaign. Martinez said the plan would be co-sponsored by Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole. Cole told Council Tuesday she favored the 10-1 plan because it represents the best opportunity for African-American representation on the Council.

Leffingwell’s plan is less specific when it comes to single-member districts. It proposes some kind of hybrid single-member/at-large system, increasing Council member terms to four years from three, staggering the terms and holding elections in November of years ending an even numbers.

After presenting his proposal, Martinez said the 10-1 plan is almost the same as the one a local group, Austinites for Geographic Representation, put on a petition. They’re hoping to get 30,000 valid signatures by June 28. However, he said there are certain provisions in that petition that he finds troubling, primarily ones that would keep city elections in May.

“That to me is troubling because I don’t believe that many of the folks that are signing on to this petition are aware,” Martinez said.

He also took issue with the group’s push for an independent redistricting commission to draw the new district lines. Though he supports the idea of such a commission, Martinez said the petition’s qualifiers and disqualifiers for participation on that commission (for example, those who have been paid political consultants, lobbyists, elected officials or appointees, or campaign bundlers within the last five years would be ineligible) are “pretty strict and would preclude many, many folks who might want to serve in this capacity in helping us draw these districts,” he said.

Martinez also said he could not support the provision stating that the City Council “shall provide adequate (legal) funding to defend any action regarding a certified map” approved by the commission.

“We relinquish our authority as a body when something like this is adopted,” Martinez said. “I don’t believe that our hands should be tied. I think this Council should continue to maintain authority, especially as it relates to drawing the initial district lines and redistricting. I maintain that we are the governing body and we should ultimately be able to represent the citizens and make decisions as we do on many other issues.”

Perhaps the most difficult job facing the Council as it prepares items for the November ballot will be choosing how to present these to voters. For example, should the Council aim for a single package of proposals that wins or loses as one item, such as Leffingwell’s proposed plan? Or, would it be best (and legal) to allow the citizens to vote on each item individually, a la carte, and cobble together the perfect plan, e.g., four-year terms, November elections, and 10-1?

Legal consultant Sid Falk, an attorney with Bickerstaff Heath Delgado Acosta, said Council has the authority to develop the transition plan that ultimately becomes the package the city goes forward with. However, Leffingwell was quick to point out that voting on items separately could result in a situation where certain elements don’t work together (say, three-year terms and elections in even-numbered years).

“If we consider them all separately we might end up with a Mr. Potato Head with one eye and two noses,” the Mayor said.

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