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Dueling geographic-representation plans likely in November

Friday, June 29, 2012 by Josh Rosenblatt

After hours of heated public comments last night, City Council split the difference on the controversial subject of single-member districts and voted to put one geographic-redistricting proposal on the November ballot while approving a second, opposing plan on first reading.

The split result was perhaps inevitable after Council Member Mike Martinez and Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole dropped their opposition to a citizens redistricting commission earlier in the day, paving the way for them to adopt the exact language of citizens group Austinites for Geographic Representation for their own single-member-district item.

Previously Martinez and Cole had expressed concern that the group’s proposed Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission would prevent certain people from participating in the drawing of district lines and take that authority out of the hands of the city’s elected officials. Yesterday, though, Martinez said the group’s efforts to get more than 20,000 signatures in favor of their plan had convinced him to change his mind.

“It would be inappropriate to not honor the work that’s been done, whether you support it or not,” Martinez said of the group’s petition efforts. “A movement has occurred; the work has been done, and it should be respected and honored.” Martinez pointed out that adopting the language of the petition will mean city staff won’t have to spend time and money counting and verifying that petition’s signatures.

Cole agreed, arguing that citizens’ concerns about a lack of representation in the city should take precedence over other districting considerations. “If people feel like they’re not being represented we have to let them vote on that,” she said.

The issue will come down to whether Austin voters want a pure single-member system or a hybrid system with both single-member and at-large seats. (A third option, the status quo, could end up being the beneficiary of the dispute between supporters of the first and the second.) First, there’s the 10-1 plan, under which the City Council will consist of 10 single-member representatives and one at-large mayor. This plan is being trumpeted by Austinites for Geographic Representation. The second, the hybrid plan, would feature eight district representatives, two at-large Council members, and an at-large mayor. That plan currently has the support of at least four Council members.

The first plan won approval on all three readings, and therefore now goes on the ballot, after getting yes votes from five Council members. The second plan only received four yes votes, so it only passed on first reading. It will come back to Council after their summer break, on August 2. 

The only Council member to vote against both items, Bill Spelman, said he wants to see single-member districts but is convinced that if both items are on the ballot, neither will get enough votes to win.

“I would cheerfully vote for either if they were alone on the ballot. Both are much, much better than what we have right now,” Spelman said. “But if both go on the ballot, most of the electorate are going to split and they’re both going to go down in flames. Neither is going to get over 50 percent. I want single-member districts. I want to put my money where my mouth is. The only way to get what I want is to vote ‘no’ on both, so we can wait for a month and see what happens (with the verification of the petition).” Spelman went on to say that since the 10-1 plan has managed to gain so much citizen support, “those (Council members) who prefer a hybrid have some soul-searching to do.”

One of the supporters of the hybrid plan, Council Member Laura Morrison, said, “I believe in representation at a district level, but I don’t feel like our geography defines everything about us. It’s better if we have some at-large representatives on the dais.” Still, Morrison said, she would vote in favor of putting the 10-1 plan on the ballot in the name of giving voters a choice.

That was the same tack taken by Council Members Kathie Tovo and Chris Riley, both of whom expressed their support of the 8-2-1 plan but voted to put 10-1 on the ballot as well.

In the end, the 10-1 plan was approved on all three readings by a vote of 5-2, with Spelman and Mayor Leffingwell voting against. The hybrid plan was approved only on first reading, 4-3, with Martinez, Cole, and Spelman voting against.  

According to an amendment suggested by Morrison and crafted by Assistant City Attorney John Steiner, if the 8-2-1 plan passes on second and third reading in August, and both the 10-1 single-member plan and the hybrid plan get the required 50 percent approval from city voters come November, the plan with the most votes will win and become the city’s new system.

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