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Leffingwell touts hybrid plan for electing Council

Tuesday, June 26, 2012 by Josh Rosenblatt

Mayor Lee Leffingwell and Council Members Sheryl Cole and Mike Martinez pronounced themselves ready to do their duty as leaders of the city once more last night before a relatively small audience of family, staff and well-wishers. It was a low-key affair. But after all, it was the fourth time for Leffingwell—having been sworn in as Council Member twice before and as Mayor once. It is the third term for both Martinez and Cole. 

During the inauguration ceremony, Leffingwell touted his plan for geographic representation as “much-needed reform” and competing single-member district plans as “worse than the exclusively at-large system we have today.” City Council will be debating the merits of the two different approaches at their meeting Thursday.

Under the terms of the Leffingwell districting plan (co-sponsored by Council Member Chris Riley), the Council would be made up of eight members representing and voted in by the citizens of their respective individual geographic districts, two at-large members, and one at-large mayor. The other plan on Thursday’s agenda, co-sponsored Council Member Mike Martinez and Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole, would feature 10 single-member representatives and one at-large mayor. Leffingwell stated during his remarks that he thinks the 10-1 plan would be detrimental to the city.

“District-based representation is something we badly need,” the mayor said. “We have to be very careful that we don’t trade bad for worse. A mixed system of representation, one that incorporates a mix of representatives from districts and citywide representatives, is the best choice for Austin. I believe a mixed system would allow for a fair balance of interests …elevating neighborhood-level concerns without abandoning citywide perspectives. For this reason, I do not believe that transitioning to a council made up exclusively of district representatives would be good for Austin.”

Martinez refrained from making any comments about the geographic representation issue, or about the mayor’s comments, though he made 10-1 one of the platforms of his recent re-election campaign. Cole, meanwhile, while not addressing the issue directly, did say she finds it “troubling that people are not involved” in city governance. Supporters of a pure single-member system have pointed to low citizen participation and low voter turnout as proof that the at-large system is not speaking to the needs of most people in the city.

“They are not voting, they are not participating, and our sense of community is declining,” Cole said during her brief remarks. “I want to make one of my highest priorities getting people involved from every section of Austin.”

Leffingwell’s comments were perhaps the first shots fired in what promises to be a busy week at City Hall regarding this issue. Austin Community for Change, a group made up largely of former members of the recent Charter Revision Committee advocating for the 8-2-1 system, will be holding a press conference at City Hal tomorrow at noon during the Council work session.

Meanwhile, Austinites for Geographic Representation are planning on showing up at Thursday’s meeting with approximately 30,000 signed petitions from citizens around the city calling for 10-1 to be placed on the ballot this November. If 20,000 of those signatures can be validated, their version of the 10-1 plan, which would also include an independent citizens redistricting commission, would get placed on the ballot. All the Council plans need to get on the ballot is a majority vote on Thursday.

It can only add to voter confusion come November if both the AGR 10-1 plan and the Martinez/Cole 10-1 plan end up on the ballot. The main difference is that Martinez and Cole are not calling for an independent commission to draw district lines. Instead, their plan states that “(b)efore enacting an ordinance drawing geographical council districts, the council shall consider the advice of a citizen board” (emphasis ours). Martinez has expressed concern that the AGR plan would unnecessarily disqualify numerous important parties from serving on the commission, including people who either held or ran for city or state elective office in the last five years, paid city employees within the last three years, and “major contributors” in the last city election.

That raises the ire of AGR Director of Communications Jessica Ellison, who believes an independent commission drawing district lines is necessary to ensure a fair and equitable process.

“Its important citizens have the say on the lines,” Eliison told In Fact Daily. “The biggest problem Council has had with the independent commission is that the eligibility restrictions are on people who have or have had vested interest on where the lines are drawn, In Texas we know what happens when we let politicians draw lines.”

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