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Three separate plans for single-member districts spark debate

Wednesday, June 27, 2012 by Elizabeth Pagano

While no one knows whether Austinites will finally embrace single-member City Council districts this year, it’s looking like they will have a great opportunity to do so, with three separate proposals on the table.


At Tuesday’s work session, City Council tackled the geographic representation issue in preparation for this Thursday’s meeting. There will be two separate plans from Council for charter amendments to change the set up of Council: a hybrid plan sponsored by Mayor Lee Leffingwell and a single-member district only plan sponsored by Council Member Mike Martinez.


Additionally, the Austinites for Geographic Representation (AGR) will submit a petition to the city on Thursday. If they have the required number of signatures – estimated at around 20,000 – they will have their own 10-1 plan on the ballot, calling for a 10-1 breakdown of Council with 10 members elected in single-member districts and a mayor elected at large. Also, AGR’s proposal calls for an independent redistricting commission that will draw the lines of the new district.


Council Member Mike Martinez has proposed a 10-1 plan that does not explicitly detail the formation of an independent redistricting commission. “I support an independent redistricting commission, but I want that to be done via ordinance, and not in our City Charter,” Martinez told In Fact Daily after the meeting.


“Ultimately, I still believe that Council needs to retain authority, if we need to take action. I understand the need for a random selection process, and that it be citizen-led, citizen-driven. But even in a random selection process, I promise you, it will get political,” Martinez said. “Let’s say if there were no Hispanics, no African-Americans, nobody from South Austin. If we did it in a charter, it would be problematic if that were the case.”


In the work session, attorney Syd Falk of Bickerstaff Heath Delgado Acosta LLP,  told Council that there were a couple of terms in the AGR proposal that gave him heartburn, legally. Falk shared concerns about giving the committee the sole authority to respond to litigation, as well as mandated city funding of a committee they had no authority over.


He also questioned whether it would be legal to disregard the addresses of current City Council members in drawing the districts, when the Department of Justice has said in the past that it could be retrogressive to draw districts that displaced minority incumbents.


Fred Lewis, who served on the Charter Revision Committee and now stands with AGR, made it clear that inclusion of the independent redistricting commission was integral to their plan, saying that the argument against it was political, not legal.


Martinez told In Fact Daily that if the Austinites for Geographic Representation petition is on the ballot he would more than likely withdraw his proposal. “I’m doing this as a fulfillment of a commitment I made to AGR,” said Martinez. “I won’t be putting two 10-1 plans on the ballot.”


That said, it seems likely that there will be two separate redistricting plans on the ballot in November.


Leffingwell’s 8-2-1 plan would create eight geographic districts, and have two at-large City Council members and one at-large mayor.


Leffingwell’s proposal reserves the discussion of how, exactly, the districts will be drawn, for after the charter election.


Leffingwell’s plan also includes language that would change City Council elections from May to November, despite the fact that City Council has already voted to include a separate ballot item that would do just that.


Council Member Laura Morrison said that while she has consistently supported a hybrid plan, she was not supportive of tying those two things together.


“To have the choice to move to November sort of hidden inside some of the ballots… It will just be such a question. It will cause such a divisiveness that’s unnecessary. I really think that’s not a good approach,” Morrison told In Fact Daily.


Leffingwell said: “My primary interest is in moving the elections from May to November. So if I could put it in there three times, that’s what I want to do.”


Political consultant David Butts, who has helped all seven Council Members at one time or another, told Council that he felt it would be a mistake not to include a hybrid plan on the ballot in November.


“I think, quite candidly, that people in Austin would expect the Council to use its prerogative to decide what it wants,” said Butts, who maintained that even with a 10-1 plan on the ballot, a hybrid plan would have a better chance of winning.


But that chance may be quite limited.


“Many voters will be very surprised when they walk in, thinking that they are voting on the Presidential race, only to discover that all of this other stuff is on top,” said Butts. “Any campaigning that is done for these kinds of ballot items is going to fly right over their head.”


Though it has yet to be worked out, all of the proposals will ultimately include a fiscal note, explaining how much, exactly, the expansion of City Council will end up costing.


City Council has will hear all of the charter items on Thursday’s agenda no earlier than 4pm.

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