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Citizens’ group turns in 33,000 petitions supporting 10-1 plan
Tuesday, July 17, 2012 by Josh Rosenblatt
Austinites for Geographic Representation on Monday submitted more than 33,000 signatures in support of a single-member redistricting plan calling for 10 City Council members and one at-large mayor.
If the City Clerk’s office validates at least 20,000 of those signatures by Aug. 20, the 10-1 plan will go on the November ballot.
To celebrate, a group of about 40 people gathered at City Hall for a press conference. Standing behind a table stacked with signed petitions were supporters, including former State Senator Gonzalo Barrientos, Austin Firefighters Association President Bob Nicks, NAACP President Nelson Linder, former City Council Member Brigid Shea and Texans for Accountable Government Executive Director Heather Fazio.
Monday’s demonstration came just more than two weeks after Council voted 5-2 to put on the ballot a 10-1 plan that mirrors the language of the AGR initiative. Council Member Mike Martinez, who sponsored the 10-1 vote at Council’s June 28 meeting, told In Fact Daily that if and when the AGR signatures are validated, he will ask his fellow Council members to rescind their previous action and take their 10-1 version of the proposal off the ballot.
“The reason I won’t take action until their signatures are validated is if they’re not validated, they’ll still have the opportunity to have this on the ballot in November as they drafted it, as they petitioned for,” Martinez said.
Currently, City Council is made up of six members and a mayor – all elected at large, which critics contend puts at a disadvantage those who favor minority candidates.
City Clerk Shirley Gentry estimated the process of validating the petition’s signatures would cost about $15,000. She told In Fact Daily she was basing that number on a similarly sized petition a few years ago by supporters of a charter amendment. By state law, Gentry’s staff has to do a random sampling of 25 percent of the signatures to make sure they correspond with the names of citizens who are registered to vote in Austin. The office has 30 days after receiving the petitions to validate them; Gentry said 17 members of her staff would dedicate time to the effort until the process is finished.
“We’ll throw all our resources at it,” Gentry said. “Everyone pretty much shuts down everything else they’re doing until we’re done.”
All of which raises the question: If the 10-1 plan currently on the ballot is exactly the same as the one being put forth by AGR, why bother with all this time-consuming and money-consuming work?
AGR spokeswoman Jessica Ellison said the group just wants to make sure that the plan supported by all those signatures – “the people’s plan,” as they call it – is the same as the proposal that voters consider come November.
“There are two more meetings before Council decides what’s going to be on the ballot,” Ellison told In Fact Daily. “They could still amend the plan. Submitting the petition was the only way we could ensure that the exact language of the petition goes on the ballot. Martinez and (Mayor Pro Tem) Sheryl Cole are strong supporters, but they are only two votes.” Cole co-sponsored the resolution putting the item on the Council agenda.
Even though the group’s action may look like ballot overkill, Martinez said he is not upset that AGR is pushing their proposal forward despite his successful efforts to get their language approved by Council.
“You know, I don’t take it personally. It’s an effort that the citizens put forward and they feel they need to continue,” Martinez said. “If there’s a level of distrust that they feel we’re not going to keep that item on the ballot as is, I can’t change their minds.
“I feel absolutely comfortable with what I did. I made a commitment to them that I would bring 10-1 to the Council for a vote and that I would support that and only that, and that is what I did.”