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Council puts hybrid-districting plan on November ballot

Wednesday, August 8, 2012 by Josh Rosenblatt

Austin voters will have two competing proposals for changing Austin’s City Council to geographic representation to choose from this November, after City Council approved on third reading Tuesday to put the 8-2-1 “hybrid” plan on the ballot.

That Council decided by their own vote to include the hybrid plan on the November charter election ballot was enough to upset the 10-1 advocacy group Austinites for Geographic Representation. AGR’s members spent months gathering signatures for a petition to put their single-member Council district proposal before voters. That Council did so at a work session, where votes are generally not taken, upset them even more.

“I don’t understand why we’re voting on a major structural change within the confines of a work session,” 10-1 supporter Debbie Russell said after pointing out that Council started convening work sessions to fix issues related to transparency and possible open-meetings violations. “A lot of us question why you’re doing this here and now, to avoid true public input. Work sessions were implemented to fix open-meetings issues you had. Now you can hide major substantive votes.”

But Mayor Lee Leffingwell took issue with that characterization, saying the decision to vote on the hybrid plan at the work session was strictly a logistical one.

“There’s been discussion about a lack of transparency in the Council, that we’re trying to hide something by doing this in work session,” Leffingwell said. “Let me assure you, that has nothing to do with it. We’ve had a fulsome public comment period prior to first reading. We’re actually allowing additional public comment. This decision was necessitated by timelines we’re facing to have all this stuff wrapped up for approval by our August 16 meeting.”

Council voted 5-1 in favor of putting the hybrid plan on the ballot, with Council Member Mike Martinez the only “no” vote. Council Member Bill Spelman was not present. The vote remained essentially unchanged from the first and second reading votes, though there was one slight change in the language of the ordinances between the readings.

The language change concerns the way the city will transition between the current at-large system and a hybrid system if the 8-2-1 plan gets more than 50 percent of the vote but other related charter revision items (related to term lengths and the staggering of those terms) don’t. The ordinance approved on first and second readings stated that if a Council member’s term is “materially shortened for the purpose of the transition, that shortened term” will not count toward that Council member’s term limits.  According to an assistant city attorney, the vagueness of the word “materially” needed to be clarified in order to avoid what he called potentially “dicey interpretive questions.”

Council directed staff to change “materially” to “more than one year.”

Now that Council has approved putting the 8-2-1 plan on the ballot, and AGR has secured a spot for their 10-1 plan as well, the battle for the hearts and minds of Austin’s voting population is on. Russell of AGR warned Council that putting both plans on the ballot will cause confusion and probably result in no change to the current system.

“Supporting 8-2-1 for you means supporting a divided community, supporting unnecessary lawsuits, and supporting the failure of geographic representation for Austin again,” she said.

In the meantime, though, AGR spokesperson Jessica Ellison said her group will be “on the street, grassroots organizing, educating people to get the out to the polls in November.”

“10-1 is not just about changing the way council is elected, but changing the way citizens interact with local government and how they view participation,” Ellison told In Fact Daily.

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