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Battle of single-member district plans raises plenty of questions

Thursday, October 18, 2012 by Jo Clifton

A bout between advocates of competing proposals to revise the City of Austin charter to create single-member City Council districts was on the menu Wednesday at a luncheon panel discussion.


But if those attending expected a knock-down fight they would have come away disappointed, as much of the discussion centered on the confusion that would result if one, both or neither of the propositions passes in the fast-approaching Nov. 6 election.


Former State Rep. Ann Kitchen and Fred McGhee, both members of the city’s charter revision committee and proponents of Proposition 4, faced off against Proposition 3 advocates Nelson Linder, president of the Austin chapter of the NAACP, and Roger Borgelt, vice chairman of Travis County Republican Party.


Kitchen explained in detail the possibilities of the various scenarios of the two separate ballot items.


“You can vote yes on both, no on both, or yes on one and no on another,” Kitchen told the attentive business audience at the event at the Four Seasons Hotel sponsored by the Real Estate Council of Austin and Move Solutions Ltd., a local business.


To pass, either of the propositions must get at least 50 percent of the votes of those casting votes on that item, Kitchen explained. The proposal that receives the most votes wins would be the basis of the formula for how the city elects its representatives going forward.


Borgelt said he agreed with Kitchen’s interpretation of the possible vote outcomes.


Specifically, the Nov. 6 city ballot includes Proposition 3, the 10-1 plan, which would increase the seven-member City Council to 11 members, with 10 members elected from single-member districts and a mayor elected by all voters. In the other corner is Proposition 4, which would also increase Council to 11 but with eight Council members elected in individual districts, and two Council members and a mayor elected at-large.


There was confusion over what the 50 percent referred to. It does not refer to all the folks who cast ballots in the election, but just those who vote on each proposition on the lengthy ballot. Voters fatigue may become an issue as citizens will face one of the longest ballots in recent memory with, in addition to the U.S. Presidential election, 11 proposed city charter amendments, seven city bond proposals, a countywide vote on increasing the property tax devoted to the Central Health and a long list of other local and state candidates.


Council Member Bill Spelman, who was in the audience, said, “A lot of people are not going to make it down the ballot to these items. Please vote on the bonds at least.”


Spelman explained the city will add up the yes votes and the no votes on each of the two propositions. If the yes votes are 50 percent of the total number of votes (yes plus no) on that item then the item will pass. If the yes votes are less than 50 percent of the votes on that item, the item will not pass.


If both Propositions 3 and 4 pass, then the one receiving the most votes passes. That means if 60 percent of city voters turn out to vote for President, but only half of those cast ballots on Propositions 3 and 4, then the matter of representation will be decided by 30 percent of the electorate. Half of that group, or 15 percent plus 1 voter, could make the decision for the whole city about whether Austinites change its form of government to a system with single-member districts.


Voters who do not want the form of the local government to change, should vote against both items. Some people have said they are so much in favor of change that they will vote for both items.


Austin is among the largest U.S. cities that doesn’t elect its representatives using some form of single-member districts.


Mayor Lee Leffingwell has backed the hybrid 8-2-1 plan from the beginning. Although he was attending another event during Wednesday’s luncheon, he later said it is important to vote on all the items because they will affect everyday life of Austinites. He also stressed the importance of voting on the county’s Prop. 1 (not to be confused with the city’s Prop. 1 to move the city’s general election to November from May) concerning the Central Health plan to support a new medical school and other health care initiatives.


Leffingwell said, “The first Prop 1 is the medical school. The medical school will not happen if that item does not pass. That is so important to our community. That is probably the single most important thing.”


Go to this page on In Fact Daily to view all 11 of the proposed charter amendments and the seven bond propositions.

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