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Voters finally pick single-member districts; hard work begins now

Wednesday, November 7, 2012 by Elizabeth Pagano

Last night’s election means huge changes at City Hall. But not before quite a bit of work on the part of the current Council, as well as an independent commission that will draw geographic districts and considerable time and energy devoted to ensuring that those districts will pass muster with the U.S. Department of Justice.


The timeline for this is uncertain but should be completed sometime within the next two years.


Voters passed the first three city propositions on the ballot, making the seventh time the charm for single-member districts, a switch to November elections, and a change in term limits and length.


This is the first major change since 1985 when voters approved a change from two-year to three-year terms. It will be the first restructuring of the Council makeup since 1969, when voters approved enlarging the council from five to seven members.


Proposition 3, more commonly known as 10-1, won 59 percent of the vote. For the first time in its history, Austin’s City Council will be comprised of Council Members who are elected from geographic districts.


Just what that geography will be remains unknown. Proposition 3 did not just change the makeup of Council from a seven-member at-large system to a ten-member single-member district system with an at-large mayor. It also includes a provision that details the districts be drawn up by an independent redistricting commission.


Because Texas is subject to the Voting Rights Act, both the districts and redistricting commission will have to be approved by the Department of Justice before they can be implemented, but that didn’t stop the Austinites for Geographic Representation from celebrating their victory last night.


“We are excited. It’s a new day in Austin,” said Jessica Allison with Austinites for Geographic Representation. “I think this means the door to City Hall going to be opened to progressive and grassroots candidates that have had it slammed in their face for the last four years. It’s going to shake things up, certainly.”


“It’s definitely a watershed event for the City of Austin,” said Mayor Lee Leffingwell, who supported a hybrid shift to 8 single-member districts with two at large members plus the Mayor. That system also won a slight majority of votes, but not enough to beat out Prop 3.


“I think it’s still a matter of concern to me that we don’t have a balance on the Council to guard against the potential problems of ward politics,” said Leffingwell. “But now what we have to do is prepare the transition for a couple of years, get Department of Justice approval, and districts have to be drawn. It’s a pretty complicated process.”


Council Member Mike Martinez told In Fact Daily that he thought Austin could handle the change.


“I think it’s great that we’re getting away from all at-large,” said Martinez. “It’s a big change. There will be some growing pains with big change, but I think it’s going to be a better representative body.”


Voters also approved Propositions 1 and 2 by a wide margin. This means a shift from May Council elections, which have historically had low voter turnout, to November elections which see a much larger percentage of the population voting, especially in presidential election years.


Proposition 2 also moves the election to November and puts in place four-year terms. It also limits Council Members to serving only two terms. Additionally, Council Members will be elected in staggered, even-numbered years.


“I think the voters have spoken, and we will have to make some changes at city hall. It’s nice to have the issue decided so decisively. And now we’ll move forward,” said Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole.

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