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Dispute arises over schedule for city voting districts

Wednesday, December 5, 2012 by Michael Kanin

A proposed timeline for a transition plan that would bring the City of Austin to single-member representation drew sharp criticism from proponents of the switch Tuesday. The plan, an outline that includes a series of stops that culminate in final adoption of the new districts on April1, 2014 would leave little time for pre-clearance from the U.S. Justice Department.


This caught the eye of Council Member Mike Martinez at Council’s regular work session on Tuesday. “It sounds like … campaigns (for City Council races) will begin as pre-clearance is taking place,” he said.


Though Assistant City Attorney John Steiner suggested that pre-clearance would not be an issue, others were not so sure. Tuesday afternoon, the Austin Bulldog‘s Ken Martin quoted redistricting expert Steve Bickerstaff: “There is a gross underestimation by the city’s legal counsel of the time it takes to do districts properly and obtain pre-clearance.”


Given two ballot choices for new geographically based districts, voters in November selected an option that will carve the city into 10 single-member districts. The mayor’s position will remain at-large. The initiative, which would increase the size of the seven-member Council, is known locally as the 10-1 plan.


The ordinance also sets up a commission to draw the new districts, and a process by which commission members are selected. The City Auditor’s office is in charge of selecting commissioners.


On Tuesday night, about 120 people showed up for a 10-1 public forum to offer ideas on how to encourage participation in the 14-member Citizen’s Redistricting Commission that will draw the boundaries of the single-member districts. City Auditor Ken Mory hosted the gathering at One Texas Center, 505 Barton Springs Road. Nearly two-thirds of those in attendance responded affirmatively when asked if they would like to serve on the redistricting commission.


The plan from Mory and office investigator Jason Hadavi is to have the commission fully in place by Aug. 30 of next year, with the final single-member districting plan adopted on April 1, 2014.


That would leave scarce time for the Justice Department to pre-clear maps drawn by commissioners. According to Bickerstaff in the Bulldog, the feds have up to 60 days to review a set of district lines. They can, he suggested, wait another 60 days to rule on the matter. “Preclearance can take five or six months, although I don’t think it will (for this plan),” Bickerstaff told Martin.


Still, Bickerstaff said, “(t)his timeline does not allow enough time for preclearance.”


Preclearance refers to the fact that many mostly southern states, including Texas and its local jurisdictions, that have a history of discriminatory election practices, are required by Section V of the Voting Rights Act to obtain Department of Justice approval before implementing changes to voting procedures. This is to ensure that “voting changes do not deny or abridge the right of a citizen to vote based on race, color or membership in a language-minority group,” according to the Department of Justice. In the past decade, a web page outlining the act, said the U.S. attorney general has received 14,000 to 22,000 voting change submissions a year.


The city may also need to make some judgment calls as staff works through technical issues involved in implementing the 10-1 plan.


Veteran political operative Peck Young told In Fact Daily Tuesday afternoon that the group behind the document and its eventual election-day victory, Austinites for Geographic Representation, was prepared for interpretative issues. “Any time you pass a legal document like that, there (are certain things) that are going to be open to interpretation,” Young said. “You can’t write the Magna Carta.”


Still, Young cautioned city officials against going too far. “There has to be a distinction between what is open to interpretation and black letter law,” he added.


Hadavi listed three areas at issue “off the top of (his) head.” These include the fact that the ordinance’s definition of a “qualified independent auditor” – three auditors will help select members of a committee that will draw district lines – does not meet industry standards.


There is also some question over the provision that bars redistricting committee members from having conducted business with Council members. “There’s a prohibition against individuals who have had a professional contract with the city, with the City Council, or with City Council members,” Hadavi said. “We’re working on developing an interpretation of someone who may have had a professional contract with anyone on the City Council, and trying to shore-up what that means. How far does that extend?”


People who have received pay to work on campaigns for other officials, such as county commissioners, are also barred from participating as committee members for five years. The same is true for spouses of those who worked on campaigns.


Other issues have surfaced, such as excluding long-time residents of recently annexed portions of the city – folks who are barred thanks to a provision in the ordinance that denies a place on the commission for anyone who hasn’t lived in Austin for five years.


Council Member Bill Spelman argued for a looser interpretation of the ordinance. Leffingwell and Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole disagreed. “I think the selection process should err on the side of being overly restrictive for the simple reason that, it seems to me, if you have a situation where the commission itself is vulnerable to legal challenge, then that could throw the whole process awry,” said Leffingwell.


After the meeting, Steiner told In Fact Daily that “it’s not uncommon, when you have a citizen-initiated provision that there be some interpretive issues.”


City legal staffers told In Fact Daily Tuesday evening that Austin departments would consult with them as they move through redistricting. “As the city works through the implementation of the new charter provision the various city officials with duties under the charter will interpret the provisions with the advice and counsel of the City Attorney,” they said.


According to Mory, the cost of his office’s involvement – as mandated by the language of the charter amendment – would be $72,000, not including labor. However, both City Manager Marc Ott and Mayor Leffingwell suggested that the cost could climb. “No doubt there will be several budget amendments as we go through this process for legal expenses and others that may be unforeseen,” Mory said.


Mory will also have to postpone regularly scheduled audits of the city’s Human Resources and Information Technology departments, as well as its material purchase controls. He told Council members that there would be no major cost to those delays.


Austinites who attended Tuesday night’s public forum were asked to participate in breakout sessions to identify applicant qualifications that are stipulated in the charter amendment’s new language. Though applicants should posses “relevant analytical skills, the ability to be impartial and an appreciation for Austin’s diverse demographics and geography,” how those qualities will be determined is left to the discretion of the panel of auditors who will oversee the selection of the 60 “most qualified applicants” from which the 14 commission members will be chosen.


Attendees seemed more than happy to share their opinions on what the “most qualified applicants” would look like, breaking down the categories into more specific qualifications and suggesting qualities such as “fifth-grade math education,” “good listening skills,” “history of community engagement,” and “ability to read a map,” among dozens of suggestions. The city auditor’s office said that information from the meeting would be recorded and available to the public in the near future.


In Fact Daily’s Elizabeth Pagano contributed to this story.

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