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Geographic districts commission faces myriad issues in achieving goals

Thursday, July 11, 2013 by Michael Kanin

The independent commission charged with creating 10 new geographic electoral districts for the Austin City Council continued to plod forward Wednesday evening. And though the members were able to create three new subcommittees – one to begin a search for an Executive Director for the committee, one to discuss with City Manager Marc Ott, City Auditor Ken Mory, and Mayor Lee Leffingwell whether the commission could establish its own bank account, and one to begin to vet space for meetings mandated as part of the process – they did so informed only by Austin Energy Vice President of Customer Care J.J. Gutierrez and representatives of Austinites for Geographic Representation.


Gutierrez is the city staff person assigned to aid the commission. Austinites for Geographic Representation, or AGR,  is the advocacy group behind the passage of a charter amendment that will create a 10 member, one mayor City Council in time for 2014 elections.


On that note, AGR attorney and redistricting veteran Steve Bickerstaff told commissioners that in his opinion they are no longer bound by a December 1 deadline in the charter because Austin citizens voted to move City Council elections from May to November. However, he added that it would be best if the commission did the bulk of its work by November or December anyway.


Commissioner Anna Saenz remained concerned about the timetable. “If we have a meeting every week, we have 19 meetings that we will have to have – okay, say 20. Twenty divided by four, that’s five months. We’re already in July. That’s (January),” she said. “It’s not going to work. We’re going to have to have citizen input meetings more than once a week.”


The commission may also meet Saturdays.


The commission has yet to hire its own, third party counsel. Issues associated with that fact made themselves evident throughout Wednesday’s meeting as commissioners struggled with open meetings restrictions and the time limitations embedded in the charter amendment approved by voters in 2012. Commissioner T.J. Costello, for example, was forced to ask for legal rulings from city legal staff and Austinites for Geographic Representation about Bickerstaff’s interpretation of the December 1 deadline.


Commissioner Ryan Rafols, the designated student representative to the body, suggested that he and his colleagues move quickly to hire their own representation. “I’ve noticed one trend we’ve had in all of our meetings is that we really need our own legal counsel,” he said. “I don’t know if we can have an emergency meeting, like, soon to figure this out before the Executive Director (but) it seems we can’t get anything done without a legal counsel.”


Commissioner Carmen Llanes-Pulido called for the group to move forward in hiring its executive director before it hires outside counsel. “I…think that this is somewhat redundant,” she offered. Llanes-Pulido noted that the mission of the Executive Director subcommittee was to “get an Executive Director as quickly as possible, and they will be working with this commission to make those hires (such as outside counsel), not independently of us.”


The subcommittee charged with hunting down an executive director will meet in short order to begin sorting out the details of that search. According to a proposed version of a want ad for the position – based, according to ad author and commissioner Harriett Harrow, on non-governmental organization ads posted in the back of The Economist – the ideal candidate for the position will “foster cooperation among those involved in the project including legal counsel, and plan, direct and coordinate the work of others…(and) create and administer a budget, secure office space and field media inquiries.”


The ad also notes “that familiarity with mapping software is a plus.” It does not specify a salary, though the position will be paid. Bickerstaff told commissioners that under the charter amendment, which he had a hand in writing, the City of Austin has to provide the commission with whatever resources it needs.


Indeed, faced with what appears to be a steep learning curve when it comes to mapping tools used in redistricting efforts, commissioners voted 11-0 to issue a general call for software vendors to appear at the body’s next meeting to run over the basics.


Commissioner Magdalena Blanco was absent for the meeting. Commissioner Cathy Cocco will be sworn in shortly, and participate in meetings via video conference from New York while she attends to a relative. Cocco will be back in time for the body’s August 13 meeting. Commissioners also settled that issue – which had prompted another pair of legal rulings, both in the affirmative, from city legal staff and Austinites for Geographic Representation over whether such participation was allowable.


Other issues also surfaced. At one point, discussion over possible sites for hearings in each of the four Travis County precincts, Commissioner Rachel Farris wondered if AGR’s Peck Young could participate in a subcommittee that would find appropriate venues. Farris cited Young’s experience, and the fact that – of those present – he may know more about technology needs from those venues than anyone.


Young politely declined. “I’m flattered by the offer but I represent an organization which has been involved and will continue to be involved in all aspects of this,” he said. “We will have recommendations about maps, and we will participate, as we have participated…I don’t think it’s appropriate for me to participate with the commission except in the manner in which I participate now.”


That discussion also prompted some level of concern about whether a subcommittee was subject to state open meetings requirements from Saenz. “When they specifically said we could not meet except in public meetings to discuss our business, I thought that meant we could not do anything, except in a public meeting,” she said.


Gutierrez said she would get back to commissioners with an answer.


The commission is set to meet again next Wednesday.

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