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Redistricting Commission elects officers, sets date for public input meeting

Friday, July 19, 2013 by Michael Kanin

Members of the commission charged with drawing new geographically-based Austin City Council districts took two major steps forward Wednesday. With one, they appointed a Chair, Magdalena Blanco, and Vice Chair, T.J. Costello, for the duration of their work. With the other, they set August 14 as the date for their first designated public input meeting; their collective inaugural foray into line drawing.


Still, issues linger. Though the Independent Citizens Redistricting Committee will post a want ad for its executive director by the end of this week, and a search for legal counsel could begin as early as next, the absence of those officers continues to strain discussion. Indeed, despite the existence of multiple subcommittees – and the presence of work done by those bodies – debate over whether or not the main group could form such entities continued.


Costello noted that the group suffered for lack of independent legal advice. He pointed to the debate over subcommittees. He put it in the form of a question to Austinites for Geographic Representation member Peck Young. “Would you agree that if we had our own counsel at this point in time, a lot of these issues…would be a lot less worrisome?”


“I would,” replied Young.


In lieu of advice from their own attorney, commissioners have submitted legal questions to both the city’s legal team, and lawyers representing Austinites for Geographic Representation – the group behind the drafting and passage of the charter amendment the both mandates the new electoral system and gives the commission its power. The questions are written and offer no opportunity for immediate follow up.


In at least one case, the body did itself no favors. In a question to city legal staff, members asked: “If a subcommittee of the Commission is formed, is the subcommittee allowed to meet and work on tasks without these meetings being public meetings?” 


The city response – from Assistant City Attorneys Sabine Romero and John Steiner – took the question literally. “No,” they wrote, “committees are not allowed to meet and work on tasks outside of a public meeting.”


However, commissioners’ debate has focused more directly on whether the group could form subcommittees at all. Attorney and former Travis County Judge Bill Aleshire – who played a key role in the 2011 open meetings complaints against City Council members – reviewed the memo from Romero and Steiner at the request of the commission. Though Aleshire was not asked directly to rule on whether the body could form subcommittees, he did so anyway: “The (commission) has the authority to create and use ‘advisory’ committees to support the commission’s decision making,” he wrote.


Presented with an opportunity to lambast a city ruling, Young – a colorful political veteran – did not waste it. “We presume that you are not going to hire a counsel that cannot read the open meetings act,” he said.


Later, Young added more. “This city has the most restrictive interpretations of the Open Meetings Act in the State of Texas,” he said. “I have worked all over this state and I know a number of County Attorneys and City Attorneys all over this state, and nobody believes how this is interpreted here. But we live here; we don’t live in the other places.”


He continued: “However, we are getting somewhere over the edge of silly when, literally, you all can’t talk to each other about anything except in this room.”


Young’s statement, delivered during a citizens’ communication segment of Wednesday’s meeting, could be viewed as a larger indictment of city legal’s interpretation of the Open Meetings Act. Since Council issues first surfaced, internal counsel interpretations of the act have dramatically restricted communication between Council members and their respective staffs.


Meanwhile, in setting the August 14 date for the commission’s first mapping exercise, commissioners move toward the beginning of a process they were selected to do. Costello saw the meeting as something of a test run.


The selection of Costello as Vice Chair and Blanco as Chair came on a unanimous vote that validated a secret ballot election. Commissioner Maria Solis was also nominated for an officer post.


Blanco and Costello hold similar characteristics. In her application, Blanco noted that she holds a post-graduate degree in public administration. She is a state employee, who, in her application, cited her experience in working with Texas State boards as a hallmark of her ability to be impartial.


Costello’s application says that he holds a masters degree in public administration from the University of Texas. He also works for the State of Texas as an economic analyst in the Comptroller’s office. In remarks after his election, Costello also referred to experience with state boards.

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