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Austinites sound off in redistricting commission’s first public hearing

Friday, August 16, 2013 by Elizabeth Pagano

The Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission held its first public forum Wednesday night. The meeting was the first of the commission’s public meetings intended to solicit community input about drawing 10 single-member-district maps.


The commission was looking for input on dividing the Austin City Council into districts for the first time, but in typical Austin fashion, not everyone was there to talk about maps.


East Austinite Ora Houston addressed what she saw as a troubling lack of communication with the neighborhoods.


“This room should be filled, but many of the people in our neighborhoods did not get information until yesterday or the day before,” said Houston. “Most of our churches did not receive notification. We have spent a lot of time with community engagement on the comprehensive plan with the City of Austin. They should have every contact in our community to send information to. I have a real problem with the fact that there was a lack of prior information.”


A handful of speakers addressed whether to include the Mueller Development in eastside precincts, with both sides of the issue represented.


James Nortey, a Mueller resident (and Planning Commissioner), asked the commission to keep Mueller in an East Austin district, calling it “absolutely vital.” Nortey also asked the commission to fight the temptation to put all African-Americans into one district, saying that idea was unfair.


Stacy Suits, a South Austin resident who has worked on a number of city campaigns and as a Travis County Constable, saw things differently.


“I’ve had a lot of experience on East Austin campaigns and ensuring and working on minority representation,” said Suits. “I see your job, step one, is to draw the most viable African-American district that you can. I don’t care if it looks like a dinosaur, or a spider.”


There were also those who came prepared with maps in hand. Mary Rudig is the president of the North Austin Coalition of Neighborhoods. She presented a map created by the Northwest Austin Coalition, the Northwest Civic Association and the NACN. The map divides the northwest into three districts: North Austin, Northwest Austin and Far Northwest Austin.


The map is available on the NACN website, where it is contrasted with one drawn up by Lorraine Atherton, who lives in South Austin. The Atherton map is available through a link citing it as an example of gerrymandering (perhaps a hint of conflicts to come as actual map-drawing nears.)


Wednesday night’s meeting was held at the Millennium Youth Center, which is located in Austin’s eastern Precinct One. There were about 50 people at the meeting, with just fewer than 20 speaking about what they would like to see happen during Austin’s first foray into single member districts. The commission will be conducting three meetings in each of the four Travis County Commissioner precincts.


Peck Young with Austinites for Geographic Representation complimented commission members for their first public forum. He said that in the future, map presentations by constituents were likely to take longer than three minutes, and suggested speaking times be adjusted accordingly.


Young also advised the commission to disregard suggestions of population projections, and reminded them that they were obligated by federal law to base their maps on the results of the 2010 Census.


In addition to being the first public forum, the meeting was also the first meeting for the commission’s newly-hired Executive Director, Craig Tounget. Though most of the meeting was spent listening to public input, Tounget did make a suggestion that the commission draw up an overall budget instead of creating and funding positions on the fly.


The suggestion, which was embraced by the commission, came after Commissioner Ryan Rafols advocated for a separate budget for marketing and public outreach. Rafols was reacting to ongoing concerns about how to deal with the media.


Commissioner William Hewitt said that he was concerned that citizens were not getting information from members of the commission, which he felt was appropriate.


Chair Magdalena Blanco disagreed.


“We are being asked questions that are leading, and we need to develop a policy that will funnel the information to our executive director, who can take a look at the information and decide, ‘Yes, that’s fine,’ so that the communication that is being displayed is consistent and it puts our hard work… it gets put across in a positive light. Because we are trying to help the citizens. We’re not here to make any foolish decisions,” said Blanco.


“There has already been some bad press on what we’re doing, and if they really want to ask us a question they can show up to one of our regular meetings. They can show up here at the public forums. They can ask us those questions here, where we publicly discuss,” said Blanco.


Tounget told In Fact Daily that they would be working on putting a system for media inquires in place in the future, and noted that it was his first meeting.

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