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Redistricting Commission continues to grapple with conflicting legal advice

Friday, August 2, 2013 by Michael Kanin

Members of the Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission continued to inch ahead with the administrative details surrounding its mission to draw geographic Council districts in time for the 2014 city elections Wednesday. However, the body continues to be plagued by conflicting legal opinions from City of Austin attorneys and counsel representing Austinites for Geographic Representation – the advocacy group behind the charter amendment that dictates the process.


Though the Commission has publicized its need for its own legal counsel, it had – as of Wednesday evening – not received a single application for the position.


Two weeks ago, Commissioners received ostensibly conflicting opinions from city legal and AGR over how they could meet in subcommittee (See In Fact Daily, July 19). This time around, the debate was over whether or not the commission could release the names of candidates who have applied for the body’s still-open Executive Director slot.


AGR’s Linda Curtis has filed an open records request with the commission, requesting a release of the names.


Chair Magdalena Blanco explained the situation. “I made a request to the city. I know…legal is looking at how to redact the personal information (from the applications) and what can and can’t go on the web,” she said. “That was last week…I sent another message yesterday because I still hadn’t heard anything requesting: Can we just put the resumes up there?…Legal is still looking at it.”


AGR’s Peck Young went over a bit of recent history. “I will remind you that for two weeks, the (city) legal department couldn’t find a statute that said (Commissioner Cathy) Cocco could be sworn in in New York. It took us exactly one day,” Young said. “After we informed your staff of that, they managed to get her sworn in. You all have asked, for two weeks, whether or not you could release information (about Executive Director applicants)…It took our attorney exactly one day to find out that the names could be released under a public information request.”


He continued: “Either your legal staff cannot read, or they can read very slowly.”


Young then returned to a familiar trajectory. He was prompted by a question from Commissioner (and Austin Community College colleague) Mariano Diaz-Miranda. “Are you trying to infer in some way or another that…that city is almost torpedoing this process? Do you think that the…lack of answer from (city) legal counsel has something to do with slowing down the process?” Miranda asked.


Young was unfailing in his response. “I think there is no question whatsoever.”


Though there was some debate among commissioners about whether they should wait for a ruling from City legal staff, Commissioner Harriett Harrow may have summed up the mood best: “Oh to hell with it,” she said.


Commissioners then proceeded with a discussion of their top three candidates, referring to them by name in open deliberations. They are Craig Tounget, a local consultant who also appears to be the only of the seven applicants to have submitted a full response to the commissions’ ad, Tomas Cantrell, and Sam Zigrossi.


According to Commissioner Maria Solis, Zigrossi had also applied to be a districting commissioner.


At one point, Harrow suggested that another candidate, Thomas Tynes, was too young for the position. When her colleagues reminded her that age discrimination is a potential legal issue, Harrow walked back her statement. “Okay, I’ll rephrase that: He’s not experienced,” she said.


The Commission is set to meet again next week. Commissioners will make a final decision on hiring an Executive Director on August 10, five days after the deadline for applications closes.


The first meeting to solicit community input for actual maps is set for August 14. The location of that meeting remains undetermined. However, Commissioners did set dates for September community meetings. They are September 4 in Travis County Commissioner Precinct 2; September 7 in Precinct 1; September 11 in Precinct  3; and September 18 in Precinct 4.


The September meetings represent only the first of many such forays in to Austin neighborhoods for mapping input.

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