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Citizens panel struggles to develop Council maps

Thursday, September 26, 2013 by Michael Kanin

Members of the commission charged with drawing new geographic districts for Austin City Council seats elected to continue work on a set of precinct maps published this weekend in the Austin American-Statesman. In so doing, they also voted against a proposal to use a set of maps prepared by the group behind the passage of a charter amendment that kicked off the process in the first place, Austinites for Geographic Representation.


Commissioner Rachel Farris summed an argument for finishing the maps. “Some of you may recall at the beginning of this process when I asked someone naively whether (AGR Representative) Peck Young could serve on a (commission) subcommittee,” Farris said. “Everyone laughed and shook their heads and looked at me like I was insane. And then, later on, when I reflected upon it, I realized I see why they think I was insane. Now, here I am hearing about adopting AGR’s maps and to me it’s really not that different.”


She continued: “We were tasked with being novices at map-drawing for a reason. We were tasked with doing this in a very public manner for a reason. And even if we end up with a district that runs along the same lines as AGR’s at the end of this, I want us to be able to talk to how did we get there. And I want the public to know how we got there.”


By the end of the evening, however, commissioners were no closer to a solid set of districts than they had been at the start of the night. Though they played with moving neighborhoods in northeast Austin such as Coronado Hills and Windsor Park in and out of what may one day be a portion of Council District One, nothing was settled by the end of the evening.


Commissioners will start anew on Saturday. They instructed their mapping consultant to prepare a layered map with districts as drawn by AGR, the Oak Hills Association of Neighborhoods, and others to help with their work.


Commissioners walked into a considerable backlash with a series of early drawings compiled Saturday. After a report and full-color set of maps appeared in the Statesman, the Commission received a host of letters from concerned parties who live mostly in and around the Oak Hill neighborhood.


A missive from Oak Hill Neighborhood Planning Contact Team Member Richard Armitage was typical. Armitage cited the maps that appeared in the Statesman. “Over the past five years, since the adoption of The Oak Hill Combined Neighborhood Plan by the City Council, the Oak Hill community has been dealing with challenging issues regarding protection of the environment, traffic, construction of a new highway at the Y, public transportation, and others. The community has worked together to deal with these issues,” Armitage wrote to Commissioners.


“Now I see that your preliminary map would split Oak Hill into two parts, District Five and District Eight. I would be in District Five which would include communities as far east as Interstate Highway 35, but not include neighborhoods near the Y,” he continued. “By dividing Oak Hill, you reduce our ability to speak with a unified voice in dealing with issues unique to Oak Hill. I hope you will redraw the map with all of the Oak Hill neighborhoods in a single district.”


Members of the group behind the passage of the charter amendment that kicked off the 10-1 districting process also chimed in with concern. AGR representatives repeatedly urged commissioners to adopt a complete map drawn by the organization as a starting point.


Veteran elections consultant Peck Young, who has worked with AGR, took the concept a step further, calling for the incorporation of maps drawn by multiple other groups. Young also carried a message from Nelson Linder, president of the local chapter of the NAACP, who – through Young – said that the organization would not support any map with an opportunity district with lower African-American population numbers than the one produced by AGR.


Still, it may all have been much ado about … at least very little. Commissioners Wednesday pointed out that the maps they began Saturday were not only mere first attempts, the segments studied by the commission were not actually completed until Tuesday – after a Public Information Request was filed by In Fact Daily. That fact appears to contribute to the notion that the maps cited by the Statesman were not intended as anything more than early drafts.


Meanwhile, divisions surfaced within the commission. Commission Chair Magdalena Blanco initially declined to hear a motion from Commissioner Ryan Ràfols  that would have extended citizens communication beyond the 30 minutes Blanco originally had reserved. Five commissioners, including Blanco and Anna Saenz urged their colleagues to move forward with mapping.


Saenz noted that, without maps, the citizens at the meeting to comment would have not much to comment on.


However, eight members of the commission pushed Blanco to allow communication to continue. Commissioner Carmen Llanes Pulido pointed out that the group has an all-day work session set for Saturday where they could work through mapping.


In the end, the five commissioners – Vice Chair TJ Costello, and Commissioners Maria Solis and Catherine Cocco, along with Blanco and Saenz – who worried that the commission should push ahead considering the work in front of them abstained from the vote. The ayes carried, and communication continued – for 30 more minutes.


As for the abstentions, one observer was overheard saying that the commissioners – carefully selected to be neutral parties – had converted to politicians. To that former State Rep. Valinda Bolton – there to speak on behalf of keeping Oak Hill together, and separate from Onion Creek – replied: “I used to be an elected official and even I’m not that chicken.”

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