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ICRC holds final public hearing on proposed Council districts

Friday, November 1, 2013 by Elizabeth Pagano

As the deadline for a single-member district map grows closer, the crowd wanting to address the map has grown larger and more vocal.


Wednesday night, the Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission held its fourth and final public input meeting designed to solicit testimony about the Sept. 28 preliminary map. The commission heard from a full house at the new Asian American Resource Center and, when the meeting started, there were considerably more than 100 people on hand.


The commission will start tackling revisions to the map on Saturday, and are expected to have a final map of Austin’s first City Council districts completed by Dec. 1.


In addition to input from the public, the commission heard two extended presentations from the League of United Latin American Citizens District 12 and the recently-formed Compact District Coalition. Marcelo H. Tafoya started off the presentation, with fellow District 12 members Gavino Fernandez, Fidel Acevedo and Paul Hernandez also presenting.


LULAC District 7’s Cynthia Valdez-Mata later told the commission that her group supported the Austinites for Geographic Representation (AGR) map, not the map proposed by the other LULAC district. Representatives from AGR also offered up solutions, though their testimony was not officially invited.


Though LULAC District 12 attacked the commission for what they called the lack of minority representation in their map, there were others who stayed late to attack District 12 right back, including LULAC District 7.


The maps presented by LULAC District 12 contained four Hispanic minority-opportunity districts, which they defined as any district with a minority population of more than 50 percent (representatives from AGR have stated that the threshold should be 60 percent.) The ICRC map currently has four minority-opportunity districts – three Hispanic and one African-American.


LULAC’s  Fernandez criticized the current map, saying, “We were looking for a political opportunity, not to go backwards. Your map took us backwards.”


LULAC’s map immediately came under fire by those still in attendance, who accused the group of trying to squelch a potential African-American opportunity district with a Hispanic one.


“The East Side was predominately African-American for years, and a LULAC group has done what God hadn’t done. They’ve eradicated black folks. I hope you will not eradicate the black vote, because I personally will labor to ask the Justice Department to help us maintain the black vote in Austin,” said Vera Roland Givens, an African American. “To have a group that just totally wipes out a population is more than insulting.”


A presentation by the Compact District Coalition provided a variety of maps. They told the commission that at least 15 neighborhood associations had passed resolutions supporting the concept of compact districts, and presented a handful of maps illustrating that concept. The group has stressed the idea of maintaining communities of interest, and drew maps that have used Lady Bird Lake as a dividing line and significantly altered the oddly-shaped Districts 7 and 9.


“Someone said… we could probably draw 100 different maps to actually solve this problem in the central city,” said North University Neighborhood Association’s Mary Ingle. “Fortunately, we ran out of time. But we did nine.”


Prior to the invited testimony, Austinites provided hours of feedback to the commission. Much of it was critical.


Many of those who spoke reiterated concerns that their neighborhood had been divided by the preliminary map, and asked the commission to consider redrawing their map to consider those borders.


There was also a strong representation of people asking that Districts 7 and 9 be reshaped to better represent existing “communities of interest.”


Even AGR’s Fred Lewis urged the commission to consider a compact District 7, saying at its far end, the communities of interest “are breaking down.” Lewis did praise the tactic of working from the “outside in” in drawing the map, which he called “the right thing.”


As reported in yesterday’s Whispers, Downtown Austin Alliance Executive Director Charles Betts asked the commission to keep downtown, as delineated by the Downtown Austin Plan, intact. Betts asked the commission why a small portion of the UT Campus was carved out and placed in an eastern district, noting that it was logically a part of downtown.


After Chair Magdalena Blanco ascertained through legal counsel David Richards that they did not need to answer the question, Richards advised Betts that the rationale was in the record and said that he could look it up.


Montopolis Resident Delwin Goss began his contribution with a plea for commissioners with “strong ties” to anyone planning to run for Council to make those ties public. But his main slant was that Montopolis should stay with the other neighborhoods in the recently-passed East Riverside/Oltorf Combined Master Plan, and asked that it be placed in a district with East Riverside, East Oltorf and Central East Austin.


Longtime political consultant Peck Young, who is a volunteer for AGR, explained that Montopolis and Dove Springs couldn’t be put together without “packing” the resulting district with a Hispanic population north of 70 percent.


“I do not believe, based on my 40 years of experience, today it is possible to do a district that combines those two neighborhoods, because of the density,” said Young. “I do not believe that you can put Montopolis and Dove Springs together and not have a packed district.”


The committee will be wrestling with that and other issues beginning tomorrow at 10am at Austin Energy’s Town Lake Center.

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