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RECA forum discusses the effects of districts on Austin city politics

Wednesday, January 15, 2014 by Elizabeth Pagano

Politically attuned Austinites continue to wrestle with the uncertain future that the 10-1 City Council district system will bring, and that was the topic of discussion at a forum hosted by the Real Estate Council of Austin on Tuesday.


The forum, moderated by the Austin Monitor’s Publisher Mike Kanin, focused on Austin’s looming shift from an at-large City Council to one where Council members are elected geographically, from 10 recently-drawn districts. It was the first of what RECA promises will be a series of “idea forums.”


LBJ School of Public Affairs Professor Terrell Blodgett, former San Antonio City Manager Alex Briseño, Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole and political consultant Mark Littlefield tackled the topic for those present at the Four Seasons on Tuesday afternoon.


Blodgett said that November’s election will be “the most critical election that this city has faced, probably ever.”


“The mayor is going to have the job of herding that bunch of cats,” said Blodgett.


Blodgett said that early indications from City Council candidates showed a focus on their district’s interests, which worried him. He said that, in particular, the mayoral election would shape the direction of the new system.


“If the mayor cannot draw those 10 people together, then we could have some real problems. We could fall back and be a Waco… that has struggled to have any growth or keep young people,” said Blodgett, who went on to stress the need to elect Council members who possessed a global vision.


Saying that she wasn’t afraid of the changes to come, Cole expects that the new Council members will act on behalf of the whole city, not just their districts, in order to maintain things like the city‘s utilities and the airport.


“Just because a Council member is elected by a district, it doesn’t mean they will not have the city‘s interests at heart,” said Cole. She was one of the forum speakers to point out that no Council member would be able to act effectively alone, without the support of a majority.


Littlefield said that, in his opinion, the biggest change for the city is a switch from May City Council elections (which typically see very low voter turnouts) to a (much more popular) November ballot. In addition to the difference in numbers, Littlefield said that the median age of the May electorate is 58 years old, and that is expected to drop to about 45 years old for the November 2014 election.


Littlefield said that while in the past it was possible for the Council to ignore certain parts of the city, which will soon change


“Not only are you going to see two districts that will overlap in Southeast Austin, but you are going to see candidates for mayor that are going to have to walk through Dove Springs and talk to voters,” said Littlefield.


Littlefield put his faith in Austin’s voters, quipping that one of Austin’s best qualities is that everyone is a traffic engineer or a city planner. He expressed no doubt that voters would continue to care about what happened in the city as a whole.


“I trust Austin voters,” said Littlefield. “Yeah, it could be a disaster. But, I go into it with incredible optimism for one basic reason… I trust Austin voters and I trust them to get it right. If we don’t we’ll fix it.”


When asked whether the complete overhaul in Council will shift power to the City Manager‘s office, Briseño took things in a different direction. He said that, while he was able to weather a few storms after each turnover in San Antonio, “the first thing they wanted to do was get rid of the City Manager.”


He said the way he got beyond that was a lot of hard work from his office to ensure that the city’s needs were being met, and nurturing the talent pool of elected officials for smoother transitions.


“I didn’t really see a transfer of power to the staff. What I saw was more accountability for staff,” said Briseño.


As for what may come, Cole said she saw a future as bright as the very bright present.


“I remember when there was only one crane in the City of Austin and it was downtown in front of the federal courthouse,” said Cole. “We are leaders in economic opportunities and environmental protection in almost every list throughout the country. And we didn’t get there just with business. We got there with business and government collaborating. I think the only way for our future to be brighter is to continue that collaboration, especially with our tough issues like transportation and affordability.”


Cole, along with Council Member Mike Martinez is widely expected to run for Mayor. Others eyeing that race in the outsider category include Steve Adler, Patsy Martin and Bill McClellan.

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