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City commissions move closer to gender balance

Monday, September 12, 2016 by Jack Craver

In Austin’s first election featuring geographic, single-member districts, voters sent seven women and four men (including the mayor) to the new 10-1 City Council, making the capital of Texas the first major U.S. city governed by a majority-female elected body.

The new Council has also come closer to achieving gender parity on citizen commissions, the panels where much of city policy is crafted by volunteers before it is taken up by Council.

Of the 515 commissioners appointed by Council members, 43 percent are women. That’s up from 37 percent under the previous Council.

This analysis is based on 47 commissions to which all Council members nominate appointees, as well as roughly 30 more boards to which only the mayor makes appointments.

Some Council members appoint far more women than others.

Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo is the clear leader in that respect. Of the current seats reserved for her appointees on commissions, 30 are occupied by women, 14 by men and three are vacant. Overall, women hold 64 percent of Tovo’s seats.

Council members Leslie Pool and Delia Garza have also made majority-female appointments – 55 percent and 53 percent of their commission seats, respectively, are female.

Pool said that she “absolutely” considered gender, race and ethnicity when making her commission appointments. Finding qualified women for positions traditionally dominated by men was not difficult, she said.

“I had a unique opportunity to elevate women into these important city commission positions, and I was so pleased with how deep the bench is for women in our community,” she said.

At the other end of the spectrum is Council Member Don Zimmerman. Of his 36 current appointees, only two are women. He also has 11 commission positions vacant, far more than any other Council member. His two female appointees currently sit on the Music Commission and the Asian American Quality of Life Advisory Commission.

Zimmerman, who has provoked controversy for remarks viewed as prejudiced against minorities and the LGBT community, was dismissive when asked about why he had appointed so few women.

“We never look at that,” he told the Austin Monitor as he left a Council work session on Aug. 30.

He also referenced the fact that two other women he had nominated for positions ultimately backed out after other Council members raised objections to their appointments. Rebecca Forest, who Zimmerman had appointed to the Commission on Immigrant Affairs, backed out after nearly all of Zimmerman’s colleagues said they supported removing her from the position over racially charged statements she had made. Among other things, she called Latin American immigrants “bio-weapons,” said the high number of Hispanic elected officials in Texas was a problem, called for the banning of Islam and asserted that Barack Obama was Muslim. Zimmerman’s pick for the Parks and Recreation Board, Sharon Blythe – a controversial cemeteries advocate who was accused by Parks Director Sara Hensley of hurling a racial slur at a city employee – was similarly nixed by Council.

“Are they targeting my female appointments? I don’t know,” said Zimmerman.

“A lot of people in this city are sexist, and they’re obsessed with people’s gender, and I’m not,” he said. “So I kind of don’t understand the line of questioning in the first place.”

“If you want to be a sexist and make that into a gender issue, you can do that, but we didn’t,” he said before walking away, visibly angry.

In spite of the female-majority Council and an increasing number of women on commissions, City Hall remains male-dominated in many ways. Women account for only 32 percent of all city staff positions and 27 percent of city management jobs, The Austin Chronicle reported last month.

Indeed, only a few months into the new Council’s tenure, city management was forced to apologize for hiring a Florida consultant to give a presentation to city staff about how to deal with women in government. Council members denounced the presentation as ignorant and offensive.

Assessing the makeup of the commissions by race and ethnicity is much more challenging than getting a sense of the gender breakdown, although figures released by the mayor’s office earlier this year, based on information submitted by commission applicants, showed that at least 50 percent of the commissioners were white, 20 percent Latino, 11 percent black, 6 percent Asian and less than 1 percent Native American. The remaining 13 percent of commissioners did not submit that information.

Those figures suggest that Latinos, who account for an estimated 35 percent of Austin’s population, remain significantly underrepresented on commissions.

Photo by Johannes Jansson/ [CC BY 2.5 dk], via Wikimedia Commons…Editor’s note: This article did not address genders other than male and female in order to avoid complication.

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