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10-1: Commission representation by the numbers

Thursday, October 20, 2016 by Jack Craver

Graphs and map by John Laycock.

One of the arguments in favor of replacing Austin’s former at-large City Council with the new, district-based 10-1 system was that the former system didn’t adequately represent certain parts of the city.

Nonetheless, although Council members must reside in the district they represent, the dozens of citizens they appoint to boards and commissions do not necessarily live in the Council member’s district or even in the city.

An Austin Monitor analysis of information provided by the city clerk shows that some areas of the city have far fewer residents on boards and commissions than others.

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District 10, which includes much of West Austin and is the city’s wealthiest, has the highest representation on commissions. Of the 483 commissioners whose districts of residence were provided to the Monitor, 66 (or 14 percent) were from District 10.

Part of District 10’s high representation stems from Council Member Sheri Gallo’s campaign pledge to appoint only her constituents to commissions. However, District 10 residents were also popular among other Council members and Mayor Steve Adler.

At the other end of the spectrum is District 2, which covers a large swath of Southeast Austin and is represented by Council Member Delia Garza. Only 21 commissioners (4 percent) hail from that district, and Garza is the only member of Council who drew less than half of her commission appointments from among her constituents.

In an interview with the Monitor, Garza said that finding people from her district was one of several priorities when she was deciding on appointments, along with experience, expertise and ethnic and racial diversity. For instance, she described being honored to be the one to reappoint longtime activist Shudde Fath, a District 5 resident, to the Electric Utility Commission, on which Fath has served since 1977.

Garza said there is likely a smaller pool of people able to commit to the time-consuming task of serving on a commission in her district, which is one of the city’s poorest. The median family income of Garza’s constituents ($42,650) is less than a third of that of Gallo’s ($131,100), and three times as many of her constituents live below the poverty line (24.8 percent vs. 7.8 percent), according to 2013 data from the American Community Survey.

But it’s not just about wealth, Garza said. Geography also plays a role.

“Historically, people around downtown have been the most engaged,” said Garza, who offered the example of District 1, represented by Council Member Ora Houston, which has a similar socioeconomic profile to Garza’s district but boasts far more commissioners.

“District 1 is a high poverty district, too, but it stretches all the way to downtown,” said Garza.

Council Member Greg Casar, who represents District 4, the city’s poorest, echoed Garza’s comments about the difficulties of recruiting commissioners when a lot of his constituents “not only work a full-time job but maybe multiple jobs, or maybe English isn’t their primary language.”

Casar said that while he considers residency in his district an “important factor” when choosing commissioners, his main goal is to find commissioners whose priorities align with those of his constituents, whether they live in the district or not.

District 5 Council Member Ann Kitchen, who was able to find district residents for all but a few of her commission appointments, made it a priority to find constituents for those roles, explained aide Donna Tiemann. But Kitchen also strives, she explained, “to ensure the whole district is well-represented and has a voice” in city government by finding people from different neighborhoods in her South Austin district.
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Some commissions are bound to appeal more to certain areas of the city than to others. The Robert Mueller Municipal Airport Plan Implementation Advisory Commission, for instance, consists of eight District 9 residents two District 1 residents and one District 4 resident. That panel was the only one, for instance, to which Gallo appointed a nonconstituent.

Adler was able to find commissioners from every district, ranging from a low of one commissioner from District 2 to a high of seven commissioners from District 8, the wealthy Southwest district represented by Council Member Ellen Troxclair.

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This story has been corrected to reflect the accurate makeup of the Robert Mueller Municipal Airport Plan Implementation Advisory Commission.

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