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Wanted: More residents to participate in city redistricting hearings

Monday, July 26, 2021 by Amy Smith

Austin commissioners charged with redrawing the boundaries of 10 City Council districts clearly have their work cut out for them. For one, they’re obligated to hold public hearings in each of the 10 districts, yet the first two forums drew only a skeleton crew of residents to the areas of town that are home to Austin’s most active voters – districts 9 and 10.

The surge of the Delta variant of Covid-19 is likely a key factor in the low turnout, in addition to a number of other competing priorities: summer travel, the Council budget process and the ongoing legislative special session in which voting rights are on the line.

But Christina Puentes, who chairs the Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission, is hopeful word will spread more quickly as the public forums continue wending their way across the city, with seven district hearings remaining. (The District 7 hearing took place Saturday.)

“Our biggest issue is trying to get more citizens to come to our events and share about their districts,” Puentes said. “Otherwise, we are drawing the maps based on what we have in the census, which we’ll get next month, and of course based on prior knowledge and what we have from the 2013 maps. But what’s useful about these forums is that we hear from everybody else and take that input into consideration in understanding the dimensions of local neighborhoods and communities and making sure those stay intact within the district.”

“The commitment of those who are attending is there,” Vice Chair Luis Gonzalez added. “Now it’s all about getting the word out and having people attend.”

Some of the original framers of a 10-1 Council system of governance are following the process closely, particularly the local NAACP, which has formed a coalition led by Nelson Linder and Peck Young.

The biggest change since the original maps were shaped is the additional 200,000 people who have moved to Austin, with District 6 absorbing the largest share of that growth.

While it’s not unusual to see familiar faces on city commissions, the ICRC marks the first time Puentes and Gonzalez are serving on a commission, much less an independent panel that is not appointed by City Council.

The two said they knew they would make a good team as chair and vice chair when they exchanged phone numbers and realized they shared the same South Texas area code. Puentes came to Austin to attend the University of Texas, then taught public school for five years and became interested in education policy, particularly as it relates to equity. She then enrolled in the LBJ School of Public Affairs and is currently completing her master’s degree.

One of Puentes’ class projects involved working with Travis County Commissioner Jeff Travillion to help get broadband and other services to the eastern and northeastern corners of Travis County. She took a class taught by former U.S. Senate candidate Beto O’Rourke on voter representation and the ongoing fight for democracy. Both of those experiences served to spark her interest in applying for a seat on the ICRC.

Gonzalez also landed in Austin to attend UT and is currently an executive assistant to the CEO of a lighting company. His prior work experience, both at UT and at Dell Medical School, helped inform his interest in community activism and running for local office. He went through the ATXelerator program, a training ground of sorts for future leaders.

“I learned a lot about the inner workings of the city and I learned about the consequences of redistricting at the state level and local level. At that time, I thought I wanted to run for local office and quickly realized I was not ready,” Gonzalez said, adding that he applied for the commission knowing he would be ineligible to run for local office for 10 years under ICRC requirements.

The commission’s next public forum will be held tomorrow in District 8. Its next regular meeting will be held virtually at 6 p.m. Wednesday. Here’s the complete list of upcoming forums:

  • District 8: July 27, 6-8 p.m., Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, 4801 La Crosse Ave.
  • District 4: July 31, 2-4 p.m., Gus Garcia Recreation Center, 1201 E. Rundberg Lane
  • District 6: Aug. 3, 6-8 p.m., Spicewood Springs Branch Library, 8637 Spicewood Springs Road
  • District 3: Aug. 7, 1-3 p.m., Ruiz Branch Library, 1600 Grove Blvd.
  • District 2: Aug. 10, 6-8 p.m., Mendez Middle School, 5106 Village Square Drive
  • District 1: Aug. 14, 1-3 p.m., George Washington Carver Museum and Cultural Center, 1165 Angelina St.
  • District 5: Aug. 17, 6-8 p.m., Manchaca Road Library, 5500 Manchaca Road
  • Virtual public forum, August, date and time pending

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