At the heart of the recently approved "people's plan" (as its supporters in Austinites for Geographic Representation call it), which will create single-member City Council districts for the first time in Austin's history, is the "Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission." The declared purpose of the commission is to take the procedure of drawing up the 10 districts out of the hands of elected officials and put it into the hands of unelected Austin citizenry – the argument being that these political districts will therefore not be influenced by politics.
Yet the past month has shown that establishing government with an inherent mistrust of government can be, at a minimum, convoluted. At the first public information forum about the switch, Larry Schooler, the city's community engagement consultant, opened with an aptly vague summation, welcoming the almost 120 people in attendance. "We're at the beginning of what I know for some is too long of a process," said Schooler. "But nevertheless, it is a process."
Even the basic, objective qualifications for service on the redistricting commission are already causing trouble. At last week's Council work session, Council Member Chris Riley brought up the fact that just shy of 26,000 Austin residents would be automatically disqualified from service because they live in areas of the city that have been annexed in the last five years – meaning they won't meet the requirement for consistent voting in municipal elections. Conflict-of-interest prohibitions remain vague as well, with a ban in place on people who have performed "paid services under a professional or political contract" with the city or Council members, but a lack of clarity about what exactly that might mean, or how broadly it might be applied.
The stipulation causing the most concern right now is the requirement that eligible applicants must have voted in three of the last five city elections. With a recent city election turnout that hovers around 7%, it's obvious that may considerably narrow eligibility. Kathy Vale, who was a member of both the Council-appointed Charter Revision Committee (which recommended the initial independent commission plan) and, later, AGR, addressed this concern at last week's public input meeting, asking for numbers. She asked the city auditor's staff – charged with implementing the 10-1 districting plan – to report how many Austinites have voted in three of the last five city elections, if possible plotting that information geographically and demographically in order to get a better sense of how restrictive it might be. "I'm a little bit concerned," said Vale, "that we may have very low numbers in the African-American and Latino populations that have voted in the last three out of five city elections."
The city auditor's office is currently working on coming up with the exact figure, but election watchers estimate that only about 28,000 people in Austin fulfill this base requirement. How that breaks down demographically is less certain, but judging from prevailing voting patterns – the same patterns excoriated in AGR promotion of 10-1 – it's unlikely to be highly diverse.
Then there is the matter of determining the 60 extra-qualified potential map-drawers that will comprise the pool from which the redistricting commission will ultimately be selected. The charter amendment says that the decision should be based on an applicant's "analytical skills," impartiality, and "appreciation for Austin's diverse demographics and geography." How expertise in these areas is determined is up to the yet-to-be-formed panel of three auditors. "They [the auditors on the Applicant Review Panel] can do whatever they want," said City Auditor Ken Mory. "It's pretty wide-open, what they can do to select who they need to select."
In lieu of empirical criteria, then, the city's strategy is to be as public and explicit as possible about its interpretation. Hence the series of planned public information meetings and launch of a new website (www.austintexas.gov/10-one), all of which ask Austinites to weigh in on how they think the "most qualified" should be determined. In the end, under the language of the ordinance, it is entirely up to the auditors to determine whether they listen to public opinion, but Assistant City Attorney John Steiner told Council that staff is working on making the auditors' task as objective as possible, using criteria in part provided by the public process. To some extent, staff is "crowdsourcing" the interpretation of the qualifications. At the Council work session, Steiner explained that one of the reasons the timeline allows for a rule-adoption process is to allow city's legal interpretations to receive public comment. Some things in the adopted ordinance "could reasonably be read in a number of ways," he explained.
It's a lot to get done in time for the November 2014 elections that will decide 10 new Council members and a mayor. Currently, the auditor's office plans to establish the auditors' selection panel by April 16, 2013, and establish the initial, qualified pool of applicants by May 1. This was revised from the initial timeline, in part due to concerns that the relatively small pool of qualified auditors (estimated by the city at 3,000 resident CPAs) would be busy during tax season.
But attorney Fred Lewis, who was also a member of the Charter Revision Committee, called the revised timeline "bass ackwards" because it allots too much time to the formation of the ICRC and not enough time for voters. He also worries that a projection of maps being done by April 1, 2014, is too tight for the U.S. Department of Justice preclearance that is required under the Voting Rights Act. "I mean it can work, if the courts could come in and shorten deadlines and extend elections, but it's going to be a giant debacle," said Lewis.
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