On Nov. 7, Ken Mory awoke to an early, complicated Christmas present that would require extensive assembly. The night before had marked the dramatic victory of a ballot proposition that would ultimately redesign Austin city politics. The passage of Prop. 3 – to change the City Council from a seven-member, all at-large group to an 11-member, mostly districted body – kicked off a lengthy, raucous, and sometimes frustrating struggle over district lines for the new shape of City Hall.
In 2014, there will be 10 new Council districts, at least eight new Council members, and a new at-large mayor. As part of the 10-1 plan, the Office of the City Auditor – Mory and a staff of five 10-1 assigned employees – has been charged with the delicate and complex task of assembling the "Indep-endent Citizens Redistricting Commission" that will draw the new districts.
Thus far, he's met mixed results. Many are worried that the very restrictive guidelines for the recruitment of the ICRC – strict rules that mandate frequent voters while culling any would-be politicians – will leave Mory and his team with a tiny pool of potential commission members. Others suggest the complicated, multistep process has already created unnecessary disputes and charges of obstruction. And recent projections suggest that guaranteeing racial diversity among commissioners could be a problem.
Mory will, he says, do his job. "From the perspective that the citizens want me to do this job and it can be of value – it's historical, it really is historical," he says. "And if they're looking for someone that's going to be objective and independent and make sure there's no partisan ... approach to it ... that's what we do." Once his office assembles the commission, the commission takes over – and then commission members will try to balance equitably, on the city map, the geographic and political residue of 175 years of history.
Meanwhile, nearly every political faction in town is concerned that, after the expanded 2015 inauguration ceremony, we're all headed straight to hell. Developers worry their projects will enter permanent limbo; neighborhood advocates fear development projects will swallow them whole. Environmentalists wonder if Austin green will turn to arid dust. Old City Hall hands are skeptical over the effectiveness of the larger, factionalized, and potentially unwieldy new body – and the abilities of the new class of cogs headed toward the political machine.
Single-member districts have been a long time coming. The at-large system, common in small towns, had been in place since 1953, the only concession to modernity being an unofficial public consensus (aka the "gentlemen's agreement" that reserved Places 5 and 6 on the seven-seat Council for minority candidates). Meanwhile, the town grew into a major city, and the demographics changed: Most dramatically, the Hispanic population exploded, making the unofficial two-seat quota an embarrassing anachronism. But beginning in 1973, six separate elections failed to approve a shift to a districted system.
Until now. In November, voters finally approved the 10-1 plan (the "1" being the mayor, still to be elected at-large), and its advocates look forward to the more diverse Council that, in theory, the new system promises. A Council-appointed committee drafted districting proposals, while an ad hoc group (Austinites for Geographic Representation) initiated the petition-driven, voter-approved charter amendment that implements 10 geographic districts and requires an independent commission to create those districts. Attorney Fred Lewis served on the Council committee and is one of the authors of the charter amendment. "I think we will have minorities from minority communities that are elected by minority communities," he says. "Whether they are [minority candidates] or not, they will be the representatives of minority and lower-income people. I don't think that's the case with the gentlemen's agreement."
Though the major battle has been won, the war is hardly over. Last month, the City Auditor's Office released applications for the auditor's "Applicant Review Panel" (CPAs who will select the actual commission) and the ICRC itself. Members of the Austin City Council also voted last week on expense reimbursements for members of the ICRC – matching them to the standards for city employees. AGR was livid, insisting that mileage and child care expenses should be covered – although the adopted amendment cites only "reasonable and necessary personal expenses." No one from AGR had spoken at Council, but the group quickly issued an angry press release charging Council members with ignoring the law's intent. Former campaign consultant Peck Young (who directs the Center for Public Policy and Political Studies at Austin Community College) was quick to claim obstruction. "It's clear that [Council members] aren't willing to accept the verdict of 60% of the electorate," he says.
"So far the implementation process has been reasonably wonky, because the people opposed to implementation are trying to write the rules," Young added. "I think the auditor is trying to do well, but I don't think anybody at City Hall, who frankly see themselves as having lost this election, are enthusiastic about properly implementing this damn thing. And I don't see any real, good-faith cooperation from the Council or the City Attorney's Office."
Although AGR ran a "throw the bums out" campaign, the Council members were in fact split on 10-1 – all supported districts, but some preferred a hybrid option with two other members elected at-large – and the expense provision, which passed on consent, could still be revisited. But the dispute reflects AGR's determination to portray the process as beleaguered by nefarious special interests. AGR has formed its own "oversight committee," offering the group's own interpretations of the complex amendment. It recently issued a nine-page letter to the Auditor's Office, asking that criteria enable a greater pool of applicants, and that the auditors on the review panel be paid (not specified by the Charter).
Last week, a group calling itself Austin Community for Change – which had supported Prop. 4, the hybrid district plan – sent its own letter to the auditor (noting twice that Prop. 4 was also approved by voters, by a lower margin). The letter notes the irony in implementing a system that limits those who qualify to draw the new districts to, largely, the same three Westside neighborhoods of heavy voting that AGR describes as dens of the powerful. It also takes swipes at the way the amendment was written; arguing that problems AC4C pointed out earlier in the process are now becoming evident as implementation begins.
Young maintains that the city has stuck to the "most narrow and least productive" interpretation of the Charter, and calls the city's actions obstructionist. He concedes that the applications produced by the Auditor's Office for the districting committees are acceptable, but he noted – just in case – "there is a recourse called a lawsuit."
The overheated rhetoric hardly ends there.
"Before this is all over, just like every step of the way with this particular damn City Council and this particular city law office, it's going to be as bloody and as difficult as they can possibly make it," said Young. "These people are firmly rooted in the control of this city by them and by the people that elected them in West Austin. We're going to claw control of this city from their cold, dead hands. We've changed the way the system works, and they're going to give it up by fighting us to the last goddamn bullet. They have shown all the decency and all of the democratic leadership of a bunch of Soviet commissars."
Council Member Laura Morrison dismissed Young's criticism. "The charter amendment tasks the City Auditor with developing and overseeing a fair process to create the Independent Redistricting Commission," she said via email. "The Auditor and his office always operate in an independent and objective manner, and I have full confidence in their ability to execute these responsibilities, without interference. Anyone suggesting otherwise, obviously doesn't know the City Auditor."
Council Member Mike Martinez declined to respond directly to Young's charges. Concerning the issue that brought on the vitriol – the refusal of Council members to approve day care and mileage reimbursements for would-be commissioners – he pointed to a June Council work session when Lewis acknowledged that the commission's purse strings and some rule-making could end up in Council hands if there were matters open to interpretation – a recurring problem. The Auditor's Office even created an interpretive terms sheet that accompanies its commission application. "One of the concerns that we had," said Martinez, "and we were very vocal about it – was that the language in the proposed charter amendment was really open [to interpretation]."
Martinez said the reimbursement ruling reflected "no nefarious act taking place, no ulterior motive." He says that Council was simply making the best decision given the provision's vagueness; since there is no city reimbursement policy in place for board and commission members, they chose to go with the policy that the city uses for its own employees. Council Member Bill Spelman noted that he voted for 10-1 (Prop. 3), as well as for Prop. 4, and responded to AGR's complaints more broadly. "AGR does not own 10-1. AGR may have been the primary interest group behind 10-1, they may have funded the campaign for 10-1. But once a majority of Austin residents – including me – voted for 10-1, it became the city's policy."
Austin League of Women Voters Co-President Stewart Snider has no delusions that the switch to 10-1 will be a panacea. But he believes that single-member districts will increase participation in city government, particularly for disenfranchised minority groups and areas of the city that have lacked Council representation. "It's been so concentrated in two or three ZIP codes, and we just didn't see that as very democratic," said Snider. "In city politics, you kind of need to live in the place that you're governing, I think. You can understand issues in another part of town intellectually, but unless you've lived it, you don't understand the impact of it deeply enough." Snider also hopes that the change will allow candidates that are "closer to average Austinites" to run for office, and win. City Council members currently have more constituents than members of the U.S. Congress, and Snider calls the at-large system "impossible" for shoestring or grassroots candidates.
The Austin Neighborhoods Council also supported the 10-1 plan. Past president Steve Aleman says that he looks forward to a more even representation across the entire city. "Last year when I was president, driving from one far end of town to the other for neighborhood meetings," Aleman recalled, "I was struck by how diverse the city is. ... It personally hit home how important this was to ensure that all the neighborhoods have a voice."
Not all neighborhood advocates are convinced. One City Hall regular said that she's worried about reaching consensus in a larger Council, and what having just one representative per voter, instead of six, will mean. Will neighborhood groups be able to devote the time to get the votes they need on this larger Council – especially for cases that only impact one small area? What might it mean for neighborhoods to be divided between two Council members?
Young says the worry that Council members will consider only their own districts is "asinine," arguing that people run and win on citywide issues like transportation, health care, and taxes. "Nobody elects anybody to the city government of a big city because they promise that they are going to put in a stoplight," he says. "Anybody that thinks that voters in one part of town are so damn dumb that they're gonna elect somebody over some local issue and people in some other part of town are so brilliant that they're going to elect people on big issues is actually being patronizing and racist – or classist – toward people in another part of town.
"What you end up with is people in every part of town who care about their whole city. And to say otherwise is to show that you are narrow-minded or stupid."
Spelman addressed the open question in a late 2012 interview with the online newsletter In Fact Daily. "If RECA [the Real Estate Council of Austin], the Sierra Club, and the [ANC] recognize that this is a big city, and though our interests may be different, we've got to look at the whole city, and continue to do citywide forums [and] continue to ask citywide questions ... then I think we will have accomplished our objective: People are going to have to pay attention to citywide issues to get elected," Spelman said. "If that just drops off the table, and Sierra Club and RECA stop asking those questions, and rely on the neighborhood groups to make their own decisions, then we might end up with ward politics."
Attorney and lobbyist Nikelle Meade echoed that concern. Meade, who represents her fair share of developers, looks at it from their perspective. "They are always concerned with the unknown, so everybody's a little bit afraid of that," she says. "[But] I think that the biggest concern, and fear, is that we'll end up with a ward-politics type of system where everything is – you know, you've got to buddy up with the person who's the Council member in your district, or nothing will ever get done."
Meade has her fingers crossed but is frankly apprehensive. "The development issues are so emotional for the people who live in closest proximity, and when you are just the Council member representing just those people, I think it's just going to be really hard to overcome those emotional issues. When I see the Council deal with the really tough zoning cases ... their decision ends up being, 'I know you live next door to it, I know you hate it, but we've got to do what's best for the city.' And I think it's going to be hard to get to that point, when you've got the [particular] representative of those constituents, who everyone is going to look to in order to see what they think about it."
From an environmental perspective, Save Our Springs Director Bill Bunch says that he has heard the concerns from local greens. Bunch supported the change, but he says, "I knew a lot of people in the environmental community who were concerned about the ward politics issue." Though he speculates that the community will see "a lot more divided votes," he says that isn't necessarily a bad thing. After the 1992 passage of the Save Our Springs Ordinance and the subsequent empaneling of the "Green Council," he recalls, candidates "knew that they couldn't be openly against protecting the environment" although "greenwashing" – the false pretense of environmental action – continues. Bunch says that he is personally ready for the opportunity to deal on an honest level. He's also optimistic that the 10-1 change won't spell doom for Austin environmentalism. "I think we'll still have a majority that's committed to what a majority of what this city wants."
Yet the larger policy consequences are a couple of years down the road. For now, the attention rests on questions about how the ICRC itself will be formed. The commission is, in theory, designed to be "independent" of actual or apparent political influence; the selection process features a double-blind application and a bureaucratically layered selection headed by Mory's team, which anoints a panel of three CPAs that then picks 60 of the most qualified applicants to fill the first eight slots on the commission (the commissioners then pick an additional six members). No one who has held public office anytime in the past 10 years is eligible, and other restrictions exclude anyone with a city job or political connections (or their spouses). Yet prospective applicants must also have participated in three out of the past five elections, and put aside any city electoral ambitions for another 10 years after the districting committee concludes its work.
Each Council member can strike one of the 60 who survive that first round, and then Mory will hold a random selection process. "We've got this cage with little ping-pong balls," he told delegates at this month's ANC general meeting. "We'll roll 'em around and pick 'em out, in public with the cameras there and the news media and all that." One neighborhood representative asked, "What in the process will help to ensure that we get a good blending of applicants in there? For example, the business community could say that we're going to make sure that we have 100,000 ... business-oriented people who apply in that pot." (Note: The pool of commission-eligible voters is much lower than 100,000.) The ANC rep took the equation to its logical conclusion: "So, just to be clear, every group should try to get as many names in that hat as possible to give the greatest chance for that group to get representation," he said.
Asked later about potential safeguards against stacking the applicant deck, Mory said, "I don't have the power to do that. I have the law, and the law is the charter. I follow the described procedures that I'm supposed to follow in there. I'm trying to do – wherever I have room with the charter ... I'm trying to broaden everything I can."
Mory returned to the primary source of consternation for city officials and charter supporters: the vague language of the charter amendment. By law, Council members were not allowed to alter the language of the petition question before it appeared on the ballot, and, therefore, any interpretive concerns could not be addressed in advance.
That leaves Mory (with help from much-criticized city attorneys) to interpret loosely defined provisions. The result is a 14-page document that lists the auditor's take on a wide range of words and phrases, including such mundanities as "contribution" and "city," as well as more delicate definitions – such as how one might interpret the charter's election participation restrictions for potential committee members. "This guidance is intended to provide interpretations of these terms to support the purposes of the charter," reads the guidance sheet.
AGR has compiled its own guide, a 16-page flowchart titled "The ABCDs of the Independent Redistricting Commission: A General Non-technical Overview." At a recent AGR outreach meeting, they discussed future plans to have business cards printed up that explained the process, although their best effort thus far is a quite elliptical one-pager (which doesn't mention, for example, the 14 public hearings required by the charter).
Of course, disputes over interpretation are the sort of thing that often lands in court.
Whatever the political future ... first we have to get there. (For a schematic version of the journey, see "The Long and Winding Road to 10-1") The current disputes over ICRC expenses provide an early blueprint of what's likely to come, both in the districting process and its political accompaniment: two steps forward, one step back – with regular pauses for outrage and recriminations.
During last year's discussions, AGR advocates assured the Council that there would be "hundreds" of applicants for the commission. As of Monday, the Auditor's office had received 10 applications for the applicant review panel and 28 applications for the ICRC. Meanwhile, AGR issued its latest alert – clarifying the independence of the ICRC from City Council and city staff. It reads, in part, "Because of the city staff's conflicts of interest working for the City, the proponents of 10-1 (and the ICRC), Austinites for Geographic Representation highly recommends the ICRC use no city staff."
But before we get to the point that the committee is firing its staff, we have a month more of applications to get through. And the selecting of the applicant panel. And the process of determining who the 60 "most qualified" candidates for the redistricting commission are. And the Council strikes. And the random, then not random selection of the panel that will draw the districts. Only then will Austin begin the inevitably contentious, historically momentous process of actually drawing City Council districts for the very first time.
Austinites love to congratulate ourselves – and mock ourselves – on our outsized enthusiasm for participatory democracy (even when we mostly stay home on Election Day). The 10-1 Council should give us plenty of opportunities for even more grassroots participation – if we can just figure out how to get there without driving ourselves completely crazy in the process.
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