TDH: 4/25/11

The Daily Hustle asks if time's up for Single Member Districts

Leffingwell: All in the timing
Leffingwell: All in the timing (Photo by John Anderson)

After a brief working vacation (ha!), TDH is back. The big news on this Thursday’s City Council agenda is a vote laying the groundwork for the mayor’s proposed omnibus charter election in 2012, but, as with most political matters, timing is everything.

The resolution, Item 48 on the agenda, asks the City Manager to draw up draft amendments for council consideration in 90 days on a wide variety of initiatives: districts representing the mayor’s preferred 6-2-1 single member district/at-large scenario (map included); creating a redistricting commission to reexamine districts after each census; moving city elections from May to November; lengthening council terms from three to four years and ending the “staggering” of council elections; a variety of changes to campaign finance (doubling current campaign contribution limits for at-large races, increasing officeholder accounts, and more); and several changes to the city’s governance, with several appointments taken away from the City Manager.

All in all, it’s similar to the measures Leffingwell shared with the Chronicle previously, although a press release addressing the proposal notes the timing issues that could put the kibosh on a 2012 vote. Signatures are currently being gathered to put a map containing more seats than the mayor’s proposed nine up for a vote potentially as soon as November by ChangeAustin and other local activists. (Because after telling everyone “City Hall’s rigged” for months, voters will naturally be inclined to double council’s size, right?) But with charter elections allowable only once every two years, if they collect enough signatures to put a SMD proposal on a ballot before 2012, that could delay any additional charter vote set by the city.

A press release announcing Item 48 says that while Leffingwell “continues to support November 2012 as the date of the next city charter election, he would consider moving ahead sooner if there were strong community sentiment in favor of doing so.” Leffingwell continues, saying “If we hold this election in November of 2011, it will come at significant cost to Austin taxpayers – at least $500,000 and possibly more … If we hold it in May of 2012, which we could do at no added cost to taxpayers, it could raise a question of fairness. That is, would it be fair to put such far-reaching reforms before an electorate that typically comprises fewer than 15% of registered voters? … While I’m open to further consideration, I continue to support holding the election in November of 2012.”

The whole text of the press release, below:

Mayor, Council Members Set Stage For Major City Charter Election

Austin, Texas – Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell, Mayor Pro Tem Mike Martinez and Council Member Bill Spelman have co-sponsored an item on the Austin City Council’s April 28th meeting agenda to begin the process of placing a host of proposed city charter amendments on the ballot. The Council has previously voted to support holding the next city charter election in November 2012.

The item by Leffingwell, Martinez and Spelman directs the City Manager to prepare and present to the City Council within 90 days proposed city charter amendments to accomplish the following objectives:

Adding geographic representation to the Austin City Council, with the Council consisting of six members elected from geographic districts, two members elected at large, and a mayor elected at large.

Moving Austin's municipal elections from the uniform election date in May to the uniform election date in November of odd-numbered years only.

Changing Austin City Council terms of office from 3 years to 4 years.

Eliminating staggered City Council terms, with all City Council seats elected at once every 4 years.

Maintaining the current $350 individual campaign contribution limit for geographic seats, and setting the contribution limit for at-large seats at twice the limit for geographic seats.

Creating a new 30-day fundraising period immediately following elections for the purpose of retiring campaign debt and funding officeholder accounts, and increasing the limit for officeholder accounts from $20,000 to $40,000.

Creating a redistricting process in which City staff delivers a proposed redistricting map to a 7-member citizen Redistricting Commission, vested with the authority to approve a final map.

Changing the reporting structure of the City Attorney to report directly to the City Council.

Authorizing the direct appointment of Deputies and support staff by the City Clerk, the City Auditor, the City Attorney and the City Council.

The item further directs the City Manager to prepare and present to the City Council within 90 days a proposed map consisting of six geographic Council districts to accompany the proposed city charter amendments.

The agenda item also specifies that implementation of the charter amendments related to election reform, if approved by voters, should begin in 2013, with the first election under the new system of representation to be held in November 2013.

Leffingwell, Martinez and Spelman said the proposed reforms are intended to improve Austin’s system of elections, representation and governance.

“Unfortunately, when it comes time for Austin citizens to choose their representatives at City Hall, they tend to stay away from the polls in droves,” said Mayor Leffingwell. “Our goal in advancing these reforms is to increase turnout in city elections, deliver better representation for more people, and save money by holding fewer elections.”

“These proposed charter amendments are about making Austin City Hall more accountable and more responsive,” said Mayor Pro Tem Martinez. “It’s time to ensure that we have representatives at City Hall who are from every part of the community, with an intimate knowledge of citizens concerns at the neighborhood level.”

“We can have the best of both worlds by adding geographic representatives to the Council while maintaining some at large representatives with a citywide perspective,” said Council Member Spelman. “I look forward to working with my Council colleagues and the community to fashion a strong proposal that ultimately earns broad support at the ballot box.”

Leffingwell, Martinez and Spelman said they expect to forward the proposed city charter amendments to a Council-appointed Charter Revision Commission for review and community input later this year, in anticipation of a November 2012 election.

Leffingwell said that while he continues to support November 2012 as the date of the next city charter election, he would consider moving ahead sooner if there were strong community sentiment in favor of doing so.

“If we hold this election in November of 2011, it will come at significant cost to Austin taxpayers – at least $500,000 and possibly more,” said Leffingwell. “If we hold it in May of 2012, which we could do at no added cost to taxpayers, it could raise a question of fairness. That is, would it be fair to put such far-reaching reforms before an electorate that typically comprises fewer than 15% of registered voters?”

“While I’m open to further consideration, I continue to support holding the election in November of 2012,” said Leffingwell. “The electorate will be much larger and more representative of the entire community, and since we plan to have bond referendums on that ballot, we would already be sharing in the cost the election,” said Leffingwell.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS POST

The Daily Hustle, City Council, Lee Leffingwell, Mike Martinez, Bill Spelman, Elections, Single member districts, city charter

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