Divided We Stand
We know, we know, you've heard it before: The face of Austin city government could change dramatically if a city committee's recommendation -- to switch to a larger, 10-member City Council elected by district, plus a mayor elected at-large, by May of 2002 -- is approved by voters later this year.
Under the proposal, presented by the Charter Review Committee last week, council members would serve three-year terms and the mayor would serve a four-year term. Committee chair Barbara Hankins said the four-year mayoral term was proposed not to strengthen the hand of the mayor (or, for that matter, to weaken it), but to prevent mayoral elections from consistently coinciding with -- and possibly influencing the outcomes of -- the elections of the same three districts every election cycle. With a four-year term, the mayor's race would rotate, coinciding with a given district's council election only every 12 years.
The commission's original recommendation was for an immediate increase to 12 districts, but that was revised to 10 districts with a provision for increasing the number when Austin's population increases by 25,000 over the 2000 Census count. (Nonetheless, Hankins said, the 12-district number was deemed the smallest that would guarantee a majority African-American voting district.)
In order to make the switch from at-large to single-member elections, the council would appoint an independent Redistricting Committee to undertake the sticky work of outlining the districts. The districting work would be aided by information from the 2000 Census, which will be published in early 2001.
Another intriguing proposal by the commission was the "instant runoff," which would have voters rank candidates from first to last, thereby using voters' second or third choices to determine which candidate had a majority in a close race. The benefits of scuttling runoffs are many, including alleviating voter fatigue and saving money both for city governments and campaign-weary candidates.
The instant runoff would introduce a little-used ranking system into Austin elections. Hankins acknowledged that the ranking system could be part of a transition to a proportional representation system of voting, which utilizes rankings to choose electoral winners. The system is generally regarded as a progressive tool designed to provide minority voting blocs with better elected representation.
Though Austin voters have rejected single-member districts several times, most recently in 1994, one council source claims there is support -- perhaps even majority support -- for districts, and this time the political will may be there to sway public opinion over the line.
Among supporters of the proposed changes was self-proclaimed council gadfly John Kunkel, who turned up at City Hall on Thursday to express his support for the Charter Review Committee's proposals. He said he spoke in favor of the proposal at a meeting of the committee in his Northwest Austin neighborhood, but that in order to demonstrate that he wasn't just "a nutty suburbanite," he also attended the meeting at the Rosewood Recreation Center in East Austin, where he said residents' comments mirrored his. "It doesn't matter what part of Austin you come from," said Kunkel, "people have the same attitudes."