Naked City

The Charter, Again, Part I

As we approach the March 21 deadline for setting the May city ballot, the City Council continues to wrangle with proposed charter amendments. This week's agenda announced discussion of not only single-member districts but of a mixed system of at-large and SMDs -- an idea most assertively suggested in recent weeks by Council Member Daryl Slusher. A mixed system (for reference, see Houston) has received support from some environmentalist groups, who fear an all-SMD system would erode gains made in recent years thanks to the bloc voting power of the central city.

That's not exactly a ringing statement of principle, but if the council is really keen on exploring alternatives to straight SMDs, it might consider examples from other cities:

Baltimore's multimember district setup. Each of the six districts sends its top three vote getters to the council.

Memphis has two district maps: one with seven precincts, one with only two. Each of the seven and each of the two "super-districts" elects one council member.

Atlanta has 12 districts with one council member apiece, as well as three at-large members who each represent a "post" made up of four combined districts.

Kansas City has six districts, each represented by two council members -- one of whom is elected by the district and the other at-large.

Tucson has seven districts. Each "nominates" its top two vote-getters into a runoff decided by voters citywide. -- Mike Clark-Madison

The Charter, Again, Part II

Also vexing this week on the charter front has been campaign finance. The Austin Fair Campaign Act, which would replace the $100-limit system approved by voters in 1997 with a public-financing system, will appear on the May ballot by citizen initiative. The city's Charter Revision Committee recommended that the ballot also include scrapping the 1997 system entirely -- supposedly at the behest of the city's Ethics Review Commission, which has to enforce those rules. Last month, ERC Chair Ginny Agnew asked the charter panel to consider a repeal, but the full commission decided that a repeal would be confusing and legally problematic.

That doesn't mean the council can't do it, and they probably will. However, the Charter Revision Committee also declined to suggest other campaign-finance alternatives that might be less expensive than the Fair Campaign Act. So Council Member Will Wynn -- arguing that repealing the 1997 rules is itself an "alternative" -- has leapt into the breach.

In a memo to his colleagues Monday, Wynn noted that "every possible outcome of the May vote, given just these choices, is problematic. No one (who is not an incumbent) seems to believe that our current system is working. No one at all seems to believe that our old system was any better. And I think there are very few people who believe that the proposed public financing system is a cure-all, or that it won't present serious implementation and budgetary challenges."

Wynn's alternative would simply raise the contribution limit from $100 to $500 for at-large races and preserve it at $100 for single-member-district races, should those ever come to pass. If his plan appeared on the May 4 ballot as a third option, along with AFCA and repeal, Wynn wrote, "the citizen-initiated public financing proposal -- despite all of its unknowns -- should 'trump' if it passes." But if the public financing proposal failed and both other propositions passed, he added, "I would hope that the City Council and the citizens of Austin would want the proposal I have outlined above to 'trump' the repeal of our current rules."

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