Austin @ Large: Austin at Large

Mixing and Matching: Council Juggles Charter Amendments for a Checkered Ballot Ensemble

Daryl Slusher
Daryl Slusher

As next week's deadline for setting the May 4 election ballot approaches, we're just as sick of writing about proposed charter amendments as you are sick of reading about them, and we trust as the City Council is sick of talking about them. But since the city has no money and neither do many citizens, and amending the city charter costs nothing while promising to improve Austin public life, well, there you go. The devil makes work for idle hands.

Not that the cartload of charter amendments now parked before the City Council is filled with devilish ideas. Most may strike most voters as sensible, and even if they aren't, based on past practice charter amendments -- with the singular exception of single-member districts -- are much more likely to pass than fail at the ballot box. An equally sensible City Council might have simply put all dozen or so current proposals on the ballot without much fussing and left (trusted?) the voters to decide. But council agendas have been fairly sparse lately, and council members need to Do Something to show their mettle this close to an election, and well, there you go again. Debate ensues.

Mixed Districts, Mixed Emotions

Mettle, or chutzpah, may be what Daryl Slusher, Jackie Goodman, and Beverly Griffith showed in backing amendments to repeal both the term limits and the $100 campaign-contribution limits that have so vexed their re-election campaigns. The Austin Fair Elections Act -- the campaign public-financing system already on the ballot by citizen initiative -- would replace the latter if it passes; otherwise, we'd be back where we were in 1997, when more than $1.5 million was spent on the mayor's race alone. But we suppose the Three Amigos' positions on term limits and $100 campaign checks are well known, so what the heck.

At least there will be a single-member-district plan on the ballot, even if it's the one we mocked last week -- a mixed system with eight SMDs, two at-large reps, and the mayor. If you're mildly annoyed, as we are, that we can't just have SMDs and not at-large reps, take it up with Daryl Slusher, perhaps at the ballot box in May, if he's officially busted term limits by the time you read this. An 8-2-1 system is a compromise between Slusher -- who announced from the dais he'd prefer even more at-large reps (well, then, why change at all?) -- and the Mayor Himself, Gus Garcia, who's pushed for SMDs since most of Austin was in short pants but realized that a fourth vote (to join Himself, Will Wynn, and Raul Alvarez) was not to be found.

We don't want to whine too much here, since an 8-2-1 plan is clearly superior to the current madness and deserves your support. (Unless you support Beverly Griffith, who thinks things are fine the way they are and voted against putting any new system on the ballot. Griffith is also the wealthiest member of the council and can most easily run the citywide campaigns currently required, which may not pre-empt her principles but is an obvious flaw of the current system.) But what are those two at-large reps for? Why not just make them deputy mayors, giving them the special status they'll almost inevitably have (or fancy they should have) over plain ol' district reps?

One Step Forward

Last week, we cynically suggested a new gentleman's agreement that would reserve the at-large seats for, say, environmentalists like Daryl Slusher. But that assumes the old gentleman's agreement will disappear, which it may not. Much noise has been made about not being able to draw a majority-black district, due to the "dispersion" -- we used to call it "integration" -- of the black population, which means the African-American community might lose the representation it currently has, which means the feds would be on our ass for "retrogression" under the Voting Rights Act.

This pretty much sums up the legal advice the City Council has been getting in briefings from the city attorney's office. We wearily point out again that the VRA is designed not to ensure that people of color get elected, but that communities of color can elect who they want. The fact that majority-Hispanic districts have repeatedly sent Anglos Glen Maxey (in Austin) to the statehouse and Gene Green (in Houston) to Congress does not mean the VRA has malfunctioned. Even with a gentleman's agreement, the power of Austin's black and Latino communities to choose their own council members is currently exactly zero and would be increased under any alternative.

If you need reassurance, look at the AISD board with its seven districts, the Travis County Commissioners' Court with its four districts, and the county House delegation, which now has six districts. (The AISD board also has two at-large reps, but until this year they were the president and vice-president.) All have "black seats," held by black people, and have for decades. Even without actual African-American majorities, there are enough black voters in those districts to decide the outcome, which passes VRA muster, and surely a City Council district plan with 8, or 10, or more SMDs could produce the same result.

Clouds Over Sunshine

Speaking of things the county can do that the city thinks it can't, the Austin Police Association has mounted a PR campaign, including radio ads to mobilize the talk-radio (i.e., "pro-cop") audience, against the "sunshine amendment" that would open records of APD internal-affairs investigations to the public. Such records are already public at the Travis County sheriff's office, but state civil-service law allows Austin to maintain parallel, secret personnel files for police officers, and the union has insisted that Austin do so. The APA says this is only fair, since officers can be compelled to give statements in internal-affairs probes that, if used in court, would violate their Fifth Amendment rights.

This would seem a hard sell, since the lead backer of this purported threat to constitutional liberty is the American Civil Liberties Union. The APA media campaign tosses up the red herring that a sunshine amendment would invalidate the union's contract with the city, and thus gut the better-than-nothing-maybe civilian oversight system included therein. That contract, though, expires in 2003; the amendment could (as the ACLU suggests) be written to not take effect until afterward, but going back to the table a year early is not the worst thing that could happen to the city. (An attempt to negotiate police working conditions -- normally the province of collective bargaining -- at the ballot box should raise some concerns, but it's long been clear that Austin progressive solidarity with the working man does not extend to the cops.)

Regardless of its logical flaws, the APA blitz will surely be heard loud and clear by all but the dullest ears at City Hall. The cops' funding and backing helped get Danny Thomas elected and brought Rafael Quintanilla to within 300 votes of beating Raul Alvarez. (The cops' last-minute mailer supporting Quintanilla got lost at the post office.) The APA's support should be even more important this time, with public safety at the tip of every political tongue. It would be easy for the incumbents to pass the buck to the voters, but the cops appear to be unwilling to let that happen. n

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city council, charter amendments, single-member districts, Daryl Slusher, Jackie Goodman, Beverly Griffith, Austin Fair Elections Act, Gus Garcia, Voting Rights Act, Austin Police Association, sunshine amendment, American Civil Liberties Union

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