Point Austin: Gentlemen's Disagreement

Back to the future at City Hall

Point Austin
Fledgling Member Mike Martinez caused a flutter in the City Council dovecote last week by raising a perennial, thorny local issue: single-member council districts. More precisely, Martinez told In Fact Daily that he plans to propose a community task force to consider council government in general, and specifically changes in the structure of representation to some form of "hybrid" system. "What I envision is both at-large and geographic districts," he told IFD. "I don't want to call it single-member districts. There's more to it than that."

Initially, Martinez's colleagues reacted as though someone had suggested cleaning out their garages – it may well need doing, but nobody is volunteering for the job. Betty Dunkerley said that while she doesn't oppose a discussion, she no longer supports single-member districts. Fellow freshman Sheryl Cole said that while she isn't opposed to considering the question, her primary concern is protecting representation for African-American residents, now so dispersed throughout the city that it's hard to draw a majority African-American district.

The strongest negative reaction came from Brewster McCracken, who said most council members oppose a change because "single-member districts would produce ward politics. ... Such a system would cause the voters of Austin to be disenfranchised in six of seven seats." Even Martinez acknowledged that Austin voters have rejected single-member or hybrid systems several times, most recently in 2002, when a charter amendment proposing a system of eight single-member districts and four at-large members (including the mayor) was soundly defeated. (Another charter amendment election could not be held before 2008.)

Words to Buzz

Martinez remains undaunted, saying he has continued to talk with his colleagues about his proposal and expects to put it on the council agenda "in the near future." "The rhetoric is," he said, "'we voted on it six times; it was voted down six times.' But did you do any work, did you actively put something down that people could sink their teeth into?" He called the 2002 defeat misleading because members who nominally supported the proposition didn't like proposed district maps and helped defeat the measure by indifference. "I think we can and will convene a task force," he continued, "to start to dig into this and see if there is something that can improve our government and improve the opportunities for diversity. If it doesn't improve our government and the opportunities for diversity, and if it harms African-Americans, then it's not something I'm going to be supporting. But I believe we can improve those opportunities, and enhance those opportunities. We've proven that minorities can be elected citywide. So you'd also think if you've drawn some geographical boundaries, you'd improve your chances for diversity there." He added that by "diversity" he means not just in ethnicity but diversity in neighborhoods, value systems, issues, and points of view.

Martinez described worries over the potential for "ward politics" as exaggerated or misdirected. "'Ward politics' is a buzz word," he said. "It's the kill word that people use when they don't support a district system. This is a hybrid system [I'm suggesting]. Ward politics exists where there are only wards. ... There is nothing more parochial than committing to something as a candidate and then retracting it as an elected official."

What "Gentlemen'?

It's not surprising that Martinez should be the member raising the issue, since Hispanics have been most vocal in their complaints that the Seventies-era "gentlemen's agreement" of two minority seats – one Hispanic, one African-American – on the seven-member council has long outgrown its usefulness, especially with the Austin Hispanic population now estimated at 35-40%. "This 'gentlemen's agreement' is an archaic system, everyone agrees, but nobody wants to work on how to get beyond that. We need to get beyond the Seventies," Martinez said. "I'll settle for 1995." He added that he'd heard similar complaints throughout the city on the campaign trail, from all sorts of voters.

While reiterating her caution about protecting African-American representation, Cole said she's not opposed to appointing a task force and that "ward politics" is not an inevitable result of a district system. "I don't believe the [district-based] county commissioners don't work together or are not respectful of each other or that they don't work for the good of the whole county. It just doesn't have to be that way."

Loose Talk

Asked to elaborate his opposition, McCracken was slightly less adamant but reiterated, "I'm not interested in looking at it again." He said that in light of Austin's growth, it might be worthwhile to expand the council to nine members, but otherwise he prefers a system in which "the council's dynamic is now that we all consider the bigger picture, and in part we do that because we answer to all the voters everywhere." He acknowledged that the expanding Hispanic population "is by far the most compelling reason that we need to do something different than we're doing at the moment." But "just brainstorming," McCracken suggested that either expanding agreed Hispanic representation to at least two seats, or else installing a "place" system under which members would live in designated geographical districts but still run citywide would be preferable to single-member districts. "The discussion is certainly appropriate," McCracken said.

Martinez says the discussion, now joined, will certainly continue. "I do not want to sugarcoat this issue; I am not trying to fill some campaign promise with smoke and mirrors. I believe we need a different form of government. Now, what that looks like and what that means, I don't have all those answers. That's for the community to decide."

And he's looking for citizens willing to work on the question. "This isn't a two-month process. It's going to take some time and a lot of work. If you care about your municipal government, I want to hear from you." end story

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single-member districtscity council, Mike Martinez, City Council, In Fact Daily, Betty Dunkerley, Sheryl Cole, Brewster McCracken, gentlemen's agreement

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