Point Austin: Citizens Needed

Got an opinion on single-member districts? Speak up now.

Point Austin
It's long past time for the city of Austin, and its City Council, to enact some form of proportional, geographical representation – also known as "single-member districts." I don't say that out of any deep-seated ideological agenda, just the simple conviction that a growing city of roughly 750,000 people cannot expect seven people adequately to represent equally every one of us, nor even every neighborhood and disparate interest group. Unlike some of my Chronicle colleagues or the louder of the anonymous online bloghorns, I think the current council is doing a reasonably good job, always considering the structural limits of public institutions in a system ultimately ruled by private wealth. But I think the members need some literal help – in a city this size, we need more representation at the ground level, and that means some form of single-member districting in combination with at-large districts and a mayor.

I don't necessarily subscribe to any of the particular plans (some quite innovative) currently being considered by the Charter Revision Committee, and I'm eager to hear all the arguments for and against any particular plan or the whole idea altogether. Indeed, when the committee was convened, I expected those arguments to be buzzing by now through the CRC and the city and to be building toward a major council discussion, currently scheduled for Jan. 23. Maybe it's just not ripe yet (as I write, Wednesday morning, another neighborhood outreach meeting is scheduled for tonight), but even the CRC chair, Mayor Emeritus Gus Garcia, acknowledged to me this week that based on the public response thus far, "It just doesn't seem to be a burning issue." He said that the five meetings have drawn about seven unrepeated public witnesses and that maybe people are just "worried about other things: the Dallas Cowboys, traffic, Christmas shopping, I don't know. But I think there's no two ways about it: A city this size needs to have single-member districts."

Pro and Con

The high-profile positions haven't changed much. Council Member Mike Martinez, who initiated the current SMD discussion, remains strongly in favor of the change and is anticipating a council vote to put it on the ballot next May. (The current council format was approved by the voters in 1967 and 1969; since 1973, variations on SMDs have been rejected six times.) Martinez says the issue was central to his 2006 campaign, and he has every intention of carrying it through. "I think it's critical to this community," he said, "and I don't think the importance of every public issue is determined by how many people attend particular meetings. As a council, we vote on 150 to 200 issues every meeting, yet only a few generate broad public discussion. It's absurd to suggest that means they're not important." Martinez supports SMD in part because it will likely mean more representation for a growing Hispanic population and in part because he just believes, with the continuing growth of the city, "It's time."

On the other hand, Council Member Sheryl Cole still opposes the idea and says she hasn't seen anything yet from the CRC that would persuade her to change her mind. "I still believe that it would lead to a dilution of African-American representation and that we'd have to go to 14 districts before we can draw a map that would ensure an African-American representative. And I don't think the voters will accept that large a change." Cole also believes the issue of member "accountability" to neighborhoods – and avoiding "balkanization" – is one that cuts both ways. "We may not be accountable to a particular geographic area," she said, "but all of us are accountable to the whole city," and at-large members remain accessible. "I'm instantly made aware of what people are most concerned about, whether it's Las Manitas or the animal shelter."

Not the Fun Stuff

For or against SMDs, Martinez and Cole agree that one of the most frustrating aspects of their job is that people don't get involved at the beginning of a public process, only to yell "foul" at the end of it. With a laugh, Cole compared SMDs with her experience on the Waller Creek redevelopment project, where hundreds of people turned out for a recent town-hall meeting on the project possibilities – everything from intense mixed-use development to white-water rafting. Why do folks turn out for Waller Creek and not for charter revision? "Because it's fun," Cole replied, noting that few people have the patience or interest for redrawing lines on a map. In any event, she notes, the eventual council response as well as that of the citizens will largely depend on what the CRC recommends in January.

Garcia says that what sparse public discussion there has been thus far has been less concerned with ethnic or racial accountability than with geographic representation. "People haven't been asking for a 'black district' or a 'brown district'; they've been asking for geographic boundaries. ... People are saying, if every council member is accountable on a given issue, in practice that means nobody is accountable. They want to be able to go to a representative and know that person is accountable for their area and has to pick up an issue that concerns them."

Entering the holidays, there's little public groundswell to make the CRC's work, pro or con, more urgent. Yet from this corner, much of the recurrent public restlessness over what is known as "the process" is, in fact, a consequence of citizens paying little or no attention to an issue until it's actually before council, by which time it may have gone through months or even years of discussion without urgent public interest – followed by sudden cries of, "Why weren't we told about this?"

Maybe if we assigned sponsored organisms – salamanders, vireos, live oaks, golden retrievers, pussy cats – to potential council districts, Austinites might begin paying more attention to the CRC. Unless that happens, as likely as not, most voters will show up next spring and mutter, "Nobody told me about this," and once again decide that for a full-grown city, a small-town government is just mighty fine.  

The next scheduled meeting of the CRC is Wed­nes­day, Dec. 12, 5pm, at the South Austin Senior Activ­ity Center. People can also submit comments or get more info online at www.ci.austin.tx.us/charter.

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Charter Revision, single-member districts, Mike Martinez, Gus Garcia, Sheryl Cole, Charter Revision Committee

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