Charter Changes? Hold That Thought.
Austin gains another six months to mull over single-member districts
Austin has gained another six months to mull over a change to the way that City Council members represent Austinites. Currently, all members are elected at-large; under consideration is a single-member-district system (or a hybrid) that would provide new geographic representation.
City Council had been rushing to meet a deadline of next week for the May 10 municipal election. But late Tuesday, city legal announced the referendum must wait for the Nov. 4 election. (A change requires revising the City Charter, which, under state law, can only be done every two years – and the 2006 election was on May 13.) That buys some breathing room. For its Thursday, Feb. 21, session, council is currently posted to hold a formal public hearing and briefing on single-member districts.
Going into the discussion, council members were evenly split on whether to put the single-member decision on the ballot. At press time, Mike Martinez, Lee Leffingwell, and Jennifer Kim were in favor; Brewster McCracken, Sheryl Cole, and Betty Dunkerley were opposed. Mayor Will Wynn – disappointed that the Charter Revision Committee had not recommended a specific plan and map – remains the undecided swing vote.
Many possible new systems and district maps have been forwarded and debated, as have the relative advantages of geographic representation itself (or, as it's routinely smeared, "ward politics"). Intelligent arguments have been made for many alternatives. No clear community consensus has yet emerged.
Council Member Mike Martinez led creation of the Charter Revision Committee, which has met since last year to consider geographic representation. (A change to single-member districts would require revising the City Charter.) Shown here is the six-district map Martinez currently favors: It depicts proposed boundaries for a 6-2-1 system. Each of the six districts shown would elect one City Council member. In addition, all Austinites would vote to elect two at-large members and the mayor. We recently asked Martinez why he liked this map; his responses are below.
Austin Chronicle: Why should the community favor the 6-2-1 system and this map?
Mike Martinez: From Oak Hill to the Eastside to North Austin, people say they want to elect a council with more accountability. The six geographic areas shown on this map will provide for that type of neighborhood accountability that I hear people asking for. The six districts will let Austin neighborhoods and communities of interest choose candidates to specifically represent them at City Hall.
AC: Won't geographic representation dilute African-American voting strength?
MM: The current system provides for one African-American and one Hispanic candidate because of an informal quota system that can, at best, be described as a fragile agreement. Districts number 4 and number 2 on the demonstration map provide "opportunity areas" for both an African-American candidate and a Hispanic candidate – just like council now. I believe districts would ultimately preserve and enhance minority representation on council. If Austin moved to a system of geographic representation, I believe minority representation could be institutionalized.
AC: Won't it be expensive?
MM: An advantage of this 6-2-1 system is that it would increase the size of the council – and thus the city budget – by just two seats. The annual budget for each council office is under $250,000. Adding two representatives is still less than the $510,000 buyout package we're paying to former City Manager Toby Futrell to leave before May.
AC: Has considering this issue been divisive for Austin and the council?
MM: The beauty of democracy is that when we represent differing opinions, if there are enough like minds, we move forward. Even if we ultimately do not decide to adopt single-member districts, the public discussion is healthy, constructive, and Austin should have more of it.
To learn more about single-member districts for Austin, visit www.ci.austin.tx.us/charter and/or attend a town hall meeting hosted by the League of Women Voters:
•Monday, Feb. 25, 6-8pm, Community Room at Central Market, 4001 N. Lamar;
•Tuesday, Feb. 26, 6-8pm, Austin Energy, 721 Barton Springs Rd., Room 130. For more info, call 451-1551.