Beside the Point

Let's Get Together Oftener

The Feb. 19 memo from City Attorney David Smith rescheduling the city's charter election from May to November contained this amazing revelation: "Oftener" is a real word.

Much like our president accidentally tumbling into correct grammar with his declaration of Deciderdom, who knew you could add an "er" to "often"? Apparently the framers of the Texas Con­sti­tution did, who wrote, "no city charter shall be altered, amended or repealed oftener than every two years." With the last charter election May 13, 2006, and this May election coming three days earlier, Smith said there is nothing to be done – understandable, but irritating, so close to the election. A $2.5 billion budget, and no one can afford a calendar at City Hall? Can't Mike Mar­tin­ez get one from the Austin firefighters at cost?

Martinez welcomed the delay as "a breath of fresh air for our efforts to enhance city government." That, of course, would be Austin's potential switch to a geographically districted City Council, via single-member districts. Having inspired little discussion among Austin voters, the SMD proposal, containing an only recently proposed configuration (six districts, plus two at-large seats and mayor, bringing council to nine seats, an increase of two), was shoehorned into a discussion and vote this week, barely in advance of the city's election-setting deadline; it faced a split council and decidedly less-than-certain passage. So, said Martinez in a press release of the delay, "This will provide ample time for Council to thoroughly deliberate on this issue, and for the public to provide valuable input." Ample time or not, predelay scheduled deliberations are still on track, with those opposed to SMDs on the offensive. Any assist Martinez may have hoped for through a council shake-up between now and November may now be evaporating.

Mayor Pro Tem Betty Dunkerley (stepping down in May), along with sponsor Sheryl Cole and Brewster McCracken, are proposing a resolution at today's meeting (Thursday, Feb. 28), "establishing criteria that must be met" before SMDs can come to a vote. "The goal of the resolution is not just to put something to the voters," said Cole, "because I think the voters still expect us to govern. And part of governing is making sure that people are well informed on the issues we place before them." To that end, the resolution contains 11 multipart criteria that must be met before putting SMDs to a vote: submitting the plan to the Justice Department; making the Charter Revision Committee develop salaries, office budgets, a transition plan, and more; noting the increased cost of expanded government on the ballot; a review from the African American Resource Advisory Commission; and more.

"If we could get to a place where there's not a dilution of the African-American vote and we have enough of a mixed system, I would send that to the voters," said Cole, laughing, "I'm not saying I necessarily would like that!"

Other reasons raised for SMDs – the small size of the current council and clamor for increased neighborhood representation – Cole dismissed as separate concerns. "Changing the form of government to get there is throwing the baby out with the bathwater." But is this resolution an earnest attempt to fix these problems – or a poison pill to finish them off? Cole answered, "I really think these issues need to be addressed – I look at that as a responsibility of good government – and if they can't be addressed, then it begs the question of whether this is a necessary change."

Cole was decidedly more temperate than McCracken, who told In Fact Daily there is "high risk that the plan would lead to total loss of African-American representation on the Austin City Council." The Cole et al. proposal has led to denunciations from the usual suspects (see Rus­sell, Debbie) but also Organization of Central East Austin Neighborhoods President Rudy Williams, who complained the three council members have "decided to dig a moat around the 'at-large' kingdom." Could an overreaching set of opponent demands finally spur the community buy-in that SMDs have sorely needed – or serve as the final strike against them? Either way, looking toward November, the SMD debate is one that needs to occur ... ahem ... more often.

The SMD resolution, along with a 2pm presentation from map-man J. Gerald Hebert, are but part of a tumescent agenda this week; other items include identifying industrial programs for the city's Webberville tract (55; see "City Plans for Webberville Land Cause Big Stink"), pilot programs for LED traffic signals Downtown (56), more movement on affordable-housing incentives (58), and a "pet trader" resolution setting fees on animal sellers (57) – thereby rendering any of BTP's punch lines obsolete.

Howl any tips or comments to wdunbar@austinchronicle.com.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Single-member districts, City Council, Charter Revision, Sheryl Cole, Mike Martinez

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