The heat wave got hotter on the long-simmering question of single-member districts last week, when a judge ordered the city of Irving to switch completely from at-large municipal elections to a form of geographic representation. The edict, along with a potential local lawsuit, raises the question of how long Austin – with a new mayor who favors SMDs – can resist a similar change to its City Council elections.
The United States District Court sided with plaintiff Manuel Benavidez, a former candidate for Irving's school board who, according to court documents, complained that the city's system of at-large elections "has the effect of diluting the voting power of Irving's Hispanic voters, and thus denies them the opportunity to elect representatives of their choice." Judge Jorge Solis agreed, ruling Irving's at-large system violates the Voting Rights Act. He also prohibited the city from any further elections under the system and requested that the litigants submit alternate plans and schedules for implementation to the court within 90 days. The city is said to be mulling an appeal.
The particulars of Austin's at-large system are somewhat different, so it's uncertain whether the Irving ruling could set a precedent here. Irving's city council operates under an at-large electoral system but with a geographic limitation: Three members (as well as the mayor) run citywide and can live anywhere, while five others are also elected citywide but must reside in specific geographic districts to run. All of Austin's council seats (including the mayor) are elected citywide (requiring candidates to run costly, all-city campaigns), but Austin informally honors what's called the "gentlemen's agreement," a voting-rights-era relic unofficially but thus far successfully reserving specific council seats for a Hispanic and an African-American. That arrangement has allowed the city to sidestep messy questions of minority representation – so far – but recent growth in Hispanic population (and consequent drop in the African-American percentage) has increased agitation on the question.
"Austin has been to court a couple of times on this issue and has always successfully defended it with the gentlemen's agreement arrangement, which has always been a little bit baffling to me," said Mayor Lee Leffingwell in the wake of the Irving ruling. For instance, the city successfully defended a lawsuit in the 5th Circuit Court in 1989, arguing that minority representation engendered by the agreement was adequate, but Leffingwell concedes, "It seems to me there's a lot of uncertainty in that process." While Leffingwell doesn't see prescedence in the Irving ruling, he can foresee "some feedback," likely a closer examination of Austin's at-large system and ensuring it "would really stand a legal test." That test may be coming soon: At its recent national convention, the League of United Latin American Citizens passed a resolution allowing LULAC to sue Austin over the city's at-large system. LULAC Texas District 12 Director Marcelo Tafoya says the organization is currently contemplating whether or not to file suit.
Leffingwell says he'll continue working toward a form of government with single-member districts; a majority of the new council supports such a switch, and the dais' staunchest holdout, Council Member Sheryl Cole (who is concerned about further diminution of Austin's African-American voting bloc) has signaled willingness to explore the switch after the 2010 census. "As far as I'm concerned, we're gonna go ahead with our push for single-member districts," Leffingwell says. "I personally think we need to go that way, and sometime this fall we'll be putting together a group to take a look at exactly how we're gonna go about doing that."
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