City Hall Hustle: It's Not Easy Being Single

For the seventh time ... the SMD devil is in the details

It was assumed, on the Hustle's part at least, that getting some sort of single-member district proposal to voters would be the easy part; the real work would lie in getting the voters to approve it.

However, after a somewhat contentious discussion at City Council's meeting last week, I'm not so sure. While work filling the gaps in the amorphous proposal is beginning to take form, so are future fault lines between council members over proposal specifics – if not over the purpose of the proposal itself.

A brief refresher: As we wrote last week, up for consideration was an item directing City Manager Marc Ott to begin drafting language for a potential City Charter election. While anchored by the mayor's proposed 6-2-1 single member district/at-large scenario, the resolution also called for Ott to prep proposals for moving city elections from May to November, lengthening council terms from three to four years, ending the "staggering" of council elections, and much more.

When council finally began discussing the item (at its off-site meeting on the auditorium stage of Crockett High School in South Austin), it was the end to staggered terms that first drew the most attention. "I think it's a really dangerous, risky position to put the city in," said Laura Morri­son, adding, "Just in terms of what it takes to focus on a campaign and then get up to speed, to have the whole council doing that all at once I think would be bad for the city." It was a point Sheryl Cole also picked up, agreeing "that just having some council members not be on the trail just leads to better governing."

However, Cole also provided a more fundamental critique of the proposal and its central plank, by making the point that while the proposed hybrid election system provides for geographic representation, that's not the same thing as racial representation – the historical impetus for most forms of SMDs.

Cole began by reiterating her concerns with the proposal, specifically the potential for further diminution of the black vote. Despite knowing "that the African-American community is divided on this issue," she noted her own support for putting it before voters, possibly with a higher number of districts "that preserves the likelihood of African-Americans being elected as likely as possible."

However, she continued: "Even more important than that is the recognition of the history of single-member districts coming from the Voting Rights Act, which was there to guarantee minority representation on governmental bodies. As much as I also believe that there is a very legitimate concern about geographic representation, the question of whether the vehicle for making that happen is the same vehicle that we used for racial representation is, I think, up in the air."

Indeed, ever since initiating his push for a hybrid SMD proposal on the 2012 ballot, "geographic representation" has been the term on Mayor Lee Leffingwell's lips, along with his insistence that this election (which would be the seventh time it goes before voters) would be a winner since it encompasses growing parts of town that haven't traditionally been represented at council – mostly suburban regions. And while that may be true, it does raise the question of whether the proposed solution to that issue also addresses Austin's racial representation issues – or whether, as Cole said, the two are "apples and oranges."

For his part, Leffingwell emphasized the "flexibility" afforded by the resolution, noting, "This is only a directive to start drawing up charter language." While steering clear of the issues Cole raised, he did offer some insight into his proposal to end staggered terms, saying he foresees "a natural staggering that takes place over time, with some members deciding to run for re-election and some not."

But still, he continued to want for support, with Randi Shade the last council member to voice her tentative unease with ending staggered terms. She also called for a re-examination of term limits, since the proposal extends council terms while preserving the three-term rule, thereby lengthening a maximum stint from nine to 12 years. However, it was Shade's proposal for study of an alternative election scheme that was most notable – one containing eight geographic districts, but still having all council members elected at-large. Citing a concern that geographic districts could mean "whoever is elected in those positions is responsible, accountable only to the population there, not the entire city," Shade described this scenario as splitting the difference, "another alternative that other cities do to guarantee that they have geographic representation but still have the benefits of council members who are accountable to everyone."

It's unlikely Shade's proposal will get much traction – a testy exchange between Shade and Morrison, who dismissed the proposal immediately, exemplified the resistance. And admittedly, in some ways such a scheme defeats the purpose of SMDs. But as Cole's comments revealed, drawing a map that could pass muster with voters and the Department of Justice will likely be harder than we think.


The Hustle maps it all out in his weekly digest: Sign up at austinchronicle.com/newsletters.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

single-member districts, Sheryl Cole, Voting Rights Act, Laura Morrison, Lee Leffingwell, City Council, Randi Shade

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