City Hall Hustle: Down the Long Road to SMDs

Council takes another step toward districting ... and other stuff

The firestorm over the Place 3 run-off and its stalking horse in Formula One is making the Hustle pine for simpler, less controversial issues. Like single-member districts.

We kid, we kid. But compared to all the newfangled assortment of crud in F1, what with its dubious comptroller estimates, obtuse state funding mechanisms, and classist tribal hatreds, the shopworn issues surrounding SMDs are reassuring perennials, like a worn pair of blue jeans – ones that only ride up your ass just so.

The discussion at City Council's last regular meeting (June 9) caught a few hall watchers off guard, thanks in part to the inclusion of maps. Presented by Sidney Falk, a partner with outside legal staff retained by the city, they came in four varieties, although all the permutations split the city into six districts (touted by Mayor Lee Leffingwell as his preferred scenario, and criticized by some community activists as too few). But more importantly, all maps contained similar lines for districts 1 and 2, aka the African-American and Latino opportunity districts (where, in the terms of the federal Voting Rights Act, minority voters have an "opportunity" to elect candidates of their choice).

Falk said he began by drafting "a strong Hispanic district and as strong an African-American district as could be constructed." The resulting Hispanic ward, District 2, grazing the waterfront east of Downtown and crossing the lake to Southeast Austin, achieves that goal, with 67% total Hispanic population and 61% Hispanic voting-age population. The challenges of black representation on council, in the face of a dwindling and dispersed African-American population, were illustrated in District 1, which would start in Central East Austin and stretch north to the exurbs, with both its overall and voting-age populations coming in at around 22%.

A specific district does not necessarily need to be majority-minority in order to work: African-American geographic representation on the Travis County Commissioners Court and at Austin ISD attest to that; moreover, that's why they're called opportunity districts, in that the minority residents of a given area have a reasonable opportunity to elect a candidate.

But it puts Austin in the odd place of navigating the "gentlemen's agreement," that unenforceable, decades-old arrangement "reserving" two seats on council for a black and Latino candidate. What was once maligned by activists as a way for bad, old Austin to circumvent Department of Justice scrutiny (and, so the argument went/goes, true self-determination for minority communities) has worked so well that now, any potential switch to SMDs – the preferred scenario for said activists – runs the risk of disenfranchising the black vote, as drawing any district more densely African-American would necessitate more than our current six seats, likewise diminishing current African-American voting strength. And with a relative explosion in the Latino population, conversely, one out of six seats doesn't seem like enough representation.

These are the considerations council is making, although they'll have time to mull it over. One of the reasons for the presentation, maps and all, was the possibility at the time of the study's commission that the citizenry – most likely in the form of ChangeAustin.org, with an assist from other like-minded SMD proponents – might force the issue to the ballot this November with a petition drive. But with that likelihood dwindling, it now looks like SMDs won't appear on a ballot until the next general election – which may in fact fall in November 2012, as a consequence of recent state legislation rearranging election dates (see "So Many Elections, So Little Time," June 10).

Should that occur – and it looks increasingly possible that it might – 2012 may be even bigger than the "mother of all charter elections" Leffingwell initially proposed: In addition to voting on SMDs, additional charter changes, and urban rail, to say nothing of the presidential race, we might also have a mayoral election and three council races to contend with, too. (Senate Bill 100, the legislation in question, allows for the extension of terms to the next scheduled election.) And should voters adopt an SMD proposal, we'd turn around the following year and elect an all-new council.

It's enough to make you long for the simplicity of the Major Events Trust Fund.

As for Formula One, the city has put consideration of entry into the trust fund on blocks until the next council meeting on June 23, at least. That's still the tentative date for consideration, although with Assistant City Manager Sue Edwards tallying some 21 items flagged by council members for further consideration, it seems only responsible to stretch that artificially narrow timeline. (Formula One's initial franchise sanction fee is reportedly due in July – that's the only consideration there.) Council Member Sheryl Cole offered several intriguing suggestions to hold the city harmless, most prominently that the local organizing committee that's coughing up the $4 million match in the first year keep doing so through the sixth.

And if it's such a sure shot, why not?


The Hustle has your SMD maps online. See our blog entry today, "TDH: 6/16/11," at austinchronicle.com/newsdesk.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

City Council, single-member districts, elections

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