SMD: Seventh Time's the Charm?
Citizens' group collecting voter signatures for 10 City Council districts
Geographic representation for Austin voters, aka single-member districts, are returning to the fore of Austin politics again with a citizens' group kicking off a petition drive to force the question possibly as soon as May. But several questions – including just when that vote may happen – are still outstanding, along with an overarching one: Will this SMD vote be any different?
Indeed, initiatives to change the Austin City Council elections with a switch to SMDs – where, in contrast to our current at-large system of citywide representation, candidates would reside in and represent specific geographic districts – has been put to voters and rejected no less than six times. After an abortive attempt in 2008 that drew limited public participation and couldn't muster enough council support to be sent to the ballot, the SMD push was dormant until early this year. In a February State of the City address, Mayor Lee Leffingwell issued a call for a comprehensive City Charter election, including some form of geographic representation.
However, the mayor's preferred SMD scenario – a hybrid system featuring six individual districts, candidates running in two "super-districts" splitting the city, and the mayor running at large, for a total of nine seats – doesn't sit well with Austinites for Geographic Representation, a group that began meeting sporadically earlier this year, its visibility growing as the group now begins collecting signatures to present its own SMD scenario to voters, possibly as early as next spring.
Austinites for Geographic Representation's scenario calls for 10 individual districts, with the mayor running at large, bringing the total to 11. Calling Leffingwell's proposal "inadequate," the group writes on its website that six districts are too few for a city Austin's size, won't create an "opportunity district" for African-American voters (a Department of Justice term of art describing districts drawn so that the predominant minority group has a demonstrable opportunity to elect the candidate of its choice), and that "the Council is reluctant to give up their power to draw their own district lines. Our plan has an independent citizen's redistricting commission that will draw the lines, with lots of input from ordinary citizens."
Indeed, most of the language in the seven-page charter amendment AGR wants to get on the ballot is dedicated to the composition of the commission that would ultimately draw the district lines, a 14-member group of active Austin voters. While seeking "the most qualified applicants on the basis of relevant analytical skills, ability to be impartial, residency in various parts of the city, and appreciation for the City of Austin's diverse demographics and geography" and enlisting the city auditor's help in weeding out potential members with conflicts of interest, the language also includes strict limitations on just what constitutes said conflict: Anyone who, within the last 10 years, has served or run for a city or state office; a campaign employee or consultant; a lobbyist; or a campaign contribution bundler, and their spouses, need not apply. The ballot language was largely drafted by local attorney Steve Bickerstaff. A redistricting expert, Bickerstaff says he drafted "a possible charter amendment using the California referendum wording as a model." He also notes, "This draft probably has been altered some by others since my initial effort."
Of course, for any SMD initiative to pass, first it must be put to voters. Placing a charter amendment on the ballot requires a council vote or a petition drive collecting 20,000 signatures (i.e., 5% of registered voters). And while AGR kicked off its petition drive last weekend with a launch party, given the possibility of a May 2012 election (coinciding with the springtime mayoral and council elections), speakers from the group say they'd rather have a November 2012 vote but are waiting to see what the city does.
AGR's petition coordinator Linda Curtis is a veteran of several previous local ballot initiatives, some successful (1997 limits to campaign contributions) and some not (the 2008 Stop Domain Subsidies election, among others). Curtis says AGR is preparing for the contingency of a May election but would prefer a November vote. "We did announce that last week, that we favor a November election for the charter amendments," she says. "We've got to be prepared to do whatever the council decides on. It's confusing for us too – it's kinda driving us nuts; we'd really like to know."
Despite expressed council support for a November charter election, council members have not officially set an election date yet. They likely will soon, as a subcommittee of the city's Charter Review Committee, charged with reviewing potential charter amendments, has issued recommendations on seven amendments.
So while the question of May or November will likely soon be settled, several others – including whether the election would contain dueling SMD scenarios – will soon emerge. And while Austinites for Geographic Representation is a new group, it's comprised of many old hands of insurgent Austin politics – Curtis and familiar faces like Debbie Russell, Gavino Fernandez, Richard Franklin, Ora Houston, and Daniel Llanes – many of whom have seen SMD initiatives defeated before.
AGR Treasurer Stacy Suits was a part of the 1985 and 1988 push for SMDs. He says the independent citizens' panel proposal and the very act of collecting signatures shows that this time could be different. "We want to put it on the ballot by petition drive, because that means we'll have 20,000 or more people to support it before we even put it on the ballot."