The Austin Chronicle

Unchartered Waters

City Hall and citizen advocates look toward a new model of representation – is the seventh time the charm?

By Wells Dunbar, December 23, 2011, News

Outside a recent meeting of the 2012 Charter Revision Committee, Martha Cotera and Roscoe Overton – two civic leaders long involved in the struggle for equal rights and equitable political representation – are going back and forth on the committee's primary topic: "geographic representation" and whether Austin's revised form of City Council elections should be based solely on single-member districts or include some form of "super- district," where some candidates can run to represent multiple districts or larger geographic areas.

"Right now, just to use [Council Member] Sheryl Cole as an example," says Overton, "if she was trying to push something that deals strictly with racial issues, she would only have to convince three other people to have four as a majority. But what happens if she gets on there with 10 other people?"

"That's when they start coalition building," interjects Cotera.

"But now she's got to convince five other people to get a majority. That, to me, really puts a little undue pressure on that person."

"Are you saying that with hybrid representation, you can have your geographic champions plus a ... superchampion?"

"Yes, absolutely!"

"Oh, God," Cotera moans.

"Everybody's got the same vote; they've got the same power!" Overton replies. "Your [superdistrict] vote's not any larger than mine if I'm in a single district." But, under a hybrid system, he continues, "I have some allies, I have some help to raise that issue, because I can't do it by myself. Whereas in the 10-1 system [10 single-member districts plus a mayor], I would be by myself – I'd have to create that relationship. But in a superdistrict, I have two people who are at-large in that area I can go to."

"We can try the 10-1 first," offers Cotera, "and if it doesn't work, we can cut it differently."

Geographic representation, single-member districts, hybrid systems – however you want to slice it, people are talking about revisions to the City Charter that would forever change the way Austin elects its council members. If such changes are adopted, we would move from a citywide, at-large system in which council members represent the whole city – but one which makes council members more remote and campaigns prohibitively expensive – to one in which candidates would live in, campaign in, and ultimately represent specific districts, resulting in narrower representation but more direct accountability. The procedural debate, currently focused in a council-appointed Charter Revision Committee, is already having an effect on the current election cycle (filing began last month for May municipal elections), as challengers may be holding off entering the next campaign until it is finally decided whether and what kind of change is coming. (The local uncertainty's been exacerbated by the Supreme Court's recent stay of redrawn maps for Texas state and congressional elections, leaving district lines uncertain and effectively crowding an already constricted election calendar.) The fact that people are indeed talking about city government at all bodes well for potential changes – public apathy having doomed geographic representation several times before – but the ultimate form of the election changes (plus any other revisions the charter committee might propose) remains very uncertain.

A Cycle of Frustration

Over the last 38 years, the question of single-member districts has been posed to voters six times, and six times it has failed. And those are the occasions the matter has actually made it to the ballot; it's been a perennial subject of city politics (Austin remains the largest U.S. city without some form of geographic representation), and in the most recent attempt, in 2007, a task force failed to gain sufficient public engagement and City Council couldn't arrive at a ballot consensus. In his February State of the City address, Mayor Lee Leffingwell revived the issue once again, issuing a call for a comprehensive City Charter election that would include a switch to geographic representation.

The challenge this time seems to be different, with a greater momentum for change. Perhaps that's due to Austin's growing size and stature – it's increasingly difficult to pretend single council members can represent 800,000 people – and the awareness that few other metropolitan areas elect only at-large. Or perhaps the new urgency reflects the political ascendancy of neighborhood associations, with those neighborhood issues making what was once a largely race- and ethnicity-based movement more of a locality-based one – although as that Over­ton and Cotera dialogue reflects, there is hardly unanimity on what form a revised representation system should take.

There was no shortage of support for geographic representation at the Dec. 1 meeting of the Charter Revision Committee. Lending some firsthand perspective to the failings of the at-large system was Perla Cavazos, who unsuccessfully ran against Chris Riley in 2009 for an open Place 1 seat – not for one of the two places unofficially reserved for a Latino (Place 2) or an African-American candidate (Place 6) under Austin's "gentleman's agreement" that was initially designed to avoid the necessity of single-member districts. Cavazos said political consultants advised her that she needed at least $200,000 for a competitive citywide run, and added that the at-large system "perpetuates a cycle of forgotten neighborhoods and people, where voter turnout is low and easy to ignore. Candidates are advised to stick to [high-turnout] precincts. With limited time and resources, a candidate has to go where the votes are, and low-turnout boxes like Dove Springs and other neglected neighborhoods continue to be slighted by candidates. It's a vicious cycle."

Many other speakers that night railed against the at-large system, with arguments that were consistently well-intentioned but simultaneously misdirected. No one in the room that night needed to be convinced of the efficacy of geographic representation – only very few speakers dissented, and even they argued primarily for a hybrid system that would maintain some at-large or superdistrict seats. In fact, the holdouts weren't in the building – they're just the majority of city voters who have persistently defied the rhetorical consensus among public officials and political activists and voted down SMDs every single time.

And considering only 10% or so of registered voters (on a good day) turn out for council elections, much less ponder the intricacies of different maps, election scenarios, and the like, it's no easy task to engage that larger electorate. It's much, much easier to rail against the invisible opposition at a public meeting and to defend the righteous notion of pure democracy against ... nobody.

And even for the people in the standing-room-only conference room, united in their opposition to solely at-large elections, strong differences of opinion remained on the merits of specific scenarios.

Agreeing To Disagree

That's not to say there wasn't a temporary favorite. A number of speakers that particular night were there to support a 10-1 plan – 10 individual council districts, with only the mayor running at-large. (Several others, including Cavazos, declined to endorse a particular plan, instead arguing that any move toward districting at all would be the first step in the right direction.) The 10-1 is the scheme proposed by Austinites for Geo­graphic Representation, an ad hoc organization created to collect signatures to get the plan on the ballot in November 2012. In fact, if their petition drive succeeds and City Council decides to go with a different plan, there could be competing proposals on the same ballot.

A competing plan has its true believers (e.g., Overton) but hasn't had as much vocal support: the 8-4-1 scenario – eight individual districts, with two council members each serving in superdistricts that halve the city. The mayor would be the only truly at-large candidate, for a total of 13 council members, and every citizen would get to vote for – and be represented by – four council members instead of just two under a pure district system. Supporting 8-4-1 is the Austin Center for Peace and Justice, which hosted some early discussions on the districting topic; ACPJ President Rudy Williams writes, "The 8-4-1 model is based on the City Coun­cil configuration in Memphis," Tenn., which Overton apparently had a hand in configuring.

"A common interest creates bonding in politics," Overton notes. "So that's why in the superdistrict you have a common denominator of interest. You got about 350,000 on the Eastside who have been deprived of a lot of the goodies. So all of these elected officials on that side are gonna have something of a common interest."

But while the superdistrict's shared interests could assist a single member requiring backup on a contentious issue, to others, superdistricts raise the specter of a council caste system and only partially diminish the expense of at-large races. Also, it's easy to imagine superdistrict representation – especially if those are drawn along an east-west city divide – becoming a de facto gentleman's agreement of its own, with specific expectations for racial representation. (Dave Richards, longtime Dem­o­cratic activist and one of the panel of experts testifying before the committee, dismissed any hybrid system as simply a redesign of the current system under another name.)

Additionally, there's the question of whether eight single-member districts are in fact enough to create a feasible "opportunity district" for African-American voters. In a Voting Rights Act state like Texas (subject to U.S. Department of Justice review of election changes), the DOJ looks at whether districts are drawn so as to provide an appreciable opportunity for minority voters to elect a candidate of their choice. According to Peck Young, director of the Center for Public Policy and Political Studies at Aus­tin Community College, using eight districts allows you to create an opportunity district that would have a 26% African-Amer­ican population; in a 10-district scenario, you could up that percentage to 31%. (The mayor's 6-2-1 proposal – six single-member districts plus two at-large council members and the mayor – has received little support in charter revision meetings and comes in at only about 22%.) Within those proposed variations, the question remains: How many additional council districts can the voters as a whole be persuaded to endorse?

But while Austin's declining (as a percentage) and dispersing black population poses challenges for minority representation, so does the city's increasing Asian-American population. Speakers from the Asian-American community most pointedly called to retain some form of at-large and superdistrict representation. "We don't agree with the concept of complete districts," consultant and engineer Channy Soeur told the charter committee. "We have never been able to have the representation at any time until Jennifer Kim ran, at-large, and won," said Soeur, echoing Kim's own testimony on behalf of the Network of Asian American Organizations. Since Kim's 2006 victory demonstrated that an at-large victory is possible for an Asian-American candidate, Soeur and other Asian-Americans are wary of changing to a solely single-member system, feeling they have a better chance at representation with some form of hybrid. "In some ways, my community is just out of luck," committee member Richard Jung also noted. "We're not large enough," despite a large Asian-American presence in parts of North Austin, "and we were stupid enough to live all across the city. We have no historical relevance to this [districting] conversation in a lot of ways."

The End of an Era?

Trying to balance calls for geographic accountability, ethnically equitable representation, and rallying a lackadaisical electorate, the Charter Revision Committee has plenty of work to do. City Council recently acknowledged this, extending the committee's reporting period from the end of January to the end of March 2012.

And while the committee hasn't weighed in on the pros or cons of specific scenarios yet, its deliberations have already had electoral effects. All year, the signs had pointed to a hard-fought battle for mayor in 2012. There was the splintering of Leffingwell's mostly reliable four-member voting bloc with Kathie Tovo's defeat of Place 3 incumbent Randi Shade; a bitter battle over whether to move council elections from May to November (when, it was presumed, Leffingwell would benefit from higher turnout); the redebate of issues Leffingwell thought settled, like the decision to build Water Treatment Plant No. 4; and backroom chatter of a challenge from a council colleague, most likely Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole. In the end, Cole declared for re-election to her current seat, and the election now looks to be decidedly less exciting than initially anticipated (see "Council Candidates a' Maying," above).

Why the sudden political vacuum?

Well, why would anyone other than an incumbent expend money and labor fighting for a seat that he or she would hold for only a year or so? Should some form of geographic representation be approved by voters in 2012, a new election would be called in 2013, and the entire cycle would reboot. And while things may certainly change by the May elections, that campaign could turn out to be the calm before the storm – the last contest under an old system, before a new one comes along that will wipe the slate clean. (And with so many of our current council members living in Central Austin and none south of the river, should Austin voters finally approve geographic representation, we should see nearly an entirely new council.)

But all that's assuming we can come to an agreement on what that system should look like – and persuade sufficient numbers of Austinites to vote for it. As Overton told Cotera at that meeting, "The reason I like the model of the superdistrict is because you've got a common interest there, and you have more people than yourself."

"That could be a real pain in the butt," Cotera laughed. "'Don't come talk to me – I'm Super-Council Person!'"

And the debate continues ....

Copyright © 2024 Austin Chronicle Corporation. All rights reserved.