Point Austin: Déjà Vu

Austin's perennial SMD hobby approaches another reprise

Mayor Lee Leffingwell
Mayor Lee Leffingwell (Photo by John Anderson)

Last week's 8-7 vote in favor of single-member districts by the City Council-appointed Charter Revision Committee was not exactly a resounding endorsement of the winning 10-1 plan. What it may reflect, more than anything else, is a continuing division in the city over how best to alter the current at-large system, in which the mayor and all six council members are elected by all city voters. In the long run – by which I mean the anticipated Novem­ber charter election – it may also mean a scenario leading, as it has six times before, to defeat of any change at the polls.

There were actually three advisory votes taken at the Feb. 2 meeting – that is, votes on recommendations to council, which will eventually make its own determination of what should appear on any charter revision ballot. The first vote was to recommend "some form of geographic representation," which passed handily (14-1); the second – to tie any approved geographic system to an "independent citizens commission" that would draw the district map – was slightly more controversial, but passed easily (13-2). The final vote – to recommend a pure districting ("10-1") system, under which only the mayor would be elected at-large, was hotly debated and nearly upended by a counter-proposal for a "hybrid" ("10-2-1") system (two council members and the mayor elected at-large), which was defeated by the same 8-7 vote (and voters) that endorsed the 10-1 recommendation.

It was actually even closer than that. Southwest Austin resident Ken Rigsbee – who had singularly made it clear throughout the weeks of meetings that he opposed any change to the current system, on the grounds that it had been upheld by Austin voters six times – first voted against any change, and against the 10-2-1 system, but then reluctantly in support of 10-1. Had he stuck to his guns, he could have swung (or at least hung) the vote.

A Delicate Balance

In sum, we're well on our way once again to a showdown between the perfect and the good. I won't say which is which (the Chronicle has endorsed SMDs all six previous times, which shows you the power of the liberal media), but the 10-2-1 alternative only arose when it was absolutely clear that the committee would not swallow any other hybrid: neither 8-4-1, nor Mayor Lee Lef­fing­well's original suggestion of 6-2-1, nor any variations thereof.

Leffingwell told me this week that he'll wait for the CRC's report (and accompanying minority report) before he judges the recommendations, but he said: "I had basically two criteria in mind when I proposed a 6-2-1 system. One was that there be some at-large representation, to sort of balance neighborhood interests and community-wide interests, and the other was to keep the council small. ... I know there are a lot of cities that have large councils, but they also have a strong mayor system. I think before we go into a very large number of council members, we need to address that issue, so that we don't become dysfunctional at City Hall." He thought 10-1 is "just on the edge" of being unwieldy but reiterated his support for geographic representation.

Timing Is Everything

Right after the vote, CRC Chair Gon­zalo Barrientos (who voted for 10-1) said that even though the committee vote was close, he believes the time has finally come round for the change. "Politics is a lot about time and place," he said, adding that the fall date could make the difference. "If it takes place in November, there are going to be a lot more people voting," he said, "and that could reflect quite a change, as opposed to the City Council elections, which has traditionally been low voter turnout." (Maybe so – but past charter elections have also been Novem­ber occasions, and SMDs have died.) In any case, with threats of lawsuits already in the air if the voters disapprove, "I think it will pass," Barrientos concluded. "It may not be overwhelming, but I think it will pass. It's time. I hate to see us, all the time, going to court."

Among the seven votes for a mixed system was Richard Jung, who with other representatives of the Asian-American community had argued that minorities not geographically concentrated would be better served by a hybrid. "I think we do need geographic representation," Jung said, for better minority and neighborhood representation. "But I'm disheartened, because I feel that when the Asian community's come out and spoken of its needs and its priorities ... that that wasn't really heard in these sessions."

With the nearly even split, Jung said, the overall prospects aren't good. "I feel ... that 10-1 will not come out of the City Council. Then if the Austinites for Geo­graphic Representation put 10-1 on the ballot [by petition], and if that splits the vote, then we'll end up with no geographic representation again. I think that will be the worst-case scenario."

No worse than what's happened six times before.

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single-member districts, City Council, charter, Lee Leffingwell

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