City Charter Committee Single-Membered, Not Single-Minded
The CRC reports to City Council – not with one voice
Since the Austin Energy rate controversy has been off-loaded temporarily to City Council's ongoing work sessions (schedule to be amended Thursday), the loudest fireworks at last Thursday's regular meeting were set off by the morning briefing of the Charter Revision Committee. To give a sense of the atmosphere, the meeting was preceded by a press conference of the CRC "majority" and supporters from Austinites for Geographic Representation, declaring that its "10-1 plan" (all single-member districts, plus the mayor) is the only acceptable plan and any council decision to the contrary would be met with either a competing ballot proposition from AGR, a civil rights lawsuit, or both.
The theme continued in the formal council briefing, and one could be forgiven for concluding that the commitee's process had left Austinites pretty much where we began – sharply divided on the best form of geographic districting. Following an introduction by CRC Chair Gonzalo Barrientos, Fred Lewis summarized the committee's recommendations, devoting most of his time to describing the proposed independent commission that would draw the district lines – he and Council Member Bill Spelman agreed that it's "a very elaborate process." Based on state precedents (particularly California), the commission would require dozens of potential members to pass a vetting process for diversity and absolute nonpartisanship (much easier to find in theory than in practice).
But the central tension in the CRC was exemplified by the dueling testimony of former state Rep. Ann Kitchen, presenting the minority report, and local NAACP President Nelson Linder. Kitchen said the seven-member minority strongly preferred a "consensus" approach for a mixed system (10-2-1), with at-large seats that would better represent those minority groups not geographically concentrated and have a better chance of voter approval. Linder, speaking for the eight-member majority (including one member who had in fact opposed any change) countered that any system other than 10-1 (i.e., a hybrid) would be simply a "last-ditch effort to keep this old [all at-large] system in place."
"I know you didn't like it, but we won the process," thundered Linder of the 8-7 CRC vote, abandoning any notion of consensus and not specifying who he meant by "you." He also insisted that a 10-1 system would be "the best choice to empower the Asian community," a notion undermined both by several committee witnesses and also member Richard Jung, who a few minutes later told Council that while he didn't possess "the volume or the oratorical powers" of Linder, it was the unanimous sentiment of Asian community representatives that its interests would be best served by a hybrid system.
Now it's up to the council members. Said Barrientos, "I ask you to use your conscience, make a wise decision, and Godspeed."