Council Math: 1 + 1 = ?

Mayor Lee Leffingwell supports an 8-2-1 variation of single-member districts.
Mayor Lee Leffingwell supports an 8-2-1 variation of single-member districts. (Photo by Jana Birchum)

So, how do you like your City Council votes? Messy and late-night or extremely messy and late-night? For connoisseurs of the latter, we suggest last Thursday's vote on single-member districts.

Heading into the Thursday public debate, the SMD issue was murky at best. Four council members had announced their support for a 8-2-1 hybrid plan, two others for the 10-1 plan, and one, Bill Spelman, was standing by his assertion (repeated throughout his re-election campaign) that he just wanted to vote for any plan that can win come November. Earlier that day, in a surprise move, Mike Martinez had posted a Facebook message, and then he and Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole released an official statement, saying they were dropping their opposition to the "independent citizens redistricting commission" proposed by Austinites for Geographic Representation. Martinez would essentially be placing the language from AGR's 10-1 petition into his own council item – thereby legitimizing the proposal while freeing city staff from the responsibility of validating their thousands of signatures.

On the dais, Martinez defended his decision on populist grounds. "A movement has occurred," he said. "The work has been done, and it should be respected and honored." AGR member Fred Lewis put it to the other council members in a slightly different way. "Regardless of how you feel about a hybrid or not a hybrid system, I do not think the citizens should support – I don't think they will support – any system that gives the council any control over the drawing of the lines," he warned. "It is an abomination. It was an abomination when Tom DeLay did it; it was an abomination when the Texas Legislature did it; it is an abomination wherever it's done; and it would be an abomination if done by you."

Parsing Lewis' Old Testament language, there might just be the faintest glimmer of hope for a compromise, a small possibility that the two proposals don't have to blow each other up come November. If a citizens redistricting commission is the real sticking point for the AGR side, perhaps a hybrid plan with a independent commission might just be the way to go.

Maybe? No? Anyone? Yes, Council Member Laura Morrison: "I am fully supportive of having independence in our redistricting process," Morrison said while pledging her support for the 8-2-1 plan. "This charter ballot would allow that to be developed by ordinance [rather than petition]." Mayor Lee Leffing­well said he would favor a similar proposal. "Put an issue like a redistricting plan in the charter, and you can't resolve it, unless by another charter vote, which has to wait two years, or by taking it to court," Leffingwell told the Chronicle. "If we do it through an ordinance, we can make any changes that might arise by council action."

With the time drifting toward 1am, council proceeded to log one of the oddest sets of votes a politics wonk could hope for. Martinez and Cole's revised 10-1 plan passed on all three readings (meaning it now goes on the ballot) by a vote of 5-2, with oddfellows Leffingwell and Spelman voting "no." Leffingwell and Chris Riley's 8-2-1* plan, however, could only muster four "yes" votes (with Martinez, Cole, and oddfellow Spelman voting "no"), meaning it passed only on first reading – and must return to council Aug. 2 for second and third readings.

To sum up: Morrison, Tovo, and Riley voted to put competing geographic-representation proposals on the November ballot (in the name of giving the voters a choice), and Spelman voted to leave both of them off – not because he doesn't want single-member districts, he says, but because he wants SMDs so badly he doesn't want to see them torpedoed (for the seventh time in four decades) on a ballot cluttered by competing plans.

Maybe council really does need to take a month off.

*Correction: This passage originally read "10-1" in error; the plan proposed by Leffingwell and Riley is a mixed, 8-2-1 plan.

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