The Austin Chronicle

Point Austin: The Usual Suspects

The argument over council districting takes a nasty turn

By Michael King, July 27, 2012, News

"Politics" has been discovered at City Hall.

I know you're as shocked as I am. But thanks to those vigilant folks at Austinites for Geographic Representation, we've learned that the council members who disagree with AGR's position on council districting – that is, the "10-1 plan" or nothing – are motivated by personal political considerations. The CMs who agree with AGR (for the moment, Mike Martinez and Sheryl Cole, and just maybe Bill Spelman) are motivated only by statesmanship and democratic principles. As for the AGR folks themselves – they are as pure as the driven snow, of course, with no political motivations whatsoever.

That was the thrust of Friday's front-page Statesman story, headlined "Group: Politics at play in plan" (more explicit online: "Group says 3 council members angling for incumbent-friendly district plan"). The gist of this startling exposé is that AGR accuses Laura Morrison, Kathie Tovo, and Chris Riley, who prefer a mixed system (8-2-1, with two members and the mayor elected at-large), of insidiously attempting to preserve their electability via at-large seats (because they might end up drawn into the same central city district). AGR spokeswoman Jessica Ellison told reporter Marty Toohey that the members are trying to "shimmy away from the possibility of retiring, running against each other, or moving," and gray eminence Peck Young added sagely, "All that [hybrid] plan does is give an escape hatch to two pairs of council members who can lean out their window and yell to each other."

With that, AGR sounded the theme of its fall campaign for the 10-1 plan: If you support 10-1, your interest is only what's best for Austin; if you oppose 10-1, you must have sinister reasons. It can't possibly be that you simply disagree that shifting solely to geographic districts is the best way to reorganize city government – or more pragmatically, you think a mixed system is more likely to meet with voter approval, after a long history of rejection.

Just Say No

But whatever the argument, AGR won't take yes for an answer. Their 10-1 plan is already on the ballot, placed there by the same council members they now accuse of double-dealing. They're outraged that an 8-2-1 alternative is getting any consideration at all, and will likely also be placed on the ballot by subsequent council votes. They've made it clear that only 10-1 is sufficiently pure, and therefore they want to stop the council from also proposing 8-2-1 to the voters.

Gee, could that be a "political" motive?

The bullhorns of AGR have also wrapped themselves in the mantle of "the people" – their opponents are merely "City Hall insiders." Given that presumption, you might think it wouldn't bother them if there's another choice available on election day. Surely "the people" will overwhelmingly vote for 10-1 and that will settle the matter. Anyone who votes against it, by definition, wouldn't be "the people."

As imprimatur, AGR trumpets the endorsement of the council-appointed Charter Revision Committee, which recommended 10-1 to council – by the underwhelming vote of 8-7, and that only because the one member opposed to any change at all arbitrarily voted for 10-1 to "keep the process moving." Further, they point to their 10-1 petition drive, which submitted 33,000 signatures to the city – on petitions for putting 10-1 on the ballot for a public vote.

So they've gotten what they wanted – but now that's not good enough.

Pot Accuses Kettle

What's most comical about this debate between the perfect and the good (take your pick) is the pretense that the folks driving AGR have no political motivations of their own. While some of the strongest supporters are Hispanic activists understandably impatient to get more direct representation on council, plenty of the loudest advocates are disappointed candidates – fringe activists of various stripes, libertarians, Republicans – who have repeatedly failed to convince Austin voters to elect them. They're obviously hoping that in smaller districts they'll have a better shot at second, third, or fourth chances.

Bully for them. But shouldn't they be accused of trying to "shimmy their way" into public offices they have been repeatedly rejected for?

AGR folks have also accused 8-2-1 supporters of disregarding African-American voters who might have a better chance of choosing a council member under 10 districts. That's reasonable enough – if reasonably expressed – but then they should also explain how one African-American representative among 10 is an improvement over one among seven, under the current "gentlemen's agreement" which, clumsy as it is, has enabled engaged black representation for a couple of decades.

In any case, it still looks to me that either districting proposal would be an improvement over the current arrangement – although as the campaign proceeds, I'm sure we'll learn why one or the other is "an abomination." And speaking of abominations, a petition that includes several pages of extremely complex legislation (concerning an "independent commission," et al.) drafted by self-appointed lawyers who then pretend that the 33,000 signers have pondered that legislation and endorsed it – well, that pretty much fits the definition of "abomination."

Or at least Austin politics as usual.

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