As various redistricting processes played out across the country this year—many led by partisan lawmakers or appointed panels—Austin's City Council realignment was overseen by a volunteer group of city residents.

The Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission, or ICRC, is a relatively new addition to Austin's political scene responsible for crafting council boundaries designed to last a decade. The city's second-ever ICRC approved its final map plan Oct. 27, and the new council districts will come into play for next year's local elections.

After the commission certified its new map, ICRC Chair Christina Puentes spoke with Community Impact Newspaper about commission participation, comparing local and state redistricting, and why she believes the independent effort fits for Austin. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What was your initial interest in local redistricting?

For years I’ve looked at our broken, fractured political system and been thinking, ‘What is the root of the problem? What is it that’s chipping away at Democracy?’ ... Any single answer I think is an oversimplification, but the answers that I have chosen to focus on through the years are, first, the corrupting influence of money in politics, and second, gerrymandering.

When I found out I got on the commission, there wasn’t even a, ‘Can I make this commitment happen?’ I [just said], ‘Yes. I’ll figure it out on the back end.’

What were some of the challenges to completing the process this year?

The pandemic, the crunched timeline of the census data coming out so late, the huge distraction of the ongoing Texas Legislative session just feeling like it’s never going to end, and the redistricting happening at the state level.

Another challenge was soliciting public input, which I guess is generally a challenge with local government. Also just making sure the public understands the distinction between our redistricting process and the traditional redistricting process that we all know and villainize regularly.

We had several people claim that we were gerrymandering, and in some cases even thinking that we had been deliberately sequestering people of color into their own districts. Which is just a misunderstanding of how redistricting works fundamentally. The point is that we have districts that have representation from that community, and you can’t do that if you’re drawing a district that, say, is going from east to west Austin.

How much public input was gathered?

We got several hundred emails. We had a couple hundred people across 20 public forums. It really, in the grand scheme of things, wasn’t that many people.

You can’t even say that we heard from 1% of the population about it. But we tried to make the most of the public input that we did receive.

Why do you see this redistricting process as right for Austin?

Redistricting is not rocket science. It’s not that hard. The state just makes it really hard. ... Did it help to have citizen commissioners who were all highly educated? Sure. But I think that with a couple experts in the room, any 14 people who were committed to this cause could have pulled it off.

We know that the vast majority of redistricting processes consider the partisan lean, the Republican or the Democrat. The nice thing about local elections is they’re nonpartisan, so it’s the perfect setup for a redistricting process like ours that’s also nonpartisan.

I walk away from this process definitely believing in a citizen-led redistricting process. Again, as long as it has those guardrails in place, I think it totally works.

Do you think the ICRC process was successful this year?

We learned a lot from the successes and the mistakes of the past commission. There was also a lot of reinventing the wheel, but they had a strong product. They got all the way to the next census without a single lawsuit about the [2013] map, which is quite a contrast to the state of Texas.

We had a great starting point for our own map. ... It would actually be counterproductive to scrap the old map and completely start over. It would be a waste of time because we already have the foundation here. So it was just a matter of adjusting the lines from there. ... That was a critical decision, and I think we made the right choice to go with the old map.

One thing that I’m glad that we did, but I have concerns about moving forward is just, over the years, Austin’s become so unwelcoming to working class people of color especially, that it was challenging to even create opportunity districts that felt like they would lead to opportunity. ... We were able to fulfill that and I’m proud of that. I think that was a good outcome. But I just don’t know how much opportunity there really is.

How would you compare the redistricting work of the ICRC and Texas Legislature?

Some of the biggest contrasts between us is, first, we have an open and transparent process. You can read our notes or watch our public meetings on every conversation the ICRC has had. Second, public input was an enormous driver in our decision-making so citizen participation actually mattered. Three, there were no considerations of partisanship in our redistricting process. And finally, we’re not a body of elected officials. We’re just citizens. I think that makes a huge difference that we don’t have skin in the game.

A hope I have for this commission is that people know about it. Because it’s still impactful regardless, as long as you have those metrics of nonelected officials, no consideration of partisanship, and you can show that. But without the citizen participation, I think that’s kind of like the magic sauce in a way.

Is there anything else about the process worth highlighting?

There was way more interest in the first commission because it was new, because it was put on by a citizen ballot initiative, and so that novelty brought out a lot more civic engagement. And we just did not really see that this time around, and I think that we need to breathe new life into that excitement and the energy for an independent citizens redistricting commission. Because it is special. It is unique in many ways. We were the first city in the country to have this process, and now we’re through the second round of it, and I think that we’re proof that this works.