Charter propositions could alter City Council representation, terms

Term limits on the ballot could time out all but one council member

Austin residents will have the opportunity to change the shape of their City Council with a number of propositions on the November election ballot, including new term limits as well as two options for altering the representation of the City Council by establishing geographical, single-member districts.

If passed, Proposition 2 would move the city's general election from May to November and mandates council members serve four-year, staggered terms. Additionally, council members and the mayor would be limited to two terms. Proposition 3 divides the city into 10 geographical single-member districts with the mayor's seat elected at large, and Proposition 4 establishes eight single-member districts and two at large council seats along with the mayor's at large seat.

Proposition 2: Two four-year terms for council members

Council members said they would like to increase voter turnout, and propositions 1 and 2 are an effort to do that. Both propositions move the city's general election from May to November, bringing local elections together with state and federal elections.

"The idea is that since we already have a bigger draw, and people know that more as Election Day, that you'll get a lot more people coming to the polls to weigh in on the local elections," Councilwoman Laura Morrison said.

The 2011 council election drew 7.4 percent of registered voters to the polls, and the mayoral election in 2012 saw a turnout of 10.5 percent. In the 2008 presidential election, voter turnout was about 61.6 percent of the voting-eligible population, and in the 2010 federal elections, voter turnout was about 41 percent of the voting-eligible population, according to data compiled by Michael McDonald of George Mason University.

In order to encourage the highest turnout for all council elections and keep a consistent turnout for the elections, term lengths had to be amended to conform with even-numbered year elections.

Current term lengths and limits are three terms of three years each, a total of nine years. Proposition 2 would have council members serve a total of eight years. Mayor Lee Leffingwell said the change in term length is for a good reason, but he disagrees with the idea of term limits.

"Philosophically, I don't agree with term limits, but that's what's going to be on the ballot," he said. "I think term limits are up to the voters. If they want to re-elect somebody, they should have that choice, and if they don't want to elect somebody, they should have that choice."

If Proposition 2 is approved by the voters, all members serving except Councilwoman Kathie Tovo would term out, though council members would still be allowed to run for mayor. Three council members are serving their third term and will be ineligible for re-election. Council members still will be able to run for mayor.

Propositions 3 and 4: geographic representation

Propositions 3 and 4 would both create single-member districts and expand the City Council to 11 seats.

The current six-seat council and mayor are elected at-large with no designated geographic districts. Austin is the 13th-largest city in the United States with a population of 820,611 in 2011 according to the U.S. Census Bureau, and it's the largest city in the nation that still elects its council members at-large.

City of Austin demographer Ryan Robinson said both of the plans come with difficulties in drawing districts because of the city's demographics and the need to create a district with a strong enough African-American population for the group to elect a candidate of their choice, a requirement under federal law.

According to the 2010 census, Austin has an African-American population of 7.7 percent. The Hispanic population is 35.1 percent, and the white population is 48.7 percent. Robinson said African-American population is decreasing in the city.

Any representation plan has to be submitted to the U.S. Department of Justice for preclearance.

"I personally have felt for a long time that it's important to have geographic representation," Leffingwell said. "I favored geographic representation, and I have supported balancing that with a hybrid system."

Many council members, including the mayor, Councilman Chris Riley and Morrison, support the hybrid system because they feel at-large seats would provide a broad, citywide perspective to the council and help stem focusing solely on the interest of individual districts.

Peck Young, a volunteer with Austinites for Geographic Representation, said both he and AGR support the 10-1 system over the 8-2-1 system because it provides a better distribution of representation. The 10-1 system was put on the ballot in the beginning of August after a petition with more than the 20,000 required signatures was approved by the city clerk.

"We need to go to geographic represen- tation, and it's the one fair, and, in my opinion, legal, plan for all parts of Austin to have a voice on the City Council," he said. "It's the plan that was written, proposed and put on the ballot by the citizens of Austin. This is the fairest plan under the definition of law."

Leffingwell said there is no reason to think the 8-2-1 plan wouldn't be approved by the Department of Justice.

Proposition 3 also requires that an independent citizen redistricting commission be established to draw the boundaries. The 14-member commission would exclude anyone who has recently been employed by the City of Austin or is actively involved in the political arena.

Under Proposition 4, the council would develop the boundaries or form a committee to develop the boundaries.