South Austinites consider single-member districts

Voters to weigh in on two geographic representation proposals

Many residents say Southwest Austin has been underrepresented by the Austin City Council historically. This November, voters will decide which type of City Council they think can best represent them.

Austinites have elected their mayor and council members at-large for 41 years, according to Peck Young, an adviser for the Austinites for Geographic Representation Political Action Committee.

On Nov. 6, voters will consider two ballot propositions that would bring geographic representation to the City Council.

A win for Proposition 3 would mean a move to 10 single-member districts and an at-large mayor—referred to as the 10-1 plan—while a victorious Proposition 4 would result in a hybrid system combining eight single-member districts with two at-large council seats and an at-large mayor, or the 8-2-1 plan.

If either proposition passes, single-member districts will be established.

Voters who don't want geographic representation can support the status quo—a seven-member at-large City Council and mayor.

Single-member district proposals were voted down six times between 1973 and 2002, said Ken Rigsbee, a member of the charter revision committee.

Currently, there is no council member who lives in Southwest Austin.

Some favor single-member districts

While many Southwest Austin residents said they want a louder voice at City Hall, opinions differ on the best way to achieve it.

Speaking as a resident, Rick Perkins, Oak Hill Association of Neighborhoods secretary, said single-member districts could help Southwest Austin address transportation and other issues more efficiently.

"Suburban Austin as a whole simply does not have an unfettered voice at City Council," said Perkins, who supports 10-1. "The central city has the highest voter turnout and pretty much controls most any election that occurs."

"Geographical representation does not guarantee you good decisions for the city," resident John Rosshirt said. "I would prefer the hybrid with at-large council members; that way the whole city gets to talk about the whole city and not just individual areas."

Southwest Austin resident Aaron Farmer said either plan would be a start.

"Currently, there is no City Council member who lives south of the river," he said.

Noah Marburger, Oak Hill Business Professionals Association president, said he has personal concerns about the outcome of the upcoming election.

"My fear is if you put two different options on the ballot, it's not going to allow enough support for either of them to get through," he said.

Clarke Heidrick, Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce chairman, said if voters want geographic representation but don't support one proposition over the other, they can choose both, and the one with more votes will be enacted.

Single-member districts would open doors for people in outlying areas of Austin who want to run for City Council but can't afford to finance citywide campaigns, Heidrick said.

"That can broaden the base of people who can run for council and serve," he said. "We'd hopefully end up with a good council that is more representative of the neighborhoods in Austin."

The growing Hispanic population would benefit from geographic districts, said Andy Martinez, president and CEO of the Greater Austin Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.

"People in the southern part of Austin, southeast especially, are predominantly Hispanic, and their priorities are a lot different from [those of] people in Central Austin," he said.

More possible outcomes

At a University of Texas Opportunity Forum debate Sept. 29, Rigsbee said he doesn't want to change the council setup despite Austin being the largest city in the U.S. without geographic representation.

Rigsbee said taxpayers shouldn't spend more to support more council members.

The current council has its strengths, including handling citywide issues, said Richard Jung, treasurer for the Austin Community for Change PAC.

"We want better constituent services, but we don't want to lose what's been successful thus far," he said. "The advantage of [the 8-2-1 plan] is you've got a balance."

Almost half of Austin consists of renters, he added.

"If you are a renter and you voted for somebody in a district and then you moved to another district, you didn't vote for [that district's representative]," he said. "So that's another reason why we need the at-large members."

Both propositions aim to eliminate the "gentlemen's agreement," which reserves one council seat for an African-American council member and one for a Hispanic council member.

Under the Voting Rights Act, opportunity districts must be provided for minorities, Young said. In such a district, the minority group has the opportunity to elect a representative because it has a voting majority or sizable minority. Young, who has drawn district lines for 30 years, said having 10 single-member districts is the only way to get the needed African-American opportunity district.

Fred Lewis, a member of the charter revision committee, said civil rights groups might sue the city for a retrogression—a reduction in the voting strength of a racial or ethnic group resulting from a redistricting plan—under the Voting Rights Act if 8-2-1 is enacted.

But Fred McGhee, a member of the charter revision committee and Austin Community for Change, said City Council vetted the question with legal counsel of whether eight districts would pass muster with the Department of Justice and comply with the Voting Rights Act. He said it does.

Under Proposition 4, there is not yet a plan for how to draw district lines, he said. The charter revision committee voted 13–2 in favor of an independent redistricting commission, with members McGhee and David Butts voting no.

Lewis, who supports 10-1, said residents need council members who understand their needs.

"It's very hard to know what the problems are in Southwest Austin if you've never lived in Southwest Austin and never go there," he said.


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