South Austin would have City Council seat if voters embrace single-member districts

New life has been breathed into an initiative to change the way Austin is represented by its City Council—a proposal that has been rejected by Austinites since the 1970s, the last time being in 2002.

The 2012 Charter Revision Committee, a council-appointed group of 15 citizens tasked with studying the issue, has voted in favor of replacing the current at-large system with geographic representation.

The committee, established in August 2011, studied alternative representative options, such as single-member district systems or hybrid systems, with council members elected both at-large and geographically.

The group, which has been meeting since September 2011, made its final recommendation Feb. 2, voting in favor of a plan comprising 10 single-member districts and one at-large mayor.

Committee members acknowledged the rejection of single-member districts by voters in the past but agreed the proposal has a better chance at passage in 2012 due to the city's rapidly growing population.

"The city is too large and too diverse for the type of government it has," committee member Fred Lewis said.

Hybrid versus single-member

The committee held regular meetings as well as several public hearings. During those meetings, various hybrid options were considered, such as the 6-2-1 plan proposed by Mayor Lee Leffingwell, made up of six single-member districts, two at-large representatives and one at-large mayor.

Other hybrid plans considered were the 8-4-1 plan, made up of eight single-member districts, four at-large representatives and one at-large mayor; and a 10-2-1 plan with 10 single-member districts, two at-large districts and one at-large mayor.

Local advocacy group Austinites for Geographic Representation provided testimony and displayed posters at public hearings in support of the 10-1 plan.

AGR member Roger Borgelt said he felt the at-large system is an unnecessary anomaly not found in many other systems of government.

"Effective representation requires enlargement of the council," Borgelt said.

Throughout the process, proponents of single-member districts said the system would result in more equality for underrepresented minority populations, an increase in voter participation and a reduction in campaign costs, allowing for those with fewer resources to run for office.

Meanwhile, opponents cited the possibility of electing members who only care about the needs of their district and concern over infighting among City Council members. In addition, several members of the Asian-American community testified in favor of a hybrid system stating that it would better serve the Asian-American population, which is spread out across Austin.

While Leffingwell said he favors the 6-2-1 option, he emphasized to the committee during its Jan. 5 hearing the importance of compromising on one geographic representation plan, whether it be single-member or hybrid, to put before voters in November.

The committee came to an unofficial consensus in January on the need to do away with the current at-large system but was split on the best alternative.

Final recommendation

Two options were part of the committee's final discussion—the 10-1 and 10-2-1 plans—with the single–member only plan ultimately passing by one vote.

Committee Vice Chair Ann Kitchen had proposed the 10-2-1 plan because she said she thought it would bring forth a consensus on the committee's recommendation.

But several members were strongly opposed, including committee member Delia Garza, who likened at-large representatives to "mayor-in-waiting" positions.

"There is an inherent imbalance in power," Garza said.

During the group's Jan. 5 meeting, Garza stated that she supported a purely single-member system and specifically expressed concern about a lack of city council representation in South Austin.

"It's really bothersome," Garza said. "I've owned my house since 2003 in South Austin, and there's not been a member who represents not only south of Ben White [Boulevard], but south of the river."

Garza continued, "Not a single council member lives south of the river right now, which arguably means half the city is not represented by a member on the current council."

The committee also voted to recommend the establishment of an independent citizens commission to draw the new districts.

Next steps

In addition to the committee's final recommendation, those who voted for 10-2-1 representation planned to submit a minority statement to City Council supporting a hybrid system.

The recommendations will not affect the May municipal election. If approved by council, the issue would go on the November ballot, and if passed, the first election under the new system would be in 2013.

Kitchen expressed disappointment that the committee could not unite behind one plan and said she hopes City Council will find a compromise, giving geographic representation a better chance at passage by voters.

Councilman Mike Martinez, who was instrumental in establishing the committee, said he wholeheartedly supports a change in the current at-large system, but said he is waiting to form a final opinion on the best option until he hears more from the committee, especially the minority opinion.

Martinez said that whichever concept is proposed, the way the districts will look needs to be made absolutely clear to voters. He said not being clear is why he believes proposals failed in the past.

Chong Shin, president of the South Austin Civic Club, said the club has no official position on single–member districts.

He said the club plans to invite speakers representing various viewpoints to speak at an upcoming meeting later this year.

Speaking as a resident, Brian Clark, vice president of the Oak Hill Business and Professional Association, said it is a good idea to have local representation.

"I don't understand why we haven't switched already," he said. "It seems like the representatives out here, [such as] the county commissioner, support it."

A date has not been set for City Council to discuss the recommendations. The issue must go before the dais this spring if the city seeks to put it on the ballot in time for the November election.

Joe Olivieri contributed to this article.