OHAN board member Rick Perkins, left, and members of the ICRC at the recent Precinct 3 meeting.
By Bobbie Jean Sawyer
The official boundaries of Oak Hill—there never were any, until recent years when the city held hearings and created the Oak Hill Neighborhood Plan—has been a long-debated subject in the southwest area and a major focus of the Aug. 21 Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission (ICRC) public hearing. At the meeting, held at the Precinct 3 offices, residents urged commission members not to split communities along district lines.
The ICRC is a fourteen-member group working to draw a map of ten single-member City Council districts as ordered by the passage of Proposition 3, a City Charter amendment calling for more evenly distributed City Council geographical representation. The public hearing was the first in a series of public hearings dedicated to determining potential districts in Precinct 3.
Stefan Haag, a member of the ICRC who lives near Circle C, said the request to keep communities together has been a common thread throughout the process.
“I think what we’ve learned at each of them is how important their neighborhoods are and how they want to keep them together,” Haag said.
Haag said the commission’s ultimate goal will be completed when all communities in Austin are served by representatives who are able to understand the challenges within their community.
“Circle C has felt for sometime, and other people in southwest Austin have felt for some time, that they aren’t represented. This is an opportunity to correct that. Not only for southwest Austin but for other areas of Austin as well,” Haag said. “I think we’re going to find ten individuals who are interested in the community, who represent their community, who are aware of the issues in their community and they bring them to the Council’s attention.”
Ed Scruggs, former president of the Circle C Home Owners Association, said he wants the commission to recognize the political and economic diversity that exists in southwest Austin.
“When you consider districts in the south and southwest, keep in mind the area is a little more diverse than people believe it to be,” Scruggs said. “Whoever would be elected from this district I think would have a lot of different opinions to draw from.”
Scruggs spoke against lumping everything west of Mopac together, stressing the common interests among southwest Austin and Oak Hill residents.
“I could envision something from Brodie Lane going all the way to the west, then maybe going up north to possibly Ben White or up to where 360 turns
—maybe incorporating Travis Country,” Scruggs said.
Eliza May, a resident of Travis Country and member of Austinites for Geographic Representation, said gaining individual representation for the Oak Hill area will ensure a larger focus on suburban issues among City Council members.
“The city of Austin predominantly has been most concerned with urban issues and has not really addressed the issues that come with our territory,” May said. “We definitely are not an urban area. We’re a suburban area. So we have those issues that come with the area that we live in.”
Herman Prager, an adjunct professor of government at Austin Community College, said redistricting will result in more fair governing throughout the city.
“It will, I think, make decision making more difficult, but it will also result in better representation and more thorough consideration of how proposed and existing public policies affect the city,” Prager said.
Prager urged the commission to use geographic information systems (GIS), a system which allows users to view and analyze data relating to trends, relationships and patterns within a given area, to avoid unfairly drawn districts.
“Draw the ten districts so that the populations are equal and the districts are created that resemble as closely as possible generally boxes or rectangles that resist partisan political pressure to control outcomes,” Prager said.
Rick Perkins, secretary of the Oak Hill Association of Neighborhoods (OHAN), said neighborhoods have been supportive of the redistricting process in hopes that a new delegation will allow Oak Hill to have a voice in citywide projects, such as Imagine Austin.
Perkins also spoke about residents’ desire for a town center near the ‘Y’ in Oak Hill.
“We’ve tried and tried through different council members, but we’ve just had nothing stick and so we’re hoping that a delegate will help us develop some kind of town center or a central place that we can go to that currently doesn’t exist out here,” Perkins said.
Marie Acuna, a Western Oaks resident, said an Oak Hill representative on the City Council would help ensure that neighborhood plans are respected and upheld.
“Neighborhoods all over this town have spent years and years and hours and hours of their personal time developing neighborhood plans, only to see them overridden by the city,” Acuna said. “I think this is one of the reasons we need the change that we’re moving to.”
Acuna said while Oak Hill is a unique community, residents face many of the same issues as the rest of the city.
“A lot of people are still close to being forced out of their homes just like they are in east side from property taxes going sky high. We have a lot of the same concerns that other areas do.”
Austinites for Geographic Representation present minority district maps
Austinites for Geographic Representation (AGR), a grassroots group of citizens dedicated to developing citizen-developed, fairly-drawn geographic districts from which City Council members will be elected, presented City Council with district maps for four minority opportunity districts at the Aug. 28 ICRC meeting at the Austin Community College South campus.
AGR leader Peck Young said Austin’s opportunity districts, districts which are drawn to include a certain percentage of minorities to allow the minority population to elect a candidate of choice, would include three Hispanic opportunity districts and one African American opportunity district.
The maps were developed in coordination with the Texas League of United Latino American Citizens (LULAC) District 7 and the Austin NAACP.
“We were committed to finding out how many districts it took to guarantee—under the Voting Rights Act—representation for the minority community in Austin,” Young said.
Young said while the maps are not the final word on minority districts, they should serve as a starting point for the ICRC.
“This is an indication, based on scattered charts, based on the data available and the maps available, where we think you ought to begin,” Young said.
AGR’s three 10-1 advisory committee co-chairs also spoke at the hearing.
Former state senator Gonzalo Barrientos said using AGR’s maps will help ensure equitable districts and geographic representation.
“I believe government closest to the people is best,” Barrientos said.
Nelson Linder, president of the Austin NAACP, remembered Arthur B. DeWitty, an African American man nearly elected to City Council in 1951, when Austin was made up of single-member districts. The close election lead the City Council to place a charter amendment on the ballot to change Austin to the at-large voting system it remains today.
Roger Borgelt, Travis County Republican Party Vice-Chair, discussed the 1977 “gentleman’s agreement,” which designated City Council seats five and six as minority seats.
“The fatal flaw in the gentleman’s agreement—and it’s why we’re here tonight presenting these—is that minority communities did not get to elect their own representatives. This is illegal under the Voting Rights Act,” Borgelt said. “It’s not really a mistake that the Voting Rights Act is at the very top of the list of the criteria you’re using to draw these districts. It’s really the most important criteria.”
ICRC board member and Manchaca resident Mariano Diaz-Miranda said the redistricting efforts of AGR and ICRC will help create a balance of power that’s been missing in Austin.
“I think that this will change and eliminate a lot of bad decisions that the city has made that have taken power away from people of color,” Diaz-Miranda said.
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