By Ann Fowler
Changing Austin representation from at-large to single-member districts has long been debated. Six times voters have defeated the idea at the polls — once by a very narrow margin — but the idea persists. Several groups have given the idea some traction recently. The Oak Hill Association of Neighborhoods (OHAN) invited Ken Rigsbee, (above right) an appointee to the City Charter Revision Committee, and Stacy Suits (above left) of Austinites for Geographical Representation, to speak on the topic at its October meeting.
Rigsbee said of his appointment to the city committee, “I don’t speak city-speak,” but said as an engineer “I can read a map.” He said the committee was considering an 8-4-1 plan, with eight council members elected from single districts, two each elected from two “super-districts,” and the mayor elected at-large. He said when people are asked, “Would you like to have your councilmember live in your neighborhood?” they replied, “Of course.”
The advantage for single-member districts is that each council member would represent a different area, just as state representatives are elected to represent a given district. Rick Perkins expressed concern that the at-larger super-districts could end up as Central City districts, defeating the purpose of the change.
Each council member and staff costs the city approximately $250,000 annually. Besides the added cost, creating district boundaries can be problematic. The city council is subject to the federal Voting Rights Act in protecting some minorities. Austin has had a “Gentlemen’s Agreement” for nearly 40 years that guarantees one African American seat and one Hispanic seat. In Austin, each voter can cast a ballot for every city council member.
Voters in Austin’s central core vote more consistently than many other areas of Austin. Because of that, candidates with limited funds concentrate their spending on that area alone to court these voters. Once in office, the council members see that much of the city funds are spent in the central core where their core constituents live. Some in Oak Hill feel they are not represented well by those on the city council and that a single member district would guarantee representation.
Rigsbee is not hopeful that another vote on the topic will be successful. After giving the results for the six previous failed votes on the issue, he said, “Albert Einstein defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over and over again, and expecting a different result. This time we’re only talking about a council of nine, six from single member districts. I think, from the basis of my conversations with people, and my reading of how Austin tends to vote in shorter amendment elections as opposed to just city council member elections, I think the issue is dead. I so announced, and the committee chose not to accept it.”
Oak Hill resident Kris Bailey, another member of Austinites for Geographical Representation, believes in local representation. He told the group, “We have to keep trying.”
Suits is chief deputy for Travis County Precinct 3 Constable. He said he watched the previous City Charter Revision Committee draw what he felt were questionable boundaries for single member districts. “You’re increasing the size of the council, but you’re not really solving the problem,” he said.
He told the group: “If you’re happy with the direction of the city government and their policies and their expenditures and their transportation infrastructure decisions over the last 10 or 15 years, then you need to be for the at-large system. But, those of us that are not happy, there are some fundamental things going on here. Ten percent of the population living in four zip codes in central and west Austin represent 51 percent, over the last 40 years, of the city council members, 17 of 19 mayors.”
Suits said the number of Hispanic residents in Austin should give them two or three representatives on Council, not one. He added that Austin is the largest city in United States using a pure at-large system. Suits believes the city council has short-changed south Austin over the years. He said, “If we had the representation for south Austin that we should have had forever, things would be different. We’re not going to get any major changes until we change the system.”
Suits said his group supports a 10-1 system, with 10 council members elected by districts and an at-large mayor. He said district boundaries would require “fair drawing of lines, nothing twisted around for political purposes.” Suits requested that the group consider a resolution to support a petition drive — requiring 20,000 signatures — to get another consideration of single-member on the ballot. “If we can’t get 20,000 signatures, it shouldn’t be on the ballot,” he said.
OHAN member Robert Kleeman was not hopeful that a seventh citywide vote on single-member districts would find success at this time. He said, “This is a Hail Mary pass that has very little chance of success.” He suggested that a petition to move city elections from May to November had a better chance.
Sandy Baldridge, OHAN president, agreed. She said, “I’m not sure what Stacy wants is passable.” After some discussion, the group passed a resolution to support a petition drive to move the city election from May to November.