Colored drawing by Anthony Jensen

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Got Districts?


Austinites for Geographic Representation will hold a kickoff rally Saturday, Oct 22nd at Mexitas Restaurant at 12th Street and IH-35, from 3-5 PM. Free food will be provided and there will be a cash bar. Everyone in Austin, from across the political spectrum, is welcome.

Why Districts? Why Now?

Did you know Austin is the largest proportionally representative municipality in the country? Each "at-large" Councilmember represents all 812,500 Austinites - more constituents than most US Representatives answer to! Having to appeal to all of the elected leaders to see who might help you with an issue in your part of town, where no one is specifically accountable to you, has caused a major democracy gap in our City. It has eroded trust.

At the City of Austin's Charter Revision Commission meeting last week, former state Senator Gonzalo Barrientos and chair, quipped that "there ain't a lot of faith right now" in our local council government. While this commission's still developing what plan to recommend our Council, and considering this Commission's recommendation can be easily ignored by them (it has on this matter in the past), the community is moving forward as they don't trust politicians protecting their own interests to "do the right thing."

At a noon press conference Wednesday at City Hall, the broad-based grassroots coalition Austinites for Geographic Representation announced a petition drive to amend the Austin City Charter to elect 10 Council members by geographic districts and the Mayor citywide. The proposal would also create an Independent Citizens Commission to draw the Districts.

"We have worked with over 30 organizations and dozens of individuals since March to devise a plan that is fair, reasonable, legal and in the case of the commission, one that will be free of political manipulation," said Charlie Jackson, an AGR spokesman.

"We are initiating this petition now," Jackson pointed out, "because of the Council's vote for a May election. We would prefer a November Charter vote. However whenever the City Council asks the voters to decide on amending the Charter, May or November, this proposal for 10-1 and an Independent Citizens Commission will be on that Ballot!"

Jackson went on to point out that since 1971, the idea that Austin has elected Mayors and Council members by "at large" elections has been an illusion. "In fact we have elected our City officials from two Super Districts" he stated, " We've had one Super District (West and Downtown) that has about 10% of the population but has elected 50.5% of the councilmember and 15 of 17 Mayors and a second Super District to represent the rest of the City (about 90% of the population and has elected 49.5% of the Councilmember and 2 Mayors)."

Most mid to large cities around the nation, with the exception of four others, have geographic representation, as do almost all our school boards, county commissioner courts and state and US representatives. Many cities in our size range have 9-11 districts.

Roger Borgelt, Vice-Chair of the Travis County Republican Party stated, "After seven months of work our coalition has a 10-1 plan that is far more equitable than the super district system we have now. The plan we have also will meet Department of Justice scrutiny in that it will provide the opportunity to elect an African-American and therefore does not commit retrogression as other plans will." Further Mr. Borgelt pointed out that, "the independent commission we propose will avoid City Hall politics, provide an open process and have members who are informed and interested but who are not tied to City Hall faction or interests."

This independent commission, tried successfully in other states and locales, will be the major difference from our previous ballot measures, likely being the key factor in garnering enough support for it to pass this time around. Understandably, people were wary about voting for it before because our heavily influenced politicians, or their hand-picked representatives, did draw or would have been drawing the maps after the vote.

Stan Coleman, who serves on the Board of the NAACP-Austin, reminded everyone that two federal judges have said we are the only city in Texas and the nation that lets at least one African American and one Hispanic get elected under current two Super District system. However, Mr. Coleman pointed out, "too often the minority Councilmember is is chosen by non-minority voters. Therefore, in reality the minorities are represented in appearance only, not in fact. It is time to end the two Super Districts system ratified by two judges that has condemned Austin minority voters to four decades of apparent, but no real, representation."

Eliza May, Democratic Party leader and former Hispanic Chamber of Commerce President, pointed out that Austin is one of the largest cities in the nation without geographic representation. May pointed out that "every level of government from the school board to the legislature to the U.S. Congress, has geographic representation except Austin. "You have to remember," she concluded, "that geographic representation was the original idea of such 'ward healers' as James Madison, Ben Franklin and George Washington, so we are hardly the first to support it."

Thanks to Richard Franklin for contributions to this post.
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Austinites for Geographic Representation, PAC
6705 Hwy. 290, West, Suite 502, #173, Austin, TX 78735

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