The debate in Austin about how to elect our City Council has recently shifted from, "should we change from an at-large to a geographic districting system?" to "which districting system should we put on the ballot this November?"
Most everyone seems to agree...the Charter Revision Commission (CRC), the City Council itself, and the majority of the community...that it's inevitable - finally - after all these years and six botched ballot attempts to pass geographic representation to end the racist, at-large, "gentlemen's agreement" system.
The question now is: how many single member districts do we need, and do we need to keep any at-large seats (beyond the mayor's)?
On the table are plans ranging from 6 to 10 districts, with many incorporating at-large seats, which are referred to as "mixed" or "hybrid" systems.
Eight Isn't Enough
6- and 8- seat plans very likely won't pass Department of Justice (DOJ)/Voting Rights Act (VRA) muster. In Austin, the two minority communities the VRA will address are the African-American and the Hispanic communities.
After this last census, with our incredible growth (we have 150,000 more people since last we voted on a plan: 8-2-1 in 2002) AND our combined minority percentage now topping 50% (the minorities are in the majority), but where African-Americans have seriously declined in population (7.7% now), a map simply can't be drawn to create one viable, non-gerry-mandered African-American voting opportunity district with less than 10 districts.
With the Hispanic community, only 10 offers enough percentage of the council seats to get us near the Hispanic percentage of our city (35%) with 3 districts viably being drawn for Hispanic opportunity districts...while that only accounts for 30% of the dais, an 8 district plan would only offer 2 opportunity seats, which is 25% of the dais: the DOJ will accept a 5% window, but likely not a 10% one.
The VRA relates to "opportunity" districts though...not a straight population percentage. This means the "opportunity" for an African-American or Hispanic to be elected with more than the single constituency working together to elect them.
Simply put, anything under 10 may well be tossed out by the feds after-the-fact, no matter what the public voted on.
The straight 10-1 plan with a rider for an independent citizen's commission is supported widely (a petition drive is in the works to certify it be put on the ballot). All other plans floating out there fall short and lack the caveat for the citizens, NOT the politicians, to draw the maps.
To Hybrid or Not to Hybrid?
Keeping at-large seats is being argued as necessary because A. it will be a "relief valve" for those constituents who aren't getting proper response by their district representative/that these at-large folks will play "referee" to the district members who supposedly will pit their needs against each other -and- B. it will allow for "slower change" - a way to "step up" to a straight single district plan, later in our future.
The real reason it's being argued for by liberal, central city Democratic party power brokers is they want to maintain their white, liberal, central city power base - their "two district" plan, where one small section of town elects and houses almost all of our local representatives, and the rest of the city, the "other" district, can continue to fight for scraps.
Their publicly-stated reasons are merely cover, and lack credibility, at that.
"Relief Valve" For Whom?
The "relief valve" argument is a red herring. In what universe would another district councilmember not be approachable if yours wasn't on any given issue? None. Politicians and power brokers alike all know the whole community can organize around any given councilmember, and get the vote out for them OR for a challenger in that district, even if only a segment of that community can cast a vote for them. We do that now and will continue to do so on campaigns in other districts for the greater good (i.e., I live in Travis County Precinct 4 but am working hard on a critical Precinct 1 campaign).
All members vote on everything before them, so you have to seek all their votes anyway. Like at the state legislature, rarely, if ever, does a lobbyist approach only their geographic representative on an issue, and sometimes they never even see them. You go to the representative(s) who has/have sway on a particular committee related to your issue.
Oh, and if your rep. won't respond to your need or votes against it, then you spend the next campaign season working to replace her, and rally all your friends in your district AND other districts to help pound the pavement. That's democracy.
Bored with Wards
As a Del Valle ISD school board trustee, 98% of what I do/what I vote on relates to the district as a whole: none of us on the board see our districts as "wards." I'm merely specified to represent a portion of the district as an initial "go-to" person for those folks or a watchdog, of sorts, for anything cropping up in my little corner that I should then bring to the whole board.
I campaign District 2-wide, but I communicate with and represent parents, teachers, staff, students and fellow board members Del Valle-wide.
Raul Alvarez, former city councilmember, spoke last week at the CRC meeting and said as much...that there's very few "ward" issues out there, and they're minor, comparatively. Sidewalks are not what representatives fight over, because they need sidewalks in their districts too. They fight over the need for water treatment plants, on whether to give police pay raises, on if incentives should be given to a certain corporation looking to move to town and how to change their own elections!
These at-large seats will merely be mayoral stepping-stone positions ("mini-mayors"). They'll embrace you just like you are embraced now by any given member on the dais (how's that werkin' for ya?). They'll be too busy catering to city-wide power brokers like developers and the Chamber for their mayoral run to listen to your little pot hole problem. They'll be useless; a waste of taxpayer dollars, at best.
Whose Team Are You On, Anyway?
The irony here? Many of those pushing for hybrids have long fought for geographic representation. The main reason we've lost at the polls in the past was because the monied interests who fought it did so with the "ward politics!" scare tactic. The district proponents squared off with the bastards and said "that's not how it works!" and called it "poppycock."
Now, it seems they've fully embraced the "ward politics" mantra by touting a hybrid system. "We have to have a few at-large seats to combat against it!" they say, with no sense of irony.
These at-large seats will merely perpetuate the same problem we are working to solve.
"Slow Change" = "No Change"
"Ease" into full geographic representation by getting halfway there now and maybe all the way there later? We've worked for 30 years to get geographic representation. We're supposed to work for 30 more because a few are afraid of "too much change at once"? Those afraid of "bold change" (as a CRC 10-1 advocate termed it) are really afraid of sharing power equally across the city.
Stay tuned for Part 2, describing two federal district court cases staged in Texas that show us precisely why a hybrid system in Austin would be unconstitutional.