Council redistricting will be messier than it needs to be

Houston City Council is set to start their discussion about redistricting, but some people want them to stop.

Councilman Mike Sullivan views expansion as a function of mayor-council politics, and he opposes it.

Houston’s residents, Sullivan said in an impromptu news conference after last week’s council meeting, “don’t want to see us trying to disenfranchise council members. The mayor has a leg up on us, if you will, in the strong mayor form of government. A super-majority with new council members would be 12, and that throws entirely too much power to the mayor’s seat.”

Mayor Annise Parker followed with a news conference of her own. “It’s going to be messy. It’s going to be contentious. We don’t have a choice (but to expand),” she said.

To Sullivan’s thinking, expansion dilutes the power of existing council members who shed turf, constituents and the weight of their individual votes as the council adds members.

Any increase in the super-majority, which is needed for such parliamentary maneuvers as extending speakers’ time, Sullivan explained, gives the mayor a tighter grip on the reins of a meeting.

I do not understand this position. Campos is right – we had a deal. The city agreed to expand Council to 11 districts when the population hit 2.1 million, and it was moving towards that when the official Census number came in an inch shy of that figure. The city was acting in good faith based on pre-Census estimates which had Houston’s population over the line as far back as 2006. I don’t see what the justification is for stopping now.

I suppose I have a pinch of sympathy for the “letter of the law” argument that if the Census says we’re short, the agreement is not in force. The problem with that is when do you then agree that the 2.1 million milestone has been officially reached? If you want to go by the next Census estimate, I’ll remind you that we already had Census estimates that indicated we should get a move on. If you say we should wait till the 2020 Census, I’ll cordially invite you to file a lawsuit and convince a judge of that position. If you have something else in mind, I’d like to hear it, as neither CM Sullivan nor any other advocate for applying the brakes articulated an endgame position in the story.

Finally, the argument that adding Council members somehow dilutes Council’s power is irrelevant. As Greg notes, there is nothing to stop anyone from pursuing a charter amendment that would alter our current strong Mayor system in whatever fashion suits you. Personally, I think Council members should have the ability to put items on the agenda if they can get a majority of members to sign on to it. Regardless, one has nothing to do with the other.

County GOP Chairman Jared Woodfill said he suspects partisan motives in the expansion.

“Our concern is that the mayor is looking to add two new seats when the numbers don’t justify it in an effort to give Democrats or Democrat-leaning council members more control and more power,” Woodfill said.

One could argue that Republicans are currently over-represented on Council, so if redistricting leads to more Democrats that would simply balance things out. But so what? Nobody has an R or a D next to his or her name when they run for Council. Woodfill is just whining, and he too is ignoring the settlement agreement. And there’s more where that came from.

At least half a dozen Council members are saying that without the Census to prove the threshold has been crossed, it’s not time to expand.

“We don’t have the money to add two new seats,” Council Member Wanda Adams said.

“I’m not going to change the rules to accommodate anyone’s agenda,” Council Member Brenda Stardig said.

Council Member Jarvis Johnson questioned whether city should even try to prove a 2.1 million population. “Let’s fight to go down,” not up in number, he said.

To CM Adams, I say will it be any less expensive to defend against the lawsuit that will surely be filed to force the city to live up to the settlement agreement in the event that Council tries to weasel out of this? The city was sued before, and I guarantee it will be sued again. This time, I would expect it to lose. Which do you expect will cost more?

To CM Stardig, I say what agenda? The city’s position, which it still has every reason to believe, is that its population is at least 2.1 million, which subjects it to the 1979 settlement agreement. What agenda do you think is in play here?

To CM Johnson, I say what the hell are you talking about? Seriously, I have no idea what you mean.

Here’s the full Chron writeup. The last paragraphs sum it up:

Meanwhile, though the charter calls for using “the best available data, including, but not limited to, the most recent federal census,” council members have seized on the census number to make their case that the population has not crossed the threshold for council expansion.

Should council find next week that the city’s population has not reached 2.1 million, it will put the city’s governing body on record that it has accepted the 2010 census count while city staffers ask the Census Bureau to correct it. City Attorney David Feldman said he believes the Census Bureau would decide whether to change the count based on technical data and will not consider council votes.

I’m trying, but I just don’t see the justification for backing out now. The item was tagged till next week, so we’ll see how it goes. More from Greg is here.

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