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Austin presents a single-member Council map

The city of Austin has released the first maps of a proposed six-district City Council, which Mayor Lee Leffingwell would like to put on the ballot next year for public approval.

The City of Austin has for decades operated under a so-called gentleman’s agreement , an unspoken rule that has reserved one City Council seat for a Hispanic person and one for an African American.

A district system could scramble that.

Federal laws dictate that the city would have to draw districts that don’t weaken the voting power of black or Hispanic residents, said Sydney Falk , an attorney at Bickerstaff Heath Delgado Acosta , a law firm that specializes in drawing political districts and that the city hired for legal advice on this subject.

But it is very difficult to draw an Austin district with a large percentage of black residents because Austin’s black population is small — 7.7 percent — and dispersed, Falk said. The city would have to create more than three dozen districts of roughly equal size to draw just one that has a majority of voting-age black residents, Falk said.

Falk began by drawing a district anchored in Northeast Austin that has 22 percent African American residents and a Southeast Austin district with 67 percent Hispanic residents. Those districts are the same in all four maps. The other districts are slightly different in each map, but each has a majority of white residents.

Under federal law, districts must have roughly equal populations, Falk said. Each of the six districts has 127,000 to 140,000 people.

Falk said he drew the lines trying to keep voting precincts intact and also trying to follow obvious geographic boundaries and maintain so-called neighborhood planning areas — areas for which the city has written detailed land-use plans.

Leffingwell said the four maps “are a great start” because they have roughly equal populations and are not gerrymandered.

There’s an image of the four proposed maps, and indeed they look pretty reasonably compact to me. Whether they’ll pass muster with the feds and fulfill their promise of actually electing minority members is another matter. Some of the people pushing for the change want there to be more districts to increase the odds of electing minority members. There’s also a dispute about whether to have the referendum in May or November next year, which is a by-product of the bill that was passed to change the election calendar to comply with federal law making it easier for overseas military personnel to cast absentee ballots. I don’t have any stake in the outcome of this process, but I am hoping that Austin can approve a plan that most people like. I’d like to see some more cities follow their lead on this. Austin Contrarian has, appropriately enough, a contrary view.

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