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single member districts

Austin will get its vote on district Council seats

You Austin folks won’t get to vote for Council members next November, but you will get to vote for what kind of Council members you have.

The council approved Thursday a resolution that calls for a district proposal to go before voters in the November 2012 election. That move was endorsed by the advocacy group Austinites for Geographic Representation , which hopes to put its own district proposal on the November ballot.

The city and the Austinites group disagree on the ideal number of districts. The city would like six people representing districts and the mayor and two others representing the whole city; Austinites for Geographic Representation would like 10 districts, with only the mayor representing the whole city.

Both sides had accused each other of trying to sneak their proposal onto the May ballot in hopes of pre-empting the other proposal.

[…]

Thursday’s council vote was preceded by a joint news conference in which Council Members Laura Morrison and Sheryl Cole and members of Austinites for Geographic Representation said they support the same election date.

“We’re all singing from the same hymnal page now,” Peck Young , a member of the Austinites group, said in an interview. “Now we can get back to arguing over whose plan is better.”

That’s a fine thing to argue about. There are legitimate concerns that having only six district Council seats would make it difficult to draw the districts in a way that reasonably guaranteed minority representation. I’m not a big fan of the kind of informal “gentleman’s agreement” that Austin now operates under for that purpose, but given that its track record in that regard is good, you want to be careful about how to replace it. Y’all now have a year to hash that all out. Good luck.

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.

District representation in Austin

I have to admit, it hadn’t occurred to me that there were any large cities in Texas that didn’t have City Council districts, but Austin is such a place, at least for now.

Mayor Lee Leffingwell will soon propose sweeping changes to Austin’s elections and governing structure, including creating districts for City Council representation, an idea voters have rebuffed before.

The aim of the changes, Leffingwell said, is to compel more people to vote in council elections, which have a history of abysmal turnout.

Currently, the mayor and six council members represent the entire city of nearly 800,000 people. Leffingwell wants to replace that with a hybrid system, in which six council members would represent smaller districts and two council members and the mayor would represent the whole city.

The mayor also wants to increase the maximum amount people can donate to city campaigns (currently $350 per donor) and move city elections from May to November of odd -numbered years, which would involve increasing council members’ terms from three to four years.

Austin voters have rejected district plans six times since 1973 , most recently in 2002 .

“Even though it has failed before, I sense a different mood out there,” said Leffingwell, who will detail his plans in his State of the City speech Feb. 25 . He will also host a Feb. 28 public forum with former San Antonio Mayor Henry Cisneros and former Houston Mayor Bill White to talk about the district idea and other subjects.

Apparently, previous attempts at this failed because the plan was put to a vote before there was a map of the proposed districts, and because the size of Council would have been doubled. With Census data coming soon, the former should not be an obstacle, and the current proposal has an increase of only two seats. So maybe this time there’s hope.

One obstacle still remains, however:

Another past hurdle that’s likely to resurface this year is the drawing of a district that has a large concentration of African American residents and that would give black voters a fair chance to elect candidates they favor.

Since the 1970s, an unwritten rule has reserved one Austin council seat for a Hispanic person and one for an African American. Some say that so-called “gentleman’s agreement” is arcane.

“The idea of holding a seat for a particular race empowers the old Austin fathers,” said Nelson Linder , president of the Austin NAACP. “It’s time for a new model that’s more competitive and inclusive and that empowers everybody.”

Because blacks are dispersed across Austin and make up only about 8 percent of Austin’s population, the city would have to draw at least 14 districts with equal populations to form just one with a majority of black residents, city demographer Ryan Robinson said.

Council Member Sheryl Cole , the council’s only black member, said she would support putting a hybrid system to a vote but questions whether the Justice Department would approve a map that includes no district with an African American majority.

A six-district map would probably have one district in Southeast Austin and one in North-Central or Northeast Austin with a majority of Hispanic residents , and one district stretching from Central East to Northeast Austin that has more black than Hispanic or white residents but not a majority, Robinson said.

Houston had a similar tradition for the At Large #5 seat, but then Chris Bell filed for it and won in a 1997 special election, and Michael Berry did the same in 2003 after abandoning his Mayoral campaign. The problem with unwritten rules is that they’re unenforceable. As for the question of drawing a Council district that an African-American could win, I will simply note that Travis County, which has six legislative districts, has counted Dawnna Dukes among its delegation for more than a decade now. According to the Texas Redistricting webpage Dukes’ district (HD46) is 27.1% black by population, 26.1% by voting age population (VAP), while the numbers for Anglos are 27.9 and 32.6, and the numbers for Hispanics are 42.1 and 37.9. Surely a suitable district can be drawn within Austin.

Another lawsuit against Farmers Branch over City Council districts

Trying again to force the city of Farmers Branch to create single member City Council districts.

The suit seeks an end at-large voting for City Council seats, arguing that the current method dilutes Hispanic voting strength. Nearly half the city is Hispanic, according to estimates of the U.S. Census Bureau over a three-year-period ending in 2008.

The lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court in Dallas on behalf of several Farmers Branch residents by the Bickel & Brewer Storefront. Bickel & Brewer is firm that has sued the city over an ordinance that bans landlords from renting to illegal immigrants. Federal judges have declared two versions of the rental ordinance to be unconstitutional.

A federal judge dismissed an earlier voting rights suit, one that was filed shortly after the May 2007 council elections. That suit was brought by a San Antonio attorney and Dallas lawyer Domingo García, whose firm is best known for its personal injury litigation.

The last news I heard on that was that the dismissal was being appealed to the Supreme Court. I presume SCOTUS did not agree to hear that appeal, or we’d have heard something more by now.

The new lawsuit was brought by 10 Spanish-surnamed residents. It said that under the current election system, all six City Council members could reside on the same block.

It noted that Hispanics are heavily concentrated in the northwestern part of the city. It said there are enough Hispanics within a small geographic area to allow a single-member district voting system in which Hispanics would form a majority in at least one district.

When the previous suit was dismissed, the judge wrote in his opinion that the plaintiffs did not prove that a majority-minority single-member district could be created. I’m guessing that this lawsuit is using updated Census figures to address that point. There are also more election results, such as this year’s in which all candidates were Anglo, that they can use. We’ll see if any of that makes a difference.

Three more election tidbits

Tidbit #1: The city of Irving had its first election with its court-ordered single member Council districts.

Voters ousted one sitting council member and sent another into a runoff election. They also put two minorities on what has been an all-white council and rejected three out of four proposed city charter amendments.

Roy Santoscoy, who is Hispanic, beat sitting council member Tom Spink for the open at-large District 2 seat. Mike Gallaway, who is black, handily beat Trini C. Gonzalez, who is Hispanic, in the single-member District 1 race.

[…]

Irving is one of the most diverse cities in North Texas. About 43 percent of its population is Hispanic. During the voting rights trial, attorneys for plaintiff Manuel Benavidez used the loss of previous Hispanic candidates as evidence that single-member districts were needed to give Hispanics representation on the council.

Ironically, the Hispanic candidate lost in single-member District 1 and a Hispanic political newcomer won the only at-large race. Gallaway, who won the District 1 seat, is a 45-year-old senior inventory planner and owns a south Irving boutique with his wife. Santoscoy, who won the District 2 seat, is a former planning and zoning commissioner and owns a pawn shop on Irving Boulevard.

However the City Council got to be more diverse, the point is that it did. That’s a good thing.

Tidbit #2: The Republican candidate who lost the GOP primary runoff to replace retiring State Rep. Brian McCall, defeated the runoff winner in a special election to fill out the remainder of McCall’s term.

Mabrie Jackson, who pulled out of the race for state Rep. Brian McCall’s unexpired term, beat Van Taylor in Saturday’s special election, winning 56 percent of the vote to his 44 percent, according to Collin County’s election results.

That’s a little awkward.

[…]

Turnout was lower in the special than in the runoff or the primary, probably because both candidates were campaigning. And they weren’t campaigning this time because … it’s over. Jackson pulled out of the special election. The Secretary of State named Taylor the only candidate and therefore the winner, calling the result and ending the race. And Collin County let it tail out, counting votes in an already decided election where no one asked for support.

So…does that mean the election didn’t really happen? I’m a little confused here.

Tidbit #3: Juanita summarizes the election results from Fort Bend County as only she can. Check it out.

Farmers Branch single member Council district lawsuit appealed to SCOTUS

A lawsuit on behalf of three Hispanic plaintiffs in Farmers Branch to force the creation of single-member City Council districts, which was filed last April and dismissed in November, will be appealed to the Supreme Court after the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals rejected their argument.

Valentine Reyes, Irene Gonzalez and Gary F. Garcia alleged the at-large City Council system in Farmers Branch diluted minority votes. They wanted to create single-member districts, in which a council member is elected to represent a specific section of the city.

Their attorneys argued before a federal court in Dallas that Hispanic citizens of voting age would form a majority of the voters in one of the proposed districts. On appeal, they contended that citizenship wasn’t a requirement in showing Latinos of voting age would make up the majority in the proposed district.

A three-judge panel at the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rejected the argument. In a ruling Tuesday, the New Orleans-based panel insisted that the number of minorities of voting age in a proposed district must be citizens and needed to account for a majority of the total population of the district’s voting-age citizens.

“That’s really a change of how voting rights law has been interpreted in the past and would make a very bad precedent if it was adopted,” Garcia said.

Hmm. I’m not a lawyer, but I do know that the Census counts state prison inmates as residents of whatever county the prison happens to be in, and that this is used for the apportionment of legislative and Congressional districts, even though these prisoners may not have otherwise lived in that county and certainly can’t vote there. As such, I don’t buy the Court’s ruling – it strikes me as inconsistent with other established practices. Be that as it may, I would not hold out any hope for the Supreme Court to do anything about it. Not this Court, anyway.

It’s ironic that this ruling comes down at the same time as the final touches are being put on the court ruling that required the city of Irving to create single member Council districts. Makes you wonder why one city is not like the other.

On a side note, the nature of Farmers Branch’s City Council may not be changing, but that doesn’t mean that its politics are the same as it ever was. Consider this recent exchange in a debate over allowing expanded alcohol sales.

The measure to permit alcohol sales in a city known for its tight controls inspired contentious debate among residents and even a City Council that frequently votes as a bloc.

The new ordinance allows for the sale of alcohol at events in city parks by vendors or contractors who show they have liability insurance and a license with the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission. The new ordinance covers beer, wine and even frozen margaritas.

After residents took to the podium, telephones and e-mail in opposition, Mayor Tim O’Hare said he opposed the measure because “a majority of our residents do not want this.”

O’Hare likened a yes vote to Washington politicians who push measures and “don’t listen to the people.”

Councilman David Koch took offense. “I think what you said at the end is not appropriate,” Koch said.

“Your attack at me is inappropriate,” O’Hare responded.

“I have the right to express my opinion after you express your opinion,” Koch retorted.

This was flagged for me by the proprietor of the DARE to LIVE in Farmers Branch blog – which you should be reading for a good perspective on that Dallas suburb – who says it’s “the first time I’ve heard of City Council members actually opposing the Mayor!” O’Hare, you may recall, is the guy who spearheaded the successful referendum to ban apartments from renting to undocumented immigrants; that ordinance, and a stricter one that preceded it, have been struck down or restrained by the courts as legal fees and other costs mount. Anything that helps knock O’Hare down a peg or two is fine by me.

Irving proposes district council lines

Greg shows a map of the proposed new district City Council lines in Irving, which as this DMN story notes would likely unseat two current Council members and might have an effect on HD105 next year. I keep following this story for a variety of reasons. One is that it’s a look at a process that we’ll be undergoing ourselves in the near future, and will surely cause a fair amount of wailing and gnashing of teeth. Two, it seems likely to me that whoever wins the initial election in that Hispanic-majority district is someone who will be a force to be reckoned with, possibly for a long time. And three, it’s fascinating to see all this change in the Dallas area, which seems to me to be a leading indicator for the rest of the state. Put it all together and how can you not watch?

Irving to appeal ruling in single-member districts lawsuit

No surprise.

The Irving City Council plans to appeal last week’s federal court ruling that ordered the city to create single-member council districts before holding any more City Council elections. Mayor Herbert Gears said the city will also request that the order be stayed during the appeals process. If that motion were to be granted, the city could conceivably hold another at-large council election in May.

“We don’t believe we’ve done anything illegal,” Gears said.

The council met in executive session Wednesday afternoon to receive legal advice on last week’s ruling. The city has already spent more than $367,000 to defend the lawsuit, which was filed by resident Manuel Benavidez. Gears said the city does not want to incur needless legal costs, but does not agree with the judge’s ruling that the city’s at-large system violates the Federal Voting Rights Act.

“We think it’s very important to protect the integrity of our community,” Gears said.

But Gears also said the city plans to work with lawyers for Benavidez in developing a single-member district plan to present to the court by October.

Reaching a settlement is almost always the lower-cost option. The city of Irving can drag this out, and they may even prevail on appeal, but I would hope they think this isn’t something for which they should go to the mat. As noted here and in the previous story, there are some existing recommendations for single-member districts for Irving to consider. The good news is, they’re trying to work it out.

Even though the council is appealing U.S. District Judge Jorge Solis’ ruling, it is also working on two other fronts to bring single-member districts to Irving.

“We have known for some time that this in our city’s future,” Mayor Herbert Gears said.

The council continues to work on the possibility of placing the matter before voters on a November ballot. And leaders say they will work with Bill Brewer, an attorney for lawsuit plaintiff Manuel Benavidez, to present Solis with a proposed plan by an October deadline.

“The goal here is to come up with a system that best fits the rules of the Voting Rights Act, and that is a system that gives Hispanics an opportunity to elect somebody from their neighborhoods,” Brewer said.

[…]

One area where Irving and Brewer find common ground is the possibility of creating a hybrid electoral system of some single-member seats and some at-large seats. That’s the system several residents, leaders and former leaders prefer. And it’s one that other cities, such as Arlington and Grand Prairie, use.

“There’s obviously some ground for compromise if the City Council is willing to do it,” said former Mayor Joe Putnam, who sat on the latest charter review committee.

Sounds like they’re at least pointing in the right direction. I wish them luck in figuring it all out. Greg has more.

Irving ordered to switch to single-member Council districts

A federal judge has ordered the city of Irving, Texas, to switch to single-member City Council districts because their current at-large system was in violation of the Voting Rights Act.

U.S. District Judge Jorge Solis issued the ruling Tuesday in response to a federal suit filed by Irving resident Manuel Benavidez, who claimed that the city’s at-large voting system essentially blocks the votes of Hispanics and violates the federal Voting Rights Act.

Solis ordered both sides to try to agree on a plan for elections and redistricting and a schedule for implementing that plan, and to submit either joint or proposed plans to the court within 90 days. If the parties fail to come up with an acceptable plan, Solis said that he would draw his own redistricting plan.

“This victory gives the Latino community in Irving a voice in the political process and the opportunity for representation,” said William A. Brewer III, partner at the Bickel & Brewer Storefront, who represented Benavidez. “We hope this result effects a positive contribution to the way in which certain municipalities approach a changing world.”

[…]

In his ruling, Solis noted numerous factors in Irving’s voting system that, “…weigh heavily against the ability of Hispanics to elect candidates of their own choosing; accordingly, the totality of the circumstances indicates the Defendant’s method of electing the mayor and members of its City Council violates Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act.”

[…]

Single-member districts have been a contentious issue in Irving on and off for decades. In February, a charter review committee recommended creating some sort of single-member district system. A petition also is circulating to let voters decide whether there should be a mixed system of single-member and at-large council seats.

Hispanics make up the largest single racial or ethnic group in Irving. But creating a new City Council district where a majority of voters are Hispanic is virtually impossible, city attorneys argued in federal court filings.

Their reasoning: About 60 percent of Irving Hispanics who are old enough to vote aren’t citizens and thus can’t cast ballots.

Irving’s mayor and eight council members are all white even though whites make up only about 35.6 percent of the city’s population, according to 2007 American Community Survey estimates. Hispanics make up 40.6 percent of the population, according to the same estimate.

Benavidez’ attorneys said Irving’s Hispanic voters have overwhelmingly cast their ballots for Hispanic candidates in recent council elections. And they argued that none of those candidates won because non-Hispanic voters, who typically cast more than 90 percent of ballots in the elections, overwhelmingly supported Hispanic candidates’ opponents.

Good for Benavidez and the residents of Irving. As Greg notes, it’s not exactly clear why the plaintiffs in Irving won but the ones in Farmers Branch lost, though they are appealing and could get a boost from this ruling. Be that as it may, Irving is another one of those places that has gone on anti-immigrant binges, and as far as I’m concerned anything that makes places like that a little more representative of its population is a step in the right direction.