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Austin’s choices for Council districts

The Statesman has a look at the choices Austin voters have for how to redesign their City Council from an all-At Large system to one with Council districts.

In the debate over whether to change the City Council from citywide members to those who represent smaller districts, one question has galvanized supporters and opponents: who would draw the district boundaries?

One of the two plans voters will consider Nov. 6 — switching the council from seven citywide members to 10 district representatives and a citywide mayor — calls for a commission of citizens with no paid ties to city politics to draw the district lines. Critics say that approach, added to the ballot by a citizens’ petition effort, has several possible pitfalls, including strict criteria that could disqualify too many people from serving.

The other plan — eight district representatives and three citywide seats, including a mayor — doesn’t say who would draw the lines, but the City Council would likely be involved. Detractors worry that would lead to the council manipulating the lines for political gain.

If both plans get more than 50 percent of the vote, the one with the most votes would be enacted.

The rest is a long story about the pros and cons of the commission approach, and it’s worth reading if you’re into that sort of thing. I think there’s a lot of merit to the idea of taking the redistricting process out of the hands of those who are directly affected by it, though I will note that the city of Houston did a pretty good job of being transparent and involving the community when it re-drew Council boundaries and added two new districts in 2011. If I were an Austin voter, the main concern I’d have about the commission proposal is this:

Mayor Lee Leffingwell worries the criteria for serving on the citizens panel would be too restrictive. The voting requirements alone — applicants must have voted in at least three of the last five city elections — would disqualify all but six percent, or 28,000, of the roughly 461,000 Austinites who are registered to vote, he said.

That’s pretty limiting, and I think there would be a real possibility of not finding enough qualified applicants who want the job. It’s also my understanding that the regular voters in Austin city elections, as well as the Council candidates, generally come from a handful of neighborhoods. As I recall, better geographic diversity is one of the arguments for single-member Council districts there. Given that, isn’t it short-sighted to limit the redistricting commission in this fashion? I think it is, but it’s not for me to decide. What do you Austinites think?

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One Comment

  1. Ginger says:

    I need to sit down and read up on this (obviously I’ve been too busy lately) but one of the problems of participation is that city elections are in May. We need to get the city elections on a November schedule and that should help open up that redistricting panel if we go that way. The low participation is a scandal and I say that as someone with a voting record which will qualify me for anything I’ve been here long enough to see the right number of elections for.