Increasing student representation in city politics

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Austin’s 2012 Charter Revision Committee approved a plan at its final meeting last week that could mean increased representation for students on the City Council. The committee, charged with drafting recommendations to alter the city’s constitution, recommended a 10-1 proposal for City Council representation, with 10 geographic, single-member districts and one at-large mayor.

The recommendation is in response to criticism of Austin’s antiquated at-large system of council representation. That system has made it easier for student issues to slip through the cracks because of each council member’s wide, varied constituency. Though the 10-1 plan is not perfect, adopting it would likely mean that one council member would specifically represent the UT area, giving UT students leverage to get their voices heard at city hall.

But given the quarrelsome and time-consuming legal battles surrounding redistricting at the state level, the committee tied the call for single member districts to a call for an independent committee to draw the maps to avoid subjecting Austin to a similar situation if the plan is approved by both the city council and the voters in November.

This committee could present a unique opportunity for students in Austin. According to the committee’s recommendation, members of that independent map-drawing committee must be fully diverse, and the committee considers student status a form of diversity. This move is a significant departure from current practice, which typically limits student involvement in city business.

Moreover, the very idea of an independent committee is an important step on the path to creating single-member districts, since tying a pre-made map to the proposal would decrease the likelihood that the city council would vote to pass the plan. Similar plans have failed before the council six times before.

Although each student may only attend UT for four years, the University is enduring; student needs do not disappear every four years. Regardless of whether single-member districts pass, this change in approach is a positive step toward expanding student representation on the city level. Students are crucial, contributing members of the city, and it’s time to respect the role they play.