Voices around Austin: Geographical representation

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Under draft plan A, West Campus, Hyde Park and most of UT’s campus would fall in District 4, while Riverside would fall in District 2.

Photo Credit: The City of Austin | Daily Texan Staff

Editor’s note: The Austin City Council and various neighborhood groups are currently exploring options for creating single-member districts to elect members of Austin’s city council. Currently the council’s six members are elected at-large via citywide elections. Under the four current proposed versions of changes, the city would be divided into six geographical districts. We have asked campus and community leaders to weigh in on the proposed changes. Read our take on geographical representation here.

The question: What effects would implementing geographical representation, or single-member districts, have on Austin’s city government, and do you support such a move?

Mayor Lee Leffingwell

You can’t pick up a magazine or newspaper these days without coming across an article that sings Austin’s praises. It’s true that we’ve got a lot of bragging rights as a city, but it’s also true that we’re not without our blemishes. One of those is evident every time we have a local election: Almost no one shows up. In a city that often seems about to burst with civic pride, voter turnout in city elections has recently been as low as 7 percent. To me, that’s a proverbial canary in the coal mine; when citizens stop participating in elections, it’s a clear signal that the vital connection between the people and their elected representatives is in jeopardy. To reinvigorate local elections and reboot Austin’s representative democracy, it’s time for bold action.

Earlier this year, I laid out a range of proposed changes to Austin’s charter, the city’s version of a constitution, to go before voters next year. Perhaps the most significant proposal was to begin electing City Council members from geographic districts. More specifically, I’ve proposed changing to a mixed system that would add geographic (district) representation but also preserve at-large (citywide) representation. A mixed system has several important merits.

District elections, conducted at the neighborhood level, would put a renewed emphasis on grassroots campaigning and activate a whole new group of voters. At the same time, a mixed system would improve city government overall by ensuring that all citizens have representatives with an intimate understanding of the issues and concerns in their area of town while also preserving a broader, citywide perspective at City Hall. I know that some people believe we are served perfectly well by our all at-large system and that others believe my proposal doesn’t go far enough. What I know is that the current level of disinterest in local government is dangerous. If we do nothing, or fail to agree on reform, we put our city’s future at risk.

Austin Neighborhoods Council

The function of any elected representative is to gauge the political will of the people, to mediate differences among constituencies to form fair and effective public policy and to ensure that the bureaucracy carries out that policy. In city government, effective representation ranges from determining why a pothole hasn’t been repaired to setting long-range priorities for citywide infrastructure improvements. Over the past 10 years, as members of the Austin Neighborhoods Council (ANC) have participated in the city’s neighborhood and comprehensive planning efforts, it has become clear that the roles of our city council and city administration have been reversed. The task of gauging the political will of the people has fallen increasingly to city staff, and citizens find that they must negotiate the terms of public policy directly with staff. At the end of the process, city staff presents recommendations to City Council, and there is little opportunity for citizens to communicate directly with an elected representative.

Several years ago, ANC identified Austin’s at-large election system as a significant factor in this disconnect. Because our at-large city council members each represent the entire population (almost 800,000 people), none of them can provide effective constituent services. Austin is the largest city in the United States without district representation. If truly representative and participatory, such election systems ensure that district voters’ interests are represented and that each district has equal weight on the council. The cost savings of running district election campaigns (versus citywide campaigns) would foster more grassroots candidates and participants, which in turn makes the electoral process more competitive and increases voter turnout. Geographic districts are not a panacea for all that ails our city; however, they do promise a substantial improvement.

To that end, ANC supports geographic representation on Austin’s City Council, and we are currently asking our members to review plans for election systems with six, eight and 10 districts.

Chris Bradford, author of Austin Contrarian

I oppose single-member districts because I believe they will create a parochial city council. City Council is already overly tuned to the concerns of a handful of central Austin neighborhoods. Voter turnout in city elections is appallingly low, and elections are dominated by central Austin voters. The councils they elect, not surprisingly, cater to their prejudices.

Central Austin neighborhoods, for example, are notorious for opposing infill development and urbanization, the only viable strategies for maintaining an ample supply of housing in the central city and curbing sprawl on the city’s periphery. They often elect councils willing to do their bidding.

This is a real problem, but single-member districts are not the solution. Geographic representation encourages the practice of “ward courtesy,” an informal agreement among council members to defer to the council member whose district would be affected by the vote. It makes a lot of sense, from the council members’ point of view, to let each member call the shots in his or her district. But it turns wards into little fiefdoms, and it gives council members a de facto veto of zoning changes in their districts. Because so much often depends on a single council member’s vote, the system invites backroom dealing, at best, and outright bribery and corruption at worst.

In Austin, “ward courtesy” would stifle badly needed infill development in central Austin. Central city residents would elect council members who don’t like change, urbanization or outsiders parking on “their” streets. These council members naturally would exercise their veto to block developments that rile their constituents, even when the developments are good for the city as a whole. Austin needs a less, not more, parochial city council.

John Lawler, Student Government representative and Central Austin Neighborhood Planning Advisory Committee board member

Aside from the broader positive effects, such as racial equality and greater personalization between candidates and their electorate, the move to implement single-member districts will most definitely have a profound impact on student participation. The primary benefit of single-member districts is the positive impact it has on minority representation. As a university student, a minority population in the Austin area, having a council member specific to my geographic region will bridge the ever-widening gap between students and their municipality.

The movement for single-member districts provides a rare opportunity for Student Government to take a bold stance on a municipal issue. Simply having a district drawn out for a UT student will not guarantee a UT student will win the seat. If we are serious about gaining representation on City Council and throughout all levels of Austin city government, we will have to focus our voter registration efforts on a more local level.

We as UT students often forget how large of a stakeholder we are in the Austin community. Some estimates put the general student population, including St. Edward’s, Austin Community College and Huston-Tillotson University, at about 100,000 individuals — I’ll remind you the Austin population is about 800,000. Yet our record of voting in local elections is abysmal at best. If we’re serious about this, we’re going to have to get out the vote and make our voices heard where they speak loudest.

City and neighborhood issues such as this are the ones we as student leaders should be focusing more on. As the city of Austin and UT become more and more entwined, we’re going to have to face the fact that the decisions made at City Hall can impact us more than those at the Capitol.

Terrell Blodgett, UT professor emeritus in urban management

Austin voters have turned down single-member districts (SMDs) at least five times — and with good reason.

(1) SMDs narrow the focus of council members to their own district to the detriment of the interests and vision of the city as a whole. In SMD cities, it is more difficult to get majority council support for citywide projects. Cities are more than the sum of their individual neighborhoods.

(2) SMDs raise false hopes for individual citizens who feel that such a system guarantees not only a hearing but solutions for their neighborhood problems. They guarantee only that a citizen will have one council member to hear his or her case. With seven or nine members on the council, one can readily see that this hardly guarantees any action on an individual’s requests.

(3) SMDs reward citizen inaction. I agree, central Austin should not control the council as it does now. There is nothing in the present system that prevents any area of the city having a council member who lives in their area — all it takes is to run a qualified person and then get out and vote for him or her.

(4) Finally, some decry developers and the public safety association heavily influencing elections now. SMDs will not cure that; any special interest will be able to put less money into a district race and still have undue influence on that race.

SMDs are not the answer; they are the problem in many cities. One variation that eliminates some of the objections: Require council members to live in different geographical areas but be subject to citywide vote.

Peck Young, Director ACC Center for Public Policy and Political Studies

The only fair form of representation on the Austin City Council was geographic representation. Long before I was taught in urban history and sociology classes that people in cities cluster by their socioeconomic, ethnic and racial groups, I knew this had occurred in my hometown. With the end of legal segregation, Austin is less racially and ethnically divided, but it remains socially and economically segregated. Therefore, if all segments of the tapestry that makes up our city are to be heard at City Hall, council members must be elected from all parts of Austin.

We have a de facto single district system now. Four zip codes (03, 31, 04, 01) have provided 62 of the 117 council members and mayors elected since 1971 when voters started electing mayors. That is, 53 percent of all elected city officials have hailed from an area about the size of one single-member district. If you don’t live in “The District” — most of Austin doesn’t — your chances of electing a member of the council are very poor. Since 1971, South Austin, which constitutes 40 to 45 percent of Austin, has had 17 percent of all the city’s elected officials.

Finally, two federal judges have said we are the only city in Texas that lets at least one African-American and Hispanic get elected at-large. The truth is no Hispanics were elected in the mid-1980s. Further, we have never let more than one African-American be elected. Finally, the candidates minority communities vote for routinely lose. The minority council member is anyone the whites like. Therefore, in fact the minorities are represented in appearance, not fact.

All these problems in a city of approximately 800,000 would be solved by a system of geographic representation that allowed people from all over town and all socioeconomic, ethnic and racial neighborhoods to elect whomever they wished. Then we would have more than one single-member district. We would have what radical James Madison thought up: fair geographic, one man one vote, representation.

Daniel Evans, SG director of city relations

Ideally, geographic representation would allow many Austin residents to have a voice in city affairs. With the city partitioned into several districts, each resident would be represented by a council member from his or her own district.

Citizen representation likely would be enhanced under geographic representation compared to a purely at-large system because council members would be elected from various geographic areas across the city and therefore be more in sync with issues affecting citizens at the district level. It is likely that minority and typically underrepresented groups would have a stronger voice within city government as well, since geographic representation would afford these groups better opportunity to elect a council member that empathizes with their needs and interests. Geographic representation may also stimulate greater citizen participation in city affairs and local elections; because each citizen would have an identifiable council member representing his or her district, citizens may be inclined to seek out the council member who represents their district and interests in order to address specific issues.

One concern with geographic representation is that the number of council member seats may increase, which would likely increase costs for the city and its residents. While an increase in the number of council members likely means that more groups and interests are represented, a cost analysis is warranted to assess how the city’s finances would be affected.

I personally support the general structure of a city council that is based on geographic representation. As of right now, I do not endorse any particular plan that outlines a structure for implementing geographic representation. Before endorsing a plan, I would assess each plan and evaluate the consequences resulting from any implementation.