Impeding fair representation

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After months of debate, the city of Austin’s 2012 Charter Revision Committee is poised to hold a final vote on a proposal that has the potential to create single-member districts for city council elections.

Presently, all seats on the city council are at-large; city council members represent the entire city. This citywide election system makes historically progressive Austin a striking exception to the national rule: It is the only city of its size in the nation without geographic representation.

For students, single-member districts — regions designed to give specific areas of the city specialized representation — are particularly desirable because they would allow the UT community to have a stronger voice on the council. Thankfully, the idea of single-member districts is no longer the point of contention in the question of representation.

Instead, the newest debate addresses what specific plan will be presented for council approval next month and subsequently, voter approval in November. One plan, championed by local organization Austinites for Geographic Representation, offers a 10-1 map in which all council members represent a single-member district and only the mayor serves at-large. Mayor Lee Leffingwell submitted his own map outlining a 6-2-1 plan with six geographic districts, two at-large council members and an at-large mayor. Yet another, more confusing proposal offers a 8-4-1 plan with eight single-member districts, four “super districts” — which would have a combination of at-large and geographic representation — and an at-large mayor.

The efforts of the committee represent the seventh time an attempt has been made to switch council elections to the more appropriate single-member district model. And it doesn’t seem the seventh attempt has made the committee any wiser.

Dominated by Austinites for Geographic Representation and city insiders, the committee meetings have steadfastly avoided a compromise proposal. While one side of the committee single-mindedly pursues an entirely single-member district plan, the other side is set on a hybrid model.

Unwillingness to compromise leaves the door open for two different proposals. Instead of uniting voters in support of a single plan, the committee’s inaction would effectively split the vote for a single-member district charter amendment in November, ensuring failure for a seventh time.

Unfortunately, that leaves Austin right where it started: reunited with its archaic election system. Preserving the status quo of citywide council seats would be worse than simply keeping an antiquated system of representation. It would continue to deprive students of a dedicated voice on the council.

As has become increasingly obvious in recent months, UT students lack an advocate on the city council. In recent months, the city council opposed a measure that would move city elections from May to November, a change that would have allowed more students to vote. The council is currently considering a proposal by Austin Energy that would raise electric rates disproportionately on renters. The potential impact of both measures on students was relegated to the back burner and almost entirely ignored — a reaction that is representative of pervasive disregard for the UT community.

With single-member districts, students would finally have a voice on the city council, which controls services that impact them every day, such as bus routes, sidewalks and urban development. A palatable solution is within reach, but insider politics as usual on the committee threatens to preserve the inequitable status quo.

While Austinites cheered the consensus of a plan that involved single-member districts earlier this year, it is clear that the celebration was premature. As Leffingwell remarked at a meeting earlier this month, the committee itself, along with many of its participants, have gotten “lost in the weeds” of conflicting proposals. If the committee ignores the pressing need for single-member districts, it will lose a compelling opportunity to further fair council representation in the process.