Charter Revision Committee

In February, Austin’s Charter Revision Committee approved a “10-1” proposal for City Council representation — with 10 geographic, single-member districts and one at-large mayor — which, though imperfect, would likely increase student representation at the city level. Now, more than two months later, the council has yet to agree on or fully discuss the plan, according to the Austin American-Statesman.

It is not as though the council is fundamentally opposed to the committee, which was created by the council itself. Other recommendations made by the committee, including campaign finance reforms, have been heard and discussed by the council in the past month.

So why the delay? The hold-up is partially the pressures of the May municipal election in which several council members are running and partially the divergent views of council members on the issue. Some council members support the 10-1 plan, while others hope to reject the committee’s recommendation in favor of putting a “hybrid” version — a more representative plan which would mix single-member and at-large districts — on the ballot for popular approval in November.

A major concern for proponents of the hybrid model is local activist group Austinites for Geographic Representation, which could simultaneously get 10-1, their favorite choice, on the ballot by petition. With two geographic representation plans on the ballot, both will likely fail.

For months, Mayor Lee Leffingwell has fought to increase turnout in municipal elections by proposing changes in the city election process. Unfortunately, Leffingwell has been consistently overruled by both factions of council members and overshadowed by factions of a local, vocal citizen minority.

Although the 10-1 plan is flawed, the issue of geographic representation is crucial to students who are typically underrepresented at the council. Despite opposition, and even if council members disagree with the nature of the 10-1 plan, not deciding the matter at all does a disservice to the city and to students.

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.

The editorial that ran Thursday about single-member districts in Austin titled, “Impeding fair representation” brought attention to an important issue. However, it failed to mention that UT Student Government has had a constant presence at every Charter Revision Committee Meeting for the past three months and has been continuously advocating for the 10-1 plan — the only plan that would have a chance of resulting in a reliable student seat. Another related and major reform being advocated by Austinites for Geographic Representation is the creation of a nonpartisan panel to handle the redistricting process for city council elections. SG has also successfully lobbied for the inclusion of a student in every round of that process in the future. Although it may not be the most ground-breaking or popular of issues, single-member districts will provide a rare opportunity for UT students to have a political stake in the city. We need a voice, and we need one now.

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.