Today is the last day candidates can file to run in the next Austin City Council election. Those elected in November will represent one of Austin’s 10 new geographic districts. Some campaigns are already underway, and candidates are hearing about needs that are exclusive to their district.
A lot of those district-exclusive needs don't involve more international flights or starting another international festival in Austin.
So if the candidates, once they're elected, focus on solving the small-scale problems their constituents bring to their attention during the campaign season, Austin may experience radical changes over the next decade or so.
Former San Antonio mayor Henry Cisneros says that's what happened to his city in 1977, when it switched from all at-large governance to geographic districts. Before districts, Cisneros says, minority San Antonians felt disenfranchised.
"Suddenly, the question of representation was settled. It changed the whole dialogue in San Antonio – from an angry – ‘I'm against it because I'm locked out, and I don't have a voice to, instead, ‘Let's talk about adequacy of public services, let's talk about policing practices, let's talk about libraries and public clinics,’” Cisneros says. “And…it changed the dynamics of the city.”
So, what will happen to Austin's international cachet? Will it be lost once the focus is hyper local?
Sherri Greenberg doesn't think so. She directs the Center for Politics and Governance at UT's LBJ School of Public Affairs. Greenberg specializes in local politics, and says the new system’s going to be an adjustment from the beginning, but not a setback. That's why most cities that switch to geographically elected districts keep at least one position governing at large – meaning at least one person who has to keep their eyes on the big picture.
In Austin's case, that person will be the mayor.
"For any new mayor, there are a couple of issues that are going to be first and foremost,” Greenberg says. “Transportation [is] one of them and affordability [is] another."
Greenberg says all the other things that have brought international notoriety to Austin will still hold during this period of adjustment.
If things go as they did in San Antonio, former mayor Cisneros says the changes will be for the better.
"I think there will be a new set of decisions that basically make Austin more real,” he says. “Because it's one thing to have a huge momentum and share all these positive indicators but if they are not reaching everybody and every neighborhood – they are not really real."