This summer, Austin will begin drawing its first city council districts.
The long slog towards geographic representation has been an uphill one: a fight to get the measure on the ballot, a hard-fought campaign and, once the measure was approved, fear an all-volunteer committee to draw council districts would fail to attract diverse and representative candidates. But with the help of the city auditor and community groups, the list of applicants has swelled from fewer than a hundred nearly two weeks ago to just under 250 at last count on Feb. 14.
Nelson Linder with the Austin chapter of the NAACP hosted one of many outreach events last week, coordinated with the city auditor and community groups. Linder says that the group is seeking to serve as a bridge between the community and the government.
Linder adds residents in the East Austin area have little familiarity with the inner-workings of city politics or the redistricting process. “We have to do this. As folks explain this process, it’s more encouraging,” he says. “This is a major change for the city of Austin and I think with more outreach people will understand the process.”
Linder says his group and the community hope that geographic representation will offer citizens greater interaction with their council members, in addition to increased accountability at City Hall.
Celia Israel, a representative for the Greater Austin Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, says that the redistricting commission and geographic representation will confront long unaddressed issues in Austin.
“The demographic gorilla in the room is the number of Latino members of our community,” Israel says. “It’s incumbent on us that our voice is heard. We need to step up and be serving in these roles.”
But the process won’t just address the growth of the Latino community, Israel adds. It will, hopefully, increase community-wide engagement with the city governing process. With one representative per district, Israel says the change should provide both more comprehensive representation and, she hopes, an increase in the number of Austinites at the polls.
“We hope [10-1] will provide more engagement with local politics,” Israel said. “We as a city should be embarrassed that we couldn’t even get eight percent of our voters to come out. We think this is a way to improve voter turnout and representation.”
In addition, the city auditor has also reached out to other groups in search of qualified applicants, including the Austin League of Women Voters, the Gray Panther Organization, the Indian American Coalition of Texas' Austin chapter, the Women in Jazz Association of Austin, Community Action Network, the Latina Policy Coalition and the Austin Latino Coalition.
The final deadline for redistricting commission applications is Friday, Feb. 22.