Austin
2:53 pm
Fri February 3, 2012

What Does Last Night’s Charter Revision Vote Mean?

Last night, the 2012 Charter Revision Committee narrowly voted to recommend a new form of government for the City of Austin – a city council comprised of members representing 10 individual districts, with only the mayor running city-wide.

So what’s next?

For starters, the committee isn’t completely finished yet. In a sign of the contentious nature of the 8-7 vote to recommend the “10-1” plan, the committee called for another meeting, to go over the language in the final recommendation it makes to council.

After the vote was taken, discussion ensued on the format in which the committee should make their recommendations. “On a whole range of our recommendations we have put together written memorandums that have captured the thinking, which I think is important,” said committee co-chair and former state Rep. Ann Kitchen, who voted against the 10-1 plan. “We have not done that with this latest. .. I do not want to send to council just a vote.” Moments later, local political strategist David Butts, who also voted no, raised some heckles from the board with the suggestion they include a minority report.

City attorney Sabine Romero suggested the group convene in two weeks; in the meantime, she suggested committee members could submit “individually created documents” to her for inclusion.  

Mayor Lee Leffingwell issued a statement lauding the committee’s work. It reads, in part:

"This was designed to be a deliberative process. … I wanted the community to have every opportunity to be involved in this discussion. … Our City is growing, and our option is to consider how we grow, not if we grow. These Charter changes are part of our decision on how we will grow. I look forward to the future community discussions on the proposed Charter changes."

As the mayor alluded to, several decisions and discussions stand between the committee’s recommendations and what may make it to voters. The recommendation the committee made must be accepted by the City Council in order to be placed on the ballot this November, and council is under no requirement to forward the recommendation to voters as drafted.

That said, the recommendations hew closely to the 10-1 plan proposed by Austinites for Geographic Representation, which has vowed to collect signatures to put their own plan on the ballot should council put a different plan before voters. If the council is serious about a switch to single member district, it might not want to put dueling single member-district proposals before a voting population that’s rejected them six times before.

It’s also worth noting that the vote for the 10-1 district system was one of three votes the committee took last night. It also approved a general endorsement of geographic districts over the current system and called for an “Independent Citizens Redistricting Committee,” comprised of volunteers strenuously screened for potential conflicts of interest, to draw the ten districts. Those recommendations must also be vetted by council, while any change to elections in a Voting Rights Act state like Texas must also gain “preclearance” from the Department of Justice to ensure minority voters aren’t disenfranchised.

In other words, the work changing Austin to a form of single-member districts hasn’t ended – it’s only just begun.