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District representation in Austin

I have to admit, it hadn’t occurred to me that there were any large cities in Texas that didn’t have City Council districts, but Austin is such a place, at least for now.

Mayor Lee Leffingwell will soon propose sweeping changes to Austin’s elections and governing structure, including creating districts for City Council representation, an idea voters have rebuffed before.

The aim of the changes, Leffingwell said, is to compel more people to vote in council elections, which have a history of abysmal turnout.

Currently, the mayor and six council members represent the entire city of nearly 800,000 people. Leffingwell wants to replace that with a hybrid system, in which six council members would represent smaller districts and two council members and the mayor would represent the whole city.

The mayor also wants to increase the maximum amount people can donate to city campaigns (currently $350 per donor) and move city elections from May to November of odd -numbered years, which would involve increasing council members’ terms from three to four years.

Austin voters have rejected district plans six times since 1973 , most recently in 2002 .

“Even though it has failed before, I sense a different mood out there,” said Leffingwell, who will detail his plans in his State of the City speech Feb. 25 . He will also host a Feb. 28 public forum with former San Antonio Mayor Henry Cisneros and former Houston Mayor Bill White to talk about the district idea and other subjects.

Apparently, previous attempts at this failed because the plan was put to a vote before there was a map of the proposed districts, and because the size of Council would have been doubled. With Census data coming soon, the former should not be an obstacle, and the current proposal has an increase of only two seats. So maybe this time there’s hope.

One obstacle still remains, however:

Another past hurdle that’s likely to resurface this year is the drawing of a district that has a large concentration of African American residents and that would give black voters a fair chance to elect candidates they favor.

Since the 1970s, an unwritten rule has reserved one Austin council seat for a Hispanic person and one for an African American. Some say that so-called “gentleman’s agreement” is arcane.

“The idea of holding a seat for a particular race empowers the old Austin fathers,” said Nelson Linder , president of the Austin NAACP. “It’s time for a new model that’s more competitive and inclusive and that empowers everybody.”

Because blacks are dispersed across Austin and make up only about 8 percent of Austin’s population, the city would have to draw at least 14 districts with equal populations to form just one with a majority of black residents, city demographer Ryan Robinson said.

Council Member Sheryl Cole , the council’s only black member, said she would support putting a hybrid system to a vote but questions whether the Justice Department would approve a map that includes no district with an African American majority.

A six-district map would probably have one district in Southeast Austin and one in North-Central or Northeast Austin with a majority of Hispanic residents , and one district stretching from Central East to Northeast Austin that has more black than Hispanic or white residents but not a majority, Robinson said.

Houston had a similar tradition for the At Large #5 seat, but then Chris Bell filed for it and won in a 1997 special election, and Michael Berry did the same in 2003 after abandoning his Mayoral campaign. The problem with unwritten rules is that they’re unenforceable. As for the question of drawing a Council district that an African-American could win, I will simply note that Travis County, which has six legislative districts, has counted Dawnna Dukes among its delegation for more than a decade now. According to the Texas Redistricting webpage Dukes’ district (HD46) is 27.1% black by population, 26.1% by voting age population (VAP), while the numbers for Anglos are 27.9 and 32.6, and the numbers for Hispanics are 42.1 and 37.9. Surely a suitable district can be drawn within Austin.

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