By Terrell Blodgett, Mike Hogg Professor Emeritus in Urban Management, LBJ School, UT-Austin
Single-member districts for Austin city council members? Seems like I’ve heard that before. As a matter of fact, the idea has been turned down by Austin voters SIX times — that’s right, six times. And with good reason – and now it’s coming back up again. And – based on the slim turnout at meetings of the council-appointed charter revision committee, it’s still a minority of Austin voters who feel they are not well served by our city government.
Let’s look at some facts and figures. Right now, based on 2010 census figures, there is one councilmember for every 112,913 Austin residents. That’s considerably less than the ratio for our Texas House of Representatives. There, each of the 150 members represent an average of 167,637 persons and each congressman an average of 710,000 individuals.
Oh, you say you want your OWN councilmember. You want an area (district) where you vote for your OWN member of the council. Under what is reported to be the most popular plan floating around, the seven member council would be increased BY MORE THAN 50% to 11 members, 10 from single-member districts and the mayor elected at large as now. So, you have your OWN council member and you want something done – you have voted for TWO members – your district member and the mayor(if you voted for the successful candidates) out of ELEVEN. The other nine have absolutely NO REASON to support your position – after all, you do not live in their district, you have no vote in their district, and probably no influence in their district. SO, if what you want is your own personal council member to complain to, that’s fine, but if you want something done, you’re better off in the current situation because you have a vote for ALL SEVEN members of the council.
You say your area of town is not represented on the council. Unfortunately, that is sometimes true, BUT, there is no reason for Central Austin to control the council. There is no logical reason why the northwest, the Circle C, and the Southeast Austin areas should not be represented. The remedy – IT’S CALLED VOTING. If I were an activist in one of those neighborhoods, I would get with an activist from one of the other areas and say, “we’re going to put up a first-class candidate – you do the same and we will support each other AND VOTE.”
Finally, do you want representation or do you want results? If you want results – better services and facilities – a recent outside survey finds that we are getting better results from our city government NOW than the 13 other cities of 500,000 or more population, most or all with single-member districts. This survey, by a nationally-known survey firm, based in Kansas, that has been in business over 30 years, found that Austin ranked #1 in overall satisfaction compared to Dallas, Fort Worth, Oklahoma City, San Francisco, Seattle, Boston, New York, San Diego, Indianapolis, San Jose, Houston and Detroit. The firm conducted a statistically valid survey, receiving answers from each of six areas of the city. The company has worked in 46 states and designed and administered over l,000 statistically valid surveys in more than 300 cities and counties.