Do You Support Single Member Districts for Austin?

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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.

Comments

  • George Lewis says:

    I would rather have access to all council members when I need help on an issue. I find single member representation too limiting.

  • R. L. Green says:

    As it stands now, the vast majority of the city council members are elected from a microcosm of Austin’s population…those who live in north central Austin. Why, because they tend to vote more than others! So, do you think that these elected members have a strong vested interest in representing areas in the N.E., the S.E., the S.W. or the periphreal areas near the city limits and the EJT? The short answer is “NO.”

    I always believed that many people who are not living in the city core might well have similar interests, so might well persuade their city district representative to vote with others as a bloc to overrule the councilperson(s) from central Austin.

    Personally, I think a combination plan might be the most representative, the most transparent, and the most efficient body to carry out the necessary duties. The mayor and 2 council positions would be elected city-wide. Then, based on population and similar area concerns, there would be 6 more positions that would be elected solely from within their area. (The “fun” part would involve drawing the district boundaries.) Just my opinion from a denizen of central Austin.

  • Ted Siff says:

    I support a hybrid or mixed plan that includes at least two at-large seats, along with geographic districts. Geographic districts would provide representation to all parts of Austin. At-large seats would provide community wide perspective, and be a check against district-centric positions.

  • Cory Walton says:

    Mr. Blodgette’s characterization of single member districts being “Your Own” district with “Your Own” council member is facile at best, and misleading at worst. Why does he presuppose that the other council members–at least some of them, would not accept the opinion and advice of the local representative on a particular issue–and lend their support? Even in the present 7-member council, sub-groups and alliances are constanty forming among the council members–and every once in a while, a majority alliance even forms with the best interests of austin citizens in mind.

  • Doug Simmer says:

    no reason to fix something that is not broken…kinda like the voter ID.

  • Jim Adams says:

    I am worried that Austin will revert to “ward” politics.

  • carla wilkenfeld says:

    not sure yet

  • I used to agree that it was great that we could vote for all the council members, but the political reality is that due to several factors, city campaign finance ordinance probably chief among them, no one outside the existing power center, with the support of the existing political consultants and employee unions, can ever raise sufficient funds to run city wide in a city of our size. I have been involved in several recent efforts to elect people from the outside of this group, and they simply can’t overcome the power of the incumbents and the “preferred” candidates of the central Austin crowd.

    I also don’t see anything deficient in adopting the representative model of government as used in congress, the Texas legislature and the county commissioner’s court,as well as most other “grown-up” cities around the country. I think representative democracy is actually a good thing, and could bring vast improvement to the groupthink we get from the current crowd.

  • Peck Young says:

    Do you accept other opinion pieces or is this opinion all you want to publish?

    • robena says:

      Thanks very much for your comments to our first opinion survey. Our goal with this new online feature is to encourage the expression of diverse opinions. Our company has long supported civil discussion of community issues and was founded 20 years ago so that we could share this philosophy in all of the work that we do for clients and other stakeholders. This online feature is no exception. Because “Hear Me Out” has engendered so much discussion, we are considering a Part II to focus on additional facets of this issue. Again, we encourage you and everyone to respect all voices — every voice is welcome on this page, although we do maintain the right to edit comments due to profanity or caustic language or language that attacks an individual. Those who wish to submit essays for consideration are welcome to do so. We will publish “Hear Me Out” 6 to 8 times a year. If you are interested in submitting a piece for consideration by the next deadline, please have it to us by March 7.

  • Linda Curtis says:

    When I ran for Council in 1999 and 2001 we had 5 and 3 candidates, respectively running in those races. Now, you can hardly get one person to run against incumbents. Why? Austin is the largest city in the country that continues with these expensive at-large seats.

    If you want people to vote, give them some choices. If you want them to have choices, given them districts that candidates can walk and develop a relationship to their constituents.

    There’s a reason geographic representation is in Article 1 of the U.S. Constitution. Representative democracy is fundamental to our republic. Get with it guys!

  • Reuben Leslie says:

    By the same logic used in this essay, we should all get to vote for every state legislator and member of Congress. We don’t because we have a democratic republic in which residency in geographic areas defines the constituencies. At-large representation makes sense for villages where there are no meaningful subdivisions of the whole, but not for larger jurisdictions such as ours where responsiveness to, advocacy for and accountability to all citizens in every neighborhood now makes district representation essential for fair representation and better results.

  • D. Orshalick says:

    Terrell–I am sick and tired of going hat in hand to beg some council member to consider my cause. None of them currently represents me in anything. Single-member districts would change that. And, TO USE YOUR OWN LOGIC: “If I were an activist in one of those neighborhoods, I would get with an activist from one of the other areas and say,” “you lobby your council member and I’ll lobby mine until we build a coalition and consensus on the council to get something good done that benefits us all.” That kind of results, responsiveness, and accountability stands a better chance than what we currently have.

  • The League of Women Voters of Austin has supported a mixed plan (districts plus at-large city council seats) for decades. We studied this last summer and found no evidence that shows more than an anecdotal correlation between the type of representation and the effectiveness of government. But representative districts in many cases did increase public participation in government. Our interest, therefore, is mostly about democratic participation, which is abysmal in Austin (voter turnout rates less than 10% in city races). We’re very interested in anything that would improve Austin’s city council race voter turnout, and are watching this issue closely.
    Related to this issue is how districts might be drawn. If the city passes any kind of geographic representation plan, we strongly support an accompanying Citizen’s Redistricting Commission, which places this critically important task in the hands of We the People.

  • Stacy Suits says:

    Public Safety Unions, Enviromental Groups, Developer Lobbying Law Firms, and the Central/West Austin Political Machine control the at-large election process. I vote in every city council election and encourage others to do so also. I also try to recurit both good minority candidates and candidates from South Austin to run each election cycle.

    No thanks Mr Blodgett, vested financial interests and political machines control and elect every current city council member. I am for 10-1, that will insure South Austin gets three city council members. South Austin has no represention on the current city council. 10-1 will also bust up the paternalistic “Gentlemen’s Agreement” and allow minorities to pick their own city council members. I way past time to have some political “moderates” elected to our city council.

    • Linda Curtis says:

      I agree with everything you’ve said Stacy, except that there is an illusion that environmental groups in Austin control things. They don’t, as evidenced by the fact that the real estate machine still runs the show in Austin and growth is not paying for itself, as it should. Enviros certainly have an impact on the City, but when it comes to the big ticket items, they mostly are on the short end of the stick. That’s why the Citizens Districting 10-1 just picked up the endorsement of David Weinberg, Executive Director of the Texas League of Conservation Voters. Thanks! Linda Curtis for Austinites for Geographic Representation

  • A.G.Olbert says:

    The struggle for geographic representation in Austin is not an academic exercise; it is rooted in undeniable fact. Whether other forms of representation are good in theory, or good in other places, is irrelevant. In Austin At-Large districts give inordinate political power to a de facto geographic elite. Under the current system, Austin is ruled by ~10% of voters – mostly white, wealthy, city-center voters. As a corollary, Austin minority voters – all types of minorities – are disenfranchised. Even Austin’s “minority” council members are selected by that same de facto elite. That’s clearly unfair and also likely illegal. It is also an obvious explanation for why past attempts at geographic representation have failed in Austin – that elite wants to hold onto power. Given Austin’s reality, support for At-Large districts or hybrid districts is support for government by a very undemocratic elite. Geographic representation is the only way to make an Austin a truly democratic city.

  • Lynn Foster says:

    SMD has been a bad idea in the past, and it’s still a bad idea.
    Don’t fall for it.

  • Steve Speir says:

    I strongly support the 10-1 district plan. As it now stands, Austin is one of the few large cities in the nation left with an at large voting scheme. Let’s not forget that our current system – which forces you to run in a specific place and requires you to go hat-in-hand to the money boys for contributions to buy television time in order to reach 850,000 people – was created in part by the Austin Chamber of Commerce in order to prevent REAL neighborhood leaders from being elected. Our current flawed system was hatched to prevent former NAACP president Arthur DeWitty from being elected after he had scared the downtown money boys half to death by nearly winning. He finished a close sixth when our council only had five members. At that time the FIVE largest vote totals were the winners. This was in the early 1950s when many African-Americans returned from the Korean War and decided they were tired of being ignored. The Hispanics and poor whites were also being run over by the downtown bankers and real estate boys. Basically, the same crew we have today spreading urban sprawl in every direction, undercutting our neighborhood associations with their “comprehensive plan” charade and declaring every action they take as “green” and “environmentally sensitive.” There must be more FAKE enviros in Austin, Texas than any place in the world. I live in East Austin and am very active in the local and state Democratic Party. The East Side has absolutely no consistent voice on this city council. We end up going to Commissioner RON DAVIS when we want something done. Why? Because he is forced to run in a DISTRICT ELECTION and cannot afford to ignore his constituents. I can only imagine what civil rights champion and Supreme Court Judge Thurgood Marshall, a good friend to both LBJ and Arthur De Witty, would say about opposition to single member district elections. Glad to see that the NAACP, LULAC, the Republican Party and the Green Party are all backing the 10-1 plan.

  • pcp says:

    We had single member districts here when I was a child. Minorities complained so much that even I, a 6 year old, noticed.
    The system was changed so everyone could have more influence, if they wanted it!

  • Virginia Esparza says:

    I do not support single member districts. The last thing this town needs is a council member focused only on one area of town, instead of working w/other council members on issues pertaining to Austin as a whole, instead of certain sections of town.

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