It is no coincidence that the issue of geographic representation (aka “single-member districts”) is coming up again in Austin city politics. It’s real simple folks. Citizens are getting hip to the how the big boy developers in the real estate industry continue to off-load the costs of infrastructure for unfettered growth in Central Texas to the tune of $120 million per year. Add to this all manner of property tax loop holes; from undeserving historic property exemptions to 40% under-valuations on land commercial developments and 25% under-valuations for $1M+ homeowners, we’re talking about a half a billion dollars per year burden on current middle and low income residents.
These perpetual hogs at the public trough seek to keep an all at-large voting system in place or, if forced to, 6 districts which are too large, rigging the electoral game to continue to limit electoral competition. That only 8 to 12% of Austin voters bother voting in Austin City elections has everything to do with the dearth in competitive candidacies. Folks, the control freaks who run this City understand this. How come we don’t?
Austin is the largest city in the country without any geographic representation on the City Council. We continue to elect them all through an at-large system that was put into place by establishing a racially paternalistic “Gentlemen’s Agreement” that set a quota on for blacks and Hispanics on the Council. That system has ensured that those lucky enough to be elected, had to be approved by West-side (and predominantly white) business interests. The “Gentlemen’s Agreement” (really a good ol’ boys deal) exits no where else in the country but Austin!
Fair geographic representation has been placed on the ballot by the City of Austin 6 times. Power brokers in the local Democratic Party will proclaim their support for geographic representation, ad nauseam. The truth is, they have never really given full support, much less run a real campaign to get them passed — despite widespread support of Democratic, Republican and independent voters.
Voters are often very confused about this issue and don’t make the link with geographic representation guaranteed by the U.S. and Texas constitutions for our federal and state legislators. The confusion campaign has been propagated by our daily newspaper, the Austin American-Statesman, that has a shameful legacy on this issue dating back to 1953, when they aligned with white racism to stop blacks from gaining a seat on the Austin City Council. The daily is now harping on “ward politics” as the reason to defeat a geographic representation plan long before either the City or a citizen’s movement puts it on the ballot. The truth is Austin City politics stinks so bad that “ward politics” would be an improvement!
Austin activists and citizen organizations are discussing doing perhaps the only thing left to try on this issue — a citizen’s petition drive to place a measure we can all agree on on the ballot. This will require a broad coalition to also then strongly advocate for its passage.
The City is now moving to close off that possibility in favor of a gamed and inadequate plan for 6 districts — too few for Austin’s 800,000 residents. (Note: a decade ago, the City placed 8 districts on the ballot, when their own charter revision commission said we needed twice this number!)
Under this most recent rendition, the City is clearly playing a very cynical role. First, they are speaking volumes as to their willingness to throw Austin’s African-American voters under the bus. Secondly, they are dividing “blacks and browns”, because Mexican-American voters due to their numbers, may have a shot at getting 2 seats on the Council, no matter how large or small the districts. And, third, the City appears perfectly willing to violate the spirit and intent of the Voting Rights Act.
The legislature has made attempts to force the City to implement at least 6 districts. State Senator Kirk Watson has refused to support it. Read here our release showing how the City is bringing us together; Democrats, Republicans and independents, whether we like it or not!
Wanna understand this better? Here is a historical piece written about The Sordid History of Fair Geographic Representation in Austin.
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