Newly elected State Representative Paul Workman, an Austin Republican, is helping Austin voters from across the geographic and political divide call the city’s bluff on their claim to support fair geographic representation, also known as single-member districts. HB 1175 would mandate the City to implement single member districts by May 2012, despite the Mayor’s determination to put off a vote until November 2012.
Wednesday night, the Urban Affairs Committee in the Texas House, heard testimony from one lone voice from the City, Austin City Councilwoman Sheryl Cole, the only African-American on the Council, urging a defeat of HB 1175. Cole stated that, “we have a very specific charter provision that prohibits us from changing the form of government absent a voter election,” arguing for “local control.”
Rep. Harold Dutton, a Houston Democrat who chairs the Urban Affairs Committee, caught Cole off guard by offering to amend the bill to have the state pick up any legal costs for the City.
Luis Figueroa attorney for the Mexican American Legal Defense Fund (MALDEF), which has brought single-member districts to cities across Texas said, “We strongly support this legislation…The number one call that we consistently get is a cry for single-member districts from the Latino residents of Austin.”
Gavino Fernandez, Director of LULAC 12 and El Concilio in Austin said, “There is precedence for this kind of legislative intervention established by former State Senator Gonzalo Barrientos when he led passage of a bill forcing AISD to go to single-member districts back in 1991.”
Marcelo Tafoya presented a petition from LULAC councils across the state, “The city has lied time and time again. They pledged in the last session to put it on the ballot and they did no such thing.”
Roger Borgelt, Vice-Chair of the Travis County Republican Party, pointed out that huge swaths of the City have no representation whatsoever and that, “the council has repeatedly said they are for this and want to do it. All the bill does is give them a deadline.”
Roscoe Overton, Sr., of the Blackland neighborhood in NE Austin, who is African-American, testified that, “In 2007 they [the City of Austin] had a committee, the demographer and maps and the demographics. They still didn’t put it on the ballot, yet 90% of people attending these meetings said they supported it. It’s not about color, it’s about whether you have a representative – for better or for worse.”
Linda Curtis of ChangeAustin.org offered written testimony that, “We see the passage of HB 1175 as encouragement to Austin voters to push for a more rigorous plan which we may ultimately have to do ourselves by citizen petition.”
Rep. Workman wrapped up the testimony stating, “There was an agreement two years ago with Senator Wentworth [who introduced a similar bill to force the city to implement geographic representation] that the City of Austin would put this up for a vote. They did not.” He ended with this question, “Now if you were one of 5 of the 6 members of the Austin City Council who would be out of a job if the voters passed single-member districts, would you vote to put it on the ballot?”
Peck Young, veteran Democratic political consultant now Director of Austin Community College’s Center for Public Policy in response to the Councilwoman Cole’s claim said, “Everyone knows that state law rules. But Council Member Cole did get this right – it is about local control, but maybe not her version. It’s about a local clique of downtown Democrats, and the fat cats from the Westside who are funding them, controlling local Austin voter’s opportunities.”
The hearing can be viewed on video, starting at 2:10 at: http://www.house.state.tx.us/video-audio/committee-broadcasts/committee-archives/player/?session=82&committee=480&ram=11041310480